Full disclosure. I am writing this while sipping a Ristretto cappuccino from Rust coffee shop next door to my local public library on a cloudy, blustery day in Portland OR. So, while I’ll “be” in New Zealand as I write, I’ll have to imagine this cappuccino is that amazing flat white I had while watching locals at the Federal Diner (look for it down a tiny alley off a main street in downtown Wanaka).
Wanaka. While planning the trip I was unsure whether to stay in Wanaka, Queenstown, or both. Queenstown is all over every travel site, and the setting is spectacular. I mean look, this is the view just from the grocery store…
But in one of the better decisions of this trip, we decided to spend five nights in Wanaka, and visit Queenstown for the day on our way to Fjordland. Briefly, Wanaka is much smaller (at least for now) and more mellow, but still with a lot of restaurant and lodging choices. And spectacular scenery. Queenstown is more dramatic, but also more crowded and touristy. However, for the adrenaline junky this is one of the best spots on earth, so thrill seekers please don’t listen to me on this one (I’ll meet you in a later post with tales of an alpine helicopter ride).
Wanaka started off on a good note. After a rainy and somewhat disappointing trip over Haast Pass, we dropped down Highway 6 to the shores of Lake Wanaka, then across a blink-and-you-missed-it isthmus to Lake Hāwea. These lakes are huge. No matter how high we got in the region, I don’t think we ever saw either lake all in one view. Lake Wanaka is over 70 square miles, the fourth largest in New Zealand. Lake Hāwea is 54 square miles. Both were carved by glaciers. Surrounded by high, craggy mountains that we could actually see, not shrouded in clouds (at least not upon arrival). The setting is absolutely spectacular. The Colorado girl in me was in heaven.
We stayed at Apartments on Upton only a few blocks from a large park bordering the lake (where we stopped to watch cricket one day), with views to perhaps three different mountain ranges. The extra bonus was a sculpture in the yard of a man out of wood and iron that caught my eye on entry. Later that day looking into Wanaka artists and designers in our apartment I found reference to an amazing one, Martin Hill. And noticed “our” sculpture on his website. Art and natural beauty; a perfect combination.
Of all places we visited, the two I could live in for any length of time were Lagrasse in southwest France, and Wanaka. What was it about Wanaka? Primarily the astounding natural beauty of the region, but that goes for just about everywhere in New Zealand. The people were relaxed and very friendly, but again, that’s just the “norm” in New Zealand. A few differences of this region were retail in nature. First, there are too many fabulous biodynamic wineries to count. Just outside of Wanaka is Rippon Vineyards, one of the originals with a view to kill. Not to mention beautiful floral displays and quirky artwork and a Riesling even I would want to drink regularly. There’s also Quartz Reef a short drive away with a tasting room in Cromwell. They have eminently drinkable sparkling wine… wish I had some now!
There are many high-end boutiques around town with beautiful if expensive finds. With a very fat wallet I’d go back to Escape, especially for dresses by New Zealand designer Paula Ryan. The one store with local designs that I found was the recently opened Funkee Design. Cute local skirts and fabulous wool knits by Untouched World. The best though is the thrift stores. I am not that person who routinely finds treasures in thrift stores, unlike many of my friends who tend to unearth vintage Gucci handbags and other designer finds. Apparently Wanaka has a number of wealthy inhabitants who come seasonally for skiing and summer retreats (hence the high-end stores). They seem to leave behind those purchases… At the Salvation Army I found a very wide brimmed Eugenia Kim sun hat (which I desperately needed by the way, the sun is so strong here) for about seven US dollars. Typical retail, well over $400. Then at Wanaka Waste Busters where one could wander for hours, found a great white men’s cotton shirt, a top quality New Zealand merino wool sweater, and an Australian designer jacket for about eight US dollars, all together. After more than six weeks in two shirts and one sweater, this doubling of my wardrobe was divine.
Most compelling though was nostalgia. In all the best ways, and very few of the bad, Wanaka reminded me of Colorado in the 1970 and 1980s. Whereas Fort Collins (where I grew up) had the thrilling dining choice of Perkins on the north end of town or Perkins on the south end of town, Wanaka has numerous delicious and interesting restaurants and cafes. And a fun living room theater, Paradiso, with the best chocolate chip cookies at intermission (yes, I made us go see Mockingjay Part 2 here, it had just released). So plenty to do, see, and consume… unlike the Colorado of my youth.
The similarities? Wanaka is friendly. People smile at one another in the streets. It is low key and unpretentious. The stunning natural features are central to how, and why, many people live here. And there’s a difficult-to-explain energy in the ether that pretty much anything is possible here.
Unfortunately, Wanaka also shares with the Colorado of my youth a refusal by many locals, especially the land holders, to manage growth. Across from Mount Iron, an already crowded local hike, a large swath of land had been bulldozed for construction of up to 1000 homes and numerous commercial buildings. The concept of preserving open space in the face of rapid development is as slow to catch on here as it was in the Front Range of Colorado. Here’s a few images from our hike up Mt. Iron.
But back to the joys of the place. In a nutshell, here’s what we did:
We tried to hike to the Rob Roy Glacier. Sadly we left too late, bad weather was coming, and our dumpy little rental car could ford only about the first four or so of seven river crossings on the road to the trailhead. However, the views up and down the Matukituki Valley along the West Matukituki River were unbelievable and well worth the bumpy journey.
Our “consolation prize” that day was a hike up Rocky Mountain. Both near and far the scenery was amazing. We were nearly blown off the top (the Department of Conservation had actually closed some hikes nearby due to high winds), but in the end that just made it more exhilarating. Here’s a great review by a non-hiker of this route. I think Jeff may have had similar thoughts on this and other hikes during our stay in New Zealand come to think of it…
We visited numerous wineries and art galleries in the relocated “Old Cromwell Town” (though after France, buildings from the 1860s just didn’t seem that old).
We had drinks at the local wine store/bar, Pembroke Wine & Spirits, with Carly. Carly I know from Denver where we worked together in her father’s French bakery when she was in high school and I was, well, way past high school (by the way, this may be the best French bakery in the US; if you’re in Denver, go to Trompeau Bakery). Time with this smart and sarcastic young woman always lifts me up. She and her boyfriend were just at the end of a year working in New Zealand on youth visas. Something I really wish I had done, but I probably would have skipped the apple-picking gig they had. That sounded brutal (complete with collapsing ladders and vicious branches).
Highlight was hiking Roys Peak Track. The brutal part is that it was 10 miles round trip and an elevation gain of about 4000 feet. Having not exercised much, this was a slog for the two of us. Our chagrin at our fitness level was not helped by the numerous super fit locals who jogged past us (just like old times hiking in Boulder, CO). The track had just recently reopened after the spring lambing season, so we hiked with numerous adorable lambs and equally many wary mamas. Views from this hike were amazing. Here are way too many shots:
Here’s a video of Jeff hiking with the lambs (and the wind):
Sadly after five days we had to journey on. We drove through more gorgeous mountains, spent about two hours in Queenstown (with seemingly half of the time driving through construction and looking for parking), then drove south towards Te Anau and Fjordland. Somehow, the trip just kept getting better and better. That post (hopefully) soon.
This voyage has been years in the wishing, and only about a month in the actual planning. We talked for at least five years about flying around the world, but there was always some reason we couldn’t/shouldn’t/wouldn’t go. Why that changed at last wishing is not where I’m going with this (at least right now). The main point is that I had little time to plan and research this trip. In that short time one of the destinations/activities that I knew I wanted to do was traveling the West Coast Highway, visiting the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, and driving over Haast Pass, west to east of course. Being a fervent mountain lover, a large part of the reason for this was to view the Southern Alps from the verdant vegetation and aqua glaciers found on their western flank. I somehow forgot to read the part about how all that vegetation got so verdant, and how the glaciers manage to arrest their retreat at all in the face of global warming. That would be the six to eight meters of rain that fall annually.
Which brings me to sacrifices. I’m a firm believer that some blood must be shed at the beginning of any important new venture. I don’t do it on purpose, but it always seems that something slips and I start to bleed. And rather than be upset, it reminds me that oh yes, this sacrifice must be made.
I now believe in a second kind of sacrifice. To the weather gods. As my sister pointed out, rallying against the weather gods is not a terribly productive activity. My takeaway? Pre-trip sacrifices are the way to go. I am not sure the protocol, but I will figure it out before our next voyage.
So here is what I saw from our hotel of the Southern Alps:
And from our hikes:
And from our drive (first attempt at posting video):
Yep, those would be dense clouds. To be honest, we did get this little peak, for which (any weather gods reading this) I am supremely grateful.
It took us a while to rally in Franz Josef, but eventually we got out our heavy-duty rain ponchos (this was not a garbage bag rainstorm) and headed out on a hike to the glacier. It was frustrating to not see the backdrop of snow-covered mountains, but once we got used to the wind and rain, it was actually fun. Once again, we were plastered in smiles on this trip. And the waterfalls were unbelievable up and down the valley. I don’t think I’ll ever be as impressed with a Pacific Northwest waterfall again. Thanks to Jeff who snapped all these on his iPhone (the Fuji stayed back in the dry car).
The next day we got a slightly drier window for our hike out to Fox Glacier. And here is where we caught a glimpse of the distant mountains. For some (more) spectacular pictures of this area, and other parts of New Zealand, check out a blog by Michael Evans, an Australian photographer. Stunning images, and I think he got more sunny days than we did.
