Cuba and New Zealand travel blog


Our little place The Vintage

our view

Brennan Winery

it's early

Queenstown from Bob's Peak

Ready for the luge

Gail coming into the finish of the luge

Hokey Pokey Ice cream ... secret is the honey balls

Queenstown waterfront


The gangs all here

Mt Rosa winery

Morning walk


Chinese Settlement - Arrowtown


Our jeeps

Skippers Canyon

Us at the Gorge

Lighthouse Rock

At bit danerous




in the river

Gold Panning



Rare flightless bird


The Catlans

Waiting to get up to Tiromaona

Tiromaona view

We arrived back in Canada at midnight, so Patti had graciously asked us to stay at her place in Kelowna so that we are not doing the 2-hour drive home in the dark. After a good sleep and delicious breakfast, we head home.

A few groceries and we do the semi unpack of our cases. We have both bought the packing bags to organize our stuff, shirts in one, pants another, fancy duds and underwear all in separate bags. This means that we only have to reorganize after laundry. Anything we didn’t wear is just fine. We had packed as if we could be stranded due to winter storms in Calgary and had to get to New Zealand from there, so we had more then we needed for the beach in Cuba.

The next day is laundry, laundry and more ...where did it all come from. The night before we had finished the last of the Christmas takedown with only Gail’s tree left. We did chores, i.e. replenish drugs and suntan lotion etc. and then off to Terry and Ed’s for dinner, which saved us on the amount of groceries we needed to get.

A game of Greed, of course, followed by a wonderful chicken dinner. So nice to have a great meal after the food of Cuba. But jetlag, even slight, had me in bed early, two pages of the book was all I could muster.

Today is nails, brows, hair etc. All of it needing to last over 5 weeks. We decide after our hair for a beer at the Firehall and run into Bill and Donna. This give us a quick catch-up on their Christmas and New Year’s antics and then we are back home to put the now dry laundry back in it’s packs, close up the bags and order pizza.

We awake on departure day to SNOW! It has been so mild that this is really the first amount of any kind this winter. A great time to go to the summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Eddy gives us a ride and we are there, checked in with plenty of time to spare.

We arrive no problem into Vancouver to see our flight is delayed an hour. Not a worry as we had a 6-hour layover in San Fran. Then as we are enjoying the traditional glass of bubbly when travelling internationally they announce we are back on time and we hustle through lunch.

Problems of big magnitude at gate. They do not recognize our boarding passes, so our hover to get on early and get out bags up top goes for not! And to add to it the system will not let them override the error and we stand with another couple from Kelowna, also on route to Auckland in the same boat. After 20 minutes the unfriendly girl at the desk announces two minutes to the gate with us still having no boarding passes.

At the eleventh hour they bring in a supervisor who fixes the problem and we are on our way having to leave our bags way up front. Then we find out we are in a middle and window which we never book, and I checked out seat selection yesterday. So I check the boarding passes for next flight for which we have paid for Economy Plus, with a 13-hour trip, only to find we are in the back of the bus again with a middle seat. This is not what we have paid for … AARGH.

Both of us don’t say much but internally we are both worried that we are going to be stuck in a middle and window all the way to New Zealand. First stop on landing, United Customer Service, where a lovely lady fixes the problem. Turns out one of us was way in the back and one was in Econ Plus. We don’t check who but are just grateful she fixes the problem.

We have paid for the United Lounge knowing we have 6-hour layover and we deserve a drink. This works out well giving us a much nicer place to spend the big layover with wine, food and comfy chairs.

We head out with plenty of time to catch our flight, however despite us being in Economy Plus they do not give us priority boarding instead they are boarding window seats first! With Gail’s bad leg we cannot afford to find ourselves with no where but under the seat to put her carryon for 13 hours. We decide to follow the lead of many others. I notice that most of those ‘requiring extra time to board’ are as able body as us, so Gail, with her Arctic Blonde hair walks slowly up to the front of the line and boards with them. I wait till it is my turn, of course, hovering such that I am the first of group 4 to get on.

The overhead bins are barely full, so it wasn’t really required but we didn’t want a reoccurrence of Van-SF where our bags where 30 rows up. This is a new plane and the seats are wide and comfortable, at least at first. Turns out they are too big or in fact too deep and the edge hits the back of your leg right around the knee. This is incredibly uncomfortable and only a few hours in I am empathic to Gail’s leg issues as mine really ache.

We sleep on and off over the night, fortunately leaving at almost 11 pm means we are tired but neither of us really get a good night sleep on a flight. Oh, what I wouldn’t have done for a Pod. New Zealand is 21 hours ahead so it should help with the Jet lag as effectively we lose a day of our life. When I decide that I can’t attempt to sleep anymore at 6 am is really 9 am the previous day back home. Helps to acclimatize to the new time.

