Posted by: JLG | 7 July 2015

Oh! Canada!! (And the US, too)

After leaving Queenstown and the wedding of the century, I commenced my North America marketing trip. Coming without J2 made the flight over a bit less fun, but there was one upside to solo travel–since I had no seat mates on the Air NZ flight from Auckland to San Francisco, I was able to turn my economy seats into what they call a “sky sofa”, allowing me to more-or-less stretch out in something akin to comfort for the 12-hour flight. I wouldn’t say it compared with an actual 180-degree flat seat, but it was close enough, and at the price I paid, quite acceptable.

Arriving at Dulles at just after 1am, I of course missed my car rental agency’s opening hours, but lucked out by being able to convince a rival agency with 24-hour service to rent me a car for about 8 hours at a pretty good price. Unfortunately, I was pretty exhausted and out of it and not only started to drive up the wrong side of the road but also managed to head in the wrong direction on the Dulles Toll Road, causing me to pay not one, not two, but three unnecessary tolls to get from the airport to my friends’ house.

God Bless America! This much gas would cost NZ$60!

God Bless America! This much gas would cost NZ$60!

In DC I mostly got to see friends and do some shopping, there being no agencies to meet with there. So much has changed even in the year since our last visit that I can hardly believe it, from the construction of new neighbourhoods in Northern Virginia to the opening of new interesting restaurants. I did not manage to see all the friends I’d have liked to see there, but I made a good dent, and we’ll just have to try to see the people we missed when we come back next year.

My first meeting of the trip was up in Philadelphia on the Friday of my arrival week, so rather than “waste” a night up there with no one to see, I turned it into a day trip. Fearing the traffic on I-95 I left DC around 6am (for an 11am meeting) and of course got to Philadelphia just around 9am, giving me plenty of time to kick around and wait for my meeting time. The meeting was with an agency whom we’ve seen before, both in the US and in NZ, and they are frequent sources of guests for us, so it was really a “catch-up” session. Happily, not long after the meeting, during which I spelled out all that we’re changing to our three annex guest rooms, they booked a two-night stay in two of those rooms. Ka-ching!

After returning to DC for another two nights (and experiencing a classic summertime thunderstorm on my last night in town) I left on Sunday morning to kick-off my road trip, heading to the tourism hotspot of Dayton, Ohio. That’s a good eight-hour drive from DC, a drive that I anticipated with some dread, fearing that I would not have enough podcasts to keep me entertained between NPR stations, but my friend Ken, who himself was taking a 10-hour drive to Nashville that weekend, recommended downloading an audiobook, which I dutifully did. What a great idea!! I listened to Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, about the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the country’s first documented serial killer as I headed in the direction of the Windy City (and beyond) and was riveted. There’s nothing like gruesome murders (told in a very subtle way) to make the time pass by.

Dayton is a town that I probably could have happily lived my life without ever seeing, but the meeting that I had there was more than likely worth the trip (I hope), and I surprisingly found a pretty good sushi bar for my dinner there. Sushi is one of those things that I just cannot find easily in NZ, so I am happy to take any opportunity outside of the country to indulge in one of my favourite treats.

Chicago Skyline from Bucktown

Chicago Skyline from Bucktown

From Dayton it was a relatively easy drive to Chicago, though I had to cross through the State of Indiana. This was my first time visiting Indiana, and if it is my last I would not mind at all. The state of the highways in Indiana is scandalous, with more potholes than even New York City can muster, and loads of debris on the road, including a truck tire just sitting in the middle of the roadway that I came extremely close to hitting (thank goodness Waze had warned me of a “hazard ahead”, and I caught sight of it milliseconds before I’d have hit it).

In Chicago I once again stayed at my friends’ beautiful house in Bucktown, a really convenient place to be based. My meetings there were all excellent, and I not only got to have more sushi, but also some really excellent Mexican food, and it’s all quite reasonably priced. I even found time to experience some culture, visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, a museum that I cannot recall ever having visited before. (The ticket price to get in–a whopping $25–may explain some of that.)

Culture!

Culture!

Next stop after Chicago was Motor City, though to be fair I never actually set foot, nor even see, the city itself. Instead, I based myself in the suburbs, with the sister of my friend Kris, whom I’ll see later in LA, stopping en route in Ann Arbor to visit the famed Zingerman’s Delicatessen for lunch (and having a quick catch-up with a high school friend, who saw me “check in” there on Facebook and popped by to chat while I had my sandwich). Again, very good meetings in the Detroit area, including several that were organised for me by Kris’ mother, who told her travel agent friends that our lodge was a “must” for their wealthy clientele.

Leaving Detroit on a drizzly and miserable Saturday morning I headed into Canada toward my first stop in Toronto. Crossing the border at Port Huron I was surprised to get a bit of an interrogation at Canadian immigration (I think I surprised him by saying i live in New Zealand, despite showing him a US passport and driving a Tennessee-registered car). But the process was quick and before long I was in the Great White North, speeding east on the really nice Canadian highway and stopping for a break at a really nice Canadian rest stop to have my first order of poutine (which was not really nice).

