By Brad Japhe
September 21, 2019
Credit: Getty Images

“Good girl, Rosie! That’s a good girl,” exclaims my host, Gareth Renowden. The godfather of New Zealand truffles is walking me through his farm, Limestone Hills, set along the edge of a jagged gorge above the Waipara River. He is talking to his seven-year-old beagle, whom he’s wryly nicknamed the Truffle Machine. Despite the sensory distractions of a ripe autumn afternoon, she has managed to deliver on the promise of her moniker.

Renowden lurches out where Rosie’s snout meets the earth, dusting aside a scant layer of topsoil to reveal a bulbous, jet-black treasure. He sizes it up, almost dismissively, before transferring custody to me. Along with his wife, the British expat runs The Shearer’s Cottage — a two bedroom bungalow overlooking their vineyard and truffière — ‘sometimes available’ for rental, by special arrangement.

“What you’ve got there is Tuber Brumale,” he explains of the variety more commonly known as a winter black truffle. “It actually has a rather distinct nose. If you don’t really know what you’re doing, you may use it thinking that it’s one of the best. But you’d be disappointed.” I’m willing to take my chances. And so Renowden properly packs up my bounty, wrapping it first in paper towel, then sealing it in a plastic canister before sending me on my way.

About forty miles south of here, I had rented a car at the Christchurch Airport. My mission was circuitous, if not simple: a road trip traversing the lion’s share of New Zealand’s South Island — 1,125 miles in seven days. Because of the country’s lax laws regarding ‘freedom camping,’ many visitors opt to rent a camper van and park overnight along any available public space. This is perfectly legal, except where expressly curtailed by local statutes. It’s a great way for small groups of travelers — and couples — to explore on a budget. But I had set out solo (my newly acquired fungus notwithstanding) and was looking for loftier perches upon which to lay my head.

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I found just that two hours up the road in the seaside village of Kaikoura. Sandwiched between Pacific surf and snowcapped crags, I check into the Hapuku Lodge. Abutting its rustic lobby and sole ground-floor suite, four standalone rooms are hoisted 32 feet into the canopy of the forest, fusing adult luxury with the nostalgic charm of a childhood tree house. From the comfort of my bubble bath I watch the sky dim, tracing the edges of Tapuae-o-Uenuku’s 9,500-foot peak in ineffable hues of pink and purple.

Credit: Courtesy of Hapuku Lodge & Tree Houses
Credit: Courtesy of Hapuku Lodge & Tree Houses

Climbing down from my fort, I meet with Fiona Read, Hapuku’s co-owner and executive chef. Rumors of my notorious travel companion have preceded me up highway 1. Asked to confirm, I open the lid of my plastic carton, and a garlicky funk flitters into the air. A gleam in Fiona’s eye suggests a plan is already swirling. I hand over the goods and within minutes the deed is done; thin shavings of the delicacy join parsley and fried, scrambled yolk atop a crostini. The dish waits for me in front of an open kitchen, where I’m seated at the chef’s table, sipping on a supple Pinot Noir from the South Island’s Central Otago wine region. “How you going?” she asks, probably rhetorically.

“I’m a box of fluffy ducks,” I respond, in an attempt to flex the local lingo.

The next morning begins with one of the better breakfasts of freshly baked pastries I can recall. I am reluctant to leave, but today’s a busy one. It begins with a three-hour whale watch off the coast of Kaikoura. A menagerie of marine mammals all make cameo appearances — orcas, sperm whales, pods of frolicking dolphins, even an elusive blue whale has come out to play, waving its mighty fluke framed by a distant backdrop of Southern Alps. In any other country this could make for a once-in-a-lifetime sort of day. In New Zealand, it wasn’t even lunchtime yet.

An hour and a half up the highway, I check in at Tohu Wines, dipping my toes into the country’s famed Marlborough wine region. The impressive modern facility exists as the world’s first Māori-owned winery. Winemaker Lloyd Howes is waiting for me in the tasting room, alongside sales manager Dan Taylor. Together we assemble into a Land Cruiser and drive up an impossibly windy hilltop, arriving at a plot of yellow-leaved vines, populated by free range sheep. It’s a good vantage point from which to observe how the climate, soil and topography converge to shape the area’s trademark Sauvignon Blanc grape.

Back down at the tasting room, bottles of the liquid are uncorked. A 2018 vintage grown and vinified right here in the Awatere Valley is poured into the glass; sharp in acid and rich in tropical fruit. Taylor hands me the label for inspection, while Howes emerges from the kitchen with a plateful of steamed, green-lipped mussels. “This is about as New Zealand a pairing as you can get,” he muses, placing the wine and the seafood on top of an empty oak barrel.

