Discovering Fine Wines in the Gard

gard.10According to the French proverb, “A day without wine is a day without sunshine.”  There’s no lack of liquid sunshine in our lives, nor in the lives of most of the French, as wine is an essential part of life here.   Not far from our abode in the Luberon area of Provence are numerous wineries.  BB (husband Bicycle Bob) and I enjoy treks to visit and taste and buy.

Last week’s all-day excursion to sample  Côtes du Rhône wines in the department of the Gard northwest of Avignon was over-the-top.  Four wineries, lots of delicious reds and whites – plus the famous Tavel Rosé.

Happy Wine Tasters--photo by David Regan
Happy Wine Tasters–photo by David Regan

French friends Anne and Pascal organized the jaunt, rented a van, and invited us, plus our friends David, Martine and George. (David’s wife Mollie was sick and had to miss the event.)    Pascal hails from the region, and is a fan of its red wine.  He had prepared documentation on the area, as well as each of the wineries we would visit.  Very impressive and professional.

Pascal, Gard wine afficionado
Pascal, Gard wine afficionado

The Gard, as opposed to other wine areas we have visited, is relatively flat.  Vines grow on level ground in chalky soil covered by layers of flat stones which act as heat storage – similar to the terrain of the prestigious Châteauneuf- du- Pape vineyards.   Winters are warm and dry. Spring is warm and wet, while summers, very hot and dry, precede warm and rainy autumns. Mistral winds blow away the risk of disease.  It all makes for excellent wine.

Chartreuse de Valbonne,  an ancient monastery founded in 1203 with its own vineyards, was our first stop.  Pascal’s mother was a teacher there, teaching the children of the doctors who worked at the hospital for lepers formerly housed in the monastery.  His mother’s family moved gard,1from northern France to the Gard, which was a Zone Libre (free zone), during World War II.

We sipped three reds and two whites.  Martine and I, both fans of white wine, especially liked Terrasse de Montalivet, Côtes du Rhône Village 2011, 100% Viognier.   Pascal said he prefers the white wines of Burgundy, but for red wine, these Côtes du Rhône are his favorites.  He explained that the combination of the terrain and the expertise of the vintners in the region who blend different grapes result in “wines with a special character.”   And, the price is right, not as expensive as other, better known Côtes du Rhône.

gard.6The wine connoisseur chose the perfect lunch stop:  Goudargues, “Venice Gardoise,” a delightful town with a canal bordered by giant Plane trees right gard.8smack in its middle.  We sat outdoors above the clear water where we’d spot an occasional trout.  Moules (mussels) were a restaurant special.  I chose the version in curry sauce, while BB opted for mussels with a chorizo sauce.  Both served with frites and scrumptious.

Delicious (photo by David).
Delicious (photo by David).

George and David are serious, professional photographers. Martine, Anne and I also like taking photos.  We all found plenty of photo opps in this pretty, pleasant  town.

Martine gets the perfect grape shot.
Martine gets the perfect grape shot.

More wine awaited at Domaine Pélaquié,, a family winery dating back to the 16th century with 85 hectares of vineyards. Some of its wines have the appellation Côtes du Rhône Village Laudun.

Laudun is one of about 20 villages that are permitted to add their names to the Côtes du Rhone Villages appellation.  These vineyards are noted to produce higher-quality wines distinctive of the regional style. Wines with the Côtes du Rhône Village appellation are a step up in quality from those of the Côtes du Rhône title.

Serious tasters BB and David
Serious tasters BB and David

The winery brochure states that from father to son, generation after generation, the secrets and knowledge of the soil and the grape vines have been passed on.  But each generation makes its own discoveries to create elegant wines with the distinctive character of this domaine.

My wine of choice here was the white Côtes du Rhône Villages Laudun 2012, a blend of Grenache blanc, Clairette, Viognier and Roussanne grapes,  € 8.50 per bottle.  BB liked the Luc Pélaquié Côtes du Rhône 2010, a red wine, 100 % Mourvèdre, at € 13 per bottle.

Anne is not a big fan of wine, but she loved that grape juice.
Anne is not a big fan of wine, but she loved that grape juice.

Proprietor Luc Pélaquié led us back into the “cave” to taste grape juice.  He filled our glasses from a 6,000 liter steel tank containing liquid from grapes that had been pressed only a few days prior and was just beginning to ferment.   All rated it very tasty and refreshing.

