Barging Through Burgundy – Auxerre to Chablis

After three days in Paris we were collected from the Hotel Ampere and driven to Auxerre in Burgundy where we boarded our luxury barge, La Belle Epoque. Some people choose to cruise canals the hard way, without a crew. We chose a luxury cruise and we were not sorry. Captain Nick, Louisa, Lola, Emma and chef Steve (from New Zealand) spoiled us rotten. The barge can, at a squeeze, take 12 guests, but there were nine of us – two Scottish couples, Ian & Nancy, Stanley & Kay, Mari from the Isle of Wight, and a really lovely Australian couple, Dennis & Patrick, whose company Colin and I especially enjoyed (they taught me how to do cryptic crosswords).

We were greeted with champagne and canapes, then Colin and I took a quick walk around the town of Auxerre. Here’s a photo taken the next morning, looking back at the huge cathedral:Burgundy 001

Steve Wilson, originally from Wellington, turned out to be a very clever chef, totally unpretentious and really laid-back in true Kiwi style, though I bet there was a bit of teeth-gritting going on in the kitchen when some of the guests, who shall remain nameless, requested parmesan cheese to go with the gorgeous seafood pasta dish Steve prepared later in the week. Anyway, on our first night we had a taste of the week’s cuisine, and a warning of why I would stack on four kilos in one week – four course dinners with wonderful wines and cheeses. For example, this night we had duck entree, chicken main, vanilla and rose water creme brulee. But the cheeses, oh dear heaven above, the cheeses!

Regal de Bourgogne aux Poivres made near Auxerre, a semi-soft, cow’s milk cheese covered in crushed peppercorns.

Ossau-Iraty– a ewe’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees, (excuse my French, but I can’t do accents on this blog) made in summer, with quite a mild flavour. These two towns in the Basque region, Ossau and Itary, used to be at war and made their own cheeses separately, but they now make this cheese together.

St Felicien – a soft, mild, cheese made from goat’s milk, from the Dauphine region between Lyon and the Alps.

And the wines? Pouilly-Fuisse, from the Maconnais, 100 per cent Chardonnay but nothing like what is put in bottles and labelled Chardonnay in New Zealand.

St Romain, a Pinot Noir from the Cote de Beaune, a village well-known because of the barrel-maker, Francois, who sells his barrels to top wine producers all over the world.

The next day the barge’s engines started up and we cast off toward the first lock. Most of the lock houses have pretty gardens, though the lock keepers are very unionised, somewhat surly and lazy, and if you arrive on the dot of midday they refuse to let you through because it is their lunchtime so you have to wait for one hour. You’re not even allowed to do it yourself. But this is what some of the lock houses, or sheds, look like. Very pretty.Burgundy 004Burgundy 003

We cycled past a lovely gite, with a very colourful summer garden, petunias in abundance and geraniums everywhere:Burgundy 015

When the barge is level with the land in a lock, you take the bikes off and cycle along the tow path, in a vain attempt to dump some of those kilos you’ve stacked on at dinner or lunch, which is also a magnificent repast.Burgundy 005

Our first lunch was a terrific chorizo soup, followed by mixed pates made by Steve, a bitingly piquant chickpea salad, and a garden salad with grilled courgette. Then more seductive, alluring, salacious, mouth-watering cheeses, which I just have to tell you about because writing about them is  poetic:

Selles-sur-Cher – a goat’s milk cheese from the Loire. Similar to St Maure de Touraine, it is covered in ash and ripened for up to three weeks, has a hard texture and is not very strong in flavour.

Brie de Meaux – from Paris, known as the Queen of the Cheeses, it has a creamy, smooth interior and a white crust ripened partly by moulds, bacteria and yeasts grown on the surface.

And to wash these down we had Macon-Villages Chardonnay from southern Burgundy, just above Beaujolais; and Cotes d’Auxerre, a lovely soft Pinot Noir from the hills around Auxerre, possibly the oldest vineyard still in use in the whole of Burgundy.

Not content with simply biking, CCQC decided to do some work and open the lock.Burgundy 009

And here’s La Belle Eqoque making her stately way along the Canal du Nivernais.Burgundy 007

The next day we would visit Chablis, and Domaine Laroche.


