Thursday, March 31, 2016

I know, 24 hours simply isn’t enough time to explore New Zealand’s capital city, but that’s what we had at the tail end of our trip.

Still, we managed to have a wonderful time in Welly after our morning ferry boat ride from Pictonto Wellington. Here’s a recap of our brief stay in Wellington, which may help you if you also plan a trip to this part of  New Zealand.

Seaside Seafood Lunch
After taking a ferry boat across the Cook Straight, we immediately settled in for lunch at Shed5. This former woolshed that faces the harbor was recommended by fellow foodie and blogger friend, Meg of Notorious MEG, who lived in Welly for several months.

Along with a bottle of Marlborough Sauv-Blanc, we ordered six oysters and three seafood appetizers to share. My favorite was a ceviche salad of flash cured tuna and Akaroa salmon with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, avocado mousse and olive oil caviar.
Another recommended restaurant is Prefab Café, which features a seasonal menu and locally-roasted coffee.

Wellington Botanic Gardens
After dropping off our luggage, we headed out to explore the city. We took the historic, red cable car to the top of hill where the Wellington Botanic Gardens is located. The lush gardens cover 25-hectacres of protected land with native forest, rose gardens and giant pine trees. We admired the city views over the harbor and meandered through the gardens.
Wandering the Waterfront
To get a good taste of Welly, I think it’s best to spend some time strolling along the waterfront to Oriental Bay. The seaside is a beautifully walkable space dotted with cafés, parks, sculptures, bars and even food trucks. After work, we met one of my husband’s colleagues and his wife for a drink near the crowded Queens Wharf.    
Dining in the CBD
With so many places to choose from in the CBD, it’s difficult to decide where to eat. Luckily we simply had to follow our Kiwi friends to Hummingbird Eatery & Bar, a local pub with good food. We covered the NZ basics and ordered mussels, lamb, a steak and locally-caught snapper. We also found some local street art in the area.
Connecting with Cuba
Oddly, Wellington has a connection to Cuba with a bustling, pedestrian-only street aptly called Cuba Street. Though the street is named after an 1840s ship, many establishments have taken up the Caribbean theme. Fidel Café is a popular place for breakfast and coffee. We opted for an after-dinner drink at Havana Bar, a local speakeasy-style bar hidden inside two historic cottages. You’re pretty much required to have a rum-based cocktail here or perhaps a Cuban cigar.
Shopping Along the “Golden Mile”
After enjoying a hearty breakfast at the boutique Bolton Hotel where we stayed, we set out to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. Neither of us really enjoys shopping, but we needed to find a few gifts. Fortunately, we were within walking distance to the “Golden Mile” formed by Lambton Quay, Willis Street, Manners Street and Courtenay Place. We discovered some charming, local shops at the Old Bank Arcade (also known as the Bank of New Zealand building). The designated-historical building, completed in 1901, was built on the site of the Plimmer’s Ark, an 1840s wooden ship that later was converted into a prominent wharf.
If you love honey, don't miss out on trying the local Manuka honey. Delicious!
Learning about Local Culture
Walking in sunshine along the boardwalk, we headed to the Museum Of New Zealand Te PapaTongarewa to learn a bit about the local Maori culture. The free museum, except for special exhibits, features an impressive collection of Maori artifacts and cultural treasures. I was particularly impressed with the wood-carved Te Hono ki Hawaiki (meeting house), which depicts the links to Hawaiki, the spiritual homeland from which the first arrivals to NZ came. The meeting house is gorgeous!
We spent a little over an hour at the museum, but easily could have stayed longer. If we had more time, I had wanted to see the current Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War, an exhibit telling the story of WWI through eight New Zealanders.
Also, don’t miss the nearby Maori Arts Gallery which sells beautifully-carved, local green gemstones in the form of necklaces and earrings.

Although we missed out hiking to the top of Mount Victoria Lookout, I think we did a fairly decent job of covering Welly in 24 hours.

My Traveling Joys

This post is linked up with #WeekendWanderlust by travel bloggers A Southern Gypsy, A Brit and a SouthernerJustin Plus Lauren. Hop on over to see more travel stories!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Since we’ve travelled about every other weekend since January, we thought we would spend a staycation right here in Melbourne.

For Easter in Australia, people are given off both Good Friday and the Monday after Easter, so hubby had four entire days off from work. What would we do with ourselves?

