Luxury Travel Review
Luxury Travel Review

Private river safari on New Zealand Waiatoto River

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

Wayne Allanson aboard our 10-seat KeelowCraft on the 52 kilometer Waiatoto River in New Zealand

I didn’t know quite what to expect during the off the beaten track Waiatoto River Safari in the 355,000 hectare Aspiring National Park, part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (U.N.E.S.C.O.) Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Park in the South Island of New Zealand. My first clue was Ruth Allanson’s smile when we stopped to check in and sign release forms. It lit up her face and put me at ease. She and Wayne, her husband, owned the company.

Ruth Allanson of Waiatoto River Safari

During the tour Wayne stopped in a sheltered corner of the river to tell us about the park.

Our departure point

The simple indoor stand housed a desk, promotional brochures and a few local stonework souvenirs. From there a two minute drive led to our departure point, where moments later we met  Wayne on the bank of the 52 kilometer Waiatoto River. We were 23 kilometers from Haast and about 200 kilometers from Queenstown.

The Waiatoto River, 23 kilometers from Haast and about 200 kilometers from Queenstown

Although it was a clear summer day when we arrived (by the time we returned clouds had descended) there was a chill in the air that promised it would be cooler still on the boat. After applying liberal amounts of insect repellent against the sandflies and donning a loaner coat and   I was ready. Veronika Vermeulen, owner of Aroha New Zealand Tours and my guide on an Intrepid tour of the South Island, and I followed Wayne onto a 10-seat KeelowCraft for our two and a half hour private tour. Our boat was 5.7 meters long, 2.2 meters wide, required 125 milliliters of water to operate, and could accommodate up 11 passengers plus driver. It had a Chev 350 V8 petrol engine with a Hamilton 212 jet pump.

The Waiatoto River, part of the U.N.E.S.C.O. Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Park – click to enlarge

The setting was beautiful. The tour was one of the highlights of my trip to the South Island. The river and lush green vegetation were all around us. After the many crowded attractions we had passed on previous days it was wonderful to be alone on the river. This was in part because the tour was the only way to visit the unspoiled area by land and water. Later Ruth explained by email that the scenery and nature are unique to New Zealand.

One of my favorite aspects of the tour was that we were the only people visible on the river.

One of few boats we saw although during the whitebait season hundreds of locals descended on the river for their share of the popular fish

The loud engine sounds ensured we focused on the scenery rather than conversation. Wayne slowed down or stopped to show us points of interest, share information and indulge my photo needs. On one of the stops he offered us whitebait snacks. During the whitebait season, hundreds of locals descended on the river for their share of the tiny fish. Although it was past whitebait season Ruth and Wayne had a frozen supply from which they made the snacks.

White water on the Waiatoto River

We covered 23 kilometers until the rapids became impossible to navigate. There Wayne tied the boat to the shore. It was easy to step onto land through the front of the boat. Veronika and I gazed at the rushing water, while Wayne secured the boat. Once he joined us we walked 500 meters into the quiet landscape before heading back down the river to the Hindley Stream. By the time we returned to our departure point we had covered 50 kilometers during the tour.

When the river became unmanageable we stopped for a short stroll.

It was nice to know the boats operated with Qualmark Environ motors specially imported for their low fuel use and clean running. I saw no pollution in the water or on land. The Allansons encouraged their clients to “take photos and leave footprints only.”

We encountered lush greenery on our short walk.

With advance notice they were able to accommodate some travelers with disabilities. Babies from about 5 months old (provided the life jacket fit) could join their tours and there was no upper age restriction. Life jackets were available up to XXXXL.

At our first stop – click to Enlarge

Once we glided over the river I was glad for the extra loaner layer and the safety of the life vest. Although at one point there were sandflies, perhaps because of the copious quantities of natural repellent I lathered on, they didn’t bother me at all. Waiatoto River Safaris Limited (975 Haast-Jackson Bay road, Hannahs Clearing, Haast, 7844, New Zealand, +64 3 7500 780, www.riversafaris.co.nz, info@riversafaris.co.nz) was owned and operated by a local family since 1997. Theirs was the only company with permission to offer boat tours on Waiatoto River (helicopter companies were allowed enter the park). Ruth and Wayne held Martime New Zealand commercial jet boat licenses, first aid and commercial pilot licenses as well as airplane instructor ratings. They had 12 years of jet boating experience.

