Michael Palij MW jumped at the chance to rev up and tour South Island's wine landscapes by bike. Here he reports on his once-in-a-lifetime trip.
In 1901 a far-sighted Kiwi politician named Thomas Edward Donne realised his adopted home possessed so much natural beauty that, once the word was out, people would flock from all corners of the globe to marvel at its splendour. Thus was born Tourism New Zealand, the world’s first governmental department devoted entirely to tourism. Today, more than two million visitors a year spend in excess of NZ$5 billion annually, making tourism one of the country’s most important industries. The statistics are all the more impressive considering that New Zealand’s population is only 3.8 million. Yet in an area no larger than Britain one finds peaks soaring to more than 3,700m, thermal springs, glaciers, active volcanoes and 16,000km of coastline – as well as mile upon mile of some of the world’s most beautiful vineyards.
Travelling to New Zealand demands a certain amount of planning. It’s a long way from the UK and you probably want to go for at least a couple of weeks. Although within New Zealand distances aren’t huge there is an enormous amount to see and to do, and many attractions involve day trips or extended excursions. Plan for such side trips and let the islands’ natural beauty slowly seduce you. New Zealand’s charm lies not in its stately homes or its sculpture collections but rather in its magical scenery that refuses to reveal itself at package tour pace. Scheduled buses (there are very few trains) can whisk you between cities but to explore the real New Zealand you will need your own transportation. Car hire, including one-way rentals, is easily done but New Zealand’s compact size and stunning scenery make it ideal for exploration by motorcycle. No need to worry about carting your own machine the other side of the world either. VFR New Zealand is based in Christchurch, on South Island, and has a fleet of, that’s right, Honda VFRs for hire.
If, like me, you haven’t donned leathers in a few years, then the VFR is the perfect machine on which to rediscover the joys of getting your knee down. It’s fast, forgiving, and doesn’t induce rigor mortis after a couple of hours in the saddle. And New Zealand’s roads are well maintained, decently cambered tarmac with endless, sweeping bends and magnificent views.
Day 1: Christchurch
As you clear US customs in Los Angeles remember that you are not yet half way to your final destination. Twenty-four hours in an aeroplane brings its own special kind of jetlag and once you’ve arrived in Christchurch you’ll probably want to chill for at least a day. There’s plenty to keep you occupied in South Island’s capital, including the usual municipal attractions, art galleries and museums. Christchurch is pretty enough but quickly loses its shine and serves to remind visitors that New Zealand’s attractions are not its cities.
If you’ve not ridden for a few years then you may want to get an hour’s easy run under your belt before heading out in earnest. Bank’s Peninsula is the bulb of land that juts out into the Pacific to the east of Christchurch. The run to Akaroa, at the eastern tip, is a splendid mix of long straights followed by 15km of serious bends. Your reward is impressive, far-reaching views over Akaroa harbour and surrounding farmland. Akaroa itself, a former whaling port, is the region’s oldest settlement and has recently reinvented itself as a centre for the arts. The tourist-focused Akaroa Winery (+64 3 304 8990) serves up reasonable food and wine in a pleasant setting overlooking the water.
Christchurch is home to a few wineries and one of them, Morworth Estate (+64 3 349 5014), is well worth a visit. The estate sprang from Chris and Leonie Morkane’s passion for both food and wine and this enthusiasm is clearly evident in the seriously adventurous menu created by their son, Charles. Sarah, their daughter, is responsible for a range of excellent Riesling, Pinot and Sauvignon. Other wineries worth visiting near Christchurch include Rossendale (+64 3 322 9684) and Giesen (+64 3 347 6729).
Day 2: Waipara
The heart of Canterbury’s wine production is the town of Waipara, 60km north of Christchurch on Hwy 1. The town marks the start of the Waipara valley which runs north before forking towards Waikari to the west and Cheviot to the east. Waipara is very much in vogue at the moment and is witness to intense planting activity. Its secret lies not in the soil (the alluvial bench found in Marlborough, Martinborough and elsewhere) but in its unique microclimate. Protected from the cold easterly winds by the Teviotdale Hills, Waipara boasts high daytime temperatures that encourage full phenolic maturity in varieties such as Pinot Noir and Riesling. There is no shortage of great producers who welcome visitors. Here’s my top five:
Danny Schuster (+64 3 314 5901)
Waipara’s own Papa Pinot, whose early experiments have resulted in the current boom. Visits are by appointment only but the Schusters are happy to receive visitors.
