Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Picton, Havelock & Marlborough Sounds

Unless you fly, the only way from the North to the South Island is on a passenger ferry that takes commuters, tourists, vehicles and cargo from Wellington to Picton. It’s a three hour trip on an enormous inter-island ferry that has many decks, bars, snack food shops, entertainment – even a movie theatre for those blasé about the magnificent scenery. Wellingtonians are always interested in ‘the crossing’ of the ferry and will animatedly ask you when you’re going, have you checked the Cook Strait shipping forecast and so on.

Left: The InterIslander Ferry in Queen Charlotte Sound.

As you contemplate boarding the vessel they will commence a sentence with “When the Wahini went down …” which is not the start of a bawdy Maori story, but a reference to the ferry disaster of April 1968 when the Wahini ferry sank after hitting a reef in Wellington Harbour, killing 51 of the 700 or so passengers on board, as Cyclone Giselle battered the boat with 200kmph winds. I’ve heard this story every single time I’ve travelled on this ferry and I have come to believe the locals get some sort of perverse sadistic pleasure out of recounting it at just the right moment, in the same way children tell ghost stories at sleep overs. The end of the sentence is usually “…but it should be ok today … unless the weather changes suddenly.” Great. Four seasons in one day.

Adding to the fun stories this time were two recent ferry incidents, one where under similar conditions a ferry nearly capsized in March and another where the ferry couldn’t enter the harbour due to the 14 metre waves battering it, as it bobbed around for 10 hours in the Pacific Ocean. Undaunted, we carried on and a bottle of Bensen Block Sauvignon Blanc helped our nerves somewhat.

Left: Queen Charlotte Sound from the Queen Charlotte Drive to Havelock

One of the most spectacular travelling sights you will see is the moment you turn into Queen Charlotte Sound as the ferry glides from the bumpy Cook Strait into the serenity of this weather protected waterway. The gasps among first timers are audible. The cameras click and snap. The photo ops of rail hugging smiling tourists attest to its memory-worthy vista. I can’t take photos of this sight. A photo of the sound does as much justice to the spectacle as saying the food at El Bulli is ‘nice’.

Left: Waikawa Bay Marina.

After an hour long cruise through the sound you arrive at Picton. It's is a transient sort of place, full of people either coming back from or going to somewhere else. A holding pen for eager tourists exploring the region. Good dining is limited, unless you like that particular brand of fast and pub food that’s appealing to families with small children or denizens of all you can eat club buffets. Two sure things are Le Café on London Quay (the main street towards the water) which in the six years I’ve been visiting this region has never failed to put an interesting, up to scratch meal on the table, and make the best coffee in town. Run by the same guy ever since I’ve been visiting, and with a vibrant and happy team, the kitchen devises and serves great casual dishes, in what is usually a chaotic and unpredictable shift, due to the ferry disgorging unknown numbers of unbooked diners into their midst. During busy times, staff will try to tell you how much of a wait you might have for a meal and this management of expectations adds to your ability to relax, have a glass of wine, and take in the buzzy seaside vibe endemic to this terrific café. They’re open breakfast til late, make their own cakes and muffins fresh each day, and support local visual and musical artists with exhibitions and concerts.

Left: Garlic bread for the peckish explorers.

A new find is Spinnaker, five minutes drive from the town centre in the Waikawa Bay Marina complex, where chef Hilary Weaver has constructed a manageable menu of four entrees and four mains, consisting of excellent locally sourced seasonal produce, competently prepared and presented. You're in store for a serene dining experience overlooking the bobbing masts of the neighbouring yachts, great food and brilliant value. This is really what you want from holiday dining: a focus on the best that the region offers and a menu small enough for everything to be done to perfection. The venison, lamb and chicken we tried (see pictires below) were superbly cooked, with contemporary approaches to finishes and garnishing. We didn't get a chance to sample the yummy sounding desserts.

If you don’t try these two Picton highlights I’m afraid you’ll be chowing down on ordinary fish and chips, pepper steak, and ham and pineapple surprise.

