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Category Archives: New Zealand

It was only 5 years ago when I first read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and began my love affair/borderline unhealthy obsession with food. Prior to that, I was an extremely picky eater and wouldn’t even touch most of the food that I now adore. I’ve come a long way since then and food and travel now dominate my life. Bourdain’s two television shows, No Reservations and The Layover, combine my two passions in a very attractive manner. Everyone who’s seen either show wants to do it like Tony. For one day, I did.

Through the magic of a farmer/friend/helluva guy, Gary, I ended up linking up with chef Craig “Burt” McBreatty. With the help of his lovely wife, Hilary, he runs the Front Room in Waikanae and has been transforming the food scene of the tiny beach community for over a decade. I had an amazing meal at the Front Room and Burt and Hilary even put me up for the night. It just so happened that Burt was attending a chefs’ luncheon in Wellington the next day and invited me to tag along. I jumped on the opportunity and ended up having a day that looked like something out of a foodie’s wet dream.

We arrived in Wellington a couple hours before lunch and Burt showed me around the city. He took me to a really nice wine shop, a gourmet grocery store, and to have coffee at one of the five roasters in Wellington. While we’re doing all of this, we were of course talking food. Burt told me about the food scene in Wellington, pointed out different restaurants and gave their histories etc. He was explaining the story behind a sushi place as we were walking down the street when it hit me: I was pretty much in the middle of my own episode of No Reservations. The show had only just started.

Lunch was at Capitol, a nice restaurant run by one of Burt’s buddies in the city center. The weather was highly unusual for Wellington in July; it was sunny and warm with no wind. To take advantage of the unseasonably superb weather, lunch began with drinks and oysters outside of the restaurant. In all, about 30-40 chefs/industry people showed up. They were all very nice and made me feel at home. After about an hour, we moved inside for lunch.

Everyone was told to bring a bottle of pinot. As you might expect for a gathering of chefs/restauranteurs, there were some really nice wines, most coming from New Zealand. Pinot happens to by my favorite varietal and I took full advantage of the opportunity to taste some great ones. Taste may be an understatement.

The food was outstanding. The meal began with mixed antipasti platters that contained cheeses, olives, charcuterie, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted peppers, and artichoke hearts. The first dish was cured salmon topped with a white bean salad. For the main, we had beef tenderloin with a spicy pepper sauce. Personally, I prefer offal over a filet, but this was a damn good steak. My judgement may have been clouded by the ridiculous amount of wine I consumed and the great company, but I found the execution of the food to be flawless.

I couldn’t have asked for a better day or a more perfect welcome to Wellington. All of the wine led to a rather rough second day in the city, but it was totally worth it. Through the kindness of friends and friends of friends – as well as some great timing – I got to live out the food traveller’s fantasy and I will never forget it.

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Oahu’s largest organic farm/non-profit/greatest thing to happen to the island, MA’O Organic Farms, is run by a Kiwi guy named Gary. He put me in touch with his brother, Brian, who lives in the small beach community of Waitarere, which is just outside of their hometown of Levin. Brian and his wife Blossom were kind enough to take me in for a couple days and treated me like family. I knew I would enjoy my stay when they fed me lamb and got me drunk within hours of arriving!

Unfortunately, the weather was miserable for my visit to Waitarere and I wasn’t able to spend much time on the beach. The company more than made up for it though. Brian and Blossom are incredible people, terrific parents, and were perfect hosts. Even though it was gray and rainy, Brian took me for a walk on the beach with their two children, Ollie and Fern. It was the most authentic Kiwi moment I’ve experienced. All three of them were wearing gumboots and Brian was carrying a big breach umbrella to shelter them from the rain. Classic.

There are really nice running and mountain biking trails in the forest at either end of the beach. The rain stopped on my last afternoon and Brian took me for a trail jog with his friend Paul. Paul is really fit and Brian told us to run ahead. I’m not sure if it was me spending some time at the pub immediately beforehand or just being out of shape, but Paul broke me off. We ran for over an hour at a very respectable pace, but I wasn’t going to fall behind and make Hawaii look soft. I survived the run and, surprisingly, wasn’t sore the next day.

A while back, Blossom had picked up a pasta machine at a yard sale, but had never used it. On my last night there, her, Fern, Ollie and I made pasta. They had a big pumpkin that they needed to do something with, so I attempted to make a pumpkin cream sauce to go with the pasta. It ended up being a lot more like a pumpkin puree. While it wasn’t on the scale of the Tuscan gnocchi disaster of ’11, I was still very unhappy with the result. I look forward to redeeming myself when they visit Hawai’i.

