Sunday, April 30, 2006

Day 10 - Flipper meets his match

4:15 am. The alarm goes off. I get out of bed only to discover that once again there is no breakfast. At this time in the morning that's the least any guy can expect. I did find some hotel "biscuits" however, so those would have to do... for the time being at least.

We had an early call this morning of 5:15 for a trip we'd had booked for a very long time and we didn't want to miss it, even though it was only a five minute drive down the road. Neither of us had slept a wink for fear of not hearing the alarm and missing such an important event.

Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura was our destination at this un-godly hour, a long established excursion company whose trips allow you to swim with the dolphins, should you wish it.

We arrived at the HQ ahead of time and even then there were other bleary-eyed people hanging around for the place to open.

Before long there was sign of life, the doors swung open and we were herded in like sheep. We had a brief introduction and register taking before those who would be swimming on today's tour were invited to go through to the changing rooms to be kitted up. At this point I should explain that on every Dolphin tour there are a restricted number of swimmers who will enter the water with the Dolphins. Children and those who cannot swim would remain as watchers on the boat. I fell into the latter category along with only one other lady and we were left alone in the cafeteria.

Being the only two people left there we soon began to chat and started finding out a bit more about why we were both here at this un-earthly time of day. Her name was Helen, she was an American and as it turned out she was a regular visitor to both NZ and the Dolphin Encounter as she owned a holiday home just down the road from there (lucky thing!). She was so dedicated to the cause that she had even been on the tour the day before to do the swim but today her plan was to stay on the boat and take pictures (the other love in her life besides her husband and NZ). With our common interest being the same she soon declared it her task to look after me and help me to get the best photos, particularly as it was my first experience of trying to photograph such things.

Whilst I was making a new friend, Kate was having her own pre-dolphin "experience". What follows is Kate's own take on what was happening.

"I queued nervously waiting to be handed my wetsuit, flippers, snorkel and mask by a man that would look you up and down and apparently instantly know your intimate measurements and foot size. I think perhaps he was a little out with my wetsuit size as although I appreciate that it was meant to be tight it was however like squeezing an oversized sardine into a small tin! Nevertheless I did what was necessary and was reunited with Shaune for our full briefing. At the start of this we were warned "This is not a Flipper like experience" You will not go riding on their backs or sail through the water holding onto their fins -these were wild dusky dolphins who would be more likely to bite you if you held out your hand. As they rightly point out we are there for the dolphins entertainment and not the other way round. During the remainder of the session we learnt the basic snorkelling and safety requirements - i.e. the hand signals to suggest that you are in distress or the ones to say that all is well. I hoped that Shaune was paying full attention to these as my life was in his hands while I was in the water. Being not a strong swimmer I expected him to watch me as much as any dolphin activity that we might come across."

So immediately after Kate's "quart into a pint pot" experience we were shepherded all onto a minibus with what could only be described as a laminated inside. Everything was plasticised so that any extraneous salty water on people's bodies after the experience would run immediately off into the gutters which ran the length of the bus.

It was still dark outside and we were starting to wonder if our first meeting with the dolphins would be under the cover of darkness.

It was a short 5 minute bus trip which took us to where the boats were moored up that would ultimately take us out to sea. There were two boats and as we'd left the briefing we had been split up into two parties, luckily we were put in the smaller of the 2 teams.

Obviously this isn't a picture of the boat in the dark as it was too dark at that time of day to take any photos.

As we got onto the boat we were warned that due to yesterday's high winds that there was a moderate swell and were advised to take precautions - we had already come prepared with seasickness tablets after being warned by a friend of ours back home that her entire trip consisted of her head in a bucket and thank goodness we did otherwise goodness knows how bad we might have felt. The swell of the ocean wasn't agressive but it was constant and it was this unrelenting action which ultimately caused a couple of people to be ill.

It took about 40 minutes before we reached our first pod of dolphins and suddenly our crew were hurriedly trying to get everybody into the water, shoving them off the edge of the boat like lemmings off a cliff. The sun was just cresting on the horizon, but it was still quite dim lighting conditions. As I scrambled around to get Kate's digial SLR ready, she was preparing herself for the water. Over to Kate again.

