Saturday, February 27, 2010

Aoraki/Mt. Cook and Mt. Aspiring National Park

Our first stop was Wanaka and from there we had easy access to both Aoraki/Mt. Cook and Mt. Aspiring National Park. We headed to Mt. Cook first loving the new found freedom of "Sly," our campervan.

We used the cafe at the Mt Cook Village to purchase some Internet time to let our friends and family know they weren't going to be hearing from us quite as much in New Zealand due to expensive rates and limited access (one of the minuses of campervan life). Then we headed up to Tasman Glacier at the foot of Aoraki/Mt. Cook.

The hike was beautiful and the trail almost a highway, but it was very crowded. Tasman isn't the prettiest of glaciers as it is receding dramatically and is laden with sediment. Otherwise the peak was an extraordinary sight,a great half-day hike and not a bad place to soak your feet.

The next day we headed past Wanaka on a dirt road into Mt. Aspiring National Park and enjoyed one of our favorite day hikes in New Zealand: Rob Roy Glacier.

The hike itself was very nice, if short, through dramatic temperate rainforest. Once we got up a ways, though, the waterfalls started to come into view. The first one we saw poured off a high cliff and as the wind blew the water dissolved into mist. It was spectacular and photos just don't do it justice (so here's a photo).

A bit further up we realized this waterfall was just one of at least seven coming from the Rob Roy hanging glacier.

We reached the viewpoint, but once again it was a bit crowded so we headed down to the stream past where most ventured. The valley was not quite as spectacular from that vantage point but we took the opportunity the privacy presented to do a little glacial water skinny dipping. It was cold!


We could glimpse Mt Aspiring at various points throughout the hike, but Rob Roy valley is really the highlight. Highly recommended!


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Queenstown and our first winery of NZ (Chard Farm)

We arrived in Queenstown after 24 hours of traveling from Santiago Chile. We touched down and had a beautiful view of the Remarkables mountain range. We were exhausted from the travel but after checked into our hostel, we forced ourselves to walk around Queenstown and stay awake until 9 p.m. to avoid jet lag. Queenstown is a cute mountain town catering to the "extreme sports" junkies in the summer and skiing in the winter. While there are a myriad of things to do in Queenstown, we barely made it to 9 p.m before fatigue overtook us.

The next morning we picked up the campervan that we would be living in for the next five weeks! The van is our home while we are in New Zealand and the van we got is hilarious (as you can see from our earlier posts of the van). We heard about Wicked vans from our friends Kendall and Mike who had one of the vans in Australia. They are cheap and they all have slightly obnoxious paintings on the outside. We are lucky because we personally believe we have the best decorated of the vans we have seen. You can not get much funkier than a Sly and the Family Stone van (we have not seen a P-Funk van). Here are a few shots of the setup in the van (a few people have asked us about the setup)

After picking up the van we headed to a Wanaka, a small town next to aptly named Lake Wanaka. However, as we were heading out of Queenstown we stopped at the first of many wineries that we visited in New Zealand We saw the sign for Chard Farm across from the famous "bungy bridge" and stopped in. Chard Farm is in a stunning location with the Kawarau River on one side and the mountain on the other. It is a small winery and the owners are at the cellar door for an intimate and unpretentious tasting.

We started off with their bubbly "CO2" - 50% Pinot noir and 50% Chardonnay. It was nice and refreshing. Next we had their Swiftburn Sauvignon Blanc, then finally their famous Pinot Noirs. First the Finla Mor Pinot Noir that was rounded, fruity but not as earthy as their other two Pinots we tried (the Viper and the Tiger).

Jim was a big fan of the The Viper Pinot as it was dark and had deep earthy tones. We loved the winery and the owners and bought a bottle of the Sauvignon Blanc for later! We then continued to Wanaka.

Wanaka is where we really started to grasp the parking/camping situation. We had heard about the amazing camping facilities in New Zealand and knew there would be a cost to them but we had severe sticker shock! $30-$50 a night to park and use the showers! (some have kitchens and TV rooms, etc as well) Maybe we were a little naive to this but it was unanticipated and a blow to the budget! (especially when gas is 2-3 times as much as it is in the US). We started to look for DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites that are usually just toilets and at the most $5-$10 a person. We found a great spot near Wanaka in a small town called Luggate that is a private cricket pitch with really nice bathrooms, shower and a washing machine!