The Bean in Chicago

My base in Toronto was the home of a friend of mine from Beijing days, a Chinese-Canadian who is a real Chinaphobe and who now works for a cigarette company though he does not smoke. He warned me many times that he has three young kids, and may not find it a very restful place to stay, but his daughters (ages 5 and 7) and his 2-year old son were absolutely delightful, the five-year old really taking to me, much to my surprise.

I had the Sunday of my stay to use to explore Toronto a bit, so I headed into town for a wander, taking in a bit of the Pride parade while I was at it. This was my second-ever Pride Festival, and the first of course since SCOTUS legalised same-sex marriage in the US the previous Friday, and the atmosphere was truly electric, and the entire city was covered in rainbow flags, much to my surprise. The parade went on for several hours, despite persistent drizzle, and the rain did nothing to dampen the mood of the revellers, the vast majority of whom were almost certainly straight.

Fireworks

Fireworks

While in Toronto I also got to go to a Canada Day fireworks display in downtown, probably one of the best I have ever seen (take that, Beijing Olympics!), and since my friend’s tobacco company was a sponsor we got to go to the VIP viewing area and slurp oysters and drink lovely Canadian wine during the show.

On Canada Day itself I drove to Montreal, figuring that I wouldn’t be able to have any meetings on the holiday, and the traffic would be light. I had not really figured on just how far Toronto is from Montreal, though, and was surprised that it took more than six hours to get there. Still, I arrived in plenty of time to walk from my B&B to the famed Schwartz’s for a lunner (since it was my lunch and dinner in one) of smoked meat on rye with a side of fries, a pickle and a Cott’s Black Cherry cola. This is a quintessential Jewish-Montreal experience, and it did not disappoint–in fact, I was a bit relieved that the sandwich was not anything like as big as a NYC pastrami sandwich, so I did not feel quite as gluttonous for having it.

Toronto Pride 2015

Toronto Pride 2015

I only had one meeting in Montreal, first thing on the morning of the 2nd, so the rest of the day was free for me to explore this city that I last visited in college in the mid-1980s. How I wish I had taken the time to visit during the intervening 30 years, since this is a great and very visitable city! Not only is getting around really easy, thanks to a C$10 all-day transit pass and good walking shoes, but there are loads of lovely neighbourhoods to explore, and some fantastic markets. I had thought the St Lawrence Market in Toronto was impressive, but it pales in comparison with the markets in Montreal! The first one I visited, the Atwater Market to the west of the downtown area, was relatively small, but still had a huge range of stalls, and a large selection of ready-to-eat stands. (I had lunch at a place serving the cuisine of Reunion Island (a French overseas department near Madagascar), which was sensational, making me wonder why that island is not better known for its food.) But the second one I went to, Jean-Talon, is the city’s largest and reputedly the largest outdoor market in North America. And what a market it is, too! Loads of vendors selling beautiful produce, meats, seafood and everything to go with them, and at very reasonable prices. I could not resist the allure of the oyster bar, where about a dozen varieties were on offer, and where they put together a degustation platter for me of six varieties (all of which were excellent), and the gelato place had some really interesting flavours, including a burnt maple caramel one that I had to try. But the best find of the market was the spice shop. As I entered, I asked the person who greeted me (and who turned out to be one of the owners) if by any chance they had mastic, and she said something like “what kind of spice shop would I be without mastic?!” before producing a beautiful tin of the stuff. When the guy handed her the tin to pass for me, she asked what I planned to use it for, and when I said it was to make ice cream, the two of them exclaimed excitedly and we embarked on a lengthy chat about cooking, spices, New Zealand, etc etc. I wound up with not just the mastic, but two varieties of pepper that I had never heard of (probably since they are imported from the source exclusively by this little stand) and several unique versions of things like cardamom and fennel that they source from top-notch growers. I spent about 90 minutes with them, and left feeling like I had made new friends. (The young guy who was helping me for most of my visit happens to have just moved back to Canada after living in Suzhou for 6 years, and is a food geographer, something I never heard of before but that I wish I had studied to become myself.) And they do mail order! (you can visit them at www.epicesdecru.com or, in English, www.spicetrekkers.com).

At Épicerie de Cru

At Épicerie de Cru

I hated to leave Montreal, but there was an enticing carrot at the end of the road, a visit with Cindy and Paul in the Boston area. Driving back into the US I had an even more strict interrogation than at the entry into Canada (being asked “why did you visit Canada” in an accusing tone really startled me, as though there was something wrong with visiting our friendly neighbours to the north), but it was efficient at least.