Pegasus Bay (+64 3 314 6869)
The old story of doctor-turned-winemaker but the whole family is now involved in crafting some of the area’s most impressive varietals. The restaurant is an excellent choice for lunch.
Mountford (+64 3 314 6819)
Minuscule quantities of seriously fine Chardonnay and Pinot. Buffy (a chef) and Michael (a painter) run one of the country’s top B&Bs on the estate.
Waipara West (+64 3 314 8699)
The estate is tucked up against the hills on the west side of the valley and is open from 10 till 4, weekdays only. Funky and iconoclastic in a rock’n’roll sort of way.
Muddy Water (+64 3 377 7123)
A relative newcomer who has already managed to craft some of the region’s best wines. By appointment only.
Days 3 & 4: hanmer and kaikoura
Following the hard work in the cellars of Waipara you will have earned yourself a couple of days’ R’n’R. The principal route north, Hwy 1, follows the coast, but another route, the less-travelled Hwy 7, meanders inland via Hanmer Springs and Mt Lyford before eventually rejoining Hwy 1 just south of Kaikoura. Follow your heart along this stretch of highway whose sole purpose appears to be keeping enormous grins on the faces of the country’s bikers.
People have been relaxing in the thermal pools at Hanmer for more than 120 years. It’s now big business although the first-rate golf, thermal springs and spa facilities have been joined by jetboating, rafting, bungee jumping and 4X4 safaris (www.hurunui.com for details).
Mt Lyford is 80km north of Hanmer and is best known as a ski resort; there is, however, excellent walking and riding in the off-season. From Mt Lyford the road gently unwinds down to the sea and down to Kaikoura, the unofficial whalewatching capital of New Zealand. Forget your preconceptions, whale watching is a must-see event. There is much debate among whale spotters concerning tactics. Helicopters and light aircraft offer the best opportunity to gauge the animals’ true size; shallow-bottomed catamarans can quickly dart in the direction of a sighting and provide the opportunity to drift alongside. I opted for the catamaran (Whale Watch Kaikoura, +64 3 319 6767) and, after a few false starts due to inclement weather, saw an abundance of sealife, including dolphins, pilot whales and sperm whales. Tickets are non-refundable in bad weather although you can use them on the next sailing, so be prepared to spend an extra day in the area.
Day 5 & 6: Marlborough
The road from Kaikoura to Blenheim is the best 160km I’ve ever ridden. It’s a sinuous ribbon that traces every cove and promontory so faithfully that your visor is occasionally streaked with spray. The bends are sweeping, gentle arcs that positively encourage audience participation and there is even a decent watering hole strategically located at the 80km mark. Another 80km brings you to Blenheim, the capital of Marlborough and gateway to New Zealand’s most famous wine region.
There are dozens of wineries and almost all are open to the public. Cellar door sales is big business and most wineries are only too happy to sell directly to consumers. A number offer guided tours and some have excellent restaurants. My top five are:
Montana (+64 3 570 8400)
Start your tour here. Yes, it is miles away from the image of a family homestead with a few hectares of vines, but it provides an ideal overview of the region through its thoughtful displays and textbook wines.
Huia (+64 3 572 8326)
Huia is a small family estate run with passion and knowledge by Mike and Claire Allan. The wines are a blissful respite from the usual formula of alcohol and oak found in so many Marlborough wines. Subtlety is the byword here and Huia was perhaps my happiest discovery. Don’t miss it.
Cloudy Bay (+64 3 520 9140)
It would be impossible to come to Marlborough and not see the winery that put Marlborough on the world’s wine map. I was curiously underwhelmed, however, by the wines.
Seresin Estate (+64 3 572 9408)
Michael Seresin lives in California where he works as a director of photography. Seresin is his hobby and the ‘luvvie’ culture that permeates the estate can wear a little. There is, however, no escaping the quality of the wines. Brian Bicknell is a capable winemaker and these are confident expressions of the Marlborough terroir.
Highfield Estate (+64 3 572 9244)
Highfield is also the result of foreign investment, Swiss this time, complete with mock-Tuscan viewing tower. Follies aside, winemaker Alistair Soper crafts sensitive wines from exceedingly high-quality fruit. It is also possible to stay here.