After Fox Glacier, we headed out on the pass. Windshield wipers were on full blast most of the drive (except of course while Jeff was filming above video). Pretty perhaps, but I want to go back some day after I’ve made the appropriate sacrifices.
As I write this, it’s Saturday in the Western Hemisphere, which means it’s Sunday in New Zealand, which in houses around the world means it’s Pancake Day. So today, I bring you, Pancake Rocks (oh, and Hokitika).
Continuing our lack of synchronization with the good weather, we pulled out of Little Kaiteriteri on a full-sun, beautiful morning and headed southwest to the West Coast Highway, into more astounding beauty, and at our day’s destination, cool, cloudy, rainy weather in the forecast.
Having been well trained on the curvy, narrow roads of France, we were more than up to the challenge of driving New Zealand’s “highways” even with the driving on the left thing (biggest problem honestly was turning on the windshield wipers when we wanted to turn and the turn signal when it rained…). That said, Google needs to send employees to New Zealand to drive the roads and learn why their point-to-point time calculations are so wildly optimistic (Google, I know you’re reading this, so just saying, I’d be a great hire for this task!). One reason I see is that there are 10,000 river crossings on any drive and they are all one-way and you are always going in the direction that has to yield. But honestly that just means you have more time to look at the stunningly beautiful river you’re about to cross, so it’s not a big concern.
So off we were, driving down the highway, enjoying what seemed a very wide road by our new Gallic standards, stopping and waiting our turn to cross many a river. We drove through central farm and ranch lands for a bit before emerging at the Tasman Sea pounding full blast into the western coast. We pulled over at a random shoulder, where a sign informed us we were at latitude 42° south. Further south than Portland is north.
Here is the raw beauty of the cove we found. Jeff basically had to tear me away from sifting through the rocks (exactly what you don’t need to gather when you’re trying to travel light and have already stocked up on facial products in glass jars).
Next stop down the coast was the town of Punakaki and Pancake Rocks, found in Paparoa National Park, where we headed out on the easy, and stunning, Blowhole Walk. Wild rock formations made of limestone. The layering comes generally from pressure on alternating soft and hard marine layers, but it is apparently still a mystery as to how exactly they formed (or at least it was at the time they printed the trail-side signage). Here again the pictures tell the best story.
And this panorama, hard to tell what is where, but gives a great sense of the scope (photo credit to Jeff).
We visited at low tide, so not the prime viewing moment for the blowholes, but still a beautiful site (and fun time to use the rapid fire feature on my Fuji X-T10).
Our stop for the night was the town of Hokitika. This is where The Luminaries, the book I mentioned back in the Perth post is set by the way. Recently finished the book and definitely recommend it. First thing that struck me about the town: the super-wide streets. Reminded me of where I grew up, Fort Collins. My mother rented rooms at one point to foreign exchange college students who first thought we must be very important as our street was so wide. That was before they got out and about and realized the whole town is that way. Expanding to fill the space perhaps?
Hokitika (worth saying that out loud by the way, fun word to say over and over) is known for its artists and craftsmen, especially for work with “pounamu“. This highly varied green stone is found only on the South Island of New Zealand primarily in the southwest. Pounamu takes one of two mineral forms. Most common is Nephrite, a calcium magnesium silicate mineral. Bowenite is only found at the entrance to Milford Sound and is an iron magnesium silicate mineral. We met one person later in our travels with a pendant from that region; it was luminescent. Pounamu is of great importance to Maori (the article linked to above has some great detail about this). We saw numerous historical pieces in the museum in Wellington. Chiefs (and others?) would carry paddles made of this stone as a weapon and as a peace token. I would not want to be hit by one of those but would take one in a ceremony.
Sadly, in my perspective, many of the stores in Hokitika fall under the category of “schlock” with factory-made pieces made from stone that may have been both made in China and from stone originating in China (all the while exclaiming itself to be New Zealand “greenstone”, a usefully vague term). The same exact pendants, earrings, and warrior paddles over and over in a rather crass execution.
Hokitika was the one place we stayed at a hostel. It had great reviews and was very cozy with a coal-burning stove and a sweet Swiss woman I saw again later in our travels. A quick digression on that coal-burning stove. It was clearly not the only one in town and that is such a peculiar, strong smell that hugs and hangs around a town. If you wanted to feel you had stepped back in time into a western gold-rush town, it was perfect (read that book), but not something I would want to breathe in daily. And remember, we were there in spring headed into summer, not fall or winter.
Back to crafts. We found a couple of galleries featuring talented artists and some beautiful crafts. We especially liked Wilderness Gallery and Hokitika Craft Gallery. The “house mother” at our hostel (not sure her real title but she took care of us all very well) suggested some quality artisans when I asked her where to find the “good stuff.” Some were the galleries we found the day of our arrival (scouting talents confirmed!). Others were new, and she did not lead us astray.
I’m not sure how to explain this, but you see the same four or so pendant styles over and over and most are just that, the same form over and over to oblivion (here is a summary of the designs). But then you walk into a store owned by a true artisan. In our case, the artisan was Colin Davidson and his store is Heritage Jade (sorry, no website but there’s a bit about it here). The same form takes on a unique and powerful force. That “toki” (an adze) you’ve seen 500 times looks different, nuanced, special in every example he has on view. There’s an elegance and finesse. As if the story of the stone has come out. Colin was even commissioned to carve a piece for New Zealand to present to Aung San Suu Kyi.
The other jeweler of note was a gruff former military man, Rex Scott, who I met while photographing his hanging succulents (no really, hanging succulents, look here, and I was with Jeff at the time).
While he still works with greenstone, in some crave-worthy instances combined with copper (sorry, no photos were allowed, but here’s a photo he has online of a fabulous pounamu spider), he is particularly interested these days in chrysoprase. I was wearing my Great Aunt Dorothy and/or Great Grandmother Blench’s chrysoprase ring (I can only ever remember the name of the stone because the late Sir Terry Pratchett has a troll character named that in his fantasy series Disc World). You can see the ring in this photo. I walked out of his store, Tectonic Jade with a stunning (I think I may overuse that word in this country, but there you go) chrysoprase necklace. The store clerk had actually held it back off the floor as she liked to wear it, but brought it out as I was pouring over the chrosoprase pieces. She said she likes to keep the very special pieces for the ‘right’ person. Such flattery got her a sale from me!
Tearing ourselves away from the jewelry and other material wonders of Hokitika, we ventured out into the rainy countryside on roads winding around dairy farms to the Hokitika Gorge. The inn manager had recommended a walk to this spot. Here we walked across another swinging bridge, this time over a pool of powdery turquoise waters. The river, same color, issues from a glacier bearing fine silt/minerals that create that color. Stunning (there’s that word again).
After the gorge we drove off down the coast, stopping briefly at a postage-stamp park with a rare remnant of sand dune totara forest. The Mananui Bush Walk heads through this forest out to an enormous rock-strewn beach that we had all to ourselves, as far as the eye could see.
From here it was off to find some of those turquoise water-generating glaciers. And that, as they say, is a story for another day.
After stocking up on groceries, very expensive (but not top shelf) gin and vodka (and tonic and limes of course), and moderately expensive facial products, Jeff and I headed off for our first national park adventure on the South Island. After talking with numerous people, we decided to stay in Little Kaiteriteri, as the name says, a very small town (town is even too big a word for it), just to the south of the park. Found another nice motel here, Torlesse Motels with views to the Tasman Sea.
We arrived late in the day and scoped out options for taking a boat into the park the following day, then packed up a bag full of provisions, including our spendy gin and vodka, and headed to the small but stunning gold-sand beach less than five minutes from our place.
As mentioned before, we were in New Zealand during spring. The plus side: peonies were in bloom, so I got them twice in one year! The down side: the weather was really spotty. We seemed to be visiting places just before or after good weather, but rarely during warm, sunny days. So rather than the bright sun, sapphire water and golden sand experience, we had the cloudy/rain, multi-colored water, and golden sand experience. With some big waves thrown in for good measure.
We decided that despite the weather we would take the Sea Shuttle “Discovery Day” tour, which included a boat trip from Kaiteriteri (the town next to our spot, Little Kaiteriteri). The boat motored up the coast to Totaranui, dropping people off at different bays along the way. We headed out on relatively calm waters, and the sun peeked out enough to throw some low rainbows.
About a third of the way through the trip, winds came in and the sea got big. Our little boat was going up and down waves, into and out of troughs. All of which made Jeff very happy and me, thankfully, only a bit green.
After at least an hour (or so it felt) of tossing upon the waves, we were dropped off at Medlands Beach to walk 10.5 kilometers to Anchorage Beach where we would be met by the boat and returned to Kaiteriteri. The weather report had called for the rain to lift by mid-day, when our hike was to start. The weather did not check in with the weather report… Thankfully the boat operators had a disposable rain poncho. Aside from feeling a bit like a walking trash bag, I at least did not get soaked through. And thankfully we were not doing the entire Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of the “Great Walks” of New Zealand. This one stretches for 60 kilometers and takes three to five days to complete. The people we saw who were clearly walking that did not look overly happy.