We have decided that simplicity (and low cost) is best and have been staying at simple campsites and making our own meals as we do have a traveling simple kitchen! It has been fun to try and come up with healthy and cost effective meals in one pot! And the campsites we have found have been in generally more spectacular settings than the "holiday parks" anyway. And this is how we have been living in New Zealand, and it has worked out great!


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

We Want To Take You Higher! -- New Zealand!

We landed in New Zealand a week ago and left Santiago, Chile just before the earthquake. It was crazy to hear about, but our friends in Chile are all fine, which is a huge relief. We are traveling around the South Island in a campervan, so unfortunately, blog posts will be few and far between for the next six weeks. We ARE writing them though and will update with a slew of posts when we are able to.

For the time being, here are a few pictures of our living accommodations for the six weeks here in New Zealand!


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Horcón & Maitencillo - The beaches of Chile

For our last week in South America we decided to spend some time relaxing in a couple of Chilean beach towns just north of Valparaiso. We spent the weekend in Horcón, a small fishing village, and then up to Maitencillo to a more resorty beach town.

Horcón is a cool, funky little town that, like seemingly all Chilean beach towns, is jam packed full of Chileans on the weekends. We stayed in a nice little place right on the ocean and spent our days lounging on the beach in whatever available real estate we could squeeze into. The beach was certainly crowded, but we seemed to be the only gringos there.

The town is an interesting fishing village in that, at least on the weekends, the fishermen need to be in with their catch before the throngs descend on the beach. This is due to the fact that the small beach is used to bring the boats in after the catch and horses are brought down to help pull the boats from the water.

The food selection is limited, but just about everyone sells very tasty seafood empenadas. Probably not the healthiest of diets, but we ate a lot of them!

Things were seeming to calm down on Monday, but we decided to check out Maitencillo for a change of pace. Maintencillo is much bigger with a long stretches of white sand. We found a little place along the beach complete with a kitchenette. When the sun was out it was beautiful and the first day we had an amazing sunset from our cabana.

We had hoped to do some surfing here, but the water was very cold and board rental plus wet suit rental was a little beyond our budget. Instead we took some long walks down the beach in between the hours of laying on the beach and reading. On one of these walks we went to the fish market and picked up some clams. Leslie made a great white wine garlic sauce in our kitchenette and we enjoyed an extremely fresh clam dinner.

One final thing of note is the huge population of pelicans in this area of the coast. 


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Valparaíso and Pablo Neruda

Valparaíso is an artsy bohemian fishing town about two hours away from Santiago. It is also where poet Pablo Neruda had a home "La Sebastiana."

As we hiked the hill up to Pablo's home, Jim mentioned one of the cheesy jokes that Pablo liked to tell.
I responded "I know that's funny, but I'm just not laughing."
To which Jim recounted, "Hmm. Pablo Neruda said, 'Laughter is the language of the soul.'"
Leslie: "I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda."

All joking and Simpson's references aside, Valparaíso is a maze of small, curvy streets and stairs all steeply heading up the hill away from the coast. We had heard that the city was built with no "master plan" and so getting around the labyrinth is a little adventure.

It is also an electrician's nightmare!

Graffiti or street art is either encouraged or tolerated. So there is a combination of vibrant colored buildings with free art all over them. We spent most of our time walking around admiring the walls around the city. 

Because of the city's uniqueness, it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. Also their funicular elevators (highly-inclined cable cars) are one of the world’s 100 most endangered historical treasures as named by World Monuments Fund. (Who knew there was such a foundation!) We of course rode on the the funiculars to get around town.

For lunch we stopped by the fish market where there are restaurants on the second floor. It is hard to choose which to stop at as you don't want to show interest in any particular menu laid outside the restaurant because then you will be hassled by the waiters to come in. We did just finally choose a place and we had seafood empenadas (with razor clams, mussels and shrimp) and a huge bowl of ceviche.

Finally, we did stop by Pablo Neruda's home "La Sebastiana." It was the highlight of our stay in Valparaíso. It is unique and quirky just like the town and the poet, and through the audio self guided tour, it felt like you could actually see him sitting in his office contemplating the sea. Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed in the house so we only have pictures from the outside.