On the way south through Vermont, though, my “check engine” light came on, making me fear that I was going to go through what happened last year once again, with my car giving up the ghost at the most inopportune time as I entered the city or something. So I phoned the rental agency and was told to go to a nearby Dollar Rent-a-Car to exchange the car. Googling yielded a location more-or-less on my route in the Boston suburbs, but when I got there all I found was a Hertz location, and they could not help me (but Hertz owns Dollar, so that’s why it appeared as such on the map), and they said Dollar only has depots at the airport, so off I went to Logan. Manoeuvring Logan Airport is bad on foot, but doing so in a rental car that you are trying to exchange is virtually impossible, since I had to take the car not to the rental return area, but to the rental pick-up area, and you can’t there from here. I literally circumnavigated the depot building six times before finally giving up and having one of the return guys guide me to where I needed to be (it involved going through an “employees only–severe tire damage if you cross this line” area, which naturally put me off when I encountered it), an undertaking that took nearly 90 minutes in total. Luckily, I still managed to miss traffic and I got to Cohasset just around 6pm.

July 4 Feast, Cohasset-style

July 4 Feast, Cohasset-style

On July 4 we had a quiet day, doing not much other than my favourite thing in New England–preparing and enjoying a seafood feast comprising not just lobster and steamers, but also oysters that we picked up at the Whole Foods nearby. These New England oysters even surpassed the ones in Montreal, especially the ones from Cotuit, which I’ll have to seek out again sometime. Cindy even made a cherry pie, making it a truly American celebration. It’s always great hanging out with Cindy and Paul and the boys, and this year was no different.

My stay in New England continues for a few more days, and then I’ll be in NYC for a whopping two weeks, visiting with my mom and attending to some business and shopping in the city. The story of that part of the visit will follow!

Posted by: JLG | 14 June 2015

Heading Off Again

It’s early winter here in the southern hemisphere, so of course it’s time once again for me to head northwards and do the annual marketing/holiday trip. This time, however, I’m going to be travelling solo, since J2 is staying behind to work on the long-planned expansion of our three Annex rooms. We applied for the building consent some time ago, hoping that it would be approved by late May, but due to a few minor hiccups with the architect’s responses to the council’s questions, there has been a slight delay. The builder, however, has assured us that once we got approval from planning (which came a few weeks ago) we could safely start the demolition work that has to precede the construction, so J2 got right into action, stripping out all the rooms’ fittings first (which could have been easily put back if need be) and then, a week or so ago, ripping out the drywall, 2x4s and other bits and pieces. The result is that we are now pretty close to having bare walls ready to be turned into our new mini suites, with work set to start in a week or so.

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I have been utterly useless in this whole endeavor, other than helping bash out some nails from the 2x4s that we plan to reuse (in a cost-saving move, we are recycling the 2x4s, the toilet basins, and some other bits and pieces, leading our builder to ask whether I was also going to work on straightening the nails that we’ve removed so we can reuse them, too). Even doing that little task wore me out, so I have to hand it to J2 for doing all that he has done so far, and will continue to do while I’m gone.

I left Oamaru on Friday afternoon, taking the intercity bus to Queenstown via Dunedin. This is only the second time that I have taken the intercity bus in NZ, and it’s not a bad experience. The only issue I had was that the bus was late leaving Oamaru, since two passengers took their time reboarding the bus after their lunch break, which in turn meant that we were late pulling into Dunedin and causing me nearly to miss my connection. The connecting bus to Queenstown was chock full of people, too, so I had a crowded ride for the better part of four hours, with a large Maori guy sitting next to me until a stop an hour outside of Queenstown. The bus stopped about half-way to Queenstown, in the small town of Roxburgh, for a toilet-and-tea break. These were the most high-tech toilets I had seen in NZ, with everything automated (and a warning that the door would open after ten minutes, ready or not!), but the rest of the town was definitely low-tech, and there was not a thing that I wanted to eat in the lone teashop that was open when we pulled in at 4:30pm.

Eventually we got to Queenstown, where I had a brisk walk in the freezing cold evening from the bus stop to the hotel. There I was surprised that they had no reservation for me, despite my having booked it through the travel agent when I booked my airline tickets. A little digging yielded the fun fact that the agent booked my room for the 12th to 15th of May instead of June! Happily they had a free room, even though the hotel was crawling with wedding guests and Chinese tourists, and it was the opening day of ski season, and I eventually managed to get the travel agency to sort out the situation so that I won’t have to pay for the room again.

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Lake Wakatipu

The wedding I’m here to attend is between the daughter of Oamaru friends Toni and Derek, Sally, and her rugby-playing fiancé, Nick. The couple live in London, where Nick plays for the Harlequins, and apparently he’s a bit of a celebrity, since we were all told in the buses heading to the wedding venue that we were forbidden from posting any images in public fora because of a contract between the couple and Women’s Week magazine. Thus I will not be sharing any photos from the wedding, despite it being in a beautiful winery outside of Queenstown on a very pretty (but pretty) afternoon. The celebrant was a friend of the family who has celebrated a few weddings at the lodge, and a lot of the guests are people I know from Oamaru. I was seated at a table for the reception with no one I knew, but we quickly found enough common interests to get a good conversation going. And better still, all the tables were named for parts of London, and I got Park Lane! Ka-ching!

