257 kilometres sounds like a relatively short drive, but this leg is full of interesting stopping points and amazing scenery. If the leg from Christchurch were to lull us into a sense of complacency about the roads, this leg is the wake-up call.
The first stage to Twizel is straightforward – and I recommend a stop in Twizel if you need a break. We stopped in at Shawty’s Café there and had a great coffee, something that is rare in any Australian town of around 1000 people.
If you have kids you’ll be pleased to find the mall where Shawty’s is located – and by mall I mean a wide open space with foot traffic only and a great playground where the Junior Grendels got to burn off some excess energy.
Back on the road you continue south towards Omarama and you start to feel as if you really are leaving the farming country. Crossing into the mountain range south of Mount Melina you pass the turnoff to Wanaka and drive along Lake Dunstan to Cromwell – where we stopped for lunch. Another small town along the route, it was Cromwell where we first noticed the Thai thing.
New Zealand seems to love Thai food and every town we passed through seemed to have at the very least a Thai restaurant, and so it was in Cromwell where we sat in another mall eating Thai in another small town – and it was good.
The pace we took this leg was leisurely – as you might guess from the stops I have mentioned already. After Cromwell you enter the Kawarau Gorge where the more challenging driving begins – the traffic speed advisory signs are worth paying attention to!
For the whole trip in New Zealand I decided that it was better to pull over and allow others to pass rather than try and drive faster in order to accommodate the signed maximum speed limit. This was a whole lot easier – and on the South Island there was not much traffic in any case.
The Kawarau Gorge Rd becomes the Gibbston Highway and the road opens out a little to lush dairy and wine country – naturally we had to stop at a Winery/Cheesery in the Gibbston valley and sample the local produce. It was well worth the effort but I was surprised at times in New Zealand just how hard it was to find some types of cheese - sharp cheddars in particular.
From Gibbston it is a relatively smooth drive through to Queenstown where we spent four very enjoyable days alternating between snow and lake activities.
Road Remarks (Part Three) will cover Queenstown to Fox Glacier
It was at Hikari Izakaya on Beach Street in Queenstown that we first discovered that Junior Grendel Number Two loves Japanese food. He has always been more interested in trying new things than his older brother but astounded us with the range of new foods he was willing to try.
He ate an entire bell pepper salad along with sushi, sashimi and soba noodles. Actually looking at the 'S' theme of that sentence he missed out on only one thing - the Saki! (mine, all mine!).
Hikari Izakaya is a small neat restaurant what serves a small by delicious assortment of Japanese dishes. The quality of the food is very good and the staff polite and seemed to appear exactly when needed without interrupting the dining experience.
It was also one of the quieter places that we visited in Queenstown - although on our second visit there was a rowdy crew of drunk Canadian skiers who were having trouble finding the menu, pronouncing the items and ordering anything coherently. Dinner AND a show that night!
In a more general comment - Japanese food was almost unheard of in New Zealand when I visited in 1989 but on this trip we were amazed not so much at its presence in nearly every town but by the truly great quality compared to many places here. Sushi in particular seems to be a point of pride in New Zealand and one food hall in a mall in Auckland had the most amazing array of sushi that I have ever seen in my life - it was a display that would put lesser sushi bars in Perth to shame and make the better ones sick with envy.
I asked the chef if I might take photographs - but he declined, understandably, because these were works of art that others might copy. This one not a one off and we repeatedly saw amazing edible art at many sushi bars across Auckland.
I would highly recommend this drive as a great way to get accustomed to New Zealand driving conditions. At around 230 km it will take at least three and a half hours with rest breaks and I'd actually recommend that you plan for a little more time for scenic stops as well.
Christchurch is a gem of a city located at the Eastern edge of the Canterbury plain. Leaving Christchuch you get your first glimpse of the magnificent Southern Alps and these will be your constant companion on the trip South.
The first large braided river that you cross, the Rakaia River, amazed the Junior Grendels and warned us that bridges in New Zealand are narrow, and often long. Most highway roads were single carriageways, well surfaced and with good warning signs. A little hint for the tourist - pay attention to the speed advisories. I found them to be an accurate guide for anyone unfamiliar with the road, although you do need to adjust for conditions.
