The plan is to drink and drive in New Zealand…drink in some of the country’s most spectacular scenery while driving on some of its most demanding sealed roads, all from the seat of an open top sports car.
Yep, it’s a bucket list tick off, something you should do at least once before you die. If you don’t like driving, don’t bother.
We get hold of the quintessential modern day sports car, Mazda’s latest MX-5 GT RF (Retracting Fastback), to challenge ourselves and to directly engage with the environment.
Though a ‘fastback’, the little Mazda’s roof is completely open to the elements apart from a built in “roll bar” behind your head.
So, armed with possibly the ideal tool for the job, we set off on a five day jaunt that is essentially a round trip out of still seriously damaged Christchurch.
Our plan to glean road info’ from motorcyclists goes out the window as soon as the roof is opened because we only need to follow our nose to find some seriously entertaining driver’s roads and picture postcard vistas.
It’s “oohs and aahs” all round only a few kays out, passing the stunning Castle Rock scenic attraction before heading across Canterbury Plain, an experience heightened by the perfume of spring in the air wafting into the cabin at every turn.
As we head west towards the winding, undulating Arthur’s Pass and Hokitika that looks like it’s straight out of the 1950s, the imposing snow-capped mountains provide a majestic backdrop to the snaking road that fully taps the MX-5’s capabilities.
This sensory overload through eyes, nose and the seat of our pants continues for a few hundred kilometres as we cut south toward an overnight stop at Franz Joseph Glacier and the obligatory glacier walk.
The feeling in town is “ski resort”, the beer’s good and so are the digs and food.
Day two dawns pelting with rain, but we’re not averse to roof down driving in bad weather heading for Wanaka, our next overnighter.
Rounding up countless campervans, we’re hooking down a wet and winding highway through deep cuttings and along rock ledges covered in vibrant green ferns, moss and lichen.
Now that’s something you don’t get every day on your commute to work.
It’s a never to be forgotten experience capped, if you’re lucky, by the sight of Roaring Billy waterfall in all his gushing fury.
Tracking south east now we bisect Haast Pass, rounding vast inland lakes and endless yellow coloured, gorse-covered mountains.
Enroute we’re carving a convoluted route past mystical Aoraki (Mt Cook) and the nearly as imposing Mt Aspiring and their adjacent national parks, sneezing as we go from the hay harvest taking place further along.
The run into Wanaka is what can be described as a “Ducati (motorbike) road” offering sets of wide sweeping bends you can really get your teeth into driving an MX-5.
We’re eager to get out of the car and onto push bikes for a few hours pedalling.
Gorgeous Wanaka is another `ski town’ but a hoot year round offering eye poppin’ scenery from just about everywhere in town and numerous activities, great food, wine and a touristy buzz.
Watching the TV news at the start of day three before our run to Invercargill and Bluff at the bottom of NZ, a TV ad promotes fireworks on sale a couple of days before Guy Fawkes which the Kiwi’s celebrate for some reason.
Making a mental note to stop and buy a selection, the plan is for a nostalgia trip back decades when you could buy fireworks in Australia…..
So, taking B roads out of Wanaka, breakfast awaits at Cromwell, a major fruit growing centre. We bypass Queenstown this time because of time constraints and it’s a bit too far out of the way.
They love our car, we love theirs…. it’s a mutual admiration society and half an hour spent in car banter.
Swinging into the garden centre on the outskirts of Cromwell, we relish arguably the best brekky in NZ… it’s that good.
Fireworks are bought at Alexandria before a trundle through Gore stopping at little cafes and galleries along the way for coffee and cake.
Then into Invercargill for lunch after attending some ‘artisan’ markets.
After hitting the right note on food until now, lunch at Invercargil is forgettable and it’s decide to press on further south.
The fishing /industrial town of Bluff is astonishing, like something out of a Coen brothers movie – down and out, rotting, seen better days, smelly, run down but oh so interesting.
We go to the superb cliff-side restaurant perched around the headland and the town lookout is spectacular giving unimpeded views of Stewart Island only a few kays offshore.
Try to ignore the strategically misplaced aluminium smelter on the other side.
Bluff enjoys our fireworks display and we do too, giggling like kids with a new toy.
Trackin’ north east at the start of day four on the meandering coastal road (of course) through towns like Tokanui, Owaka and Balclutha a small stream is dotted with what looks like hundreds of outside ‘dunnies’ which are in fact trout fishing huts.
Those Kiwis….it must get really cold.
It’s 10.00am before finding an open café for breakfast in Owaka.
We’re in MX-5 heaven again as we zip along the smooth tarmac snicking through the manual gear change and revving it up, pushing tyre grip at every corner.
Rolling into Dunedin with high expectations we are not disappointed at the bay city spread out before us. It’s easy to see why they call it the Edinburgh of the south.
Staying on-theme we jump on an open top double decker for a quick look-see around town marvelling at the Victorian architecture, alighting for a botanic gardens walk-around.
Our accommodation is at Larnach Castle on a peninsular overlooking Dunedin harbour.
The ‘guest’ rooms are converted stables which are luxurious and scrupulously positioned in the castle gardens offering views from both windows.
Signing up for the castle degustation feast, we tog up for what turns out to be a memorable culinary experience with multicultural company.
Setting off really early the next day we head further east to the Albatross rookery but they aren’t out yet.
The last day’s run shapes as a fairly mundane cruise up the east coast to Timaru but a degustation patron suggests a diversion inland to Fairlie past Mt Hutt, the town of Geraldine then the run back into Christchurch.
We are dodging stupid birds similar to grouse that try to smack into the car, see a million sheep, avoid countless patches of cow poo strategically positioned at the apex of corners.
We hook along at a decent clip, eat great food, drink superb wine, and take a gazillion photographs.
The total distance is less than 2000km and encompasses a wide range of sealed roads and stunning scenery, the best NZ has to offer for a driving enthusiast in an open top MX-5.
Don’t miss it. Embrace the drive.