Monday, December 18, 2006

New Zealand: Kaikoura and the Coast

The east coast of the south island continues to reward a traveller with spectacular vistas. Driving from Picton or Blenheim you’ll saunter through endless vineyards of the Awatere Valley and sheep-studded grazing country until unexpectedly, with a gentle rightward turn, you’re wedged within a slim roadway with dramatic volcanic coastline to the left and soaring snow capped peaks on the right. Wow.

Cloudy Bay and Clifford Bay comprise the top of the coastline, and the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean dump onto the black sand of the shallow beaches.

Left: fireplace inside The Store, Kekerengu.

This is crayfish country. Hooray.

But no drive along this coastline is complete without a stop at The Store at Kekerengu. Set as close to the water as you can get without getting your toes wet, and with beach walk access, this restaurant come café satisfies food and bevvie requirements no matter what the time of day or the weather. Sit near the raging fireplace as the grey clouds roll in and the rain and wind pounds the windows, or catch the sun in the garden or on the deck as you gaze across the infinite sparkling blue water horizon that envelopes you.

Left: View from The Store.

Richard and Sue Macfarlane serve a range of local seasonal produce, as well as staple favourites, and the counter bristles with home made pies, cakes and tarts in an endless fresh baked procession from the kitchen. Exactly half way between Blenheim and Kaikoura, it is irresistible as a stopping point to replenish your energy with sustenance and breathe in the relaxing salt spray. A tip: Don’t eat before you set off because you won’t be able to resist the feast laid out for you here. The coffee is fantastic too.

The front of The Store opens onto a deck and the beach.

Baked on the premises: Blueberry and pear tart above,
Greek syrup cake and coconut syrup cake below.

Warming welcome: Eggs Benedict,
scrumptious and comforting on a cold morning.

But back to the crayfish.

As you near Kaikoura, lobster shacks dot the beaches. You can pick up a fresh cray, caught and steamed within a few hours, for $35-45 depending on the weight. You can take it away or they’ll also heat it through with a sauce of your choice so you can eat on the beach (well, not what Aussies would call a beach, but it is a strip of sand near the water). I like to stop at Nin’s Bin (left) because of the fun you can have saying it with a New Zealand accent.

Kaikoura is a seaside resort town. It doesn't take long to work out that the main industry here is marine tourism, but the most dominant is whale watching. The whale watch operation is possibly the most streamlined, best organised tourism venture I have ever experienced. The three hour tours leave on the hour (except in bad weather when tours can be cancelled), they have up to four boats out at any one time, and the entire process runs like clockwork. Although you get a partial refund of you see no whales, the geological and marine features of this part of the coast provide a supply of of resident cetaceans. A 2000 metre ocean trench mixes warm currents from the north with cold, nutrient rich Antarctic waters to create a stream of food that attracts everything in the food chain. Including a permanent population of single male sperm whales. Like a huge bachelor pad … or pod.

Left: Sperm whale diving, Kaikoura ranges in the background.

If you’ve never been near these amazing creatures in the wild, don't go past Kaikoura without booking a whale watch experience. You’ll travel a few kilometeres off the coast in a luxury purpose-rigged catamaran and chase whales as they surface to breathe before diving to feed. When you see that tail rise up out of the water and plunge into the icy depths you will come away a changed person. This time out we saw four whales, a pod of dusky dolphins annoying a diving whale, and albatross. We were two weeks shy of Orca season and the humpbacks, which migrate past here, were away up north. I’ve been on whale watch tours here before and always marvel at their majesty and beauty. How anyone could contemplate killing them is beyond me.

But maybe I’m a hypocrite because crayfish are another thing altogether. No compunction about putting one steaming on my plate any day. The Pier Hotel is recommended as serving some of the best seafood in Kaikoura, and on this visit I have to agree 100% on the New Zealand Cuisine magazine Restaurant Guide recommendation.

