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Oyster Huntin’

Lizzy and I were in the midst of weeding the mandala, a spiral shaped garden hosting a combination of flowers, herbs and veggies, when Chad walked up and mentioned, “It’s 10:30, so if you want to get oysters, you should do it while it is low tide.” I was up and dusting off my hands before he even finished his sentence. I knew what time it was. We had been talking about going oyster hunting for a week and had checked the tide schedule the night before.

 

We grabbed buckets, chisels, mallets and Betty the dog, and headed across the road, down the muddy path, and out on to the rocky beach that is Cable Bay. Though we’ve been at Uma Rapiti for ten days, I had yet to venture down to the beach. I didn’t realize a) how close it was or b) that it was more oyster mecca than beach. Within three steps of the path and out onto the black rocks, I was crunching oysters under my feet. It was impossible not to step on them as they covered everything. I reached down, grabbed one and twisted it off the tip of the rock and tossed it in my bucket. Beginners luck though; none of the other oysters were that easy to get off.

 

Lizzy showed us how to chip the oysters off of the rock, but mentioned that if we broke the shell, it was best to eat them right then and there. So we squatted down where we were and started whacking away at the rock,  carelessly breaking shells left and right. Since we had to eat them, I downed the first four plump, salty oysters that I attempted to harvest. Woops?

“Stina, you think it’s ok if they come off in a big cluster?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“Ooh, look at this one!”

Grinning ear to ear, teetering from one rock to the next, and snapping ohmygod this is so awesome pics, we were on cloud nine.

Before the moment flew by, I perched on a rock to soak it all in and give a silent thanks to the powers that be. Holy  shit. This is actually happening. Eating oysters right off the rocks. In New Zealand. Part of me couldn’t believe how exhilarating the whole experience was.

That pause also allowed me to realize that I could easily overindulge if I kept slurping oysters at a that pace. Also, I still only had one in my bucket, so I slowed down and worked a little more carefully from then on out, making sure not to break the shells.

Lizzy went off with Betty to collect driftwood and Zach and I unintentionally parted ways, as we both walked, noses down, in opposite directions down the rocky coastline. I could hear the chink chink chink of him collecting what I thought to be WAY more oysters than we four could eat, so I focused on looking for mussels, which were nestled in the tide pools and far less abundant.

About an hour later, we headed home to figure out how to shuck, fry, and consume the morning’s haul. Inspired by the fried oyster salad at Miss Shirley’s in Baltimore, we set out picking lettuce from the car tire planters in the garden, and roasting root veggies in the toaster oven. Zach figured out how to shuck and once he got a hang of it, taught me. The first one was the hardest, and I thought for sure I was going to impale myself with the shucking tool, but after a few, I got a hang of it. I imagine shucking oysters is a bit like killing an animal, in that it makes you appreciate something that is pretty hard to do, that one often takes for granted. Oh, they don’t just come on the half shell?

Harvesting, shucking, cleaning, soaking, battering (in cornmeal, not abuse), then finally fried and served up atop a salad. To celebrate our luxurious lunch, we unscrewed a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from Jurassic Ridge, a vineyard up the road. As we sat down to eat, someone pointed out that the oysters came from the beach, the herbs, lettuce, veggies, and oranges in the salad were all from the garden, and the bread baked fresh that morning. The salt, pepper, butter and oil were the only things not from within a mile of the farm.

The meal was the culmination of an awesome, inspiring experience. The day was the perfect combination of favorite activities, exploring new places, and  learning practical skills. And yes, shucking oysters is practical.

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Visiting Piritahi Marae

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The town marae is the center of New Zealand Maori society.  It’s a community center, place of worship, event space, and cultural nexus. It’s also a place to welcome visitors and teach them about the history of the Maori people. The most remarkable thing on display, though, is the universal reverence and respect for Maori culture.

The welcoming ceremony is called a powhiri, and visitors are usually required to be formally welcomed via this ritual before entering the marae. Recently, Christina and I were powhiri-ed at Piritahi, the Waiheke Island marae. The ceremony largely consists of oratory in the Maori language; ancestors and relevant current events are recognized.  At our powhiri, three New Zealand soldiers that were recently killed in Afghanistan, including the first female kiwi killed-in-action since the Vietnam war, were paid respect.

