16.12.2014 - 22.12.2014
Tuesday 16th December
We arrive at Blenheim, pick up our hire car and set off on our road trip of the South Island. The A1 goes from Blenheim to Christchurch and the sat nav, rather like in Australia, says drive straight for 150km and then turn left! We pass through the Marlborough wine region with vineyards either side of the road and then, with the railway tracks following our every turn, we drive along the coast. It is stunning and rather rugged and the sea a vibrant blue in the bright sunshine.
Finally we come to signs for our lodge and literally turn left off the A1 and down a short drive. What immediately strikes us is why the owners, with land stretching out to the coast, have chosen to build what is undeniably an attractive lodge hard on the main road between the north of the island and Christchurch. It is a bizarre location to have chosen given that they have worked so hard to be Eco friendly with deer grazing by the lodge, planting olive groves and running a conservation programme for endangered birds. Our hearts sink as we watch the cars and trucks go by but luckily the charm of the staff and the beautifully presented tree house helps to make the location bearable. The tree house is literally built into a tree and we lug our suitcases up steep steps to get to the rooms. These are quirky and rather charming and even have a fire for us to light later. If you ignore the road, the views of the mountains in the distance are rather wonderful.
The dining room is not a pretty one but Mike, the duty manager, is one of the best we have encountered and we are soon relaxing with a delicious glass of wine and surprisingly good food, if again a little fussy and complex. The chef is a finalist of New Zealand Masterchef and knows her stuff.
The next day the weather has clouded in a bit and we set off for our whale watching tour a bit nervous about the conditions at sea. We arrive at the whale watching centre which, unlike our trip in Australia, is about as commercial as you can get. There are five boats, each holding 40 people, and they leave every hour so the place is crammed with tourists all trying to sort out their tickets and seats. The chaos really starts when a sign for the 10.30 trip comes up on the screen saying 'warning - extreme sea sickness likely'! Great - Amy and Jack go green on a mill pond so the idea of trying to go out in a very stormy sea without dire consequences is not a pleasant one. We decide to give it a miss but luckily for us (and to stop a rebellion with the kids) they then announce that no children under 12 will be allowed out in the boats today or tomorrow. As we find out later, this is fortunate for us. Apparently the sperm whales dive incredibly deep and so it can take up to an hour from when it dives to when it surfaces again and thus the average sighting per three hour trip is one whale. The fellow guests who went out on the boats returned without a glimpse of a tail and felt rather conned by the whole experience. I think the time to go is when the orcas pass through once a month as then you will have more to see.
We go into the little town of Kaikoura to buy some provisions and to look around. It is like a Cornish seaside town, busy in season, but rather like a ghost town the rest of the time. Everything is geared around the whales and dolphins and their images are everywhere from souvenirs to cafe signs. The whales are obviously the town's big attraction and they trade on this.
We return to the lodge and as the sun has come out we bask in the sunshine and have a light lunch al fresco. We then set off to the foot of the mountains to walk a small forest trail. This is a round loop with the first half a steady climb up through the trees. We meet a hiker by the first stile who looks rather exhausted which does not bode well for us with a four year old. The children moan and drag behind and the first twenty minutes is rather arduous and we are disappointed with their lack of enthusiasm. Finally, when they realise that there is no getting out of it they cheer up and begin to enjoy the trail. We lost a family friend to cancer the day before (this is when you feel far from home) and so have decided to collect wild flowers and leave them somewhere in her memory. We find a small bridge across a waterfall and this seems a perfect spot. The children clasp their hands together and say touching little prayers - our way to say goodbye. The weather has turned again and not knowing how much further to the half way mark we decide to retrace our steps. We are rather wet and muddy by the time we get to the car (two hours after we left it) but rosy cheeked and happy.
Much as Hapuku Lodge has looked after us we are keen to cut our stay short here as there is to be no whale watching and Kaikoura is not a beautiful spot. We return to good news as Grasmere Lodge (our next destination) has agreed for us to go a day early. The hotel is actually enjoying a four day break but they will allow us to go to our cottage as long as we are prepared to self cater for the first night and part of the next day. We readily agree.