If you’re a regular reader here, you’ll know that we don’t sit still very often. We keep ourselves busy by exploring new destinations, eating at new restaurants and hitting the road. Unfortunately, we were obligated to take care of some normal day-to-day activities like our American taxes, grocery shopping, doing laundry, calling our parents, etc. However, we still found plenty of time to discover some new things in Melbourne and enjoy our pleasant autumn weather here.

Soaking up Sunshine and Culture Along the Yarra River
Since we live in Southbank, we regularly walk along the Yarra River, which divides the city’s CBD from the other nearby neighborhoods. The river isn’t exactly picturesque as we often see trash floating in the muddy waters. But the Southbank Waterfront is a pleasurable place to enjoy an afternoon walk or drink. We did both.
A local wine and cheese plate at home.
On Sunday, we tried to see the Andy Warhol exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria, but the ticket line was like an hour-long deep. (Note to self: save time and buy the tickets online before April 24th.) Instead, we visited NGV’s collection of 17th-19th century art and the architecture park outside.
For a few laughs, we attended two evening shows as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. We haven’t seen a decent comedy show in a long while (minus watching political-satire comedians John Oliver, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert on television) and already are planning to see a few more shows this coming weekend.

Trying New Restaurants
We love food and decided to try some new-to-us restaurants. For Friday night dinner before the show, we dined at Pastuso, a Peruvian tapas bar along the popular ACDC laneway. This place has been on my must-try list for a while and ended up being one of the better meals we’ve had in Melbourne so far!

We started off with pisco sours to drink and a dish of red snapper ceviche garnished with crunchy, roasted Andean corn kernels. We moved on to coriander tamales with shredded duck confit, melt-in-your-mouth 12-hour roasted beef ribs and chewy fried cassava chips with spicy rocoto mayo. We also tried a dish of 30-day-dry-aged alpaca loin tartare that was mildly spiced and quite flavorful. Llama is delicious! We ended the meal with an intense chocolatey dessert topped with fairy floss (aka…cotton candy).
Celebrating our 6th Wedding Anniversary
On Saturday night, we dressed up a bit and dined at the 160-year-old Melbourne institution known as the Railway Hotel near Port Melbourne. We wanted to celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary with a special dinner. This historic hotel-pub is known for its dry-aged steaks, but is definitely not a dressy place as we found ourselves surrounded by sports paraphernalia and TVs showing the current footy game. Still, the service was good and the steaks certainly were some of the best we’ve tried here. As a Midwestern girl, beef is quite sacred to me and these steaks were top notch! You can even select your steak from the counter in front of the grill!
Easter Celebrations
In the days leading up to Easter, I figured out two things about Australia’s Easter traditions. First of all, Aussies are obsessed about hot cross buns! These spiced and fruit-speckled buns are baked in every bakery shop and grocery store around the city. People line up for special ones that might be chocolate glazed, chocolate chipped or filled with ice cream in the middle. I tried a few gluten-free versions and wasn’t impressed while hubby licked his fingers clean after sampling a chocolate hot cross bun from Chez Dre in Southbank.
Secondly, Easter is just another excuse to eat good chocolate. I stopped at KokoBlack and Haigh’s Chocolates, both well-known local chocolate shops that were mobbed with people. I bought a small bagful of chocolate eggs to keep us entertained.
A home-cooked Easter dinner with roasted herbed lamb, basalmic-glazed cippolinis and roasted root veggies.
Lavender Farm in the Countryside
Well, we almost spent the entire weekend in Melbourne. On Easter Monday, two friends invited us for a drive and lunch out in the countryside. We had a good pub meal in Daylesford (about 90-minutes away), wandered around a bit and then spent the afternoon at the Lavendula Swiss Italian Farm in Hepburn Springs. The farm, started in the 1850s by a Swiss-Italian family, features gorgeous French-like lavender fields and manicured gardens. You could simply spend an hour strolling through the heavenly-scented gardens and admire the resident farm animals too.
The café is filled with rustic charm, and there are plenty of lavender-scented delights like champagne, lemonade, buttery scones and chocolate brownies to tempt you. Plus, don’t forget to stop in the farm shop on your departure for lavender soaps, aromatherapy and body products, lavender bundles and sachets and much more.
As you can see, even though we had a “staycation,” we kept ourselves plenty busy here in Melbourne!