I know what you’re thinking. “A welcoming ceremony? Gimme a break. It’s probably another trite song-and-dance, paying lip service to a culture in order to get something for yourself.” I can’t deny that I didn’t get a few good meals out of the deal, but the experience was authentic. We spent two full days there, helping feed more than 200 visitors like ourselves. This wasn’t required, but they needed help and we were available.

Throughout my time at the marae, I felt welcome. More than welcome, in fact; I felt as though I was a integral part of the space. We were often asked about our lives, where we were from, what we did back in the United States, and conversation flowed easily. The Maori are not only extremely friendly, they’re gifted in the art of small talk. This made us comfortable.

“Now that you have been welcomed, this is your home,” a Maori woman said to me over tea and cakes. If we had any doubt of that, it was extinguished when it became clear that we were expected to help clean up afterward. Forget trust falls, sometimes a stack of dishes eye-high can be a very effective team-building strategy.

Sand Mandala at Piritahi Marae

We weren’t alone in helping out though.  The kitchen was full of white kiwis that were volunteering for a two-week-long celebration of buddhist culture and the creation of a sand mandala at the marae. It was a fascinating cultural stew. Maori, buddhists, and whites coming together for a mutually beneficial mash-up of traditions.  The buddhists had a place to work, the whites had this work of art and dedication to be amazed by, and the Maori had an audience for their traditions.

The creation of the sand mandala is almost absurdly intricate. Over two weeks, grains of colored sand are dropped individually into a ten foot wide design that would, after its completion, be cast off into the sea as nourishment for the earth.  Nearly two hundred hours of work would be swept up in a matter of seconds. Over the next few days I’ll be posting a few videos and some photos from the dissolution ceremony.

My experience at the marae brings to vivid life the stark contrast between the relationships of white New Zealanders and Maori versus Americans and the indigenous population of their homeland. Native Americans are an afterthought in U.S. culture.  Maori are at the forefront, elbow-to-elbow with their imperialist oppressors. The All Blacks, the uber-popular national rugby team, performs a Maori war dance, a haka, before every game.  Granted, it’s effective in communicating terror, but the thought of the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys performing a native dance, even if it were to make their opponents spontaneously wet themselves, is absurd.

Furthermore, there’s a palpable mutual respect between the two cultures.  I’ve heard of middle-aged kiwis enrolling in Maori language classes because they feel like its “about time they learned it.” Dozens of place names are authentically Maori, instead of bastardized, anglo-friendly versions of indigenous names. The culture is literally everywhere you turn here. The national aesthetic is three parts Maori to one part European.

I’m not sure where the source of this reverence lies, but it’s fascinating to watch. Stay tuned as I learn more.

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A Day in the Life: Uma Rapiti (sounds like rapidly)

Does your toilet have a stained glass window?

Zach and I are still on Waiheke Island, but have moved to Uma Rapiti, a permaculture lifestyle block on the other/windy/fancy side of the Island. The people who own the property are only here part time and have hired farm managers to run the farm and educate volunteers about permaculture and sustainable living. There is a young orchard, a few garden beds, a green house, an outdoor clay oven, and endless experiments and projects going on. This place rules.

We are here for three weeks, but I feel like I could stay for eight or sixteen easily. Right now there are just four of us here: me and Zach and Elizabeth and Chad, the two farm managers.  We stay in a sleepout, a simple one room structure, and cook in an open air pavilion on a camp stove. We poo in a composting toilet and the shower is outside and solar powered. The only time I have spent inside this week (other than sleeping) is when I’m skyping or blogging in the toolshed, which is the only place that we get good internet reception.

Our first day started with us planting olive trees, but plans changed as black clouds rolled in from over Auckland and the rain started “pissing sideways.” We ran for cover and spent the remainder of the day doing quick jobs in between the rain. About halfway through that first day, while painting signs to label the trees in the orchard, I realized that I had used my sense of smell way more than usual, to navigate this new place and new practices. So, I’m going to lead you through A Day in the Life via the things I smelled.

This stuff may have been kicking around since I was in second grade, but it tastes good nonetheless!