According to the U.N.E.S.C.O. website, Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Park covers 10 percent of the landmass of New Zealand. It has fjords, rocky coasts, towering cliffs, lakes and waterfalls. It was worthy of a detour. I especially enjoyed seeing it by boat.

Why we liked restaurant in off beaten track Paris

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox and Elena del Valle

The Septime facade on rue de Charonne in the 11 arrondissement

The restaurant was divided into three sections, entrance, main dining area and open kitchen.

Reserving a table at Septime (80, rue de Charonne, 75011 Paris, France, +33 01 43 67 38 29, www.septime-charonne.fr) was an adventurous act because we would only find out the menu at the moment it was served the day of the meal. The emphasis in the kitchen was on seasonal ingredients. Beside that all we knew when we booked our seats was the hour, number of courses and price. And getting there was not so much difficult as out of the well tread tourist circuit, well as much as any neighborhood in Paris, France is out of the tourist circuit.

The bar was the first area of the restaurant we saw once we entered.

We liked the young, hip vibe of the unpretentious venue with such an understated facade we almost missed it. Large glass windows allowed passersby a view of the interior, which quickly became crowded. All the tables, even the bar stools, were taken when we were first there. Septime could accommodate a maximum of 38 diners with a staff of 15. The interior of the 62 square meter restaurant was tidy and clean, the young staff welcoming. Glasses, silverware and rolled up cloth napkins sat atop bare wood tables. Lively music filled the air.

The dishes were visually appealing and well balanced.

There were two surprise appetizers, two choices for the main course and a surprise dessert.

Natural light filled the dining room. It was toasty warm (we were there in the fall), making it possible to remove jackets and rain gear. The décor was polished and upscale yet urban contemporary. Perhaps because there was a high ceiling it felt spacious although it was full. The tables were close enough to hear neighbor’s conversations without trying. Other features included bare light bulbs, spiral metal staircase (for staff only), unisex bathrooms with a single sink and wood chairs (after a while the lack of cushions made the seats uncomfortable). The dining audience skewed young, diverse and international. An open kitchen allowed us to observe the chefs at work without the cooking smells overwhelming us.

An open kitchen allowed us to observe the chefs at work

We appreciated that the staff offered a description of the ingredients in English.

The staff were friendly, well informed and helpful. Many were fluent in English, translating the menu and ingredients for us and other diners with ease. And the food? Delicious and outstanding value for money. We paid 42 euros per person per lunch menu, excluding beverages and gratuity.

Our four course menu was satisfying. There were two surprise appetizers, two choices for the main course and a surprise dessert. On our first lunch there was a choice of brill fish in lemon sauce with raw cabbage or young chicken with potatoes in coffee oil, meat juice. We also had raw scallops from Saint Malo, picked squash, squash seeds and black cardamom.

One of the most memorable items was a hodgepodge hot beverage option served in a see through glass container. The bartender made it using whatever fresh fruit was available. Although it was not included in the set menu many of our neighbors ordered it. One infusion was made with apple, yuzu, mandarin orange, thyme and coriander. Another was made with mandarin orange, apple, pear, and verbena and served. The resulting blend of flavors were subtle. On request it was served with honey.

Soon after we sat down our server brought crispy bread sticks with a foamy Gouda cheese dip. There was also crunchy country bread (without butter). Before long someone brought us chilled raw fish with vegetable shavings and celery oil dressing. We appreciated that the staff offered a description of the ingredients in English. The dish had a “clean” refreshing flavor. Warm beets served with black pig from Bigor, smoked lard, Greek Yogurt and mustard seeds was next. Hay infused (who knew you could use hay to infuse flavor?) red sweetbreads served with Paris mushrooms, carrots and shallots in a creamy sauce were next. It was sauteed just right, flavorful yet delicate at once. For dessert there was caramelized ice cream with apple mousseline, quince and fig leaf oil.

Chilled raw fish with vegetable shaving and celery oil dressing.

