Whakapapa

Tongariro National Park was a scenic forty minute drive from our haven at Motuoapa Bay. New Zealand’s first national park, Tongariro was gifted to the people by Te Heuheu Tukino IV, the Paramount Chief of local Māori tribe Ngati Tuwharetoa, in September 1887. The 80,000 hectare park is centred around three sacred volcanic peaks. A lookout on the way to our destination, Whakapapa Village, rewarded us with views of Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe, the latter (on the right) may be recognised by The Lord of the Rings fans as Mount Doom.

From this height, the sweeping panorama across the Central Plateau was spectacular.

We parked the car at the village and considered our options, deciding on the Sky Waka gondola ride and buffet lunch combo. Mount Ruapehu is the centrepiece of the national park, the North Island’s highest peak is home to the largest ski field in New Zealand. The terrain in March is quite different to that during ski season, it is hard to imagine the Rock Garden Chairlift conveying skiers on the advanced beginners run.

The $25 million Sky Waka gondola opened in July 2019 to transport 2,400 people an hour, a distance of 1.8km, up the northern slopes of Mount Ruapehu. It really didn’t feel as though we were travelling at 6 metres per second.

Back to The Lord of the Rings, scenes of Mordor were filmed on the rugged landscape of Whakapapa ski field and the slopes of Mount Ruapehu, including the scene where Isildur cuts off Sauron’s finger.

Our ride culminated at Knoll Ridge Chalet, a multi-storey eatery built in 2009 to replace the original café that was destroyed by fire earlier in the year.

The magnificent Pinnacles Ridge was shrouded in cloud when we arrived and it was a bit cool for alfresco dining.

The Pinnacles Restaurant was warm and welcoming, the extensive use of timber created the feeling of a traditional mountain chalet.

Lunch at the highest restaurant in New Zealand, at 2,020 metres above sea level, was delicious.

Mount Ruapehu is the largest active volcano in New Zealand and has three major peaks. There is a beautiful carving representing Paretetaitonga, the peak that wards off the southern winds.

By the time we finished lunch, the clouds had lifted from Pinnacles Ridge

and Sky Waka was the only way down

with more stupendous scenery to absorb.

Antico Borgo

As soon as we arrived in Seggiano, we knew Antico Borgo was the place to partake of lunch. The blissful setting in Piazza Umberto guaranteed a relaxing repast.

Within the renovated building, dating back to 1878, there are three apartments offering bed and breakfast accommodation. The Taverna is on the ground floor and the interior is astounding. Carved entirely out of stone on which the town rests, there are several rooms, all softly lit to evoke an intimate atmosphere.

A stairway leads down, presumably to a storage area and there is another room dedicated to the tasting of Seggianese olive oil.

We dined alfresco under the curious gaze of a handsome observer from a first floor balcony.

The menu enticed us with typical Tuscan dishes, spoilt for choice we selected Pici con Ragu and Bistecca Maiale.  

I think our onlooker would have liked to share the succulent pork steak.

Hellyers Road Distillery

With our favourite restaurant, Bayviews, closed for annual holiday, we chose an alternative venue for a mid-week lunch with a very special friend. Hellyers Road Distillery is located in the hinterland behind Burnie with fabulous views across the Emu Valley to the Dial Range beyond.

Behind the walls of the architecturally designed visitor’s centre, interactive tours inform visitors about the origins of the brand and provide guests with the opportunity to pour and wax seal their own bottle of whisky. We have yet to experience the Whisky Walk, something to pencil in for the not too distant future.

We were met in the lobby by a wonderful paper sculpture of namesake, Henry Hellyer and his dog. Hellyer came to Tasmania in 1826 as architect and surveyor for the Van Diemen’s Land Company. He is credited with opening up much of the northwest to settlement and the road we find the distillery on was, at one time, named in his honour.

There is opportunity to relax for a casual whisky tasting treat

and a retail area for those tempted to continue the indulgence at home.

Expansive windows make the most of the rural panorama

and landscaped gardens surrounding the restaurant.

Our meal choice took a while, with so many enticing options on offer but our wine selection was easy, Josef Chromy is always a winner. I finally decided on Five Spice Roasted Pork Belly; Scottsdale pork belly rubbed with five spice, soy, and garlic, roasted and served on buckwheat soba noodles and shredded Asian greens. Finished with tempura mushrooms and an aromatic ginger and chilli broth.

Michael wisely chose something else in fear of random coriander (he was right but I love coriander) and went for The House Special; potted pie of north-west coast beef, braised in Hellyers Road Original Whisky, caramelised onion, and aromatic vegetables, topped with flaky pastry and served with thick cut rosemary scented potato wedges, crusty sourdough and butter. Our lovely friend was happy with Braised Duck Leg with Chorizo Fettuccine; duck leg slow cooked in tomato, onion and herbs, roasted and served with house made fettuccine tossed in tomato sugo with olives, capers, chorizo, chilli and preserved lemon. Finished with parmesan and fresh herbs.

