Hawke's Bay Winery Cycle Ride
Monday, February 8
After a much-needed full night's sleep in a real bed, the first truly full day of our trip to New Zealand dawned. Time to get ready to do.... something. But what?
Staying at a central base on the North Island meant that we had freedom to re-arrange our itinerary of sights as necessary (to accommodate for weather, peoples' energy levels, etc). The night before, we had been tracking the local weather, and had determined that today we'd have a mostly cloudy day with the chance of some showers. This meant it wasn't an ideal day for hiking in the mountains, where good long-distance views are desireable. Instead, we decided to do some winery touring - by bike.
Exploring the neighborhood lakeshore
New Zealand has devloped a strong culture of biking, and with it, good bike infrastructure. It has designated several key cycling routes as "Great Rides", and promotes these prominently on government recreation websites. We had pored over these in the months before the trip, mapping out which might be good candidates for our mixed-level group of riders. Today, as a relatively easy intro to outdoorsing in New Zealand, we chose a mostly-flat ride along a section of a Great Ride in the area known as Hawke's Bay, on the eastern coast of the North Island. Caroline was feeling quite unwell today, so she bowed out of the day's activities.
We discovered an unexpected but welcome feature with our 7-day AirBNB house in Taupo: bicycles. More specifically, three mountain bikes, which the house literature stated we could use for our adventures. Andy (our team's bike expert) gave them a once-over and pronounced them to be quite fit for use, and we decided to use them on our ride today (which meant we only had to rent four bikes instead of seven).
To Hawke's Bay
After packing up some lunches, bundling ourselves and the mountain bikes into the vans, we headed off along state highway 5 towards the Hawke's Bay area. Much like the day before, it was a very scenically interesting drive, with several distinctive landform regions along the two-hour drive to the east coast.
The Hawke's Bay area is known for its horticulture, with large orchards and vineyards, along with sheep and cattle farming. The landscape is one of flat floodplains near the center of the bay surrounded by a hilly interior and hilly coastal lands. Hawke's Bay is host to two fairly large centers in a twin-city arrangement along the coast: northerly Napier and southerly Hastings. Our ride started in Napier and headed south along the coastline, so we headed for a downtown Napier bike rental location. Napier is quite notable for its extensive art deco architecture, a result of a frenzied rebuilding effort after a large 1931 earthquake.
By about noon, we had finally finished with obtaining our rentals and we were ready to head out along the section of the Hawke's Bay trails known as the "Water Ride". It would take us south, along the coastline, towards the Hastings area and a coastal prominence known as Cape Kidnappers. Along the way, we had identified a couple of wineries that we would stop and sample. At the far end of the ride, we would turn back and retrace our route north back to Napier.
Under a grey but dry sky, we gathered at the Sunken Gardens - a small botanical garden located in front of the beach in downtown Napier. A paved bike path along a wide, grassy beachside promenade was the start of our route. We cycled south, past benches, kids' playgrounds, skate parks, an aquarium, bike "pump" tracks, and a few bits of abstract art.
Continuing further south, we the left the Napier urban park zone. For a short roughly 1-kilometre stretch, the cycling was a bit less pleasant - we had to cycle adjacent to the main roadway past a gravel/aggregate plant of some sort. Beyond this, we returned to off-road cycle path, now surfaced with a fine crushed gravel, still quite navigable by relatively narrow roadbike tires. Now in a more natural environment, long grasses and rushes grew alongside the path.
Becoming more countryside-ish
Now crossing through coastal flats and marshlands, the cycle path was now much more scenic - a very pleasant, easy cruise through coastal countryside. The only flies in the proverbial ointment were the rivers that flowed out into Hawke's Bay. At their terminus with the ocean, they were wide and emptied into even wider estuaries. The cycle path couldn't cross these estuaries without long (and presumably expensive) bridges, so the path was instead routed upriver at these points. The paths continued until the closest roadway crossing was reached, at which point a separate cycle lane on the bridge provided passage over the river. The path would then head back down along the opposite side of the riverbed until the coast was reached once again, after which the path continued its rough parallel course along the shore. You can clearly see how this all works by looking at the trackmap for this cycle ride.
