Marlborough and Surrounds

CHRISTMAS holidays in our household bring a level of excitement and anticipation that would rival the most virtuous bride on her wedding day as they provide much deserved downtime to recharge batteries and re-boot scrambled brains.

Always expect the unexpected

Our favourite Christmas holiday destination for many years has been the Dolomites in the Italian Alps but since moving back to Australia, snow is too hit and miss at this time of year to endure a 24 hour cattle-class flight.  So after much debate, we settled on the north of the South Island of New Zealand.  The holiday theme, and a holiday always has to have a theme, would be lux lodge fly-fishing with a splash of wine touring on the side.  The itinerary would include 5 nights at Owen River Lodge and 4 nights in Blenheim in the heart of the Marlborough wine region.

We were so smug thinking that we would be relaxing and enjoying an aperitif by 6:00pm on Christmas Eve but how wrong could one be?  After the week from absolute hell, with a combination of too much work, too many Christmas functions and too little sleep, the last thing we needed was an electrical storm to hit Melbourne Airport resulting in lengthy delays.  And in our case an even lengthier delay when the bus taking our flight crew to the aircraft was hit by a luggage unloader.  So by the time we arrived in Wellington our connecting flight to Blenheim had long departed.

With no further flights to Blenheim that evening, we had no other choice but to stay the night in Wellington.

So after coming to grips with our situation following some heated and animated discussions with a customer service officer at Wellington Airport who was as helpful as a chimp with a skipping rope, we made our way to the Distinction Wellington hotel.  Okay it wasn’t the plush surrounds of the Owen River Lodge, but it was clean, near the waterfront and the staff were extremely helpful (unlike those of our airline).  Fortunately, our hotel room had a kitchenette: Having lived in Wellington for 3 years, we were only too aware that nothing would be open on Christmas Day so we grabbed a few breakfast supplies from an express supermarket just as it was closing.

A source of irritation is arriving in a city without a restaurant booking.  So my tip is never leave restaurants to chance when travelling.  Do your homework and book well in advance to avoid aimless wandering and disappointment.  So to unexpectedly arrive in Wellington when it was already in the throes of shutting down for Christmas without a reservation only added to our already fractious state.  I tried phoning a couple of restaurants that I knew off the top of my head, but no soup for us.  So after dropping our luggage in our hotel room, we headed out along the waterfront in search of a restaurant that was half decent and more importantly, still open.

Finally, we got to Shed 5 who, although fully booked, accommodated us in the bar area.  We had a really enjoyable dinner of New Zealand oysters, fish and hand-cut chips complemented by a few overdue glasses of New Zealand wine from some quality producers.  It was a nice end to a pretty crappy day. The joy of finally finding a half decent restaurant in Wellington on Christmas Eve and eating NZ oysters. Delicious fish and chips.  New Zealand has the freshest seafood.

We return to Wellington Airport the following day (Christmas Day) to catch a flight to Blenheim.  Totes to the lovely Avis car guy at Blenheim Airport who opened up for us on Christmas Day so we could collect our hire car.  Once we had the car sorted, we then drove the 1 hour and 45 minutes south to Owen River Lodge arriving some 24 hours late.  Ironic really given that a flight to Europe would have taken the same amount of time which is the very thing we were trying to avoid!!!

Better late than never

THIS was our second trip to Owen River Lodge.  The Lodge is located in a peaceful valley overlooking the Owen River.  Last year the weather was hot enough to swim in the river every day.  The weather was a little cooler this trip so we didn’t feel the need to put our cossies on.

The Lodge accommodates 12 guests in six guest cottages.  It is really three cottages comprising two suites each with a shared verandah.  Each suite is large with an extremely comfortable king size bed, high quality linen and a large bathroom with a plethora of bathroom products which are restocked throughout your stay (Owen River uses Linden Leaves products).  The bathroom does not have a bath but I am okay with this as the guilt of wasting so much water would kill any enjoyment.

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Owen River Lodge on the Owen River.  How’s the serenity?

Why would you come to Owen River Lodge?  The answer is some of the best fly-fishing in the world.  The lure of a 10 pound brown trout in some of the most pristine back country keeps guests returning season after season.  The New Zealand fly fishing season starts on 1 October and ends on 30 April.

