New Zealand: coffee and water and wine and wildness

A stern metaphysical spine runs through this lovely land and its very particular people.
Crosscut archive image.

The Wairarapa Valley, near Martinborough

A stern metaphysical spine runs through this lovely land and its very particular people.

We went to New Zealand last month for a two-week tour. It is a bit difficult to describe — the differences to the Pacific Northwest are in many cases ones of degrees or angles. There are the obvious differences, of course. It is now tomorrow there, less four hours, and it is the start of Fall in the Southern Hemisphere, mists and fruit, fresh new apples and pears, precisely opposed to our emergence from Winter. Their Winter is our Summer as their Easter is their Autumn. The topsy turvy is disorienting but finally, helpful: If you are crossing many streets on foot (they drive on the British side of the road, the left), it is no small matter to tell your brain to first look right.

A subtler difference: New Zealand is the old world. Not as in cobbled French alleyways but as in the 1950s and '60s and even '70s. They do not have malls, partly by choice and partly by time and population. As a result, their cities are the center and they have book shops and stationery shops and little drug stores and butchers and dress makers and citizens. You must wait in a queue to buy books. I wanted the new Stieg Larsson volume three, already in a handsome paperback though it was not yet out in America.

But it is coffee that makes clear the NZ variations, for the Kiwis, and they are proud to be called, love their coffee. They love it straight and strong, they understand its sociality and worth, they count on it. Many of the coffee shops roast their own beans, even the tiny stand-up bars, and the arguments are more about where the beans are from than how the drinks are made. Starbucks has only a few New Zealand shops, since it is a rough and tough league to break into.

And intensely loyal. Theirs is a different sense of the coffee shop, more bustle and brawn than Seattle's housewife or grunge or worker style, more like a morning beer bar, without the liquor. And without the frappuccino. They have flat black, short whites, long whites, some food, and no Wifi and considerably fewer drinks taken to go. It is business and it is social and it is bustling, people up and talking to another table and how ya doin', mate?

At L'Affare, the coffee shop in Wellington, it is like a pub with coffee only and not an inkling that perfect foam is prissy. Waiters swerved all through the joint, we set up a time to go fishing with two neighbors who stopped in, the roaster is right up there and the shipping department as well. L'Affare found a home espresso machine they liked in Italy and bought the company; now the machine, the Rocket, is made and distributed in NZ. It is a little tank, the Rocket, with a pull-up lever for the start and two spouts, one milk and one for boiled water.

Even out in the country, the coffee was wonderful and straightforward. The bakery in Hokitika, on the West Coast, looked like Iowa in the '50s and the staff looked like the same Iowans, but the coffee machine was Italy 2010. In the National Park, at the Resource Center, near the glacier, the coffee was perfect, swirled in a ceramic mug. It is, as with being friendly and helpful, what they do. In Italy, one of the best coffee shops is at the railway station, in any town. New Zealand is like that.

There are two islands to New Zealand, the North and South, so of course two West and two East Coasts. There is ferry service between the two main islands, a two-hour trip. We started in the North, at Auckland, the business center, and went downtown to catch a smaller ferry out to the vineyards, 30 minutes away. The wine business, as in the Northwest, gathered its forces 25 years ago. And, now, it is perhaps the hippest and most elegant commerce in all of New Zealand, having for its resource 10 full wine-growing regions spread over the length of the two islands, shallow clays up north to silty loams in the southern Otago Valley.

We went off for Sunday lunch to Mudbrick Vineyards, up the hill from the passenger ferry by van, a very fashionable island and fashionable vineyard. The end of summer, the gardens were fat with tomatoes and basil and rows of herbs and fruit. The restaurant is open every day, terraced and open-doored, central casting to a thousand weddings, looking back toward Auckland. There are six others vineyards on this island, tucked amid lovely, modern weekend homes, vans motoring every which way, gardens as border and hedge. Drinking of two Septembers, the very sweet spot of any Autumn, is in ways illicit.

Water and wine is a wonderful combination of good fortune to these New Zealanders. They have both in true profusion, bright and clear, and they know well to take care of them. They do not even sell purified waters or Coca Cola's phony Dasani or such. They distinguish the varied kinds by location, and taste. Even the water on the New Zealand Air flights is from a source, the famous springs at Waikoropupu, near Takaka. Pupu Springs, they call it. We hiked out after a lunch to take a look. Our guide said when they were kids, it was the perfect swimming hole. It was always sacred space, this spring in the center of the woods.

If you go to their best food store, Moore Wilson in Wellington, right at the store's entrance is an artesian water pump, both to drink and fill bottles from, along with a long description that this is the best and oldest water in the land and a gift to you. Inside the shop, there are waters from all over New Zealand, each in particular. At the Art Museum cafe, they had bottled a water they especially liked, called Antipodes.

