Wednesday, April 09, 2008

It's All Good in New Zealand


Two days after my 45th birthday, I sent my husband off to work, took the kids to school, and made my way to the airport where I checked a single bag through to New Zealand. Then, with only the slightest twinge of guilt about my solo jaunt, I shouldered my daypack containing a few gluten free snacks and other essentials, boarded the plane, and never looked back.

Now, some people might say I was having a midlife crisis. I had never contemplated my trip in such terms. Instead, my thoughts had been focused on the sights I would see, the people I would visit, and the food I would eat. Once aboard the plane for the excruciatingly long 12-hour flight from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand, however, I had plenty of time to think. Was I indeed mourning the passing of my youth, remorseful that I’d spent my life following my husband’s career and raising children? Was I seeking something more than a brief respite? While pondering my life, at least I didn’t have to agonize over my in-flight gluten free meals. Both dinner and breakfast were served without a hitch, labeled with my name and seat number.

Located in the South Pacific Ocean, New Zealand is a long way from anywhere. Its closest neighbor, Australia, is 1400 miles to the northwest. Small in size, ranging over two main islands (North Island and South Island) and multiple smaller ones, the total land area is similar to Colorado. Yet because these islands stretch over 900 miles from top to bottom, the dazzling landscape encompasses pristine sandy beaches, native temperate evergreen rainforests, active volcanoes, geothermal areas, rolling hillsides, large coastal plains, scenic rivers and lakes, a chain of mountains 340 miles long, ice-carved fiords, and even glaciers. It was the perfect place to connect with myself, my friends, and the land.

Thirty percent of New Zealand’s terrain is protected to preserve its unique natural and historic resources. Extremely strict customs regulations further aid in this conservation. All food must be declared upon entering the country, and absolutely no fruit, meat, or honey is allowed. Since I’d carried only a small amount of packaged gluten free food items with me, three hours after landing in Auckland I found myself shopping in a suburban Woolworths grocery store with my old friend Detta.

Detta was the first mate I made when I’d lived in New Zealand many years ago as a teenage foreign exchange student. Since then, we’d stayed in touch via letters and one subsequent visit, comparing notes about college, jobs, marriage, and children. Her only daughter is named after me! She also knew about my celiac disease, so before my arrival had scouted out a few places for me to purchase gluten free food. This particular Woolworths baked gluten free bread twice a week and carried an ample supply of packaged GF items such as cereal, crackers, cookies, food bars, and pasta.

With the shopping done, we headed downtown to Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour and caught a ferry to Rangitoto Island. Formed by a series of volcanic eruptions over 600 years ago, but now extinct, Rangitoto is one of about 50 islands that lie in the Hauraki Gulf on the east side of the city. The favorite activity on this public reserve is exploring the craggy lava crops and lush native bush, either independently on foot or on a guided vehicle tour. We'd never have admitted it if we preferred to ride rather than walk, so - without question - we hiked the moderately graded trail to the summit, through old lava caves, and around the crater rim. We allowed intermittent pauses to admire the spectacular views and take photos, but never to catch our breath!

As a population, New Zealanders are outdoor people. Walking, hiking, camping, kayaking, boating, sailing, fishing, diving, and just spending time at the countless beaches are all popular activities. On my second day with Detta, we went boating under the Auckland Harbour Bridge and I learned to kneeboard. On the third day we went caving.

South of Auckland, the Waikato region has an extensive underground system known as the Waitomo Caves. The best-known of these, Waitomo Glowworm Cave, is navigated by tour boats. We thought this sounded too mundane, so instead went to privately owned Nikau Cave, where we donned hard hats to protect our heads and had only water-proof flashlights to illuminate our way. Then, we dropped feet first into a 9-foot shaft, commando-crawled our way though an ice-cold underground stream flowing through a narrow shallow tunnel, and contorted our bodies to fit through seemingly impossible passages to emerge in a cave alive with the shimmering larvae of Arachnocampa luminosa, or glowworms. Thousands of them dangled from the ceiling, shining like stars above an open sea. It was surreal. Otherworldly.

Not far from Nikau Cave, on the North Island’s west coast near Port Waikato, there is another world. It’s where New Zealand born Peter Jackson filmed Weathertop Hollow for his epic movie trilogy Lord of the Rings. In fact, all three movies were shot at various locations around New Zealand, making it easy for fans to explore the country simply by seeking out sights of Middle Earth. For example, the story’s epicenter of evil, the fiery Mt. Doom, is really Mount Ngauruhoe, one of three active volcanoes (the other two are Tongariro and Ruapehu) in Tongariro National Park. It was my next destination.