Because the wedding was a good 30 minutes away from Queenstown, we were dependent on buses to get us back and forth, and the return buses were only leaving at midnight, so I had a pretty late night. And, since this was a Kiwi wedding involving a good number of Scots, there was a lot of alcohol consumed, and my bus ride back was a rollicking, song-filled booze cruise. Surprisingly, most seemed none the worse for wear the next morning when the group reconvened for a casual lunch, complete with a haggis that was welcomed with a recitation of Burns’ Ode. Happily, there were other things to eat besides the haggis (but the haggis actually tasted pretty good, even though the stench that emanated from it when it was pierced during the ode was really foul).

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The Haggis

The wedding now is over and I look forward to heading to the US tomorrow afternoon, and to seeing friends, family and having some meetings with travel agents. I’ll post updates from the road, for sure!

Posted by: JLG | 17 May 2015

A Trip to Wellington

Barely more than a week after getting back from our Auckland trip, I was on the road again, this time to get to Wellington for a Chaine event. J2 stayed home this time to look after the boys, and also to work on a website thing he’s doing for our lodge group. Wednesday morning I got in the car and took the three-hour drive to Christchurch where I took care of a few errands, such as trying out beds for the new rooms (the ones we’re buying are commercial, and there is nowhere to experience them other than the factory, apparently), picking up sample fabrics for our sofa beds, and looking at wooden furniture at a hardwood furniture factory. I even managed to find a bamboo tea tray for serving our pu’erh tea, something I’d been looking for for ages.

On Thursday morning I left drizzly Christchurch for the flight to Wellington. Wellington is notoriously windy, of course, so flying in can always be a bit of an “experience”, but this time the weather was just a bit wet. In fact, they were having a thunderstorm, so we were somewhat delayed landing, and then once on the ground we had to wait a bit before the lightning abated and they could let the ground crew remove the checked baggage. Still, I managed to get to my hotel in good time to get to a meeting I had organised to see one of the travel agents that we work with regularly to update them on news at the lodge.

After the meeting, I was collected by a fellow Chaine board member who had picked up another two board members already and who planned to drive us to her house for a meeting before we would head out to a dinner event. Unfortunately, a massive rainstorm was hitting the area, shutting down the highway that we needed to take, along with the commuter rail service, and causing businesses all over the area to close early, throwing thousands of people onto the already congested roads and turning what should have been a 20-minute ride into what would take at least two hours. We took a quick decision and cancelled the meeting, but the dinner was decided should go on, since a) the restaurant had already prepared for the expected 60 guests, b) the event was a fundraiser for the young chef who won the competition that we held a number of months ago so that she could afford to attend the international competition to be held in Budapest in September, and c) people (like me) had flown in for the event.

As we inched along the highway, however, all our cellphones were going crazy with people phoning us, us phoning people, and everyone trying to see whether the roads were clearing, getting worse, or alternate routes were opening up. To say the least, it was an interesting afternoon. We finally got to the house, where the four of us quickly changed into black tie for the dinner, and when we got to the restaurant we were shocked to find that out of the expected 60 guests, 57 had actually made it! The evening was going to be a success after all!

The dinner was a six-course affair, with each course prepared by either our competitor or her chef, who had just joined the Chaine. Happily for us who were involved with the competition, the dishes prepared by the competitor were the best of the evening, in particular a lamb Wellington dish that was just delicious. Unfortunately, and for reasons that I cannot quite comprehend, I did not make it to the dessert course, since something either did not agree with me or perhaps I was taking in more alcohol than the limited amount of food I had had that day could absorb (the sum of food I’d eaten before the dinner amounted to a few pieces of toast at breakfast and an apricot bar that we grabbed when we fuelled up the car for the drive). Not a wonderful sensation, especially since I was on photo duty, and did not want anyone to know that I was in a bad way. Happily it passed quickly enough, and the drive back to my hotel was far shorter than the one out so before too long I was back in bed and feeling fine.

The next day the newspapers were full of news of the floods and chaos in Wellington, but the weather had passed and was not too bad. I had another couple of meetings in the morning with more travel agents, but the rest of the day was mine to do what I wanted. I took the chance to visit the Te Papa National Museum to see their exhibit on the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli  landings. What an excellent exhibit it was, too, with enormous models of a number of soldiers made by the Weta Workshop folks and loads of interesting information that was completely new to me. It really did help somewhat to make it clear why Anzac Day is such a big deal here, despite the fact that the battle was a rout for the New Zealand (and Australian) forces and it was against a foe with which NZ (and Australia) had absolutely no argument.