Blenheim is just an hour’s drive south of the Marlborough Sounds, a national park, and a paradise for walkers and kayakers. It is worth spending at least part of a day exploring the dramatic coastline with its bays and inlets. Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company (+64 3 573 6078) can arrange mountain biking, kayaking and walking itineraries.
Day 7: Return to Christchurch
If time and money permit, extending your journey through Nelson and Greymouth will allow you to see the Southern Alps and return to Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass. Allow three days. A shorter option is via Murchison and Lewis Pass.
From magnificent Victorian hotels through inexpensive motels to backpackers’ hostels, New Zealand offers accommodation for every budget. A popular option is the ‘home stay’, a sort of B&B with bells. Home stays are often in elegant period homes where a wing or outbuilding has been refurbished to offer en-suite accommodation. Many are done up to a very high standard and some are self-catering. The tariff is usually quoted on a bed and breakfast basis per room but dinner and wine may also be included. Establish exactly what is and isn’t included when you book. Home stays are an excellent opportunity to meet Kiwis on their own patch and, in my experience, they make extremely welcoming, helpful hosts. Prices range from NZ$250 to $750 per night. Motels start at around $40 per night per room. There is no official classification system but there appear to be few cowboys in the industry and price is generally an accurate reflection of the standard achieved. Always book your accommodation well in advance as the country is chronically under-bedded in the high season. The following are all top end but come highly recommended:
The Charlotte Jane: a magnificently restored Victorian home on the Papanui Road, a five-minute walk from the centre of town. From $235 per night. Tel: +64 3 355 8882.
Mountford: Buffy and Michael Eaton’s wine estate in Waipara also caters to a select number of travellers. Expect excellent food, great wine and lively conversation. $750 per couple per night. Tel: +64 3 314 6819
The Old Convent: far and away the best hotel in Kaikoura but still a bit down-at-heel in places. John Rooth is a friendly and hospitable host who soon makes you forget that the place needs a lick of paint. Doubles from $130 per night. Tel: +64 3 319 6603
Hotel d’Urville: The place to stay in Blenheim; it’s a curious mix of art deco and minimalism. Doubles from $250 per night. Tel: +64 3 577 9945
Antria Lodge: understated European elegance in the heart of Marlborough. Doubles from $250 per night. Tel: +64 3 579 2191
The Vintners Retreat: luxury self-catering units in the Marlborough vineyards. Two-bedroom suites start at $220 per night, three from $305. The rate decreases if you stay for more than one night. Excellent for families or couples sharing. Tel: +64 3 572 7420
VFR: the fine print
Bike hire is via the website, at www.vfrnewzealand.com, or on +44 (0) 7779 656 253, and should be made well in advance of departure.
Customers take their own equipment and clothing including helmets and leathers (thanks to Buffalo for a super set).
Bike hire costs £700 per week including insurance and luggage but excluding an insurance excess of £1,500 for which you cannot purchase an additional waiver. n The pillion supplement is £50 per week. Additional days are charged at £100 per day. So, a couple sharing a bike on a two-week tour will be £1,400 plus £100 for a pillion supplement, plus 12.5 % GST ie £1,687.60. A deposit of 25% is required upon booking with the balance payable three months prior to commencement of hire.
The best season for biking around New Zealand is September–May.
You’ll need a full, UK motorcycle licence
The bike comes with 100 litres of storage divided among two panniers and a top box, so travel light. n VFR NZ provides an excellent guide with suggested itineraries specifically for bikers.
Visiting the wineries
You are unlikely to be disappointed by a visit to any winery advertising a cellar door presence. The range of facilities may vary (but can include restaurants, gift shops and crèches). Staff are usually knowledgeable and tasting measures generous – you can use a spittoon. Calling ahead gives you a better chance of securing a ‘behind the scenes tour’.
Tourism New Zealand is extremely helpful (+44 20 7930 1662) and the website (www.tourisminfo.govt.nz) is informative.
Air New Zealand has daily flights to New Zealand from London Heathrow via Los Angeles with optional stopovers in the Pacific Islands. Fares start from £689 plus tax depending on travel dates. Travel around New Zealand with Air New Zealand’s South Pacific Airpass (for 2–10 sector flights) starting at £66. Call Air New Zealand Reservations on +44 (0) 800 028 4149 or check out the website at www.airnewzealand.co.uk
Michael Palij MW travelled with Air New Zealand. Bike hire was courtesy of VFR New Zealand.
Written by Michael Palij