With only a few nights remaining on our New Zealand road trip, we could safely say that we were on the home stretch. An hour into the drive south from Blenheim we hit the coast, leaving Marlborough and entering Canterbury.
There’s not a great deal along this stretch of highway other than natural scenery, so when we came across The Store we took it as a perfect place to pit stop and take a breather from the driving.
It’s difficult to imagine that this was once an old tearoom and fuel stop. We were a little wowed on entry, taken by the gorgeous fit-out. Tree stump columns rise into a vaulted, tipi-like ceiling with a roaring hearth taking centre stage. Wood and metal tables, flickering pillar candles and bespoke armchairs cushioned with cowhide. There’s a real cosiness to the space.
There’s a variety of menu and cabinet food – quiches, slices, breakfast and sandwiches – and a variety of locally produced artisan oils and tid bits. A sprawling outdoor terrace takes advantage of the sunshine with patches of garden greenery and lawns offering outlooks to the nearby rocky beach.
About 30 km down the coast is another place worth stopping for a short walk into the forest along the Ohau Stream and waterfall. It’s a nice walk but the highlight is what goes on in the pool at the base of the waterfall. During winter months you can catch sight of young seal pups playfully swimming in the pool or hanging out, occasionally fed by their mothers that come up to the pool.
Once winter is over the pups make their way to the sea to hone their hunting skills and learn how to survive on their own. And it doesn’t even cost you a cent to see them.
A little further down the road is the iconic Nin’s Bin. It all started in 1977 when the caravan was parked by the water every day to sell off the local crayfish and mussels. Towing it home each night became a problem when rust took hold, so now it has a permanent home by the rocky beach.
The days crayfish catch sits pre-boiled in a styrofoam box with prices scribed on each tail, with offers of being served either split in half and served cold with lemon or warmed with garlic butter. Hot chips and 1 dozen mussels were the only other options on this particular day.
I wasn’t all that hungry but I couldn’t visit the iconic Nin’s and not eat something. Mussels (18) it was – cooked in a little white wine and served with lemon. I noticed there was young wild fennel growing around the caravan and found myself foraging a few feathery tops to scatter through the steaming mussels. Hot, juicy and sweet. And the setting couldn’t be more perfect.
Further along the highway, the setting of the coastal town of Kaikoura becomes even more picturesque. Pacific Ocean to one side and the rugged, snow-capped Seaward Kaikoura Range on the other. It may not be the biggest town or have a great deal going on along its main strip, but there’s something about it that makes you want to stay a while.
And that, we did. For a night, anyway.
People descend upon Kaikoura for a handful of things – coastal walking, birdwatching and eating crayfish, to name a few. Come to think of it we barely touched the local seafood, but we did partake in one of the areas more popular activities. Not until a speedy spot of lunch, of course.
And speedy it was. A rather standard lunch at Groper Garage in the west end of town. Open chicken sandwich (10) and salt & pepper squid (15).
Kaikoura is one of the only places in the world where the sperm whale can be seen relatively easily and all year-round. Any guesses what we got up to after lunch? There’s the assurance of an 80% refund should the Whale Watch boat not come across or track down one of these gorgeous creatures, but after an hour of sonar tracking we were in luck.
Hearing about seabirds was getting a tad yawn-inducing every time one flew past the boat. We were there to spot a whale, after all. Things perked up a bit when a sperm whale briefly appeared a couple of times, causing a flurry of excitement and a little relief. I’m sure nobody wants to go back to shore for a partial refund!
Those that are up for seal-spotting can head out to the Point Kean seal colony just outside of town. We, however, felt the need to stop along the way.
Kaikoura Seafood BBQ is another iconic supplier of edibles along this part of the east coast. They’ve been going at it for over a decade now, pumping out cooked saltwater critters to whoever’s willing to pull over and plonk themselves at one of the few coveted roadside benches.
Scallops, salmon, crayfish, mussels and chowder are up for grabs – plus some whitebait fritters that were more egg than whitebait – unlike the ones you can get on the West Coast, which are more about the whitebait.
It was paua fritter (9) for me, sandwiched between two slices of fluffy seeded bread. The paua – or abalone – is sliced so fine that it goes virtually unnoticed in the egg patty; tasting more of hot-plate oil and eggs than anything else.
Dinner options were far and few between on this particular September evening. One of the fish & chips joints or the pub, it seemed. Let’s do the pub, shall we?
Apart from a handful of other diners and boozers it was just us. Monteith’s fans are well catered for in the beer department, a brand that shows its face pretty much all over the country.
The Whaler menu features a bunch of tapas-style share plates – the likes of seafood skewers, calamari or soup – and your typical pub staples.