7:30 am: Milo malt beverage. Chad suggested mixing instant coffee with said Milo Malt beverage. Malt beverage to me means Colt 45, but this stuff looks like Ovalitne. I pried the paint can style lid off and took a whiff to find out. Smelled like chalk. Tastes like a less chocolatey Ovaltine, but masks the instant coffee taste, so I continue to drink it every morning.

9:00 am: Compost/Potting soil mixture. While planting olive trees, Zach asked if the compost/potting soil mixture was from the compost on the farm. Chad replied by scooping a handful and sniffing it. Nope, store-bought. We both took a whiff to get a sense of what he was talking about. Smelled charcoley. And like dirt.

Compost. Pretty crazy that that used to be food.

11:00 am: Plum tree blossom. I was taking inventory of what was in the orchard and which plants needed to be marked. The delicate, sweet scent of the tiny, white plum blossoms caught me by surprise as I walked past. It is like what every plum scented air freshener or candle tries to be, but none has ever achieved.

3:00 pm: Fresh baked bread in the bread maker. Need I say more? While there is no oven here, there is a toaster oven and a bread maker. Om nom.

3:30 pm: Sawdust. I got a flashback to being in the backyard in Roger’s Forge, Dad in the garage with the O’s game on the radio, the scent of sawdust wafting from the open garage door. This time though, it was Zach cutting fence posts for a fence surrounding the garden beds. This was the moment that I realized it had been a very smelly day. I was painting at the moment and sniffed the yellow paint that I was using to paint signs. For the record: it didn’t smell like anything.

5:30 pm: Ginger. As the sun goes down, the temperature drops to really cold. I put on all of the shirts that I brought and made myself a cup of hot water with ginger, pear, honey and thyme and snuggled up with the book I’m currently reading, Mastering the Art of Self Sufficiency in New Zealand. P.S. This book is hilarious, informative, and makes me think I could pull off being a farmer.

6:00 pm: Garlic. In a pan. We’ve all smelled it before, yet it never gets old. This was the beginning of a delicious parsnip soup.

7:00 pm: Campfire. Where we devoured the aforementioned parsnip soup and fresh baked bread.

9:00 pm: Bed. Bed doesn’t actually smell like anything, but I felt it is a more appropriate place to end than the campfire.

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Inspiration: Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding

Some memories are more vivid than others.  It’s as if time slows down and everything becomes clearer.  Usually these are big things: first kisses, going skydiving, seeing your kid do some inane crap for the first time.  And then there are smaller things. These are things that you’d never guess would become a lasting memory – just normal parts of another normal day, but for some reason they stuck. For me, one of those is when I picked up Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding.

It was Christmas 2010.  I was at Christina’s parents’ home in Baltimore, sick as a dog. This was the second major holiday in a row I’d spent there, and I’d been ill for both of them.  I’m pretty sure they thought I was faking it to avoid going to church.

I was curled up on the couch in blankets, trying to keep the bitter cold wind that shook the window panes from penetrating my shivering bones, unable to move. There were a stack of books within arm’s reach, one of which happened to be Vagabonding. I read it without moving off that couch. My mind wandered to far-off destinations and cutting the cord from a domestic lifestyle.

It’s a slim volume that can be read in an afternoon, but will inspire you for a lifetime. It’s, without a doubt, the most influential book I’ve read on overcoming the obstacles that I thought were preventing me from long-term world travel. It’s the reason I’m here today, writing from New Zealand, a month into a two-year trip. If you’re interested in doing something like this, pick up your copy today.

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Tasting Notes: Goldie Vineyards

Goldie Vineyards

I have a complicated relationship with wine. I probably don’t need to explain why I like it, but the flip-side is more subtle. It’s just that its impossible not to sound like a snotty sophisticate when talking about wine. I feel like every time I open my mouth I’m saying “mmmyes, Alfred, I’ll have the ninety-nine Chateauneuf du-Pape.  Post haste!” Why can’t I talk about the way something smells without sounding like an affected debutante? Wine is way too wonderful to have artificial barriers erected around it. Some producers agree with me, and I’ll go out of my way to support them.  Goldie Vineyards on Waiheke Island is one of those producers.

Goldie came recommended, and was steps away from our afternoon work at the burger truck.  We checked out the website and found they offer tastings for just $5! Giddyup. This was way more our pace than some of the ritzier places on Waiheke.