"I was the last one off the boat - scared for my life and dreading the coldness of the water. However the water whilst cold did not dampen the experience - but almost as soon as I was in the water we were called back onto the boat as the pod were moving too far away from us so we would have to catch them up. Before long I was clinging to the back of the boat as we speed through the waves tracking the dolphins. About 5 minutes later we stopped and we all jumped in once more to be surrounded by numerous Flippers and what an experience that was!"

The sun was now rising fast, filling the sky with glorious colours and tones. What a dilema, there was suddenly almost too many things to take pictures of. On top of this Kate was expecting me to point her in the direction of the dolphins.

Meanwhile back in the drink...

"It is very difficult to describe the experience. First there is sheer panic caused by a mixture of initial fear of the dolphins as they swim under you and even occasionally knock into you and then there is the fear of being kicked in the face by flippers of other excited swimmers all eager to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures.

"I actually found it a much more rewarding to swim away from the crowds and head around the other side of the boat, usually following Shaune's directions as to the movement of the dolphins and found it an altogether more serene experience which you could truly appreciate. Here you could just float while sometimes 5 or more dolphins swim under and around you.

"This continued for a good hour while Shaune took photographs and observed from the deck. Eventually we were called back to the boat where we had a chance to shower, change and have hot chocolate and cookies to warm us. All three activities were a disaster!"

Actually I think the biscuits were ginger nuts, the purpose of which is to calm unsettled stomachs down before the trip back home. Anyway Kate's on a rant and I'd be a fool to delay that any longer.

"The brochure reads "All vessels are fitted with hot showers and toilets for passenger comfort". Do not be deceived. It is a small boat with a toilet the size of a plane toilet (hey it's better than going in your wetsuit, surely! - Shaune), and the showers consist of three hoses that you put down your wetsuit that provide moderately warm water. There are no changing facilities. Instead you struggle to maintain your decency whilst removing a tight wetsuit, drying yourself and re-dressing on a boat that is swaying precariously from side to side. By this stage you feel so seasick that the mere mention of hot chocolate and cookies create spasms in your stomach. However, it is most definitely worth it. At this point the boat races over the open water with the dolphins frolicking alongside, jumping and somersaulting in the air - everyone scrambling to take photographs, including us".

At this point Kate took over the operations of her camera and I moved back to my own and squirted off a couple of minutes of video.

For the journey home Kate sat motionless in the cabin feeling very green about the gills at this stage. I on the other hand tried to fake the fact I wasn't feeling sea-sick when really I was struggling inside to keep the raging volcano in my stomach from erupting. If I'd been sick, Kate would've followed suit. Luckily we both survived, but it was probably one of the longest, most unpleasant journeys back to dry land we've ever experienced even though it only took 45 minutes.

It was 9am by the time we stepped off the boat. At the beginning of our excursion we had talked about going whale watching in the afternoon but feeling like we did that idea was well and truly out the window. The weather also appeared to be making a change for the worse too. At this point in time we just felt incredibly lucky that not only had the weather been fantastic, but the dusky dolphins had chosen to make an appearance as well, both of which cannot be guaranteed.

So we headed back to the Bed and Breakfast and had a well earned sleep for an hour or so. The rest of the morning we pretty much spent recovering, but we decided to take this opportunity to do some necessary laundry (very expensive but convenient). It was not till lunchtime that we ventured out again.

Lunch was a modest affair today as we had big plans for a decent meal that evening. I'd promised Kate the local delicacy of crayfish/rock lobster as she'd been so brave, so lunch would have to be small. We found a small, but popular self-service cafe, sat ourselves outside in the courtyard and enjoyed a slice of pizza and a steak sandwich.

We'd taken so many photos this morning that we'd used up most of our supply of memory cards, so without too much on the agenda it seemed like a good time to get some of them transfered onto CD. There were a couple of shops in town that offered this facility and we chose one which claimed they could do it in less than 2 hours, which meant we could wander around the town and browse the shops before going back to collect our discs. It wasn't the cheapest place but it did offer a PC on which to check the transfered pics.

