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An Intimate Tour of New Zealand

 A view of the harbor on the way to Akaroa, 
a former French settlement on 
New Zealand’s South Island.

Photo: Mark Roper

It’s hard to feel any stress in sunny wine country, but in Marlborough I manage it. This is where things fall apart a little and then come back together. Some of Martin’s suggestions don’t work out, places are booked on short notice, calls go unanswered. One of the reasons we wander is for the artificial highs and lows we feel along the way. Like Finns jumping from freezing pool to steaming sauna, we hop headlong into the good and bad, dull and delightful parts of a journey, and it makes our heart race.

From Wellington we take a ferry across to Picton, at the top of the South Island. Martin had directed us to a B&B run by a very friendly couple who give us wine when we arrive and a lovely home-cooked breakfast in the morning. There is nothing wrong with the place at all, but we have the sinking feeling we’ve landed in a kind of pretty nowhere, a scrubbed suburb near beautiful wine country.

Here is another lesson: Live by the recommendation, die by it, too.

After some fumbling calls and scratched ideas, the nice couple mention that they are friendly with Therese Herzog of the Herzog Estate in Blenheim, not far away. Driving through sunny Marlborough wine country, we’ve got a good feeling about Therese, who doesn’t even know we’re headed to find her but who we hope will save our trip. And she does.

A handsome Swiss import, Therese doesn’t have time for the halting, ginger politesse of her Anglo neighbors. I start my rehearsed speech about what we’re looking for: not just a guidebook listing, somewhere you yourself would go…

“Okay, hold on,” Therese says, leaving me mid-spiel. She returns with a postcard she appears to have been keeping for just this purpose, ready to present like a pre-baked cake on a TV cooking show.

“This is the secret sight to see,” she says, musically. “This is the golden bay, the million-dollar view. This is where we go to escape.”

Sold. Check, please. We call the number on Therese’s postcard and, against the odds, the cottage at Clifftops Retreat is available.

So we are back on course. Over the mountain passes to Nelson, through the city and out to the little seaside hamlets and hill towns that line the road up and around to Ruby Bay village. After a few wrong turns, we find the tree-lined path to Clifftops cottage and a sign on the gate, wrapped with a bow: “Welcome Evyn and Adam. Please turn the key on your left and zoom up to the house. Looking forward to meeting you. Pebbles and Frankie might also appear to say hello—woof woof.”

Pebbles and Frankie and their caretakers, Bob and Anne, lead Evyn and me to a pair of Adirondack chairs at the edge of the lawn. Below us is Tasman Bay and the curving coast of the South Island. We take a bottle from the well-stocked kitchen and watch the sky as it turns from pink-streaked blue to quavering purple to starry black.

The dogs are back to say hello in the morning. Stay, they say, flopping around on the lawn. Stay and pat our bellies and enjoy this place you’ve come so far to see. Bob is more direct. “This is craziness!” he advises us when we say we really do need to get moving. The dogs were right, of course. It was a shame to go before we took Bob’s advice about the hiking trails in Abel Tasman National Park and before we could finish all the cookies Anne had stashed in the kitchen cupboard. But rules are rules, even self-imposed ones, so we’re off, cutting southeast down the middle of the island.

New Zealand is big and varied, in its way. Sandy beaches in the subtropical north, glaciers and alpine skiing in the south. We didn’t know what we’d see of it until we met the people who would send us there. We pass through rolling farmland, and in the endless interior, ominous-looking craggy ranges. The radio cuts out for miles at a stretch.

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