Gary recommended that I make a trip to nearby Waikanae and check out his buddy’s place called the Front Room. Waikane sounds a lot like Wai’anae, which is where MA’O is located in Hawaii. It’s interesting to note that both places are on the west coast of their respective islands and are named after the local mullet fish. Brian, who is also a good friend of the chef, Burt, called and arranged for me to eat there and stay at his house. Brian also scored me a ride with his cousin who works in Waitarere and lives in Waikanae. I was blown away with everything Brian, Blossom and all of Gary’s family and friends did to make my stay such a special one.

The Front Room was fantastic. As I normally do in such a situation, I went with the recommendation of the chef for dinner. It turned out that his picks were what I would have ordered anyway. I started with Waikanae crab ravioli over cauliflower puree with a citrus sauce. It was light, delicate, and really, really good. My main was roast duck breast over sweet potato with a pan sauce. It was flavorful, cooked to perfection, and delicious. In addition to using locally sourced, very yummy duck, Burt also highlights an ingredient used by the first people of New Zealand in sweet potato. My dining companion was Burt’s wife/front of the house manager, Hilary. She had the steak with roasted onions and herbed butter. It looked perfect. It’s worth going to Waikanae just to eat at the Front Room. It’s that good.

Like Brian and Blossom, Burt and Hilary were perfect hosts. They’ve traveled a bunch and love food. I was only with them for a night, but we had some great conversations and I really enjoyed their company. Burt had a chefs’ luncheon in Wellington the next day, so he was able to give me a ride into the city and invited me to be his guest for lunch!

Levin isn’t on the New Zealand tourist map, but I will never forget the time I spent there. I was fed extremely well, kept very well hydrated, and felt like family. Mahalo nui loa to Brian, Blossom, Bert, and Hilary. I look forward to seeing you when you visit Hawaii and showing you some Hawaiian style hospitality!

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Due to its geothermic activity Rotorua has been permanently affixed on the tourist map. Located just about midway between the Bay of Islands and Levin, a brief stay in Rotorua worked out wonderfully for me logistically. I spent two nights and one full day in the sulfury splendor that is Rotorua and had a great time.

I was originally supposed to Help at a place called Lyons Lakestay, but when I emailed to confirm my arrival time, the host let me know that the dates she agreed to no longer were good for her, forcing me to find alternative accommodation at the last minute. Fortunately, I ended up Couchsurfing with an incredible host named Kylie. She teaches high school and I arrived at the very end of her winter break, so she was able to hook me up with some greatly appreciated rides and spend a little time with me.

I arrived in Rotorua at 5pm and by 7pm Kylie had taken me to a place called Two Streams, where a geothermal stream and a cold stream intersect, to go for a swim. The atmosphere was amazing. Fellow swimmers had surrounded the water with candles and brought music. It was a clear night and you could see the stars above as you were soaking in the water. This was the perfect welcome to Rotorua.

The next day was my only full day in town before continuing south. On the recommendation of my host, I went to Wai o Tapu Geothermal Wonderland. Everything in Rotorua is pay for play and, at $32.50 NZD Wai o Tapu was a great park at a (relatively) great price. I arrived in time to see the geyser go off at 10:15 am, then spent the next few hours walking around the park checking out brilliantly covered geothermal pools, deep craters, and other natural wonders. It was incredible and definitely worth it. Two Streams is literally around the corner from the park’s entrance.

After the park, Kylie dropped me off in town where I ended up having the roast pork special at Relish for a late lunch. It was phenomenal. The serving size was huge, everything was cooked to perfection, and it was topped with a generous amount of crackling. It ranks next to the lamb I had on my first night in Auckland as the best thing I’ve had to eat this trip. After lunch, I waddled around town very content, eventually making my way to St. Faith’s Anglican Church.

I wasn’t aware that the town of Rotorua itself was built on an active geothermal area. There was no steam or pools in downtown, but they were abundant in the area surrounding the church. It was like something out of a horror movie with cracks in the sidewalk filled with boiling liquid and holes in the ground seeping steam. To add to the spookiness, the church is also an old graveyard. I had a fun – though slightly creepy – stroll around the grounds before heading back to Kylie’s house. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize it was Friday the 13th until I had left the church area.

Although brief, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Rotorua. While there isn’t a lot to do (especially for free), Rotorua is definitely worth a stop if you’re traveling through the North Island.

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In going from the Coromandel to the Bay of Islands, I went from one popular summer destination to another (in the dead of winter). Luckily, the weather was as good as it can get in July and I had another wonderful HelpX experience.

