Located on the east coast of the North Island, Hawke’s Bay is one of NZ’s premier food, wine and lifestyle destinations. Home to NZ’s oldest operational winery it’s also the largest red wine producing region in the country. Wine lovers will discover more than 50 wineries in the region; over 30 of them provide a cellar door experience where you can visit, tour and taste. At some of the more boutique style vineyards such as Clearview Estate the knowledgeable person actually pouring the wine is often the winemaker themselves! We take three days to tour Hawke’s Bay towns of Napier and Hastings where we fill our picnic hamper to bursting point with gourmet delights found en route, then travel south to the capital city. We visit Marineland and the National Aquarium of NZ, taste the regions’ award winning wines, join locals at a Farmers’ Market and follow a trail of museums south to Wellington, home of Te Papa, the greatest museum of them all.
After a relaxing lunch at a café on Napier’s Marine Parade we view Hawke’s Bay Museum and Exhibition Centre. There are extensive exhibits of contemporary and traditional Maori art, ceramics, textiles and the social history of the region, but we agree that the highlight is Survivors’ Stories, a riveting video telling the tale of Napier’s devastating 1931 earthquake. Measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale, the quake hit the city at 10.46 am on 3rd February, 1931. In two-and-a-half minutes, Napier and nearby Hastings were literally shaken to the ground and 258 people lost their lives in what remains New Zealand’s worst natural disaster. The town was rebuilt and the former ornate Victorian architecture replaced with the clean lines of concrete buildings of art deco design.
In search of some lighter entertainment we continue with a visit to the National Aquarium of New Zealand. It’s home to a wide range of NZ marine animals and other native species, including the tuatara and kiwi.
Bob’s keen to watch the feeding show and so we hop aboard the travelator, which journeys through glass tunnels in the oceanarium, where, much to our delight, we see a diver handfeeding a large stingray and shark.
Then we spend time at the not-so-native Possum World, where the skins of these pesky creatures are used to create beautifully styled blankets, slippers and hats. A local business, it relies on possums caught in nearby forests, and after the skins are dressed, they’re sponged, stretched, stencilled and sewn on site. There’s a small museum to look around; it’s free, and features fun, educational displays on NZ’s possum plague. Bob picks up a gorgeous blanket, “Could come in handy in the South Island,” he jokes, packing it away in the boot.
We end the day at the Ocean Spa on Marine Parade in new open-air heated pools built on the site of Napier’s original Hot Sea Water Baths. There are various leisure pools as well as a 25-metre lap pool. Bob does a couple of laps and then breathlessly gives up and joins me in an elevated adult-only spa where we relax and watch the sunset cast a pinkish light on the white cliffs of Cape Kidnappers.
After a continental breakfast in-house, Bob’s keen to depart early. Today’s plan is to visit several vineyards and sample gourmet products created in specialist kitchens in the region. But first we drive to the richly ornate art deco National Tobacco Company building in Ahuriri, then through the art deco suburb of Marewa to Taradale’s McDeco McDee’s. It was formerly the Taradale Hotel, but in 1997 it was converted into a McDonalds.
But a burger is out of the question as Taradale is also home to some of Hawke’s Bay’s finest vineyards. We visit Mission Estate, NZ’s oldest winery, established in 1851 by the Marist Brothers. Its tasting room, cellar, restaurant and gallery are all housed inside a former seminary building nestled high on a plateau and it has a special ambience. We enjoy a small tasting then wash it down with a latté on a verandah overlooking the vines.
The next stop is at Taradale’s 114 Avocados where we have a complimentary tasting. I purchase ten avocados in various stages of ripeness for our picnic basket while Bob collects recipes from the owner, and then it’s on to Ruby Glen where we wander amongst the brambles collecting our own raspberries. Bob ends up looking like he’s wearing lipstick – more berries end up in his mouth than the collection basket – and his face turns the same colour when the checkout operator laughs and says his mouth is ‘Ruby Red’, like most who visit here.
Before hitting Hastings, we drive out to the coast at Te Awanga for lunch at Clearview Estate. When we arrive, winemaker Tim Turvey leaves the shed where he’s busy testing barrels and walks over to greet us. He leads us to an atmospheric tasting room, where riddling racks line the walls and cobbled floors meet tables crafted from wine barrels.
We’re guided through the vineyard’s range of organic wine, and then we have our lunch at an informal dining table and chairs built around an 80-year-old olive tree. I try the pan-fried snapper while Bob tucks into a brioche and anchovy-crusted lamb rack; they’re both delicious! After lunch we visit Goodin Grove where we taste a variety of organic extra virgin olive oils and collect a bottle for the picnic basket before driving to the Silky Oak Chocolate Company. As we step inside the smell of rich cocoa nearly bowls us over. “Wow,” says Bob, “I think we’ve arrived in heaven!”
