27 July 2011

Wanaka. It rhymes with Hanukkah.

We left Franz Josef after a night of pounding rain. When we reached Fox Glacier, about 30 km south of Franz Josef, the clouds were low and threatening. We drove up the short gravel road to the glacier lookout, stepped out, snapped a few photos of the nearly-invisible glacier, and hopped back in the car.

We drove south along the west coast through alternating periods of rain, mist, and gloom. If there were any spectacular views of the nearby mountains, they were obscured by clouds and fog. We stopped briefly at the Munro Beach track, but the time of day, the tide, and the weather conspired against us and we had no hope of spotting the Fjordland Crested Penguins that occasionally emerge from the surf.

So we drove on, stopping for gas and a dispiriting search for a healthy lunch in the scruffy little town of Haast. When we reached the lone cafe, the only thing on the menu that wasn't battered and deep fried was the spaghetti sandwich. New Zealand has fresh, innovative food at the high end, but at the fringes, it's thoroughly old school British. After a greasy pub meal the night before, we just couldn't handle it. We opted for an apple and some crackers in the car instead. We were getting a little grumpy.

Then we turned east and followed the Haast River valley up and over Haast pass. Although we drove through a snow-covered landscape for a few miles, the roads were clear and - as we've experienced throughout our trip so far - mostly deserted.

Within a few miles of the summit of the pass, it was clear that we'd passed from the tropical luxuriance (and near constant rain) of the west coast into a drier, sparer environment. The snow peaks surrounding us were no longer choked with vegetation - instead, long expanses of open range land were interspersed with occasional copses of trees. A Great Basin-type landscape, if you ignore the occasional stand of giant cabbage trees.

The unrelenting overcast thinned, shattered, and bright sunshine beamed down as we zoomed down the empty road. We found ourselves driving beside an enormous, deep blue lake, utterly empty for as far as the eye could see. Lake Wanaka, which stretches for over 40 km in length and over 10 km at its widest point. Looking at that enormous, empty body of water, I was reminded of Pyramid Lake in Nevada.

A quick left turn of the road and suddenly an entirely new vista presented itself to us: Lake Hawea lies in a glacier-carved valley parallel to Wanaka. It's not as large as Wanaka, but even more spectacular, with jagged, snow-covered peaks surrounding all but its narrow southern end. Under the sunny skies, the water in Lake Hawea was as blue as I've ever seen at Crater Lake. We stopped several times to gawk at the spectacular landscape.

We rolled down from the mountains and into the busy resort town of Wanaka. Our motel room (more on this later-- motels are a whole 'nother thing here) is typical NZ style: spacious, squeaky clean, and perfectly comfortable - and outside our back door, there's a narrow, rushing stream full of absolutely enormous trout.

After exploring Wanaka, which is a ski town through and through in the winter, we found a great little Indian place for dinner. We settled in by the fire with a bottle of Otago "Misha's Vineyard" Riesling, and raised a glass to our delicious curries-- which were neither battered nor deep fried.

That bottle of Riesling prompted us to add a detour through Otago to tomorrow's drive to Mount Cook. Riesling is often dismissed as sweet and unserious by casual wine lovers, but among hardcore oenophiles, it's treasured as the finest, most transparent in character, and longest-aging white wine in the world. The best examples usually come from Germany, Alsace, and Austria. We've yet to find a New World Riesling that can compete on quality or price with a $20 Mosel Kabinett, but the bottle we had last night hinted at a strong effort to do precisely that.

Off to Otago to test that idea.

Location:Upton St,Wanaka,New Zealand


Unknown said...

Nice work, Melissa. Stay safe! LaNae

Laurie said...

I've always been a Riesling lover, & I think it might go very well with spaghetti sandwiches!