Cycling New Zealand’s Great Taste Trail

Horsing around: Happy horse poo for sale at the side of the road en route to Motueka. Photo: Rob McFarland Horsing around: Happy horse poo for sale at the side of the road en route to Motueka. Photo: Rob McFarland
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Horsing around: Happy horse poo for sale at the side of the road en route to Motueka. Photo: Rob McFarland

Horsing around: Happy horse poo for sale at the side of the road en route to Motueka. Photo: Rob McFarland

“That’s not a hill, it’s a wrinkle,” says John with trademark understatement as we survey the ominous incline ahead. The rest of the group have sensibly chosen to remain in the van and start today’s ride at the summit. I, fuelled by male bravado and three Weet-Bix, have decided to keep him company, blissfully unaware that next month he heads to France to cycle 2000 kilometres of the Tour de France route.

I quickly realise trying to keep up is futile so instead relax and enjoy the view. We’re cycling along a quiet country back road, through the sort of idyllic rural scene that dominates much of New Zealand’s South Island. Rolling pastures dotted with sheep, weather-beaten wooden sheds with rusted iron roofs and an impressive backdrop of undulating hills in shifting shades of green.

We collect the rest of the group and continue on tranquil country lanes to the village of Wakefield, where Evan has laid out an extravagant morning tea of fruit, shortbread, tea and plunger coffee. We all tuck in heartily even though it’s less than two hours since we ate breakfast and there’s still lunch at a winery, afternoon tea and a hearty dinner to come. I suppose there’s not much point in cycling the Great Taste Trail if you’re not going to taste.

New Zealand’s cycle network has grown rapidly over the last few years, fuelled by government investment and the success of the original cycling prodigy, the Otago Central Rail Trail. There are now 23 routes that are classified as Great Rides, predominantly off-road trails that showcase the best of the country’s landscape, environment, culture and heritage. The Great Taste Trail is one of the most recent, a 175-kilometre loop around the top of the South Island that passes through Nelson.

The route focuses on the abundance of fresh produce and wineries in the region so unless you have monk-like restraint you’ll be consuming more calories than you expend.

Our five-day trip started in Christchurch where we were kitted out at PureTrail’s depot with comfortable 27-speed hybrid bikes, helmets, panniers and sexy fluorescent high-vis vests. This departure is slightly unusual because there are only four of us, compared to the normal 10-14 guests, and we have two guides rather than one (Evan is in training).

Bikes safely loaded on the trailer, we leave Christchurch, heading north and then west over the scenic Lewis Pass to Saint Arnaud, an alpine village on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. After a spot of sightseeing and a gentle 16-kilometre orientation ride, it’s back to the more pressing issue of eating. Clinker Cafe may not sound like the most salubrious of dining spots but the braised pork belly in apple cider I have for dinner is not only excellent, it’s enormous. “Heartland portions,” explains John.

Fast forward a day and our convoy of four leaves Wakefield full of coffee and shortbread and heads towards lunch. It’s easy, delightful riding – a mixture of roadside paths, quiet back roads and gravel tracks that meander past vineyards and skirt orchards bursting with apples, berries and kiwifruit. On one section we cycle along a riverbank through fragrant bursts of fennel and flickering clouds of butterflies.

Lunch is at Waimea Estates, a family-run winery where our not-very-hard-work is rewarded with generous bowls of plump, creamy, Chardonnay-steamed green lipped mussels in a sun-drenched courtyard overlooking the vines.

We’re only eight kilometres from Nelson so this afternoon’s ride is a gentle 30-minute cruise along a dedicated bike path next to the Waimea Estuary. We arrive at our accommodation, the charming mews-style Grand Mercure Nelson Monaco at 1:30pm, leaving us plenty of time to explore.

In an effort to work up an appetite for what I know will be another heartland-sized dinner, I eschew Nelson’s museums and boutiques in favour of a walk along the Maitai River to the Botanical Reserve. After a mildly strenuous climb up Botanical Hill, I arrive at what is allegedly the geographic centre of New Zealand. I later discover that several places claim this accolade but either way the 360-degree views over the harbour and the rolling hills of the surrounding national parks are sensational. And I’m pretty sure I’ve burned off a mussel.