We coasted down the dirt drive and tossed our bikes against a nearby tree.  Hmm, the tasting room was empty.  Not just of clientele, but staff too. No problem, we’ll find someone that can help us.  We hunted around a bit until we found Heinrich, who greeted us warmly.  He was a young man in his early thirties, hair unkempt and wearing a weathered sweatshirt.  We felt right at home.

Heinrich, whom we later found out was actually the winemaker at Goldie as well, expertly guided us through four generous tastes of wine, detailed below.  More than just a wine tasting though, we got to know him a bit.  He and his wife emigrated here and he was interested in our plan, or lack of plan as it were. The conversation veered to and from the wine, and we learned not just about what was in the bottle, but what went into making it.

Chardonnay (2011) – awesome. very smooth, buttery, oaky. High praise from Stina: “There’s no chardonnay I’d rather drink.”

Rosé (2011) – Good. Big strawberry nose. Almost candy-cane on the nose, but not an unpleasantly sweet taste.  A totally different rosé.

Syrah (2011) – Delicious. Light bodied, heavy vanilla and smoke nose. Smooth, silky tannins. My favorite.

Cab/Merlot (2010) – Good. Medium/full body. benchmark of the style. Plum and dark berries. Soft and velvety. “Silky.”

Heinrich highlighted the difference in body between the two reds. It turns out 2010 was a very wet year on Waiheke, while 2011 experienced a drought. I prefer lighter reds anyway.  I loved the syrah and found the 2010 very good.

The Goldie experience was excellent.  We felt welcome and at home.  Maybe because it was a weekday in the winter, but it was an uncommonly casual wine tasting experience.  Wine shouldn’t always be so stuffy and sophisticated.  It’s a beverage, not an investment opportunity.  Well, I suppose for some its both.  I sincerely hope its not only the latter.  But many vineyards strive to achieve a certain caché that drives consumers like me away.  I’d rather feel welcomed than part of some exclusive club.  Goldie does that perfectly.

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Bouldering on Waiheke

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The gate was unlocked, but it still felt like we were breaking the rules.

“There aren’t any signs saying ‘Private Property’, so I guess we can just let ourselves in?” I said to Christina.

“This is the right spot?”

“I think so.”

It turned out that we were indeed in the right spot, the right spot in many ways.  We’d just entered Stony Batter Historic Preserve on Waiheke Island, a short ferry ride from Auckland, New Zealand. We felt so privileged to go bouldering in one of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen, it seemed illegal.

Boulders dotted the green pasture as if they had rained down from the heavens that afternoon. There were panoramic views to the sea, with waves crashing on rock outcroppings and peninsulas hundreds of feet below. Clouds rolled over jagged volcanic islands in the distance while tiny sailboats bobbed miles away as they drifted from island to island. It was enough to bring even the hairiest of men to tears.

I’ll be honest – the climbing was good, not great. But it didn’t matter.  Anyone complaining about sending average problems in this kind of setting needs to reexamine their priorities. That’s not to say the climbing was bad – several problems on the Thumb Boulder and in the Zoo Area were great fun.  But they were the exception rather than the norm. Check out this guide for in-depth directions and problem descriptions. Many thanks to the authors of that document.

Access of this kind shouldn’t be taken for granted.  In another part of Waiheke Island, what’s said to be the most romantic beach in New Zealand has been shuttered from public overland access. Reasoning depends on who you ask, but some say that a native tree species that had been introduced to the property surrounding the beach was threatened. Stony Batter, where we’re climbing in a field populated by sheep and cows on a site rich with World War II history, could easily suffer a similar fate.  And would it be wrong?

If indeed those trees were being threatened then it was right to limit damage. Humans make enough of an impact on the natural world.  If we see an opportunity to curb the damage, we should seize it.

The same story can be told at any climbing area.  Sections of the Gunks are perpetually closed due to nesting birds.  Rumney State Park is home to a rare type of fern, limiting access to a main sport climbing wall. And this is exactly how it should be.

It takes buy-in on every level for access to remain open.  City officials must see the benefit, property owners must take pity, and climbers must follow the rules. Oh, and it helps to put your money where your mouth is by donating to the Access Fund.

