Sunday, March 23, 2014

From TV to Tahiti via Paradise

Yes, shocking resolution, sorry about that, it's what happens when you actually photograph the TV screen. Ok, sorry too about the primitive, untechnological skills on display here. But all that aside, what you see is a capture from the current TV advertisement for the BMW X5, which is shown powering through a series of spectacular scenes (all right, less of the powering in this particular shot - no sheep were presumably harmed, etc). All of them, or very nearly, are in the South Island and, if you've been paying attention to my more recent blogs, you will recognise this one as quickly as I did. No? Tch. Well, how about this, then:
Now you see it: it's the Dart Valley at Paradise, at the top of Lake Wakatipu, and these are some of the people on my Paradise Trail cycle ride with Revolution Tours a couple of weeks ago, heading off along the same dirt road to its end beside the Dart River. Magnificent scenery, literally movie-star glamorous, it's in constant demand for film, TV and advertisement locations. The owner of the Paradise station makes more money from permissions than from sheep, I believe. And you can just see why, can't you? Those peaks are classic profiles, great from any angle.

Speaking of Paradise, I'm away again on Thursday to somewhere that's commonly described that way, in ad-speak anyway: Tahiti. Yes, more turquoise water, this time with palm trees and snorkelling, plus croissants and baguettes and Bonjour! Bienvenue! Ca va? Also with the manta rays, sharks and quad-biking, plus stand-up paddle-boarding. (I can't help remembering that the last time I did anything similarly aquatic, it was sailing a dinghy in Fiji, and I had to be fetched back on the end of a rope after heading helplessly towards the horizon.) This time there will be no over-water bungalows, spa treatments or fancy dinners with French champagne for me. No, it's all about showing how Tahiti can be cheap and exciting, so I'm going to be self-catered and active. We travel writers don't always get it all our own way, you know.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Shaking - or shivering?

Since this was, is and will be the only time in my entire life that I am described as either a mover or a shaker - hell, let's go with both - it deserves recording. This flattering entry is in today's Press Room daily summary in the run-up to next month's IPW Travel Conference in Chicago. It's a massive marketplace where travel and tourism operators, buyers and media come together for some intensive consultation and networking: it's been going for years but this is my first time attending, and it's all slightly scary. It's also going to be a marathon, the days full of meetings and the evenings all about making contacts, so though I'll be staying at the Hilton I won't be seeing much of my room.

It's going to be a great opportunity to connect with people and set up future trips to write about, and I'm also looking forward to to the events that various tourism operations are hosting. Apparently the San Francisco one is unmissable; and I have high hopes of the Disneyland one, too (the famil to Anaheim for the opening of the Finding Nemo ride years ago now is still a vivid memory). What there won't be, sadly, is much in the way of free time for exploring the city, though I am doing a couple of tours. It's an exciting destination with so much going on, amazing architecture (they invented the skyscraper there, did you know: all of 10 storeys), great food, lots of diversity, wonderful museums and art galleries, and so on and on. Oh, and the lake right there, of course.

Though boy, it's been cold there. I've been watching, and this winter has been tough, with lots of snow and negative double figures. The photos of the frozen lake were horrifying, though beautiful. Even now it's still -4 or colder at night, and during the day mostly just single figures; I can only imagine what the wind must feel like ('Windy City', remember). Augh! Because, not only will I be coming from what has been a very hot and dry summer here that's still clinging on, but en route I'll be spending a week in Tahiti, where the temperatures are hovering around 30 degrees. Again, augh! This trip is going to be a sod to pack for.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Matakauri Lodge: I beat you to it, Wills and Kate

