Luxury Travel Review
Article and photos by Elena del Valle
We spent a few minutes at the hidden valley of Campbell’s Kingdom (click on photo to expand image)
One of the activities I most remember from a trip to New Zealand this year was a 60-minute Doubtful Sound Gold Star Flight. Although it was originally supposed to be the twice as long Dusky & Doubtful Sound flight poor weather caused it to be severely shortened. To say the flight was bumpy is an understatement. Because of the conditions in the sky everything was gray and wet. Despite that the scenery was magnificent in every direction. From my window side seat I saw oversize natural beauty with no sign of human habitation as far as my eyes could reach. It was one of the highlights of my Intrepid tour in the South Island.
The helicopter picked us up at Cabot Lodge, where I was staying
Our pilot Kim Hollows, founder of Fiordland Helicopters
With the arrival of the storm I had become convinced my only chance to see the famed Fiordland National Park would vanish. According to Fiorland.org, the park is over 1.2 million hectares large, and encompasses mountain, lake, fiord and rainforest environments. Due to the remote location and my tight itinerary it wouldn’t have been possible to reschedule the flight. When my guide described the weather the day prior to the flight I crossed my fingers that we might have a chance to see the park. After two or three delays I figured it wouldn’t happen so when the chopper landed on the green lawn of Cabot Lodge, where I was staying, I was elated.
We flew in a late model AS350 B2 Squirrel.
Minutes after Veronika Vermeulen, my guide, and I rushed out to meet Kim Hollows, chief executive officer and founder of Fiordland Helicopters (K.E. Hollows Ltd, 6 Milford Crescent, Te Anau 9600, New Zealand, +64 (0)3 249 7575, www.fiordlandhelicopters.co.nz, firstname.lastname@example.org) we were airborne. Given the turbulence I appreciated that as we departed our pilot said little beyond an initial greeting and boarding instructions. His quiet and energetic demeanor inspired confidence. Kim’s attention was on flying that day. Mine was on the view and taking photos while praying that my stomach would keep it together until we returned.
Fiordland National Park
The highlight of the flight were expansive views of Doubtful Sound, the second largest of the fourteen fiords in the park. Since Doubtful is not as popular as it’s sister fiord Milford Sound, the the flight was meant to make visitors feel “like you are alone in the middle of nowhere.” It did. I’m not sure when we crossed the main divide. I remember the tall unnamed waterfall in the hidden valley of Campbell’s Kingdom because it was the only place we landed. We flew in a late model AS350 B2 Squirrel. The company declined to disclose the hours flown or the year of manufacture “due to privacy.” The aircraft could accommodate up to six passengers with a maximum internal weight of 650 kilos.
The scenery was awe inspiring.
Kim obtained his commercial pilot’s license in 1980. Although he has flown throughout New Zealand he has spent most of his air time in the lower South Island and Fiordland, according to a staff person at his office who later responded to questions via email. In addition to scenic helicopter flights he has been involved in deer recovery, commercial helicopter operations, filming, photography, and work for the Department of Conservation. He founded K.E. Hollows Ltd, now known as Fiordland Helicopters, in 1986. The spokesperson indicated the company’s safety record was impeccable. Relying on his vast knowledge and passion for the region he made Ata Whenua – Shadowlands, a film that shows daily at the Fiordland Cinema nearby. The owners of Cabot Lodge kindly made it available so the other lodge guests and I could watch it on my return from the flight. The clear weather conditions showcased in the film made me further appreciate the awe inspiring scenery. Should I return to New Zealand I would love to include the Dusky & Doubtful Sound flight in my itinerary. I will recommend it to friends traveling to the South Island.
Article and photos by Scott S. Smith
The entrance to the recently remodeled Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort
The first Hilton my wife, Sandra Wells, and I ever stayed at was the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort (633 East Cabrillo Boulevard, Santa Barbara, California 93103, +1 805 – 564-4333, text +1 805 – 465-9770, fax +1 805 – 564-4964, reservations 800/879-2929, https://www.hiltonsantabarbarabeachfrontresort.com/) in June 2019. In 2018, it had undergone a $15 million redesign and renovation. It had previously been a Double Tree, a Hilton brand, part of its 30-year partnership with the family of actor Fess Parker. The location was where a roundhouse for the Southern Pacific Railroad was built in 1911 and demolished in 1982 to make way for the resort, opened in 1986 (hence, the name of the hotel’s breakfast room, The Roundhouse).