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A Day in the Life: Waiheke Eco-Lodge

The Eco-Lodge

As you may know, we’ve thrown off the shackles of our former life for a simpler existence trading work for room and board in New Zealand.  Sounds nice, right? But what does that mean, practically? How do we spend the hours between sunrise and sunset?  If you’re wondering how we go about our daily lives as WWOOFers, this is the post for you. I present a new series here, called “A Day in the Life.”  As we move from place to place – roughly every two weeks for up to two years – we’ll document an average day to give you a better idea of what it’s like to do this.  First, a bit about our surroundings.

Waiheke Island is a 40 minute ferry ride from Auckland, which is the most populous city in New Zealand and main entry/exit for international travelers. Locals tell me the island was settled by farmers seeking a self-sustaining, utopian ideal.  Some of the crunchy flavor still exists, but is increasingly being pushed out by the rich. Satellite images show opulent homes with helicopter pads adjacent to old farmhouses.  On summer weekends, the island fills with tourists from the city seeking refuge.  Imagine Martha’s Vineyard in a jungle, and you’ve got Waiheke.

We’re working for Sue and Dave, the owners and operators of the Crescent Valley Eco-Lodge.  The Eco-Lodge is a small, secluded bed and breakfast in a less-traveled part of the island that offers guests rest and relaxation in an earth-friendly environment. They compost extensively, use a rainwater collection system, and grow a lot of their own food. As a personal testament to their methods, in a week here we’ve produced about ten small pieces of actual trash – far less than a full bag – and nearly all empty Tim-Tam wrappers. Yes, in one week we’ve developed a crippling chocolate biscuit addiction. I’m not ashamed.

In exchange for a few hours of work per day Dave and Sue provide us with a simple cabin, breakfast, and lunch. A average day goes something like this:

We wake up between 7:30 and 8:30am; no alarm is necessary because our small outbuilding doesn’t have a toilet. I like to think of it as getting up “naturally.” The mornings are a bit chilly here, so we get bundled up in our fleece and long-underwear and walk a few feet down the hill to the lodge, where Sue has already set out our breakfast.  It varies day-to-day (awesomely), so one day may be muesli and yogurt and the next eggs and bacon.  I love the surprise. We eat a leisurely breakfast in the dining room of the lodge while reading, writing blog posts, editing photos or wasting time on the web.  It’s just like home!

A surprising benefit of the time zone difference is the flow of email.  Because the US workday ends at 9am our time, I can check (and usually delete most of) my email in the morning and I’m free from the slow trickle of messages throughout the day.  Usually when I check again at in the evening there’s nothing new. This is ideal.

At 10am we split up to do our daily tasks.  Sue and Dave also run a catering company that operates a food truck, so one of us is usually assigned cashier/sous chef duty on the truck.  The other stays at the homestead and does prep work, landscaping, or cleaning around the lodge.  Landscaping can be as easy as pulling weeds or as hard as hauling buckets of rocks a few hundred feet up the hill.  Prep work has been: cutting a bucket of onions (oh, the tears!), making dozens of burgers, or similarly monotonous tasks. We both prefer the truck. Sue and Dave seem to know everyone on the island, so it’s cool to meet all the locals that stop by for lunch. I’d argue that the landscaping work is more rewarding though; it’s nice to see immediate results.

At two o’clock the prep/landscaper person rides (coasts, really) one of the rickety bikes that are available for our use down the hill to the truck for lunch.  We serve delicious burgers (chicken, venison, or beef), sausages (boar or venison), and other very meaty things. So far, the venison burger is my favorite, but I haven’t worked my way through the entire menu just yet. I learned just yesterday that venison has less than half the fat of beef, which makes eating it every day a bit less disgusting.  A bit.

At Onetangi Beach with friends Javier and Leandro from Argentina.

After lunch we’re free to explore the island or relax for a few hours. We’ve become fond of the wine, the beaches, and the general beauty of Waiheke, so even sitting back at the lodge and enjoying the day is often enough. We’re constrained to a smallish portion of the island by the aforementioned rickety-bike-transportation-situation, but still, we’ve found plenty to do and plenty of joy in not doing a whole lot.