Here is where the pictures take over. It was a stunning walk, and as the photos of Jeff and me show, we were certainly not suffering. Storyline continues in the photo captions…
And here some artsy shots; sea shells and burnt driftwood arranged on golden sands:
The next day, still a bit on the rainy side, we headed out to a small local park known as “Resurgence,” officially Kahurangi National Park. The north branch of the Riwaka River emerges from a network of caves under Tanaka Hill. The color of the water where it surfaces is mesmerizing. Unsurprisingly the area is sacred to the Maori. A thoroughly beautiful and peaceful spot, with an almost weighted silence to it. Almost as if you want to hold your breath the whole time you’re there.
The rest of our time here was spent walking back and forth over the rocks (tide in) and around the rocks (tide out), from Little Kaiteriteri to (big?) Kaiteriteri, alternately in search of flat whites and green-lipped mussels. Many New Zealanders come here to vacation annually. A thoroughly enjoyable spot, even better I’m sure when the sun shines bright.
Aspects of New Zealand I will remember the most clearly and for the longest time will likely be first the astounding natural beauty of the islands and second the remarkable (seemingly) genuine kindness of its people.
A key purpose of this trip was to seek out remarkable products made by remarkable people. New Zealand has some amazing design and certainly no end of wonderful people, but in contrast to other countries we visited, I did not find or stumble upon much of the type of product I had hoped to find. Nelson was the exception to this experience.
But picking back up chronologically, we left the North Island, sailed through the Marlborough Straits, and landed in Picton. It was just an overnight stop. Although we had the smallest wine pour of our entire trip, the rest of our dinner was delicious with a bowl of fresh green-lipped mussels and the most elegant garlic bread ever.
Our motel was unremarkable aside from this old radio on the wall. Sadly it didn’t work.
The next morning we picked up a decidedly not luxurious rental car (picture to follow in a later post). Jeff bravely took the first leg, driving us back to the motel. We had been worrying for months about driving on the “wrong side” of the road. A woman on one of our flights gave me the best advice, “steering wheel to the center of the road.” That became my driving mantra. That plus numerous signs along the roads, and an always-alert passenger, kept us safely on the left side of the road. I did a few laps of sleepy little Picton (actually found it harder to drive with little other traffic… you’re not likely to turn into the wrong lane if there’s a car sitting in it already facing you). Then screwed up my courage and we headed out on the Queen Charlotte Drive through the Marlborough Sounds towards our next stop, Nelson.
Our motel in Nelson was one of the nicest of the trips, Century Park Motor Lodge. Beautiful spacious room with an exceptionally nice host and hostess. And the best organized kitchen accessories drawer of the trip.
There was a boarding school next door that was knocking out Wi-Fi signals for a couple block radius. Apparently there was going to be a meeting about it the following day, but as the internet went in and out over our one-night stay, even though they warned us before check in (when we could have left if we so choose), they refunded us over 20% of the hotel cost the next morning (and emailed me several days later to let me know the problem had been fixed).
After wandering a bit together, Jeff and I decided this was a town for me to explore on my own, popping in and out of the numerous stores featuring local designs. Stores that stood out for me were Red Art Gallery, especially products by Dinosaur Designs such as useful yet quirky home accessories (though should mention they’re from Australia not New Zealand).
Also enjoyed the Little Beehive Coop. Owned and operated by local artisans, the store had everything from weaving to drawings to jewelry. I was especially drawn to jewelry by Marielle Estelle, especially the sea urchins (or kina as they’re called in New Zealand).
Perhaps what I most enjoyed in Nelson were the beauty products. New Zealand has a number of small (to larger) companies that produce high quality, natural face and body products (as I had been vainly searching for in France, and yes, both senses intended). I stopped into one natural products store, Bodywise www.bodywisenaturalhealth.co.nz where a calmly enthusiastic (yes, sounds like an oxymoron, but she was) naturopath named Bridget introduced me to the many lines they carry. Here are the ones I “met” there:
Living Nature: A fairly large range of face and body products. Claims to be “New Zealand’s original certified natural skincare company”. Was tempted by several products but did not buy any.
Antipodes: This line and Triology (which I originally mistook as being a UK company) seem to be the most sophisticated of the New Zealand natural brands. Beautiful packaging, especially the hand and body creams in jewel-toned metal tubes. Unfortunately I did not buy any of this line as it was very expensive. But as a brand that uses unique, local ingredients like the mamaku black fern and to research the best extractions (with no animal testing of course), it’s one I definitely want to watch.
plantæ: Made locally in Nelson, this is a smaller line of products, but seem to be very pure and intense. I did buy the Rose Hip Fruit + Seed Serum, which is the most concentrated rose oil I’ve ever used. They use the entire rose hip (apparently most rose oils only use the fruit, or the seed, I’m not clear on that…), resulting in what feels like the absolute essence of a rose in liquid format. Heaven.
The Herb Farm: A mother-daughter team, this line was the most attractive to me physically. Simple, clean design that somehow conveys a subliminal message that your skin will likewise be pure and elegant with these products (I’m a sucker for marketing). Their products are as natural and fresh as any of the others, but in addition they have a stated commitment to keeping their products affordable, and the prices were very reasonable, especially for the “natural” market. I left with a sampler line of their rose-based dry skin set. Love it, especially the powder exfoliate.
So, with slightly heavier bags and perhaps a more radiant face, we departed Nelson for our first national park, the smallest in New Zealand, considered the “sapphire”of the system, Abel Tasman National Park. More adventures await!
With luck on our side, we made it from the north tip of the North Island to its southern tip with plenty of time to get to our ferry and on to the primary focus of our New Zealand trip – the South Island.
I had read about this ferry crossing in several lists of “Top 50 Travel Destinations” or “The 100 Best Travel Moments” or, “25 Best Boat Trips” or… well, it’s on a lot of those.
The Marlborough Sounds are not fjords, but ancient river valleys that flooded with rising oceans. After crossing over on a blissfully calm sea, I would say that I agree with the inclusion of this venture on all these lists of fabulousness (Jeff says he would have preferred it with big waves, which happens some times).
There’s not a lot of words to describe this trip, mostly the pictures are what matters. I do want to send out a “thank you” to the sales agent from Crumplers in Perth who told us where to go on the ferry to have the best view (get first in line and make a beeline to the front of the ship, which happens to be the bar). We were almost the first on and did exactly as told, and got the best seats on the boat. Front and center (this being one of the few times that I had no desire to ‘upgrade’ as the luxury quarters were in the back of the boat with nearly no view).
Plus, we were in the bar, so it was just a quick trip over to pick up a spectacular glass of wine, for less than $7. I had two.
Lots of good people watching and fantastic scenery. All in all a wonderful couple of hours on the Aratere, and the perfect arrival to the South Island.
As of the last post, Jeff and I had arrived in Auckland after a beautiful train trip up the center of the North Island. In one of those rare moments of great timing, our late arrival by train (given the electrical problems) resulted in an upgrade to a club level room, so we got to be posh and comfortable for a night at the Langham Hotel.
So wonderful was this room and the hotel spa (sauna and an ice pagoda thing…), and so late was our arrival, that it was an easy decision to postpone our 7:30 am departure for a more sane sounding 1 pm one. Prying ourselves away from luxury, we rolled our carryon bags down a steep hill to the Intercity bus terminal and settled in for a sinuous drive to the Bay of Islands.
We had a choice of staying in the more party town setting of Paihia or the more laid back, sleepy town of Russell. No contest there, so we hopped onto a ferry within 10 minutes of getting to Paihia and zipped over to Russell.
The weather was cooler and wetter than we had hoped (a pattern that unfortunately repeated, guess that’s the risk of traveling off season…). But we stayed at the sweet Motel Russell with plenty of space (and a very kind hostess who drove us to the ferry as we departed in the pouring rain) and managed to eat and drink well and get in some good walks.
The highlight was an afternoon boat trip around the islands. The area is rumored to have more than 140 islands, so claimed by Captain Cook upon his visit in 1769. No one has actually counted that many since (we learned that to be called an island, a body of land has to have some surface area permanently above high tide and contain some form of vegetation). But that doesn’t detract from the beauty of this bay filled with water of all colors and at least 80 islands if not more. We took the Great Sights fast boat tour in the afternoon (maybe we should have gone to the party town after all…). Cruised around some beautiful islands, learned some history, got to hike to a lookout where the resident Maori took Captain Cook on his arrival, and learned perhaps my favorite bit of information of the whole New Zealand trip – the Bay of Islands has wild rock oysters that are safe to eat and anyone can gather. This knowledge vastly improved my day, and perhaps the trip as a whole.
For more than ten years at least, I have wanted to wade into the ocean and pull out fresh oysters (yes, we’re talking about oysters again…) to eat there and then. Fresh oysters on the docks in Normandy was amazing. But wading in and eating them immediately, that’s something else entirely. Upon our return to Russell, I asked our guide where I could find rock oysters nearby. He pointed to an outcropping just around the bay and told me all I needed was a butter knife and I’d be good to go. So Jeff and I dropped our things at our motel, grabbed one dull and one sharp(ish) knife, and headed back to the bay, going as fast as I could make us.
Luckily the tide was out just far enough to let me wade right up to the rocks, but rising so that Jeff didn’t have to eventually leave me there with a flashlight as I might well have stayed and eaten oysters all night.
