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Biking through the vineyards in Wairarapa, New Zealand. Photos by Max Hartshorne. Click on photo to enlarge.

Visiting New Zealand: Off to My Favorite Land, Far, Far Away

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We are off to Auckland and then Wellington, New Zealand. It has been a day of packing and trying to remember everything, and accepting that things won't get done but will upon our return.

One of the things on the itinerary that excited me the most was Nelson Helicopters. We'll soar in a chopper over mountains and land up there, and hike our way down. We will also take a ferry across the strip of ocean that divides the north and south islands. Sometimes it's rough, but our friend Gabrielle assured us that sometimes it's not. An adventure, no doubt!

The trip is full of meetings with ordinary and interesting Kiwis, and Cindy will have a full day of activities visiting with Maori craftspeople. I'll meet some journalists and we'll both bike and kayak quite a bit while on the South Island.

There isn't a place that I can think of that makes me more excited than the land of the Kiwis. Follow along and meet them with me.

Auckland's Domestic Terminal -- Kiosks Aplenty!

We're en route to Wellington and are waiting at Auckland's new and improved domestic terminal. After the 13 hour flight, it was nice to get out into the air, and we followed the blue trail from the international terminal over here to domestic departures.

Outside we passed some lovely spring flowers, abloom in purple and white, a reminder that a new growing season is just starting here as we rake our leaves and pile up firewood in New England.

Auckland's domestic terminal has been remade in the same style as many new airport terminals around the world... three giant banks of kiosks dominate the entryway, you just go right to the machine and begin swiping and getting what you need, instead of that imposing bank of people sitting behind counters and giant snaking lines. It makes a lot of sense since really, nobody needs to wait in line when online ticketing makes the whole process streamlined.

We can't wait to see Mark and Margarita of Villa Margarita who we enjoyed meeting so much two years ago when we stayed with them. This time we don't have to worry about getting lost since Mark is meeting us. We'll look forward to seeing the improvements they've made since we last were here!

Villa Margarita
Villa Margarita in Auckland, New Zealand

You Can Come Home Again...To Villa Margarita

One common refrain heard time and time again is, "We'll see you again, we've gotta get together again, let's make plans to do this again," but how many times do you really do that?

The complication of geography, meeting great people in faraway countries makes you know full well you'll never set eyes on them again. Still, we say this, and sometimes, rarely, it comes true.

Cindy and I have just settled into Villa Margarita, where we stayed during our trip to North Island NZ in 2007. One of the trip's highlights was a long night with a warm and fun couple named Mark and Margarita Owen, who run this guest house set high on rolling hills with views of Cook Sound and sweeping views of green mountains. When we began planning this trip, we asked that this spectacular lodging be included and here we are.

Meeting Mark at the airport, it felt so great to be back here with them and to catch up with his busy life with Margarita and their three daughters. The eldest daughter Carly had just finished an acting gig in The Bridge to Terabitha in 2007, and now, Stephania the youngest takes her turn in the upcoming film of the Alice Seybold novel, The Lovely Bones. Wow, two young actresses under one roof.

Our day today will take us to Wellington's Te Papa Tongarewa New Zealand Museum and tonight to an acclaimed restaurant called Logan Brown. Tomorrow we'll enjoy the Villa's Cuban Food, and the hospitality of these dear friends. It's great, great to be back in this green and pleasant land.

A room with a view at the Villa Margarita
A room with a view at the Villa Margarita

A Second City Where Arts and Dining Come In First

Logan and Brown are the two last names of a pair of famous chefs known far and wide in Wellington, a city of about 180,000 where arts, culture and especially food are at the top of their game.

The pair opened in a converted former bank building on Cuba Street, the downtown's most lively thoroughfare lined with cafes, clubs, art galleries and of course more fine restaurants. In 2009, Logan Brown was voted the restaurant of the year by Cuisine magazine for all of New Zealand.

We joined Rebecca Mitchell, a city marketing manager, and Stacey Turnbull, who curates and promotes City Gallery, at a table at Logan Brown and we talked about what makes this second city the center of arts and culture in New Zealand.

"There is more professional theater and art galleries, plus lots of live music here, helped by the two universities and a population that loves eating out and going out very much," they told us.

Rebecca, 26, confessed that her budget for fine dining and fun is high consuming most of her paycheck, and in fact that is the topic that's on many people's minds here these days. The cost of living is going up while many employers have signed contracts with no raises for up to three years.