The initial view of the hotel was striking: it had three levels and was spread out over 24 acres with large lawns, with a pale exterior and red tile roof, a design inspired from the Spanish heritage of California. Santa Barbarans like their buildings to fit into the environment, rather than being tall monuments to corporate egos that demand the highest possible viewpoint. The hotel was within easy walking distance (about one mile) of Santa Barbara’s quaint downtown.
The lobby was open, airy and spacious with white and pastel colors.
Our check-in went smoothly, with well-informed and courteous associates trained, as general manager Chris Inman told us, “to get to know our guests so we can provide exceptional service with sincerity and authenticity.” Because we were two hours early for the hotel’s 4 p.m. check-in time (for an extra charge it was possible to book a room as early as 7 a.m.) we had to wait an hour while the staff completed the cleaning of Room 336. It was a King Bed Resort View Balcony in the Gardenia building connected to the lobby, priced at $335 that particular night. It came with a Daily Resort Charge card listing amenities, such as a two-hour bicycle rental ($30 value), basic Internet access for two (worth $12.95 and premium was available for an extra $15.95). Standard WiFi was ubiquitous throughout the hotel. Our room rate also included two bottles of bottled water in the room (a $7 value). Self-parking cost $25 a day (valet parking was $35). Shuttles provided complimentary transport from the Amtrak station and the Santa Barbara International Airport from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. There was an electric vehicle charging station.
The view of East Beach from the Rotunda outside the lobby
The lobby was open, airy and spacious with white and pastel colors, perhaps an appropriate entry for a destination renowned for its mild climate and sophisticated, artsy culture. The hallway walls and carpets also were in subdued hues of turquoise, gold, gray, white with seascape paintings on the walls of public spaces and our room (the hallway walls were bare). The design was meant to provide a feeling of being in a calming oasis from the turbulence of the outside world, according to promotional materials.
Beyond the far doors of the lobby was the 20,000-square-foot open-air Plaza del Sol, suitable for dining and dancing, with stairs to the second level Rotunda, providing views of East Beach just beyond the lawn and highway (on the other side of the property are the low and lovely Santa Ynez Mountains).
Our spacious (450 square feet) Hilton room
Some of the furniture in our room
In the lobby was the Fess Parker Wine Tasting Room with a self-service wine dispenser. At The Set restaurant there were photos from Parker’s career on the walls. He is best-remembered as the star of Disney’s Davy Crockett mini-series on ABC in 1955-56 (he was discovered by Walt himself and in 1991 was named a Disney Legend); and portraying Daniel Boone in an NBC series 1964-70. He bought hotels and a winery, which now has 1,500 acres of vineyards. His son and daughter run the company. He passed away in 2010. The logo on their bottles is a golden coonskin cap, a reminder of his most famous roles. The winery appeared under another name in the movie Sideways.
Partial view of the fitness center
The main floor had: business desk with a computer and printer, ATM, car rental desk, concierge, gift shop, fitness center, and salon and spa. The resort was pet-friendly. There was a $50 non-refundable cleaning charge per pet.
Our room was 450 square feet in size with an open design. It had the following security features: an automatic door closer, electronic locks, a secondary locking device, a thumb dead bolt, a wide-angle door viewer, and a hidden safe. We found the king-size mattress and pillows comfortable. We requested that our room not be cleaned during our overnight stay. We dispensed with the turn-down service, and noted the commendable policy that unless otherwise requested, linens were changed every three days to minimize impact on the environment.
Furnishings included beige oversized loveseat sofa bed, armchair, desk with chair, and large chest of drawers. In the closet there was an iron and full-size ironing board. Among the amenities was a landline with speaker phone and voicemail. In addition to the empty mini refrigerator, there was a bucket for the ice machine in the hallway next to the elevator. The flat-screen TV was a 55 inches LG LED with HBO, ESPN, and other premium cable channels. It was easy to use and turned on quickly.