We pack up the car and set off on our drive to Arthur's Pass. As both the kids still get car sick I have decided to sit in the back with them to keep them occupied and look after them. I squash in between Amy's car seat and Jack and look longingly at the large comfy front seat. We follow the coast for a bit and this is easy as the children spot seals on the rocks and hunt for whales convinced that every shadow or lump of seaweed is actually a sperm whale. We then turn inland and seem to follow a rather odd route (courtesy of our sat nav). We end up in a small town which is in chaos from road works and by the time we get on the right route our tempers are somewhat frayed.
The situation does not improve when I do a bit of back seat driving as a car heads towards us on our side of the road. New Zealanders are so used to having roads to themselves that they overtake or drive in the centre of the road as if they own it. Needless to say we have a row which culminates in the kids and me getting out of the car and Ray driving off. Looking back, how ridiculous must it have looked a woman with a red handbag and two kids in the middle of nowhere. Needless to say Ray returns, the kids (relieved not to have to be stranded) declare their love for him whilst I sit in silence in the back thinking poisonous thoughts!
The scenery as we head up into the mountains is simply stunning and Grasmere Lodge is set in the middle of all this remote beauty. We are greeted by Jo (the owner's wife), two Jack Russells and a smiling baby in a pram. I can feel the tension beginning to leave us all. She leads us up the hill in her car a short drive to our cottage and it is hard to describe the view that greets us as we enter. The whole of one side of the cottage is glass and in front of you stretches a panorama that defies belief. I have simply never seen a view like it. Below us a river meanders through the mountain range that rises majestically in front of us, their sides clad in vibrant yellow broom. This is a 360 degrees view and one you could never tire of. The colours change as the day progresses and the mountains almost turn red in the evening sun. We cannot believe our luck or tear ourselves away from the window - we have completely fallen on our feet here.
I cook rice soup (all the children have dreamed of) and it is devoured within minutes, blissful smiles on their faces. They find self catering the best - a beautiful location but with home cooking. Glass of wine in hand we collapse on the sofas to all watch Princess Bride. This has long been one of our favourite films but this time Jack and Amy really enjoy it too and we laugh at the silliness of it all. "My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father prepare to die" becomes a catch phrase for the rest of the trip.
Friday morning at 4.30am Jack has a nightmare and comes in to our room. I cannot go back to sleep and so, leaving the boys snoring in bed, head out to the terrace to watch the sun rise. Whereas normally you look east to the sun for the best view here it is the rays of the sun turning the mountains in the west a vivid orange that are more spectacular. The glow spreads slowly across the range lighting them up in a blaze of colour. I sit, hugging my knees, watching it unfold in front of me - a truly magical moment.
Breakfast at home on our own - total bliss. We sit in our pyjamas, coffee in hand with the kids eating Cheerios and us munching on toast. We are in no hurry, there is no one to bother us and life feels pretty perfect. Eventually, rather late in the morning we get into the golf cart left for our use and head off towards the Lodge and the start of the walking trails. We have chosen to do the child friendly Broom Hill and river view trail and set off following the colour markers. The hill is so named because it is covered in bright yellow broom. Broom is virulent in New Zealand and considered a nuisance but aesthetically, when in flower, it covers the hillsides with a mass of yellow flowers and is rather spectacular. We reach the bench at the top of the hill and eat a biscuit looking out over the river below and our cottage nestling in the hillside. I am falling in love with this area. We make our way back past the manuka bushes and spiky Matakauri shrubs and head home.
Ray heads off in the car to view Arthur's Pass and get some provisions. He returns later with news of a mouse epidemic causing chaos in the local area. Apparently this is the worst plague they have had in twenty years with some residents catching between 50 and 100 mice per day. Beech trees in the national park were the culprit - they had dropped millions of tonnes of seed, which sparked the endless parade of the furry critters. A mild winter meant there was a bigger seed drop than usual, which had made the problem worse.