I was now hooked up with two other old friends from my teenage years. Back then, we’d climbed the 9,175 foot Mt. Ruapehu on a school outing. This time we were tackling the challenging 7-8 hours Tongariro Alpine Crossing, considered one of the finest walks in the country. It traverses desolate lava fields, active steam vents, emerald green crater lakes, mountain slopes awash with tussock, and verdant pine forests brimming with bird song. Ascending a steep incline called “The Devil’s Staircase,” with Mt. Doom - I mean Ngauruhoe - looming above me, I felt the inherent evil of middle age with every step. Or maybe it was just the effect of too much wine from the night before!

Thanks to New Zealand’s diverse range of climates and soil types, the country produces an array of wines. Most notable is its Sauvignon Blanc, which is “rated throughout the world as the definite benchmark for this varietal” (New Zealand Winegrowers). Some of the best Sauvignon Blanc, in my opinion, comes from the South Island’s Marlborough and Nelson regions. An overnight stay at Sunset Valley Vineyard, a family owned organic winery that offers accommodations with a full kitchen, permitted me time to stroll among the vines, sampling grapes and wine, and even resulted in an invitation to stay on to help harvest the current crop! Shopping for dinner in the nearby tiny town of Upper Moutere, where I found gluten free split pea soup in the refrigerated section, as well as rice crackers, local cheese, organic salad and fruit, made me seriously consider accepting that "job" offer!

Given its geographic isolation, eating gluten free in New Zealand proved to be, surprisingly, the least challenging feat of my journey. Perhaps that’s because it’s a small country that does things on a small scale, where every town has a thriving business area, and independent cafes serving fresh local fare are the norm. Or perhaps it’s because New Zealanders live closer to the earth due to their strong agrarian history and forward-thinking green politics. For whatever reason, gluten free food seemed to be everywhere. Grocery stores stocked products such as Venerdi bread, Healtheries cereal, Freedom Foods snacks and cookies, Orgran spaghetti in a tin, Signature heat-and-eat pancakes, and Keweka prepacked meals. I encountered bakeries that prepared gluten free breads and pastries several days a week, and numerous coffee shops (even Starbucks!) that sold gluten free cookies and cakes. Many cafes also routinely labeled their gluten free meals, with offerings such as pizza with sweet chili, Thai fish cakes, lamb salad with marinated onion, tomato, and balsamic reduction, and roast pumpkin and feta frittata. One restaurateur even told me they “do it all the time” when I inquired about getting a gluten free dinner!

The Coeliac Society of New Zealand’s website lists gluten free food manufacturers, distributors, and celiac-friendly restaurants. It’s important to note, though, that the country uses a two-tier approach to labeling gluten free food. The first tier, labeled “gluten free,” can contain no detectable gluten, no oats or their products, and no cereals or their products containing gluten that have been malted. The second tier, labeled “low gluten,” can contain no more than 20mg gluten per 100g of the food. This amount is equivalent to the U.S. measurement of 200 ppm gluten in food, which is higher than the 20 ppm of gluten in food that the U.S. FDA is currently considering as the threshold for foods labeled gluten free. I stayed away from anything labeled “low gluten.”

With gluten free food easily available, I made it a point to eat cake with every cup of coffee, just because I could! So it was a good thing my time in New Zealand culminated with a three-day hiking and kayaking excursion through Abel Tasman National Park on the South Island. Being outdoors, treating my mind to beautiful scenic vistas, and my body to challenging physical activity, all the while not worrying about where my next gluten free meal was coming from, I felt renewed. Alive. Like the missing “x-factor” had been found.

Midlife crisis? I can’t answer that one. But two days after I returned home from New Zealand, there was a family gathering to celebrate my grandmother’s 90th birthday. Jet-lagged, yet still feeling “up” from my three weeks away, I was surprised when an old-timer pulled me aside. “I don’t know what you’ve been up to,” he said. “But whatever it is, keep on doing it. It’s working.” Looking at my grandmother, my parents, my husband, and my growing children, I knew I had no regrets. I also knew that the next 45 years would be every bit as good as the ones just past. I just have to convince them all to move to New Zealand with me so I can take that job harvesting organic grapes!

Helpful Information

Current roundtrip airfare from Los Angeles to Auckland begins at $1066 on Qantas and $1279 on Air New Zealand. Both airlines can provide gluten free meals with 24-hour notice. New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere, so the seasons are opposite of North America. Airfares are higher during their summer, which runs December – March.