Through the glass partitions we watch as workers craft the chocolate. A video plays in the corner and explains that only 100 per cent pure cocoa butter is used, but we’ve no time for that – we’re here to savour their wares. The cabinet displays a seemingly endless selection of chocolate from truffles to liqueurs, crèmes to caramels and even a chilli-chocolate blend!
In the midst of a chocoholic frenzy triggered by the intense aromas, it’s too hard to make a selection, so in the end, Bob says “what the heck,” and we simply take two of each. That sorted, we leave with our embarrassingly extra-large paper bag and proceed to sample chocolates all the way to Sileni Estate. It’s long, sweeping driveway and symmetrical architecture is designed to impress so we carefully check for tell-tale chocolate smears on our faces before stepping out to taste some of the classic wine varieties on offer.
But fine wine was only one of the elements that attracted us here: Sileni also has a well-stocked pantry which provides a roundup of all that’s on offer in Hawke’s Bay and a temperature-controlled room that provides the perfect setting for cheese to ripen. There’s a culinary school onsite and after perusing the list of courses Bob discusses returning for a class after we’ve completed our circumnavigation of NZ.
As Bob considers the pros and cons we drive to Havelock North to immerse ourselves in the aromas, tastes and sounds of the Hawthorne Coffee Roastery and Espresso Bar.
Next stop is xCraggy Range vineyard nestled beneath Te Mata Peak, and then we drive to the top for breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. The peak is known to the Maori as Te Mata o Rongokako (the face of Rongokako) and according to legend, Rongokako was challenged to eat his way through the peak to win the hand of the beautiful Muriwhenua. He choked on a rock and fell to the ground.
Bob can relate to the challenge. “I feel like I’ve eaten a track through Napier and Hastings,” he says, pointing below to where lights are beginning to come on one by one, “Look you can see where we’ve been!” A strong wind blows and grey clouds stack up on the horizon as we retreat to the warmth and comfort of a country B&B just south of Hastings. Our hosts provide a delicious dinner of roast beef followed by generous helpings of chocolate berry roulade, and we fall asleep to the patter of rain.
In the morning the sun is shining again. We skip breakfast and head into Hastings for the Sunday Farmers’ Market at Hawke’s Bay Showgrounds. Here we enjoy hot bacon and egg rolls washed down with freshly roasted coffee before we shop in the old-fashioned way, meeting the growers and producers and chatting about their products. From handmade cheeses, to bread, ice cream, chocolates (again!), meat and seasonal fruits and vegetables, there’s plenty on offer.
We buy cheese and a selection of breads to join the raspberries and avocados already in our picnic basket. “We’ll have a health day today,” announces Bob, averting his gaze as we pass the chocolate stand en route to the car.
We leave town and drive south on SH2 through Waipukurau, Dannevirke and Woodville where a side trip on SH3 leads through Manawatu Gorge Scenic Reserve. Here we enjoy a picnic from our basket on tables overlooking the river before continuing to Palmerston North, where The Rugby Museum has a comprehensive collection of rugby memorabilia and reflects the passion New Zealander’s have for the game.
Back on SH2 we head south to the Mt Bruce Wildlife Centre some 28 kilometres north of Masterton. It was started to breed the Takahe after its rediscovery in 1948 and is home to many other endangered native birds such as black stilts, North Island Kokako, Saddleback and Kiwis. However it’s the colourful Takahe that we’re here to see and so we watch a breeding pair in an adjoining enclosure while enjoying a pot of tea.
Then it’s on to Masterton, the so-called heart of the Wairarapa with its early childhood museum, to Greytown, where Victorian buildings line the main street of New Zealand’s first planned inland town, established in 1853. As we pass the Cobblestone and the Toy Soldier Museum Bob comments that it’s somewhat of a trend in these parts.
“We’re following a museum trail that leads to the mother of them all in Wellington,” he says, referring to Te Papa.
In Featherston we discover two further unique museums: the Fell Engine Museum which houses the only fell engine in the world and the Featherston Heritage Museum which commemorates the Featherston military camp from WWI and its role as a Japanese prisoner of war camp in WWII.
We’re tempted to stop but Te Papa’s pull is too strong. We drive over the windy, bush covered Rimutaka Ranges and through Upper and Lower Hutt before arriving in the capital city. Te Papa, New Zealand’s National Museum, stands proudly on Wellington’s waterfront.
“Good,” says Bob checking his watch at the entrance, “there’s a couple of hours ‘til closing.” Within moments of our arrival we are lost in the taonga (Maori cultural treasures), history and stories of New Zealand. There are five floors spread over the equivalent of three rugby fields and we’re halfway through the photo gallery when a curator approaches.
“It’s riveting,” Bob tells the man.
“Indeed it is,” says the curator with a smile, “but we actually closed half an hour ago.”
Bob forlornly checks his watch. “We open again at 10 o’clock tomorrow,” says the curator helpfully, “You’re welcome to return.”
“Oh we will,” says Bob reverently as he turns to me, “let’s schedule it in.”