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.


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