After a lovely two weeks in the Bay of Island we came into Marsden Cove marina on New Year's Eve. Besides Fiji, New Zealand would be the first country to welcome in the New Year. Unlike most of the world, 2020 has not been bad for us but we join the majority in hoping that next year will be better.
Our ever supportive friends, John and Janet on Tango met us at the dock and caught our lines. How fabulous to have friends in foreign places. They not only caught our lines, but they invited us to a New Year's Eve dock party with folks they have known all through the lockdown, when no one was allowed to go anywhere. They have built a close community in the year they've been "stuck" in New Zealand. It's almost like home for them except, Iike all of us nomads, being unable to see family. It was a quiet relaxed party on a homebuilt "barge", drinking bubbly and eating great food. We didn't last long having just come in off the ocean. By 9:30pm, just half an hour after Cruisers' midnight, we were asleep.
Well, of course, no sooner do you reach dock, than you start fixing things. This time it was the windlass that needed servicing. Greg had not been able to take it apart and he prevailed upon the master engineer, John, to help him. Hmmm.... There was a reason he couldn't pull it apart. After a full day of banging , wrenching and blowtorching, they discovered that it had corroded and seized up completely, apparently because the parts had not been greased when they were installed. The whole machine, only 4 years old, will need to be replaced. But, not then because we were going wine tasting.
The four of us had planned a 5 day escape to Hawkes Bay, home to the best New Zealand red wines.It's an eight hour drive South with stops for breakfast at Eutopia, a Gaudi inspired cafe on the highway.
The word "highway is used advisedly. We travelled highway 1, a single lane, windy trail with frequent passing lanes. New Zealanders are renowned for being laid back and kind, but not behind a wheel. 20 km above the speed limit was normal and passing lanes became a race track when as many cars as would fit squeezed in front of the slower traffic on the left. John drove the whole way. We pulled into Napier at about 4:00pm and he announced that we would stop at the nearest "cellar door" - wine tasting room which happened to be Urban wineries right in the middle of town. This place looked like a San Francisco foodie haven decorated as a winery but as it turned out, their resident vintner is John Bish who specializes in Chardonnays. (We came for red wines, didn't we?) An hour later, we walked out, well satisfied, with two bottles of Fat and Sassy, a bright, buttery Chardonnay.
We had booked a farm stay B&B for the three nights. It was way off the beaten track, next to the Ngaruroro river and in the center of Gimblett Gravels terroir. Having done some research, we were happy to find that we were just a short drive to some famous (still to be discovered by us) wineries. The farmhouse was relatively new having been transplanted from Wellington 2 years previously. Our hosts were a young couple trying to make a go of a hay crop while working off the farm and hosting guests. Tough work and they were charming. The farm came with 3 dogs and 10 adorable 4-week-old puppies that won our hearts immediately.
Good thing we both live on boats. Despite the rural surroundings there was a very good outdoor pizza place and brewery nearby called God's Own Pizza with picnic benches set under the hops trellis.
The next day, I had found a great hiking trail. I thought we'd all benefit from a bit of exercise after being in the car all day. However, the drive to the trail head was an hour and a half, the last bit on gravel roads. John was not impressed. But it was so worth it. The hike was a steep hour and a half up, through forest and then across grassland ridges working out all the kinks and pizza in our bodies. As we reached the top of the ridge, the wind hit us making us all speculate as to its speed given that we had no sails, white caps or waves for clues. Our guesses ranged from 20 to 35 knots. Hmmm...it's harder on land.
On the way down we passed a Department of Conservation protected area surrounded by a fine wire mesh fence that was topped with a metal half pipe bolted to the fence. This protected area was a nesting area for the sea birds. The fence was to keep predators out. On our walks, we've seen evidence of a massive effort to eradicate invasive wildlife like stoats and possums as well as invasive plants. We have also anchored in bays that are "no-take" marine sanctuaries where no fishing or shellfish gathering is allowed. There is a strong environmental movement here which is refreshing after seeing the depredations in French Polynesia and Fiji that the Islanders can't afford to fix.
The day finished with a stop for wine tasting at Crab Farm wineries where we picked up a bottle of delicious pinotage, a typical South African cultivar. Finally we had dinner, after changing, at a fancy restaurant that specialized in locally raised free range beef and lamb and home grown vegetables with more wine. Oh dear, and the next day we would do it again.
We're used to waking up early, but you can't go wine tasting at 8:00am so we walked down through the farm to the river. The path is not clear but the dogs led us down, excited to frolic in the water and spray us with their shakes. On the way back we looked into an old shed where there was an ancient vehicle skeleton still with its cereal box size gas tank and wooden steering wheel. John claimed that it was a Model A frame and got dreamy-eyed at the thought of restoring it.
Now we could go wine tasting. The first vineyard was a commercial cooperative where we found a Esk Valley cab Sauv that went home with us. Lunch was at Oak Estate where the wines were forgettable but the whole grain bread was fresh and crusty. Finally, we headed for Craggy Range, not realizing that this was the place where celebrities arrived by helicopter and big weddings took place. Fortunately, we did not have reservations for a wine tasting (really?) so we drove to the top of Te Mata peak and watched rain storms sweep across the land.
It had been a busy day, but we needed to eat. Our hosts recommended one more winery that served food only two minutes drive from the farm. Hawkes Ridge is one of those hidden gems, originally an olive farm, serving pizza and unconventional wines. These guys didn't charge a tasting fee and served out 6 varieties of whites and reds including a tempranillo but their best part was their story. During the lockdown, Hawkes Ridge remained open in this rural area miles away from stores. They made pizza for pick-up by the locals, suspending tastings, leaving boxes on a table to provide contactless pick-up. Carolyn, the proprietor, who personally manned the tasting room, said she'd never made so many pizzas in her life and now her community comes after a hard day in the fields to get dinner, exchange gossip and maybe take a quick glass of warmth. Amazingly, Bob, her husband, had sailed on the Chesapeake Bay with a commander in the coastguard who is a colleague of John. It's a small world and perhaps COVID has made our connections even more precious. We came away with a fresh grassy olive oil and an eiswein Chardonnay that we will keep for a very special occasion when I finally make dessert - apple Tarte Tatin would be perfect.
Our time in Hawkes Bay was over, for now. The next day we drove back to Auckland where we had a chance to check out the venue for the America's Cup. None of the boats were in the dock so there was really nothing to see which is probably why we got a hotel room at such a reasonable price. This will be the closest we get to the spectacle. It's far better to watch the races on TV with close-ups and replays.
Our last day was returning to Marsden Cove. John and Janet had planned some surprises for us including a visit to a gannet colony and one last winery, Cooper's Creek, where we picked grape leaves with the promise to make home-made dolmas in appreciation of their showing us some highlights of this beautiful country. Thanks, guys.