A magnificent rainbow brightened the landscape outside

as our desserts had a similar effect inside. I couldn’t resist the Lemon Delicious Pudding with blueberry compote, served with a rolled up brandy snap filled with lemon mascarpone cream.

My accomplices indulged in a Mini Apple & Raspberry Cake; sautéed Tasmanian apples topped with raspberries, baked in a light fluffy sweet pastry and served with pouring cream and raspberry coulis and a Warm Whisky Raisin Brownie served with Anvers dark chocolate mousse, double cream and VDL cookies and cream ice cream.

I was especially surprised to discover, on paying the bill, a complementary bottle of coffee cream liqueur. Along with a jar of Whisky Relish (a must in any pantry) and a branded whisky tumbler, my collection is complete …. for now.

lunch at Taupo

After our diversions to Huka Falls and Craters of the Moon, we eventually arrived at Taupo in time for lunch. The lovely town has a peaceful setting on the north-eastern shore of Lake Taupo, the largest lake by surface area in New Zealand, measuring 616 square kilometres. The lake is in the caldera of the Taupo Volcano and has a perimeter of approximately 193 kilometres and a maximum depth of 186 metres. It is enormous.

We strolled along the lakefront perusing the fare on offer at various establishments and decided to dine at Lakehouse. Coincidentally, the name of our next accommodation was The Lake House, we took that as a positive sign along with the intriguing  advertisement, presumably for a local beverage.

We claimed a seat, alfresco, to observe the activity on and over the water as well as an unusual art installation comprising a series of red bicycles parked along the esplanade.

We were enthused to discover an extensive range of local wine and craft beer to complement the stone grill meals and gourmet dishes, with food sourced from local producers.

Mata Brewery started off in 2004 with a passion for home brewing and, after positive feedback from friends, soon became a family affair. Students created the Mata brand and with the fortuitous find of second hand brewing equipment for sale, the first brewery was set up in Kawerau, Eastern Bay of Plenty. The enterprise grew over the next 12 years and in 2017, moved to Whakatane where new creations and seasonal releases augment the original beer styles.

The Epic Brewing Company from Auckland and Te Aro, a small batch brewery in Wellington offer more choices on tap.

The eye-catchingly named Rocky Knob presumably refers to Mount Maunganui where craft brewers, Bron and Stu Marshall, started their business as a hobby.

Set amongst vineyards in the Marlborough region, multi-award winning Moa Brewing Company is one of the pioneers of craft beer in New Zealand.

I couldn’t resist a glass of the rhubarb cider (or two) to enjoy with the delicious bacon wrapped chicken breast with asparagus.

Unfortunately, Lakehouse closed their doors in April 2021. With the lease up for renewal, the sudden passing of a family member and the effects of a certain virus on tourism, the decision was made to cease trading.

Cortona revisited

We fell in love with Cortona on our first trip to Italy in 2014 and, even though it was a two hour drive from Montepozzo, we just had to revisit. Yes, it is another Etruscan hilltown but from an elevation of 600 metres, the panorama across the Val di Chiana and Lake Trasimeno is breathtaking.

The alluvial valley covers 2,300 square kilometres and is home to the Chianina cattle, the largest breed in the world and one of the oldest. The beef is sold at premium prices by approved butchers and you will pay handsomely for Bistecca alla Fiorentina in any ristorante.

The Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie was built on the site of a former tannery where, in 1484, an image of the Madonna and Child, painted on the wall of a basin used for tanning leather, began to perform miracles. Because of the steep terrain and presence of a stream, the building wasn’t completed until 1525 and the original icon is still visible on the high altar in the church.

We made our way along narrow stone streets

to Piazza della Repubblica, the centre of the city since Roman times. There was so much to take in around the piazza; gorgeous shops, medieval architecture and sunshine.

We enjoyed coffee & pastries while being serenaded from the steps of the Palazzo Comunale. The town hall was built in the 12th century on the ruins of the Forum of the Roman City and was extended in the 1500s.

Pietro Berrettini was a 17th century Italian Baroque painter and architect. Although he worked mainly in Rome and Florence, he was known by the name of his native town, Pietro da Cortona.

We wandered around Piazza Signorelli

before exploring the shops along Via Nazionale

and celebrating our purchases with an Aperol Spritz in Piazza Garibaldi.

We retraced our steps to lunch at Caffè degli Artisti, seated in the street we savoured our surroundings as much as the food.

Starting with bruschetta, we decided on ravioli with butter & sage, pici with cream, porcini mushrooms, sausage & truffle sauce and pici with walnuts, gorgonzola cheese & pear.

Reluctant to leave, we returned to the car and drove to the top of the town to see Fortezza del Girifalco and the fascinating Basilica di Santa Margherita but that is another story.