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Blenheim (Pacific Coast)

South Island Diaries - A long way for a glass of wine….

Blenheim, February 2014

The Planning

Now we have the alpaca farm, it is difficult to get away for too long - a couple of days is all we can do without major planning ahead. So when I knew I was going to be working in South Island for a few days, we decided to take the opportunity to arrive in advance and have a long weekend in Christchurch. We'd fly out on the Friday evening, do whatever we could fit in for the weekend, then I'd meet my work buddies at the airport on Monday morning and Art would fly home.

Only one problem with this plan - we've been to Christchurch a couple of times, and really wanted to go further afield. And you can't go too far afield in a weekend. Then Art had a brainwave. Let's investigate the Coastal Pacific railway, that runs north out of Christchurch to Picton. And why don't we get off at Blenheim, and stay there for the night? Blenheim? They do wine there, don't they? Fantastic! An opportunity to do a wine tour!

I hit the internet. First stop was the Kiwirail website (www.xxx.co.nz - need the correct address). There was a train from Christchurch to Blenheim on the Saturday, and another back again on the Sunday. $79 each way. Not cheap, but it should be a lovely journey and we wouldn't need to rent a car. Plus they do a package - return fare, a wine tour meets you directly off the train, and a night in the Chateau Marlborough Hotel. Ideal. Only one problem - they'd run out of rooms at the Chateau Marlborough. Bugger.

Could I arrange everything myself? Of course! Kiwirail tickets booked, the same wine tour company contacted, and www.bookings.com even had the same type of room at the Hotel Marlborough. We must have caught a cancellation just right. Cost? $2 more than the Kiwirail price. Not bad.

Day 1 - Auckland to Christchurch

We had a 7:30 pm flight so that I could work for the day first, but we arrived at the airport in plenty of time to use a couple of my hard earned Koru Club vouchers to enter the lounge. A lazy start to our weekend, with a couple of glasses of wine to get us in the mood, and some hot food and nibbles. The flight was uneventful, and on time.

I had a suitcase with me, packed with useful things like gumboots and overalls, for my three day work trip. The intention was to leave this in the left luggage department so we didn't need to cart it around with us. Best laid plans and all that - by the time we arrived, the left luggage area was closed! Although there is a good bus service into the centre of town from the airport, the Arena Motel (which we'd selected because it was near the railway station that we needed to get to early the next morning) was a distance from the bus route, so we opted for a taxi.

The Arena Motel was a good choice - clean, comfortable, and with a free shuttle to the railway station. It was within easy walking distance of a number of bars and restaurants. We walked towards the station, and a Speights bar. Excellent spicy potato wedges and beer were downed before an early night.

Day 2 - Christchurch to Blenheim

The train leaves Christchurch at 7:00 am, so our shuttle bus was waiting for us at 6:20. This really did give us oodles of time at the station, as it was only 3 minutes drive away. When the train arrived, we placed our super duper big case in the luggage carriage, and climbed on board to our allocated seats. The train had two passenger carriages and a buffet car, and was not full - less than one third of the seats were occupied.

Tip: the train is air conditioned, so I found myself wanting my jumper. Keep one handy.

I was impressed with the quality of the food in the buffet. It's all pre-packaged, but freshly prepared each day. I had a very passable leek and roquefort cheese tart with rocket salad ($10), and Art went for the smoked chicken and salad sandwich ($7). Coffee ($4) wasn't exactly a bistro job, but was certainly very drinkable. The only thing I didn't like was that everything (even the coffe!) came in a brown paper bag in addition to it's pre-packaging. This doesn't seem very eco friendly.

The first part of the journey takes you through the northern suburbs of Christchurch. As with many towns, it's usually the poorer houses and industrial areas that back on to the railway lines, and as it was also drizzling I can't say that it did much of a sales job for Christchurch.

Probably the first third of the journey is not much to talk about. It is very flat in this area - definitely not somewhere that I would consider moving to. But then the rolling hills start, and things become more pleasant. Between Waipara and just south of Kaikoura, the train runs inland through farming country. An on-board commentary (through headphones) tells you a little of the history and geology of the area.