Later that evening we go down to the lodge to have a drink with Tom, the owner, and relax by the fire. He is a down to earth and utterly charming New Zealander and so enamoured are we with the whole place that we ask if we can extend our stay here. Luckily for us the cottage is free and so we book it immediately. As if this place was not perfect enough they have just employed a French chef who without doubt is the best of the trip - even beating Kim at Treetops. At last simple, great ingredients cooked to perfection. What is it about a French chef and his sauces. The results are incredible and the plates scraped clean. Tom and Jo seem to create a family atmosphere at Grasmere and apart from two German boys who clean the lodges and the French chef the rest are fellow New Zealanders. They have either been there for a few years or return when they can between university terms - this extended family imbues the lodge with a real feeling of love for the place which is easily tangible as a guest.
We forgo breakfast at the Lodge for our own chilled version at the cottage. It is drizzling and we lounge around in no hurry to go out, rather glad of the rain to create an excuse for our laziness. A little later the kids and I are picked up by Andy and taken on a tour of the estate. The mist is still down and we begin to wonder what it is with us and farm tours - we seem doomed to view them in the clouds. Cleverly he has planned an alternative kid friendly tour and our first stop is to feed Marcus the lamb with left over bread. Grasmere was once a huge sheep station but now it has a pet flock of about 9 sheep including a ram with wonderful curly horns. They all come for the bread and the children feed them and laugh as they are nudged around by boisterous sheep.
Next up is a large herd of cows to view and then some chickens to feed. We pass by the local train station, which is literally a tiny tin shed, and cross over the tracks and down to a fast flowing and very wide river. Despite the fact that it is now raining we don macs and skim stones for a while. Amy nearly kills her brother by picking up a large rock and trying to throw it in the water. It is too heavy and she drops it missing Jack's bent head by an inch. Andy and I gasp in horror at what might have been but all is well. As we head back to the car he shows us the thorns on the matakauri bushes and tells us that if you get one in your skin you leave it and it comes to the surface a day later with some pus. This gory detail was obviously fascinating for a seven year old boy and the bushes took on a new status of importance.
Our final stop is the beech wood where the kiwi birds tend to nest. There are signs up everywhere for poison as they are trying to control the epidemic of mice. I am not sure how they will try and conserve the kiwi population whilst trying to exterminate the mice but hopefully they have thought of that. We do not stay long as within seconds we are being eaten alive with sand flies. Amy cries in pain and jumps into my arms and I carry her back to the car. By the time we reach it my ankles have been eaten alive. This is the downside of an otherwise perfect country - the sand flies are man eaters and leave a bite which seems to last (and hurt) for a week.
One of the highlights of each day is for Jack or Amy to drive the golf cart down the hill. Jack has now mastered it and stopped careering off the track or wandering from left to right in a day dream. Mimi needs Ray to do the pedals but sits and steers on her own. She is completely erratic and I cross my fingers in the back and quietly say a few prayers. Ray remains calm and allows them free reign and Jack, in particular, grows in stature with his new found driving skills and the added responsibility. The fresh air does wonders for our appetites as does the wonderful cooking - yet again dinner is another triumph.
That night the mice discover our cottage and run backwards and forwards across our bedroom floor and even climb up the curtains. We find some traps in the kitchen cupboard and within minutes the sound of them being sprung echoes around the room. I am dispatched to get rid of the first two dead captives (disgusting!) whilst Ray resets the traps. An hour later and there is a growing pile of rodents in the grass outside our French door. As the trap snaps again Ray and I dissolve into giggles. What a ridiculous thing to be doing at 1.00am running around naked trying to solve the infestation. Finally we are too tired to reset the traps and fall asleep - they can have a party for all we care.
We wake to a beautiful morning and the view is at its best. It is truly an astounding vista and one, in a perfect world, I would wake up to every day. We have breakfast down in the Lodge and I am glad to see they also have our furry friends running amok down there. This mouse problem is going to be a difficult one to sort out.
