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Wonderment and Wine

On South Island, Visitors Are Beginning to Discover Quality Vineyards and the Astonishing Beauty of the Marlborough Sounds

September 13, 1998|AMANDA JONES | Amanda Jones lives in the Bay Area. She last wrote about the Wodaabe people in Africa for the travel issue

In the poetic tongue of the Maori, the native race of New Zealand, there is a saying that translates to: "Where your feet first brush the earth, know that you are forever a people of that place."

I left my birthplace in New Zealand 15 years ago. I fled as a disgruntled college graduate, infuriated by the chauvinism and sneering at the provincialism, though I'd never actually seen much of the country. I moved to the United States but remained peripatetic, always in search of the next more extreme adventure. Over the years, the word "home" became a loose concept--describing my place of residence in California, or a tent I returned to at night, or any hotel room. My visits back to New Zealand were rare and dutiful in nature. I would fly into Auckland, stay within the city limits and leave as soon as filial decency permitted.

When I first arrived in this country, the average American's ignorance about New Zealand was staggering. New Zealand wasn't even on CNN's world weather map. Maybe it was winning the America's Cup, or perhaps it was the "no-nukes" standoff, but gradually people became aware of New Zealand. Or perhaps they realized it's only a 12-hour plane ride to one of the last underpopulated places on earth where the beauty hasn't been squandered or exploited.

My own sentiments have changed too. Last winter I had a baby, and suddenly my roots seemed very meaningful. I found myself hoping that my daughter had inherited a little of the wildness that flows in New Zealander blood, and I wished that she could grow up with the same freedoms

I had known as a child. It was time to go home for a real visit.

At the tail end of a drought summer, my daughter, Indigo, and I arrived in Auckland. I offered to take my mother on a holiday anywhere in New Zealand, just the three of us, her choice of destination. "Darling," she said, "there's really only one place I want to go, and that's the Marlborough province in the north of the South Island. Absolutely everyone's talking about it. The Sounds have unspoiled beaches and masses of native bush, and the wines in the Wairau Valley are fabulous."

New Zealand consists of two islands--North and South--with 3.6 million inhabitants, a mere 25% of whom live on the larger South Island. I grew up in Auckland (pop. 1 million) on the North Island. For years, North Islanders felt that a vacation meant going abroad, and those who did venture to the South Island usually skipped Marlborough, heading farther south to Queenstown (a touristy ski resort) or the Milford Track (known for bush hiking). My mother and I fell into this category.

South Islanders are testy about the distinction between the islands. In fact, they refer to the South as "The Mainland." They think of the North as an overpopulated purgatory and its occupants as city-slicking lightweights. Although they are loath to admit it, Northerners are nowadays secretly proud of the South Island. It is better endowed with fiords, mountains, sounds, lakes, deserts and pastureland--all within a day's drive from the ocean.


My mother is a beautiful, vital woman who has very high standards. Her expectations of quality and service while traveling can exceed the bounds of human potential. Often, when something disappoints her, she reacts by what New Zealanders call "throwing a wobbly." These can be most embarrassing. Traveling with her and the baby would be quite different from dodging cobras in the African desert, something I knew how to cope with. Trepidation gnawed at me as we struck out for Blenheim, the tiny town that stands at the heart of Marlborough's Wairau (pronounced WHY-raow) Valley, an area traditionally devoted to sheep farming.

It's hard to say if it is the expanding wine industry or the belated recognition of stupendous beauty that started Marlborough's recent tourism boom. New Zealand once produced wines that we quite aptly called "plonk," a substance similar to what's sold beneath screw-tops in this country. Today, a dozen wineries, many from the Wairau Valley, are seizing awards and seducing oenophiles worldwide.

Rain hissed to the earth as we stepped off the plane in Blenheim (pop. 25,000), great silver chunks shearing through an opaque fog. New Zealanders have to live with weather like this a good deal of the year. There's a reason why New Zealand is so green. Wairau means "many waters" in Maori, which is lyrical climatology. Despite this, the Wairau Valley usually clocks the most sunshine hours of the entire country.

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