Just south of Kaikoura, you hit the coast. And the view of the Pacific on one side and the hills on the other side is definitely the reason you do the Coastal Pacific. There are points where the train is more or less running along the edge of the beach. And there are places whre you can see fur seals sitting on the rocks. I thought I saw some large creatures just off the beach, and assumed they were whales, but apparently they never come that close in, so goodness knows what I was seeing! It was too big to be a seal. Maybe a lump of seaweed, but I swear it wasn't!

The Kaikoura whale watching excursion office is actually located in the old railway station buildings. Kiwirail also does packages to Kaikoura, but we've been whale watching before - hence the decision to continue on to

Blenheim.

After Kaikoura the train continues along the coast and through 21 tunnels through the rocks. Because of wars, politics and depressions, the railway took 70 years to complete, and the part to the north of Kaikoura was the most difficult to build and the last part to be completed.

Then it heads inland again, towards Seddon. This area is most famous at the moment for the earthquake that was centred just off the coast of Seddon last year. Not as famous as the Christchurch earthquake (or as serious), but still big enough to be felt quite badly in Wellington, and to have caused some damage. As I've said to a number of potential immigrants, on a country that is only here because of the Ring of Fire, you have to be prepared for some volcanoes & earthquakes. If you can't handle them, then it is not the place to move to.

We're into Marlborough now, and the vineyards start showing up around this point - a vivid green amongsth the yellow of the grass on the hill slopes (bear in mind I'm writing this in February, the height of our summer). Marlborough used to be famous for its fruit trees, but there aren't many left now. Most orchards have been turned into grape vines. All the major wine producers have vineyards here, and they cover huge areas. There aren't many 'boutique' vineyards left, and even the smaller ones tend to sell their grapes to the large producers - Matua & Montana, to name just two.

And so on into Blenheim itself, the centre of the grape growing & processing. Blenheim has a population of around 13,000 people, and has a nice small-town feel to it. It has all the major stores in it - Farmers, Warehouse, a Countdown supermarket etc, and all the other things a small town in a rural area needs. It is also on the main route from Picton (and the Wellington ferry) to Kaikoura and Christchurch - so the main road is fairly busy. I felt pretty comfortable there - definitely somewhere that I could have lived (assuming I didn't have to earn a living!)

We were met from the train by our wine tour, and whisked off to our hotel to drop off our bags. Then on to our first 'cellar door' for a tasting. There was a very tasty unoaked chardonnay, and a very refreshing Pinot Rose. A bottle of each was bought, for consumption with the evening meal.

Then on to our next cellar door, which also had a lunch area. Art went for the spicy chicken on ciabatta, and I went for the tasting platter, washed down with a bottle of Pinot Noir. And all were very good! On hindsight though the bottle of Pinot Noir was probably overkill, as we progressed on to meet up with some more people on the same wine tour, and yet more wine tasting.

By the time we were at cellar door number 5, we were not taking in the qualities of the wine! The guys and gals behind the counters are very patient - they've obviously seen many, many drunken groups by the time they see closing time at 4:30! Final stop was a choco;ate factory - scrummy! But at $25 for a small box a tad expensive…. I think they were working on 'if they're drunk enough they won't ask questions'!

And so back to our hotel - the Chateau Marlborough. Contrary to how it sounds, this is not an old hotel, but very modern. It even has double glazing! A very recent innovation in New Zealand…. (said tongue in cheek!) Our room was the cheapest in the place, at $165 per night. But it was spacious and comfortable, came with two arm chairs, a large TV and a small kitchenette. Apparently our bathroom was awaiting renovation so we got a $20 voucher to spend in the restaurant - but it was perfectly adequate for us! There was also a very nice restaurant with a reasonably priced menu, and a swimming pool - about the same size as ours, but colder!

We'd been recommended the Bamboo Garden restaurant for the evening, and on turning up there, found our wine tour guide on the next table! A good recommendation indeed! The Bamboo Garden is a typical NZ Asian restaurant, that serves a variety of country's cuisine - in this case, Chinese, Thai and Japanese. The waitresses covered a similar span of countries, including an Indian and European Kiwi! The two Chinese dishes we ordered were very good, which is also a recommendation as we have really struggled to find Chinese food over here that we like. I usually stick to Thai or Japanese now. And our wine purchases came into their own - the restaurant was BYO - 'Bring your own' - very popular in a wine growing region where everyone has their favourites or even makes their own!!