This was my heaven. The oysters were phenomenal. Sweet, salty, firm, small, delightful. I honestly didn’t even mind the lack of a crisp white wine. A nice couple from Australia stopped by at one point and I shared a few with them. Some terns also wanted to share in the feast, but they were a bit scary. Then along came a pair of ducks who seemingly are above terns in the pecking order, as the terns all took off. In exchange for this service, I did share some oysters with the ducks. All in all an amazing hour or so standing in the bay, trying to pry loose, then open, these fabulous oysters. I would say that next time, a pair of thick gloves would not hurt…
(photo credits, Jeff Baumgartner)
The next day it was time to depart and start our voyage towards the South Island. We spent a quick night in rainy Whangarei. Nothing much to report from there except perhaps one of the best Thai meals I’ve ever eaten at Suk Jai Thai. A flight from the teeny airport at Whangarei took us to Auckland where we had to dash, cut in line, and dash some more to get to our flight to Wellington. They were calling last boarding, but as it turns out they still had a line a mile long to get on the plane. I tend to worry too much about logistics and this was one of those times I could have slowed down a bit. Most notable on this flight were the strikingly beautiful flight attendants and the only safety video I’ve actually watched in years of flying. Air New Zealand got the All Blacks rugby team to do the safety video (they are absolute national heroes and recent winners, yet again, of the Rugby World Cup). If you’re really bored, like stuck on a plane bored, you can watch it here.
Why back to Wellington and not fly directly to the South Island? Only one reason: to sail through the Marlborough Straights. Next post, a beautiful ride south to the land of green lipped oysters and unreasonably beautiful countryside.
New Zealand, on fantasy destination list since before Sir Peter Jackson demonstrated to the world that he knew exactly where on this earth JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings could be found (but to be honest, those movies sealed the deal on just how magical these islands are) (and yes, I believe the New Zealand tourism agency requires any blog written about NZ travel to start with a reference to that empire). We did not do any specific LOR tours (there are plenty), nor did we choose our destinations based on specific scenes (though that might not be a bad way to go). I believe we did see some of the locations that were in the film, that is, when the weather allowed… We went to the jeweler who made ‘the ring’ (did not buy anything, found an even better ring on the beach outside that town, on my finger now).
And somehow, New Zealand has flown by without finding time to post. Mostly that’s a good sign. It is a thoroughly engaging place. Food, coffee, people, ‘stuff’, scenery… There were certainly down times, but rather than hunkering down and processing photos and writing (hopefully) witty posts, I seem to have spent those times ineffectively railing against the weather gods, a pastime my sister very wisely pointed out is entirely useless. Note made to self, next time be sure to make appropriate sacrifices to those gods before making travel plans.
So on the morning of our (hopeful) departure from New Zealand, here begins an attempt to capture the rich variety of experiences had over the last three weeks. Will split this up into several posts, mostly chronologically.
As I contemplate our departure, reminded of our arrival. We were way back in coach on our way to Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. Being Virgin Australia coach, it was hardly the nightmare that United can be. Nice soothing purple light, enough space for a normal human being, friendly flight attendants.
And as the perfect introduction to the country, we were sat behind an absolutely hilarious and super friendly family. I forget exactly how we started talking, think the little girl was staring at me and we started chatting. The parents had both worked in the travel industry and gave us recommendations of ‘out of the way’ things to do around the country. And then the kids (about 8 and 10 I think, boy and girl) proudly told us that their father was the executive chef at one of the upscale restaurants in Wellington. This earned us an invite to come by the restaurant and try out some steak, their specialty (and no I won’t make a joke about that). They also told us, very proudly, that Wellington had just been recognized as the windiest city in the world, edging out Chicago. I think that’s the definition of dubious honor. When I asked the parents where to find a good flat white in town, they told me that everywhere in Wellington has good coffee, it’s definitely a ‘thing’ there now.
So we arrived after midnight.
By the way, France, take note. Right in the tiny arrivals hall, at midnight, was a friendly representative of Vodafone who set me up in next-to-no-time with a prepaid SIM card. That night included we only spent two nights in Wellington, so some brief outtakes. I did not know that there were hotels with rooms with no windows. There are. I am super claustrophobic, so upon checking in at 1 am, I promptly popped back downstairs to reception and learned unfortunately that the hotel was entirely full. The kindly clerk pulled I don’t know how many strings to get us moved into a window room the following day. So we went from no windows (at least the morning light didn’t wake us…), to a room with a wall entirely made of window. Here’s me celebrating.
It was windy, a bit rainy, and not overly nice when we took off walking the next day. But being New Zealand, there were several hearty people swimming in the bay (look for little dots behind Jeff).
We visited the amazing Te Papa Tongarewa museum. Perfect introduction to New Zealand covering its arts, geography, geology, cultural history, etc. High quality exhibitions, beautiful space. We needed more than a day there. With our brains chock full, we recovered a bit, lounging in our enormous window. Then it was off to meet our new friend from the incoming flight for a steak dinner at his restaurant, easy name to remember, Portlander Bar and Grill. I wasn’t expecting much steak in New Zealand. Lamb yes, and green lipped mussels (both of which we enjoyed multiple times). But there is quite a bit of really high quality beef. The steak we had at the Portlander was far and away the best. Plus we had our first whitebait appetizer. It’s whitebait season (as far as I can tell, whitebait is smelt). They cook them as in an omelet and serve on white bread with lemon and salt. Tasty.
Our itinerary had us mostly traveling in the south island (even people who live on the north island will agree the south is the most beautiful), so to see a bit more of the north island in a short time, we decided to take a train trip up the middle. Kiwi Scenic Rail runs trains several times a week, so we headed out on Friday morning on a nearly 12 hour journey up the island. Amazing scenery and super friendly staff (honestly, just about everyone who works in the travel industry here has been super friendly, it’s a bit odd). The rest of the pictures tell the story. The generator cut out about a third or half way through the trip, so it got a bit warm and we could no longer listen to the interesting commentary or watch our status on the overhead screens, but it seemed the best place to be was back on the observation car anyhow, so it was not too big an issue. Plus they gave out free ice cream, yogurt and drinks as they couldn’t keep them cold. If anyone is planning a trip to New Zealand, I strongly recommend taking this train ride, with or without electricity.
From Singapore our exploration of travel in the front half of the plane continued with business class flights on Thai Airways (or in their lingo, Royal Silk Class. Highlights… got to check in in a fancy little room at the Singapore airport and go right through a ‘dedicated’ security check, so much quicker. We were on a 777 to Bangkok that while certainly comfortable, was a very odd design. The seats were of some sort of molded plastic. Maybe they were going for a streamlined look, but the configuration meant that there was no seat storage, odd design choice.
Once at the Bangkok airport we got to visit the Royal Orchid Spa and got a fantastic 30-minute foot massage. The next leg, from Bangkok to Perth, was in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Another plane I’d wanted to try. This design was much nicer, and had at-seat storage, so not everything had to go in the overhead bins. All in all a super way to travel with great food and service.
This then landed us in Perth at about 7 am, well before our check in at our second Airbnb of the voyage. I got a very decent coffee at an airport kiosk and we sat down and got online (as opposed to many airports, the Australian and New Zealand ones let you get online without having to give your blood type, four last known addresses, etc…. ok a bit of an exaggeration, but hopefully ‘free’ Wi-Fi providers will learn soon that filling out all those fields on a mobile phone is very frustrating, and with no check on accuracy, what’s the point). All was going well until the building crew came in, seemingly right above our heads. So we moved on to the next terminal, figured out how to get into town, and went to a fantastic café where I got my first truly good coffee in months at Daphne. Owned by a couple who also curate shows by local artists. Australia and New Zealand are thankfully “into” coffee, kind of like parts of the US. Local roasters, well and ethically sourced beans, quality espresso machines and trained baristas. From there we again were lucky to check in early and get a chance to clean up and refresh.
Australia is enormous, nearly the same size as the US. And Western Australia, WA, (not Washington, which I kept seeing when I saw it written) is huge. About a third or Australia’s total land mass, and about the same size as all of Western Europe. We saw the equivalent of a pinpoint, but it was a good taste of Australia. Highlights of our drive by:
Jacaranda trees. Fragrant, purple trees all over town. We got there perhaps just after their peak, but most trees still had many blooms, and they were everywhere. Big purple trees are not anything I’m used to seeing. Loved them.
Flat whites. I love France and their food is amazing. But not their coffee. After a month of very so-so coffee, was great to get back to snobby coffee. Plus, Australians have a drink called a flat white. I first tried this in London and loved it. Looked it up and basically it’s similar to a latte but with higher proportion of espresso to milk, plus the milk if done right is slightly foamy all over. I always think lattes are too milky, and cappuccinos are impossible for most people to make well. The flat white is my Goldilocks “just right” coffee drink. While Daphne had great drinks, they had no Wi-Fi, which is not great for blogging or travel planning. Luckily even closer to our rental was Get Ya Fix a friendly, coffee/bicycle shop. Great drinks, relaxed, interesting owners, good people watching, slick-looking bicycles, etc. This was my morning spot.
Indian Ocean. Not only did this visit to Australia add a continent to my travel list, it also added an ocean I’ve now played in. I wouldn’t say swam in because the waves dominated the action, and mostly it was just jumping around in them. We had lunch (yes, with local oysters) in Freemantle, interesting historic town, looking out over the ocean. Not part of the ocean, but if anyone goes to Freemantle, the Freemantle Arts Centre is definitely worth a visit. After lunch and browsing through a great Aboriginal art gallery, Japingka, we took the train up to Cottesloe (fun to say) and jumped in the ocean, then sat on the terraced grass banks just above the beach. (Note that the art pieces were displayed in the Freemantle Arts Centre. One by Poppy van Oorder-Grainger the other by Colin Story.)
