rodJanie Robinson

By Janie Robinson

He looked at me and asked, “Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?” Then he told me, “Tonight’s The Night.”

Sipping wonderful wine under twinkling stars on a balmy New Zealand evening with Rod Stewart singing to me – and about 25,000 other fans at the annual Mission Estate Winery Concert – talk about a perfect summer’s night with a sexy sexagenarian who has still got it!

The 69-year-old rocker is one on a growing list of international superstars who come to perform in Hawke’s Bay New Zealand, an award-winning wine and gourmet food region on the North Island’s eastern coast, that offers sweeping coastlines, dramatic sea cliffs, stunning golf courses, gliding gannets, Maori legends, art deco heritage, fertile farmland, golden beaches – all wrapped up in one of New Zealand’s sunniest climates.

On one magical summer’s night every February – remember New Zealand summer happens during Canada’s winter – a capacity crowd of Kiwis and international tourists gather together at Mission Estate’s outdoor amphitheatre and wheel their “chilly bins” (coolers full of wine) to what has become one of country’s biggest parties of the year. ‘Rockin’ Rod, is just one of an impressive line of headliners who have performed at the sold-out event, including the late Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Carole King, Sting and Dionne Warwick.

This may not be what French missionaries had in mind when they first established the Mission Estate back in 1851. The stunningly refurbished seminary building nestled in the Taradale Hills overlooking Napier is also home to the cellar door and the celebrated Mission Restaurant. New Zealand’s oldest winery has an international reputation for superb quality wines and over the past 22 years, some great parties, too. Mission Estate even creates special vintages and labels for each big show.

Wonderful Wineries

Hawke’s Bay Wine Country hasn’t been on the traditional tourist route until recently, and you can’t blame Kiwis for keeping this tasty destination to themselves. The lovely rural region’s warm climate and picturesque river valleys, terraces and hillside vineyards produce some of the best wines in the world. Known for exceptional produce, seafood, meat, cheese and olive oil, Hawke’s Bay is also a food lover’s dream ripe with opportunities to dine at some of the best restaurants, gourmet vineyards and welcoming local farms of the tasty region.

Hawke’s Bay is the oldest wine region in New Zealand and the country’s second-largest, with more than 145 grape-growers and 90 wineries. Once dubbed “the fruit bowl of New Zealand” for its prime apples, pears and peaches, grapes have now taken over and the tasty terroir is often compared to that of Bordeaux, France.

New Zealand is known worldwide for its superb Sauvignon Blanc, often dominating space on shelves in the New Zealand section of our wine stores in Canada. And while Hawke’s Bay is producing some wonderful white wines, reds are king here in this sunny maritime climate with its unique terrain.

“The Ngaruroro River you see meandering here has changed its course due to earthquakes and floods over many thousands of years, leaving behind gravels that can be more than 100 metres deep, with a unique soil type that’s perfect for premium red wine growing,” says Trinity Hill winemaker Warren Gibson of the region’s unique Gimblett Gravels. “We’re starting to get a good range of our wines into Canada including some of our Gimblett Gravels wines and our top-end Homage, Trinity Hill’s flagship award-winning wine which is a wonderfully round, rich Syrah inspired by the famed Cote Rotie of the Northern Rhone wine region in France.”

cycle wineryJanie Robinson

Ash Ridge Wines is the perfect place to begin a bike ride to nine of Hawke’s Bay’s finest wineries with On Yer Bike Winery Tours. Hawke’s Bay boasts over 180 kilometres of cycle trails, and The Wineries Ride is a fun way to sample some wonderful wines and gourmet foods while taking in the stunning scenery of the Ngatarawa Triangle, Bridge Pa and Gimblett Gravels as you cycle past vineyards, olive groves, orchards, horse studs, and fertile farmland.

te mata peakTourism New Zealand

Legendary Te Mata Peak stands sentinel over Craggy Range Winery, a popular wedding destination and award-winning Cellar Door and Terroir Restaurant. Start with their signature Steamed Clams entree – ‘Little neck’ clams steamed in Craggy Range wine verjus with saffron mustard cream, shallot and tomato petals paired with the 2011 Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc.

Maori Legends

Drive to the top of towering Te Mata Peak for stunning ‘Middle-earth’ type scenery, panoramic views and Maori legends about this sleeping giant and his ill-fated relationship.

“The story goes that Te Mata, in order to show his love for a chief’s daughter, performed several tasks including biting out a piece of the range of hills now known as the ‘Havelock North Bite’. But he choked on a rock and dropped to the ground where he still lies today,” says Robert MacDonald, the ‘Te Mata Our Giant Legend’ tour guide pointing out what really does look like a giant bite out of the valley below from high on our ‘Jack-and-the-bean-stock’ perch.

Waimarama Maori Tours also offers a unique visit to their sacred land on the Hakikino Conservation Reserve, the 14th-century ancestral and archaeological site of the local Maori people. The ‘Paths of the Past’ tour offers an intimate, personal and spiritual journey back in time, from the warrior’s aggressive challenge to the powerful rituals of welcome and the warm sharing of traditional stories, music, arts and ‘The Food of Chiefs’.maori chin tattooanie Robinson

I’m fascinated by the intricate chin tattoo worn by one of the Maori women. “This moko kauwai is like my certificate, symbolizing things about my life and my community,” says Alayna Hokianga proudly sharing the power and meaning of the tattoo (ta moko) traditions of her Maori people and also trying in vain to teach me one of the basic steps of Maori POI – a fascinating dance performed by the native women with balls attached to flax strings.

cape kidnappersThe Farm at Cape Kidnappers

For The Birds

Cape Kidnappers is home to the largest mainland gannet colony in the world and from September to April, Gannet Safaris Overland tours heads high to the top of the lofty cape to see these amazing birds nesting, preening, flying and performing the famous recognition ritual “dance of the gannets”.

But my favourite thrill-of-a-lifetime Cape Kidnappers adventure is the Kiwi Discovery Walk.

“Cape Sanctuary is a wildlife restoration project and in 2008, the first North Island brown kiwi birds were released here, and we currently have over 40 on the property,” explains Sue McClellan as we walk with the Environmental Services guide locating the Kiwi’s habitat. Our experienced guide quickly locates a nest burrowed in the ground and pine needles. We watch her weigh and measure this rather homely but cuddly Kiwi bird, letting us touch and take pictures before gently releasing five-month-old “Eclipse” back to his nest.