Many travel companies run escorted tours to New Zealand. Bob & Ruth’s Gluten-Free Dining & Travel Club last led a 14-day tour to New Zealand and Australia in 2004. The itinerary included Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, and Rotorua, located north of Tongariro National Park. It’s a geothermal area and center of native Maori culture.

For more information about New Zealand’s customs regulations, visit http://www.customs.govt.nz/.

The official website for Tourism Zealand is http://www.newzealand.com/.

To learn more about New Zealand wine, go to http://www.nzwine.com/.

For gluten free information, see the Coeliac Society of New Zealand website at www.colourcards.com/coeliac/.




Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The College Trip

There comes a time in every parent’s life when we have to let go. Even though I’m not quite there yet with my oldest son, I know it’s coming soon. He’s a senior in high school, after all, with college looming just around the corner. So why do I feel so unprepared for this next stage?

Maybe it’s because I’ve been so darn busy lately. Moving back to the U.S. after living in Italy for two years has kept me on the fringe of insanity, what with all the packing, unpacking, and traveling. Not to mention my husband’s military retirement, his months of searching for and starting a new career in the civilian world, deciding where to live, buying a house, and getting all three kids settled into yet another new school system. And then there’s the celiac side of my life, which follows me around like a shadow, with its own set of needs and demands.

Fortunately, my son, Peter, took the lead with regard to his college career. He wrote to schools, collected information, talked with peers and counselors, narrowed down his choices, and set up dates to visit the schools that interested him the most. The only thing he couldn’t do by himself was drive to the schools because, after living in Europe where the driving age was 18, he still didn’t have a driver’s license.

So one beautiful day this past fall, my husband, son and I, with Map Quest directions in hand, pointed the minivan north to visit five small liberal arts colleges in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Since the timing of this milestone trip came amidst such an overall tumultuous time in our lives, I didn’t do too much preparation for it celiac-wise. For even though I instinctively knew what to pack in the cooler for the car trip, including snacks and breakfast food, and I’d actually made reservations at hotels for two of the three nights we’d be away, I was still nervous. That’s because it had been two years since I was a person with celiac disease traveling in the U.S. It was almost as if I were navigating foreign territory!

More than half way through the first 340-mile leg of the trip, we pulled off the highway and into a Wendy’s. Recalling that Alamo Celiac (http://www.alamoceliac.org/) member Debbie Holladay included this fast food place in her April 2007 newsletter review I felt it was a safe bet for a quick bite. Inside the restaurant, a nutrition poster listed the top major food allergens for all of Wendy’s food items, making it easy for me to choose chili and a baked potato for my lunch. Just to be sure I hadn’t poisoned myself, I also later checked Wendy’s website for their updated gluten-free list.

A few more miles down the road we arrived at the first college on my son’s list. We joined up with other potential students and their families for a one-hour information session followed by a one-hour student-led campus tour. Then we took a quick jaunt into the nearest town (bookstore, jewelry store, smattering of eateries, not too many bars) before hitting the road again. We needed to log an additional 200 miles that night to reach our hotel so we could attend another school’s information session and campus tour early the next morning.

Our route from New York State to Vermont took us through Albany right about the same time that evening rush-hour traffic and nighttime darkness engulfed us. Struggling to focus on the miniscule letters on my road atlas, I directed my husband to a highway exit that led away from the city along a dark and twisty road, in a sparsely populated area, towards Vermont. Noting it was nearing dinnertime, and doubting I’d find a place that could accommodate me, I was resigned to snacking on hard-boiled eggs, crackers, and fruit I’d brought along for just such a scenario.

Right about then, however, a hand-painted sign above the doorway on a barn-like structure at the side of the road caused me to do a double-take. “Did you see that?” my husband asked excitedly. With a hard brake and a quick U-turn, we all sat dumbfounded outside a place called Sherry Lynn’s Gluten Free Bakery & Café, in Brunswick, NY. Run by celiac Sherry, and her non-celiac husband, the restaurant was birthed from their frustration over not having a safe local place where Sherry could eat out. In their two months of business, a steady stream of celiac customers, in addition to a loyal local non-celiac following who just like the food, have made their way to Sherry Lynn’s. They also recently catered a support group meeting in nearby Albany. The night we were there, a large pan of gluten-free pasta and oversized gluten-free rolls tempted our palates. Neither disappointed. On the way out I also purchased sweet cinnamon fritters for breakfast the next morning.