Chicago the Spectacular

After my initial success with WiFi there have been disappointments so I’ve saved everything – the Herald column, the blog, the bill payments, the emails – for one day. The day before we left San Francisco the sun came out and we took a walk up Nob Hill and around Chinatown. It was Sunday, so crowded with dawdling tourists which always drives me crazy, but a fountain donated by Mrs James Flood on Nob Hill, which features three dancing cherubs, captivated me because of their darling faces turned to the sun:san fran wine tasting & nob hill 025

Then before we departed, I insisted on being photographed outside the San Francisco Press Club. press club 001

And I took a photo of the wines you can taste at the Press Club. If you look carefully at this photo you can see me taking a photo of me:press club 002

Then it was off to O’Hare, Chicago airport, where we arrived at around midnight. Must say, domestic first class United Airlines is only the equivalent of economy Air New Zealand, just with a little more space. We should be proud of our national airline. The Krsuls – John and Justine – our friends whom we met last year at the ABA (American Bar Association)meeting in New York when they were assigned to host us and who live in Bridgman, Michigan State, collected us next morning from our airport hotel and drove us to their place. First we went to Mount Baldy, Indiana State Park,  in a somewhat roundabout way. Not deliberately, we went through Gary, Indiana, one of the poorest towns in the USA. This is where the Jackson Five were born. I was pleased we drove through here, it’s tragic and sad. It once was a thriving steel worker town but no longer. To cut a long story short we did end up at Mount Baldy, a huge sand dune on the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan, had our picnic lunch, then drove to the Krsul’s daughter and son-in-law’s property, Longacres, on the lake, where we had a lovely traditional American beach family barbecue (grill) complete with swim, fireflies, chit-chat, children, organic beef burgers, Michigan wines, beautiful salads and just good old American hospitality. Americans, I swear, are the most hospitable nation on the earth. These are some shots of that lovely family:Krsuls2 010Krsuls2 009

Krsuls2 011Krsuls2 013Next day we went for a walk through the woods by John & Justine’s house, Krsuls2 014

down to and along the beach.Krsuls2 017

This area of America is so beautiful, it’s like stepping back in time. Everywhere we went, they never locked the car. On our third and last day, we went to visit some wineries and vineyards and it was interesting to see the different viticulture from ours, much more relaxed. No netting was required because there is no bird problem. There are no strong poles required for trellising like ours. The canopy is not trimmed like ours, but much more relaxed and allowed to grow longer, as you can see by this photo. Krsuls2 027One of the wineries, Round Barn (with this delightful old barn where they hold wine tastings) also makes beer and vodka.Krsuls2 028 And here we are outside the Krsul’s cool car.Krsuls2 029

Then it was packing bags again and driving to Chicago for the ABA meeting – a fantastic time with great speakers in that architecturally spectacular city. You can read about one of the highlights for me, a speech by retired Justice David Souter in the Herald on Sunday, next Sunday in my column, and later I hope to write about another high, when we listened to the American Attorney General talk about solutions to crime (not three strikes policy which isn’t working here) and we sat just in front of Bill Gates’ family when Bill Gates senior received the ABA medal. Last night was the black tie dinner and we sadly  farewelled the Krsuls who were driving home to Bridgman.chicago black tie 004

One more day, then tomorrow we leave for London.

San Francisco

No wonder Tony Bennett left his heart here, it truly is one of the world’s loveliest cities. We’ve only been here 24 hours and had such a fabulous time already. Great flight on Air New Zealand – watched the real Frost/Nixon interviews and felt like weeping we don’t have interviewers of that calibre any more. Frost was actually considered a bit of a lightweight, not a great intellectual, but he knew when to shut up, when not to interrupt, and to let Nixon just talk, and boy did Nixon talk. As soon as I get back I’m going to order these from Amazon and just sit down and watch them again for the sheer pleasure.

We’re at the Four Seasons Hotel on Market Street and it’s great. Here’s the view from outside our window and as you can see, I’ve mastered wireless – just hooked up to the Four Seasons’ system and charged it to my Visa card.san francisco 001

Yesterday when we arrived we had a brief rest, then went next door to the Press Club for a beaut wine tasting – Hanna Winery Sauvignon Blanc which was nicer than most NZ Savvys (I don’t like NZ Savvy hush my mouth – too grassy these days), Chateau Montelena Riesling (the winery from that bad movie “Bottle Shock”), Hanna Russian River Pinot Noir (too hot, alcohol too high but good nose), Miner Family Oracle (perfect Bordeaux nose but I thought the palate was too hot but Colin was more positive about it), but best of all was a lovely Miner family Viognier – absolutely lovely wine, picked at brix 25.5, same as ours this year, and if our Viognier turns out like that we shall be very happy.

Then we went on to dinner at a private house at Pacific Heights with a stunning view out to Alcatraz and Golden Gate Bridge. Well, it would have been a stunning view if it wasn’t for the famous SF fog. We could just see Alcatraz. But the house was incredible – breathtaking objets d’art everywhere one turned, three levels high, one of those darling wooden colonial style houses which New Zealand copied at the turn of the last century. We met some wonderful people, including a great couple from Santa Barbara. He represented the late Art Buchwald and many other journalists who have been pushed around by spineless publishers, so he and I got along famously. Wished my former editor from North & South magazine, Robyn Langwell, was there. She would have loved him.