The road from Christchurch to Tekapo is a good place to learn this as the road is mostly straight with gentle curves but a few sharp slow turns to educate you.
The views are stunning as you shift from open plains to rolling green hills, 'aussie mountains' (foothills) and finally the grand peaks of the Southern Alps. There are some good places to stop for breaks including Ashburton where I can recommend 'Lunch' on 160 Burnett Street. It was here that we first discovered the joyful fact that many New Zealand cafes have toilets, which was something we are not used to in Australia and very handy when you have children.
From Ashburton the road continues to the South West until you reach Geraldine where you turn West to thread the valleys through to Fairlie. By this point you are well within the foothills of the Southern Alps and every turn brings a new amazing vista. The best view of all however comes once you have passed through Fairlie and around the Southern end of the Richmond Range. Here, at an altitude of 700 metres above sea level is Lake Tekapo.
Tekapo marked the end of our first day's drive and really is also a transition point in the style of country you can expect. From this point there is very little open plains driving - once you have travelled beyond Omarama you head deeper and deeper into the mountains, and while it is a beautiful drive, caution is required.
Road Remarks (Part Two) will cover Tekapo to Queenstown
While walking through the Queenstown Mall on our first day there we were accosted by a charming young lady bearing pizza. I have always found pizza to be an attractive accessory for a girl so we stopped and sampled what seemed to be a capsicum laden piece of pizza. I've never been a great fan of bell peppers but this one was actually very sweet and not as overpowering as many I have tried here.
In one quick stop we had simplified our dinner plans.
Winnies is mid way up the mall in a large upstairs area with a great balcony, big fireplace and a remarkable roof (more on that later).
It was a bit dark on entry but our eyes soon adjusted and it was in fact quite a comfortable level of light to dine by. Looking around it appeared to be a pub trying to be a pizza place and not knowing the history if the place we had fun speculating whether in fact it might be a pub where the bar snacks just got a little out of control.
Whatever it was, it is fun and the pizza was great. It was also quite child friendly and early in the evening the vast majority of patrons are families. As we were getting ready to depart we could see the skiiers starting to arrive to fuel up for a night of partying.
Junior Grendel Number One brought his headphones and his Nintendo and thus was able to dodge the noise of the place successfully. He loved the fireplace though and was suitably impressed after delcaring that he was getting too hot so suddenly feel a blast of icy night air as the roof above us split in two.
This was quite a sight and where we were sitting we could see all the way to the top of the peak on which the gondola station rests. It was a unique way of changing the air in a bar!
The pizzas are great and I highly recommend them - the kids menu is good and Junior Grendel Number Two was pleased two nights in a row with the Spag bol they had on offer.
Being a bar they also had a good range of on-tap beers. Mrs Grendel discovered the Monteith's Raddler and I tried the cider, both came in a tankard and remained favourites as we travelled around the country.
A very enjoyable Queenstown dining experience.
Who: Winnies Gourmet Pizza Bar What: Really yummy pizza, unusual temperature control feature Where: 7-9 The Mall, Queenstown Contact: 64 3 442 8635 When: 18-19 September 2009 Accessibility: Impossible if you use a wheelchair, hard if you have vision impairment and challenging if you have autism (take headphones/ear protection!), however if you just want to try the pizza they do deliver. Web: Winnies Gourmet Pizza Bar
After the stunning drive up the West Coast of the South Island we turned inland just South of Westport to follow the Buller River to the East. Murchison is in a lush valley once you come through the gorge and we were exhausted already by the drive which was during an intense storm that was bringing down trees and causing rock slides all along our route.
Rivers Cafe, on Fairfax Street just off the main highway, was a welcome relief. We ordered some lunch and coffee with hot chocolate for the Junior Grendels.
I ordered a Shepherd's pie, but was delivered a piece of the Venison pie - I didn't complain as I had been tossing up between the two and I figured I'd count it a fortuitous error. I was correct, the venison pie was stunning and I have not enjoyed such a rich mean as much as that in a long time.
The coffee was very well prepared and to top it off they had a good internet cafe that allowed us to catch up with a few emails and make a quick post.
