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Touring in New Zealand 2004 - Part 8

We had expected a rough passage as the winds were howling but the worst part was having to reverse the length of the ship on loading - we were down with the train on the lower deck. We had taken an 1800 passage as that was the only one which we could get with a deep discount so we had pre-booked a cabin at Levin which we reached at 2230 and, to our relief, found the key had been left in the campsite letterbox for us. The journey up the coast was hard work as the wind was extremely gusty and it was difficult to keep the van in a straight line.

We stopped for a while at Palmerstone North to see friends who have a Motel there. It was then a minor road to route 2, the only road left open heading towards Napier. The scenes were worse than we expected. We passed rail lines suspended over a river where the course had changed and further on where a milk train looked as if it had been blown off the lines - one tanker was upright alongside the track and others were on their sides. Trees had come down across the roads and gaps had been chain sawed to clear the road. We saw major bridges with tree trunks stacked up the supports and mud and debris strewn flats alongside the rivers and banks undercut and eroded. It is being talked of as biggest natural disaster ever in New Zealand.

We stopped at Danneverke, not surprisingly we did not set up tent and had one of their ridge cabins that turned out to have a TV so we could see the magnitude of the problems. There were more high winds overnight and in the morning the campsite owner came round to tell everyone that all roads but one, fortunately the one going north, were closed. We checked the news on TV and the learnt that most of North Island had been battered again with rates of 17mm/hour in major cities from Wellington to Auckland and much higher rates in the ranges. We had been fortunate in getting through yesterday as all the main roads out of Wellington were closed again.

We left early for Napier and the Art Deco Weekend. Napier now known as The Art Deco Capital of the World started life as a copy of an English seaside resort, renowned for its warm sunny climate, location in Hawke's Bay and its Marine Parade lined with tall pines. It had fine hotels, botanical gardens and bands playing in a rotunda in the square. All that was to change at 1045 on Tuesday, 3rd of February 1931 when a violent earthquake struck - in less than three minutes Napier crumpled to ruins. Both Chemist shops caught fire and a brisk easterly wind spread the flames. The earthquake destroyed almost every water pipe and the fire brigade could do little and only a small area was saved from the flames. The earthquake registered 7.9 on the Richter scale and 258 people were killed mostly by falling masonry from highly decorated buildings with overhanging structures.

Napier the Victorian town was gone and England offered no inspiration to the re-builders with their clean slate in 1931 but the architectural journals of America were full of interesting ideas in particular Modernism which we now know as Art Deco. Nowhere else do we find so many similar style buildings built over a period of only a couple of years to a common plan. Many of the buildings remain and even in the time we have been going to Napier the restoration and painting has further enhanced the city. It is well worth staying in Napier for a day or two to savour the atmosphere. It is also an excellent centre for the Hawke's Bay area, famous for its wines. There are references to an excellent book on Art Deco Napier and links to web sites on our site - search for Napier or Art Deco.

This year we arranged our visit to coincide with their Art Deco Weekend - this is a major event with visitors coming from all over the world as well as New Zealand. Much of the accommodation is booked from year to year and, because of a problem with their email, we had been unable to contact our favourite motel (city Close) and book so we had ended up booking into the Top Ten campsite where we had a very nice unit with all facilities - the major problem is that the camp site is a good half hour walk from town. We checked in early on the Friday only to discover the site was without hot water as the gas pipes to the whole of Hawke's Bay had been severed by the storms - we got a reduction but not enough to remove the exorbitant premium they were charging over the weekend.

We then went to perhaps our favourite vineyard for red wines - Esk valley. Unlike many of the New Zealand vineyards we buy from, Esk Valley exports to the UK. We have normally bought their various red wines, Merlot in various blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and sometimes Cabernet Frank. We were greeted as old fiends and had a long chat with their sales manager Sue who had recently been to England for a long holiday - her daughter is living in Henley, only a few miles away from us.

We have spoken at length about the wines in the past and all we will say is that we bought half a case of Merlot and the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon 2002s to keep us in red wine for the rest of the holiday. Both are award winners and regarded as the best normal production reds to date by their winemaker. All the pressing and fermentation and maturing in a variety of French and American oak barrels is done at the Esk Alley site and on a previous visit we had a fascinating exposition about the various oaks used and degrees of toasting employed to get the best from every batch and parcel of ground by their master winemaker George Russell who we spoke to briefly this visit. Esk Valley is now part of a group with Villa Maria and Vidal and the bottling and shipping is jointly organised providing economies of scale without any sacrifice of quality or style by the partners.

It was then a complete contrast when we went to Craggy Range Winery. Esk Valley is very much a working winery, all the wines come from local grapes grown on their own property and their newsletter contains down-to-earth and low key comments from their winemaker who has been there and done it all and keeps turning out award wining wines. Craggy Range is the complete opposite with spectacular new buildings housing a "technologically and ascetically inspirational winery" in a stunning location. The brochures and sheets have beautiful pictures and no expense has been spared in selling their product - everything is an advertising company's dream.