Fishing guides are allocated to the guests and each day follows a similar routine.  After a hearty cooked breakfast in the Lodge, guests are greeted by their fishing guide who then gets you organised for your day’s adventure.  In our experience, the majority of guests are from the US and the UK and stay 3-5 nights at Owen River Lodge.  This gives you ample time to fish a number of rivers within an hour’s proximity to the Lodge.  Guests are usually out the door by 8:30am and return to the Lodge sometime between 5:00pm and 6:00pm to share a beer (or wine) with their guide and to regale other guests (and guides) with the day’s fishing score.  The non-fishing wives and partners stand around, their eyes glazed over with sheer boredom!!!!

I too was one of those wives, but after much resistance, my fishing obsessed husband, finally convinced me to pick up the rod and go out for a day.  Our guide Paul was extremely knowledgeable and very patient.  For the beginner, I could not think of a better way to learn as Paul set up the rod, gave me basic lessons and provided tips on safe river crossings in strong flowing waters.

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My concern was that I would ruin my husband’s day out on the river but we had a great time together.  You need to be fairly fit and agile as you are walking on river rocks for a full day with only a short break for a picnic lunch.  I didn’t catch a fish but I learnt how to cast and enjoyed being out on the Wairau River.  One of the highlights was trekking back to the car through thick bush, scampering up cliffs only to stumble upon 4 giant stags.  According to our guide Paul, this was a very rare sight.

So what is there to do for the non-fishing at Owen River Lodge?  Most non-fishing wives and partners just like the peace and solitude of the valley opting to relax and read.  Owen River Lodge also has an outdoor hot tub overlooking the river.  My personal favourite is taking one of the mountain bikes out after breakfast and riding to the end of the valley.  A return trip takes me about an hour.  If the weather is hot, and in the Murchison area it can get up to 40 degrees Celsius in January/February, there is the river to play in.  Owen River Lodge has a little deck with some outdoor beach chairs on the river.  There is also Marcy who does brilliant massages in the massage cottage.  Marcy is multi-skilled and last year, took me and two other non-fishing wives on a Marlborough wine tour for the day.  Marcy can also take guests hiking but if you want to do this, I would arrange it with the Lodge before your arrival.

If you want to get out and about by car, there are a few activities you may like to try in the area.  I took myself to the Buller Gorge swing-bridge which traverses the Buller River and is apparently the longest swing bridge in New Zealand.  From there I went on a 40 minute jet boat ride with Buller Canyon Jet.  My initial reaction was that it was going to be ridiculously yawn worthy and lame.  I don’t know if it was the clean New Zealand air, but I loved it.  The swing bridge entry is $10 which is a bit steep but well worth it as they had very clean public conveniences.  The park also offered various zip line options across the gorge.  This was not for me but seemed to entertain a number of willing tourists.  The jet boat was $105.00 for 40 minutes.

For further information on Buller Gorge Swingbridge go to http://www.bullergorge.co.nz.

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Other Activities

MURCHISON is famous for rafting on the Buller River.  There are two rafting companies, Wild Rivers Rafting and Ultimate Descents.  I did not manage it this trip, but in the future, I would plan to do the full day grade 4/5 option with Ultimate Descents.  This includes a helicopter drop off.

There is walking (or tramping as the New Zealanders like to say) in the Nelson Lakes National Park which is a 102,000 hectare national park with Lakes Rotoroa and Rotoiti at its heart.  You can also take a water taxi to various drop-off points which connect you to the network of walking tracks along the Lakes.  For further information visit http://www.rotitiwatertaxis.co.nz.

Our wine and food odyssey

SO after 4 nights (it was supposed to be 5 – Grrrrr) at Owen River Lodge we head back to the Blenheim area for the next stage of our trip.  We booked 4 nights at Antria Boutique Lodge in the heart of the Marlborough wine region.  Antria is run by Phil and Kathryne.  They are our sort of people and are a tonic for the soul.  They are such accommodating people and had us in stitches from the moment we arrived.

Antria is a boutique bed and breakfast with two guest suites: the Antipodes Suite and the Pacifica Suite.  We stayed in the Pacifica Suite which had a huge bathroom and eclectic furnishings which we loved.  Each night, we returned from dinner to find a beautiful freshly cut rose on our bed.  One thing that I am really particular about is bed linen and, like Owen River Lodge, Antria has top quality linen.  I do not think that I have slept so well as I did at Antria.  Guests have the run of part of the house and can help themselves to a well stocked pantry and a fridge filled with fruit, beer and of course, local wines.

Each morning Phil and Kathryne produced an amazing breakfast comprising cereals with house poached and fresh fruits, yoghurt and a sweet and a savoury cooked option.  Breakfast is my thing, so I would return just for the breakfast.  One of the other things about Antria is Phil and Kathryne’s art collection which adorns almost every wall and is really interesting.