After a few days we were ready to get out of the congestion and craziness of the city and head for the beaches.


Monday, February 8, 2010

Santiago, Chile

We had a few days to hang out in Santiago before heading up the coast to the Chilean beaches. We checked into our hostel, La Casa Roja, which is probably one of the nicest hostels we have stayed in in South America. We met up with my friend Brea who is living in Santiago with her boyfriend. Here is Jim, our friend Maoz from Israel, Brea and her boyfriend, Matt, chilling by the hostel pool.

The hostel is a restored mansion with a pool, huge backyard, big stocked kitchen and just a ton of space to hang out in. We did do our far share of sunbathing and swimming.

We, of course, went out and checked out the city. We were in the Barrio Brasil area which has nice parks and restaurant-lined streets. Brea took us around on a little tour of the town and we headed to the fish market in the middle of town. Here, you can find all sorts of interesting and exotic fish.

As we were looking for the market a Chilean man helped us find it and told us that the hall was designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). I tried to look this up and found out that there is much dispute over this claim. Whatever the truth is, it is true that the fancy wrought ironwork was fabricated in Victorian England and shipped to Santiago. 

Chile is not the culinary capital of the world, but it does have some interesting foods. As many people know (and possibly to the consternation of Jim's stomach) I love street foods. I read about one of Santiago's most famous street foods and had to try it: The Completo. 

Yes, the Completo is a hot dog topped with tomatoes, guacamole and a ridiculous amount of mayonnaise. Another infamous street food is the pobre. The pobre is a giant plate of fries topped with grilled onions, a steak or sausage and a fried egg.

There are also some very fascinating takes on pizza. (yes that piece on the far left looks like just layers of overcooked roast beef??)

We also found ourselves in Santiago for Super Bowl Sunday. Though we haven't seen any games since October, we thought it would be a fun taste of home for a night. We joined Brea and group of her friends to head to a bar that was showing the game. It may have been the only bar in Santiago showing the game as it seemed everyone in the city interested in it was crowded into the bar. This is despite the fact that the Super Bowl wasn't even mentioned in the local sports section in Santiago that day. Our friend Maoz joined us as well and it was funny trying to explain Futbol Americano to someone who had never seen a game.

Santiago is one of those places where most people just stop through on their way to someplace else. In our opinion they are missing out. Santiago is a great city with many friendly people!


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mendoza - The wine trail

I have been a fan of Malbec for some time. I like the fruity character that it tends to have, and you can still fine good cheap Malbecs in the US. I was certainly excited to head to Mendoza to see the wineries where it is made.

We arrived in Mendoza after a very hot bus ride from Santiago over the Andes as the bus's air conditioner was broken. Despite the heat, it was a beautiful ride over the Andes with views of Cerro Aconcagua (the highest mountain in the Americas, and the highest mountain outside Asia). Interestingly, this area is also where Seven Years in Tibet was filmed.

Mendoza is hot and dry and it was 105 degrees when we arrived. We got settled in our hostel and checked out the town. We were expecting the town to be more catered to the wine industry with wine shops and boutiques on every corner. However, while Mendoza has a few pedestrian malls, a couple of wine shops, and a fancy Hyatt, it is a pretty typical Argentinian town.

We, of course, were here for the wine. Jim is certainly the beer connoisseur, but I prefer red wine and so I was excited to visit the vineyards. We checked out the options for wine tasting. A great resource for the area is the gringo wine magazine Wine Republic that can be found at most wine shops. We found the most economical way to do it was by taking a bus out to the Maipu area and rent a bike to tour the vineyards. Maipu is great because you can get a feel for all types of wine making processes from quaint historic wineries, modern boutique wineries and the huge industrial wineries.

We went to what was the most advertised bike rental place for the area, and got some pretty shoddy bikes. (FYI - The next day when we went we rented from Mr. Hugo, who is a fantastically friendly guy and whose bikes are far superior and gives you as much water and wine as you can consume!)