How did you spend the Easter weekend where you live?

My Traveling Joys

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Besides travelling by train, I love a good ferry boat ride! I miss the near weekly ferry rides we took while living in Istanbul!

In order to travel between the North and South Islands of New Zealand, we decided to take a 3-hour ferry ride from the seaside town of Picton to Wellington, where we would spend one night. The journey crosses the Cook Straight (known as Raukawa Moana in Māori), which is the connection between the Tasman Sea on the West, the South Pacific Ocean on the East and the NZ North and South Islands.

On the morning of our departure, we had a slight snafu when we learned the car rental drop-off was on the opposite side of the port where our ferry boat was. There are two ferry operators – Interislander or Bluebridge – and we had selected Bluebridge simply based on the timing. Luckily, we caught the hourly free shuttle bus to the Bluebridge terminal so we didn’t have to trek 15-minutes with our luggage trailing behind us.

50 Shades of Blue
Leaving the port, we were greeted with a gentle breeze, early spring sunshine and beautiful vistas of the Queen Charlotte Sound. The sound is filled with lots of bays, inlets and secret coves as well as sandy beaches, verdant forests, rolling hills and several mussel and oyster farms. The water changes to 50 different shades of blue as you can see in these photos.
The surrounding area is absolutely stunning on a clear day!

I spent most of our journey outside, taking countless pictures of the northernmost bits of the South Island, every one more beautiful than the previous. Every trip I take hundreds of photos because I never know if we’ll return or not, especially since NZ seems so far away from the rest of the world.
This was a solitary farm (see the tiny cows?) in what seemed like the middle of nowhere!
Great views, but definitely a different lifestyle!
The Choppy Cook Straight
As we prepared to enter the Cook Straight, the winds picked up considerably and waves starting rocking the ferry boat a bit. I took a few more photos of the rocky coastline of the last bit of the South Island before we entered the open sea. The straight is considered one of the most dangerous and has caused many shipwrecks over the years.
Not surprisingly, the straight is named after British Captain James Cook who “discovered” Australia in 1770 and thereafter first found this sea passage from the Pacific Ocean to the Tasman Sea by New Zealand. He also sheltered his ships in the Queen Charlotte Sound during his exploration voyages.

With the boat rocking, I headed downstairs to our seats. We nibbled on some leftover cheese and crackers and sipped a partial bottle of our Marlborough wine. The wine was needed to calm my nerves, of course, because I sometimes get seasick.
The rest of the journey was uneventful and we arrived safely into the Wellington harbor. I was already planning on where we would eat lunch, but that’s another post.
Docking at the Wellington harbour.
Ferry information:
·       The ferry boat ride took 3 ½ hours from Picton to Wellington. The boats also depart from Wellington several times a day.

·       We booked our tickets nearly a month in advance and some time slots were already sold out. My suggestion is to reserve your tickets in advance if you want a particular time or day.

·       Our one-way tickets cost 118NZ or about $80USD - $40 per person. A good deal for a beautiful journey on the water!

My Traveling Joys

This post is linked up with #WeekendWanderlust by travel bloggers JustinPlusLauren. Hop on over to see more travel stories.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Shortly after we moved to Australia, I fell in love with Sauavignon Blanc wines!

To be exact, I fell head over heels with the Sauv Blanc produced in the Marlborough region of New Zealand. I swear I’ve never tasted wines that were so aromatic, crisp, fruity and had that unmistakable mineral taste – one of the region’s well-known characteristics. I look for these NZ wines whenever we dine out now.

In December, we spent two nights in the small town of Blenheim where many of the area’s 60 wineries are located nearby. Coming from the West Coast, we knew we were close once we started seeing vineyards that stretched as far as the eye could see.

Tucked away at the South Island’s northern tip amongst the plains of the Wairau River, the Marlborough region is New Zealand’s leading wine producing area. Marlborough’s grape growing magic is based on its ideal climate and fertile soil. The weather conditions are perfect for growing the cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc grape – dry, warm and sunny days, complemented by cool nights. Unfortunately, we experienced a bit of cloudy skies during our stay, but we still managed to taste a bit of wine.

  • Did you know that Marlborough produces 75% of New Zealand’s wine?