Our Mediterranean chicken (25) is a rustic plate of herbed thigh meat topped with a flavourful sun-dried tomato and chorizo sauce. Some creamy baked parmesan polenta joins the Med party as well.
A rather enormous plate of bbq ribs (26) harbours some very intense bbq flavour, lumped on top of fries and salad garnish to help lighten the load.
Waking up early the following morning gave me the chance to walk across the road from our hotel and watch the sunrise. Pretty magical, really, especially with the snowcapped mountains as a backdrop and a long stretch of pebble beach all to myself.
Prior to hitting the road again, it was breakfast at the lovely Beach House Cafe up on the highway. Wooden floorboards, loads of natural light and a choice of cosy rooms to sit in.
Aside from a bunch of cabinet food, the general menu is a very limited selection of breakfast items, soup, salad, souvlaki and a couple of Mexican-style dishes. Really good coffee, as well.
Mine was the hearty lifestyle breakfast (19) featuring scrambled eggs, mushrooms, corn fritters and rather undercooked, crunchy sliced potato. A nice bit of basil pesto herbed it up.
Mr Pancakes went for the usual choice – blueberry pancakes (16) – dolled up with gorgeous grilled banana, toasted hazelnuts and maple syrup.
One place that had to make the road trip itinerary is the town of Akaroa. Beautiful French colonial buildings line the main streets in this picture-perfect town that still retains much of its mid-1800’s French heritage.
And what a setting! Nestled on the shores of a harbour that’s actually the filled-in eroded crater of an extinct volcano; one of two that formed the Banks Peninsula.
Akaroa can be done as a day trip from Christchurch, but it’s much more fun staying the night, methinks. No time was wasted after booking into our hotel then hitting the streets for lunch. Down on the waterfront overlooking the pier is Ma Maison, a restaurant that harnesses local produce and utilises it well.
Pinot noir got me started at lunch, easing me into the relaxed Akaroa lifestyle and our second-last full day in New Zealand.
Roast butternut pumpkin & lemongrass soup (13) is deliciously silky, vibrant in colour and very lacking in lemongrass. No great drama as it was fine just as it was, toasted bread and all.
The Akaroa salmon (27) was absolutely divine. Three generous strips of perfectly cooked brioche & macadamia-crusted fish over cubes of golden saffron potatoes. Creamed leaks are also in there with a light dribble of mint dressing for a touch of freshness.
Spotting a dessert platter heading to another table prompted me to order one for myself – a citrus assiette (13) featuring lemon brûlée, vanilla mango tart and some rather green lime sorbet. Picking up the tart came with a bit of a surprise when I quickly discovered the filling was actually liquid, narrowly missing wearing it as it poured out of the soft pastry.
We kind of loved the bitter chocolate truffle delice (14) and berry sorbet. Verona chocolate sauce added more richness to the mousse-like cake, but for both of us, the sorbet was the winning element.
My preferred choice for dinner – The Little Bistro – was seasonally closed and seeing nothing much was open in this part of town, it was all too easy to head back to Ma Maison.
Panko crumbed fromage (17.5) didn’t need too much to make it shine. It is all about that hot, molten cheese, after all. Simply topped with grape chutney, a bit of salad and smoked walnuts made for a perfect starter.
The seared beef carpaccio (14.5) is another winner – rubbed with herbs and black pepper – topped with fresh horseradish aïoli, beet caviar and cubes of port wine jelly.
More red meat followed with the pan-roasted venison fillet (35) rafting on dauphinoise potato in a shallow pool of port wine jus. The juicy meat held up perfectly against the intensely-flavoured pear that was braised with blueberries and vanilla. On its own it would be a beautiful dessert, but something special happened when venison was brought into the picture.
Italian flavours came into the picture with the spinach, ricotta & toasted almond rotolo (31). It received the same plating treatment as the venison – dabs of pumpkin purée and smear of pesto – plus eggplant purée and rocket & parmesan salad.
For a little while it felt like Akaroa was all ours – no people around – just us and that stunning scenery. Nothing was open for breakfast in the main part of town so we walked over to the strip of eateries (not many, mind you) on Beach Road.
L’Escargot Rouge was already in the swing of breakfast with a couple of locals – one of which even walked in saying “bonjour!”
The breakfast offerings are quite limited but you can “do the French thing” by dosing up on the Parisien breakfast of baguette, croissant, pan au choc with jam & butter, fruit and hot drink.
Whilst the coffee may not be the best around, the croque monsieur (8.8) is much like the ones you’d get on the streets of Paris. Sliced brioche, Dijon, ham, cheese and béchamel. Simplicity at its best.
Mr Pancakes went with a rather steeply-priced homemade toasted muesli (14) with fruit and yoghurt.