Feeling right at home… Perhaps part of what I liked (and simultaneously did not like) were all the similarities between Portland and Perth. Obviously the coffee culture. But more than enjoying and doing coffee well, the cafes themselves had a very similar style to those in Portland. I could easily have been in a café back home (though better because I could get a flat white and the accent is fun). Kings Park is considered one of the world’s largest inner city parks. Boasted in the same way as Portland’s Forest Park (though Kings Park has an amazing botanic garden and more infrastructure).
The weekend we were there coincided with Open House Perth an annual event to showcase local design. While Portland is not part of this international group of open houses, it has a similar open studio event every year. Which brings out the similarity of both cities having a strong youth culture with a focus on design, creativity, cuisine and outdoor pursuits. That plus looking at the wine menu in any restaurant, had to keep reminding ourselves that the “WA” after the name of the wine meant it was from Western Australia not “Washington State, but it made the menus look very familiar! Oh, and hipsters, lots and lots of hipsters…
And now, the “finds”.
First up in Australia was finding a new backpack. The Adidas bag I took from Portland was never intended for New Zealand hiking (or tramping as they say), plus it had already started to fall apart weeks back in France. So we visited a number of outdoor stores. I now have a granny smith apple green waxed canvas backpack made by Wilderness Equipment. Perfect for now and it will make a great bag back home as well. Looked at another Australia brand, Crumpler. Some tempting bags but the other won out. I do completely approve of Crumpler’s tag line…
The other benefit of looking for a backpack in Perth was that, seemingly, all outdoor stores are staffed by Kiwis (New Zealanders, after the bird not the fruit). So we got a number of great recommendations of places to visit, and even books to read. The Luminaries is on iPad now courtesy of the Multnomah County Library.
As mentioned earlier, Perth has a strong youth and design culture. That definitely translates into some interesting products and shops. Some design is already past the “I just found this great new designer” stage, such as the brother and sister clothing line of Alpha60 (but look at these great clothes).
Others are a bit ‘smaller’ scale. Generics is a brand by designer Lisa Chau. Some fun clothes (if I were 20 years younger…) and a pure, clean line of body products.
A bit outside the downtown area, the store Arrival Hall jumped out at me when I read about them. Described as a garage turned into a store to house the beautiful design products found on Lisa and Clem’s travels, how could I miss it? The store is a beautiful space with some sleek, attractive home design objects. Enjoyed a conversation with Lisa. Their business is nine months old so we talked about starting a business inspired by love of travel and beautiful objects. She had some great advice and lots of encouragement. Much appreciated at that time as I was going through many questions and doubts about this venture, whether it made any sense, whether too many other people had already ‘done it’, etc. Found some new inspiration to keep exploring.
Final word from Australia comes from our couple of hours spent transiting the Brisbane airport. It wasn’t the arrivals lounge, more the departure, but more airports should look like this…
More of a stopover than a full destination, nevertheless visiting Singapore was a much-anticipated destination for me. For years I’ve had in mind wanting to see one of the rapidly growing, mega Asian cities. Perhaps spurred by movies like Blade Runner along with all the sci fi and apocalyptic fiction I’ve read of late. Not a great setup I know, but trust me it’s a place I was really interested in seeing.
Another motivation was all the ‘street’ food available there. Have read for years in travel magazines about the hawker centers (open air grouping of food stalls selling quick, inexpensive food). Then watched too many Anthony Bourdain episodes set in Singapore and throughout Asia where he slurped down delicious looking noodles, rice, etc.
So yes, a combination of anthropological interest in super modern cities and food craving drove me to Singapore.
We arrived at about 7 am from Frankfurt. As noted on my last post, I don’t believe I slept for even 5 minutes, so started our quick trip in a very floatey state of being. That feeling of having been at sea for a few months and not having your sea legs.
First pleasant surprise came upon check in. I’ve booked countless hotels for this trip and they all seem to blend into one another. Somehow I remembered booking a very basic place for Singapore, so had no expectation of anywhere nice, even though the word “spa” was in the hotel title. Words are easy…
Thankfully I had completely misremembered (aided by the fact that we got a great price). We arrived at the One Farrer Hotel & Spa by about 8 am, well before 2 pm check in. Expecting nothing but hoping for an available room, we were first disappointed. The very nice clerk, in a shirt with really great buttons (white with multi-colored stripes), kindly informed us the only room ready had twin beds, which wasn’t going to work. I went off to the bathroom to change and Jeff prepared to have our bags checked while we went off to find some hawker food. By the time I got back, Jeff had worked a miracle and got us both a room upgrade and an immediate check in.
We unpacked and cleaned up a bit, then headed out to explore the city and attempt to stay awake. Singapore is not exactly laid out on a grid, and we managed to turn ourselves around several times in our short outing in Little India. We wanted to find the Muftasa Center (huge department store with everything under the sun) and get some food. Managed despite ourselves to find the center and found a great little open air restaurant that had fresh juices and “kopi” and “tei”. Took me a while to figure this all out, but basically, I think, “kopi” is coffee. Drank a lot of that in our three days here. Also had an egg roti, a yummy egg and bread snack. Then tired and a bit snappy both of us, we decided to head back to the room and take a nap. Could have knocked us out for the day, and it was incredibly hard to get up after a couple of hours, but did a world of good.
So began our pattern for the next couple of days. We headed out to a hawker center, ate some good food then wandered around with some destinations moderately in mind.
Our first afternoon we circled the central business district waterfront area. Here absolutely was my big, futuristic city.
With very expensive oysters (good thing I had a lot in France, that’s about $78 for a dozen).
Made our way across the DNA Bridge to the top of the ‘ship’ building (looks like a big boat on top of three massive towers). Drank a tasty if spendy rum drink and enjoyed the views 57 stories high.
From there ended up on a much, much longer walk than expected to get to another hawker center, East Coast Lagoon (maps don’t always convey distance well). But the chili crab was worth the journey (sadly Jeff isn’t a crab fan, so ‘suffered’ a bit more than me…).
Next day got off to an understandably late start. I slipped down to the pool for a short bit then we ate chicken congee in our room. We took off again into Little India, festive in the preparations for Diwali and found a recommended biryani place for lunch (yes, we basically ate the whole time we were here…).
Wandered through some markets and shops, and then went to the botanic gardens. The place is enormous, with some beautiful and interesting displays (sadly the toxic plants section of the medicinal plant display was closed…). The highlight was the orchid garden.
Ended up too tired and footsore this night to trek out to any of the recommended hawker centers so followed the masses to a food center at the bottom of a huge shopping mall. Had some good if not spectacular noodles. Seemed to me there was a higher local to tourist ratio here than at any of the hawker centers we visited.
Had a harder time in Singapore than expected finding interesting local artisans. This is not to say Singapore doesn’t have them, as I know there is some amazing design coming out of this area. But it wasn’t until the last day, when we had to be at the airport by 4 pm, that I started to put together where to best search. I found two stores that curate (mostly) local designers and saw some beautiful products. Threadbare and Squirrel carry the line Emblem for example. Colorful shoes that are unbelievably light. Would probably go perfectly with some of Silke’s French bathing suits. The General Company curates a number of local and regional brands with great design taste. Along with a great coffee shop. Next time in Singapore, I will make it to Haji Lane and Arab Street. Plus a few more hawker centers…
For now it was off to the airport and a series of flights on Thai Airways that would lead us to four days in Perth, Australia. Or was it that we were back in Portland? So many similarities. Stay tuned.
Several years ago I asked a glamorous and fun-living friend from Portland if she had any recommendations of the best luxurious places to stay in France. She immediately wrote back to say, La Chèvre d’Or (The Golden Goat) in Eze-Le-Village. I think the words “fairy tale” and “magical” were used as well. From that time I’d look periodically at their website and dream of how I could get there.
Once we decided to make this journey, I started to check their site and others to see if we could make it work to stay there, oh, and eat in their two star Michelin restaurant (my first Michelin starred experience). Fortunately found an autumn package that made it all seem within reach.
So we headed out of Lagrasse and drove back across the south of France (not the best planning, but the decision to go to Languedoc-Roussillon was a late one). From Nice we went through winding roads and past pumpkin-headed stilt walkers (it was Halloween, which it seems France is adopting) to get to the gates of the hotel. As we arrived early they deposited us on a magnificent balcony overlooking the Mediterranean with a refreshing cranberry spritzy something drink. Shortly thereafter we were taken to our two-story room with our own private little balcony overlooking, of course, the Mediterranean.
Pretty much everything about our experience at the hotel was fantastic. Met and/or exceeded all my expectations. An extra bonus was the sauna they had recently installed right at the edge of a cliff, with a glass front overlooking the ocean. I love saunas and have been missing my sauna sessions with Amalie and Holly at the gym in Portland. So this was an absolute treat. Both nights we went at sunset, watching the sun dip across a low range jutting into the Mediterranean.