We have a couple of hours in Auckland until our flight to Queenstown and we experience the ‘high cost’ of living in NZ that we have been told about. A Stoneleigh glass of wine is $23 ... now it may have been a reserve version but still I can buy the whole bottle in Canada for less than that. Needless to say, I get a different brand. On the flight we also experience the other NZ thing we have been told about, how friendly they are. The flight attendants are just delightful, and it makes for a great start.

The scenery out the plane is strikingly beautiful. Craggy mountains, lakes, rolling lush hills and even what looks like a snow-capped volcano. As we were told this does look very much like BC. On our arrival, Bob, Jan, Ruth and John are right there to greet us as we come off the tarmac and after picking up our luggage, we are off to ‘The Vintage’ our home for the next 3 nights.

This cottage is about 20 minutes east of Queenstown in the Central Otago area. It is wine country, so we feel right at home in the Gibbston sub-region where there are a dozen wineries within minutes of us. This is situated along the Kawarau Gorge, which is the highest, and therefore coolest, sub-region in Central Otago. This, which we find out later, means lighter wines. That becomes very obvious in the Tempernillo that we taste later. Nothing like that at home.

The cottage is from 1906 and was originally in Christchurch and later transported down here. It is very homey, well appointed with a large great room, which is perfect for our gang. It has a modern kitchen but made to look older with high ceilings and beautiful carved crown moldings in the rooms. Okay the giant stuffed deer heads might be a bit much!

Gail and I are up in what is like a loft, as it has no door, but is large with twin beds. Downstairs there are 3 bedrooms, one with on suite plus a library. This is all on an acre of land set amongst craggy hills and vineyards. It is perfect and after dropping our bags, a cup of tea and/or beer we decide to try one of the wineries.

We can walk up the road to two and we choose Brennan, a family owned estate. Here you taste around tables in the garden and they come and pour one at a time letting us know that it is a leisurely process taking about 40 minutes for the 7 tastings. It is busy so it is much slower than that and our server, Raphael is spending most of his time chatting about wines with a French couple. So much so that after and hour and 15 we are only on wine 3.

The servings are pretty small compared to home so it takes only two sips to finish and now it is just taking too long. Gail goes in to talk the head server to ask if he would mind pouring our next one and he takes over our table and it goes at a much better pace for the final 4. The wines are nice but not a wow but it is interesting to taste their 3 Pinot Noirs, one more a blend of different plots and the other two different vintages of a single plot.

If Brennan Winery is indicative of all the wineries there are certainly some difference from home. The tasting room here is called the ‘Cellar Door’. At Brennan it is $15 for 7 wines and that is waved by a two-bottle purchase per person. Wines are not cheap, so too many wine tastings and we could go through cash quickly.

This region is primarily a Pinto Noir area, in fact it makes up 75% of the grapes, with Pinot Gris next at just over 10%. The first grapes here were planted way back in 1864 but commercially they have only been producing wine since 1987. Today this region produces about 700,000 cases annually. Brennan has grapes that date back to the late 1980’s but commercially they have been in business since early 2000’s.

Back to our place just before 7 and time for dinner. Bob, Jan and Ruth are on point and Gail, John and I sit around the island watching their handy work. Chicken with red wine sauce, potatoes and French beans are tonight’s fare and it is delicious. I am the first to call it a night, everyone feeling the affects of wine and jet lag. The sensible thing to do is not to have another wine but go to bed… yes, I know I said sensible and wine about me in the same sentence.

We awake to a beautiful sunny day with light clouds. Bob, of course, is up first. Bob and I make up a big breakfast then we head off to Queenstown. Today our plan is to take the Gondola up to Bob’s Peak. It has a fantastic view of the whole town and Lake Wakatipu. The lake is large, 77 km long and 5 km wide and from the top you can see the “Remarkables” Mountain range which is featured prominently in many of the Lord of the Rings movies.

At the top there is an option of taking a Luge ride down part of mountain. Bob, Gail, John and I are game and sign up for the 2-run package, wishing after we had done more runs. There are two different tracks and it is great fun… the first is easier and the top of the red, or second, gives a bit of scare as it is steep and windy but once you are used to it … it is a blast.

Down to the waterfront for lunch. It is very busy and there is a local craftsman fair that we wander through before deciding on a restaurant. We decide we should have a small lunch and find a lovely place right on the water and it is beautifully warm in the sun. After lunch John and Bob head out to swap the small van for the ‘beast’, our huge black Mercedes van. It can seat 12 with all our bags in the back which, gives all of us a window seat. Then we are off to pick up Jan and Rich at the airport.

Well it didn’t all work out perfectly as the van lady wasn’t there on time, so they had to leave the small van by the airport and just pick up the bigger one. So, after the airport they guys drop us girls at the grocery store and the guys go sort out the vans. The grocery bill, not surprisingly, is way more booze than food!

Back to our house, unload the car, and walk up to the other winery close to us called Mt Rosa. The pricing is similar to Brennan but a much more fun experience. Our server is the manager Trish and she announces right off the bat that unless we behave ourselves, we might not get to try the Pinot Noirs. We” are a little taken a back and then we realize it is the Kiwi humour and we have a great time with her.