It is very much a new enterprise resulting from the merging of the skills of a well known vinticulture expert (Steve Smith MW) with an academic, research, and commercial background in the wine business and a foreign investor looking to bring together a burgeoning interest in wine and his business acumen. They have both the advantage and disadvantages of having to start from scratch, buying ground in the Grimblett Gravels area nearby for Bordeaux red varieties as well as Syrah, in the Te Muna vineyard in Martinborough for Sauvignon and Pinot Noir and using the small area round the winery for Chardonnay - in fact looking at the picture from above one wonders if the local vineyard is just for show.

Their current sound bite is "With All Our Wines Expect an Experience". So what was our experience - will it all be hype or will their commercial aspiration stand up? This is a two-part question as they have also set up a winery restaurant, the Terroir that had been highly recommended to us by both Pat and John and our friends in Palmerstone North. The surroundings are certainly stunning for a winery and restaurant with views of the Te Mata range whilst the winery nestles on the river flats with a tiny vineyard surrounding it on three sides and a huge (artificial) lake between the restaurant and the mountains. The menu looked excellent and they had beautifully printed copies to take away - we booked for Sunday lunch and continued to the winery to taste the wines and pick for our lunch to come.

We tried 5 wines, a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay from Martinborough, two Merlots, one from a contract grower and one from Grimblett's Gravel and a Syrah from Grimblett's Gravel block 14. Firstly we did not regard any as good enough value to buy but all were very drinkable wines and showing typical features of the Martinborough or Hawke's Bay region - part of the decision on the Martinborough wines was our own prejudices and preferences for regions. Of the ones we tried the Syrah was the most interesting and showed the potential of a grape that has been somewhat underrated but is enjoying a resurgence. Even here there is some 'badge engineering' as it gained an Australian tanker wine reputation as Shiraz but is now being sold under the original French name of Syrah, but this is not unique to Craggy Range!

Craggy Range suffers considerable problems in pricing at this point in time. They have new vineyards, hence young vines on untried Terroir. They have planted with various densities, training, grapes and clones with every academic and scientific advantage in about 40 parcels but, as they admit some will shine and some will be good steady performers and some will provide contract grapes to others but they do not know which will be which - some good guesses maybe based on experience. In the meantime they have to cultivate expectations and pricing at a premium is a good way to avoid undesirable comparisons. Soon, if they have purchased well, it will be a different story as they gain experience of the Terroir and exploit the potential of the land - some of the current 'blocks' will seem cheap and some expensive. Think of Bordeaux where the classifications of 150 years ago are as true today as they were then. In a few years time Craggy Range should not need marketing hype and the current royalty will need to watch their backs as the young upstarts mature.

At this point I will jump ahead to the restaurant and food and this is a completely different story - they have already achieved a very high standard of food and ambiance in this French style restaurant. There are none of the shortcuts one often finds in winery restaurants or lunchtimes, even when you eat outside - crisp linen napkins are put on your lap, salt and pepper grinders on every table, quality cutlery and pretty plates all provide excellent expectations. The service was good and helpful and wine presented for inspection and served from the bottle, even when ordering by glass. The wine list covered a wide range of wines as well as their own, over ten sides of wine list. The only surprise was that there was a considerable surcharge on their own wines in the restaurant unlike most vineyards that are close to cellar door prices. The food came up to expectations and overall it takes the lead in winery lunches and the only competitor we have experience of is Shed 5 in Wellington, which is not a winery. We should note that this does come all at a price - the highest we have ever paid for a winery lunch, just a tad higher than Pegasus at $134 for two people including two glasses of wine (block 14 Syrah and a Hawke's Bay Sauvignon Blanc).

We opened with a shared bread (Olive bread, petit pain and walnut bread with olive oil, butter and a whole roasted garlic) and an entree of Paua sausage (local shellfish) with kumara mash (local sweet potatoes), wasabi roe and soya glaze, the latter was an interesting and instructive combination but perhaps not one we would repeat. We both had Chargrilled eye fillet "Rossini" topped with foie gras and black truffle that came with Terroir potatoes. The steak was done perfectly and, although an inch and a half thick I cut it right through with the back of my knife - certainly the best steak I have had in New Zealand and ahead of all but the occasional exceptional American steak on the Queen Elizabeth 2.

The piece de resistance was however the sweet where we had their Dessert Platter for two - supposedly a selection of all their five desserts but it seemed as if we had a full portion of each and every one was a winner. For an example of their approach there was a selection of 3 home made ice creams, each in an individual cone on a special stand. There was also a chocolate and ginger gateaux to die for, not to speak of a Christmas Cassata, a coconut jelly with fresh fruit, and a perfect little creme brulee. We staggered out unable to do anything during the afternoon but marvel. Pegasus will need to ride hard to catch up with this!