  • Did you know that 85% of NZ wine production comes from the Sauvignon Blanc grapes?
To take advantage of all these glorious wines, we booked a wine tour in advance through Bubbly Grape Wine Tours. That way no one needed to worry about driving. Our minivan carried 15 passengers and included Brits, a handful of Germans, two French ladies, a Turkish woman and another American besides ourselves. If you’re not a fan of organized tours, you can use this Wine Trail Map to create your own DIY winery tour.

Here are the wine tour’s highlights and the places we stopped at that day:

Our guide had previously worked at our first stop, Saint Clair, a family-owned vineyard near the Wairau River. In 1978, the Ibbotson family started growing grapes here which were supplied to local wine companies, but started producing their own wines in 1994. The name is based on the Sinclair family who first settled the land in the 1850s.
According to my notes, my favorite wines here were the Barrique, a unique Sauv Blanc that is aged in oak barrels, and the Pioneer Syrah 2011. I also like the estate’s base Sauv Blanc for its passion fruit and apricot flavors.
Rock Ferry
Next we headed to Rock Ferry, another small family-owned winery, which ended up being our favorite of the entire day. After working in the wine business for several years, the Hutchisons created their own label in 2005 and were certified organic in 2009. The winery uses organic farming practices and tries to serve organic produce at its café as often as possible.
Rock Ferry’s Sauvignon Blanc tasted typical of the area, but was really good. I also liked the barrel-fermented Sauv Blanc, a Pinot Blanc which would be good with seafood, the 2012 Tempranillo (which we ranked 4.5 out of 5) and the 2014 Chardonnay (4 out of 5). I wonder if the winery’s organic practices made the wines taste better to us.

Our third stop was at Cloudy Bay, one of the first wine makers to set up shop in 1985, and now considered one of the region’s lead winemaker. Cloudy Bay’s founder, David Hohnen, established grapevines here at a time when it was an “unimaginable place to set-up a vineyard.” It’s difficult now to see how that idea was possible.
What I like about Cloudy Bay is that its Sauv Blanc is reliable – you know what you’re buying and you won’t be disappointed. I also like the brand’s Pelarous, a crisp, sparkling Chardonnay-Pinot Noir blend.

For lunch, we literally drove across the same road to Allan Scott, another independent, family-owned winery, first established in 1990. Our group had a delicious lunch here – New Zealand salmon for me and roasted lamb for hubby. The local restaurant is in a beautiful setting with a babbling fountain.
Unfortunately, by this point, neither one of us was taking wine tasting notes. I’m sure the wine must have been good as nearly all the wines we had tried in Marlborough were.
A photographer's selfie!
After lunch, we headed over to a local winery that specializes in sparkling wines. The Le Brun family started the business in 1997 using the same Champagne-making method the father’s family in France has used for 12 generations. The sparkling was quite good, and we bought a large bottle to drink on Christmas Day.
Our last stop at Brancott Estate Wines featured the most impressive views over the Marlborough region. Perched on a hilltop, Brancott has grown to become New Zealand’s largest producer and exporter of Sauvignon Blanc wine since the first grape vines were planted in 1975.

I’m positive Brancott is even lovelier when the sun is shining.
Moa Brewing Co.
The day before our wine tour, we did a beer tasting at Moa Brewing Co., a local craft brewery, located next to Cloudy Bay. Interestingly, the brewery was started by Josh Scott, son of Allan Scott, so wine and beer can go together hand in hand. Moa is named after the country’s extinct, giant bird that once roamed the area.
If you’re more of a beer lover, definitely stop at Moa and enjoy some of their award-winning craft beers!

In the town of Blenheim, we stayed at this charming Airbnb, owned by two helpful Kiwis, Frank and Maria. The couple had just started renting out two bedrooms in the back of their historic home that had their own ensuites. Generally, we prefer to stay by ourselves, but the house’s layout was perfect and quiet. We couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful Airbnb experience. Plus, the local neighbors were quite playful.
After having a much-needed nap following our wine tour, we wandered over to the recommended Dodson Street Beer Garden, a German bierhaus complete with large mugs of local and German beers. We ordered a few dishes to share and somehow managed to try some local cider and beer. 
As you can see the Marlborough region may best be known for its Sauv Blanc, but you’ll find a surprisingly wide selection of other wines and beers and of course, spectacular views and hospitality. We easily could have spent more than two days here!

Have you been to Marlborough? If not, where is your favorite wine region in the world?

My Traveling Joys