For dessert there was ice cream.

The bartender made a hot beverage with fresh fruit.

The restaurant opened in the spring of 2011 and was named as a tongue-in-cheek homage of the old-fashioned chef from the 1966 movie Le Grand Restaurant starring Louis de Funès. The owners strive to “keep a respectful distance from the all-French ways and means of classical fine dining – while honoring that heritage in our own way,” according to promotional information provided by email by a restaurant representative. “Here at Septime, the sometimes uptight ceremony of  “Auteur cuisine” is brought to you with a spirit of lightness.”

The restaurant was owned by Bertrand Grébaut, chef, and Theo Pourriat, sommelier. We later found out that 100 percent of ingredients used in the restaurant were French, organic, and fresh (never frozen). It was noteworthy that 98 percent of the 200 wines on offer were natural, including organic and biodynamic.

South Island bistro offered well prepared lunch, pretty vineyard setting

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

 

Cardrona Valley lamb neck, garlic yoghurt, pea, umami served with Amisfield Pinot Noir 2016

Grilled apricot souffle, lemon verbena

Because I spent most of my trip off the beaten track, on a private Aroha Intrepid tour, my main impression of New Zealand fine dining was derived from lunch at Amisfield Bistro & Cellar Door (10 Lake Hayes Road, RD 1, Queenstown 9371, +64 3 442 0556, amisfield.co.nz, bistro@amisfield.co.nz, cellardoor@amisfield.co.nz), a South Island bistro near Queenstown, where I spent one night. The vineyard side meal was well prepared and well presented, the setting pleasant and pretty. Should I be in the area and in search of a fine dining option I would return, and I would recommend the restaurant to friends and acquaintances traveling to the area.

Kingfish, Horseradish, Cucumber

My travel companion and I had lunch there on a breezy and sunny summer day. It was crowded. The restaurant could accommodate up to 100 guests at lunch and 40 at dinner. There were people indoors and outdoors. All the tables I could see from where we sat in the terrace, thankful for the shade of a large umbrella, were occupied. Our table faced a water feature on one side and a green lawn adjacent to the estate vineyards. Despite a mild chill in the air I saw more than one guest take advantage of the respite offered by stacks of sunhats on the edge of the water feature.

Guests took advantage of the respite offered by sunhats on the edge of the water feature.

This dish included edible “soil”

A shellfish delicacy

We both had the 5 Course Trust the Chef tasting menu with a partial wine pairing and a couple of extra bites sent from the kitchen: Zucchini flower Toasted corn; Amisfield Brut 2016, Amisfield breads; Tomato sandwich Amisfield Pinot Gris 2018; The paua pie, Amisfield Fume Blanc 2016; Kingfish, Horseradish, Cucumber, Amisfield Chenin Blanc 2018; Cardrona Valley lamb neck, garlic yoghurt, pea, umami, Amisfield Pinot Noir 2015; Grilled apricot souffle, lemon verbena. Several staff rotated at our table. Whenever a server brought a dish he or she listed the ingredients. Some staff were friendly although service was sluggish. Lunch was inventive, aesthetically oriented and satisfying.

The terrace where we sat for lunch was popular

A view of the restaurant built with 1,500 tons of Glenorchy schist and railway sleepers

The two story building was constructed with 1,500 tons of Glenorchy schist and railway sleepers salvaged from a deconstructed bridge in Southland. Headed by Vaughan Mabee, executive chef, the restaurant offered seasonal dishes made from one hundred percent New Zealand ingredients. All meat on offer was grass fed, according to a restaurant spokesperson who responded to questions by email. I liked that the restaurant had an organic produce supplier. The staff only bought sustainable species of fish. Everything was made from fresh, never frozen, ingredients, and the only wines on offer were produced by Amisfield, according to the spokesperson. In 2013, Amisfield began an organic conversion, using as little intervention as possible. The winemaker produced two wines of the natural expression: Amisfield Burn Pinot Gris, an orange wine, and Amisfield Pétillant Naturel.

