Tiny inns provide path into real New Zealand B&Bs: Picking rhubarb, panning for gold and finding other interesting things on both islands.

June 23, 1996|By Robert Cooke | Robert Cooke,NEWSDAY

When Judy Thacker asked if I'd like to pick rhubarb from her garden for breakfast, I knew we were in the right place.

And when her husband, Kerry, yanked corks from three good New Zealand wines that night, followed by a bottle of champagne, all six guests at their bed and breakfast inn knew we were sampling the essence of New Zealand hospitality.

The restored farmhouse with its high-ceilinged rooms -- the Thackers call it Kawatea -- sits about a mile from the sea at Okains Bay, near Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, southeast of Christchurch. It was the most remote among 20 B&Bs we checked into during a three-week, 3,500-mile car trip through the North and South islands of New Zealand.

City to farm

These tiny inns, like the people who run them, vary tremendously in personality and appearance. A few -- as in Wellington, Dunedin and Picton -- are in town, with buses, restaurants and entertainment handy. Others, such as the ones in Rotorua and Okains Bay, are called "farmstays," meaning very rural and very quiet. These are good places to rest and chat with hosts, whom we now count as friends. These lively New Zealanders are full of advice on where to go and what to see, routes to take and roads to avoid. And good advice on dining. In Oamaru, for instance, Mark and Diana Taylor recommended the Last Post, an old post office turned restaurant, where we tried the cold boysenberry soup followed by roast pork. It was also one of the few places we found that served decaffeinated coffee. Richard and Ann Smith, owners of the Gables in Picton, were especially engaging. Ann regularly dashed out the door to pick up her guests when the ferry landed, and then spent time on the phone getting them dinner reservations.

To find these B&Bs, we relied mostly on the "New Zealand Bed and Breakfast Book," which is widely available at information centers and in some B&Bs. The guide is by Janet and James Thomas, published by Moonshine Press. But the book has no quality rating system; the owners write their own descriptions, and poetic license is allowed.

So it's wise to look before you commit. Some B&Bs are just homes with a spare bedroom to rent, a sideline to help make ends meet. Others are purpose-built, usually older houses remodeled to handle paying guests. We also did the ordinary tourist things. In a rubble-strewn stream near the Franz Josef Glacier, miner Tom O'Neill warned "keep the pan under water" as I shook and shimmied, trying to extract tiny gold flakes from a heap of soggy gravel. I'd rented his gold pan for an hour, expecting to make my fortune fast. No bonanza, of course, just a few tiny bits of gold, some fun, and plenty of sand-fly bites.

In Rotorua, on New Zealand's northern island, my wife, Sue, took a tourist's advice and scheduled a relaxing massage, half an hour for $26, at the Polynesian Pools geothermal spa.

Fascinated but clueless

At the nearby fairgrounds, meanwhile, hundreds of vividly painted, costumed Maori men and women competed -- stomping, dancing and singing at full volume -- in the national Maori festival. Folks in the crowded stands loved it; we foreigners were left fascinated and altogether clueless.

Despite the dangers of calories, cholesterol and the like, we ate, and ate, and ate some more. Great pancakes laced with chunks of apple and pear at Susan Williams' new B&B in Russel, New Zealand's first capital. Tender steaks, twice, at the Steak House in downtown Rotorua.

The visit to Milford Sound was, by itself, worth the whole trip. Sheer cliffs rising straight up out of the water pour lacy-thin waterfalls down into the sound. Fur seals -- almost exterminated a century ago by sealers -- now bask peacefully, undisturbed, on sunlit rocks.

Though the wind was howling when the Milford Monarch pulled out into the Tasman Sea, the day was sunny, and photographers had a field day. Locals say the sound is just as pretty in the rain -- the waterfalls really come alive. That is fortunate, because parts of Fiordland National Park get up to 300 inches of rain a year. The record, our bus driver said, is 24 inches in 24 hours.

In getting to Milford Sound, we left the driving to others. The bus, the boat tour and the lunch cost us about $130 for two. It is possible to drive yourself, but the road is quite narrow.

Most Milford tours start at Queenstown, a resort city that has its own set of attractions. Ride a gondola up the aerial tramway to Bob's Peak for a sweeping view of the town and Lake Wakatipu. We bought passage on an old steel-hull steamer, the Earnslaw, which takes a load of paying guests on an hourlong cruise across the lake to Walter Peak, a sheep station (ranch) for dinner.

The antique ship, too, is a gem. We sailed with a gang of retired Americans -- an alumni tour of about 50 people from various U.S. universities -- and most of the men, myself included, watched the crew shovel coal and keep the old steam engine wheezing.

Lodging near Franz Josef and Fox glaciers was scarce. But by sheer luck we spotted one "vacancy" sign, grabbed the room and got to stay in town for the night. That was fortunate, because it allowed us to book a helicopter ride to the top of the glaciers, where we landed on a bed of snow near the flanks of Mount Tasman.

Staying near the glaciers also gave us time to try gold panning. O'Neill, the miner, pointed out that coming up with an empty pan is no disgrace.

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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