Another evening in the South Island, another dusk dominated by some dreamlike combination of lavender and orange. By the time the stars had emerged, I was pulling into the gated driveway of the Marlborough Lodge — a Victorian estate on the wooded outskirts of Blenheim. Here, owner Angela Dillon has faithfully captured the aesthetic appeal of a 19th-century convent while infusing its interior with every manner of modern luxury: full marble bathrooms, plush, king-size bedrooms, focused farm-to-table fare. All set amongst 16 idyllic acres of ponds and vines.

Credit: Courtesy of The Marlborough Lodge
Credit: Courtesy of The Marlborough Lodge

Waking up in the heart of Sauvignon Blanc country, it’s less than an hour drive to the town of Picton, and the northern terminus of Highway 1. With no highway left in front of me, I turn westward and wind along the Marlborough Sound on Queen Charlotte Drive. I skirt verdant cliffs, with inlets of emerald sea dropping out below the driver’s side window. It’s as if Maui’s legendary Hana Highway was re-cast along the shores of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Eventually I return to earth at Highway 6, which will carry me through the urban trappings of Nelson and all the way down into the South Island’s rugged west coast. For more than a hundred miles of pavement I pass along nothing but cow pasture and sparsely populated farm towns. The landscape evolves, dramatically and abruptly, as I meet the Buller River. Following its meandering path for what feels like hours, I am wholly submerged in tropical rain forest.

I make it to the coastal town of Hokitika for a quick pit stop at the Beachfront Hotel. The lobby bar, overlooking the Tasman Sea, provides local ales on tap and hearty pub fare. A framed picture by the entrance shows that Prince William, himself, enjoyed much of the same on a recent visit. I am heartened to be following in the footsteps of royalty. But dismayed at the formidable strand of road that unfurls before me. My goal for the following evening is Queenstown — exactly 300 meandering miles to the south.

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But this is by no means a dull stretch. It’s more like a full stretch of the imagination. As Highway 6 veers inland from the shoreline, it climbs almost instantly into an alpine wonderland. I pass through the town of Franz Josef Glacier, where hikers come from far and wide to trudge across snowfields ascending towards New Zealand’s highest mountain range. Some opt for a more facile — if far pricier — approach, zooming into the sky with helicopters and gliders to catch an eagle-eye glimpse of Aoraki, in all its 12,218 feet of glory.

Sadly, I have scant time for such indulgences. There’s still yet another section of coastal driving ahead, before the great road snakes a final mountain turn at the mouth of the impetuous Haast River. I reverse its flow into the hills on a slow, steady vertical lumber, before reaching the pass that bears its name.

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It is, quite literally, all downhill from here through the ceaseless tree-scape of Mount Aspiring National Park. Finally it yields to reveal the serene surface of Lake Wanaka, and, soon thereafter, her sister Hawea. The twin bodies of water sit side-by-side at the base of a wide mountain valley. Soon I am descending the Crown Range Road — the highest main thoroughfare in all of New Zealand. As recently as 2001, it still held dirt sections. Today, though, it’s all smooth sailing as the Swiss-like mountain town of Queenstown reveals itself a thousand feet below.

Before passing signposts into this backpacker’s Brigadoon, another marquee catches my eye: Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters. They promise me something my own four wheels cannot — a mesmerizing approach into the Fjordlands and the legendary Milford Sound. Driving to New Zealand’s starkly scenic and secluded treasure would take at least four hours, each way. Under whirling blades, it’s 90 minutes roundtrip. And that includes a lunch break atop a glacier. The offer is too enticing to pass up, the experience too majestic for words to convey.

It was just before dinner when I pulled into the driveway of the Matakauri Lodge — a Relais and Chateaux property, leaning out over Lake Wakatipu on the western edge of Queenstown. Heading straight for the dining room, I sink beside the table—reveling in the day’s excitement through successive sips of pinot, sourced from the neighboring Gibbston Valley. Over my shoulder, the aptly-named Remarkables soared into the sky, a bulge of brown, jagged earth dusted daintily in white powder along its ridge.

Credit: Getty Images

I still had 300 more miles to conquer. And not much more than a day to return my rental car to the Christchurch Airport. It hardly mattered in the moment. I was exactly where I needed to be. “Chef Rogers would like to talk to you about the cuisine,” the server snapped me back into my chair.

I opened my rucksack to pull out a notepad, when a familiar funk tugged at my nose. There in its well-worn tub, my travel companion held true — more than enough left to make any adventurous chef sing. As the man in the toque approached, I unsheathed the truffle — ready to make a new friend, and say goodbye to an old.