New Zealand - No Worries
Story and photos by John Blanchette
UCKLAND, New Zealand - The first time I heard the phrase, our
plane was plunging for the third time into dense fog above Wellington
airport. The stewardess saw the look of panic on my face and reassured
me, "No worries."
A moment before taking a free dive off the
highest building in Auckland
I was to learn it's the national verbal response to
almost any situation, from a major calamity to requesting a glass of
water. But she was right. The Qantas airplane landed perfectly
and no one but me seemed at all worried.
New Zealand is a carefree land and perhaps the
most beautiful country in the world. I have decided that there are no
bad views in this Eden, just changes of scenery. Lying about 12 hours
southwest of Los Angeles by plane, New Zealand is composed primarily
of a north and south
island, shaped somewhat like a fried egg above a sausage roll. About
4 million people and 40 million sheep inhabit a country about the size
of California, which it also resembles, albeit upside down and backwards.
Are ewe lookin' at me, are ewe lookin' at me?
Three-quarters of the population live on the warmer
north island, which is about a third of the country and home to the
largest cities of Auckland and the capital, Wellington.
As on most island nations, life is like a Dickens novel, you keep meeting
the same people in different places and well-known figures keep drifting
through your daily activity. Norah Jones was my seatmate on a
flight from Christchurch
to Auckland and boxer Talmadge Griffis was on my Qantas
flight back to the United States.
I was traveling the length of the country exploring
the wine regions, from the Waimaku west of Auckland to
Christchurch. I was astonished by the high quality and number
of wineries (427) that fruit the country with some of the best sauvignon
blanc and pinot noir in the world. Northeast of Wellington is
the Martinborough area, where I particularly enjoyed the pinot
noir at filmmaker Raymond Thompson's Tirohana Estate. Crossing
over to the South Island, Marlborough is the celebrated sauvignon
blanc region. Cloudy Bay and Allan Scott wineries are
located across the street from each other. Scott's lovely outdoor
restaurant Twelve Trees offers a casual, wine-friendly menu.
It was in Marlborough that I discovered my favorite
vineyard, Te Whare Ra (tay-fary-ra). Every one of their wines
is superior, especially the Gewurztraminer and the pinot noir. The Nelson
area to the west of Marlborough has the most consistently fine
wines in New Zealand and superb whites. The best chardonnay I
tasted was the 2004 Neudorf. Further south in Canterbury,
Pegasus Bay also has great whites.
While in Auckland don't miss the Sky Tower,
where for $100 you can parachute off the top. In Wellington visit
the old Astoria cafe, which serves the best coffee in town, and the
flowering botanical gardens. Heading south to the beautifully preserved
Victorian city of Graytown, sample the best chocolate in New
Zealand at Schoc Chocolate Therapy Shop, have lunch at the nearby
Salute restaurant and dine at the French Bistro in Martinborough.
It's home to Chef Wendy Campbell, a friend of Julia Child
and Ann Willen. In the town of Carterton take the
tour of the Paua Shell factory and explore the gift shop full of handcrafted,
luminescent jewelry made from the native abalone. Later sop up award-winning
Tasman Bay Olive Oil in Nelson.
If you like mussels you have to take the cruise into
the Marlborough Sound fiords. Amazing views await you and the
freshest mussels you've ever had are pulled from the sea and steamed
on board. For earthbound produce, visit the huge Sunday-morning farmer's
market in Marlborough, where the wealth of the country is spread
before you. For a change of pace, visit Harrington's brewery
in Richmond and try one of their 24 homemade brews or get a jug
to go. On the road to Christchurch, warm up in the Hanmer
thermal springs. Get good directions to Errol Hitt's saffron
farm in Okuku or you'll never get to try his wonderful saffron-laced
products, from honey to marinades. Nearby in Fernside is Leon
Havill's Mead Cellar. He's been producing some of the best mead
in the world since 1964.
Spring-fed swimming hole on the Claremont
Country Estates in North Canterbury, a working ranch set on 2,400
This is a very crime-free country and honesty abounds.
On two occasions I was given back change when I overpaid, and a shopkeeper
chased me down the street to deliver a bag I inadvertently left in her
store. The most amazing incident was an e-mail from a young woman who
found my business card case and offered to mail it to me in the United
States. New Zealanders are also very frugal and tipping is not
part of the dining experience or psyche, probably a result of the country's
It is a diverse population that is actively seeking
immigration. New Zealand has the lowest unemployment of any industrialized
nation. It also has one of the best bed-and-breakfast networks in the
world. Because of the rural nature of the countryside, there are few
motels and hotels outside of the major cities and B&Bs are your
best option. Wairepo House in Nelson is set in the middle
of an apple orchard and serves great breakfasts. In their garden I was
encircled by fantail birds, beautiful and graceful fliers. I felt like
Saint Francis of Assisi, but later learned they weren't enamored
of me - they feed on the wing and I was only a food source kicking up
Claremont Country Estate in North Canterbury
dates from 1866 and is a working ranch set on 2,400 acres, Owners Richard
and Rosie Goord are charming transplants originally from Africa.
I was one of the first guests at the Brancott Country Retreat,
a spectacular modern structure resting on a hill in the middle of a
vineyard. Other B&Bs included Thorndon House, a restored
Victorian home in Wellington run by a German family, the 1876 Old
Manse in Martinborough, and Sennen House in Picton, where
the director of "King Kong" stayed.
If You Go
Because of the rural nature of New Zealand,
exploration by rental car is the best way to travel, despite fuel costs
of $6 a gallon. Remember that it was a British colony and they drive
on the left hand side. I nearly ruined my experience twice in this care
free land by not taking care to remember this.
has nonstop, daily flights to New Zealand from the West Coast and works
closely with Tourism
New Zealand, (866) 639-9325, which can provide booklets, maps and
brochures on the wine trail, restaurants, places of interest, special
events and accommodation options. And no worries, you're in carefree
Island, New Zealand; New
South Wales, Australia