Choppy gliding in New Zealand

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

Sabrina Schels, my pilot, next to our glider

In hind sight going gliding in lieu of the Mount Cook activities that were cancelled due to blustery skies may not have been the smartest choice weather wise. But, my tour time was nearly over. It was the last day of my Intrepid tour. So Veronika Vermeulen, my tour guide, and I signed up for a one hour Instructional Trial Flight with Glide Omarama (Airport Road, Omarama, New Zealand, +64 (3) 438 9555, www.glideomarama.com, info@glideomarama.com).

The entrance to Glide Omarama

On the ground everything seemed fine. It was sunny and warm. The early afternoon sky was bright blue dotted with pretty white clouds. After signing the Glide Omarama release forms in the office we met our pilots, who escorted us and the other fliers in a van to an open field. Each of us would be in a glider with a pilot of our own. A plane would tow each of the four gliders in the field. Sabrina Schels, my pilot, described our German made 400 kilogram glider (700 kilograms with pilot and passenger) and its features. I paid close attention to ensure I followed her instructions. Although she spoke with a slight German accent her instructions were clear and easy to follow.

She asked that I be careful not to hit the glider top with my camera, explaining the top cost the same as a full size vehicle. Later I understood how easy it would be to bang the cover with my camera without meaning to do it. I began to listen in earnest when she explained that in an emergency we would push the top of the glider off and jump. Being trapped beneath the clear cover seemed possible, a thought that hadn’t occurred to me until then. When she pointed to a plastic bag, indicating I should use it if I became airsick, I began to wonder how bumpy the ride would be. She asked me to let her know right away if I felt any discomfort.

In the foreground Sabrina, in the background another glider

Donning a lightweight parachute with her assistance I tucked my cameras on the side of the glider. I sat in the front facing a sea of instruments. She took the back seat. Soon it was our turn. I was looking forward to the flight. The tow plane tug was barely noticeable and in moments we were airborne, moving away as if by magic from our starting point. After she released the towing cable Sabrina began to circle ever higher using thermals to rise. It was a bumpy ride with the glider dipping often and with it my stomach. From where we were we could see for miles. It was beautiful.

The tow plane tug was barely noticeable

In much less time than I would have anticipated my lunch began to dance uncomfortably in my belly. I hoped it would pass, but I had no such luck. I let Sabrina know and she stopped circling. As soon as she did I felt better, well enough to admire the scenery. As pretty as it was every cell in my body ached for my stomach to settle down. I yearned to land. Instead I glanced to either side of the glider, admiring the view.

“Good gliding weather allows us to use different forms of lift such as thermals, ridge lift, convergence and mountain lee waves to operate and fly cross country six to seven days a week,” Sabrina said later when I asked about optimal gliding conditions. Under crystal clear air it is possible to see 200 kilometers into the distance, she explained. “Omarama is especially famous for its huge and powerful waves. We have highly experienced staff which are working for us full time. Some of us have even flown World Championships. Every glider flight is a very personal and unique experience especially tailored to the interests of our clients, as it is a one on one instruction. Not only can we take people up for the first
flight but also train them to become pilots themselves or teach experienced pilots how to safely fly in the mountains.”

Our view

I sighed with relief when we landed. In no time we were out of the glider, walking on the grass toward the office, where we each received a Certificate of Achievement with our name on it for the completion of the flight. Any concerns about safety had disappeared once we were airborne. Sabrina’s handling of the glider was smooth and seemingly effortless. She was attentive of my comfort, friendly and patient. I just wish I had been better able to enjoy my flight. Still it was a worthwhile ride and I would do it again.

Glide Omarama was about ninety minutes drive from Queenstown. Although instructions and training were usually provided in English, some of the staff speak German, French, Romanian, Hungarian depending on the season, Sabrina later explained by email.

There has never been a fatal accident on a trial flight in New Zealand, Sabrina replied when asked about safety. Adding, “Gliding is considerably safer than skydiving
or bungee-jumping.”

Sabrina, a native of Bavaria, Germany has a Masters degree in Environmental Engineering. Flying since she was 15 she had a German glider maintenance certificate, a winch driver’s license, and a New Zealand B Category instructor rating. She loves to fly vintage gliders, she said. At Glide Omarama she worked first as ground crew before becoming a year round Instructor. She loves cross-country soaring and has taken guests on flights over 800 kilometers long.