It was a very enjoyable stopping point - especially for the Junior Grendels who had a play area and a warm fire. As a bonus we got to sit inside and watch the snow fall on peak across the valley.
Who: Rivers Cafe What: Amazing Food, cozy fire and great coffee (Havana Coffee Works) Where: 51 Fairfax St, Murchison Contact: 64 3 523 9009 When: 24 September 2009 Accessibility: Very Good Web:Rivers Cafe
The Holiday Inn on Avon in Christchurch is an oddly pleasant place to stay. Odd because the layout of the hallways and rooms is rather like a cubist-inspired rabbit warren, but comfortable and right on a picturesque bend of the Avon River just 15 minutes walk from the CBD.
It is not likely to be the kind of hotel to attract the high end of business travel but as a restful stopping point who accommodate families it is warm and pleasant and well fitted with amenities.
It is also well located if you like a stroll and the massive willow immediately opposite just begs to be sat under while reading - or playing your Nintendo DS.
I couldn't fault the service, or the room and would recommend it.
Who: Holiday Inn-on-Avon, Christchurch What: Good accommodation with a heated pool and gym Where: 356 Oxford Terrace Christchurch 8011, Canterbury, New Zealand Contact: 64 3 379 1180 When: 15-17 September 2009 Accessibility: Good Web:Holiday Inn on Avon
We stayed in a fairly broad range of accommodation types, and our experience was good - with various levels of 'good'. There was one 'Great' however and that was in Rotorua where we stated at the Best Western Braeside. I chose this place as it was supposed to be away from the general sulphur odour which was something we though might worry Junior Grendel Number One - however the smell didn't seem to worry him at all.
This hotel/motel however is a family dream. They have a small heated pool, a trout stream (feeding only, no fishing!) a small mini golf course and some units have their own four person spa.
The only bath we had in New Zealand (as opposed to the showers we used everywhere else) was here as it was the only one that seemed comfortable enough to bother filling. It was outside in its own screened courtyard and the icy night air was a wonderful counterpoint to the really deep hot water that came gushing from the tap in a seemingly endless flow of muscle-pleasing heat.
Of all the stays in New Zealand this is the one that I will recommend to families. We had our own room and TV and the boys slept in the lounge on one of the best sofa beds I have ever seen - they loved the novelty and we loved being able to watch something other than kids shows!
It is also just across the road from the Gondola and luge tracks, the Rainbow Springs Animal Sanctuary (with Kiwis) and a Maori tourist village.
We took our host Karen's advice and went out to Whakarewarewa Thermal Village. It was a great experience and the Junior Grendels found it much less daunting than some of the more touristy places we had been to. It was a very genuine welcome to a place where a Maori community live daily.
The Braeside Best Western was the first place we stayed in that had reliable free wireless and we made good use of it to catch up on a few emails. We were tired by this stage of the trip and it was great to have a place that allowed us to relax in comfort with a little more space and welcoming, helpful hosts.
I'd have to give it top marks for the trip!
Who: Best Western Braeside Resort What: Great accommodation and good advice on where to visit Where: 4 Barnard Road Rotorua Contact: 64 7 347 9497 When: 28-30 September 2009 Accessibility: Good - some rooms fully accessible Web:Best Western Braeside
While in Christchurch we had just enough time for a flying visit to the local Headquarters of Coffee Supreme on Madras Street.
This funky roastery/espresso bar is the South Island starting point for Coffee Supreme. Of all the roasters whose coffee we tried it was Coffee Supreme who seemed to have the best distribution network and consistency in quality among the cafes that served there coffee. That is not to say that other roasters are not also outstanding, but the representation of their coffee was a bit more patchy than for Coffee Supreme.
Supreme HQ is like a Norse version of Seattle Grunge - enough wood paneling along the back dividing wall between the roastery and the bar to please any sauna lover but bare walls elsewhere with low-watt naked incandescent bulbs providing spartan lighting above the old, but well maintained La San Marco espresso machine.
The coffee was great - a really rich ristretto that bridged the gap between the bright acids and savoury gravy of whatever blend (I'm embarrassed to confess that I did not ask what was in the hopper) they were using that morning.