In the evening I went out to the house of some friends (guests from last year who now come to Oamaru twice a year for the Steampunk and Victorian festivals, staying with us for up to a week at a time) for a wonderful dinner and an opportunity to sample some options for a signature cocktail they have offered to design for the lodge (they still have some work to do). It was so nice that they did not go on and on about being nervous cooking for me, but instead just put together a really tasty and clever meal, starting with “fish and chips” (though theirs comprised little fried whitebait and chips–when I steal this idea I’ll do it with shoestring potatoes so it’ll look like a cute miniature version of the iconic classic) and then moving on to beef Wellington (meaning I had meat Wellington both nights of my stay in Wellington).

It was overall a lovely visit to the capital, despite the weather and my bout of stomach issues, and I look forward to going back in October to judge the next national Jeune Chef Rôtisseur competition.

Posted by: JLG | 9 May 2015

A Little Post-Season Treat

This has easily been the busiest season we have had to date, with a steady stream of guests from early November to mid-April. So we decided that we would have a bit of a treat for ourselves at the beginning of our annual trip to Auckland for the annual meeting of our lodge association and its trade show by having a stay at one of our sister lodges. The added benefit of this was that it would give us time to go to Christchurch to do a bit of furniture shopping for our newly expanded guest rooms.

Otahuna Lodge is located in the Christchurch suburb of Tai Tapu, and is also owned by a pair of Americans (in fact, when we first came to look at PYB, we went to meet with Otahuna’s owners to see if they could offer us any advice on the move). We have got to know the owners over the course of the past few years, and Hall and Miles have been very helpful to us, and have shared a lot of their guests with us (we have returned the favour a few times, but it’s harder to send impromptu guests to a place that charges $2000 a night…) Like our place, Otahuna is also a heritage building, but it is a bit larger, and it has multiple storeys. Even so they only have six guest rooms, and they are beautiful, and far larger than ours.

When we arrived we were met at the entrance by Miles, Hall and their chef, Jimmy. They took our bags into the lodge for us, and before we knew what was happening, one of them proceeded to hop into the car and drive it to their parking area (if I had known that would be happening I would have cleaned the car out a bit better; thank goodness we had no McDonald’s wrappers in there!). We were shown our room (their largest) and given a tour of the house, and then given time to entertain ourselves before dinner. We took a bit of a walk through their gardens, giving J2 a few items to get cuttings of in the spring, and then got changed for dinner.

Like our place, at Otahuna they start the evening with pre-dinner wine and canapés, and they make a lot of their components themselves. Also like us, guests normally dine together here, but the other guests that evening preferred to dine solo (harrumph) so we got the beautiful dining room all to ourselves while they were seated in a little alcove off the drawing room. We were surprised that no menu was presented, but Jimmy served each course, describing them as he set them before us and answering questions about them. (Happily, we found that a menu had been put in our guest room during dinner, so we have it now to jog my memory.) Here’s what we had:

  • Roast Jerusalem Artichoke, Parsnip and Garlic Soup with Seared Scallops and Truffled Mushroom Salsa
  • Yellow Fin Tuna with Homemade Udon Noodles, Broccoli and Sesame
  • Tai Tapu Duck with Celeriac & Fennel Purée and Otahuna Autumn Vegetables
  • Whitestone Lindis Pass Brie (From Oamaru, I might add)
  • Granny Smith Apple Strudel with Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée and Lemon Sorbet

Each course was accompanied by a wine match, all from NZ, and the dishes were all really good (though I told Jimmy that the tuna was overwhelmed by the sauce accompanying the noodles, which reminded me of Beijing style zhajiangmian) but we kept it to ourselves that my crème brûlée is far better).

In the morning, another chef took responsibility for serving breakfast, starting with an array of cold dishes similar to what we do, and the offer of a cooked breakfast (which I declined since we were on a freebie and I did not want to put them out…). We departed soon after breakfast to get a jump on our shopping, but we surely did not want to leave. The experience was truly wonderful, and everything done very professionally and effortlessly, and since we share so many guests with them it gave us an opportunity to learn what the difference between our offering and theirs is. While our rooms certainly do not match up with theirs in terms of size, we feel that in other matters we hold our own pretty well!

Enjoy a glimpse of what you can expect if you go to Otahuna yourself:

Posted by: JLG | 11 March 2015

All Abuzz

One of the things we had thought we would do when we moved to NZ was to raise chickens so we’d have lodge-grown eggs o the table and set up a bee hive so we could offer our own honey. Unfortunately, the land information memorandum (LIM) that governs what we can do at the property prohibits both activities, so for the past five years we have made do with free range eggs and honey from local farmers. Shocking, I know.