Getting back into our vehicle we toured around a few of the recommended eateries with a plan to book one for the evening (we're not always thinking about food, honest), before finally settling on the restaurant formally known, and still registered in many of the travel guides as Mussel Boys (which wasn't as camp as it sounded). It is now an establishment called "Pipi's".

With the evening food sorted we went to visit the seals on the peninsula. We were able to get really close...too close really. One silly girl got too close and while posing with her back to the seals was chased for a short distance by one particular restless and agitated creature. Amusing for those who were watching. All the signs warn tourists about pissing the seals off, and this was yet further proof that tourists just don't listen. Seals are big, vicious, yet harmless almost placid looking creatures, it's easy to see why people take their chances.

Next we headed to a picturesque viewpoint (recommended by the owners of Lemon Tree Lodge), where you get glorious 360 degree views of Kaikoura and it's surrounding area. It's a quiet spot too, a little off the beaten track for most tourists particularly if they have no form of transport. I tested my camera's panoramic landscape feature out here for the first time this holiday, it really was the only way to capture such a wonderful view.

Our final destination for the day was the Kaikoura Winery. Billed as the most scenic of all the wineraries in NZ with stunning views of the ocean, the Kaikoura Winery sits atop a magnificent hill overlooking the ocean.

We decided that we didn't really have an interest in doing a tour of the winery and underground cellars but instead headed straight for the shop where we had a couple of free tasters and choose a bottle of wine for Kate's dad. In the shop there was a massive picture window with amazing views of the coastline.

Outside is a lovely seating area for customers to sit and enjoy their purchases with a bunch of cheese and biscuits, it's really very civilized. Unfortunately it's a little way out from the township and really the only way of getting there is by car and seeing as wine and driving don't really mix it was with great heartache that I couldn't enjoy this place exactly as it was intended.

There is a viewing platform however and the lady from the shop kindly lent us her binoculars and with promises of seeing dolphins and possibly even whales from this vantage point, in fact she claimed she had seen a couple of whales already this day. We weren't quite as lucky and saw nothing but the weather was glorious and the views fabulous so we didn't feel too let down.

The evening soon came and we found ourselves in Pipi's before we knew it. As a name for an eating establishment I'm not sure what is actually worse, Mussel Boys or Pipi's. Both seem just as bad as each other and neither really set the scene for a classic culiary experience. Luckily the place goes above and beyond the imagery its current and former names conjour up.

Pipi's is really more of a cafe than a restaurant, and passing trade could be put off by its long benched tables, smaller tables with plastic chairs and its brightly coloured decor. To those people I say they should look beyond its outer coat and give it a go as they really wouldn't know what they'd be missing out on.

Pipi's delivers fantastic simple food in a simple surroundings, plus it's a lot cheaper than some of the places directly in the heart of Kaikoura.

I had a fisherman's basket and Kate had a Seafood Platter (with the rock lobster as promised), which as you can see was truly amazing.

The meal was topped off with Kiwi Pie. This was a very simple desert made all the more complicated and confusing by the waitresses disclaimer when I ordered it. She made a point of telling us that it did not contain Kiwi - neither bird nor fruit varieties and this was a common misconception by people who ordered the pie. Yet it arrived with Kiwis on top (again not the bird) so we were even more confused. Still it tasted good and that was all that mattered.

The evening was finished off by another trip back to the viewpoint above the peninsula to watch the sun setting.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Day 9 - The High Seas

Got up early this morning. No breakfast today. This could become a nasty habit, one which I would have to squash sooner or later before it became an addiction. There had to be a way round it. We weren't particularly sad to say goodbye to Abel Tasman hotel, although it served its purpose well enough. The hotel has seen better days and it was a little lacking in character but you can't fault it's price-to-location ratio.