The Pier is an old Victorian era pub, shifted to the waterfront in pieces and re-assembled. It offers a traditional ramshackle, quirky pub atmosphere, the walls littered with briny mementos, where you can sink a cold one and gaze at the mountains and the sea, as well as a restaurant brilliantly served by French chef David Gondohla, and budget accommodation. Another brilliant plus is that they serve lunch all day. Yes, wander in at 3pm and there’s no 'sorry the kitchen's closed' futzing around, just sit down and have a meal, no problems. And what a meal. The John Dory was airily crisp, moistly fried in a diaphanous batter. The crayfish was – no kidding – the best I have ever had. Straight out of the water, steamed. Scattered with chives and served with a simple butter or aioli. I’m a sucker for legs, a leg woman if you must. I feel cheated if even one of those spiny appendages has been lost in transit to my plate. I crack and break and wrangle and slurp the sweet interior from the chitonous tendril from root to tip. Often when you get to the thinnest extremity all there is to reward you is a dried husk. Not so with this beauty. Succulent to the last morsel. I wish I’d had the time or the appetite to try the Paua ravioli on the Summer menu, but it was not to be.

Saunter around after lunch to the seal colony and see NZ fur seals rolling around sleeping off lunch (like you wish you were) right next to the car park.

Deep fried John Dory $18.90

Steamed half cray with butter or aioli $45.00.

Closer to the main strip of the town is The Olive Branch (54 West End) an Italian style café, where the menu is ambitious but not al all touristy, sensibly relying on the best of NZ produce. Run by Jo Broadhust with chef Hamish King at the pans, an early dinner was very satisfying and the casual feel of the venue adds to the seaside vibe. The cray was good, but not as outstanding as The Pier, but that was a very hard act to follow. The food presentation was superior as you can see from the picture below, but in a sense who needs a pretty plate when you only have eyes for the cray? The pork was succulent and the accompaniments were well suited to the dish, the veg on the side a little tired.

Above and below: Confit of tender belly pork,
apple and pear compote, crispy crackling, lemon and sage jus $26.00.

Locally caught steamed crayfish, wasabi and lime sauce $35 half/ $69 whole.

Crispy garlic and rosemary rubbed potatoes
and seasonal veg (included with mains).

Down at the tourism business end of the strip, the Café at Encounter Kaikoura (96 Esplanade) holds multiple interests. The main booking agent for swimming or kayaking with all manner of marine life including dolphins and seals, it also houses a gift shop with local arts, craft and souvenirs, as well as being a great place for a quick meal. Counter food, a la carte and specials cater for a range of tastes, with outward folding doors onto the terrace which looks straight across the beach, perfect for fine weather.

Hoki gougons with salad, fries and tartare $14.00

Grilled asparagus spears wrapped in prosciutto
with Greek salad and New Zealand feta $15.00.

Where I stayed: Room With a View. Yes, the view. Oh, The View - the pictures here are what you see from the blacony (see the link above for pictures of the interior and booking details the interior). I’ve stayed here a few times and while not apparently on the seaside, it offers one of the best views you’ll experience in the area. It’s a small freestanding unit next to a house that accommodates a couple easily, but also has a fold out lounge in the main room. The balcony is secluded enough with vines and plants to have a fully functional claw footed bathtub on it that you can fill with bubbles and gaze at the sea and the mountains as you relax, iron out the kinks of the day and fill yourself with bubbles. It’s a few minutes drive from the town and gets you that little bit further away from the bustle of the main drag. At NZ$120-150 per night for two (we paid $135 in November) it’s hard to get better. The weather was gloomy when we arrived (see pictures below) and dark clouds dumped a few metres of snow on the peaks overnight. In the morning (picture above), it was clear and sublime with the snow covered peaks and flat azure sea looking intoxicatingly inviting. Just right for catching a glimpse of the whales.

Eating and Food Shopping in Wellington
Picton Havelock and Marlborough Sounds
Blenheim and the Wairau Valley Vineyards

Green Shelled Mussel Cruise


Blogger Helen (AugustusGloop) said...

wow. that's a view alright!

locally-caught crayfish looks and sounds amazing. yum!

3:29 PM  
Blogger neil said...

Are the quoted prices Aussie or NZ dollars? No matter, it makes our $75 kg for crays look extortionate.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Reb said...

It was unreal Helen. Soooooo good!

NZ dollars Neil. And yes it makes you wonder how much we're 'prepared' to pay.

7:41 AM  
Blogger Cacasodo said...

Wow. That place looks utterly fabulous. And the food doesn't look 1/2 bad either! :) Unfortunately, it's about a twenty hour plane ride for us! Thanks for posting.

1:41 AM  

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