Thursday, February 23, 2012

New Zealand's South Island: Wildlife, Scenery and Burgers with beet root

Otago Bay
There's a good bit of Scotland in Dunedin, the jumping off point for touring the beautiful Otago Peninsula on New Zealand's South island. A gold rush second only to the Klondike's brought settlers and money and Dunedin became the home of Cadbury Chocolate and Speight's Brewery (both offer tours with samples).

Speight's Tasting Bar

In more recent times, as a contribution to the excitement of the Rugby World Cup, Nude Rugby was born here when the local All Black Nudes played the Transylvania Vampires. In winter. On the colder of the two islands. For charity. Developed in part by the owner of the Bottom Bus line that serves the southern part of the South. Island. 

Now the biggest industry in the city of 120,000 is the University at Otago which accounts for 20,000 of the population..

Cheese mongers at Otago Farmers' Market
My introduction was the Saturday Otago Farmer's Market. Held outside of the imposing and ornate Edwardian Baroque-style Dunedin Railway Station, the urban market was a distinct contrast to the Hastings Farmers' Market on the North Island. Cheeses, berries and bakery goods were tempting, especially the Eccles cakes and egg custard tarts, but alas, lunch was pending.

Royal Doulton floor mosaic in the ornate railway station.
Dunedin Railway Station

Beet root burger

Tip: No steps other than curbs here.

Couldn't miss the Nova Cafe, an annual award winner, and its  burgers topped with beet root. It's also the only place in town to get gumbo (!) but I had to try those beet root burgers. OK but cheese is better.

Robbie Burns statue in the Octagon

First Presbyterian Church.

Across the street is the Octagon park, the city center, with its statue of poet Robert Burns. Around it are cafes, government buildings, a theater and St. Paul's Anglican Cathedral. A block over you'll find row houses, the city's first temple (now a museum), the headquarters for the ghost tour and down toward the bay, the impressive First Presbyterian Church.

Baldwin Street

Tip: It's flat but the streets rise from here. Case in point, Baldwin Street, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the steepest street in the world.

Also Worth a look in Dunedin:

Otago Museum
Otago Museum displays a fascinating collection of Maori and Pacific artifacts and cultural history as well as skeletal remains of the country's extinct wildlife.

Chinese Garden

Chinese Garden, a replica of a 17th century walled garden from the Ch'ing Dynasty, built, pre-assembled and reassembled by artisans from Shanghai as a gift to Dunedin, its Sister City.

Olveston House

Olveston House is a 35-room Edwardian treasure trove of memorabilia and lovely gardens.

Tip: You'll encounter stairs to the second floor at Olveston, a step or three at the Oriental Garden and an elevator at the museum.

View from St. Clair Beach Resort

Get a hint at what's to come when you head out on the peninsula and beyond by staying at the beautifully appointed St. Clair Beach Resort and its views of the South Pacific Ocean. Treat yourself, too, with a dinner in Pier 24, the resort's restaurant helmed by Chef Michael Coughlin. It's one of only six restaurants serving Silere Alpine-origin merino lamb.

Larnach Castle
As you head out to the peninsula, take the high road and give yourself several hours to savor Larnach Castle and its beautiful grounds. Built as a home - the locals dubbed it "the castle" as house became mansion - by Australian banker/entrepreneur William Larnach, the impressive structure commands fantastic views over Otago Bay. It took 200 men four years to complete.

One look at the intricate ceilings shows you why. The opulence did not give its residents much pleasure. Between wives that didn't like living on the isolated island, were unfaithful and/or died and grasping, ungrateful children, Larnach's fortunes  failed and he eventually killed himself.

Before he did he managed to obtain Buffalo Bill's desk, a second wife who was a drinker and a third wife who was a suffragette (New Zealand claims to be the first country to give women the vote).

Tip: There are 17 steps with railings up to the castle's entrance and handsome  winding stairway up to the second, bedroom floor and the third floor (I skipped this).