That evening we reconvene in the garden of the pub opposite our hotel and over a sunset glass of sav blanc our merry band of six gets to know each other. Husband and wife Gerry and Penny live in Newcastle and are cycling converts after doing the Otago Central Rail Trail with PureTrails last year. Margaret is from the Gold Coast and is clearly a PureTrails fan given this is her sixth trip with them. Guides John and Evan are both diehard, shorts-in-any-weather Cantabrians and expert exponents of the region’s trademark dry sarcasm. The South Island is the “mainland” and John confesses he’ll “barrack for anyone over Auckland”.

We retire inside for dinner where I feast on a tender Angus steak washed down with a glass of Roaring Meg pinot noir. Given PureTrails also covers the cost of a dessert, it seems rude not to sample the lemon cheesecake with cream and lemon sherbet. In the distance I hear my cycling shorts crying in protest.

While superlative food and wine are the trip’s main attraction, the scenery comes a close second. The next day we cycle back along the estuary, passing through a protected wetland before crossing onto Rabbit Island for morning tea by a deserted white sand beach. A winding pine tree-lined track leads us to a tiny cove where a ferry takes us and our bikes across an inlet to the buzzy township of Mapua for lunch.

Subsequent days deliver similarly beguiling landscapes – an early morning cycle along the Motueka River, the sun filtering through the haze of a freshly limed field; vast fields of hops, their carefully trained branches resembling dancers around a maypole; orchards full of berries swathed in dew-soaked nets.

We spend two nights at the comfortable Equestrian Lodge Motel in Motueka, cycling in the mornings and sightseeing in the afternoons. Excursions include a scenic cruise from Kaiteriteri that skirts the bays and furrows of the Abel Tasman National Park and a visit to the Riwaka Resurgence, a sacred Maori site where the Riwaka River emerges from a network of caves underneath Takaka Hill.

On our final day we head back inland to complete the loop. The trail here is still being completed so John and Evan improvise with a 13-kilometre ride along a quiet valley flanked by fields of curious cows. It’s knuckle-numbingly cold when we start at 8:30am and a brisk headwind (or a “gentle cooling breeze” according to John) drags tears from our eyes. After 40 minutes we’re all happy to jump back in the van and begin the long trek back to Christchurch.

The cycling portion of the trip may be over but the tasting part isn’t. Our last lunch is a fitting finale, a lazy feast of tapas-style shared plates washed down with crisp glasses of riesling at Forrest Estate Wines’ stylish cellar door in Marlborough.

FIVE MORE GREAT NZ RIDES

OTAGO CENTRAL RAIL TRAIL

The original “Great Ride”, this 150-kilometre route through Central Otago follows a disused railway line. The perfect introduction to a multi-day cycling trip.

TE ARA AHI

Starting at Rotorua, this 66-kilometre trail passes through a thermal wonderland of steaming vents, bubbling mud pools and spectacular geysers. Expect rare flora and fauna and a rich vein of Maori folklore.

QUEEN CHARLOTTE TRACK

This 70-kilometre off-road track through the heart of the Marlborough Sounds offers pristine wilderness, spectacular views and thigh-burning ascents.

ALPS 2 OCEAN

The longest continuous cycle trail in New Zealand, this 300-kilometre jaunt starts from the country’s highest mountain, Mount Cook, and finishes in the coastal town of Oamaru. The best bit? It’s all downhill.

MOUNTAINS TO SEA

Beginning in the otherworldly Tongariro National Park, this four to six day route uses bike trails, public roads and a jetboat to deliver riders to the coast at Wanganui.

For a complete list of NZ’s Great Rides, see nzcycletrail上海龙凤419m.

TRIP NOTES

The writer travelled as a guest of PureTrails and Air New Zealand.

MORE INFORMATION

newzealand上海龙凤419m.

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand flies direct from Sydney and Melbourne to Christchurch. Phone 13 24 76; see airnewzealand上海龙凤419m.au.

SEE + DO

PureTrails offers regular departures of its guided five-day Great Taste Trail cycle trip between October and April, from $1400 including accommodation, meals and excursions. See puretrailsnewzealand上海龙凤419.nz.

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