Whale Watching and Wine Tasting

Trip Start Mar 08, 2011
Trip End Jun 11, 2011

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Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Friday, June 3, 2011

We woke up and high-tailed it out of that campground as quickly as possible.  Definitely a lesson learned, if no one else is at the campground, perhaps we shouldn’t stay there.  We were about an hour away from Kaikoura and the drive was quite lovely, a coastal drive the entire way.  They say that if you pay attention you can see seals and other sea creatures in the distance, but we were on a missionto get to Kaikoura by 10.  At 9:55 we arrived at the Kaikoura Whale Watchers main office and lucky for us there was acruise going out at 10:30.  You can book in advance (although that goes against what we have done this entire trip), but you do not know if the cruise will be going out until a few hours before, especially this time of year.  There was a light seasickness warning, so from past experiences we knew to get Amy motion sickness pills before we boarded.  We had some time before the cruise was ready to leave, so the group had some hot beverages on this chilly morning.  New Zealanders certainly do love their hot chocolate. 

Once 10:30 arrived, they gathered the group to tell us about what we were about to see along with all the safety drills.  We were now ready to board the bus to head to the pier.  The catamaran was fairly big and only half full.  These are some of the perks of going in the off-season.  It was built to reach high speeds, yet has great handling and can stop on a dime.  It is also equipped with a very quiet motor as to not disturb the whales. Our tour guide was a large Maori guy who some would consider a three tool player: smart, friendly, and humorous. On the drive out, we got a lesson on the whales and the area.  We would only see male whales since the females and kids are in warmer waters (the males come to this area to feed for 30 years until they are big enough to go back and mate).  A few miles out, there is anunderwater cliff where the depths go from a few meters deep to a few thousand meters deep (hence the good feeding). 

At this point it is starting to get a little bumpy.  However, we soon stopped the catamaran so a man with a long microphone can listen to see if any whales are nearby.  Everyone gets out of their seats to get some fresh air and wait.  We are told that if we are lucky we will see one maybe two whales, but there is a chance we will not see any (in which case we are refunded 80% of the tour).  We wait for a few minutes, but unfortunately do not hear any whales.  So everyone gets back in their seats and we head further out. At this point the waters are getting very bumpy (not quite as bumpy as in the great barrier reef, but unpleasant for some).  A few of the passengers take advantage of the free paper bags in front of them, but I am proud of Amy as she is handling the waves like a champ.  As we are driving along, I see an animal swim right by the boat. I was just about to scream that I found one when I realized it was just a sea lion. 

We finally came to a stop again and the captain tells everyone to head outside.  I push the women and children over as Adam and I make our way to the top deck for a better view while Amy stays on the bottom deck where there is less rocking.  We spot our first sperm whale, which is the largest carnivore on the planet.  This is a little unnerving because we can only see his back, but you can tell that he is much larger than our entire vessel and if he is hungry we could be in trouble.  We keep our distance though and just watch.  Having been to South Africa,I have seen a lot of animals in their natural habitat, but this may be one of the cooler sights.  Adam however thought it was a mechanical whale that the company uses so they do not have to refund our money, guess this is possible since we could only see his back.  Our guide explains to us how whales stay underwater for up to 2 hours and only surface for 5 to 10 minutes in order to breathe.  So we get a short view before the time comes for the money shot.  When the whale is ready to head back under water, he arches his back and dives down,giving us a great view of whale tail. Our Maori friend gave us a 10 second warning on when this would be as he told us to get our cameras ready.  Then he told us to a picture “now and now and now and now.”  There were a few more “now’s” in there, but I shortened it for your reading pleasure. The oohing and aahing stopped just in time for the sounds of shutterclicks from the cameras. 

We got back in our seats in time to head over to another area where we were able to see a second sperm whale.  This time the whale was even bigger and even from 50 meters away the whale's tail was spectactular.  Same routine: everyone out, we watch, “now and now”, camera’s click, and back in the seats.  Being lucky enough to spot two whales so quickly, there was still some time left to head over to another area of the ocean to see some dolphins (I think we saw enough whales).  In this area there was a family of hector dolphins.  Hectors are the smallest types of dolphins and also the shyest and only found in New Zealand. You could see them swimming in the distance and would only briefly come near the boat before they swam away to quieter waters.  The tour was now coming to an end since we were far from the pier and had to take an alternate route that was less bumpy, but twice as far, to get back.  Still, a lot of sick passengers, but I guess the pills worked for Amy and since Adam wasn't hiccupping, he didn’t get sick either. We made it back to the main office feeling very satisfied after a great morning.