If it's meal or tea time, the cafe in what used to be the ballroom (ground level) is excellent. Note: Go to Food Afar - Recipes from a Travel Writer for the recipe for the Castle's scones. 

The grounds are spectacular and you'll want to spend time wandering through them.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Wellington: Capital fun in New Zealand's capital

Wellington's Harbor is the focal point of the city.
Located at the bottom tip of the North Island's fingers, Wellington is the jumping off point to New Zealand's southern half and the self-proclaimed "Coolest little capital." Downtown curves around a bay, rising like a tiara into the surrounding hills, which makes it a challenge at times for Levelers.

Tip: Fortunately, many of the city's gems are within three to four blocks from the waterfront where it is relatively level. Elevators make it easy to access upper floors.

Within that area, the don't misses include

Te Papa

Te Papa Tongarewa. Known to everyone as simply Te Papa (Tay-pappa), our house, it is the country's national museum and is a treasure trove of Maori culture and interesting visiting shows. The design is inspiring, the gift shop is great and the facility is free and open every day.

Wander around its waterfront to get the vibe of this fun city. Stop at the information center for friendly suggestions about the rest of the city and it accessibility.

MV Agusta F4 Senna and autographed Rolling Stones' guitar

Hungry? Stand in front of Te Papa with your back to the waterfront, look to your left across the street and make a beeline to the Museum Hotel and Hippopotamus on Cable Street. First, owner/developer/man about town Chris Parkin's art collection of New Zealand talent on the hotel's first floor is well worth a wander. Even cultural philistines will appreciate the classic motorcycles and the guitar signed by the Rolling Stones.

Take the elevator to Hippopotamus, pause to take in the bright and cheery decor and harbor view then prepare for one of the best meals in Wellington.

Definitely try one of mixologist Guy Jacobson's creations; his Pimm's Cup is a delicious work of art as are his themed menus. Chef Laurent Loudeac handles New Zealand's bounty with French sensibility and the eye of an artist. 

The art scene is an active one here. For contemporary, try Page Blackie and Avid Gallery , across the hallway from one another in the Cuba district.

For more traditional fare head to Tinakori Road in the Thorndon area, Wellington's first suburb.

Tip: Tinakori Road is flat but land on either side rises or falls steeply. It will give you a closeup look at the private cable cars that make life possible for many a Wellington resident.

Sir Michael Fowler in his galler
While there, do stop in Michael Fowler Gallery and spend some time with Sir Michael, a retired architect and Wellington's former mayor who is credited with bringing residents back to downtown. The handsome convention center is named in his honor and he's a charming raconteur.

The Botanical Garden is nearby.

Tip: The rose garden and Japanese garden are on the level but the sculpture garden is a long, steep trek. I got as far as the Henry Moore piece and decided not to continue. Those who did said it was pretty but not a must-do.

Must and should do's beyond city center are many. Here are some of my recommendations.

Wellington from Mt. Victoria
• Drive up to the Mt. Victoria Lookout.

• Take a Lord of the Rings tour (see ) and if you have a fan of Peter Jackson's epics in the family, you'll be their favorite relative if you bring them a souvenir from the Wela Cave ( No. 2 bus takes you almost to the front door; $3-$4 vs. $25 by cab).

• Experience Maori culture. You can find out about tours at Te Papa and the information center, but if there's a program at Arohanui Ki Te Tangata, the Meeting House of Goodwill to all Men, I recommend it.

• Zealandia: the Kaori Sanctuary Experience is your best chance to see New Zealand's fascinating, endangered wildlife in person.

• Take in the scenery and chat up the locals on a drive around some of the beaches and bays: Breaker Bay, Moa Point (decent shelling), Island Bay, Lyall Bay where the surfers congregate. Maranui Cafe and Queen Sally's Diamond Deli are popular hangouts.

And if you happen to be in town when WOW, the World of Wearableart Awards Show is on, GO. You will never see anything else like it. 

WOW, it's Wearable Art

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