The final stop on our South Island adventure was in Christchurch. Being my first time in the city, I never got to see it before a series of earthquakes led to the decimation of the city after the quake in February 2011.
Today the city centre is a patchwork of gravel quadrants and carparks where buildings once stood, with many remaining structures and building façades in ruin, awaiting their fate. There’s a great deal of rebuilding in progress and it’s difficult to fathom that 70% of the CBD’s buildings had to be demolished.
One striking building to come out of the ruins is the Cardboard Cathedral – a temporary replacement of the ruined neo-Gothic Christchurch Cathedral – and somewhat of a symbol of the city moving forward.
Eight shipping containers form the walls of the A-frame structure, with 96 laminated wood-reinforced cardboard tubes forming the framework of the angled poly-carbonate roof. It’s an impressive build, even down to the triangular stained glass windows.
As the city’s arts community drives to get mural colour up on blank walls all over the centre of town (download the free Oi You! app for a street art map and info on the artists), the equally colourful Re:START container mall continues to draw locals and visitors to its temporary shopping and eating precinct.
Opening eight months after the devastating earthquake, this colourful area has breathed new life into the CBD with over 50 businesses in operation.
Hummingbird is a local coffee brand that’s already known about town and their outlet at Re:START is clearly a hotspot for people that work nearby. And it’s pretty clear why. Hearty breakfasts, cabinets stuffed with rustic, delicious-looking food and some seriously good cheese & onion scones. They really mean business with that coffee, as well.
Exploring the city on foot, we soon found ourselves on Victoria Street, a busy little strip that seems to be a bit of an eating and drinking hub. How about Mexican for lunch?
Mexicano’s kinda doesn’t look like much from the outside. A bunker-like structure at the front of a prefabricated office building that doesn’t reveal anything until you swing open the wooden door. The interior is dark and has a Mexican dive bar vibe to it with an expected Dia de los Muertos theme running throughout – even sombreros and adhesive moustaches for those that really want to immerse themselves.
It’s all about sharing at Mexicano’s – tacos, beans, “hand-hacked” guacamole, quesadillas, charred meats and much more. Neither of us had big appetites that day so it was only a few things that made it to the table.
Street style grilled corn (5) offers a few small bites of cheesy juiciness with chipotle mayo; before a 6-inch adobo chicken taco (8) spread with guacamole, pickled mango and micro herbs.
The star of our mui pequeño lunch had to be the beef cheek barbacoa (26). It’s cooked to fall-apart perfection and is drenched inside and out with a deep, smoky bbq flavour and mild chilli bite. The menu does specify beef rib, but it wasn’t available that day. Fine by me.
Coffee shops are aplenty across the city, and one that we happened to walk past also happened to be one I’d read about previously.
With its close proximity to CPIT, it’s no surprise that Black Betty gets many students dosing up on its espresso, cold drip, syphon and pour-over coffees, as well as cabinet food.
Definitely worth the coffee pit stop.
The final night of our South Island adventure was seen off in casual style at Fiddlesticks, a place buzzing with locals filling up on after-work tipples in the separate bar or supping it up in the dimly lit restaurant. It’s bistro-style through and through, with touches of astro-turf, recycled wood and vertical greenery.
Reading the all-New Zealand menu makes you feel like there’s much to love – from nibbles to tastes to more substantial main courses.
We weren’t quite sure what to expect with the goat cheese, ginger crisp beetroot (13) but when it came it all made sense. Balls of soft cheese interspersed with brandy snap-like ginger crisps and tiny dabs of beetroot emulsion. The ginger and cheese combo absolutely nailed it in the flavour department and some added truffle honey was its final sexy caress.
A subtle sourness from artichoke came through in the lemon linguine (23.5), perfectly complemented with briny white anchovies, wilted arugula and caper-pistachio pesto. The lemon was a much needed element due to a hefty dose of oil shimmering at the bottom of the bowl.
It was the crumbed haggis that drew me to the lamb shoulder (33) – tender nubs of spiced offal pudding that almost stole the limelight entirely. Golden cubes of swede joined shaved fennel and feta, bringing crunch and creaminess to the rather rich lamb.
For dessert, a white chocolate custard (16.5) comes with torn pieces of chocolate sponge. The hero of the dish is beautiful blood orange sorbet sitting on crumbled ginger soil.
The warm poppy seed cake (16) was exactly that. Nothing ground breaking, really. Some pashmak gave the dish some visual interest and dabs of sour meringue was more akin to crème fraîche. I could only assume the yellow smear on the plate was the promised citrus panna cotta, taking on the texture of a pasty gel.
Overall a rather decent dinner spread.
All other posts from this South Island trip –