I especially enjoyed the section of cycle track between the Clyde and Tukituki Rivers - a beautiful stretch of grasslands, marshlands, and orchard-side riding, all well away from roads and built-up areas. After crossing over the Tukituki River, we began to cycle through sea-side residential neighborhoods. (Throughout all of this riding, the indicators that kept us on the proper route were indicated by either full-sized signs or by small light-blue colored metre-high slat-poles with the great rides logo on top. It was important to look for these markers, because they helped clarify the route in several unobvious places).
A couple of hours after starting out from Napier, we came to the first of the vineyards along our route - a modest-looking place called The Levels Vineyard, and selling under the label Beach House Wines. We cycled up the laneway and around into a secluded road-end where an adobe-styled structure housed the wine-tasting location.
Known as the "Cellar Door", the adobe-styled building at the vineyard is where wine tastings are held. Apparently, the Cellar Door is only supposed to be open on weekends. Today was Monday, however, and although things seemed pretty quiet (absolutely no one else around), the building was still open. Inside, a single man was present.
Sampling Beach House Wines
The lone gentleman turned out to be Chris Harrison, the owner and chief winemaker of Beach House Wines. Perhaps he just happened to be futzing around at the precise moment we arrived and decided to let us in, in which case, we were lucky. A private tasting session with the chief winemaker!
Relaxing in The Cellar
Beach House Wines primarily produces whites, and this is what we mostly sampled. I am no huge drinker of whites, but I did quite like the reisling that was offered up for tasting. After the sampling session (NZD $15 pp) was over, several of us bought a few bottles, and then we sat around in the comfortable old barn-like atmosphere and had our lunch.
From The Levels Vineyard, we continued our cycle southward. Our time on the bikes was very short: only 500 metres or so later, we arrived at a very manicured, very upscale looking entranceway, wide and paved and lined with large, squat palm trees. The Elephant Hill Estate - another winery for us to explore.
The contrast between The Levels and The Elephant Hill estates was pronounced. Where The Levels was a relaxed, informal sort of place, Elephant Hill projected an expansive, more formal feel. The estate's main building was a large, straight-edged, steel and concrete structure. Techy-looking was the best way to describe it. The surrounding shrubbery was closely manicured, and large, weed-free expanses of grass bordered the driveway and all around the main complex. A large southeast asian-style elephant statue graced the front lawn.
Relaxing on the front lawn
The Elephant Hill Estate, like The Levels Winery just before, had a wine sampling offering. Additionally, they had a full restaurant . Unfortunately, we were only a few minutes out from having just finished our packed lunch, as well as quite a bit of wine. Andy was the only one thirsty enough to do another tasting so soon; the rest of us waited out front near the elephant statue. The weather had been clearing as the day had progressed, and we lounged about under a very warm sun.
Leaving Elephant Hill
After a long rest stop (Andy had fully plumbed the depths of his sampling session), we continued on. We were now nearing the southern end of the "Water Ride", and the hills bordering the Hawke's Bay lowlands were starting to crowd closer and closer to the coastline. Not far ahead, we knew, the hills would start directly dropping into the ocean, and the bike path would end. We passed yet another winery, but this time we didn't stop. It was still too soon after our last winery visit, and time was drawing on, in any case. We had come farther than we had originally planned on our cycle, and combined with the fact that it was nearly 4pm, we couldn't really afford the time a stop would require.
Far end of route
Now mostly parallelling a roadway, the "Water Ride" route continued past some ranchy-like farms and farmland, with tan-colored hills rising steeply above us to the south. A few minutes later, we arrived at the end of the bike path (and also the end of the adjacent public road). A small parking area and a gaggle of interpretive signs marked this as the beginning of the Cape Kidnappers area.
Although there was the possibility of an interesting walk along the beach to Cape Kidnappers itself, complete with a visit to a very large gannet bird colony, there was no way our group was going to be able to do that today, given our already long ride and lack of time. Instead, we took a break here, putting our toes (or more, especially in the case of Pu) into the waters of Hawke's Bay. It was then time to turn around and retrace our path back north to Napier.