I have never really minded not having my own chickens, since frankly I have no great desire to look after them or deal with them getting sick, or eaten, or old, or otherwise creating some sort of thing that needs dealing with. There’s also no shortage of chickens and people willing to sell us eggs. Bees, on the other hand, are under threat, and people are always being told to do what we can to support the bee population, so we have both thought about setting up a hive somewhere to help chip in.

The only thing that has really stood in our way is the fact that we know nothing about beekeeping, and there seemed to be a lot more to turning bees into honey than just setting up a hive and letting the honey flow out. But the other day I saw a friend nearby, whose husband happens to keep bees, share a link on her Facebook page to a Kickstarter campaign for a newbie-friendly beehive that not only allows you to see into the hive, but also has a special mechanism that allows you to remove the honey without having to disturb the bees at all. You can see it here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/flow-hive-honey-on-tap-directly-from-your-beehive

So while that may have solved our lack-of-experience problem, it didn’t solve our LIM problem. So I wrote on my Facebook page that I was looking for someone to house a hive for us, and before long got several offers of help. But among the responses was one from the mayor himself, telling me to just put up the beehive on our own property and not worry about the LIM. Well, if the mayor says to just do it, then who am I to say “no”?

So I have backed the project and expect to receive a hive toward the end of the year. Once it’s here, we can order a queen bee and a number of workers to kickstart the hive, and get a bee suit so we look the part when we go to check the hive. I’m very excited at the prospect of having our own honey, and at being able to make lots of nougat.

Posted by: JLG | 10 March 2015

Autumn is Here

According to the rather odd way that NZ calculates the start of seasons, autumn arrived on 1 March. No amount of explaining that the season should start with the autumnal equinox around the 21st of the month will convince Kiwis that their easier-to-remember system has no astronomical validity, and much as I would prefer to think that we have three more weeks of summer, I have given up trying to do so. But the fact remains that it really is still summer, and the weatherman seems to concur, since the weather remains rather warm.

In years past, March has signalled the end of our “season”, meaning the number of visitors to the lodge starts to peter off, but this year is a bit different. We have started the month with a very busy schedule, including a number of full-house nights. We also reached a significant milestone, with our first repeat overseas guests checking in the other day. They last stayed with us for two nights in September 2013, and they are already back, all the way from Germany. They were meant to stay just one night, but after dinner they asked if they might stay one more. As things stood at that point, we were only anticipating one room occupied the following night, so we readily agreed. But then by the next afternoon we managed to fill two more rooms.

One of those rooms went to a couple who phoned in the mid-afternoon asking for a room. The lady had a strong Scottish accent, and she asked for a room without asking the rate, which made me worry that she would balk at the price when they arrived. I needn’t have worried, however, since they tooled up the driveway in a classic Rolls-Royce that they had just collected from a restoration garage in Christchurch, and were driving it back to their place in Queenstown. The other unexpected couple also did not ask the rate when they rang, but when they revealed on arrival that they are sheep farmers, I knew that the price would be no issue (but the wife turned out to be a vegetarian, which I did not expect at all). These two couples hit it off very quickly, which worked out great, since they ended up having to entertain themselves to a large degree, owing to the late arrival back from a fishing outing of the fourth couple staying that night (who were with us a total of four nights, more on them later).

Speaking of unexpected guests, last Thursday we had no one due in so J2 arranged for the builder to come so that the two of them could inspect the building that we plan to expand this winter. Meantime, I went out with Ashley (my sous chef) to pick blackberries near her place, 20 minutes away. Not too long after I got there I got a frantic call from J2, saying that guests had arrived, complete with a travel agent voucher. I couldn’t understand how they didn’t show up on the schedule, and J2 could not communicate with them since they spoke nothing but French. I rushed back to find that they had headed out to check out the town, which gave me a chance to look up their booking–it turned out that the reservation got entered into our system with the wrong year! Luckily, the guests were very nice and understanding when they returned to the lodge, and they had a nice stay with us.

So back to the four-night stay guests. They were booked by a travel agency that only started using us this year, despite our making appeals to them for the past four years. They are a very high-end agency (or think they are, anyway) and their clientele tend to stay at all the über-luxe lodges in the country. After they booked this American couple for a three-night stay, they started to inundate us with emails about what the guests like to do, and asking us to arrange all these activities for them, including fishing, musical events, hikes, and wildlife encounters. To say the least, they made the guests sound very high-maintenance. Then, two days before they were due to arrive, the agent rang to say that they did not like the place they were booked into for that night and the next, and wanted to add a night to their stay with us. This raised a lot of red flags in our heads (though, having stayed at the place they were at, we could understand the sentiment), so we were pretty anxious when they finally arrived.