I Helped at the Ferry Landing Backpackers and spent some time with my amazing host Andrea. Andrea is a farm girl, a tough mama, and a true Kiwi. I couldn’t have asked for a better host. It was great visiting during the slow season because, in addition to not having much work for me to do, she also had free time to show me around. She took me to a few places that are definitely off of the tourist map and showed me a glimpse of what life is like for locals. Let me tell you, like is good in Russell.

We went on several very scenic hikes through the bush as well as long walks on beautiful, untouched coastline. The shades of green and blue were brilliant and I particularly enjoyed seeing bulls grazing on the beach. Andrea took me to visit her parents who happen to be hardcore gardeners. The surprise of my visit was seeing ohia lehua growing in their garden.

During my stay, Andrea’s son Curt attended the Mean As Boys’ Camp at her friend’s place, which is simply called The Farm. Mike and Ellen, a veterinarian and a “horse whisperer” who own the property, are doing something truly special with their 400 hectares located just outside of Russell. In addition to raising their four biological and three foster children, they also operate a dairy farm and horse training/riding facility, welcome backpackers, WWOOFers, and HelpXers, and frequently host camps for between a dozen and over a hundred kids. Needless to say, there is never a dull moment at The Farm and a great deal of work is involved in keeping the place running. The Mean As Camp sounded like the coolest thing ever for a 12 year old boy. They got to ride dirt bikes, hunt, fish, play paintball, kayak, trek, learn bushcraft, and do about every other fun – and not so safe – thing you can imagine. The only real rules of the camp are to be safe and treat one another with respect. You also have to do 10 pushups if you use the word “mine.” If I had more time in the Bay of Islands, it definitely would have been spent Helping at The Farm.

As I was preparing to upload pics, it dawned on me that this was my first photo album in a while with no food pictures. This wasn’t because I didn’t eat well during my stay in the Bay. There aren’t many options for dining out in town and they are all expensive. My meals were had either at Ferry Landing or on the beach. Andrea’s partner loves to fish and provides her with a share of his catch, which is usually snapper. She is also part of a network that shares and trades different foodstuffs like oysters, scallops, smoked fish, kiwifruit, avocados, and all sorts of other great local deliciousness.

Andrea’s positive outlook on life and work/play balance left a significant impression on me. She takes the time to enjoy the beautiful place she is fortunate enough to live, while managing to run a great backpackers and consult for a few other local businesses. Andrea truly “gets it” and it was an absolute pleasure to spend a few days in her piece of paradise. Summer or winter, there is always something beautiful to see and great people to meet in the Bay of Islands. If you’re on the North Island, I definitely recommend hitting up Andrea and finding out for yourself!

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When looking at potential WWOOF or HelpX hosts, I had always avoided those seeking assistance with hard, manual labor and opted for easy work instead. A good friend of mine from Hawaii put me in contact with Daniel, a Dutch friend of his who has been living in New Zealand for a few years. For the last month, Daniel has been living at a place called Red Gate on the Coromandel peninsula. A young family originally from the UK purchased the property just 4 months ago and need quite a bit of help to transform the land. I’m very happy I got in touch with Daniel because it ended up in one of the most rewarding WWOOF/Helping experiences I’ve had.

I got to stay in a caravan that had a heater and wifi. Daniel and I shared the camp kitchen, where we cooked meals when we didn’t eat with Tony and Rebecca, the owner’s of the property. There is also a bush shower that has a sawdust toilet, sink, and hot shower. Additional features include a teepee and a bush bath. Despite being in a very rural setting, Red Gate had all of the amenities I look for and then some.

Tony and Rebecca envision Red Gate as a place to “facilitate gatherings, workshops and retreats. With a range of accommodation options and facilities that are in harmony with our natural surroundings.” And “welcome conscious people to be on the land who are enthusiastic, positive, flexible and who want to be here for the vision of the land.” Granted, it sounds a little like a hippie utopia, but what’s wrong with that? It’s incredibly refreshing to see young, smart, capable people who have their priorities in order working to achieve something that can benefit so many. Rebecca is a traveller, a free spirit, an awesome mom, and the heart and soul of Red Gate. Tony works as a construction site manager and uses those skills for work at Red Gate. He’s incredibly smart, treats Helpers as equals, a hard worker, and probably the best father I’ve come across. Their daughter Amber is very strong willed (in a good way) and may be the cutest little girl on the planet.