Venison chargrilled on kumara rosti with
rhubarb chutney and merlot jus (entree) $15

Side of spring vegetables with hollandaise (complimentary)

Lamb rack, parmesan crusted on rosemary rosti,
slow roast tomato, minted pea salsa and pinot noir jus, $26

Above and below: Chicken breast, roast, marinated in preserved lemon
with Moroccan cous cous, green beans and pomegranate molasses jus, $26.

Havelock lies at the end of the spectacular Queen Charlotte Drive, about 40 minutes travelling by car from Picton. Previous pilgrimages to Havelock have been solely to lunch at The Mussel Boys, famous for serving fresh green shelled mussels, but alas Mussel Boys are no more. The site has been renamed The Mussel Pot and is now for sale and looking for staff. Not a great draw card for a diner. The rumour is that the franchise they tried to grow has collapsed, but I can’t find too much more information about it other than local anecdotes. I just hope they recover because to have no restaurant serving good mussels in the Green Shelled Mussel Capital of the World seems a great shame. We dined at another recommended restaurant near the water (probably best to remain nameless in case this was a one-off bad experience) where the mussels were so bad I fed them to the restaurant cat, who also had a hard time chewing them. We had to ask for our ($15) change as it was not provided after paying the bill and to add insult to injury we had to point out they overcharged us by $10 on the bottle of wine we ordered, and ask for the amount back. We then boarded our Green Shelled Mussel Cruise of the Pelorus and Keneperu Sounds, which I’ll post about in a separate entry.

Where I stayed: Whatamonga Homestay is 15 minutes drive from the touristy strip of Picton, around Waikawa Bay. Rates including breakfast are $155 per couple for the first night and $125 for each subsequent night, subject to seasonal changes (see the website link above). Two self contained and immaculately presented one room units each fit a couple easily and comfortably, with a balcony, lounge, and small galley kitchenette. The stand out feature is the view, which looks unobstructed from the deep water frontage across Waikawa Bay and Queen Charlottle Sound. Qualmark, the NZ agency responsible for rating accommodation, gave Whatamonga 3/10 for the view. Because Krakatoa wasn’t erupting that day? You can’t see Sydney Opera House on the opposite shore? As you can see from the picture this rating seems ridiculous. Maybe the Qualmark reviewer’s white harnessed Labrador could see the view better. Your hostess, Collette, will bring down a tray the night before for your breakfast, including her beautiful homemade bakery goods, like muffins and croissants, accompanied by homemade preserves, fruits, juice, cereal and plunger coffee. You can enjoy them on the balcony and wave at the inter island ferry as it glides past in the distance. Collette can also give you the heads up on local dining establishments and news of what’s going on Blenheim and surrounds.

The view from Whatamonga homestay

Related posts:

Eating and Food Shopping in Wellington
Kaikoura and the Coast
Blenheim and the Wairau Valley Vineyards

Green Shelled Mussel Cruise


Anonymous Ellie said...

A bunch of my closest girlfriends are currently touring NZ, but I don't think they're having an awesome a trip as you've documented here. Certainly not as titillating to the tastebuds!

Looks like a great getaway :)

10:48 PM  
Blogger neil said...

The pre boarding stories remind me of the axe murderer stories we used to tell around the campfire, great fun for the storyteller. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous, would love to see a ten out of ten! There is also a slight tinge of green about me.

2:42 PM  
Blogger thanh7580 said...

The views are spectacular.

I hate it also when restaurants do not give change and just assume its a tip. And especially at a bad restaurant too, thats even worse. Maybe that's the only way bad restaurants can get tips.

10:27 PM  
Blogger Reb said...

Thanks Ellie - NZ is a pretty relaxing place, doesn't take long to wind down with these surroundings.

Hi Neil - yeah, I don't know what you'd have to do for 10 ... but where I stayed on the coast might give you a hint .. they have high standards, stay tuned!

Hi Thanh - I'm erring on the side that the lack of change was an honest mistake, but coupled with the overcharge it was a bit dodgy.

8:29 AM  

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