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Two Troubled Starts


Dore and I had read about Palmerston North in a book about New Zealand a while back, and wanted to check out the town before we headed out. I’m not sure if it was the weather, our recently low spirits, or the town itself, but we found the town to be a bit sleepy and uninteresting for our tastes. The city itself lies in the middle of — if the smells on our way in were any guide — a farming area. It’s also nestled in between two mountain ranges, but they are both far enough away that the land felt pretty flat and uninteresting.

We visited a mall downtown, which was actually quite nice, but really didn’t hold too much interest for us. It was more just a fun diversion from the rain than anything we really wanted to do. After perusing the shops for a while, we headed around the central square to the i-Site visitor center, where we found the local brochures confirmed our suspicions: there really wasn’t all that much that we wanted to do nearby.

What we did find, however, was that there were quite a few things to do in the Taranaki region, which was where we were planning on heading next. With a choice between a rainy, sleepy city and a fun-filled area ahead, our choice was pretty clear. We were going to skip town.

Just before we left town, we pulled out the old B&B book and flipped to the places we’d marked near New Plymouth, the principal city in the Taranaki region, and, incidentally, the city in which I was born. (I was, by the way, getting increasingly excited to finally visit the place of my birth. It’s a silly thing, seeing as how I left when I was only a year old, but I’ve always felt that I have a special connection to this place, and I’ve been wanting to visit for almost as long as I can remember. But anyway, back to the B&B book…) Flipping through, we settled on two main contenders. One was a farm stay a few kilometers away from New Plymouth and another that was about a 30 minute drive from the city, but sat right at the foot of the mountain. (Oh, I forgot to mention the mountain. Sorry about that. Like I said, I’ve been daydreaming about this place all my life, so I assume everyone knows about the mountain. Basically, Mt. Taranaki is a nearly perfect conical mountain about 8000 feet high that rises out of the middle of a wide, flat coastal plain. It’s often compared to Mt. Fuji, and actually played the part of Mt. Fuji in the movie “The Last Samurai.” It’s one of a handful of mountains that I’ve seen that I could immediately pick out of a lineup. Anyway, that should give you the general picture. Wikipedia probably has lots more info if you’re interested.)

After a bit of pros-and-cons analysis, Dore and I settled on the B&B on the mountain because of it’s potential for really good views of the mountain. We called the number in the book, but got an answering machine. I hung up, planning on calling the other place, but Dore pointed out that we had several hours to drive, and we could always have them call us back on our cell phone. I dutifully called back to leave a message, but was pleasantly surprised when someone picked up on the other end of the line. As luck would have it, they did have a double room free, so we booked the room and got on our way.

The drive went by very quickly, and we arrived at the B&B at the foot of Mt. Taranaki (near the town of Stratford) by about 2:30 in the afternoon. Berta, the owner, greeted us as we came in, and immediately set about making us fantastically comfortable. Berta originally hails from Switzerland (although she’s lived near the mountain for, if I’ve got this right, close to thirty years now). In my experience the Swiss definitely know a thing or two about hospitality, but Berta could give lessons to the best of them. When you’re traveling there are few things that can compare to the feeling of finding yourself in a place where you feel completely at home. As Berta ushered us into the house and fixed us a hot cup of tea and warm date scones fresh out of the oven, Dore and I felt ourselves rapidly — almost magically — lulled into a dreamy state of pure relaxation.

Can you tell I liked this place?

After a half and hour or so, in which we got to know Berta a little bit, we felt quite refreshed and invigorated. It was still drizzling a bit outside, and the mountain was completely hidden in cloud, but we decided that we’d take a quick walk around the property. Berta’s home sits roughly in the middle of a squarish five acre lot that is, as far as I know, the most diverse piece of land on the planet. On the property she has (and please forgive the laundry list style — there’s just too much for prose):

  • Four sheep
  • One pig
  • Several sheep paddocks
  • An area of native bush (which is basically an incredibly dense rain forest)
  • A water reservoir that runs into a stream with a little waterwheel at the end
  • And a path that runs in and around the entire thing.

Dore and I spent about thirty minutes gawking at all of the cool different areas of the property and getting seriously jealous before we finally made it back around to the house.

After we got in, we spend a bit more time resting, relaxing, and chatting with Berta, then decided to head out for dinner. We got all ready to go, and headed down to the van. We hopped in, turned the key, and got… nothing. I looked at the cigarette lighter. Nope, Garmin wasn’t plugged in. It looks like the finger this time was pointed squarely at the starter.

Rather than trying to get the van started and then risking being stranded in the rain in town, we decided to go upstairs and see what we could do with delivery or begging to buy some food from Berta. She had other plans, however.

“If you’d like, I can drive you in to town, and then you can just call me and I’ll pick you up after you’re finished,” Berta offered when she heard our plight. I love B&Bs. And New Zealand B&Bs in particular. We very thankfully accepted her offer, and headed in to town.

We ate at Malone’s, a restaurant that Berta recommended. When we got inside, we were a bit concerned by the decor. It was, to be frank, fairly shabby, even for a bar/restaurant combo. The carpet was frayed at the corners and the fireplace was unfinished concrete. But the menu looked good, so we stuck it out and ordered. I’m incredibly glad we did. The dinner was fantastic. It was clear that the chef really knew what he (or she) was doing. Everything was done perfectly, with exactly the right balance of flair and simplicity. Dore had an amazingly done (and huge) lamb rack with grilled eggplant. The sauce was perfect, with nice caramelized flavors. I had the John Dory (fish) which was served on an inspired pasta with a cilantro-lime sauce and garnished with sliced green onions. For desert we split the mud cake, which didn’t hurt at all.

Finished with our meal, we called Berta, who came and picked us up a few minutes later. We drove home, raving about the meal. When we got back, I grabbed the bottle of blanc du noir that we’d bought in Nelson to share with Berta as a thank-you for driving us. We opened the bottle and each had a glass as we talked the evening away with the family from Perth, Australia that was also staying at the B&B. After a while, everyone was tired, and we went to our separate rooms to bed.

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