Dinners, as Stina mentioned in a previous post, consist of lots of fresh veggies from the market and a few ingredients from the garden.  Every few days she’ll ask me to go pick some lemons or rocket or rosemary, a task that I find immensely pleasurable.  I’ll always be amazed that a tiny seed can sprout into something delicious and nutritious with a little water, sun, and soil. It’s magical.  So I’m happy to gather what we need for dinner; knowing it came from the ground a few steps away makes the food taste better.

The sun sets around 5:30pm and we eat dinner soon after – it feels right to eat just after dark.  By nine we’re usually yawning and crawling under a heap of blankets in our humble little cabin up the hill, with a book that we’ll try to read for a few minutes before nodding off reluctantly.

It’s a simple life, but one to which we’ve adapted easily.  The crowds of the city seem galaxies away.  Now we take pleasure in providing food for ourselves and others; the most basic and fundamental of joys.

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Rethinking Seasonally

In New York, eating seasonally is cool. It is a choice that food enthusiasts, myself included, make. Sometimes. When we feel like it. But when the only thing at the farmers market is turnips, cabbages, and onion, it is off to Whole Foods to get the rest of what is on the list. In New Zealand, eating out of season is a luxury. I first noticed this when we were grocery shopping in Auckland, and two red peppers rang up as $9.98. WTF?! I begrudgingly asked the cashier to take one of the peppers out of my bag, while I  had silent adult tantrum in my head: But I waaaaant it.

I really should have removed both from my bag, but I was caught off guard and being stubborn, so I kept one. One stupid, $5 capsicum. However, this was more than just red peppers being expensive. This was cramping my dinner stye. I, like many people, express myself through food. I like to make good food for other people to say “thank you,” or “I like you, let’s be friends.” And most of us who enjoy making food have our go-to recipes and ingredients that are relatively inexpensive, easy to prepare and taste delicious. Red peppers, specifically roasted red peppers, are one of my staple ingredients. They make my dinner distinct. And now, I had to make dinner without them. (Wah.)

Well, we are on an island. Everything here is expensive. Especially things that are not grown or made here. And as it turns out, red peppers are summer vegetables and it is winter here. If you want them, you are going to have to pay for them to come over from Mexico. Or wherever they come from.

Which is how it should be, isn’t it? There is plenty of produce that I buy year round from Whole Foods and it doesn’t even dawn on me that it isn’t the season. I mean, strawberries are obvious because there is no replicating a perfectly sweet June strawberry. But how about eggplant? Or Spinach? Or bananas? They are amongst my staples, yet I am unaware of their growing season because I can get them for the same price and they have about the same taste, year round.

Until I came here and found that I can’t afford to cook the way I did in New York.

Another curve ball came when we found out that our WWOOF hosts only provide us breakfast and lunch. Usually 3 meals are provided, but we are only doing about a half a days work each day and therefore are only provided 2 meals. This makes sense, and the details of the work trade agreement do vary from host to host. However, making dinner each night was an unexpected expense.

We hit the local grocery store in search of ingredients that are equal parts healthy, hearty, tasty and inexpensive.  In New York, I would find recipes and make my grocery list before heading off to the store, whereas here we are going sans list and searching for ingredients that fit our criteria. Our first haul included onions, bean sprouts, garlic, carrots, broccoli, white button mushrooms, pasta, pasta sauce, parmesean cheese, a pineapple, Tim Tams and a bottle of wine, all for $45. We have supplemented that with rocket (a variety of arugula), lemons and rosemary from the garden and the occasional butter, sausage or eggs left over from breakfast and stretched it for 5 meals.

Big pasta dinner for us and our host family. Can’t go wrong with bacon and lemon!

$45/5 dinners= $9 per dinner, $9/2= $4.50 per person. Not bad.

Cooking here is a real lesson in back to the basics. No spices other than salt and what is in the garden. No fancy ingredients, just what’s in season and what’s cheap. The challenge then is to make it taste good. We have lucked out so far, with some hearty salads and pasta with veggies, with just one flop when I tried to incorporate some baked beans into a stir fry and wound up with barbecue sauce flavored bean sprouts, but we don’t need to dwell on that one.

So while it is taking some adjusting, shopping and eating what is in season, and what is affordable, feels a bit like an experiment, or a challenge. A challenge that we are totally dominating.

