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John Blanchette: New Zealand
New Zealand - No Worries
Story and photos by John Blanchette

SkyJumper taking a free dive from the top of the Sky Tower, the highest building in Auckland, New Zealand
A moment before taking a free dive off the highest building in Auckland
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."

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.

a flock of sheep in the countryside, New Zealand
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.

view of Wellington Harbor with the city skyline in the background
Wellington Harbor

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.

sunrise at Marlborough Sound

another picture of sunrise at Marlborough Sound
Marlborough Sound

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.

swimming hole at the Claremont Country Estates, North Canterbury
Spring-fed swimming hole on the Claremont Country Estates in North Canterbury, a working ranch set on 2,400 acres

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 large Scottish heritage.

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 insects.

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.

Qantas 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 New Zealand.

Related Articles:
Stewart Island, New Zealand; New South Wales, Australia

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Let John know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Feedback for South of the Border Wine Country

Hello John – I enjoyed reading your article. I live in La Bufadora and have friends visiting next week, so you have given me some good tips on where to go in our wine country. We have always called Cetto – L.A. (like Los Angeles) Chet-o and it might have been worth mentioning that it is actually Italian in origin. Also, I don't know about when visiting the Valle, but when in town, it is better to have pesos than dollars. Right now the rate is approx. 11.70 for each dollar. Just sayin' and like I said good article!

--- Ella O'Bryan, La Bufadora, Baja, MX

Hi, We here at Country Living Magazine are working on a story about hotels around the US. We would like to feature the Paso Robles Inn. I have to find photos to go along with the story. I was wondering if you could please send me any images of the hotel. This can be anything from the rooms to the food! All images can be submitted low res and if selected I will ask for hi rez later. Also, if you know of any photographers that have photographed the hotel can you please give me the contact info? Thank you so much!

--- Will Morel, Assistant Photo Editor, Country Living Magazine, New York, NY

I am looking forward to my "silver" years, which in my case, will be the years (if fate is good to me) that I will finally be traveling. New Zealand is at the top of the list - I have always been drawn to it.

--- Sandra Mines, Seattle, WA

Yes, was a fun city. Bad wine though.

--- Bo, Portland, OR

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