Particular, the New Zealanders are; they are extraordinarily particular. Not peculiar, not that at all, but particular, and relentlessly so. They love their dogs and their cricket and their rugby and their driveways and their beech trees and their birds and their fences and their pinots (noir and gris), and their museums and their libraries — not only their public libraries but each person's library. They take you down into their gullies, behind the field and garden, where they are clearing spaces to sit by the stream. They are pulling out the pine trees that some fool imported 100 years ago, a foreign tree that does not share well and shows up all over the landscape, like an English cousin ruining the group photo. A trim lot, the Kiwis, and rather withering to the unmoved or the slacker.

There is a stern, metaphysical spine that runs the length of this land, its marrow drawn from the Maori tribe that crashed ashore as first settlers in New Zealand 800 years ago, landing on the southwest coast after a remarkable journey from Polynesia. The Maori, whose name means normal or natural, were the only settlers until the 1700s. Somehow they managed to stay at almost constant war with each other, creating vast tales of tribal collisions and decimation. Fierce, proud, stunning in appearance and spirit, the sense of the Maori affects everything in New Zealand. It is a willfulness and intent that marks every level of New Zealand, every level of the population.

"You learn quickly" said one international rugby player, "to not watch the Maori and their white teammates do the haka [the fierce shouting war dance] before a match. No one wants to play them after that!"

The Maori are not naturally inclined to be investment bankers and the investment bankers are not naturally inclined to be Maori, but on this island, both instincts are top-rated and hankered for. There is bungee jumping all over the world now but it did not exist before the two Kiwis down by Queenstown picked one of the most unfriendly chasm bridges in the world to jump off. Think or say what you might, bungee jumping off a lonely bridge has some weird relation to natives jumping off cliffs and waterfalls — it is a sort of white man's answer to the unspoken Maori force. Yo, dude, we jumped right at the rocks! Ironically, bungee jumping has created a financial industry out of that wager and catapulted one very stern steel bridge, a stranger's bypass, into tourist legend and goldmine.

The Wairarapa has the ache of Scotland, the elegance of Kentucky farmland, the water and streams of Cape Breton, and the sweet feel of Napa Valley. It is New Zealand at its most elegant, composed, and natural form, with long dry summers and a soft Autumn, with vineyards at both sides of the road, each straining for the perfect pinot noir or pinot gris.

We flew down to Wellington, the capital, once jet lag had folded into visitor lag. Wellington is one third the size of Auckland's 1.3 million people but three times as cocky. ("No one visits Auckland for Auckland.") It is famous for its wind and arts and music and Peter Jackson films and the Flight of the Conchords and earthquakes and hills and willfulness.

It may be the best place to go walking or running at dawn in the whole world, whether with your dog, your book group or as a stranger. The paths and streets are alive with others, from every direction, and the hills and turns and trees, the wind and the sunrise, make it a dramatic start. They say you can walk everywhere in Wellington, for nowhere is very far; the views will crisscross bays and mountains in a couple directions, a sort of San Francisco of the Southern Hemisphere. Everyone will say good morning but very quickly. Three quarters of the people living downtown walk to work — first, the exercise, then the cafe, then to task. Even so, the roads are full in the early morning and then for an hour at night.

From Wellington, it is a 90-minute drive, up and over the Rimutakas in the east, down into the remarkable Wairarapa Valley. Not an easy drive. There had been a train system, called the Fell, enlisted specifically for the 1:15 grade slope. (You can visit the Fell Engine Museum in the Valley and see the only remaining center-rail train in the world.) There is now a tunnel for the train route, but for 100 years, starting in 1878, you were hauled over the mountain like ore. The road still wind ups and over the summit; there are no guard rails but there are poles to mark the edge.

As you come down the slope, you see why they fussed. The Wairarapa has the ache of Scotland, the elegance of Kentucky farmland, the water and streams of Cape Breton, and the sweet feel of Napa Valley. It is New Zealand at its most elegant, composed, and natural form, with long dry summers and a soft Autumn, with vineyards at both sides of the road, each straining for the perfect pinot noir or pinot gris. It is a valley that stretches out time. We sat in the shade of Wendy Campbell's French Bistro after lunch while they picked through the spinach leaves to ready for a full house dinner.

A perfect time to visit — the new grapes would not be in for a couple weeks, kids were in school, Carla took us into the Palliser warehouse to sample some of the future reds. We tried bold ones, and shy ones, talked about the price of French oak and the stories of wines that, like thoroughbreds, emerged as champions. She had been an accountant but now she was keeping track of a much more romantic ledger.