Thing are expensive here -- takeaway coffee is $3.50 or $4, wrapped sandwiches are $8-10, and a special dinner menu at Logan Brown's bistro is $49.50 per person. The dishes, like the turkey confit, meltingly delicious meat on top of savory squash, and a side of tiny two-inch portobello mushrooms, combined with the ambience of the intimate octagonal building's interior was lovely.

The bar at Logan Brown
The bar at Logan Brown

It was a Monday night, and the place was filled up with locals eating and drinking and sitting at the bar that's made of glass and filled with living sea creatures like crayfish.

"Some people joke about Welliwood, a silly name that began when mega-director Peter Jackson began his series of blockbuster movies that seemed to include half of the city as extras.

More excitement is promised when Jackson begins filming The Hobbit at the Weta studios next to the ocean in Seatoun neighborhood. Despite the big names, the director cherishes the low-key nature of his fellow Wellingtonians, and that's why he keeps making great movies right here, in New Zealand's second city.

Greytown's Glad the Railroad Came Back

Greytown, New Zealand is the perfect place to putter. Walking up and down the main street, we discovered a bevy of tastes and saw the skills of many Kiwis who have chosen to leave Wellington for the charms of this appealing town, that was settled in 1854, the country's first planned inland town. It was going to be the provincial capital but a river flooded and the railway passed the town by.

The good news is that the railroad is back, coming through nearby Woodside, and offering many city residents convenient transport to avoid driving steep mountain roads and gliding easily into the city center from this food lover's paradise.

A market in Greytown
A market in Greytown, New Zealand

Riding Through the Vineyards, Tasting Peppercorn Chocolate

Today we drank in new tastes, sights and sounds... and began with an early morning train ride from Waterloo Station in North Wellington up to the Wairarapa district, a foodies paradise dotted with artisan craftspeople who create great tasting wines, olive oils, jams, fruits, and chocolates.

The 90-minute train ride took us to Greytown, the kind of place couples love to wander and pop in and out of shops and cafes. It's the kind of town Cindy and I enjoy exploring, and our first stop was at the Main St. Deli where an assortment of New Zealand olive oils waited to be tasted.

Susan McLeary, of Zest Food Tours, a devout foodie, showed us around the town. Her goal is to take visitors behind the scenes and she introduced us to Odell Sugrue, who has 25 hectares of olives and infuses the oil with lime, mandarin and lemon, and sells them here in Wairarapa.

Like many ranchers here, she realized that the market for sheep and beef wasn't sustainable a few years back so they planted olive trees from cuttings 14 years ago. Many of the farmers who grew apples and other fruits have ripped out their orchards, the market price is just not worth using the land that way.

Then it was time for chocolate. How about smoked paprika, lime chilli, pink peppercorn or sea salt flavors? These and many more are all found at Schoc, 'real chocolate for real people,' where these varieties can be tasted and they also have bars made from cocoa from Ghana, Ecuador, Papua New Guinea and Grenada. The flavor is much deeper and richer than milk chocolate, it was fun trying to figure out which off-beat flavor we can taste among the familiar cocoa bean.

A picnic in the Wairarapa District
A picnic in the Wairarapa District of New Zealand

From chocolate we moved on to... gin. Andrew Wright is one of the former cider makers up here who now make something more profitable. He and his partners distill gin and he showed us the nine ingredients: Juniper berries, kawa kawa leaves, cardomom, licorice, lemon, orrice root and casawa bark that they infuse to give their gin its unique flavor. It was early but we did sip some of his fine concoction, as a group of five local moms nursed their babies in unison out on the hotel's deck.

But enough of this eating. It was time for a bike ride. For this we connected with Gretchen Bunny, who started March Hare cycling just a few months ago. She provides maps and a simple route where people can bike through vineyards and taste the wines at five local vineyards. Our trip included a picnic by a stream and a stop at the Wee Red Barn, where they make strawberry wine and had a giant pig with an army of week-old piglets ferociously suckling.

Riding through the vineyards, looking up at the gorgeous green Tararua mountains, and meeting these friendly Kiwis, who all work in businesses that focus on great tastes was hard work, and when we got on the train, we closed our eyes for a spell. It is great to be back here in New Zealand, where people really do have their eyes on the things that truly matter and taste so damn good.

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