So, in the papers this morning, the tabloid Herald on Sunday got all excited about revealing where Prince William and Kate are going to stay for their night in Queenstown next month, while the broadsheet Sunday Star-Times put a teaser on the front page and wrote about it inside in great detail but "chose not to name" the lodge after disdainfully noting that the Daily Mail had "inadvertently identified the luxury lodge" and mentioning security concerns. Which would be all very proper and responsible if - by sheer coincidence, obviously - they hadn't run a two-page travel story about Matakauri Lodge in their Escape section.
I could have written that. In fact, I did, for the HoS, after staying there in 2006 (before an ownership change and some alterations, but it's still essentially the same place). I reckon it's got the best views of any hotel in the area - yes, even including Blanket Bay, where *cough* I've also stayed. Why? Absolutely the views. Blanket Bay is brilliant, but Matakauri has the advantage of being perched on a cliff above Lake Wakatipu, just 10 minutes out of Queenstown but feeling miles away, with glorious views across the water to the Humboldt Ranges, the Remarkables also within sight, and the only sign of human habitation Walter Peak Station across the lake.
There's also the dear old Earnslaw fussing back and forth, but she's an asset to any scene; and at the beginning and end of the day a handful of little planes doing the Milford Sound run, looking ridiculously tiny against that magnificent jagged rocky backdrop.
You can see all of this glory from everywhere: dining room, spa, pool of course, but also, in my slate, schist and timber villa, from the terrace outside, from the living room, the bed and even the bath. Now that's a real treat, to lie back with bubbles popping under your chin and look out on all that natural splendour.
If it had been summer, I could have slid open the window for real connection; alternatively, had it been winter, I could have put on my fluffy robe and gone to sip wine in front of the log fire. As it was, I had to content myself with a massage and salty foot scrub there instead, before heading to the dining room for something delicious enough to drag my attention away from the view. It's a real treat to stay at Matakauri Lodge - and I say that without having seen the top-of-the-range Owner's Cottage the royals are to have. Wills and Kate are going to love it.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Lusi times two

This is Lusi. She was a shy but friendly five year-old about ten years ago, who took me by the hand when I arrived in her remote village in the Yasawa Islands in Fiji, and showed me proudly around her bare-bones school. There was neat cursive handwriting on the blackboard, a single netball hoop in a circle of beaten dirt in the playground, and a mixed group of cheerful pupils waiting to sing songs for us - like 'The Wheels on the Bus', on an island where there were no buses or cars, or probably even much in the way of wheels. But it seemed a laid-back, comfortable sort of life under the palm trees there, surrounded by warm seas full of fish.

I always wonder though, whether they saw us white visitors from our even whiter ship out in the bay as just a diversion, or as a source of envy. In lots of third-world places on the tourist trail, we're seen as a resource, and that's fine; but in the endless quest to divert from the beaten track (as much for mere bragging rights as anything else) many communities are being introduced to things they've never dreamed of, and could never attain; and that way lies discontent and disintegration. It's the traveller's conundrum: how to discover and explore new places, without destroying them in the process. We're all Livingstons, in our way.

Speaking of destruction, this is Lusi too: a tropical cyclone that's worked her way down here from the Pacific, giving all the Met and media people plenty of time to talk her up into "a beast of a storm" with subsequent battening-down of hatches throughout the country, cancellations of outdoor events and general disaster preparation. Why, I even removed the pottery chicken from the table out on the deck! But, so far, this Lusi's turning out to be a bit shy too, and isn't looking likely to be as memorable as the other. Not that I'm complaining...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

And to think I actually went all the way to the Canadian Rockies...

Two stories are already written about my Revolution Tours cycle ride along the far shore of Lake Wakatipu, all the way to the top. The icy wind, straight off the fresh snow on the peaks, scarcely registers any more, and the toil of working up the hills is forgotten - now it's all about the glorious scenery sparkling in the sunshine, the eternal thrill of whizzing down the slopes, stones pinging out from under my wheels, splashing through fords, and all the yummy food we ate. There was no losing weight on this trip, despite all that healthy exercise: all it did was generate an equally healthy appetite that was more than sated by so much irresistibly delicious food.