Happily for us, they turned out to be easily our favourite guests this year, and perhaps since we opened. They are from the Boston area, not much older than us, but the husband has recently retired from his finance-related job and clearly did very well in it. We managed to send him off fly fishing one day while his wife went on a hike and wine tasting in the Waitaki Valley, and they also went fishing together one day, and of course they visited the penguins. One night while sitting after dinner they told us that while our place may not be the fanciest place they’ve stayed at, ours was by far the nicest place and with vastly superior food. What a lovely compliment! And last night, their last with us, they had us sit with them while they eat (resulting in the other guests, who had finished dinner by the time they returned from fishing, entertaining themselves in the drawing room) and invited me to stay with them in Boston during my upcoming US trip, so that they can organise a cocktail party to introduce me to their friends and to the travel agents that they work with in the area. They seem to think that we have a goldmine on our hands, if only we could get the word out to the travel industry and to the travelling public.

Today is a legitimate no-guest night, so I headed back to the blackberry grove to get the berries I didn’t have time to get last week. This spot is absolutely beautiful, with a little river running through it, and absolutely silent, but for the birds and the running water. In fact, I thought I’d share it with you:

Posted by: JLG | 23 February 2015

Big Plans Afoot

Last year, J2 and I met with an architect to talk about possibly expanding three of our guest rooms (the Park, Nest and Garden Rooms, which are in our annex building at the rear of the property). The architect drew up some plans, and we took those with us to our meetings with travel agents last year, eliciting a great deal of interest, since those rooms will go from being our smallest and most challenging to sell, to being our largest, and most desirable. In the ensuing months the architect has made a few changes to the design, both due to his own insights and due to input we have received from people we have consulted about the project.

A few weeks ago, we met with a local builder (who is also a friend of ours whom I met initially through the Rotary Club), and he has expressed interest in handling the build. On Sunday he came by to discuss some of his thoughts on how to improve the design, which would result in turning our currently smallest room, the Garden Room, into by far our largest. (I like the idea of this, since it’s like an architectural evocation of the adage that “the last shall be first”.) Today the architect came by to move things forward a bit, and we had him meet with the builder so that they can get on the same page. We also walked through the building to point out those elements that we will retain (doors, shower fittings, sinks, etc) and those we’ll replace (the bare minimum).

The next step is to ensure that Heritage NZ has no objection to our changing the building. Having spoken on the weekend with the people who first rebuilt that structure in the 1990s, I have learned that they encountered no heritage issues with their build, so I suspect that should not have changed (fingers crossed). Then we will need local Council approval (should not be too hard to get) and we’ll need to get the money for the build from the bank (that may be the big stumbling block).

If all goes well, we’ll start the project in early June, just in time for me to leave on my marketing trip, where I’ll be able to show off the new big rooms, and the rooms should be ready by October, when our travel season picks up speed. No longer will we have to dread the frequent questions from travel agents about the square meterage of our rooms, and no longer will we have to feel apologetic when guests are assigned to our annex rooms.

I am considering changing the names of the rooms when this all happens so that it will be obvious that there has been a change. My thought is to rename the Garden Room (remember, it’ll be our biggest) to “The Bulleid Room” in honour of the family who built the lodge, and the Park Room (our second-largest) to the “McDiarmid Room” to honour the next family to live here, from 1923 to 1994. That leaves the Nest Room to be renamed. One thought is to call it the “Wilson Room” after the third family here, the ones who converted it into a lodge, but their time here was limited, so another thought is to call it the Whitestone Room (for the local stone, out of which the building is constructed), or the “Waitaki Room” (our District) or even the “Oamaru Room”. Any thoughts?

Posted by: JLG | 16 February 2015

Photos from Chinese Guests

Forgot to attach these to my post just now!

Posted by: JLG | 16 February 2015

Frantic February is Upon Us!

When it comes to travel to New Zealand, February is the big month when it seems everyone wants to be here. We have had more sold-out days so far this month than ever before, and a week straight of not a single empty room. All that’s very good, of course, but it leads to two very tired boys (us) and two very upset boys (the dogs, who clearly miss spending time with us). So far this month we have had a few memorable guests, some for good reasons, and some for not so good reasons.

One of the good ones was our first celebrity rock-and-roller. To be honest, I had never heard of him prior to his booking, but I looked him up and he was the real deal, and I had definitely heard of his band. I confess that I had some preconceived notions about what a rocker would be like as a guest, but he turned out to be extremely gracious, and an interesting conversationalist and he turned out to be a real oenophile and turophile (look it up!). He and his wife are also avid wildlife lovers, so the penguins were on their agenda, and did not disappoint.