Even though we were looking forward to leaving, the hotel had other ideas. It's one of the few hotels within the city that has parking facilities (if you can call 8 spaces facilities), operated on a first come, first served basis. The car park is actually a glorified washroom/service entrance and is sealed tight via an archaic sercurity gate. Driving in is OK as you buzz through to reception and they identify you and let you in, driving out is a different experience entirely. As you approach the gate from the inside there are 2 buttons on the wall with a big sign directly above which reads "Press button only once. Be patient. Repeated pressing causes gate to jam". Ok, fine but which bloody button should we press? We chose the top one and waited... and waited... and then waited some more. The temptation to press the button again was excruciating. Eventually, almost 3 minutes later the gate lethargically rolled into action. Painful was not the word, especially when you consider why we had gotten up so early this morning - a 9:30am booking on the Interislander ferry which requires you to check in from 8:00. We didn't want to miss our chance to get across to the South Island.

To achieve its capital status, Wellington features the obligatory confusing major city one way system and it took some canny navigation from Kate to get us through it, so canny in fact that we arrived too early for the boat and ended up first in line for the next ferry whilst they were still boarding the last vehicles onto the 7:30 sailing.

I hate being first in the queue for any ferry, visions of driving up the wrong ramp and straight into the drink always run through my head.

Actually, taking the car across on the ferry is another big thumbs up for Ezy as many of the rental agencies require you to leave the car at the terminal in Wellington, travel as a foot passenger and then pick another car up when you get off the other side at Picton. This can be a real pain, and we bore witness to many people struggling with their luggage whilst we sat and sipped coffee in the terminal building safe in the knowledge that our 5 bags would be contained in the boot of our car for the journey.

It was a clear and sunny day but also a windy one. At this point we also took the opportunity to down some sea-sickness tablets as we heard that the voyage could be a little treacherous in poor weather conditions and the strong wind did little to comfort our fears. However, we had been assured by friends who had made the crossing that the stunning scenery on the crossing would be enough to distract from any nausea.

We took the opportunity to catch up on our emails and a final toilet before we headed back to our car to embark on the second part of our NZ adventure. - THE SOUTH ISLAND.

The journey across the strait is 92km, takes about 3 hours and was in fact extremely enjoyable - although windy, the sun shone and we stood for the majority of the crossing on one of the open decks taking photographs and blowing the cobwebs from us. Any nausea we had was strangely settled by half a croissant, half a pie and half a sprite - a great combo, particularly with no breakfast inside us.

Inside the ferry was the obligatory tourist shop, games and fruit machine area, canteen, restaurant and numerous seating areas with TVs playing something like "Top Ten Fighter Planes" or "Amazing Ferry Disasters of our Time", I forget which.

The scenery of the Marlborough Sounds was very beautiful. The North Island was fantastic but even on this plain old ferry crossing the scenery bar had suddenly been raised. There was far too much to look at and we really needed to be on both sides of the boat at once. Rolling volcanic hills swoop down to the sea, houses nestle in valleys in middle of nowhere which can only be reached by boat, all facilitated by private jettys and beaches. It's idyllic and not that expensive to live there either.

Strangely enough just before you round the corner into Picton harbour we encounted a floating "salmon farm" which somehow contained its fish within a few fenced-off squares of the sea, although that could be disputed as we heard on the news later in the holiday that the salmon had broke free and caused the ferry to run off course.

Our crossing was pretty good and we were lucky. A week later the weather turned on this side of the island and crossings were cancelled for a day and a half, we really hadn't considered the implications of this happening. Of course when it does happen there is nothing you can do apart from watch precious days of your holiday slip away. Poor people.

The ferry arrived in Picton harbour and as you drive off many travellers are faced with a choice, there are two roads to explore from here and whichever one you take means that unless you have a couple of months here you are going to miss something out. Head immediately west and you go to the Abel Tasman National Park via Nelson. We had desperately wanted to go to Abel Tasmin on the North most tip of the south Island as its beaches are meant to be spectacular. However, despite numerous itinerary changes there was no way that we could incorporate it into our trip on this occasion. Yet another tick on the list of reasons to come back. Indeed if we had had the time we would have also liked to have investigated Picton and the winegrowing areas around the Marlborough Sounds - but alas it was not to be. Instead we headed straight out of Picton and on towards Kaikoura - about a 3hr drive away.