There was plenty of action to observe at the next stop, a co-op winery, Caves des Vins de Cru de Lirac,  The commune of Lirac has 715 hectares of vineyards producing wines, predominantly red, of an exceptional quality.

Grape harvest was in full swing in the region.  Truck after truck pulling trailers brimming with grapes arrived at the co-op to dump their contents into a vat where they were instantly crushed by revolving blades.  The aromas,  musty and  fruity,  were heavenly.gard.15

Christiane Bouzige, the winery’s “chef d’exportation,” explained that 60 vintners bring their grapes to the co-op.  Harvest lasts about three weeks when all involved in the business of wine production work seven days a week, almost round the clock.  She predicts that this year’s wine in the Gard will be “very good, but with a small harvest…The grapes are very small…It was very cold in April.”  The co-op sells 36 different wines, ranging in price from € 4 to € 37,50 per bottle.

At Domaine Lafond,, our last stop, we got to taste a Châteauneuf- du- Pape 2009/2010 as this winery has vineyards in the Châteauneuf -du- Pape region.  gard.9The wine’ s  name dates back to 1305 when  the Pope moved to Avignon.   Clement V,  pontiff at the time, was an avid wine lover.    We all relished  the pope’s wine (80% Grenache, 10% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre),   but at € 25.50 per bottle, a bit too pricey for our budgets.

We also tasted a Tavel Rosé, which vintner Pascal Lafond said is a “very different style of rosé than the rosé of Provence.  You can drink it year round, not just in summer around the pool.”

Lafond, another old family wine estate, produces “bio” wines.   Pascal Lafond mans the winery while his 83-year-old father Jean-Pierre keeps the books.  “I have to check to see if he has made any mistakes, “ said Jean-Pierre.

To our surprise, we began our tasting here with a red wine, followed by the rosé, then the white.  We had assumed the order  should be the reverse, but Pascal explained that in this order the true flavors of the white wine are appreciated.  We did appreciate his excellent white, Lirac Blanc 2012, € 9,20 per bottle.

Wines of southern France are richer and more complex in taste, he said.gard.17

Some of Lafond’s wines are aged in oak barrels for several months.  He proudly showed us his “cave” with long rows of beige colored  barrels which looked new.  He prefers French and Russian oak for his wine storage.  American oak, he finds, gives “too much taste.”

On our way out we walked past stacks of boxes ready for shipping.  Several were labeled “Cascher” (Kosher).  Two rabbis work at the winery in the production of this special wine which is shipped to Jewish communities in France as well as in the US.

Photo by David
Photo by David

That was a healthy dose of delectable sunshine. All returned with several boxes of wine to be assured of sunny days in the winter ahead.  Merci,  Pascal and Anne.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

            I’m  happy to hear from readers.  See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Followers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right.

A recipe to try:  Duck Breasts in Balsamic Vinegar. It’s very good and very easy and comes from my Australian friend Meg. Scroll down recipe column at right.



Villa Augustine: Fine French dining, turn-of-the-century elegance

“Everywhere you look; it’s a feast for the eyes.  It’s a magical place.”villa.12

We were sitting around the fireplace in a stylish salon of exquisite furnishings enjoying an apero when a friend made that comment.  It was our first time at the Villa Augustine shortly after it opened in April 2012.villa9a

The turn-of-the- century mansion in the Vaucluse city of Apt, the capital of the Luberon, was originally owned by a wealthy family, proprietors of ochre mines.  Their fortune plunged in the 1930s. villa.3 The splendid home was abandoned for many years and in a dreadful state. Along came two Parisians, Guy and Christophe, to rescue the magnificent structure.   Restoration took three years.  Tracking down the furnishings and objets d’art took even longer. villa.11 Guy and Christophe, both fans of  20th century arts décoratifs, combed France and neighboring countries to find original Art Nouveau pieces to enhance the interior in keeping with the period. Signed objects by Majorelle, Ruhlmann, Leuleu, Royere and others are among the treasures.