We have also had a good string of Chinese guests, most of whom have been guilty of the age-old habit of “forgetting” to mention that they would be checking in with a child. Fortunately, when this has happened we have been able to organise a rollaway bed for them, but what would we do if we did not have the bed available, or if the room they were checking into was one that cannot accommodate a bed? One of these groups arrived just the other day, saying how much they loved the house and how they had been reading our website ever since they made the booking, and looked forward to their stay. They also said that they had wished they could have stayed a second night, but we were full their hoped-for second night. I told them that in fact we were not full the second night, so they asked if I could help them cancel their other booking. Surprisingly, the other place (a motel in Dunedin where their room would cost a whopping $185) agreed to cancel without a penalty, so we got them for a second night, with dinner added in. They were really pleased with their meal, which was Chinese but not Sichuan (for the most part, anyway, since while the grandma is from Chongqing and likes her food spicy, grandpa is Shanghainese and cannot take chillies), and even asked to take some of the leftovers with them to take to their next destination. They even gave me a big hug on departing (not a common thing for Chinese to do) and took lots of photos with me.

We also had a string of Americans, and some of them have been not so lovely. One couple included a wife with a string of allergies (that somehow were not an issue when it involved a dish that looked enticing and tasted good) who not only made my life a bit of a pain, but she even managed to annoy our friend Toni, since she visited Toni’s café for a bite to eat one day and pronounced that the roll she was served would “kill me if I ate it” since it bore seeds on the surface and she is allergic to nuts. Toni tried to explain that seeds are not nuts, but the guest just said “take it away, and replace it with a croissant”, which Toni dutifully did, not even charging her for the more expensive item. But bad as the wife was, the husband turned out to be worse. He arrived with a sore knee from a long hike, and asked if we could arrange a massage for him. Since it was Valentine’s weekend, it was a bit hard to schedule, but we managed it, and he went off on Saturday for his massage at a new facility not too far away. Today, the facility rang me to ask if he was still checked in with us (they left yesterday), and to let me know that the masseuse had complained to the owner that the guest had requested “additional services” at the end of his massage (!!). I had no words to apologise for his behaviour, and tried to assure her that this was not typical of our guests (I hope…), and I’m not sure why she told me (what, was I supposed to confront him about it??) but it made me dislike this pair even more than I had.

If you have not already heard, I have booked my trip to the US (and Canada) for this June and July, and expect to be visiting DC, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Connecticut and New York, with a possible side trip to Denver and/or Houston, and then finally LA. I hope to be able to see as many of my friends in those places as possible, so if you’ll be around in any of those, let’s talk!

Posted by: JLG | 24 January 2015

Summer is Here!

It’s the height of summer here in Oamaru, and in contrast with the past couple of years (last year especially) this one actually feels like summer. In fact, the weather has been so summery, and dry, that some of the area’s farmers are experiencing a bit of a drought. Happily, the dry, warm, conditions have been a boon for local stone fruit orchards, whose fruit has been benefiting enormously. Our garden has been benefitting too, with a record-breaking harvest of blackcurrants, raspberries, fava beans and peas coming out of our little vegetable patch. I’ve managed to harvest a huge number of cucumbers at the point when they’re still good for pickling, and have already churned out a couple of batches of pickles worthy of Gus’s on Hester Street. Ashley has been making great use of our patch on our dinner plates, especially with baby vegetables that have delighted our guests (nothing is as cute as a baby striped beet or a baby purple carrot on the plate), which in turn has kept J2 busy starting seeds and tending to the garden even while keeping up with his other responsibilities around the lodge.

Speaking of the lodge, we have been keeping very busy with guests ever since Christmas, and thanks to our good relations with a number of high-end travel agents that focus on some more ‘exotic’ parts of the world, we have seen guests come from places as exotic as Azerbaijan. In fact, with the Azerbaijan guests, I was a bit apprehensive about them, since I wondered what Azeris wealthy enough to afford a trip to NZ and a stay at a lodge like ours would be like. I anticipated a corrupt oil industry official or something along those lines, and girded myself for a challenging stay. Imagine my surprise, then, when the guests turned out to be an absolutely lovely group comprising a young Azeri man working for one of the big accounting firms, his wife, his sister and his brother-in-law! In fact, they wound up being some of our favourite guests in a while. In contrast, we had a set of guests coming from Belgium whom we very much looked forward to arriving, since our gingerbread house this year was based on a building in Belgium. We even kept the gingerbread house up longer than usual so they’d be able to see it. Unfortunately, they turned out to be a rather dour group who barely even acknowledged the gingerbread, and even impressed another (lovely) group staying at the same time as them with their apparent lack of taking any pleasure in being on holiday. Oh, well, their loss.

Seems we are not the only ones working on promoting Oamaru and the Waitaki District to outsiders (ref. our new website for the Waitaki Tourism Association and associated app). In recent days a group of young and dynamic local business people have formed a group they’re calling Grow North Otago, aimed at promoting the area as a place for other young and dynamic types to migrate to and set up their own businesses. They have produced a video that highlights the area’s attractions and appeal for young business owners who have moved here to set up their operations. (I was a bit miffed at first that we were not interviewed, but then it hit me that I’m not exactly a “young” business owner. Sob.) Take a look at their video below:

Not much else to report just now. I have to get back to the kitchen and put another batch of pickles up…

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