Weaving a destination together: Part II lessons from New Zealand rural tourism development

23 Jun

Three months ago—egads—fresh off an amazing month in Australia and New Zealand—I posted Part I of rural development lessons with full intention to add more.  But, when you take a month off, you’re slammed with a massive build-up of new work. So my intentions have been buried under that. . . until now. Our experience traveling in New Zealand was so unlike anywhere else I’ve been, and, more importantly, so relevant and potentially replicable for rural communities in our neck of the woods that it’s worth sharing even now.

What’s so different about this experience, and why did we find ourselves happily spending more per day than we ever have before? The most stunning difference was the strong system of logistical support for independent travelers, from one community to another, one activity to another, something more guided to something less guided. The many small businesses had a strong cross-referral network, and they could recommend specific itinerary options based on their strong regional knowledge. They even offered what we couldn’t have thought to expect—for example, the owner of one bed and breakfast offered to pick us up from another so that we wouldn’t have to rent a car. Amazing!

The first post highlighted five key dynamics we experienced while traveling in New Zealand. I’m plucking one week out of our trip to illustrate four of these dynamics. This week was spent on the northern coast of the south island, in the Marlborough Sounds region.

The region covers nearly 7,800 square miles, and its total population is 45,300: two thirds of the population lives in the county seat. To give some perspective on size, the region is bigger than the northwest part of Oregon stretching from Astoria south to Waldport along the coast, and running inland all the way to the Willamette Valley.

The population density is 5.8 people/square mile. To give some perspective on the “ruralness”, only a few counties in Oregon have less population density, and all are on the east side of the Cascades. If you find yourself in Morrow, Baker or Crook Counties on the east side, you’ll be in places with similar population density. Union, Klamath, Wasco Counties? All rural, but all more thickly settled than the Marlborough region. Size matters, because even in such a rural area, the tourism infrastructure is amazingly complete. It didn’t happen overnight, but it is there now.  We were able to get around without a car the entire time!

The idea of this trip started when I read an article about the Queen Charlotte Track (trail) in our local paper a decade ago. The Track is a 71 kilometer long but not technically rigorous four day hike through a land cooperative formed by the federal Department of Conservation, the regional government, and private landowners. I still have the now yellowed clipping describing the dramatic ridge line vistas of turquoise bays, the shade of 20 foot tall tree ferns, and the promise of soft beds and wine each evening.  This vision was the seed. When we learned that the hiking trail was not far from a famous wine region, our decision was sealed!

We arrived in the region through the Blenheim (picture Pendleton-sized) airport in the evening, after intercity bus service had stopped running. But, we were able to connect with John, a semi-retired entrepreneur who operates an off-hours shuttle service between communities in the region. He drove us 30 minutes to where we were staying for the night, at a two room bed and breakfast in Picton. The lodging had just been opened by Greg and his partner Carlie as a spinoff of Greg’s Natural Encounters tour company. Through Greg, we bought an “unguided tour” package including three nights of lodging along the Track with dinner and breakfast, a packed lunch each day, trail passes and a self-guiding map, ferry transport to and from the trail heads and transport of our luggage between lodges each day.  We sipped local wine with Greg that evening while he oriented us to the lay of the land and recommended good stopping points along the way.

Tonja and Rod

The next morning, with a small daypack holding water and two bag lunches from Greg, we set off for the trail head by mail ferry. We enjoyed a surprise stop on the way at Motuara Island, an uninhabited bird sanctuary pulsating with song. After hiking seven hours, we climbed (counting) 98 rough cut stairs up from the trail to our first evening stop. Rod built this fantastic two bedroom home with his dad. Tonja is his assistant. He’s sailed from Tonga to Australia solo. And earlier that same afternoon, he dove for the scallops he served us that evening.

Hiking again the next day, we passed this honor bar on one of the private land segments, offering bandaids, cool drinks, muesli bars and M&Ms. We enjoyed a picnic lunch in a sunny field sloping down to a bay, a spot recommended by Greg. While there, we saw a man disembark a small boat with a large (and bloody) leg of lamb in one hand. After “G’day”, he told us he’d just retrieved it from his freezer down the bay a bit. Ah yes, we were certainly in New Zealand.

With a basket of still-warm eggs and fresh cut herbs for dinner draped over his arm, Dave greeted us when we arrived at his lodge the second evening. “We’ll have fish eggs for breakfast”, he said. Which I later understood to mean “fresh eggs” with a Kiwi accent! This was a larger place, and we guests enjoyed a long ultra-local dinner outside under an arbor accompanied by the sound of water lapping along the shore. A great ending to another seven hour hiking day!

Eight more hours of hiking later, we arrived for our third evening at Lochmare Lodge, a national “Conservation in Action” award winner and the largest of the three places we stayed. Established originally as a backpackers stop a half mile off the Track thirteen years ago, it now has a range of accommodations, kayaking and other water sports, a local art gallery and sculpture garden, a wildlife recovery center, and a renowned restaurant. My husband John blissfully enjoyed his dinner of green lipped mussels, a local specialty, and thick lamb chops! To navigate around the grounds, including to and from the main trail, we received a hand-drawn map with sculpture and natural features as the wayfinding guides:“Turn left at the concrete sofa, right at the copper rappeller”.

Even though we stayed at nice places (and there were some even fancier than where we were!), we encountered all types of fellow travelers, from low-budget backpackers on multi-month sojourns to families with young children based at one place and taking day hikes, to the well dressed group of party-goers who had ferried over to Lochmare just for an evening birthday celebration.  All on different budgets, seeking different experiences, but co-existing side by side. Wonderful conversation, unlikely worlds colliding each day.

At the end of the trail, we encountered another enterprising businesswoman who proffered cold drinks and snacks from a portable trailer to the weary awaiting the return ferry.  Best drink I ever had was at the end of that trail!

Back in town (Picton, population less than 3,000), we took the last intercity bus of the day (at 5:30 pm) inland to Blenheim to recover from the hike in Marlborough wine country. Gill, our new bed and breakfast host, picked us up at the bus stop. She shared wine that her neighbor had given her in exchange for she and her husband Adam helping to pick the grapes.Our next host, Jo, picked us up after breakfast, and we stayed at her lovely bed and breakfast for two more nights; two luxurious suites carved from a former garage. Mornings there, we were awoken by the cooing of mourning doves on the roof. Jo had bicycles (and helmets) for guest use, so we spent one day bicycling from one winery to another across a thankfully flat valley. The proprietor at one winery offered to drop our purchase at our bed and breakfast at day’s end, since we’d run out of room in our backpacks. Needless to day, we bought her wine– what service! When it was time to leave, Jo dropped us back at the bus stop.  Six hours, two bus rides and a ferry later, we were in New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. What a wonderful car-free and carefree time we now have in our memories, and the connectedness of services played a big part !

Thanks to all the businesses who made our trip such a pleasure! There are links to all of them below. And come back soon for more lessons from New Zealand, including “How to get a non-morning person to part with his/her money before dawn”, “Clubs that would have me that I still want to join”, and more!

Queen Charlotte Track

Marlborough Sounds Shuttles

Fernview Cottage

Natural Encounters

Blue Water Lodge

Mahana Homestead

Lochmare Lodge

Ashford House

Hillsfield House

Te Whare Ra Winery

Grove Mill Winery

Part III: Tourism development lessons from New Zealand