Our glider was about 15 years old, which she explained, is new in terms of a glider’s life (there are still gliders flying which were built in the 1940s). Children 12 or older were welcome on trial flights and to learn to glide. The company offered wheelchair access.

The company, owned by Gavin Wills, a pilot and former mountaineer, employed between 12 and 15 instructors. Development of the Omarama Airfield began in 1991 for the 1995 World Championships when a group of pilots led by Bill Walker transformed a deserted dust bowl into an irrigated airfield with grass, trees, hangars, tie downs, chalets and a campground. Omarama emerged from there. By the time I visited New Zealand there were two parallel runways, each 1.5 kilometers long, and four additional short landing runways.

Innovative multi-course lunch near Christchurch, New Zealand

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

Dishes from our weekday surprise five-course menu

I heard about Roots, a locally focused restaurant with a twelve course tasting menu in the suburbs of Christchurch, New Zealand before I arrived there. I was curious about its surprise twelve course menu and wine pairing, but the only night I had available as my itinerary came to a close was the night before my predawn departure. I wasn’t willing to indulge in such an elaborate meal on the eve of a series of long flights to return to the United States. At the last minute I realized the restaurant opened for lunch on weekends, offering a surprise five-course menu. That was tempting.

It was especially opportune because I had just made plans to visit Akaroa, and Lyttelton, where Roots was located, was on my way back to Christchurch from Akaroa. Would it be possible to book a table on short notice in peak season? My tour guide thought it was worth a try. She called from the car as we made our way north toward Christchurch from Lake Pukaki, where we had spent the previous nights. When the woman who answered the phone requested that we visit the restaurant website to book a table my guide explained we were on the road. Finally the woman at Roots agreed to hold a table provided we call back to give her a credit card guarantee. But, it wasn’t until several hours later that we called her a second time. I figured by then the table was gone. It wasn’t.

The table across from ours in the sunlit dining room

Staff at work in the open kitchen

Tomato bull kelp granita, ice plant, wasabi, smoked capsicum

The following afternoon, after grossly miscalculating the driving time from Akaroa, we arrived 30 minutes late. Despite crossing huge patches of no cellphone service we called twice to say we were on our way. When we arrived I sighed with relief, glad to be out of the vehicle. We were fortunate to find an empty parking space near the restaurant entrance on the popular and quaint main street in Lyttelton. Given our delay I expected a grumpy reception. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Emma, the front of house manager, welcomed us without any fuss. And to our delight we had the entire restaurant to ourselves.

Hemp & NZ Spinach

Pork Belly Pan de Yuca

Venison blood, bok choy, plum, harakeke seeds

That set the relaxed and sunny tone for the rest of the day. As we sat down I admired the uncluttered space and pretty original artwork on the walls around us, made easier to appreciate thanks to the soft natural light that filtered into the dining room through large windows. There was no menu. Emma or another staff member described each dish when they placed it in front of us. After the rush on the winding road my stomach was unhappy. With some effort I convinced myself to limited wine consumption with the meal. Emma’s two New Zealand recommendations,  2018 Clos Marguerite sauvignon blanc from Malborough and 2014 Mountford Estate pinot noir, were spot on.

The front of the building housing Roots

Lunch consisted of the following (shared later by email): Hemp & NZ Spinach Pork Belly Pan de Yuca; Tomato bull kelp granita, ice plant, wasabi, smoked capsicum; Tuna kawa kawa, grain cracker, corn custard, cucumber, sorrel; Duck blackberries, confit garlic, black lime powder, broad bean miso; Venison blood, bok choy, plum, harakeke seeds; Cheese omg brie, Windsor blue, mahoe very old Edam, curio bay pecorino; Cleanser apricot, yoghurt, fresh mint; and Beetroot walnut, raspberry, thyme, goat cheese; and Marshmallow charcoal oil, wheat, white chocolate, wheat grass, Pineapple Sage. Despite repeated requests Roots representatives declined to respond to any questions.

I appreciated the warm service, understated ambiance, creative tone and visually appealing presentation of the dishes. I would recommend Roots to curious friends visiting Lyttelton who enjoy multi-course meals and inventive cuisine.