We got two take away flat whites for the start of our drive to Lake Tekapo and these were rich and sweet, an early taste of New Zealand milk that would happily dominate any milk based espresso drink if you allowed it to. In this case the coffee artfully sang through the milk and it was an enjoyable start to the morning drive.
Who: Coffee Supreme HQ Christchurch What: Great coffee Where: 218a Madras St, Christchurch CBD, New Zealand Contact: 64 3 3790698 When: 17 September 2009 Accessibility: Adequate for entry to purchase a take away Web:Coffee Supreme
Twizel is a small town in the MacKenzie Basin that was built in 1968 as a town to service the local hydro plant. Today it remains a great stopping point for travellers and a staging point for keen astronomers wishing to take advantage of the clear, dry mountain air.
We stopped there on our way through from Tekapo to Queenstown and dropped in to Shawty's, a small cafe in the Twizel Mall.
Like most New Zealand cafes it was licensed - and they are in the process of expanding their bar (a lounge bar known as 'Grappa').
The coffee was superb (or Supreme to be precise!) and the Afghan we bought was just the right balance between dense and crumbly to satisfy. Owner and barista Troy was knowledgeable about the coffee and had a great menu that was amazing given the small size of the town.
I can't think of many small rural towns in Australia where you can waltz in and find a cafe in an open space with a playground for children that also serves top notch coffee and food. In fact I can't think of any at all - a bit sad given the size of our population.
Who: Shawty's What: Great coffee, food and Grappa (apparently!) Where: 4 Market Place, Twizel, South Canterbury, New Zealand Contact: 64 3 4353155 When: 18 September 2009 Accessibility: Very Good Web:Shawty's
Mitchelli's was one of the cafes we managed to visit in Christchurch. I don't know why it is that all Christchurch cafe's seem so stylish and this one was one certainly had style character and great coffee. There is a much more independent mind set in cafes over in New Zealand and the unique characteristics of each make comparisons between them very difficult - much better to enjoy each cafe for what it is.
Mitchelli's was originally a rough warehouse or garage that has refitted by the Mitchell family for the purpose of opening a deli and cafe. It serves coffee by Wellington's Cafe L'Affare and they serve it superbly. The ristretto was tight and full bodied and the flat white creamy, rich and delicious.
Who: Mitchellis What: Great coffee and gelati Where: Ash Street Christchurch CBD (just off Poplar Lane) Contact: 64 3 3774574 When: 16 September 2009 Accessibility: Good Web:Mitchelli's
One of the places we discovered in Queenstown (and returned to often) was Patagonia. Patagonia is a chocolate and gelatteria with a simple menu, lots of handmade goodies and the best hot chocolate that I've ever had.
The Junior Grendels knew from the contents of the freezer bays of gelati that they were in for a treat:
Mrs Grendel had her birthday breakfast there and while not impressed with having her photo taken was very impressed by the hot chocolate.
Who: Patagonia Chocolates What: Amazing gelati and chocolates, hot chocolate, coffee and internet access Where: Lakefront, 50 Beach Street, Queenstown NZ Contact: 64 3 4429066 When: 19, 20 & 21 September 2009 Accessibility: Good Web:Patagonia
Well its been an amazing trip and I still have much to write, describe and discuss. The final hotel was a bomb and I shan't be recommending them to anyone but overall the trip was magnificent, the Junior Grendels are exhausted but happy and Mrs Grendel looks back fondly on surviving.
It is great to be home and I am looking forward to some routine again, including work on Monday. They boys are looking forward to vegging out without 'Dad' rousing them out of bed in the dark to go climb something cold and steep - and possibly geologically active.
Mrs Grendel is glad there are no more boats.
And finally - here is the image I mentioned weeks ago - shot through the lens of a telescope on Mount John - a bit ragged around the edges but I was holding the camera over the eyepiece.
An Aussie coffee lover and blogger known as 'Grendel'. Mrs Grendel and Junior Grendel Number One and Junior Grendel Number Two are tolerating the frequent coffee roastery stops on the road as we tour our great neighbours in New Zealand.
We are also desperately hoping no Aussie cricketer bowls under-arm to a kiwi batsman while we are over there. . .