The road here is quite desolate and it all feels kind of remote, a bit like a desert... hey wait a minute didn't we travel on a road earlier that was meant to be like a desert only it was green, lush and raining? I think somebody must have mixed up the road signs.

The barren landscape did allow us to take a couple of nice pictures though.

This is a single track road bridge with a railway track running above it. Being on the main road from the top of the South Island to the bottom this was kind of weird but single track bridges would become a regular occurance now we were down in the south. The one is different to many as it has traffic lights to control the flow of traffic, other bridges do no share this same luxury and some even share the road with the train tracks!

The first stop we made on the way was The Lake Grassmere Saltworks. We hadn't really intended to visit it after seeing a clip of the travelling chef TV Show "Anthony Bordain - No Reseverations" which was edited in such a way to portray it as the dullest place on Earth. Working in the industry we know a TV lie when we see one and Kate had noticed a quote in the guide book that "the ponds turn coral pink in late summer".

On the off chance that we were not too late in the season we made a quick detour. Not expecting great things we found ourselves confronted by an amazing spectacle of colour over the expanse of salt flats. We were the only souls around for miles, which was kind of weird but maybe everyone else had seen the TV show too. This proved to be a fantastic photographic excursion.

Shortly after our stop of salty goodness the weather began to change and this all new desert road gave us some of the most dramatic shots of the holiday.

Pulling over at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere I grabbed Kate's camera and legged it out of the car, leaving her to wonder what the heck I was up to.

Driving along I'd seen this out of the corner of my eye and was determined to get a decent photo before moving on.

The next stop was the Ohau Point seal colony, located 26 Kms north of the Kaikoura township. However, by this stage the weather had closed in (sunny one minute, raining the next), and it was now dull and raining, this was to be our first taste of the dramatic weather shifts the South Island is famous for.

Yet we pulled into the parking bay where you can view the seals from the road and got out for a closer view. Just like the weather the seals were miserable too but we were entertained for a moment or two by the journey of little baby seal who had been swept away from it's mother somehow.

His struggle up over the rocks and down through the pools was somewhat endearing, a bit like watching one of those old Disney nature films as he/she approached numerous seals in the off-chance it may be it's mother only to be turned away to continue its quest.

We arrived in Kaikoura and found our accommodation for the night. This was actually one of the most expensive places to stay in New Zealand as we had struggled to find somewhere within walking distance of the town as it was at the weekend in their peak season. However Lemon Tree Lodge certainly had all the luxury and class that our previous hotel in Wellington lacked. Describing itself as a boutique B&B, Lemon Tree Lodge is a fantastical haven which overlooks the township. Featuring just four rooms, all of them quite secluded, a garden and a hot tub which sits atop a deck overlooking the town this place is quite simply perfect. The hosts Andy and Tricia Pike offer a personal and friendly place to stay, and are eager to help and advice on how best to spend your time in Kaikoura.

We unpacked and headed straight out to check out into town to find somewhere for us to eat that night. We were given a number of recommendations only to find that many were very busy and would need to be booked. In the end we made our choice and booked a table at The Olive Branch Cafe (situated on the main rd), for later on in the evening. We spent the rest of the afternoon just driving around the coast in Kaikoura and walking around the shops.

The evening meal was delicious - bread and dips to start (pesto hummus, red looking hummus and a balsamic vinegar one), Kate then had the best lamb shanks of the holiday and I had local fish.

After that we were soon to bed as we had a VERY early start planned for the morning.

For a certain somebody, tomorrow would be the day she had been dreaming of for many years...

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Day 8 - Martinborough to Wellington

A nice early start today, headed up with a hearty breakfast created from some of the nice fresh produce left for us within Croft Cottages kitchen (the preserved apricots were of particular note, especially as we knew they were harvested from the orchard straight outside).