Bob, with his own vineyard at home, is very interested in the windmills for frost and asks Trish about them. He makes the mistake of saying ‘but you have different frost here don’t you to which she replies, ‘is yours white and cold’. That puts him in his place.

We love the Reserve Pinot Noir so much that we decide to buy a bottle and enjoy it there before heading home. They also have a ‘mulled wine mix’, which is delicious, and we all buy a bottle for next Christmas. Heading home after a great time Gail and I are on dinner, which is Lemon Pepper chicken, Gnocchi Pesto and a salad. And naturally a bevy of wine from our purchases today.

The next morning sadly the weather has changed, and we know that we are going to have rain at some point during the day. So everyone is in long pants except Gail and I who are in capris. Today we start off at the nearby small town of Arrowtown.

Arrowtown was a mining town during the gold rush of the 1860s-80’s. By the turn of the century it had been mostly abandoned. The first rush of 1860’s was with European miners but as they started to leave around 1865 to the more lucrative West Coast beds, the government were worried that it would result in an economic collapse. So, they decide to have the Chinese come from the Aussie fields.

The people were not impressed but the government countered the oppositions with ‘increasing the population even were it in the shape of chimpanzees would be preferable to no population at all.” An interesting perspective. We visit the Chinese settlement right along Bush creek. Twenty small sod huts with tin roofs, a small store and a restaurant in the hay day. Many of the Chinese ended up staying and marrying New Zealanders.

Sadly, our time in Arrowtown is blemished by pouring rain and we are all pretty much soaked. As allAll the places now are either full, with people dashing out of the rain, or they are only serving breakfast. So, we end up with sandwiches or burgers from a kiosk under cover.

We are now off to our afternoon advnentureadventure, the Nomad Jeep Safari. We are going off roading and the weather hadhas slightly improved. We have minimal rain the rest of the afternoon, so it is perfect.

Our first adventure is to the Skippers Canyon, the route down to the Shotover river. The road Skippers Road was built by the miners over 20 yearsa 20yr period and not finished till 1920. Prior to that they walked down taking more than a week. While it is only 25 km the rock is very fragile, so dynamite was not an option and it has to be picked away slowly.

The road, our guide tells us, is 2 lanes … NOT A CHANCE. And this is considered the ‘most dangerous public road in NZ and the 7th most in the world. It is incredibly narrow, no railing and a huge steep drop down to the bottom of the gorge. They keep the road deliberately bumpy and hard to travel to keep the inexperienced off of it. I assumed that in the winter it was all closed but no they go on it the whole year.

The scenery is spectacular, but you don’[tdon’t want to look down too much. One portion called Hell’s Gate is rock on either side and took 3 months to create for just a few feet. They did the work in the winter so they could drill holes, fill them with water and let it expand and freeze to break apart the stone.

As this is the land of Lord of the Rings our jeeps are named for characters, one Frodos and one Smaug. They definitely have been ridden hard but are not too uncomfortable. Below the road we can see the walking trail and we stop to take pictures at Lighthouse Rock. Named so because it was a key marker for the walking miners.

At its peak there were 4,500 people living in the valley. At one point they had the Welcome Home Hotel that was in business from 1908-40. After that as the mining claims dried up it was dismantled and moved somewhere else.

Our next adventure is to 4 wheel the Arrow River back in Arrowtown. Too much fun for sure, criss- crossing the river, driving right down the edge, water sometimes pouring under the doors. We stop for a coffee break and to try our hand at panning for gold. In the end I find 2 miniscule barely visible specks of gold in my pan… no first-class flight home with that.

At this spot is a famous scene in Fellowship of the Ring where the black riders’ race down the river after the Elvish queen. When the movie put the call out for riders in the area, they assume they would get horseman amongst the farmers. Instead they got only the Pony club to reply. So, the scene was done with young 16 yr. old girls in fake beards.

Our final stop is Kawarua Suspension Bridge built in 1891 but today one of the main bungy jumping spots. No, we are not going bungy jumping. This is also a famous scene from Fellowship of the Ring. This is where the Argonath, Pillars of Gondor were as the Elvish boats went down the rivers.

Two fun facts. One that the boats were not water worthy and the they were able to shoot only a few minutes at a time before the boats went under and had to be rescued. The other is the giant statues, in reality were only 3 m tall. The faces represent Aragón’s father and grandfather. Peter Jackson, the director, in fact called Viggo Mortenson’s (who played Aragon) wife got pictures of his father and grandfather and had the statues made in their likeness. It wasn’t until the premier that Viggo found out sadly, while his father saw it, his grandfather had died the month before.

It was a great day, loved the town of Arrowtown and the Jeep ride was a fun experience. Back to the home for our final meal and pack up. We are all trying to put what we need for next two days in our smaller cases, so we don’t have to go into the big ones. That, of course, will not be the case. Another lot of laughs night and too much wine. Our plan is a 9 am departure as it is a long drive day down to the Catlan area, or south east corner of the South Island.

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