But what really spun my wheels (sorry) was being outside all day in such beautiful surroundings, changing from lake to farmland to bush to river flats, all surrounded by mountains, experiencing the changes in the weather, and feeling connected with it all in a way that you never can in a car, sealed inside your metal box. You can't appreciate the freshness of the air, the good farm smells and the damp bush, or hear the bellbirds, magpies and yellowheads, the water splashing over the rocks, the waves on the lake breaking on the shore.

Walking is just as good for that, of course, and the Routeburn day walk made a refreshing change from the cycling. On the tour, not everybody did the tramp, a couple of people staying at Paradise Lodge for what they thought would be a quiet day, not anticipating the activity of a Subaru ad photo-shoot. That end of the lake has appeared on film so many times - not just in Peter Jackson's Tolkien epics, but many others as well, even X-Men Wolverine (although, onscreen, it was labelled 'Canadian Rockies' pft) - and there's no marvelling at that at all. It's mind-blowingly photogenic, and on a still, golden evening just too pretty for words. So here's a photo instead.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Goodbye to Paradise

One of the nice things about this Revolution Tour (and there are very many) is that spending several days in one area, exploring it by bike, on foot and by car, I've come to feel a connection with this amazing scenery. I've heard the stories, learned the names, made my own memories; and it will always be a special place for me now - as special as even those who live here always know that it is.

We went to the end of Paradise Road this perfect morning, coasting along with some splashy ford adventures, and I wasn't the only one to slow down at the end, to try to make it last longer; and to be really reluctant to finally let go of my bike.

But then we walked out into the Dart River valley for our last picnic lunch, the glories of the scenery somewhat modified by the voracious sandflies. A jetboat swirled past, a helicopter clattered overhead, and then we turned and headed back to civilisation ourselves.

I had a bit of a reprieve: a personal photography tutorial with Laurence, visiting locations around Glenorchy to record them with my camera frighteningly set to Manual. It was great - watch this space later for evidence.

If you have to return to civilisation, you might as well make it properly civilised, so here I am at the Sofitel, with champagne by the bath and Baileys and nougat by the bed. Could be worse, I suppose.... (NB Photo taken after depredations already made to the cheese, etc.)

Legs and lamb

No biking today: instead we were driven up to the start of the Routeburn Track, a 3-day tramp over the Divide to the Milford road (but which Matt has run in 4 hours, so no more sympathy for him over having the big trailer behind his bike). It was another glorious day and though I've done this walk before, it was pure pleasure to follow the extremely well-made path through the beech trees, past cliche tumbling mountain streams.

There was coffee and lemon loaf on a stony beach by the river, and a bit of drama as Matt had to run after and retrieve a stray group member, falling and dislocating his finger in the process (actually, absolutely no drama at all about that).

Then it was another 5km or so to the grassy river flat for lunch surrounded by peaks and beech forest: just another cliche tourist scenario really, ho hum. Not.

And on our return to Paradise Lodge, a welcome-back huge platter of cheeses and super-tender lamb to dip into wild mint sauce; before a feast of freshly manuka-smoked salmon, lamb shanks with garlic, salads and veg, then apple and blackberry crumble and cream. All prepared by Matt's father Laurence, a man of many talents.

Finally bed, after stepping outside to admire the Milky Way in all its spectacular un-light-polluted glory. A good day.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Paradise - no exit

I've quite fancied heading to Wyoming to see the Grand Tetons - but actually it turns out that Mt Aspiring National Park is distinctly Tetonesque, I reckon. It helps, of course, that it's been a crisp, clear day with all the edges sharp: lovely for cycling, when the wind was behind us, of course.

Day Two of our Revolution Tour was easy, mostly flat with only a couple of modest hills, and even some tar seal today. We crossed both the Dart and Rees Rivers, wide expanses of gravel with clear and cloudy streams winding through them. Then we left the lake behind, heading up the Rees valley towards Paradise, with lunch beside the - literally - glacial waters of the Earnslaw Burn.

Then it wasn't far to Paradise, the first tourism operation on the lake, way, way back in the 1880s. We passed the lovely Arcadia Homestead with its sad love story, and got to Paradise Lodge, tucked under its huge chestnut. It's a delight, restored to its heyday condition and beautifully done.