Returning to the timeline, our first evening we attended our initial function of the Art Deco Weekend - the Opening Soiree which officially opened the 16th Art Deco Weekend. Deco dress was de rigueur and everyone was showing off their finery. There was a complementary glass of wine and, after a number of speeches by the organisers, the navy and the major, there was an auction of the picture on which the posters were based then it was open house for a light meal - good value for $20 and an indication of the real enthusiasm of locals and visitors and the scale of the event. We could now understand why we had needed to book functions months before we left the UK and why even then some had been fully booked.

The following morning we attended 'Deep in the Art of Deco', a guided tour through 12 of the best classic Art Deco buildings most of which are normally not open to visitors. It gave an excellent overview and, although we had read books and been round Napier a number of times, we learnt a lot more and fitted a number of pieces into place. The tour only had 80 places and we were split into 4 groups of 20 so we got a very individual and unhurried look in the two and a half hours.

As soon as the tour completed it was time for the Vintage car parade through the centre of town. It was here that we perhaps really began to understand the scale of the weekend. There must have been over 150 cars from the 1920s and 1930s all in showroom condition as well as on-the-road. After a brief period to recover it was back into town for the street parties that started at 1830 and gave way to jazz in the 'Shell' - we did not make it to the end at midnight.

In the morning we visited the National Tobacco Building, one of the best-known buildings that is a little way from the centre of town in the port area. This was one of the buildings featured on the Ahuriri District Art Deco Walks, one of a series of walks that are documented on sheets available from the Art Deco Centre. We quickly got distracted and spent most of the time we had available in the old Customs House, normally closed at weekends but opened specially this weekend - we had the opportunity to talk to a number of interesting people involved with it its preservation who would normally not be there. They included George Gunn, Bill Black, the last chairman of harbour board till 1989 and a skipper of ships who had round Cape Horn several times. They gave some fascinating insights that we would otherwise have never gained on the changes wrought by the earthquake and lifting of the land and the subsequent reclamation of land and creation of the new harbour.

We reluctantly dragged ourselves away without completing much of the walk and drove to lunch at Craggy Range. We ended up with a little time spare and diverted to viewpoint on the top of the Te Mata range looking down on the river and winery, an advertising mans dream for a situation - see picture above. The meal itself was covered earlier and we were sufficiently immobilised that we did little until we went out in the evening for a walk round the now quiet town and watched the sun go down over the sea from the peace of the Sound Shell.

The following day was mostly taken with the drive north and we stopped on the outskirts of Tauranga at the Mayfair Holiday Park on the banks of the harbour where we had a little log cabin which turned out to be quite well equipped with a fridge, basin and full cooking utensils. In the morning we had an early start and looked at a number of the little beaches on the way up the coast to Katikati and then doubled back a few Kms to the Morton Winery for lunch. The restaurant used to be separately run but has now been bought back by the winery and is also opening a boutique cheese production shortly. We ordered a plate of Antipasto for two with the new cheeses, meats, seafood and fish - an impressive selection arrived with fresh breads. We barely made it to sweets which, like the antipasto were impeccably presented, the only problem was that the service was very slow, although they did apologise so it may have been unusual.

We then took time to sample some of the wines, we have been going to the winery to eat and purchase since our first trip when Christine took us there from Auckland. We have always liked their fizzy and this year's is particularly good and has won a number of awards so was on the point of selling out - we bought some for boating and would have bought some of the other wines if we had not already stocked up. They have been consistently good over the years and are all from their own vineyards up till now. They are however introducing a new range under the Nikau label using contract grapes, mostly from vineyards they know which are adjacent to their own ground.

It was then on to Waihi where we wanted to look at the fabled Martha's Mine. It produced a huge amount of gold by mining to depths of 600 metres up to 1952 and was then reopened using open-cast mining in a huge pit 600 metres across and approaching 200 metres deep. The Martha mine produced over 5,600,000 oz of gold in the period from 1879 to 1952 and over 1,000,000 more in the first 12 years after it was reopened for open cast mining. We watched a steady stream of massive trucks carrying 85 tons being filled by 4-5 scoops from backhoes and crawling slowly up to the crushing plant. The waste rock and tailings from processing is then carried by conveyor to a tailings area several kms away. In places one can see the old adits in the sides of the pit, tiny in contrast to the machinery at work now. The current production is about 100,000 oz of gold and 700,000 oz of silver a year worth $50,000,000 a year most of which is returned to the New Zealand economy. The waste rock embankments are being progressively restored to farming land. The tailings disposal area will be rehabilitated to form wetlands and the pit turned into a recreational lake and parklands over a period of ten years after mining stops in 2007.

On the way on to Auckland we stopped to look at the remains of the Victoria Battery and processing plant at Waikino in the Kaurangahake gorge that was in use up to 1952. It used the largest battery of stampers in New Zealand with 200 stamps; initially water powered then coal and gas from their own plant and finally electricity form the first Waikato River hydroelectric station built by the mining company. The crushed ore from the stampers was then further ground to a very fine powder in ball mills before a cyanide extraction method was used. Little remains of the stampers, other the concrete bases, but the bottoms of many of the huge cyanide tanks remain along with many other artefacts and structures. We will write up The Martha Mine and the associated batteries more fully when we have digested the book we bought on the area.

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