Cycling Marlborough

Cycling the Vineyards of Marlborough, New Zealand


Two of my favorite things include sunshine and wine. Throw me on a bike on a cloudless day and give me a map of the boutique vineyards in the heart of the Marlborough wine region and honestly, it was one of the best tasting experiences I’ve ever had.

Lisa in Marlborough

Lisa in Marlborough

Tasting in Marlborough has long been on my list of wine regions to conquer. In fact, considering its remoteness in a quiet northeast corner of the South Island, New Zealand, I was starting to fear I would never get an opportunity to go. Partially because I think my appreciation for its world-renowned Sauvignon Blanc grape outwore its welcome on my pallet years ago. Secondly, it’s just not super convenient to get to.

I have a special fondness for New Zealand. I’d even go as far to say I love it. If you asked me to live there for a short while I’d be hard pressed to say no. Another reason it was crucial that I get myself to Marlborough. My favorite part about New Zealand is flying over it. With the terrain ever changing, lush green contrasted against snowy mountain peaks and azure water, it’s absolutely breathtaking. Every time, I’m reminded again of my first time, looking out of the airplane window in 2011, and it’s always equally as majestic.

North Island Volcano

North Island Volcano

In terms of getting to Marlborough my friends took the Interislander Ferry across from Wellington to Picton. At the same time I witnessed from above the stunning alcoves of the tiny islands their boat wove between while flying down from Auckland to Blenheim. Knee deep in my inflight magazine I took a quick break to gaze out of the window and my mouth involuntarily dropped. Just below the clouds sat a volcano. This was just before I passed from the North Island down to the South Island. Shortly afterward the striking coastline came into view.

South Island Northern Coast

South Island Northern Coast

My three Australian friends greeted me at the Blenheim airport with a big “Welcome to New Zealand” as if they were locals. And while Blenheim isn’t much to offer up socially, it is just on the cusp of the vineyards and has a range of accommodation and a few noteworthy bars and restaurants, such as Scotch. We stayed in a small cottage in the back of a B&B called Tresco. The owner Ian and adorable terrier Dudley were friendly and accommodating and it was only a short 10-minute walk to town. At night, the residential streets were quiet and the stars shone bright. It is true the Milky Way can be seen on this side of the world.

Drinks at Scotch: Blenheim

Drinks at Scotch: Blenheim

But enough of Blenheim (jokingly termed phlegm-em). Let’s talk wine.

Wine Tours By Bike have a great thing going. Family run by Steve and Jo Hill, they made it all so easy. That’s the thing; the day was more or less completely on our own terms. We booked in advance to be picked up from one of the three 5-hour long timeslots and were greeted with a big smile and handshake from Fred, Jo’s dad who drove us to the bike shed in Renwick. Set on a beautiful B&B property Hillsfield House, we were instantly asked to pick a bike from the lot parked out front. Told that just like a person no bike is the same, we tested them for height and seat comfortableness before analyzing how large each of our heads actually was during a helmet fitting. The award went to Rob.

Wine Tours by Bike Crew

Wine Tours by Bike Crew: Courtesy of Ceri

Steve gave us an amazingly detailed, yet brief overview of the vineyards in the vicinity of Renwick while we, along with some locals which are always a good sign, observed as he pointed them out against a white map pinned against the wall. My group then huddled together, our paper copies in hand and highlighter at the ready, mapping out how to tackle the afternoon and fit in all of our top spots. Water bottle, check. Lunch reservation, check. Social media post, check. And we were off!

Wine Tour Group Selfie

Wine Tour Group Selfie: Courtesy of Wes

Wobbling a bit when we set out, we eagerly headed to our farthest destination first, yet the most boutique. Te Whare Ra’s small quiet property impressed us with both their Riesling D (dry) and M (medium) so much that none of us left empty handed. In fact, it was my most favored tasting of the day and my only regret is not purchasing a case.

I traveled on, steadied on my African cruiser bike, with a smile from ear to ear. We dashed through the back of a vineyard on our way to another, taking shortcuts on dirt paths as we were hugged by the vines and the monstrous mountain peaks at the perimeter towered over us. The sun was hot, but in a good way. Then, the wind picked up and it was so strong, peddling against it turned our leisurely cruise into a battle of resistance.

Cycling Marlborough

Cycling Marlborough

At Giesen we had a delicious vintage platter for lunch yet an offensive wine host ruined the experience unfortunately, so much in fact I wouldn’t recommend a visit.  At Hans Herzog it was worth the cost of a tasting to be blown away with their exquisite presentation. It was the only Sauv Blanc I purchased in Marlborough, and for the cost it’s a keeper. Framingham won our hearts with free shipping to Australia so of course we bought a case between the four of us, but not without Mary Jo’s amazing attentiveness in pouring our Riesling flights.  We finished the day lounging on bean bags on the lawn at Forrest, where fellow American Katrina won me over with their 2011 Chenin Blanc.