Matt and Kate have stocked the fridge, the fire was set (and soon lit) and everyone made themselves right at home. Tonight we have the sophistication of Glenorchy to look forward to, and there will be pizza! (With, it turned out, of a whole lot of bull en route.)

Monday, March 3, 2014

Bikes and Baby Boomers

So today was the start of the Paradise Trail with Revolution Tours - that is, ten of us punters plus Matt and Kate, whose operation this is. They're full of positive energy, so last night's snow, this morning's showers and the icy wind deterred them not a bit. Coffeed up, we sailed across the lake in the snug warmth of the TSS Earnslaw, fuelled up again (clearly this is going to be a theme) on scones and ginger slice in the lovely old homestead - and then set off.

I like my bike: the seat is comfortable, the handlebars aren't too low, and the gears are easy to operate. Which is not to say that the hills were easy to handle, and there was pushing - but mostly it was pretty manageable, as well as plain pretty, if that's not too much of an oxymoron for you. The sun came out, the lake was turquoise, the hills golden, the peaks white and sharp, and the sky blue. Glorious!

There was also lunch in a woolshed smelling of lanolin, a cafe selection of teas and coffees on a pebbly beach, a bouncy ride in a water-taxi, and a ride through a beech forest ringing with bellbirds.

And now we're at Kinloch Lodge, here since 1868, where the jolly Baby Boomer ladies are up the hill laughing in the spa while their husbands are growling away together around the table in the lounge. There will be mussels, venison and pavlova tonight, and a well-earned sleep in a comfortable bed - once I've removed nine or so pillows and cushions.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

South is at the top

Despite the hideously early start (5.15am alarm but actually a 4.15am wake-up - nothing cool and laid-back about my pre-travel excitement) it's great to be on the road again. Well, in the air, flying the length of the country to gorgeous Queenstown. It's always a joy to be back amongst South Island scenery, all bare brown hills and rocky peaks, after all that lush green lumpy stuff up north. This is where I really feel at home. But surely no-one can land at Queenstown, wheeling in above the turquoise lake beside the so perfectly-named Remarkables, and not feel a thrill? Or at least relief that the roller-coaster ride is over. (Bit bumpy this morning.)

Turquoise lake? the old hands will be querying. Yes, Wakatipu's like Pukaki right now, since the big landslide up in the Dart Valley a month or so ago, which is adding rock flour to the water. It's really noticeable up at the Glenorchy end, and I'll be getting a closer look at that in a few days' time once I've cycled there. Oh yes, that's why I'm here: to spend three days pedalling around the far shore of the lake, in the tender hands of Revolution Tours, who I'm assured will be taking good care of me. Well, of course! Paradise is on the itinerary. Literally. (Watch this space.)

But today is all about Queenstown: clear, clear water, ducks and gulls, yellowing poplars and willows, schist and pebbles, green and gold. And lots of people, walking, cycling, jogging, drinking coffee and wine, watching an African skiffle band playing in the Mall while two toddlers tangoed together. And it's also, this evening, about some rain, sadly, with the TSS Earnslaw - 100 years old, year before last - doughtily steaming off across the lake to disappear into the murk. It's tempting to hole up in my lovely Alpine Suite at the St Moritz, with its Gordon Walters koru painting above the soft, warm bed, and its balcony views over lake and mountains. But the Dux de Lux* brew pub is out there with its ginger beer; and Josh Emett's Rata, which I once reviewed without having even been inside. Duty calls...
* Gone! Concentrating instead on their Christchurch operation! Tragic. But ah! Rata! Fat, juicy, just-in-season Bluff oysters, yum! Stewart Island crayfish risotto! They forgot my salad, but gave me an extra glass of Drumsara rose in compensation. And then the server recommend the apple dessert with the PEANUT BUTTER ICE CREAM. Case closed. (This May be the Drumsara speaking. But I think not.)

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