Along with all of the sea life in this area, Kaikoura is known for their lobster (or crayfish as they call them).  There was a flyer left on our car for a lobster stand nearby and since it was lunchtime, we thought this would be a great idea.  Adam tells us that this issimilar to Maine where you can stop at the side of the road for lobster for around $10.  Apparently we were not in Maine though.  The stand was selling their lobster for $70 each.  We were pointed in a different direction by a local to a seafood market in hopes of finding some cheaper options.  It was cheaper, but still $50 for one.  So one is all we got in order for everyone to get a taste.  We grabbed the cooked lobster and threw him in the fridge and continued to drive further up the coast.  Once at the next town over, Jill from the tourism radio told us that we were near Nim’s Bin, the most famous lobster stand in the country.  Nim’s Bin is the only restaurant that has fresh lobsters caught that day and never frozen.  We stop just to price compare, but the priceis still too high.  We ask if we can buy butter or a lemon from them, but they will not sell us either unless we buy a lobster as well (the lady was very snooty). We pass and enjoy our lobster we already had in the picnic area.  A lot of areas in the world claim to have the best lobster (Iceland was another that we heard this).  If you are asking me, I think Maine still hasthe best value and tastiest lobster. Definitely not worth $50, the lobster in NZ didn’t have claws, so we had to split the tail.  We try to throw away our shells in the rubbish bins, but are not allowed to do that either since it is foreign lobster (what a female dog). 

Once again we get back in Britzy Spears to continue our drive.  We still had an hour or two until we reach Blenheim which is the heart of the New Zealand’s wine country.  We arrive in Blenheim right around 3:30pm and head directly to our first winery Wither Hills. This winery is one of the bigger in the region, so we thought it would be a good first stop.  NZ is mostly known for their sauvignon blancs and more recently for their pinot noirs.  Those are my favorite white and red wines, so I am ecstatic.  Adam and I each pay our $5 tasting fee and immediately start sampling some wines.  Amy is still in the parking lot having a sandwich since our lunch was a little small. The wines at Wither Hills were good, but nothing to write home about.  The prices were average as well.  Adam was looking to buy a case for gifts, but to ship to the US would cost $225. I think we would be better off just buying it at home.  Amy and I were looking to pick up a few bottles to enjoy over the next week, but we all decided to pass at the first stop. 

We next drove to Auntsfield which was down the street.  This was a much smaller winery recommended by the lady from Wither Hills.  Auntsfield did not have a tasting fee and here we learned that it is illegal to charge for a taste(and frowned upon by the other wineries) unless the winery has a restaurant also (which Wither Hills has).  The wine at Auntsfield was significantly better, especially the pinot.  The views from the cellar door were amazing as well.  Definitely a good find and a place we would not have gone to without the recommendation from the previous winery (made our $5 worthwhile).  The lady at Auntsfield recommended we next head to Villa Maria which was next door.  We made it just in time as they were about to close.  I feel bad going into wineries that late, especially after we were told that we were the only visitors of the day and would be keeping the pourer after hours on a Friday.  But I am glad we stopped.  The wine once again was better than the last (or maybe I got to the point where everything would taste good).  We stayed for a while to try all of the wines available and also got a recommendation for dinner.  But it was getting late and we didn’t want to keep anyone at work later than they have to be, so we drove to the Top 10 Holiday Park campground in Blenheim.  It was good to finally be at a Top 10 Holiday Park again (same company as the campground in Franz Joseph) as the facilities were top notch and very clean.

We weren’t around very long before we walked over to the Dodson's Pub, which was recommended by the woman from Villa Maria, for dinner.  There was an engagement party going on, so the bar area was closed.  We did not have areservation either, so we were told it would be an hour wait.  Since we were hungry and our buzzes were wearing off, we decided to walk around to find something else, but there were no better options in the area.  We made it back to the pub where a family who had room at the end of their table invited us over to sit.  We started talking to the family, who are locals, and they tell us about all their travels when they were younger.  They were in the US in the 80s where they bought a Pinto in California and drove across the states to NY.  The dad was telling me about how the car broke down Louisiana, so he took it apart in a park to fix.  There were pieces of the car all over the park which got them some dirty looks. Especially when some locals came over to talk to them and thought that with the license plates and their accents, that New Zealand was a city in California.  The family gave us great recommendations for which wineries to go to tomorrow, which beers to drink tonight (local brews of course), and places to visit in the north island.  After a few hours we said our goodbyes (as the daughter was ready to drive the parents home) and we walked back to the campsite to call it a night.
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