Dolphins and Waterfalls at Milford Sound

If I’m honest, I’m not a boat person at all.

I have too many bad memories of motion sickness from my past. But I do make an exception for dolphins, waterfalls, and fjords, all of which are in New Zealand’s Milford Sound.

Milford Sound’s landscape is  one of the most serene places I’ve ever been to. You can explore it by hiking for several days, or by boat. There are even overnight boat tours.

From Queenstown, we hopped on the BBQ Bus which led us through winding mountain passes. There were lots of scenic stops along the way and lots of information from our tour guide (er, everything you could want to know about the kiwi bird and also some stuff about his marriage we didn’t want to know). Once we were on the boat, the guide prepared us a barbecued lunch.  

One of the nicest stops was at the Mirror Lakes above. You really could see everything reflected in that water! The other picture on the right was taken right before a hundred Chinese tourists stormed the view.

Because the weather was so overcast, I was a bit worried about rain and how the boat trip would prevail… Rocky and uncomfortable? Bad visibility?  Humid and crowded inside?

But all that anxiety was for nothing, because it was really nice.

In addition to fun talk (I’m something of a magnet for college girls) and a great lunch of lamb kebabs, we enjoyed dolphins playing RIGHT NEXT to the boat.

I was pretty excited to capture these two little guys and now I sort of wish I were a National Geographic wildlife photographer.

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Milford Sound is located on the southwest side of the New Zealand’s South Island. It was a bit of a journey to get there by bus from Queenstown, but it was so worth it.

Christchurch Farmer’s Market

Enjoying the “Happy Buttie” sandwich at the Farmer’s Market

All the meals we had in New Zealand were great, but one of my favorite food experiences was the Farmer’s Market in Christchurch.

We almost missed it completely, though because … we had no idea it existed.

In fact, if I hadn’t been bored on the plane and hadn’t absentmindedly browsed one of those airplane magazines that people NEVER look at, we would’ve lost out forever.  I’m so glad for random airplane magazines. You too?

Anyway, to get this farmer’s market, we walked from our hotel through a couple little neighborhoods and a big city park. It turned out to the most lovely local setting right next to a little canal. 

What can I say about the offerings?

Well, there were so many beautiful looking fruits, vegetables, and pastries to buy and some new-to-me local specialties too, like feijoas and NZ Afghan cookies. More to come on those…

We spent some time browsing all the vendors, getting inspired by quite a few things.

But there was a HUGE line to get bacon breakfast sandwiches, and we knew we couldn’t resist. I mean, check out the menu.

How cute is the “Happy Buttie”? It comes with a long list of yummy things and a HUG! (My husband turned down the hug, but of course, I obliged)

Anyway, this sandwich was so good, and we’ve actually made this at home twice since coming back. (On a side note, it seemed like almost everything in NZ comes with these colorful fresh greens)

The other thing we had to try was “Posh Porridge.” The concept is so simple, and I’m sort of shocked we don’t see this at farmer’s markets in the States much.

Basically, it’s organic oats topped with all sorts of tasty things. We got the banana, sticky date, peanut butter, and chocolate version. Look closely at the picture and you will see they did NOT skimp on the chocolate.

I loved it, and I’m so glad I got a picture of the sign, because I’m planning to make all those versions as well (blueberry and lemon curd, oh yes).

Finally, can we talk about these Afghan cookies?

So these were a new completely new discovery to me (have you ever heard of them?), but they are a really popular treat in New Zealand.

This chocolate cookie has cornflakes in the dough, a thick swirl of chocolate on top, and a crunchy walnut. You can buy them in bakeries and grocery stores and we tried at least a couple versions of them in New Zealand.

I’m officially hooked and have googled recipes for homemade versions as well.

You see, this is why I LOVE travel. It’s all comes down to the cookies.

Exploring Otago Region, NZ

Queenstown is a perfect location to spend a few days as your home base on the South Island.

From there, you can explore the Otago region for its lakes, glacier mountain pools, historic Gold Rush towns, and wineries. We thought about doing a few organized tours, but in the end, opted for the flexibility of a rental car.

Our first order of business was a visit to the stunning Blue Pools.

It was a little out of the way north of Wanaka, but it was worth it.

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You drive into Mount Aspiring National Park (isn’t that a great name?), then walk through a small wild mossy green forest across a wobbly suspension bridge, and then you reach these jewel colored pools that are absolutely clear to the bottom.