Many of the winery tours had been recommended to us but we decided it would be a much better use of our time if we were to get ourselves to Wellington by mid-morning as we only had a single day to explore New Zealand's capital. So after a quick stop at one of Martinborough's wine shops, and a couple of purchases to be drank a good few months after we got back to England to remind us of our time here, we hit the road.

What a road! The road between Martinborough and Wellington is twisty, turny and narrow, all this at high altitude too. It's a spectacular drive and to reward yourself when you get to the top you can have a lovely breakfast at the cafe pearched right on the peak before heading on down the other side into Welligton.

Wellington is indeed NZ's capital, and has a bustling atmosphere unlike any other place within NZ, however it's actually quite a small place and unlike any capital you'll encounter the world over.

We were staying right in the centre, in the Abel Tasmin Hotel. It was a decent enough place but in need of a little attention, the location was fantastic though and allowed us the chance to explore Wellington to its fullest with the timescale we had.

The view from our room window revealed this charming yet somewhat out of place church.

The city itself has a bit of a European atmosphere and when viewed from the coastal area could be compared to somewhere as lavish as Monaco, with its clustered houses and apartments nestled comfortably on the sharply rising coastal cliff face. It's pretty.

For a city which is a country's capital though it's absolutely tiny.

It was beautiful weather again so taking this opportunity by the horns we decided to pay a brief visit to the internal world of New Zealands national museum!

Te Papa museum houses many of the nations treasures. Spread over 5 floors it's a truly massive place, with plenty to see and do and the really good news is it's all free of charge. Incredible.

Of particular note is the wealth of ancient Maori artefacts that are house here, including a 200 year old full size meeting house featuring some of the most intricate carvings I've ever seen.

We didn't have the time to take it all in fully but the highlight was the canteen. Yes with all this ancient history arounds us we still were more impressed by the food being served here than anything. We ate possibly the best pie we had all holiday here, a Guinness and venison pie to be exact. Good canteen food is unheard of back in England, especially in somewhere like a museum so you can imagine our surprise to find reasonably priced freshly prepared, home-made style food in such a place.

The afternoon featured more strolling, some sights and some scoping of possible places to eat for tonight's meal. A walk along the sea front allowed us to admire the harbour from a bit more of a distance and from a mile or so away the place became much less city like and much more akin to a rickety old shanty town with many homes balanced precariously on the side of the rockface leading up from the shore.

This is particularly surprising when you consider the areas reputation for earthquakes. If you didn't know already New Zealand is built on a massive fault line cutting right up through the centre of both the south and the north islands. Tremors are regular occurances, whilst quakes come by once in a while and leave a tour of devastation in their wake.

A while was spent shopping on this particular afternoon, not that we bought much but we did find a nice, not too ornate Maori jabbing stick which now adorns our sitting room wall.

Shopping over we climbed aboard the cable car which would take us to the top of Mount Wellington. The cable cars operate at 45 degrees, a bit like a funicular train and slowly travel up and down the mount whilst making a few stops along the way.

The view from the top is impressive, and gives a good impression on the size of the place (not too big), and its also nice to watch the cable cars trundling up and down the hill.

If you time it right you can also gain a good view of the Interislander ferry making a crossing between the islands from here.

Something to maybe miss whilst you are at the top is a walk around the botanical gardens as they offer no really great views, sights, or intrigue. This is a shame when you consider they command such an impressive view of the whole of Wellington

Get the cable car down again and leave it well alone.

Night was coming fast and so was another meal time. A quick refresh in the hotel, a revision on places to eat from within the pages of the Rough Guide and we decided to head out to eat in Uncle Chang's. See if you can guess what kind of food they do there.

In all honesty it was probably one of the most expensive meals and also one of the worst meals of the holiday. Compared to a Chinese back home, it was very sub-standard.

Shame. Evey meal can't be a winner, I suppose.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Day 7 – The Desert Road

Weather was miserable, not terrential just miserable so we did not have breakfast on the terrace as planned the night before but instead at the dining table in Liz and Stu’s lounge on the first floor.