Today Villa Augustine is a sanctuary of calm and beauty in the midst of busy Apt just above the river Calavon.  There are five chambres d’hote (B&B) rooms and gorgeous gardens planted with Italian inspiration.  A more than 200-year-old cedar of Lebanon, classified as one of the most beautiful trees in the Luberon, is the pièce de resistance amidst flowers, cypress and olive villa.7trees.  An inviting pool on a terrace above the villa is a delightful surprise offering stunning views of Apt and the Luberon hills.  Not to forget – food, which is Guy’s realm.  The ex-banker has always been passionate about cooking.  Here he has the opportunity to indulge in his favorite pastime and prepare gourmet cuisine several evenings per week.  His cuisine, he says, is influenced by his Spanish origins and Algeria, where he was born.  And, the flavors of Provence, of course. There is a set menu, and reservations are a must as he can serve no more than 20 diners, but up to 40 for special events.  During warm weather months, the spacious terrace in front of the villa is often a venue for the latter – concerts, fashion shows, art and photo exhibits.villa.8

During our first visit we had a complete tour and admired each unique bedroom with adjoining baths, many delightfully retro.  A mirror from a buffet is the headboard for the double bed in one room.  One bedroom is done in the style of the ‘50s, and another reflects the ‘40s.villa.10

Dinner – either outdoors under trellises on the terrace where huge pots of plants in bloom create an upscale  ambience of greenery, or indoors in the dining room with its precious décor, is special.villa.1  So is the food.  Our first dinner in 2011 featured Noix de Saint-Jacques a l’artichaut et l’andouillette, jus de
crustaces, (scallops à l’ artichoke and sausage with the juice of crustaceans).

Last week we savored an excellent meal – a belated birthday treat for step-daughter Kellie and her friend Luka visiting from New York City.  It began with  a “mise en bouche”  (pre-starter), a healthy gamba with a puree of mango villa.14and a mini glass filled with chantilly (whipped cream) of chevre (goat cheese).  The entrée, carpaccio of tuna with a spinach sauce, was very flavorful – my favorite.villa.15  Cod with ratatouille creatively stuffed in mini peppers accompanied the perfectly cooked fish surrounded by a coulis of tomato and juice of palourde (tomato sauce made with the juice of the clam perched on top of the cod).  villa.16Dessert:  roasted figs in fig liqueur with vanilla ice cream.  Wine:  a bottle each of an excellent Burgundy white and a Burgundy red suggested by Christophe.  A fitting birthday meal in a magical place!villa.18

Guy and Christophe, who  had the distinction of being the first gay couple married in Apt after the recent change in French law which now legalizes gay marriage, are overjoyed with the success of their endeavor.

Guy, left, and Christophe
Guy, left, and Christophe

“We are very happy with the speed in which we have succeeded to develop a faithful clientele,” says Guy.  The chambre d’hote has been fully booked since April this year, he added.  “Normally this would take four or five years.”villa.4

Rooms range in price from 100 to 150 euros per night.  Three course dinners with two mise-en-bouches  at 40 euros per person. Villa Augustine is open from mid March through the end of October. More information at www.lavillaaugustine.comvilla.13

Have you dined at Villa Augustine?  Share your view.  I love to hear from readers.  See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Followers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right.

A recipe to try:  Linguine with Shrimp, Tomatoes and Feta Sabraw.  Scroll down recipe column at right.

Pedaling – and tasting—amongst Danube vineyards

In our not-so-much younger days, Bob (once known as Bicycle Bob) and I did lots of serious pedaling. Weekend bike trips loaded down with panniers in Germany.  Longer treks in Austria,  and even over the Swiss Alps several times.  The Swiss rides, no doubt the most challenging, were our favorites.

Since we’ve settled down in southern France, we seem to do less and less cycling.  A pity, as there is great riding in these parts.  Mt. Ventoux  for one.  I’d never attempt that climb, but Bob long ago said he would… He’s still thinking about

On our recent trip to Austria, we had a chance to get back in the saddle – a Grape Grazing tour by bicycle through the Wachau Valley.  Wine and Biking.  The perfect

The scenery was  superb along a meandering river bordered by cliffs, forested hills, vineyards and picture-perfect villages.  The pedaling was easy, just 25 kilometers on mainly flat terrain along the Danube and never more than about 25 minutes on the bikes before a  stop.  The bikes were easy- to- ride cruisers with extra comfortable wide seats.  And, the wines were excellent with informative commentary by our helpful guide, Endre Barz, a Hungarian who told us to call him Andy.