Peddling back at the end of the day, still smiling while taking in the landscape, the pureness of the area and of the wineries really took hold. In fact, while I had a general distaste for what I had assumed was the mass production of sauvignon blanc, biking through the region and seeing the smaller farms and family vineyards gave me a whole other appreciation for it. But also, more impressive was the execution of other varieties likes riesling, pinot gris and pinot noir. I’ve done a lot of wine touring, but cycling and tasting through the vineyards of Marlborough takes the cake! Settling in around the picnic table back at Tresco later that evening we barbequed local fish and vegetables while sipping some of our favorite wins from the day.

Wine Tours by Bike

Wine Tours by Bike

Falling from the sky: Skydiving Fox Glacier, New Zealand


“I don’t feel any nerves or anxiety. Maybe it’s because I know I won’t jump, or more likely because I’m just secretly hoping the whole thing is called off due to the uncertain weather and then I won’t even have to make the decision to jump or not,” I wrote the morning of.

Of course I always prefer a good reason to an excuse. I’ve never had a strong desire to skydive, although I will admit that every time I come and go to New Zealand I always leave with a teeny tiny regret of not participating in the adrenalin-obsessed country’s biggest tourist adventure.

I woke to a buzzing alarm earlier then I would have preferred and pushed the curtains aside at Sunset Motel. In view, thick and bushy grey clouds and dense fog covered the Southern Alps along the West Coast of the South Island in New Zealand. More importantly, hidden behind the haze was the face of Fox Glacier, a massive retreating icy structure I’ve yet to see in a clear view.

We arrived at Skydive Fox Glacier on time for our early morning appointment. Wes, Ceri and Rob had booked months in advance and paid up front. Backing out wasn’t an option for them, and even better the Aussie dollar was more favorable at their time of booking. A week prior to arriving I made a phone call and confirmed that putting my name alongside theirs just guaranteed there would be a slot should I want to jump, but there was no monetary obligation to do so at that time. I took that as an indicator that it was okay that I would ‘maybe’ jump but assumed the likelihood that I actually would was very, very slim.

As the gang approached the office I took a quick wander over to the small plane parked in the bunker. One glance at the size in conjunction with the modest glass door I presumed I would potentially be jumping out of and I said “nope, count me out.” At that point Francoise, a 25-year skydiving veteran and part owner, pulled me aside for a chat and before I knew it my plans for the afternoon took a very unexpected and fear-provoking turn.

Skydive Fox Glacier Plane

Skydive Fox Glacier Plane

In his soothing South African accent Francoise talked me through the process. We discussed my fears, which I couldn’t exactly pinpoint. We walked through the safety process, including the backup parachute and the probability of unfavorable events. With over 9,000 jumps under his belt I trusted his experience. We agreed that we’d go together and more importantly, we’d go first. Before I knew it I was wearing a jump suit, a silly cap and harness. Once I was fully suited up along with the rest of the group I turned to my adviser Francoise and said, “Um, I sort of have to pee”.

Lisa and Francoise, Skydive Fox Glacier

Lisa and Francoise, Skydive Fox Glacier

I sat in a corner on the outdoor wooden bench taking deep breathes and mentally battling my anxiety away as my friends sat across from me making jokes. I couldn’t quite understand how they so discreetly masked their fear. But just as I started to get used to the idea of willingly leaping from a moving aircraft we were approached and told the bad news.

In professional and honest practice we were informed that although it was safe to jump from the launch point, it was too cloudy and the likelihood of us seeing any of the beautiful landscape was minimal. We had to make a call to jump anyway, or postpone it with no penalty. We only had a few hours available before having to move on with our road trip down the West Coast to make it to our next destination in time. We took a vote and agreed that although disappointed, the anxiety and cost wasn’t worth it if we couldn’t see the glacier and decided to take some time out and see if the weather would settle throughout the morning.

In a cold and torrential downpour we walked the base of Fox Glacier and I willed the clouds away so I could grab a clear shot with my camera but to no avail. We moved on to breakfast at Matheson Café on Lake Matheson overlooking the Southern Alps and watched and waited for the clouds to shift as the sun slowly crept in between them. We headed back to the skydiving headquarters to let them know that we were closely watching the sky and would be back in a few hours. How timely as just then it cleared and they informed us that very moment was likely the most opportune time to jump. Ahhh, was it really going to happen?

