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/.




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