Only the weather did not cooperate.  It was cold, gray, dismal, although we never had to use the rain ponchos provided by the tour company.  But, neither did we get to swim in the Danube as the tour literature

Our first stop after a ride along the bike trail that is part of the popular Donau Radweg (Danube Bike Route) was the Domȁne Wachau, a cooperative on the edge of the medieval town of Dϋrnstein where we sampled four different white wines.  In the Wachau Valley, a 21 mile stretch between the towns of Krems and Melk also known as the Danube River Valley, 85 percent of the wines are white.

A 2012 Gelber Muskatteller was first on the agenda, dry, fruity, a “popular summer wine.”  “Austrians prefer young wine.  They drink it immediately,” Andy

Then came Katzensprung 2012 from the indigenous Grϋner Veltliner grape, a dry, light wine.  Andy told us that there are between 700 and 800 wine producers in the Wachau Valley, mainly small, family farms, with a total of 1,400 hectares of vineyards.

He went on tell us the importance of the Katzensprung wine in the country’s history. After World War II, Austria was divided into four zones:  British, French, Soviet and American.  The seat of government was in Vienna surrounded by the Soviet zone.  ”In 1955 the Austrian president gave visiting Soviet leaders this wine.  He got them drunk and convinced them to let Austria become a neutral nation,” Andy related.

We tasted two Rieslings before a visit to the winery shop where most of the wines were reasonably priced, from seven euros per bottle.  “It’s amazing in Europe.  Austria produces high quality wines but at a lower price than in other countries,” Andy

The charming town of  Dϋrnstein  where we had a lunch break sits at the foot of terraced vineyards and castle ruins. Richard the Lionheart, King of England, was a prisoner in the fortress during the Third Crusade.

From the town, a footpath leads to the ruins where a  remarkable view awaits.  The town’s Parish Church with a Baroque tower is also worth a visit.  Most of our fellow cyclists (we were 12,  from Sweden, Norway, Singapore, Chicago, and Bob and I), preferred to peruse the town’s shops where all sorts of products made from Marille, an apricot variety grown in the Wachau Valley, are big sellers (jams, soaps, schnapps, mustard, chutney, chocolate).blog.12 The Marille strudel Bob ordered to finish off his lunch of a hearty goulash and dumplings was fabulous.

We pedaled on through picturesque countryside, often with vineyards on both sides of the bike path, to Weissenkirchen for a tasting at Weingut Hermengled Mang, a family winery which also has a restaurant, a Heuriger, a special Austrian eatery attached to a winery that serves the season’s new wines and simple, local food.

As we sipped and swirled a Grϋner Veltliner, then a Riesling and lastly a Chardonnay, Andy told us about the wine scandal that almost finished  the wine business in Austria.  Prior to the 1980s, Austria produced mainly sweet wines. The country had a good rapport with Germany which did not produce enough grapes to satisfy the demand of its thirsty wine.gv.blogcitizens.  It bought Austrian wine which it sold as German wine.  But in 1985, Austria did not have enough sweet wine to fulfill its contract for the German market.  Vintners could not add sugar to the wine as it would be detected.  Instead, they added antifreeze which the Germans discovered. Although only three or four companies were involved, “It destroyed 80  percent of the Austrian wine production,” Andy said.

When the wine business was revived, it was decided to focus on dry wine of a high quality and to avoid mass production.  Today “small is beautiful” best describes Austrian wine, most of which is white.  The crisp, dry vintages are appreciated by wine experts around the


Back in Vienna, we learned more about Austrian wine with a tasting at the Christ Winery and Heuriger in the Vienna community of Jedlersdorf.

Vienna is the only world capital with vineyards in the city limits.  Some 700 hectares on both sides of the Danube are devoted to grapes with 250 wine producers, most of whom produce their own wine, although some sell their grapes to other

Rainer Christ  took over his father’s winery in 2004, aiming to breathe new life into the more than 400 -year- old company.  He is most enthusiastic about his renowned Gemischter Satz, a Vienna white wine made from different varieties of grapes and his “biggest seller.”  After World War II most vintners used one grape variety to produce one wine, he explained. However, historically several grape varieties were often combined into one wine. “This had been forgotten in Vienna, but it’s become popular in the last 10 to 15 years, “ he said.