After breakfast we go to meet Heather who is to take us riding. She is a wonderful Kiwi with an obvious passion for the outdoor life and for her horses. She is a charming, true country lady with a wonderfully friendly, weathered face and Amy immediately adores her. Unlike Treetops she is more safety conscious and so we all wear helmets - thank God as these are large horses. We set off on a small trial ride with Amy's horse being led by Heather and Jack and I fending for ourselves. Jack's horse, Oscar, was incredibly greedy and given half the chance would have his head in a mound of grass. Poor Jack had a struggle to keep Oscar's head up and got a bit disheartened initially but he persevered and soon they were firm friends. Amy seemed so confident on her horse, Lily, that Heather decided we were able to ride round the mountain loop.
We set off up a gentle incline and come to a small lake. Just as I am trying to work out where the path goes Heather sets off through the water. The children cannot believe they are doing this and after my initial trepidation, nor can I. The water comes up to the the horses tummies and we have to tuck our feet up to stop getting wet. Oscar, ever hungry, heads off with Jack to a tiny island in the lake and I look back from our safe position on the other side to see my son stranded in the middle of the lake. Here Heather gives me a great lesson in parenting - just leave him to find his way she told me, he will feel so proud when he has worked it out. Sure enough he coaxes Oscar off the island and manages to cross the rest of the lake on his own. His smile lit up the hillside. Note to myself - let him be more independent. Oscar then did a fart and Jack dissolved into giggles that were so infectious we soon all joined in.
We set off up a steep path that winds through the broom and the lethal matakauri bushes. After the story of the thorns we are rather wary of these bushes and try to keep our legs out of reach as the horses brush past. This is steep riding but the horses know their way and up we climb. We stop at a level spot for a much needed biscuit and water break and to take a few photos of another incredible view. I am amazed the kids are still enjoying it as we have been on the horses for an hour and have some way to go but luckily they still seem up for it. Our ride now leads us through a mass of yellow broom and manuka bushes (from which comes the famous honey), across little streams and finally round by our cottage. We wave at Ray and Amy, desperate to impress her father, refuses to be led anymore and sets off on the last bit on her own. Unfortunately this is also the point when the horses sense they are on the home straight and set off at speed for home. Amy passes me doing a fast trot, her little body jiggling in the saddle and with shrieks of laughter filling the air. As I climb off the horse I realise that two hours in the saddle has left me with stiff legs and an aching bottom - god knows how the kids must feel but yet there is no murmur of complaint. We say goodbye to Heather and Amy flings her arms around her legs desperate to prolong the moment of leaving. We have had the most incredible morning with one of life's truly special women.
We eat lunch and then the children flop on the sofa, too tired to even chase the mice. I am worried at getting Jack motivated to go for his clay shooting lesson that afternoon but luckily the lure of a gun overrides his tiredness. An hour later he returns looking like John Wayne with gun and a target box riddled with holes and another toothy grin. This is his thing and apparently he has quite a good eye for it.
Our final evening and we will be very sad to leave here. An English family has arrived at the Lodge for Christmas and are probably the most miserable group of individuals we have ever come across. Rather like the Von Trapp family the father lines up the five kids on the sofa and maps out the next day's plans and routine. Clad in their socks and sandals and wearing home knitted jumpers they are an eccentric and rather charmless group. Luckily they are eating in a separate room and we have our farewell meal on our own giggling about the mice and tucking into wonderful food. The chef here will be hard to leave. We do a guerrilla raid on the shop for discounted icebreaker ski thermals and possum rugs and then let the kids drive us erratically home in the buggy.
We are ready for our long drive to Queenstown and whilst Ray takes the car down to pay, the kids and I stand on the terrace soaking up the view one last time. Unfortunately whilst I am doing a final check the kids thought they would be helpful and get the buggy out of the carport on their own. An almighty crash and they have managed to go forwards into a log pile rather than reversing. I rush out expecting the worst but luckily Amy only has a small scrape, Jack is shocked and the woodpile, although teetering dangerously, has not collapsed. I don't know whether to be furious they have started the buggy or relieved they are ok. I go for latter option, restore order and shove a toffee in each of their mouths to stop the tears. Phew. What a start to the day! A final goodbye and we set off.