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This particular day was so dismal and overcast and I really didn’t think the water would be so vibrant. I thought there needed to be sun to get that gorgeous glittering blue, but I was so wrong.

The pools were the most beautiful color! They get their distinctive hue from light refraction of particles in the icy mountain water.

It’s sort of crazy to think about this beautiful place in nature just hiding in middle of a dense forest. I wonder how many more undiscovered places lie waiting around the world? And I wonder what the first people to come upon these pools thought about their discovery. 

Don’t you want to jump in?

After the blue pools, we did some more driving through Wanaka region, stopping to take pictures at every turn and seeing lots of sheep dotted across the countryside.

This photo sort of looks like a folk art painting to me. I love how there’s a layer of mist hanging low over the small village.

Remember our wine-tasting day at Waiheke Island where we befriended several New Zealand ladies? Well, one of the places they highly recommend to us was the Cardona Hotel.

This historic spot was built in the 1860s for gold miners. Today it’s a cozy little stop between Queenstown and Wanaka, and the food was fantastic! In addition to the tiniest retro sink in the bathroom (you could only fit one hand in at a time!) I’ll always remember this place for serving one of the best coffees I’ve ever had. (Eventually, I’m planning to write a post about New Zealanders and their obsession with coffee!)

Driving back to Queenstown, we took advantage of our rental car to visit the Gibbston Valley winery and cheesy. (Yes, cheesery is a word, I learned on this trip.)

This charming winery with its red barn buildings, birds, and rose garden (still hanging on even in early winter) was so picturesque.

We spent a little relaxing while here sampling a few of their sheep and goat cheeses along with some glasses of Otago wine. There is a nice restaurant there too, where I would have loved to eat dinner, but we had plans in Queenstown for a meal instead.

Overall, our plan to rent a car and plot our own itinerary from Queenstown was the right decision. In fact, I highly recommend you do that if you’re planning a trip here too. There’s just so much interesting scenery and stops and you’ll want the flexibility to pull off the road when you want to.

 

 

 

 

Queenstown. NZ

I’m excited to share with you our time in Queenstown, New Zealand.

In recent months whenever I mentioned this trip to friends and colleagues, they always said, “You have to go to Queenstown!”

Mountains. Fresh air. Beautiful views. Outdoor adventures.

And I’m so glad we followed their advice. This mountain village has it all.

We stayed at the Novotel Queenstown Lakeside with views facing Lake Wakatipu. All this beauty was literally steps away.

The first afternoon we spent leisurely walking around the lake and soaking up the beautiful winter sun. Queenstown is on the southwestern side of the South Island, so it was quite a bit cooler here than Auckland. It was bright and sunny, but a down coat was definitely needed!queenstown-5

The next morning, we took the gondola up to the peak overlooking the city. We were lucky that the clouds lifted and we were able to get these panoramic views looking down on Queenstown.

It was still early in the season, so no skiing was available yet. But year-round, you can all do all sorts of other activities from there including hiking, paragliding, and the luge!

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Zip down the side of the mountain and take in the views as you go. Not bad, right?

After spending a few hours at the peak, we decided to hike down instead of taking the gondola again.

It only took us about one hour and we appreciated getting the fresh air to stave off the jet lag. 
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We spent 4 days in Queenstown, so it became our home base for lots of other outings and adventures including day trips to the famous Milford Sound, Lake Wakana, and Otagu region wineries.

We thought the natural scenery couldn’t get much better than here, but we were wrong. I’ll be sharing so much more soon!

Hello New Zealand!

I just got back from a two week trip to New Zealand!

Though I’m still so jet-lagged (NZ is 16 hours ahead), I’m still riding high from this trip.

Ya’ll, I’ve never seen such a concentration of natural beautiful landscapes in my life. If you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit films, you know what I’m talking about.

And in case you’re wondering, those rugged mountain landscapes, wild forests, and electric blue mountain lakes you’ve seen in pictures and movies are all REAL.

Here are some shots from gorgeous Waiheke Island, a quick 45 minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland.

On this day, a wine tour called our names and we could’t have asked for a better day. Can you believe that ocean and greenery?

Incidentally, Waiheke island has its own special microclimate, so even though it’s early winter there, the temperatures stay mild year round. It was in the mid-60s and sunny while we were there.