Friday night was the highlight. We had an 8 pm reservation for the chefs “menu” at their two star Michelin restaurant (yes I’m gratuitously repeating that). Our table (yep, overlooking the Mediterranean, though it was dark out so only saw the lights) had two chairs and a low stool. To my inquiring glance the waiter informed me it was a “sofa” for my purse. I now always want a seat especially for my purse, brilliant.
The menu (see image) was a six-course dinner starting with an enormous glass of champagne. It even included an oyster from Brittany… We had been handed the a la carte menu first in error (the dinner was part of our hotel package and was a set menu), but as it turns out, our dinner included everything we would have chosen anyhow. And this way no tough decisions required. Our very friendly and extremely knowledgeable sommelier selected out a delicious local white for the initial courses and a powerful Syrah for the venison course. It went well with the many, many cheeses I selected from the cheese trolley (I though it was a plate for me and Jeff together, but was apparently just for me, oops, but delicious, every bite!). We snapped a very few photos at the end on the iPhone and much as I wish we had pictures of all the courses, it just did not seem right to disturb my purse/wallet on its sofa to take out the phone and start snapping shots. Suffice it to say that this (early) birthday dinner was perhaps the best ever, and not one I will ever forget. Oh, and after dinner, a bit too full to go to bed, we wandered up into the medieval village, walking by the light of the moon. We even waltzed a bit.
When we finally woke up Saturday morning we went down the hill into the lower part of Eze-Le-Village. It was market day and although it was a rather small one, perhaps 15 vendors in all, made two wonderful finds. First was a gentleman from Nice, M. Dominique, who works with enamel and various metals to make a wide range of jewelry. His enamel designs are all brightly colored. His metal-on-metal designs had a restrained beauty. Next was Silke of Flowers Sea & Sun. Her stall had scarves, from brightly patterned cotton scarves to softer-than-soft wool/cashmere poncho-like scarves. Also jewelry and photos mounted on wood (images from the region). She used to have a store in xx and designs her own shirts and bathing suits. My sister talks about a French bikini she had as a teen and how perfectly crafted it was. I think I’ll have to head back in the summer to try some bathing suits!
After the market we toured a fragrance museum, with some fantastic old bottles/labels and copper distilling equipment. Then it was off to the grocery store to pick up some bread, wine, etc. so we could do a picnic dinner on our balcony (there was no topping the dinner the night before, though as a last picnic in France, this one was wonderful).
After our tour of the market and perfumery we spent a lazy afternoon swimming in the pool and sitting on some of the many terraces snaking along the hill (the property is built into a hill descending towards the ocean). I worked on a blog post from a lounge pod I’d love to have as my normal office. We also made friends with one of the resident cats. I think he liked my shirt…
One of the best parts was the staff. Everyone was very professional and helpful, but never stiff or overly formal.
Though we would have stayed forever, we departed shortly after the sunrise (and it put on a show for our last morning).
Further consolation was that our next step continued the luxury (well, that is after a not-at-all luxurious and delayed flight to Frankfurt and stay at a basic but clean Ibis hotel).
In case it’s not already obvious from these posts, and the whole premise of this site, I’m a big fan of travel. Nearly all our flights on this journey have been booked with miles, and having read so much about them, I was hoping to redeem some of our miles for business or even first class travel on Singapore Air. The absolute bonus was to get two seats in the A380 Suites, but in my research I learned that they (almost) never release two suites at the saver level (lowest number of points) on the same flight. In the month leading up to our trip I checked daily to see if any seats were open from any European city within a week of my desired dates (some sites will check reward seats for you, but of course United and Singapore will not open their systems to those sites so you have to check manually). Nothing, nothing, nothing kept coming up, even in business class. Then late one night, sick with a head cold and traveling with my mother in southern Oregon, while sitting on a bed in a perfectly adequate though decidedly not luxurious motel in smoky Ashland (during the forest fires), there they were. Two suites out of Frankfurt. Just a day after the miles we had transferred from our Chase credit cards hit our Singapore accounts. A bit afraid it was just a fluke and the booking wouldn’t work, I kept clicking on “Next,” made it through the booking process, then did a happy dance. The best part, the flight left on my birthday.
Briefly, it was wonderful. I’ve never before flown first class and it is indeed a totally different experience from the torture seats I usually fly internationally. It started with a glass of Dom Perignon.
After selling hundreds of bottles of the stuff in my previous job, this was the first time I ever tasted it. Mostly I just drank that throughout the flight (they let me taste test the Krug, but it had too much of a fruity finish for me). I wouldn’t say the Dom spoiled me for other champagnes (as first class has definitely spoiled me for economy), but I was far from disappointed either.
At my count we were eight people in first, and for that we had I think five incredibly professional, friendly, helpful and all-around great flight attendants. In addition to keeping the champagne glass full, they answered any questions, provided a great list of sites/restaurants/etc. to see in Singapore, and basically kept us fed and happy. Our suites were essentially pods with a large TV screen, big comfortable seat, table, lots of little storage spots, and the whole thing could become a bed upon request. Jeff and I had pods right next to one another. The flight was overnight, and actually I “lost” seven hours of my birthday flying east, but most of those 17 hours were amazing. I don’t think I slept at all; didn’t want to miss any of it.
Towards the end of the flight, I came back to the suite to find a birthday cake and two little bears (and more champagne…).
All in all, the end of France and launch into the Asia-Pacific leg of our journey was incredibly special. Next up, three sleepy days in Singapore.
From Provence we drove west, towards the Languedoc-Roussillon region and our base for the next eight nights, Lagrasse. And west it felt… the wind was blowing fiercely along the A61 (highway), kind of like it can in Colorado and Wyoming (for those who do not know, I was born in Idaho, but moved to northern Colorado at 1 ½ and lived there for most of my life). Then we turned off down the D212 and into the L’Orbieu river valley. The dry vegetation, the gentle gradient of the hills, the coloring all increased the association with Colorado/Wyoming. Then a tumbleweed blew across the road and sealed the deal. Thank goodness for all the vineyards and stunning stone homes and distant ruins or I would have been completely confused.
In all seriousness, this region is stunning. I can’t believe I never got to this part of France before. Elements of the landscape bear a strong resemblance to parts of the arid West I love dearly. But here it includes endless vineyards, stunning in their fall colors. And ancient abbeys. The Abbey de Lagrasse, visible from our apartment, dates from the 8th century with stones laid by Charlemagne. And ruins of Cathar castles atop mountainsides (really, atop them; provisioning them must have been hard enough let alone build them). Oh, and coastline with oysters… So kind of like Colorado, only better in some wonderful ways.
Here as in Provence we rented an apartment for about a week, the Riverside Gite. Also as in Provence, we rented in an old stone building near a river; this one backed right to the Orbieu. Actually a really old stone building, with the back wall dating to the 14th century. And a view down the river to a bridge built in 1303.
A few highlights from the week:
Another town included in the listing of “The Most Beautiful Villages of France” that is highly deserving of the praise. The view coming into town is stunning, especially with the fall colors (abbey, river, bridges, old stone buildings, winding streets…). The town is fairly central to sights throughout the region, especially the Corbières. Though all roads in and out were windy and some very narrow; never boring driving.
The town has about seven restaurants, though the summer season being over, only about three were open. A couple of small groceries, a wine store with mostly natural wines, an old market place (outside our door) with a Saturday market with great local vendors, and literally right outside our door, two designers with their own stores and several other artisans throughout the town.
The ground floor of our building houses a store run by a husband and wife who do jewelry (she) and made-to-measure clothing (he), some with vintage couture fabrics. EPPO. Next door (and the first place I stepped into when we were totally lost looking for our apartment) is Beverly Smart. Instantly knew I had to return there. As Jeff would tell you I did, several times. Got a lot of great tips about the region from her. And about how to bake a round of Mont D’Or cheese in the oven (poke holes in it, insert slivers of garlic, pour white wine over the whole thing and bake for about 20 minutes). That made an amazing dinner with potatoes and bread to sop up the cheese. Beverly’s store is a beautiful, calm space. All white walls with clothes she designs and makes and jewelry she finds and/or creates in collaboration with female artisans in South Africa (a venture that started when she went to visit a friend, found amazing artisans there and wanted to work with them, so kept going back, sound familiar???). Beverly is quite tall and always made clothes for herself. Her designs are all clothes you would want to wear about anywhere, anytime. Somehow elegant and structured, yet at the same time casual and easy. I’m typing this all in a long-sleeve cape-like wrap top. Hard to describe and hard to take off. She left a high-stress job in her late 20s following a gut instinct to move to France (to Lagrasse) and ultimately found this work. A good sign such bold moves can work out.
My favorite winery? The one next to the car park near our apartment, Domaine Durand. Small garage where a father and son make easy-to-drink, spicy yet light red wines. Made for some good drinking and was fun to say hi to father and son as we saw them around town that week. Close second was the cooperative in Camplong.
If you had asked me before about the Cathars, I would have said “Oh yes, I know about them.” If asked to provide any details… We were right in the heart of Cathar country in the Corbières, so a quick trip to Wikipedia, several other sites, and a book in the lobby of our building helped fill in the history. For more information, see Cathar Wiki and Cathar Castles (to see the book go to Lagrasse…). In very brief terms, Catharism was a branch of Christianity that did not follow the Catholic Church and was the subject of the Church’s first crusade against fellow Catholics. From the 13th through the 14th centuries the Catholic Church decimated all those following the religion, thought to be tolerant of those following the religion, etc. etc. And as the Church and political rule was intimately tied together, the wars extended to issues between France and the then separate “Pays D’Oc”.