We left the Wairarapa in the morning, stuffing pears, four kinds of apples, red onions, and herbs in the pack for our trip, heading to the West Coast of the South Island. When you are headed there, people say stuff like, remember, no matter how it looks, don't go swimming; or, hope the weather holds; or, don't forget to fill up. Everyone says, don't miss the glaciers but no one suggests a bakery or a restaurant. It is the wild side, the side to the Tasman Sea, the side to waves and rock and forest, the side the Maori first crashed upon. It is the still primitive of New Zealand. It starts at Karamea because there are no roads after Karamea.

The mountains, called the Southern Alps, kept this western coast unexplored until late in the 1800 when the Maori, hunting for Pounamu, the elegant jade or greenstone, found gold as well. Six months later there were 1,800 prospectors. There was gold, some say there is still gold, but the rush only lasted three years up against the sandflies and the weather and the isolation. The prospectors left but the towns stayed. Coal was found, a very particular high grade bituminous coal, and that is still the major industry on the Coast. The coal burns so cleanly, and is of such a grade, that the only customer are the Japanese, and they buy all of it.

Not many lands have a glacier to show off from the Coast Road, and New Zealand has two of them to attract every form of visiting, from trampers to tour buses to motorcyclers and ten-speeders.

No one ever celebrated the food of coal towns. On the other hand, no one ever doubted the seriousness of a miner. We caught a ride with the high school bus driver, in his van, down to Westport and hooked up with our rental car at a gas station just before dark. We had about an hour before there would be no light at all, man or nature, and just did find the Bayhouse Restaurant, out on the rocks, uphill from enough surf to break down a horde of boulders into a surfing inlet.They had every NZ wine, and South Island duck and local lamb and green-shelled mussels. The Coast seemed in fine form, even if it would be weeks before you would see another sunset.

There were miles to go, 900 kilometers. The road is perfect but it is only two lanes, one each way. It follows down the West Coast, unless it simply cannot. You can settle in but only a cold fool would not stop along the way. Somehow, New Zealand has decided that each of the stops should be a vignette, played elegantly. If you pull off at Pancake Rocks and Blowhole, the trail will meander quietly through the high reeds until suddenly you are at the rocks, crossing a rock bridge with the waves, hundreds of feet below, bursting up to your height. It is difficult to describe the care and detail — in signage, path, site, sensation — that has been taken.

Or the blue pools, as the highway meanders through a forest, a modest title but a 30-minute walk down into other trees to a lovely one-person suspension bridge high over the Makarora River, the blue glacier-watered pools, turning on themselves. Or the glaciers, the Fox and the Franz Josef, that come down to just before the very ocean, the glacier march to the Tasman Sea. Not many lands have a glacier to show off from the Coast Road, and New Zealand has two of them to attract every form of visiting, from trampers to tour buses to motorcyclers and ten-speeders.

To accommodate the many forms, New Zealand has brilliantly decided to slow everyone up. The entrance road, ten miles of it up to the glacier, has 18 single-lane bridges on it and the lane with right of way alternates bridge by bridge. Even the single lane is rocky and slowed for the bikes and hikers. No matter how they try, no one can hurry.

One last stretch southward before we would leave the Coast, heading into Haast as the sunset began. For an hour, it seems perhaps the most beautiful road in the world, with Lombardy poplars at the landside edge and cliffs and long beaches and the sun to the west. There was not a person on the road but it truly seemed it would lead to the most elegant settlement of our South Island journey. And, in fact, in the 1870s, Europeans must have felt the very same for they settled in Haast, to tame and settle. But the environment never budged and the Jackson Bay Settlement is only a cemetery.

There is little in Haast — two motels, a 12-point reindeer fenced next to one of them, a cafe with antlers above it and a well lighted coke machine where the road turns. Haast is the vast victory of the land and the sea, a true World Heritage site and if you want to know what that means, bring your pack and boots, you have some tramping to do.

We headed inland to Wanaka, the Sun Valley of the South Island and New Zealand, a couple hours east. You are leaving the crash of waves and rock and begin to cross trout stream after trout stream, through the woods and finally out into the valley of Mount Aspiring National Park, more Wildlife Heritage siting but a different sort. It is the soft summer day, clear to every direction, and now the nights quickly cooled. There is almost no sound of birds here; it has been too dry. The sheer force and single-mindedness of the coast, which had hung so powerfully upon us, is now stretched out across pasture and vineyards, across four seasons of a very intricate land.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Peter Miller

Peter Miller is owner of Peter Miller Books, a store in Seattle specializing in architecture and design books. You can reach him in care of