Breakfast was the now usual array of cereal, muesli, full cooked breakfast and in this instance freshly baked bread straight from the oven served with a selection of marmalade, jam and pretty much anything you could have asked for would have been provided. It was all delicious.

Straight after breakfast we said a farewell to our hosts and headed out of Taupo. Our destination was Martinborough “unofficial heart of the wine region” on the north island. There were two possible routes, one which would have taken us east towards Napier – "home of Art Deco" but this would've meant an additional stopover or the quickest route straight down the centre of the North Island on what was known as the Desert Road.

Again time being our only demon on this holiday we decided to take the shortest route. So we started on our adventure and followed the eastern edge of Lake Taupo to reach Turangi.

Of course it wouldn't be right for us to leave the shores of Taupo without at least one little paddle in its waters.

Shortly after Lake Taupo disappeared from the rear view mirror we hit the Desert road and just to keep with tradition I feel a bit of a rant coming on. I think it is worth explaining that we were not exactly traveling through a real desert as such. After all there were no rolling sand dunes and the sun did not beat down on us. In fact it was bitterly cold and windy and the skies were filled with dramatic rain clouds as we sped on trying to avoid the showers. Desert road my arse!

Rant over the desert road was in fact strangely scenic in its barren-ness. Unlike a normal desert there are trees, brush and scrubland flourishing but just like a desert the whole place feels somewhat remote.

The road itself is long and straight, with amazing views of Tongariro National Park’s volcanoes. The infamous Torongariro Pass walk which takes the best part of a day to complete would be firmly high on our agenda should we ever return to these parts but on this trip would not be feasible due to our total inexperience in hikes that last over 3 hrs and once again time restraints.

Coming out the other side of the Desert Road we hit the charming little town of Taihape. Now we'd heard that Taihape has some of the best eating to be found on the SH1 (State Highway 1), between Taupo and Wellington. Hey it was lunchtime so who are we to argue. The Venison Kitchen had been recommended to us but we discovered it to be closed so we ended up in some brightly coloured little cafe with modern and intriguing paintings adorning the walls. I think it was called The Soul Food Cafe. We kept our choices simple here and had a nice bowl of curly fries with an aoli dip and a milkshake for Kate and a smoothie for me. Again we can recommend this place.

Leaving Taihape we decided to take a slight detour from our direct route to head out and see with our own eyes what the Rough Guide describes as one of NZ's most quirky towns - Bulls.

Bulls was founded in 1872 by James Bull and basically it's name allowed the townsfolk to let their immagination run riot with a simple in-joke.

Allow me to give you a couple of examples of this in action. The Bulls medical centre has been named Cure-a-Bull, the bank has been called Bank-a-Bull and the Bulls Police Station has the affectionate moniker of Const-a-Bull. The list goes on, in fact there are currently 97 different "a-Bulls" and you can view them all here. My favourite has to be the utterly rubbish McValue-a-Bull, which is obviously associated with a certain restaurant with a clown as its mascot.

The town is fun, you won't spend long there but it is worth just passing through as what they have done is pretty unbelieve-a-bull (sorry, couldn't resist).

All bulled out we got back on the main route and onto the next stop, the city of Palmeston North.

One of New Zealand’s largest provincial cities, Palmerston North has an attractive historic heart. Many of the original stores built in the 1920s and 1930s have been restored and now function as boutiques, cafes and restaurants. We parked up for about an hour or so to stretch our legs and grab a coffee, unfortunately we didn't have that long so the simple option was to go to Starbucks.

Our other reason for stopping here was to find a cash machine that could confirm our balance. Whilst in Taihape we had withdrawn some money from a Bank of New Zealand machine and out of curiousity had checked our balance at the same time, only to be shown that our funds had diminished down to about 1/3 of what they were the day before when I'd last checked. This was not good news, and had us worrying about what could've happened for next next few hours until we got to another machine. I came up with a theory though that maybe the machine had shown us the amount in UK pounds and stuck a dollar sign in front of it. The more I thought about it the more it made sense, especially when you consider that at the time there were about $2.6 to the pound. This was confirmed to be the case when we finally found a machine in Palmerston North that would tell us the truth. What a relief.