The walls, ceiling, and carpet in our room adhered to the resort’s color scheme of white, beige, tan, gray, and turquoise. We liked that drawing the drapes made the room dark for sound sleeping (we had to cover the lighted clock when we were not using it as a night light). There were copies of USA Today and Santa Barbara Magazine in our room. There was a complimentary welcome tray with nuts, dried fruit, and cheese.
The sink was deep and wide (9 inches x 14 inches), the water turned hot immediately, and there was plenty of counter space. The toilet flushed strongly. I found the bathroom lighting fine, while some hotels try to be sophisticated by setting it too soft. Sandra felt it was too bright and would have liked to have a magnifying mirror for makeup. The shower was easy to use (unlike some at top hotels that are annoyingly complicated), powerful, and the water came out hot quickly. Sandra would have preferred a wider spray option. The hairdryer was the powerful Conair 1875. The shampoo, conditioner, and soap were Crabtree & Evelyn. We forgot to bring toothbrushes, toothpaste, and a nail file. It would have been helpful to find those amenities in our room.
The pool view from our balcony
From our private balcony, furnished with a small round table and two chairs, we had a partial view of East Beach on the Pacific Ocean. The 85 feet by 50 feet swimming pool, was by far the largest we have ever seen at any hotel we have stayed at. The pool was open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. We had to delay our normal bedtime to 10 p.m. because the noise from the pool was so loud.
According to promotional materials, the hotel complied with the guidelines of Americans with Disabilities Act in guest and public areas from the restaurants to the fitness center. There was a handicapped lift for those who needed help entering the pool. Our room had a 32 inch clearance width; there were Braille room numbers and closed-captioning on TV; we understood that flashing lights would accompany the sound of fire alarms in public areas.
The Set was a bistro-style restaurant and full bar (featuring Fess Parker photos on the walls), with a patio for al fresco dining overlooking, in the background, the sea, and ever-burning outdoor fire pits. It was open from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., including a Yappy Hour at 4 p.m. when pooches received complimentary dog biscuits (Happy Hour was 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.). The food was locally-sourced and inventive. The restaurant did not accept reservations. Because we were on a tight schedule, we had pre-ordered some menu items. We arrived early and changed our order. Anthony Fanella, director of food and beverage for the resort, ensured our new choices were prepared on time (he answered some of our questions about the hotel in general and introduced us to the Rotunda, which we might have overlooked, the perfect vantage point for a photo of East Beach).
Al fresco dining
We shared a delicious and Tomato Soup au Gratin with aged cheddar ($12). We also tried the Tomato and Peach Salad, with Burrata mozzarella, pickled cherry tomato, arugula, mint, preserved lemon, olive oil, and aged balsamic ($17). I had the Kobe Burger with the plant-based Hungry Planet patty. I found it to be a perfect knock-off of a beef burger ($20). Sandra ordered the Quinoa Fricassee, with toy-box tomatoes, olives, caramelized onions, haricots verts, carrots, cauliflower, preserved lemon, piquillo peppers coulis, and thyme ($19). Our wait-person, Jay, was friendly and helpful. She had only been there a week and came from a popular high-end restaurant. We had a tasty and pleasant meal.
We shared a delicious Tomato Soup au Gratin with aged cheddar.
For breakfast we had the buffet in The Roundhouse ($58 for two plus tax and tip). I liked the Royal Coffee, while Sandra liked the chamomile and green tea blend. She enjoyed a custom-made vegetable-and-cheese omelet. She found the toaster too slow, yet it could suddenly burn, if not watched carefully. I liked the organic granola blend and honey milk, the granola and berry yogurt parfait, plain Greek yogurt with honey, and something I had never tried, overnight oats, which had been soaked in milk. We also sampled some of the ripe fruit and juices.
In the morning we had the buffet in The Roundhouse.
The property was a promising introduction to the new Hilton brand because the location and design were matched to support a relaxing and enjoyable experience with friendly and helpful staff, rather than formal and purely reactive, as at some top hotels. We are eager to try out some of the many other types of properties within the brand and the amenities we did not have an opportunity to experience this time.
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, email@example.com) 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.
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.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com), 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.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.”
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
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.