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Wine on Waiheke

Our noble steeds having a drink.

Waiheke Island is a center of boutique New Zealand wine production. Its climate is similar to a Mediterranean island, with summer average temperatures slightly warmer than Bordeaux and Napa, but a lower deviation from the mean means less variation from early to late summer. In other words, its warmer on Waiheke in late spring and early fall, but cooler in the height of summer.

Due to the island’s small size (only 35.5 square miles) and rough, volcanic terrain, none of its producers are able to make large quantities of wine. So they focus on quality over quantity.  Of course, this means that very little wine leaves the island and even less leaves the country.  Good luck finding a Waiheke wine in your local shop.  If you want to try it, you’ve got to come to the source.

Our day of tasting began with a quick trip to the Ostend market, where we found locally produced crafts and artisanal goods.  We stopped by the burger truck run by our hosts Dave and Sue for a few sandwiches to-go and set out on our bikes toward Onetangi.

Our first stop was Obsidian vineyards, known for its Montepulciano varietal.  And unfortunately they were still in winter hibernation.  We took a peek into their tasting room, and it was reminiscent of some tiny producers we’d visited in the Southern Rhone a few summer ago, all the way down to the intimidating price list scrawled on a chalkboard. Oh well, one more added to the to-do list. Fortunately, Obsidian is adjacent to Miro vineyards and we tramped through the mud separating their fields up to Casita Miro, their café/tasting room.

Miro was a great experience.  The young barman (who was headed to a degree in viticulture the following year) guided us through a tasting of five of their wines, from rosé all the way to dessert wine.  Each was unique and excellent.  The rosé was light and dry, very delicate and floral.  A great wine for the beach.  We learned that they grow merlot grapes for the express purpose of making their rosé, while most vineyards use the leftover from their full-bodied red blends as an afterthought.  The care showed.

Their most interesting wine was a syrah/viognier blend.  I can’t recall ever drinking (or even hearing of) a blend of red and white grapes, but this was very good.  It had heavy spearmint and pepper on the nose, and a crazy chocolate/clove finish.

Make Miro a stop on any Waiheke wine tour.  It’s a bit out of the way, but a few hundred yards down the hill on Seaview Road there’s a nice public picnic spot with a breathtaking view overlooking Onetangi Bay.  From there you can also walk down a path to the beach and find very fine, soft sand and calm surf.  There are beach front bars and cafés just steps away.  Charley Farley’s came recommended, though we never made it there. After you’ve had your fill of the beach and are ready for more wine, take Onetangi Road back toward where you began in Ostend and visit one of the three vineyards clustered together on the way.

Stonyridge is one of the oldest (established in 1982) and definitely the most well-known producer on Waiheke.  This is probably because its Larose Bordeaux blend has been rated higher than Chateau Mouton Rothschild by people that are paid to do this. Heavier reds aren’t generally my taste, but if the simple malbec/merlot blend we tasted was an indication of their higher-ticket wines, I can believe the hype.  A taste of the Larose was available for $15, so don’t forget your credit card.

Neighboring Stonyridge are Wild on Waiheke, which also features a brewery and some outdoor activities, and Te Motu, which was another early-80s pioneer of wine on the island. You could easily spend a few hours here without getting back into the car.

Waiheke Island wines may not be household names, but that’s not for lack of quality. The producers that we visited make tremendous wines in the little space that they have.  If you care about wine, it should be a stop on your New Zealand itinerary. Add in the fact that the only way to taste these wines is at the vineyards where they’re made, and its a can’t-miss.  Just think of how jealous your wine-nerd friends at home will be!

Details:

Waiheke Island is 40 minutes from Auckland by ferry ($35 round trip).  Car ($80) and scooter ($50) rentals are available a short walk from the ferry.  There’s also an hourly bus (up to $3.70) that runs from the ferry landing to many of the island’s vineyards.  The population quadruples on summer weekends, so if you want to escape the crowds, come weekdays or off-season.

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Waiheke Island Photo Gallery

We’ll have an in-depth update on exploring Waiheke Island as soon as we’ve had a chance to, well, explore it.  For now here are a few pictures from our first few days on the island.

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