Some producers use from eight to ten different grapes varieties in Gemischter Satz,  but usually it’s  from two to four .  We tasted his 2012 Wiener Gemischter Satz which sells  for 7,90 euros  and  is a combination of Grϋner Veltliner, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Riesling and  Welsch Riesling (an Austrian grape variety).  Christ termed it “elegant, refreshing.”  It has a maximum of 12.5  percent alcohol and is “ not too rich,” he added.  We loved it.  If the trip back to the hotel hadn’t involved a Strassenbahn trek,  followed by a ride on the S bahn and finally U bahn, we would have purchased a case.

Christ has studied oenology and worked in the wine business in many different countries, including the U.S., France, Italy and Germany.  Within the past 20 years, there’s been more science involved in wine production, he explained. “It’s more and more professional, yet knowledge of the past is very important.  Theory and new techniques do not make a good wine.  You need to be out in the vineyards, get ideas and the participation of your parents.”blog.3

Christ, like most vintners, experiments with growing techniques.  His Weiss Burgunder der Vollmund is one result, a wine made from grapes harvested during a full moon.  “We learned that the moon makes a difference.”  Grapes harvested one day before or one day after the full moon had a different character, he explained.   The full moon wine is “richer in aroma, more massive, longer on the tongue.”

We also tried a  2012 Bisamberg Alte Reben, Wiener Gemischter Satz, made from grapes grown in a 75- year old vineyard.  The wine, named “white wine of the year in Austria,”   goes well with richer foods. “Austrians like to combine heavier dishes with full bodied white wines,” he said.  And, Austrians drink white wines with all types of food –meat, fish, poultry, cheese, etc.

Platter of hearty food at the Christ Heuriger
Platter of hearty food at the Christ Heuriger


Grape Grazing Bicycle Wine tour of the Wachau Valley with  Vienna Explorer,  59 euros,‎

Domȁne Wachau,

Weingut & Heuriger Christ,

Vienna Heurigen Express, Hop  on, Hop off sightseeing tour through the Vienna wine region and villages.  Trip ends with a visit to a Heuriger, but you can get off en route to see more at leisure.

Excellent, reasonable hotel in Vienna, Hotel Daniel, http://www.hoteldaniel.comblog.7

More helpful web sites:

See column at right for recipe:  Baked Salmon Fillets with Goat Cheese and Coriander requested by friend Sue. Comments on blog post and recipes are welcome. See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Subscribers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right.

A magical meal in Italy

I felt I should have been reporting for  Bon Appétit magazine.  It was one of those fabulous food and people spreads – a multi-course meal in the huge, homey kitchen of a 500-year-old house in a tiny Italian village shared by Italians and Americans.  And, I was lucky enough to be part of it.  Too good to be true.cucina7

Thanks to our friends Noel and Carol, whom husband Bob and I know from our days together in Germany, we were included in this memorable feast which went on for five fun-filled hours.  Noel and Carol have retired to northern Italy where they enjoy la dolce vita.  We were their houseguests.

Carol and Noel
Carol and Noel

The lunch hosts:  Fabio and his American wife Victoria.  Fabio is a vintner (  with a passion for precious gems as well as grapes.  He has been trading in gem stones since the age of 18, worked for the up market jeweler Bulgari in New York as well as in Italy, and is also dedicated to restoring his


family’s ancient home, Palazzo Policreti Negrelli in Aviano, which has 47 rooms and has been in his family for more than 200 years. The original owner, engineer Luigi Negrelli , played a significant role in the construction of the  Suez Canal.

Fabio  met his warm and gracious wife  Victoria in California.  She is employed by a German construction company as a translator and much more.  “I am lucky to have an American wife,” says Fabio.  “Italian women often have headaches or give you headaches.”

The guests: In  addition to me and Bob, Noel and Carol, seated at the table were  Riccardo and Zeta, two jolly Italian characters who have known each other since the age of 3, met Fabio  in Los Angeles years ago, and call themselves “professional  travelers.”    Riccardo said he “doesn’t belong to one place,” while Zeta calls himself  “a man of the planet.”   ”We can’t retire, we don’t work,” explained burly Riccardo, who says he has four wives, each in a different country, and claims his only possessions are “an old car and a bicycle.”