The map we were given showed Club Tapiz, which was one of the vineyards Wine Republic said has a great tour and tasting. It is also the one furthest away from the bike rental place and "wine road" so we decided to hit it first to make sure we got there. It was not a very pleasant ride as we were kind of on a highway to get out there. Also, my bike's tire started to go flat, so it took more than usual effort to get out there. When we did arrive, we found out that this was not where they gave tours, but instead was a gorgeous hotel surrounded by vineyards. We were very hot and tired and they were very nice to invite us in to their restaurant (a refurbished 1890-built villa) Terruño for a glass of Tapiz wine. I had their Malbec, and Jim tried the Cabernet Sauvignon. As an accompaniment, Terruño provided Malbec infused fruits and almonds which were fantastic.

After our wine at Tapiz, the security at Club Tapiz tried to pump up my bike tire and we tried to get back to the main wine road. Jim was, of course, amazing and rode the bike with the bad tire as it slowly deflated again. Luckily we made it back to the main area and asked the guard at VistaAndes winery to call the bike rental place for a new bike. While we waited, we walked across the street to walk through some vineyards and took some pictures.

Armed with a new bike with a hopefully better tire, we headed to CarinaE. CarinaE is a small boutique winery run by a french couple who retired and purchased a vineyard that had been shut down for some time. The owner is an astronomy buff and the winery is named for a constellation that can only be seen in the southern hemisphere and only during the grape harvest. The vineyards are 80-85 years old when the first owner established the winery. This winery had a small intimate tour and tasting outside on their patio. We tried their 100% Malbec Rose, their young Malbec (bottle aged only) and their Octans (another constellation) which is a Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon blend where the Cabernet Sauvignon has aged for 12 months in French oak casks. It is available only at the vineyard, and was one of Jim's and my favorite wines we tried that day.

After CarinaE we headed to Bodega Familia Di Tommaso. This is one of Mendoza's oldest wineries built in 1869 and still has the original brick built tanks and cellars. The site has been named an Argentinian historic monument, so sadly they had to cease production of the wine in the original tanks. However, it does make for beautiful pictures, and a insight into turn of the century wine production. At the end of the tour through the bodega, we tried Di Tommaso's young bottle aged Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon and Familia Di Tommaso Roble Malbec which was barrel aged in French and American oak. Doing these tastings we were starting to be able to discern flavors in the wines and which we liked. Both of us prefer the wine that has been barrel aged (as I think most prefer as it is the more sought after) as it has more oak, vanilla and just more rounded flavors.

We finally ended our tour with Tempus Alba which has a brand new fancy bodega and tasting area. This winery has the new modern equipment for wine making even though it is a third generation family owned winery.

There we tried another trio of wines ending with their reserve Tempus Pleno which is a 60% Malbec - 40% Cabernet Sauvignon blend aged 13 months in new oak barrels. This was probably our second favorite wine of the tours that day.

It was already 6pm, and we tried to go to Almacén del Sur (an organic farm with a restaurant recommended by our friend Heather) but it only serves lunch, so we decided to head home and come back after resting for a day.

The next day we explored Mendoza, and that night went to The Wines which is a tasting room in downtown Mendoza. I thought I was ordering a nice, but cheap Achaval Ferrer wine, but they accidentally served me the Achaval Ferrer Finca Mirador 2007, which scored 94 points from both Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator. It was a REALLY good wine, and luckily it was on that night's "half price" glass list.

The next day we headed back Maipu and started off at Bodega La Rural which makes Rutini wines. Here there is a cool wine museum with winemaking tools from the origins on the Mendoza wineries including cow hide presses and brass bottlers. There we tried the Rutini Malbec aged in French and American oak for 12 months. Another great wine.

We did not want to miss Almacén del Sur, so we headed there next. They make gourmet sauces and spreads, all organic, grown at their farm. They have a tasting lunch using their products in a large casona built in 1888. The lunch was amazing. There were so many courses I can barely remember them all. Lamb, shrimp, stuffed fresh peppers, braised ribs....

We left Almacén del Sur totally satisfied and full and headed up to our last winery, Trapiche. Trapiche is the biggest producer of wine in Argentina. Their tour is actually in a refurbished old winery that shut down in the 1970s when people were not consuming as much wine. They now are trying to make high end totally organic wines at the spot. This is the one vineyard that encouraged you to actually try their grapes off the vine! We had a nice tasting of their young Malbec, a Syrah and a very sweet dessert wine.

After the tasting we noticed that a storm was approaching, so we returned the bikes and headed back to the hostel.

We left for Santiago the next day, and were sad realizing that it was the last time on our trip to be in Argentina.