The first stop on the wine tour was Casa Miro, where we tried so many delicious wines paired with special taste enhancers like a piece of cheese, a candied walnut, or olive spread on bread. Such a fun way to sample wines and I really wish more wineries did it this way. 

Tasting wine while gazing out at the ocean on the horizon. The vacation of my dreams…

This winery is a labor of love for the owner, a medical doctor by day, who grows grapes and runs this winery totally in his free time. He also has something of an obsession for Gaudi as you can see by his Guell Park inspired bar, which had us reminiscing about Barcelona.

We could’ve stayed here all day, but soon it was time for the second stop, Obsidian winery, a tiny place tucked away in the middle of nowhere on Waiheke.

It was here we got to chatting away with some friendly New Zealand ladies, who ended up giving us so many good “insider” recommendations for places to see and most importantly, restaurants to dine at. In fact, it was so fun and I got so into talking with them that I don’t even really remember the wines here.

When it was time to part ways, all four of the ladies gave me kisses on both cheeks ( I thought that was a French thing, but apparently, they do that in New Zealand too) I wasn’t expecting that, but I really do think it’s a nice custom.

The final stop was Te Motu Winery with its award winning restaurant, “The Shed”. This rustic winery was simple and beautiful and it was here that we stopped for lunch.

We feasted on lamb shoulder, sliced beef with mushrooms, roasted potatoes with tarragon aioli, bean and fennel salad, and a special dessert. 

This dessert was a “deconstructed” cheesecake made with kumara, which is the Maori word for pumpkin. It had a sort of autumn vibe to it, which struck me as odd in June, but then I remembered that the seasons are reversed here. In any case, I’ll be trying to recreate this at home.

All in all, the first day in New Zealand was spent gazing at the scenery, drinking wine, and enjoying these wineries. Perfect start to a fun trip.

And there’s so much more of it to share with you!

Dinner at Garrison

Last Saturday night, we celebrated my husband’s birthday at Garrison restaurant in DC. This restaurant features farm-fresh ingredients with a Scandinavian twist.

We ordered the tasting menu with 7 small courses. Strawberries and fresh peas are in season right now – several courses featured them prominently.

As the restaurant was really crowded and noisy, we opted to sit outside. Unfortunately some of the photos didn’t come out as the sun went down. But here’s a good peek at most of our meal.

The first course (pictured above) was fresh pea soup shooter with a radish topped with fresh butter. Humble the ingredients may be, this plate was beautiful and probably my favorite dish of the night. I also ordered a rum and tamarind cocktail, which I really enjoyed.

Next was this beautiful fava bean strawberry goat cheese salad. It looked so pretty, but as you can see, there wasn’t a lot of salad on the plate.

The third course was rye toast with a quail egg, asparagus, and parmesan. I really liked this and have plans to recreate this at home.  

Fourth, there was pea pistou ravioli. I felt a little bit disappointed by this, as I suspect the green sauce was actually the pea soup we had above. Also, there were more radishes, and asparagus. This course felt a little bit like a repeat to be honest. 

Then we had soft shell crab over the creamiest polenta ever. This was really tasty, though I’m not sure the crab was enough for me to even know what it tastes like.

Duck was the next course, and while my husband really liked this one, for me it was just okay. It had those large sea salt flakes on it, which seem to be so popular these days and I generally like, but in my opinion, they make dishes way too salty often.

Other courses included a cheese platter with three cheeses, an order of poppy seed gougeres, and strawberry camomile panna cotta.

Overall, this dining experience was just okay for us. While I liked the food generally and our server was nice, there were some issues with this restaurant and it was just way too expensive for what you got.

First off, the reception at the host station was a bit off when we arrived (they didn’t recognize our reservation even though I called and confirmed it).

The restaurant was super dark and noisy inside (as in you would have to raise your voice to have a conversation with the person across from you) and the seating was really tight (almost rubbing elbows with your neighbor on both sides)

The tasting menu was not anything special and there’s really no incentive to order it. They basically served a strong of the regular entrees but cut in half between two people, resulting in really small portions. In fact, the panna cotta dessert was literally cut in half, which felt cheap, in my opinion.

You could order all of it a la carte and get exactly what you wanted. What’s more the tasting menu didn’t even feature their signature poppy seed gougeres, which required you to order that extra. What? I thought tasting menus were supposed to be more exciting than the regular menu, but not here.

In any case, I would recommend not coming here if you’re hungry. If you do try it out, I’d just order a few dishes to share.