Fox Glacier base

Fox Glacier base

All my anxiety rushed back and I started to have doubts again. This time, I had a belly full of muesli and a fear of vomiting onto my tandem instructor added to the list of uncertainties. My boy Francoise was there for me again, as I wouldn’t have gone with anyone else at that point and he assured me he’d be there for me throughout the whole occasion. We suited up again, much quicker and a bit more self-assured. Faster than expected the call was made. I witnessed a few thumbs up and and then oh-my-gosh it was go time.

Pre Jump Nerves

Pre Jump Nerves

Rob and I waddled to the plane as our instructors followed us, GoPro’s attached to their wrists to record the whole event. Rob and his instructor Paul shuffled themselves away from the exit through the metal passenger tube towards the nose of the small single engine aircraft before Francoise and I settled in at the door. Immediately he connected us at my lower back, then the top bit behind my shoulders and talked me through how we were safely fastened together while tightening the straps. He calmly explained that the noise was the testing of the engine and a few seconds later, take off. This was now the point of no return.

I took quick deep breaths and mentally said a few Hail Mary’s as we wound our way up. Francoise kept me distracted, pointing out the snow-covered top of Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand, the semi-cloud covered Fox Glacier and the rain water lakes Tekapo and Pukaki far below. Between the few turbulence bumps I’d receive gentle squeezes on my shoulder in reassurance that we were okay. Just when I started to relax and appreciate the fact that I’m a regular flyer, otherwise I’d really be freaking out, he gave me the news. We had reached the halfway mark. At that point I looked down and all of the uneasiness came rushing back. “We are only halfway?!”

Reaching Altitude

Reaching Altitude

Around 14,000 feet an oxygen mask appeared around my nose and mouth and I slowly inhaled. This meant only one thing; we were nearly at our jumping altitude. Luckily, the freezing cold air and slow stream of oxygen kept me very relaxed. In fact, I was surprised by how much the oxygen gave me a sense of ease. I felt Francoise do the safety checks on our straps one more time and stared at the back wall of the aircraft waiting in anticipation for the indicator light to turn from red to green. Any second now…

Francoise slid the door open and without hesitation hurled me out of the plane. I heard him later telling one of the other instructors that he heard me scream a few profanities when the door opened and just went for it, not taking the time to sit on the ledge as many others do knowing that would only increase my apprehension.

Gravity did its thing as I fell from 16,500 feet at 200 kph toward the ground below. The first ten seconds were exhilarating. I felt my heart in my throat and a high sense of fear and confusion mixed with adrenaline. For an entire minute after that, literally I free fell for over one minute, I was still falling at terminal velocity and experienced the most intense range of emotions. The air was so cold and the wind hurt like being slapped in the face a million times over. For a second I even thought my nose would bleed. I had to remind myself to take in the magnificent scenery all around me as I dropped through the clouds. I only let out a few screams and then with a massive jolt the parachute finally opened. I went from 200 kph to 10 kph in four seconds.

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I did it! I did it! The hard part was over and I looked up and there was Rob floating down not too far in the distance. How cool to see each other. Francoise handed over the parachute reigns and I pulled down with my right arm to steer us into view of the coastline. A pull down with my left arm and we were facing the mountains again. As I didn’t want to experience any motion sickness we kept it calm and left all the swirls and twirls to the more adventurous. This was the part I enjoyed the most; just calmly floating in the air, watching the sea, the mountains and lush green grass below.

Driving the parachute

Driving the parachute

It was time to land so I handed the reigns back and got into position. With my two feet stretched straight out in front of me we slowly descended and slid across the grass in a very soft and graceful motion. There was Rob waiting for me, and a big high five from Francoise from behind me. I did it! On the ground and safe with a big smile I turned to Francoise and said, “That was cool, but I don’t know if I’d do it again!”

After taking off our gear it was only a few minutes later and Rob and I looked up into the sky. Just a speck next to the sun, we could see Wes and Ceri zooming down toward the ground. Mouth dropped, we turned to each other and went, “Wow, look how high they are! Can you believe that’s where we just came from?!”

High fives all around, proud of each other for such an incredible and brave accomplishment we cheered. Throughout the entire event I never thought I was going to die, or even fathomed the thought. It was all just a big ball of anxiety and apprehension, but that’s normal of course when you’re fleeing yourself from the sky for the first time. Just like the Francoise said, if I didn’t have a sense of fear to jump then I’d be crazy and they don’t jump with crazy people. As we pulled away in our rental car from Skydive Fox Glacier we turned to each other and said, “Um, I need a beer!” So we celebrated.