Here's a tip for the rest of you travellers; avoid The Bank of New Zealand machines as they are slow, fiddly and worse still they seem to get confused between pounds and dollars, not something that you want to happen. Good banks to use are The National Bank (Lloyds under a different name), and Westpac.
Both of these banks machines gave us accurate information every single time.

Assured that we had enough money to continue our adventure we drove along to our final destination for the day, Martinborough.

Tonights accomodation was to come in the form of a cottage, Croft Cottage to be exact. Now you know how I've said on previous days that people in New Zealand are incredibly friendly, well what happened when we arrived at Croft Cottage surprised us a little. After knocking a woman opened the door a tad cautiously and before we could tell her who we were she accused us of being Jehovah Witnesses, explained she'd sent an email containing all that she wanted to say and then tried to close the door. Luckily Kate shouted quickly that we were renting the cottage off her that night and suddenly we were welcome again.

Croft Cottage itself was situated right next door to the main residence and was beautiful. It's a 1 double bedroom cottage with a romantic queen size country-style four poster bed. There was also a living area including – as billed on their website – a state-of-the-art electric log fire which the owner seems particularly thrilled about and insisted on getting it lit despite the fact that it took around 10 minutes to do so.

Other extras were TV, Video, CD player , microwave, electric frypan, fridge, tea, coffee, homemade biscuits and special continental breakfast supplies which often includes their own apricots. In fact the cottage was situated behind a good-sized apricot orchard.

We made ourselves comfortable and then prepared for our walk into Martinborough Square.

Now I was really looking forward to getting to Martinborough. From what we could gather from the website and from talking to people who had been there before it is a sleepy little town/village which happens to be at the heart of a serious wine growing region. Sounds great, right? Now I'd probably over romanticised the place in my mind and as such I'd conjured up images of a beautiful square at the centre of the village, cobbled and pedestrianised, with colonial style buildings surrounding it and people sitting outside cafes and bars sipping local wine as the sun went down. I was completely wrong, but in my defence I think the map from the website helped with the magic in my mind.

What is actually in Martinborough is not a lot. There are 4 restaurants, 3 of them almost deserted and the square itself was like a big traffic roundabout with a bit of green and a few trees in the centre and one bar with seats outside on a corner. It's pretty bleak, and felt like it should be located somewhere on the Desert Road with a bit of tumbleweed blowing across it. I was distraught. I had dreamed about this place and it looked nothing like what I'd expected it too. The first and possibly the only disappointment of the holiday.

Moody and sulky (me that is, not Kate), we decided we'd pick a restaurant and then have a walk around the vineyard areas. We settled on Peppers at the Martinborough Hotel (a colonial looking place!), but had a wait of over an hour before we could sit down to eat so it was the perfect time for that walk.

As we strolled through the town the sun came out and by the time we got to the neighboring vineyards a rainbow had appeared.

We took quite a few picture of grapes on the vines, with what sounded like gun shots ringing in our ears – this was the automated bird scarers doing there scaring every 10 minutes or so. It truly was a glorious evening stroll and it really helped me to see the beauty within the place, something that we could've missed if we'd gotten our meal straight away.

Heading back to the restaurant I started to realise the error of my judgement, yes Martinborough wasn't the place I wanted it to be but it is a really nice place in its own rights. However unless you want to do a vineyard tour there is little more than an evenings worth of things to do here.

The meal was great, and in a classy establishment too. Oil and balsamic vinegar dip and bread to start, with lamb once again for Kate and fish for me. The best thing here though was the wine I had to accompany my meal, a lovely local pinot noir which was beautifully fruity and quite possibly one of the best red wines I've ever tasted.

Slighty merry and feeling much better about Martinborough in general we walked back to the cottage in the pitch black and struggled to find the drive as there were no streetlights. Luckily there was some light given off from the night sky and that helped, something else that seemed even more incredible than back home, in fact I was quite mesmerised by the sky that night.

Eventually after fighting our way through the orchard we stumbled through the front door and into bed.