There is so much to see and do in the Marlborough region so it is hard to decide what to prioritise on a 4 night trip.  On our first day, Kathryn and Phil suggested a few hiking options.  We settled on walking Snout Track which is a 3 hour walk from Picton to the “Snout” which is a point overlooking the Queen Charlotte Pass.  Coming out is hard-going as it is mostly uphill but it is absolutely stunning and well worth it.

We also wanted to go out onto the water one day and there are a few options on offer and it took a while to decide.  Options include:

  • the Pelorus Mail Boat which takes you around the Marlborough Sounds delivering mail and groceries. The mail delivery runs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and departs Havelock Pier at 9:30am and returns at 5:00pm.  They also do grocery deliveries on Saturdays and Sundays;
  • there are also various ferry options to get you to the Queen Charlotte Track to hike or mountain bike. I would check out Beachcomber Cruises (beachcombercruises.co.nz and Couger Line www.cougerlinecruises.co.nz); and
  • lastly, and the option we finally settled on, the Greenshell Mussel Cruise. We chose this cruise as it is only 3 hours in duration which meant it was not going to take up the entire day and would have us back at our accommodation in plenty of time to get ready for dinner.

The cruise departs Havelock Marina C Pier at 1:30pm and costs NZ$125 per adult and includes mussels and a glass of sauvignon blanc.  We cruised on a large catamaran up the Pelorus and Keneparu Sound which is breathtaking.  We cruised through a mussel farm and then dropped anchor in a sheltered cove where the staff steamed mussels.  Following a lesson on how to prepare and eat the mussels, we could then help ourselves to as many mussels as we wanted washed down with a glass of Marlborough sauvignon blanc.  The staff were extremely knowledgeable and friendly.  Although the price includes a glass of sauvignon blanc, the boat has a bar on board so you can buy wine by the glass (or bottle) if you are like us and cannot stop at 1.  I could not rate this cruise highly enough and would definitely recommend it.  Tips, the Marlborough Sounds are usually windy so if you want to sit out on deck, pack some warm clothes and preferably a good wind breaker.  There were about 15 people on our cruise and of those 15, only 1 person got sea sick.  So if you suffer from sea sickness takes some Kwells or some ginger beer with you.  More information on this cruise can be found at: http://www.marlboroughtourcompany.co.nz/tours-cruises/greenshell-mussel-cruise.

One of the hidden gems on this trip is Havelock which is a small town with a great Marina.  I preferred Havelock to Picton.  A lot of boat cruises depart from Havelock including the one we took.  It has ample all day parking with ticket machines that take credit cards.  We paid NZ$6.50 for the afternoon.  There is a brilliant place at the Marina called the “Slip In” which I highly recommend for a pub-style lunch (seafood platters, green shelled mussels, burgers, fish and chips etc.).  It is also a good spot for having a beer or wine and watching the coming and going of boats at the jetty.  I would definitely put the Slip In on the itinerary for my next trip to Marlborough.

Okay so one of the major attractions of Marlborough is the wine.  Yes this is sauvignon blanc country but they also produce other styles of wine including very good pinots.  There is one thing that New Zealand does better than any other country we have been to and that is winery restaurants.  So having been to Marlborough before, we opted for a couple of wineries which had good restaurants rather than fit in as many wineries as time would allow.  Our two picks are:

Cloudy Bay. They have a great outdoor area with a raw food bar that serves just that, raw food.  We enjoyed freshly shucked New Zealand oysters and roasted nori and rice crusted venison tataki (seared venison).  I love Cloudy Bay; their cuvee rose and Mustang pinot are to die for.  They do a 3 tiered wine tasting menu, $10, $15 and $25.  Go with the $25 option as it includes the Mustang pinot or just don’t bother at all, and just buy a bottle to enjoy with lunch;

and

Rockferry: The restaurant is open between 11:30am and 3:00pm and is in a really lovely casual setting to settle into for the afternoon.  The kitchen may close at 3:00pm but the cellar door is open until 4:30pm so you can still keep drinking until then.  Definitely put this winery on your list of wineries to visit.

So as I have previously advised, New Zealand likes to close down on some bank holidays and wineries are no exception so bear this in mind when choosing to travel.  So this resulted in us missing out on a couple of wineries that we wanted to visit being Spy Valley and Yealands Estate.  Make sure you put these two on your list.