On the next table was a hen party - everyone dressed in skimpy basques and camisoles, except for two middle-aged women who I assume were the mothers of the bride and grrom. Our entertainment for the evening! But we were still out by 9 :00 (the Spanish would only just have been starting!!) and were back in time to watch Sherlock on our large TV.

Day 3 - Blenheim to Christchurch

We had a very lazy start to the day, eventually making it down to breakfast for 9:30. I was very pleased to see that breakfast was 'a la carte', as we generally don't do justice to a buffet, and I was looking forward to a freshly cooked portion of poached eggs and bacon. This was not 'breakfast in a hurry', either - there was about a 20 minute wait. I was therefore extremely disappointed to find my poached eggs were overcooked and hard! However, we had plans! So I ate them. I did mention them when we came to pay the bill though, which paid off, as they gave us our breakfasts for free….

We had three hours until our train, and there ain't much to do in central Blenheim! There's a small square with a fountain and clock tower (which we'd used as a photographic study on the previous evening), and that's it. I'd seen a leaflet for a Heritage Park that had a hands on day on the first Sunday of each month, and as this was Feb 2nd, we decided to go. And by that, I mean we walked there - possibly a mistake, as it was on the outskirts of town. Half an hour's brisk walk later, we arrived - to find that the day had been changed to 6th Feb - Waitangi Day. However, we were there - so we had a look round. And there's a quite a lot there! One thing that was there was a place that collected and restored old farm equipment. For a $5 donation, we were allowed into the sheds. Art very proudly posed next to a Fergusson 35 tractor, similar to one that he used to drive in the UK.

But there were much more interesting things to photograph behind the sheds - row upon row of rusting old farm machinery. I spent a very happy hour wandering round looking for interesting scenes. We also asked the lady at the front desk to order us a taxi, which drove us back, via our hotel to pick up the luggage, and then on to the railway station. $20 well spent!

Opposite the railway station is a Cafe - 23 - which is a great place to get a coffee and snack while filling time. Then find a benchseat near the platform and wait til you can see the train. You won't miss it - it doesn't go fast!

The journey back is very much like the journey there, so I'm using the time to type up this diary. Very relaxing, with a bottle of Merlot from the buffet car in hand!

A bit of entertainment on the way back! The train stopped at Kaikoura, and the next table now has 4 Americans sitting at it. And one of them has a very loud grating voice, so the whole carriage is hearing about their terrible time on the whale watching trip. Basically, the weather’s been rough, so everyone on the boat was sea sick. She thinks it’s ridiculous that the trip went ahead. Lol! Did they really think that they’d cancel a whole boat load of tourists for a bit of swell? They couldn’t afford to give everyone their money back, so just a word of warning to all you tourists – if it’s safe to go, the boats will always go. (Ditto in Australia, on the Great Barrier Reef. ) Anyway, she’s now drowning her sorrows, and getting louder and louder. And it appears that they aren’t actually with the American couple opposite, who are looking very relieved as they tell her that they are going to a completely different place to them tomorrow.

At around 6:30 we’re at Christchurch station again, and as I am meeting all my work colleagues off the plane tomorrow morning, we’ve found a motel near the airport. Our intention is to find a place for a meal in the local area, then have a relaxing evening in front of the TV. BUT – there is nowhere within walking distance of the motel! Fortunately the lady on reception has obviously had many guests in this situation, so has an arrangement with a local tavern which does pick-ups. And very good it is! Typical tavern food – no gourmet here – but good beer, comfortable booths, and some of the best ribs that we’ve had since living in NZ. Perfect!

And so ends the weekend…. One good thing with airport hotels is they arrange airport pickups and drop offs in the motel price. So it was a 7:30 pick-up to the airport, followed by a very dry muffin from the buffet while we waited at the arrivals gate.

Art then has a 2 hour wait for his flight back – hope he finds somewhere that does something more than a dry muffin to while away the time!

A few photos

The Train
Young wine
Blenheim on a Satuday Night in summer

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