Today there stand many ruins of Cathar castles, strongholds atop mountains. We visited two, Peyrepetruse and Quéribus. Absolutely stunning and a bit magical. We visited on foggy days, and with the clouds swirling in and amongst the ruins, you could almost imagine being there in any century.
We made two daytrips to the Mediterranean. The first day was a walk between Leucate Plage and La Franqui, along the bluffs overlooking the sea. Once in La Franqui we had an amazing lunch. We learned you could do the set menus with one person getting an entrée (appetizer) and main dish and the other getting a main dish and a desert, an effort to reduce our gluttony a bit. Here we shared and entrée of mussels with butternut squash ‘fries’, followed by steak for Jeff and white fish in a crab bisque sauce for me, and a molten chocolate cake with caramel center for desert. Paired with excellent local wines. We then walked a bit in the ocean, then put our shoes back on for the return to Leucate and a visit to, hooray, the oyster shacks. Had a dozen on site plus another dozen to take home. Two dozen oysters plus wine for 15 euros… These were good, firm and salty (but I’m still a Normandy oyster gal). And yes, this day was as good as it sounds.
The next beach foray was to Collioure, close to the border with Spain. A quintessential seaside town with brightly colored buildings rising up from the harbors, an old fort/castle, plenty of ice cream, and anchovy processors. Fauvism started here, inspired by the light. Plaques around town show where Matisse and Derain painted. Here another delicious lunch, highlight was a seafood risotto for me and smoky, spicy chorizo risotto for Jeff. Couldn’t resist picking up seashells, rocks and sea glass, but in an effort to keep our load lighter, just took a picture and threw them back at the ocean.
Day one in the region we visited Carcassonne, a “new” city and an “old” city, the Cité de Carcassonne, a medieval fortress restored in the 1850s. Wandered all over the old city, including around the fortress walls. Never would a tourist site in the US allow people to be up on such unprotected edges. Was fantastic. In the “new” city had lunch at a café in the town center, which it turns out is a well-known and loved place, Chez Félix. Then walked along the Canal du Midi and to the art museum. Check out this man’s shoes.
And in Carcassonne finally found my local beauty product! Walking towards the castle noticed a little shop done up in pale blues. Turns out this blue coloring was made from the woad or pastel plant (scientific name Isatis Tinctoria). Toulouse was famous for production of pastel, exporting “cocagne”, little balls of dried pastel. Production declined in the 1800s and was recently revived. The plant has a long history of cosmetic and medical uses and “Graine de Pastel” has created a line of face and body products, soaps and so much more. As I was about to celebrate a birthday, I bought a few items from the ‘anti-aging’ line. Will see how it does! The store clerk patiently explained all about the history, product and company, answering my many questions. She was obviously a devoted fan (has worked for the company for over four years), and told me they have just started a push to open more stores in France and abroad. So if anyone is interested in opening an outlet, let them know!
Finally, we made a day trip to Albi, home of Toulouse-Lautrec. This is technically part of the Midi-Pyrénées and is undoubtedly a beautiful city. Unlike the other areas we visited, Albi was built primarily with brick, so it has a very different look and feel. We had an amazing lunch at L’Epicurien, a restaurant recommended by a friend. Three courses starting with lentils and salami, followed by white fish on potatoes with an herbed ‘foam’ sauce, followed by three small cream puffs. Amazing.
After lunch we toured the massive cathedral of Sainte-Cécile. A truly beautiful ceiling and interesting feature in the middle. A highly ornate gate across the middle of the church. Apparently all/most cathedrals had this. Had to keep the commoners on one side and the nobility on another. Did not learn a lot of endearing historical facts about the Church on this trip…
From here we walked across the square and waited for the Toulouse-Lautrec museum to reopen (nearly everything closes for lunch). Housed in the Palais de la Berbie (palace built by the bishops of Albi), it is the largest collection of Toulouse-Lautrec works. I have long been a fan of his works. Too much has been written about his work to add much here, but in a nutshell, for me he captures the anguish and despair of life, while somehow conveying its beauty and wonder. And he does so with such a restrained elegance. A single line, a small sweep of color, and a world of emotion is conveyed. The beauty continued with a walk to the river Tarn. The light was magical, with stunning reflections of the bridges.
There’s so very much more to share about this region and our short time there, but if I don’t stop here this will never go online. But just for the heck of it, here are photos of fabulous mustard in a little to go package, our cassoulet, and perhaps my favorite French food, fromage blanc.
Provence, just saying the word makes me relax a bit and dream of “the good life”. Countless movies, glasses of rosé wine, and lavender products have probably contributed to that. And the area did not disappoint (though as noted before we missed the lavender fields by a couple of months… one reason among many to return). We were based for a week in the Luberon, perhaps the heart of, and certainly the most well known part of Provence. This is where the movie A Good Year was set and the region about which Peter Mayle wrote.
How to sum up a week there? Every day could be a full blog post, though every day was so full time slipped away for writing here. So here is an overview by recurring themes. Three come to mind: village markets, hill towns, and of course, treasures.
Nearly every town has a market day and we managed to visit at least three – Lourmarin, Apt, and L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. They all feature fabulous food, artisanal products, clothing and more. The one in Lourmarin seemed most geared to tourists (it’s a fantastically beautiful town with an old castle, so it is a top destination in the Luberon). The one in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue had everything other towns have, plus numerous antique stalls as the town is filled with amazing antique stores. The one in Apt was the most “real.” Luckily for us we arrived on a Thursday night in Apt, and with its market day on Saturday, we were able to ‘shop like locals’ to provision our apartment.
Quick aside – this is our apartment in Apt.
I was confused while looking for places, not sure why there were so many apartments, abbreviation “apt” in this one region. Finally figured out there’s a town named Apt. Aha. Decided that although it is not the most charming town in the Luberuon, it looked nice enough and that being based in a slightly larger town/very small city could work well. Plus the place seemed perfect, La Madone. An independent apartment, but within a larger house with local hosts. So we could make meals, have a bit of space, but not be fully on our own to navigate the ins and outs of a rental. Plus every morning the owner Natalie comes to the door and hangs a linen bag filled with chocolate croissant, butter croissant and half baguette. Absolutely spoiled.
Back to the market. All but one photo come from Apt. Special note about the paté from Maison Border. Simply delicious products, all made by Olivier, the grandson of the founder. The four tins we bought served us well for several dinners in the weeks to come. One photo from L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue of what… oysters of course. The vendor clearly thought I was crazy, but he shucked half a dozen oysters from near Marseille, and the kind vegetable vendor next door threw over a lemon (bought some of the best plums I’ve ever tasted from him after).
Beyond its fame as an epicenter of the ‘good life’, the Luberon is famous for its hill towns. This region (as with so many around the world) was subject to regular warfare. I’m not an expert in the many wars that swept across what is now France, but throughout the centuries, those in power built castles and populations settled in walled towns. In the Luberon, hills abound and many of these towns were built upon hilltops. In the last centuries many fell into ruin. Today the Luberon features these towns in all states, from nearly full restoration to still in decay. We visited numerous little towns: Gordes, Rousillon, Ménerbes, Bonnieux, St-Saturin-les-Apt, Lacoste, Oppede-le-Vieux, Goult. Many of these are registered in the association of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”. Never tired of them. Beautiful stones, plants, houses, settings, cafés and on and on. Again, the pictures speak loudest.
Some highlights. Locals all directed us to the town of Goult, and they were not wrong. We visited this next to last and it was the most beautiful of them all. If we return to Provence, we’ll rent a place there. From Goult we did a couple hour hike, getting ourselves a bit lost here and there, but always surrounded by beautiful countryside: ancient ruins, streams, terraced vineyards. One thing with hiking in France, though they terrace vineyards, they don’t seem at all interested in switchbacks. It’s straight up and straight down these hills.
Lacoste was home to a castle owned by the Marquis de Sade. It had rained hard the night before we visited. Still overcast and misty, the town had an eerie feel to it, and on one particularly steep slope Jeff slipped and cut his hand. What should normally have been a little scrape was in fact a pretty deep gouge and took a while to heal, even though we cleaned it and did everything as you should. I’m convinced it was the Marquis continuing his evil ways.
In Bonnieux we managed to land at the ‘locals’ pizzeria. Had a great conversation with two Brits who live there and witnessed an American woman come close to breakdown. Seemed to be a group of father and wife and their son or daughter and his or her husband or wife. All very well dressed, in an expensive car. Upon leaving, the mother asked when the store that advertised sales of “spiritiuex” (hard alcohol) opened (meaning after lunch, everything closes for lunch). The owner said “jamais” (meaning never, because it like so many other places was closed for the season). At this the woman broke down and asked with great exasperation where she could please find a bottle of vodka. Sometimes travel really takes it out of you…
Gordes was simply stunning.
Traveling with the expressed purpose of “finding beautiful things made by interesting people” provided full license to explore the many treasures on display in the Luberon. Sure, there is plenty of kitsch and the typical “Provencal” busy fabrics (sorry to those who love them, just not my style). There are also some beautiful and interesting crafts and creations.