Today we set out on a legal walk around SF – the tour itinerary was given to Colin by a NZ judge who’d done it some years ago and it was really great because not only were the destinations really interesting, we went up and down streets I’d never otherwise thought of heading through. We started out at Union Square and the St Francis Hotel, where in Suite 1219-21 in 1921 the female friend of one Fatty Arbuckle died from the effects of a ruptured bladder. Many years ago I read the book about his famous trials – three – for rape and murder, “The Day the Laughter Stopped”. Sad. Here’s a photo of the beautiful clock lobby:san francisco 005

This is a scupture atop the San Francisco Moma:san francisco 009

We stopped to rest (and CCQC to send emails on his Blackberry) outside the SF’s tallest building,  the Transamerica Pyramid with its grove of 80 redwood trees, so I lay down to take this photo looking up:san francisco 016

and beside us was this bronze in the little lunch-eaters’ park, titled “puddle jumpers”:san francisco 015

Christo in Wairarapa

I have to go into the city today. I hate going into the city, especially now I have this little family here – two horses, dog, cat, six chooks & a rooster and – da da da da – three golden pheasants and a pair of silkie bantams. Bought yesterday in Featherston and settling in nicely. They’re only young’uns, so the male pheasant hasn’t shown his colours yet, but they’re very sweet. The bantams are all fluff and cheep.

But Mum needs to go to the dentist, so into the capital city we shall go this afternoon. If you need examples of why this landscape is so hard to tear oneself away from, here are just a few I captured over the weekend:

The moon and venus. back-road-001In the evening, about 8.30 to 9.00, shortly before this photo was taken, a sudden change occurs in the vineyard. We notice it when there’s no wind, and we’re finishing dinner out on the verandah. We think it may be the change in photosynthesis – from CO2 in and oxygen out, to oxygen in and CO2 out – but this amazing scent arises from the air, a sort of earthy, barnyard, true Pinot Noir aroma. It’s delicious. I took these photos looking up over the horses’ paddock at the new moon and Venus:back-road-003back-road-005



There’s a back road through to Masterton, our nearest large town, with stunning rural landscapes. I noticed when we were 4WD-trekking in the South Island, the large number of little old country churches still very much in use. Unfortunately, in the North Island, far too many have fallen into disrepair, or been bought and shifted by trendies who turn them into houses. But at Gladstone, not far from us, is a lovely Anglican Church very well kept:back-road-006






Right now farmers are bailing hay and straw in preparation for winter (though yesterday I noticed Farmer John’s feeding out to his ewes, possibly as a result of so much pasture being burned away). These rows of bailage reminded me of art by Belgian-American artist/sculpture Christo who does those amazing wrapped images, surrounded islands, and the lovely umbrellas in Japan (read about it here).back-road-013back-road-010

Then just as I was about to get back in the car, this little goat bleated hello, and that reminded me of the late, great New Zealand photographer, Robin Morrison. back-road-014

A Day at the Races

We took time off on Saturday to attend the Wellington Cup at Trentham – always a great day. The weather was scorching hot, the girls were out in their tiny little strappy dresses, looking gorgeous, and everyone had fun.

But it wasn’t as much fun as the Kumara Races on the West Coast, near Hokitika, on January 10 when we were on our 4WD trek. It was the QC’s birthday, and boy were the angels smiling down on him that day. He won the quinellas in the first two races, and overall was about $100 up at the end of the day. I have to take credit for his first win. It had been torrential rain the night before so the track was pretty soft. We’d placed our bets, and were watching the horses go around the birdcage, when he spotted a grey he hadn’t backed and said, “Blast. My mother always said to back a grey in the wet.”

Quickly, I urged him, go back to the tote and back it, if it comes in and you haven’t, you’ll regret it. Well, the grey won, and the day just got better. This is how races should always be – families out having fun, oldies, babies, the Kokatahi Band playing all day, very friendly and hospitable, with whitebait sandwiches, whitebait quiche, and whitebait fritters.