Back in the van, rechecking our route before setting out, I noticed something strange - we were on the wrong road to Vermont. Somehow I’d mixed up the directions and had pointed us towards a college we’d be visiting later in the trip instead of to the one where we had an appointment the next morning. Quickly calculating what we should do at this point (backtrack all the way to the interstate or forge ahead on the dark county roads), I marveled at the improbability of it all: I was in New England, visiting colleges with my son, when I took a major wrong turn and found a newly-opened totally gluten-free restaurant. Call it what you will – fate, fortune, destiny – but I’d like to think of it as the wave of the future; that dining gluten-free in the U.S. will just keep getting easier!

But my story doesn’t end just yet. This is just the first day, after all. We still have to get to Vermont and we still have four more colleges to visit.

So off we went (we chose the dark county road), arriving several hours later at our hotel. When asked by the hotel clerk if we wanted the morning breakfast buffet, I told her I probably couldn’t eat most of their offerings because I had to eat gluten-free. “That’s so weird,” was her reply, “you’re like the third person this week who’s told me that.” Naturally, then, I asked her for any recommendations about places in town where I’d have the best chance of getting a gluten-free meal. She immediately suggested a restaurant that serves mostly local organic fare, and said she’d leave a note for the morning clerk to call them for me.

The next morning I checked with the morning clerk, who did indeed have a note from the night clerk about calling the restaurant. Since it was still early, though, she said she’d have to wait a little later to make the call, and asked if I had a cell phone number where she could reach me later to give me the lowdown. At the exact agreed upon time, my phone rang, and I was given the good news that a gluten-free meal would be no problem. What the hotel clerk didn’t know, however, and what I discovered upon dining at the restaurant, was that one of the owners has relatives with celiac, and right there on their menu they mention being able to handle special dietary requirements, including gluten-free. I had a burger, no bun, spiced up with hot sauce and peppers, smothered in melted cheese, and a rather wild-looking salad with ingredients that seemed to have been freshly gathered from the nearby river bank!

And so the rest of the long weekend went. Hundreds of miles in the van, punctuated by information sessions and campus tours of small liberal arts colleges, fortified by healthy snacking, gluten-free dining, and restful hotel stays. The New England area is dotted with charming and historic Bed & Breakfast accommodations, several which apparently can provide gluten-free meals (see http://www.1-888-inn-seek.com/) but this was not the type of trip where such ambiance and pampering could be appreciated.

It was also interesting to note that chain restaurants were conspicuously absent in many areas of New England, so it was only when we were back in the New York suburbs that we found a Bonefish Grill with their gluten-free menu. En route, I also tapped into the GFRAP website and located a hot dog joint, called Soul Dog, in the downtown area of Poughkeepsie, NY, not far from the final college on our list. Much like the school, the restaurant was fresh, lively, and artsy. Unlike the school, it was incredibly affordable!

Run by yet another husband-wife team, and with a Zagat listing, Soul Dog's specialty was gluten-free hot dogs (Sabrett brand – the kind New York City hot dog vendors sell) served on homemade gluten-free buns that didn’t fall apart! All varieties of their hand-cut fries (Soul Fries, BBQ Fries, Jamaican Jerk Fries, and Cajun Fries) were also gluten-free, and they served gluten-free chili, salads, pizza, and beer. But the best part? All of their desserts were gluten-free! On the day I was there, the owner was making gluten-free cinnamon fritters and donut holes, samples of which he passed out to all his celiac diners. I believe there was one of us in each group of diners, which strongly confirms the point that celiacs can and do drive business. That is, any place a celiac can dine, their non-celiac family and friends will follow. Soul Dog also did a brisk business with seemingly non-celiac locals.

After visiting the five colleges, Peter was hard-pressed to say which one was his hands-down favorite school. Realistically, he knows he’s done his best to obtain admission to these schools by being a good student, doing well on standardized tests, participating in extracurricular activities, and using his written essay to set himself apart from the other thousands of students also applying to the schools. Also realistically, he knows he'll most likely go to whichever school gives him the best financial aid package. A bit selfishly, I hope he gets accepted at the school that boasted it has culinary school-trained chefs working in its kitchen who can accommodate special dietary needs (I’ll need to eat when I visit him!). If only it wasn’t the farthest one from home. For, while I know that I’ve done my best to prepare him to take this giant leap into adulthood, and that it’s now up to him to choose the path he wants to follow, I’m just not sure I’m prepared to let him go.

HELPFUL INFORMATION

Sherry Lynn's Gluten Free Bakery & Cafe
1691 Rt. 7
Brunswick, NY 12180
Tel: 518-279-9267