Zeta, a chef,  does work six months out of the year at his brother’s restaurant in Greenville, S. C. “When Zeta visits us the first question is ‘what’s on the menu?’  His creations are famous at our hose,” says Fabio. “Instead of making a grocery list, he just looks in the refrigerator and his imagination begins to spin.  He can literally put together a feast by using all the various items which have been abandoned in our frig.  Needless to say, I like to work around him as there is always something to learn or a new taste to discover.”


The food: Zeta was the coach, Fabio the student who made a big patch of Ligurian pesto with guidance from the chef.  They wanted to share their creation with friends, hence the lunch party.

The French are obsessed with food — Italians perhaps even more so.  Most Italian men cook, Fabio told us, as he checked the boiling pasta for texture.  “A cucina10big part of the day is based on food,” he said.  And, it  is essential that ingredients  be of top quality, he explained.  He claims that Victoria  is “thankful to me for showing her the true secrets of Italian cooking improvisation.”

A refreshing cocktail, a combination of Campari, white wine, Prosecco, and Schweppes, got  the afternoon of to a festive start.

The meal began with fresh ricotta, so creamy and delicate, served with homemade mango chutney and caramelized figs with balsamic vinegar.  The cheese was locally produced, and it was exquisite with the tangy chutney and figs.  There was a platter of prosciutto from the local butcher who cures it cucina1himself, we learned.  And a salad — greens, tomatoes and  luscious mozzarella di Bufala with pungent olive oil from Puglia and black salt from Cypress.  The main course:  trofiette, a  Ligurian pasta,  with the pesto which had been prepared with pecorino.  “Never use parmesan,”  insisted Fabio.

This was followed by a bowl of spaghettini  with the same pesto.  The flavor of the pesto changes with the different type of pasta, we learned.  It seemed hard to cucina2believe, but it was true.  I preferred the pesto on trofiette, others liked the spaghettini  version.  This initiated an animated  discussion of the difference between trofiette and trennette, another type of pasta… Food is definitely serious business in Italy.

For dessert, aged Sardinian pecorino and pears. “It’s hard to get good pears…these are organic from Trentino… Never tell a farmer he has good cheese.  Then he will eat it all, ”  said Riccardo. The cheese was knock-your-socks- off strong.  I loved it, but it was too much for Bob.    He had several  helpings  of the  perfectly diced fresh strawberries that followed.  This prompted Fabio to tell of his cucina6grandmother’s fantastic crop of strawberries in 1986, the year of the Chernobyl disaster.  A boost from radiation?

He went on to relate more engaging tales of his grandmother, a remarkable woman who  “was a very special person to me.”   She lived through two great wars,  suffered the tragic deaths of several family members, but was always a positive and smiling person, Fabio recalled.  “She was the oldest car rally driver in 1996 at the age of 95.  I was the only person brave enough to be her co-pilot.”’

Fabio and his grandmother in 1996.
Fabio and his grandmother in 1996.

We drank Fabio’s Pinot Grigio, followed by a strong red wine called Stroppolatini, then a Sud Tyrol Kerner as an after dinner wine.  Some indulged cucnia9n a rare 45-year–old herb Grappa to top off the meal.  There were also chocolates, courtesy of Riccardo who brought them from a special shop in the Dolomites.

All the ingredients for a magical afternoon:  lively ambience,  fascinating personalities, excellent food and  amusing, entertaining, educational conversation  covering  everything from religion and politics, to the economy, movies — and food of course.

“Italians lose interest in politics,” Victoria said.  “That’s the problem.  They’d rather discuss food.”cucina13

Just in time for summer picnics, Super Slaw.  See recipe in column at right. Comments on blog post and recipes are welcome. See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Subscribers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right

Misadventures in New Zealand

 Swimming with dolphins, kayaking on the open sea, hiking along the shore, plus visits to wineries and fabulous meals.  My kind of trip.

It was the Marlborough Nelson pre-trip on our voyage to New Zealand last November to attend the convention of the Society of American Travel Writers.

The food and wine were over the top.   Dolphins and kayaks – another story.

“These are very sturdy kayaks.  No one has ever capsized on one of my trips,” our perky kayak guide assured us as we prepared to put the boats in the frigid Pacific.   Maladroit Bob and Leah had obviously not been on one of her trips.

We were the retards in the group of six  or so kayaks – always way behind the others.  He (Bob)  kept yelling  at me to switch the paddle to the other side, to dig the oar deeper into the water.   I must admit, I was not adept with the blasted paddles.   And, I was always a bit nervous as I feared we were holding the others back, so I constantly tried to paddle faster and faster which was exhausting  and left my arms throbbing.  The scenery, however, was stupendous.