There are a multitude of options for touring the wineries including cycling with tandem and electric bikes.  If you are staying at Antria, no need to worry as they have bikes for guest use.  If cycling is not your thing, then Antria’s Phil can do full or half day winery tours.  If Phil was not available for some reason, my second choice would be Highlight Wine Tours who do winery tours in a restored VW Kombi.  We met Dave from Highlight Wine Tours at Rockferry Winery.  We spoke with his guests who were loving their tour.  Highlight Wine Tours go at your pace so you can do as many or as few wineries as you want.  More information on Highlight Wine Tours can be found at http://www.highlightwinetours.co.nz.

There are a lot of restaurant options in the area but our favourite was Arbour.  We were lucky enough to eat there on two evenings including New Year’s Eve.  The food is not only an art-form but is sublime.  The restaurant looks out onto a formal manicured garden and if you are lucky enough to go on a warm evening, I would suggest requesting pre-dinner drinks outside in the garden.

Hans Herzog was our second restaurant experience.  This is another winery restaurant in an amazing garden setting.  We ate in the bistro on two occasions.  They produce reasonable wines and I really like their cuvee rose.  The food is not in the league of Arbour’s but I like going to Hans Herzog just to sit and enjoy the garden.  The bistro allows you to eat indoors or outside in the garden or on the veranda.  As we ate in the bistro the first night and were not blown away by the food, we decided to return to the bistro rather than eat in the formal restaurant.  The restaurant offers a 7, 5 and 3 course menu which can be matched with wines.  The 7 course menu is NZ$155 per person with wines to match at NZ$98 so for that price it had better be a pretty big step up from the bistro.

If staying at Antria, Phil and Kathryne can suggest other restaurant options.  If you are planning to drink, then Phil is also only too happy to drop you off and there are plenty of taxi options in the Blenheim area to take you home.  Just arrange it with the restaurant.  We used Executive Shuttle (see details below).

Blenheim is famous for its cherries so if you are lucky enough to be in Blenheim during December/early January then there are a lot cherry orchards which offer pick your own.  It is great fun.  Most pick your own orchards also offer pick your own raspberries, strawberries and boysenberries.

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The berry farm we visited makes berry ice creams. Brilliant.

If you live in Melbourne or Sydney and are looking for a short break to enjoy great food and wine, then Marlborough is just the ticket.  You can be as active or as idle as you like.

Travel tips

OWEN River Lodge is 1 hour and 45 minutes from Blenheim Airport and 1 hour and 25 minutes from Nelson Airport.  This is an all-inclusive lodge and includes breakfast, picnic lunch and 3 course dinner with wines.  They can supply all fishing equipment including boots and waders so you do not need to worry about packing your own.  Owen River Lodge may seem a bit pricey but given that the daily tariff includes fishing guide and transportation, food, alcoholic (beer and wine) and non-alcoholic beverages, fishing equipment and laundry, for us, this represents excellent value for money.  For further details visit http://www.owenriverlodge.co.nz.

Blenheim is only 15-20 minutes’ flying time from Wellington with two carriers, Air New Zealand and Soundsair.  The other option is the Interislander Ferry which takes 3 hours from Wellington to Picton.

The road from Blenheim to Murchison, the SH63, is now the main road down to Queenstown following the closure of SH1 due to the recent earthquake damage.  This has resulted in increased traffic including heavy trucks.  The road also has a number of one way bridges so you have to be vigilant making sure you give-way in accordance with the road signs.

Antria Boutique Lodge is less than 5 minutes’ drive from Blenheim Airport and is run by the fabulous Phil and Kathryne.  For further details visit: http://antria.co.nz/.

I would recommend using:

For details on Marlborough wineries and the Marlborough wine trail visit http://www.wine-marlborough.co.nz/.

Both Owen River Lodge and Antria had the laundry situation well covered.  Owen River Lodge does your laundry at no extra charge and Antria has a washing machine and ironing facilities.

If you know that you will be in New Zealand during the Christmas or Easter holidays, book restaurants well in advance.  Do not rely on doing a walk-in as you may go hungry as nothing will be open not even to buy a bag of crisps.

Blenheim airport has a number of car hire companies but make sure you book in advance as Marlborough is a popular tourist destination.  Also, if you are collecting a hire car on a bank holiday, ring in advance to make sure they will be open at the time when you intend to collect the car.

New Zealand has a lot of sandflies or midges which are quite annoying as the bites are as itchy as anything so take some good repellent with you.

The New Zealand sun is extremely strong.  So wear plenty of sunscreen with at least a 30spf and wear a hat.

 

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Snout track.

 

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Mr Smarty Pants with his 7lb brown trout from the Mataktaki River. Don’t worry it is all catch and release.

 

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