Marlborough wineries and whale watching

Like I said in my last post: after hiking comes wine tasting. This time in New Zealand’s most famous wine region, the Marlborough region. Since it is so large, we decided to take two days, with some whale watching in between.

Since we first had to drive from Franz Josef to Blenheim, which takes at least 6,5 hours, and we are starting to get a bit tired from all the traveling, we decided to cut the journey in two. This made it possible to spend some time at the Pancake Rocks and start our wine tasting immediately after checking in in Blenheim the day after. First winery on our list was a rather small one, Te Where Ra. The cellar door is rather small and has no special features. Although there were no tasting fees applicable, this meant that we only got very small sips of wine to taste. What we did get to taste was OK and some were rather good, although also a bit on the expensive side. The location made up for it:

Most wineries over here close at 4.30pm, which meant that we had just enough time to do one more and we chose Spy Valley. The wine guide has a picture of two large golfballs accompanying the vineyard, so I was rather puzzled by their absence when we arrived. The sommelier told us that these golf balls are an actual international spy base a little further up the road and that the name only inspired them. But inspire them it did, because they put a slogan on each wine bottle regarding the content, in morse code. Nice touch!

The winery itself looks very modern and stylish and has a large tasting room overlooking parts of their vineyards (they have more in the back and in other places). The wines were great, and but keeping in line with what they are most famous for in this region, we took a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc home. Too bad mr. Scientist doesn’t like dessert wine, because they have a great one made 100% out of Sauvignon blanc.

For the following day we had an exciting trip planned: whale watching in Kaikoura. We set out well in advance and noticed on the almost 2-hour drive over there that the weather was a bit restless with lots of winds and some occasional rain. This was actually part of the reason why we chose to do the whale watching today and continue our wine tasting tomorrow, which would be a sunny day again. We figured the whales are in the waters anyway so they don’t care about the weather, but cycling through vineyards is much nicer in the sun than in the rain. What we didn’t anticipate is the kind of boat we would be in and a little thing called sea sickness. Of course pirates do not get seasick! So no real worries there, but when we arrived and there were warnings all over the place about sea sickness on our ride and pregnant women were barred from taking our ride, I started to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into. Of course, in the end this pirate did not get seasick (and neither did mr. Scientist for that matter), but one of the other passengers hadn’t taken enough precautionary measures so started to turn light green after a while…

Kaikoura, the place from where the whale watching sets off, used to be a whale hunting colony. Funny how things can turn around, because the whale watching company (in the hands of Maori) now makes sure to enlighten their visitors about the beauty of the animals that come here and about preserving nature. During the cruise we had a lovely lady (from the UK) telling us a lot about the whales, how they find the whales in the water, how whales tick and much more. The reason you can come watch whales over here all year long is because it is a feeding ground for male whales. This also means that all whales you will see over here are male sperm whales (the females, understandably, prefer tropical waters). The reason for this is that the 3km deep Kaikōura Canyon runs right up against the coast creating a rare system of sea currents that sustain an incredibly rich marine food chain. Easy pickings when you are a whale and on top of the food chain!

While I was looking out of the window and listening to what our guide had to say, I suddenly saw a couple of dolphins jumping around! I shrieked, which caused some others to look which in turn made the captain look and stop the boat, so we could all get outside and have a good luck. Very cool!

Not long after leaving the dolphins, we set out to meet our first whale: Holy Moly. Only minutes after we got out on deck, the whale made a beautiful dive and we were all able to take that iconic tail shot.

After leaving Holy Moly (after they dive, they remain under water for several hours) and looking for one of his comrades, we spotted our old friends from the Otago Peninsula: the albatross! Since I am now an expert albatross spotter, I didn’t have to rely on our guide pointing them out for me (which of course she did a couple of minutes later for the rest of the passengers).

Now, an adult sperm whale is about 12m in length and the whale watching boats are equipped with sensors that can trace the noises the whales make. This enabled us to “hunt” for another whale, but at some point: he got lost. Yes, the noise had stopped, which usually means that the whale will come up to the surface, but no whale anywhere in sight. Loosing a 12m whale… I never thought that could happen. But no worries (they say that over here too), because while we were cruising around on the lookout, we found another whale: Akaori (named after Mount Cook). My first thought was actually how their equipment can’t be that reliable when you loose one whale and by coincidence find another one, but a whale is a whale and I got to see him up close and personal. And besides, whales do not like to come to the surface when there is anything up there blocking their way. Not even birds, so definitely no boats as long as they are themselves.

Now, you must be wondering whether I dropped our cameras into the sea since there are no pictures here, but I now present to you my newest addition to Pirate and Scientist’s funniest home videos:

And to top it all of, we spotted a major fur seal colony on the drive back:

After an exciting day out at sea, we rented a couple of bicycles and visited several more wineries. Like has happened before, we made a small miscalculation regarding the distances, so ended up cycling 35km (plus walking from and to the bike rental for another 6 km). Boy were we tired at the end of the day! And suffered from some saddle pain…

But it was worth it. The weather was as sunny as forecasted and the wines we tasted were very good. We started off with St. Clair, a familiar place because they ship some of their wines to The Netherlands. Since I enjoy their Sauvignon Blanc a lot, I thought it would be fun to check out the place for real. A beautiful setting and I regretted bringing lunch instead of taking a seat in their garden, almost within the vineyard.

Since we can get this wine at home, we left empty handed and headed over to Framingham Winery. From the get go it was clear that this is a hipster place, almost a little too cool and nonchalant for a winery in my opinion. The sommeliers were rather curt, so although we did enjoy the three wines we got to taste, we didn’t feel like spending our money here.

Our third winery of the day was a hit: Wairau winery. We were welcomed by a very nice lady, who introduced us to their wines, their story, the family behind the vineyard and the region. The wines were great, all of them. But since our backpack only holds so much space and we had to cycle (and then walk) quite a way back, we decided on taking just the one bottle.

For our last stop I decided to go for sparkling wine at the No 1 Family Estate. A rather small tasting space, but decorated in every corner with glamour and spark:

Yes, the big bottle in the middle (Adele, named after the owner’s wife) is decorated with Swarovski gems. And no, we didn’t take that one home. Although we only got to taste two of their sparkling wines made according the Méthode Traditionelle as they to in the Champagne region in France, they did taste great and we took one of them home.

After that our last stop was at a small chocolate factory, partially for the chocolate but also to give our bums a short break. You can imagine that after we got home, we didn’t feel guilty at all about digging into our loot!

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