We held our own until we had to round a point to get back to shore. The winds were strong, so strong we weren’t moving, even though we were paddling hard.  The guide explained how we could use the paddle as a sail – just hold it up and the wind would blow us forward.  Bob was screaming at me, “Paddle left,  Paddle left.”  As I switched to the left, a gust caught the paddle and over we went.

A rude  shock.  12 degrees C. ( 54 degrees F.)  water is none too pleasant, but I popped right up and out of the kayak.  Where was Bob?  I was concerned as he does not know how to swim.  Fortunately he popped up instantly too. Nonetheless  I panicked.  My camera, my precious new Canon Rebel?  It was in one of those waterproof bags strapped to the boat, but I was devastated, convinced  it had drowned.

How to get back in the kayak which had righted itself?  The guide, no doubt eating her words, arrived at the scene of disaster and told us to turn the kayak upside down to empty it of water.  I refused, certain this would spell death for my camera if in fact it had survived.  I told her to help Bob, and that I could swim to shore which  did not seem that far off.  She was adamant – no way should I swim.  So, she gave us instructions and somehow, but with great effort and none too gracefully, we managed to manipulate our soaked and freezing bodies into the boat.  Then, she instructed  us  to pump the water out.  We pumped and paddled, but we were trembling with cold and making little progress.  Finally another guide came and towed us to shore (farther away than I thought – good I did not swim).

I  could not stop shivering, but once on shore I ripped open the bag with the camera. Unbelievable.  It was OK.  Bob’s expensive sunglasses did vanish to the bottom of the sea.  My prescription sunglasses, which I had been wearing, managed to stay on my head.  Another miracle.

We had been toId to bring an extra set of clothing.  Certain that it would not be required, I only brought a pair of jeans  — better than nothing, but more was needed.  Others in the group lent us T-shirts and sweaters.  Nonetheless, we quivered from the cold for what seemed like ages… (This kayak catastrophe brought back memories of our failed attempt at dancing lessons.  There, too, we were the duds in the group.  We best stick to bicycling.)

Then there was the boat excursion to swim with dolphins.   The lovely creatures were sure to appear, we were told.  Those in the group who planned to plunge into the freezing water, this time about 14 degrees  C ( 57 degrees F.) , were given wet suits.  Bob, not a swimmer, passed on this adventure.

The boat trip was scenic, and eventually we spotted dolphins.  The playful creatures followed right alongside the boat, jumping and soaring out of the water at times. Watching them was thrilling.  Swimming with them would be even better.

The boat captain maneuvered the craft  to get ahead of the dolphins, then we were told to jump in.  As dolphins are said to be curious and like humans, they were supposed to come and join us in the water.  We were told to make noise, to sing, through the snorkel mouth piece. This would surely attract the dolphins.

Nine bodies swimming around in frigid waters emitting bizarre sounds.  It was comical.  The wet suit did help, but after awhile, the cold penetrated.   We swam and sang, but the dolphins did not show up, so one by one we’d get back on board.  This ritual was repeated four different times as the captain tried yet again and again to position the boat where he thought the dolphins would be. And, time after time, we plunged into the icy water for naught.

The dolphins were nearby.  Why didn’t they join us? According to one of the guides, they were probably mating, and sex was more exciting than a bunch of crazy humans.  Can’t say I blame them.

Not all was amiss on our excursion in the Marlborough and Nelson regions which are at the top of New Zealand’s South Island.  Marlborough is the country’s largest wine-growing region, especially known for sauvignon blanc.  We visited several beautiful wineries where we tasted and savored some excellent vintages.

We also enjoyed a delicious boat excursion to mussel beds   Lunch was on board – a feast of succulent greenshelled mussels, the best I’d ever tasted.

And, we had a delightful overnight stay at the Lochmara Lodge Wildlife Recovery Center.  The lodge is accessible only by boat.  Hiking trails lead up in the hills above the cluster of buildings, offering super views, as well as interesting outdoor art and sculptures en route.

Watch the slide show below for more photos of New Zealand.  And, try the recipe for “Two Cheese Spinach and Mushroom Casserole” listed in the column at right.  It’s a winner – and easy to prepare.

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