Linen. No pictures of his booth, but found a vendor, Les Voiles de Lin, at the Lourmarin market with exquisite linen by the yard, plus some beautiful scarves. I could not resist one in a loose weave made with natural dyes (below I’m wearing it at a café). We also found some elegant (and heavy) table linens at the Apt market. Clever name of “Lin et L’Autre”“Lin et L’Autre” (play on the saying “one and another”). This woman and her partner hand make these classic pieces with contrasting borders.
Pottery. Unfortunately this vendor, Dany of Terre et Soleil, was adamantly opposed to people photographing her wares. I would have bought plenty if we weren’t traveling so much longer. As it is I broke down and bought a coffee mug, the only one with a photo. Her other pieces included bowls of all sizes in a variety of deep and vibrant colors and patterns, plus beautiful jugs and plates and on and on. She was at nearly every market we visited.
Miscellaneous. One stall, Ecolochic Concept, again at all markets, had products made from the type of tabs found on soda cans. All hand-knit together into belts, purses, even halter-tops. Lots of beautiful leather bracelets. Deeply lustrous olivewood bowls, boards, spoons, etc.
Scarves. So hard to restrain myself. I did buy the natural linen one. I was very tempted by these raw silk scarves from Madagascar (the owner of this stall works with a cooperative there that hand looms them).
From what we heard, there’s been a revival of olive oil production in France. Several small towns showed off their local presses, and this store featured olive oils in three states: young green olives, slightly more mature olives, and matured black olives. You could taste many varieties of all three and really get a good sense of the variety of flavors, all made by “small” producers.
Tea. Amongst the antique stores in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue I found a light and bright tea store, Florel en Provence. Apparently the company has been making teas since 1989 and just opened this flagship store less than a year ago, with a colorful array of organic teas crafted in Provence. The herbal teas are made primarily from plants grown in the south of France.
And one final note… Hospitality
One of the finest things to experience – true hospitality. We were incredibly fortunate to be taken in for an otherwise wet and miserable night by a creative and very interesting couple. It goes like this, through Facebook and a shared love of animals and the protection of their wellbeing, my sister knows an Irish woman who has a home in Provence. When my sister learned we were traveling to France, she sent her a note to say we’d be there and to see if she had any suggestions to help us best experience the region. So on a windy, rainy day, this lovely Irish woman met us in a parking lot and drove us to her stunning “typical” Provencal stone home. A fire was raging in the fireplace and it stayed that way all night. What started out to be a glass of wine and some light snacks turned into a dinner party that lasted until 2 in the morning (with an (accepted) offer to stay the night). Said evening consisted of: Countless bottles of local wines; a long list of what not to miss in the region; delicious salmon; great Irish cheeses (yes we ate Irish cheese in France); wonderful music, including Keith Richards latest album; intellectual and stimulating discussions of art, current events, cultural differences; the lowdown on the ups and downs of living in France; all punctuated by the coming and going of two adorable black Scotties. Note the shaky image is not the result of wine, it’s that somehow the camera was stuck on shutter speed 200… Finally, our hostess finally helped me to find the unique local body products I’d been searching for. Turns out the grocery stores carry a line called Le Petit Olivier. Maybe it’s in the US and I haven’t seen it. But rather than search the little boutiques for my natural local brand, it appears I should have been in the big grocery stores. Fantastic array of products including more than soap… Bought some super cream without spending a fortune. Hoping actually I will find this back home in the supermarket, even if it means it’s been ‘discovered’ already…
It is October and Europe has moved fully into fall, so rather than tarry any longer in the north of France, our plan was to head south. From Paris we made it to Gare de Lyon and a TGV (high speed) train to Avignon. Trains here are such a comfortable and sane way to travel. Like so many others, I will now briefly lament the lack of quality (speed, comfort, reliability) train travel in the US, sigh…. OK done.
Met a very interesting couple from Johannesburg, South Africa traveling for two weeks in Europe with their two small children. Talked about searching for ancestral roots (she turned up on a German farmer’s doorstep who was likely a very distant cousin, but with very limited German they didn’t get much further than a few nods).
Our first stop in southern France was Provence. First in the Vaucluse region at a ‘splurge’ of a place, http://en.leclossaintsaourde.com. It’s a category of hotel known as “Maison d’Hôtes”, basically a B&B. This was recommended by a friend, especially given the super-knowledgeable owner who I had hoped could provide us lots of great tips for wineries, villages, restaurants, and any number of out-of-the-way places that in my imagination he shared with us as we all poured over our beautiful road map. Here is where doing more prior research would have been helpful. Apparently the owner now resides in Canada and hasn’t been there for three years. OK, so the best local guide angle didn’t work out exactly as planned, but the nice and knowledgeable manager was beyond kind and very helpful. We also had the place entirely to ourselves, it was absolutely beautiful, and the location was perfect to visit the region. Here’s a peak at our luxurious start in Provence:
Briefly, the other expectation that was never realized… finding great local face, hair and body products. Not saying this was a catastrophe by any means, more surprising. I looked all over at markets, stores, pharmacies (in France pharmacies carry lots of great body products, one of my guilty pleasures when visiting the country), and more. I asked everyone I could find. I found great soaps. There are some fantastic local soap makers, but almost no lotions and other such potions. If we were ever to move here and start up a business, I might go into making lotion, body oils, and hair conditioner.
Speaking of soaps, Savonnerie des Dentelles is a small company in the town where we stayed. Everyone we talked to in town had great things to say about them, and I got a chance to visit on our last day. The owners, husband and wife, left their first jobs to be in the country and to work with natural fragrances (he had been in the perfume business as I recall). She had worked as a sculptor, but since the recession, that became more difficult. For both, their company is a way to create a healthy product (all natural), and a healthy lifestyle for themselves and their family. I bought a couple of soaps, and have been using one made from donkey milk. It smells great (yarrow) and is definitely more hydrating than other soaps (though not as much as lotion, which they actually are bringing to marking in a couple of months). Their store is a beautiful jumble of colors. And I especially liked that they offer soaps at lower prices (and some for free even, “Servez Vous”) that are the ‘between runs’ in colors, fragrances, or both. This is done especially to provide something of value to the local market.
As opposed to my mostly futile search for body products, we found more than enough wonderful wine. Following an itinerary put together by Rick Steves and our hotel manager, we made it to the town of Gigondas. I’ve always loved that wine, partly because it has complexity and spice, partly because the word is fun to say, “Gigondas”. The town is beautiful:
From here we visited a biodynamic winery, Le Clos du Joncuas and bought more wine than expected. All of it so good, the rosé was outstanding. Light but structured. The winery is run by two sisters, continuing the company their grandfather started. Interestingly, the sister who poured our tastings (and by the way, tastings here in France are easily 2-3 times the size of US tastings and not one winery has charged a penny… When/why did US wineries start charging? Is there an essential etiquette of wine tasting the Americans didn’t get that the French public does?) pointed out that in her grandfather’s time, everyone was using “natural” techniques, there wasn’t any other option. What we consider to be “conventional” techniques with chemical fertilizer and pesticide have only been around since the late 1940s. So it was just their father’s choice to stay “natural”, just one generation, that has allowed them to be “organic” from inception.
Before Gigondas, we spent the morning in Vaison La Romaine at their weekly market (most towns in Provence have a market at least one day during the week with everything from produce to sweaters to fancy vegetable cutters like you see on TV). I had tried to stay in Vaison La Romaine my last time in this region, in 1992. Then it had suffered a devastating flood, just days before my arrival. I couldn’t stay the night, but did walk through the town (there’s history in my family with floods, something for another story). Sitting firmly in my mind’s eye is the image of a bathroom sink, about two feet of flooring around it, clinging to a wall of a house above the river Ouvèze. The rest of the room, and the building, had been swept away. A toothbrush and toothpaste were still on the sink. The town has solidly rebuilt, as has apparently the entire area (they took the flood seriously and invested in many improvements we were told). The first century Roman bridge survived that flood and this time we walked across it and up into the medieval city that sits above the ‘modern’ one (that would be the one sitting between two ancient Roman ruins).
Found some beautiful scarves in the market, from a very animated and enthusiastic man (beyond market days, he has scarves and more at a store in town, Maka, 4 Rue Raspail). Scarves around our neck, we could now feel more French, but had to resist buying just about everything else (especially this umbrella which called out to me for some reason).
Other highlight of Vaucluse? Nature. We got out one day and despite mistral winds up to 70 km/hour did an eight kilometer hike around the “Dentelles de Montmirail”. Way back in 1992, I climbed here, invited by a group of French climbers staying at the same place I found when Vaison was no longer an option. Can’t say I remember where exactly we had climbed, and this 2015 hike took us all around the range, rather than just up one face, but there was a strong sense of déjà vu, in an oddly welcoming way. It’s a striking natural chain of uplifted Jurassic limestone (thanks Wikipedia), surrounded by villages and vineyards.
The next day it was already time to pull up roots and head on to our next destination in Provence, the Luberon. In a decidedly less strenuous, but still beautiful experience, we drove over Mont Ventoux (meant more to Jeff as he follows the Tour de France, apparently an important climb, and one that attracts lots of bikers, even on days like this…). One cyclist, clearly eager to share his achievement, burst out to us that he improved his best time by four minutes, climbing in under two hours. Almost felt like we were back in Boulder… Down then through Sault, which would be spectacular before lavender harvest (instead the fields of lavender looked a bit like shorn sheep). But then a startlingly beautiful set of valleys into the Luberon. You could just sense prehistoric caves around every bend.