New Zealand cottage in serene, pretty surroundings

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

A panoramic view of the cottage and its grounds (click to see full size)

During a recent trip to the South Island of New Zealand I spent two nights at Ferry Mans Cottage, part of the 40-acre Birds Ferry Lodge and Ferry Mans Cottage (163 Birds Ferry Road, Westport, New Zealand, +64 21337217, birdsferrylodge.co.nz, info@birdsferylodge.co.nz) luxury boutique lodge established in 2004 by Alison and Andre Gygax. They had embarked on the development of the property relying on Alison’s love of cooking and her degree in hospitality as well as Andre’s 15 years of experience as a South Island tour guide.

A sign by my cottage door

One of two bedrooms at Ferry Mans Cottage

From the main house it was a short stroll to my two-bedroom one bathroom northwest facing 1,200 square foot (estimated) cottage. Although at night the road that connected the cottage with the lodge was rather dark during the day it was an easy sunlit walk. On the first night I had dinner in the lodge with other guests and my tour guide. I enjoyed a refreshing pinot noir on offer along with several cheese filled dates Alison prepared. Dinner was a set menu.

Another bedroom

The well equipped kitchen included a washer and dryer.

Andre and Alison served snacks and drinks at 6:30 p.m. sharp to everyone together before we dined at a shared table in the lodge main room. Because in the evening there were mosquitoes and sandflies, when we stepped out on the terrace to admire the sunset we were invited to apply repellent. At the conclusion of the meal, two guests climbed into the lodge hot tub in the back porch. I returned to Ferry Mans Cottage.

A view of Ferry Mans Cottage from across the manmade pond

The night of my arrival the owners explained that a photography team was scheduled for the following day, asking if I would mind if they photographed my cottage while they were there. That meant making myself absent from the cottage during the only full day I would spend at the property (check out was at 10 a.m. the following morning). I got the impression the photos were important to them so although it was inconvenient I agreed, ensuring my belongings remained packed before I left for breakfast at 8 a.m., earlier than I had planned to go out. Later I found out the photos were necessary because the property was for sale. The “Business will sell as a going concern and we will be involved in the handover to ensure all services and standards remain,” Alison replied by email when I asked about the listing.

Alison and Andre Gygax in the Birds Ferry Lodge kitchen

Inside Ferry Mans Cottage, including the dining table, fireplace, sofa, bathroom and kitchen

The main course at dinner

Perhaps my favorite feature of the handicapped friendly cottage was its serenity and its views to the onsite rain forest from the back, and to an expansive lawn and a pretty manmade pond from the front. Cottage amenities included WiFi (limited to 500 megabytes), television, fireplace, homemade cookies, fruit bowl, and well equipped kitchen, including a washer and dryer. I was strongly urged to hang my clothes on an exterior clothesline instead of using the dryer to conserve energy. Since they didn’t want to photograph the cottage with my clothes hanging from the clothesline the owners agreed to hang the clothes at the end of the photo shoot. When I returned that evening they were damp and crumpled in the hamper.

One of the many pretty flowers in the lodge’s kitchen garden

Children and “well behaved pets” were welcome in the cottage. Cottage guests could prepare their own dishes in their private kitchen or request meals in advance from the lodge. Alison used as many fruits and vegetables from her garden and ingredients from local producers as she could in the meals, she explained later. Breakfast consisted of continental options as well as cooked to order pancakes or eggs and sides.

Alison used as many fruits and vegetables from her garden and ingredients from local producers as she could in the meals.

On request it was possible to visit the kitchen garden and the rain forest. I visited the garden in the morning while the photography team was in my cottage. In the early evening, Andre guided me through the rain forest until we were caught by rain showers. He pointed out scented orchids, sterile moss, berries, rimu and beech trees.

During the day, the road that connected the cottage to the lodge was an easy walk although at night it was rather dark.

One of the property features I liked was that the owners were kind to the environment, recycled whenever possible, including plastic, metal, glass, cardboard and paper. They fed kitchen scraps to their chickens, harvested their own water, used solar water heating, and relied on a chemical free cleaning system.

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