We were the guests of those wonderful Coasters who came up here in November to present us with the beautiful rock of greenstone – Gerard, Michael, Richard and Patrick. Here they all are, in the morning, studying the form: third-4x4-005

Linda and Bill filmed much of the day, to add some variety to their doco on the 4WD trek. Here’s Linda (lovely Linda) filming her friends in the famous Kokatahi Band (famous because they never practice, but somehow get it right on the night). third-4x4-006

Kumara only has one race day a year, and people come from miles around. Mostly though, the crowd is made up of Coasters. Legend has it that the reason the racetrack remains open is because former Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon visited one day, when it was under threat of closure, and declared it must remain open for ever. Now it’s maintained mostly by voluntary staff, and they do an excellent job. This place must never close. In fact, current Prime Minister John Key would earn more brownie points if he went to Kumara Races, instead of Wellington Cup as he did on Saturday, and reinforced Muldoon’s legacy.third-4x4-010



And finally, here’s some of the crew at close of a wonderful day:third-4x4-015

Wild New Zealand 4WD Style

It’s good to be home. Kete has been released from the cattery, so pleased to be back she followed me all over the 110-acre hill paddock to find the horses, give them a hug and some carrots, and find them no worse off for two weeks’ neglect. Taja was collected from her friend Rachel in Greytown, where she loves to stay when we’re away, and where she got into the habit of having toast and honey for breakfast (continued by me now she’s home). We arrived to a stunningly well-kept vineyard, looking forward to a massive harvest. We’re catching up on chores, but looking back at memories of a great holiday. Perusing our photographs, you realise just how much the New Zealand landscape takes your breath away. Honestly, we travel overseas and marvel at the big skies of the US, the jewel-like coves of Positano, the magic of Venice, the green fields of England, and the Scottish Highlands, but as the old Tourism New Zealand slogan used to say so effectively, “Don’t Leave Town Til You’ve Seen The Country”.

Here, then, are some of the highlights of the trip.

When we crossed over to Picton on the ferry, we drove up the Wairau Valley from Blenheim, where every available piece of land is being converted to vineyards. As far as the eye can see, is monoculture. Heaven knows where all this grape juice will end up. I guess by the time the new developments come on stream, the economic squeeze will be over, and people will be buying wine in copious quantities. We can only hope.

We turned off the main road into the Rainbow Valley, past the Rainbow Skifield and up into Rainbow Station. 4x4-014

This is actually very good roading, compared with what we would encounter later on in the trip. The scenery was beautiful.4x4-016

Because I was the passenger and didn’t have to concentrate on driving, I could afford the luxury of examining the wildflowers growing along the way. Pink briars, white daisies, blue wild borage, mullein, foxgloves, delicate yellow snapdragons, marsh plants, spongy snow plants, tussock – somebody, somewhere, must have done a study of this. 4x4-0214x4-020

The Department of Conservation, on behalf of all New Zealanders, owns and looks after this land and in general, they do a pretty good job. The resources required for the future, however, are massive, and I fear for the future if DoC (as it is known) continues with its purist policy of banning grazing. These have been high-and-middle country stations for over 100 years, and if the livestock is abruptly removed, the noxious weeds will take over. But at least DoC keeps the signage to a minimum, and what you do see, is tasteful and brief: 4x4-023

For the first week, we were accompanied by a delightfully eccentric London architect named Keith. Keith travelled with Bill Hohepa and his lovely wife Linda, in their truck. Bill (a famous New Zealand fisherman and fishing guide) and Linda have been organising these treks for several years. Linda videos the trek, together they make a documentary, and sell it to television channels. Or you can buy the dvds direct ( Keith stood two metres tall in his stockinged feet, so when he tried to take a low-angle photo, this is what he looked like: 4x4-025

But then the joke was on me, and I realised why, at school, my appearance was likened to that of a horse, because when I got back into our truck after taking this photo, I accidently clicked the camera and took a photo of myself laughing: 4x4-026

But most of the time is spent in silence, just gazing. Every which way one turns, there is something beautiful to look at. 4x4-027

We ended the first day up at Lake Tennyson, and set up camp. It was freezing cold but – again – beautiful. How lucky are we, that we can drive to such a remote location, turn off the engine, and pitch a tent for the night.4x4-035

And you know what? Out here in this hinterland, with no electricity, radio, television, or stress, there’s even a loo. 4x4-029

Holiday Over, Return to Base

We’re back! Well, almost. The hiatus in postings is due to our two-week journey around the South Island of New Zealand in a four-wheel-drive, or all-terrain-vehicle. Only two more nights and we’ll be home again to see what’s happening with the vintage. We haven’t fretted, however; we know the vines are in the safe hands of Rowan, Jane, and Nick. I spoke with Jane a few days ago who said the canopy looks “fantastic”. So we agreed, with alacrity and confidence, to the request from a photographer  doing a job for Audit New Zealand, wanting to shoot photos of auditors in a nice vineyard. Redbank’s first modelling assignment!

Before we return, we have a day out at d’Urville Island in the Marlborough Sounds tomorrow, and we’ll stay the night with friends out there. We’ve had a fabulous time, and I have masses of photos to share, but meanwhile here’s three shots of our terrifying descent down Birch Topping, in Canterbury, led by guide Mike Powell. I didn’t squeak once, and Colin’s driving was superb.4x4-0544x4-052