While the mission and goal for the property are dreamy, the work required to get there is far from it. The first day I was there, they had pretty significant rain that took a toll on the property, particularly the driveway/road. The next day was our work day, which was spent mostly digging a variety of drainage ditches. I can easily say that this was the most physically demanding day of work I’ve ever done. I can also say that I enjoyed every second of it. Rather than give Daniel and I a list of tasks and take off, Tony worked along side us the entire day. The only time he did disappear was to make us some amazing coffee (he used to train baristas). It was extremely gratifying to see the results of our work. We turned an ugly, flood damaged road into a downright sexy gravel top with beautiful drainage channels. At the end of the day I was actually hoping for rain to test our ingenuity.

Coromandel town is about a 40 minute drive from the property and I went for a visit on my last full day there. This was my first time hitching a ride, but, from what I’m told, it’s pretty common and easy in New Zealand. The ride to town was one of the prettiest rides I’ve ever been on. The road hugs the ocean and you also get views of brilliant green pastures and drastic changes in elevation.

The town itself is small, quaint, and charming. It’s a coastal retreat for many New Zealanders during the summer and was more or less deserted in July. On Rebecca’s recommendation, I stopped by the House of Chai Tea for a chai latte and picked up smoked fish at the Coromandel Smoking Co. I walked from town to the Mussel Kitchen, which is supposed to be incredible, but they had closed for the winter. Undeterred and quite hungry, I continued to walk down the road and ended up at the Coromandel Oyster Company. I had the special of the day, which was a smoked fish chowder with fried bread as well as a few raw oysters and mussels. The food was great, the service was awesome and it was only $12.50 NZD. In addition to selling oysters that are farmed right on the property, they also sell green lipped mussels. A kilo of mussels cost just $3 and 5 kilos was $5!

There are many more things to see and do in the area. Around New Year there is a big music festival called Prana, which is where Daniel first met Tony and Rebecca. A famous square kauri tree is located about 10k from Red Gate and there are several treks that begin fairly close to the property as well. Although brief, my stay in the Coromandel was the first time on this trip that I felt like I found what I’m looking for. This is exactly why I travel and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to meet such wonderful people and visit this truly special place.

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My experience in Cairns led me to move up my flight and head to Auckland a week earlier than planned. Not that I couldn’t have had a great time had I stayed in Cairns, but I’m quite pleased with my decision.
Auckland was my first time Couchsurfing on this trip and it reaffirmed my belief that it is THE way to travel. My host was Leslie, a PhD candidate from British Columbia. She is cool, smart, nice, and a lot of fun. One of her two flatmates, Tash, is also a Couchsurfing host and acted as a co-host since Leslie has a very active social life (in addition to conducting transgenic disease fighting research on fish, Leslie also finds time to belly dance and learn jiujitsu while being an active gamer). These lovely ladies were incredible and made me feel totally at home and very welcome.
I spent my time in Auckland as I would anywhere else: looking for food, eating, hanging out with interesting people, and checking out nature. There are quite a few Korean and Japanese restaurants in the city, but I opted for Middle Eastern and Malaysian since I don’t have those options at home. Hands down, the best thing I ate in Auckland, or anywhere so far on this trip, was lamb on kabsa rice from Holy Land on K Road. It was phenomenal. It was so good that I went back again the next day and tried the lamb kofta kebabs with tomato and bread. It wasn’t bad on any level, but didn’t approach the awesomeness of the lamb on kabsa rice.
I attended two farmers’ markets, the Saturday Britomart and Sunday La Cigale. The Saturday market is in the heart of the city and heavily advertised, yet was a lot smaller than I anticipated. It reminded me of farmers’ markets back home with far more vendors selling prepared food than farmers selling things they grow. I was quite satisfied with a delicious local, organic sausage sandwich, 14 mini Dutch donuts, and an organic coffee. The Sunday market was located at a French specialty food store and had a better feel and atmosphere to it as well as more produce for sale. The sausage guy was there too and I got another sandwich from him in addition to a really good seafood paella that had mussels, prawns, squid, baby octopus, and fish. One cool thing I noticed about these farmers’ markets is that they allow dogs.
Leslie joined me for the Sunday market and we went to a fancy chocolate place after and indulged in serious chocolate drinks and some truffles. We also had dinner at Mamak, a Malaysian place that had great reviews and excellent service, but less-than-spectacular food. The extra, extra spicy chicken curry (the only menu item with 3 chilies next to it) wasn’t even remotely spicy. Leslie also took me to Elliot Stables, a really nice high-end food court.
My hostesses lived across the street from the oldest park in Auckland, the Domain. I had a couple pleasant strolls through the very green and peaceful public space while I was in town. There are a lot of fun touristy things to do in Auckland, but I elected to just chill out and enjoy a few days with some great locals. New Zealand was off to a great start!

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