Rene has a toothbrush fetish. And not in some gross-yet-dental-hygenically-clean sexual way, I mean the man just had a thing for toothbrushes. I’m talking double digits of the molar moppers, in his car and house. His (and mine) friend Mark, who is actually a dentist, persuaded him to buy a Sonicare toothbrush, and Rene liked it so much — it was so good — that it convinced even toothbrush-crazy Rene to throw out the entire collection. You might be asking yourself, “what are you, a toothbrush salesman now?” No, I’m about to tell you the story of my trip to Dunedin to stay with Rene, and I wanted to start with something as eye-catching as “Rene has a toothbrush fetish.”
He owned a restaurant in Wanaka for several years called The Reef. It was during his search for after-work drinks that he met Garth and later Mike. The three of them as well as Rene’s sous-chef Holdeen (I would probably need to devote an entire post for Holdeen), became good friends and Rene was one of the first people to whom I was introduced after starting at Barluga.
Some months later Rene sold The Reef and moved back to Dunedin to run the original Reef restaurant with his business partner Jason. I had intended on doing a road trip to check out Dunedin and finally managed to get off my butt and do it.
Dunedin is New Zealand’s oldest city and former capital. It has since become a big university town, home to the University of Otago. Before I left I asked Jess, Mike’s girlfriend and Dunners native (‘Dunners’ is Dunedin’s nickname) for both directions and advice on what to see. She chuckled, rolled her eyes, and said, “Umm …. there’s the world’s steepest street!”
I finally learned that Dunedin had at least three things that were worth visiting: the aforementioned Baldwin Street, Otago Museum and a Royal Albatross colony.
The drive down was a little overcast, but nonetheless beautiful. There are no major highways, just curvy two-lane roads that snake through mountains and valleys. Much of the country between Wanaka and Dunedin is covered with fruit and livestock farms, with the odd vineyard here and there. Central Otago, Wanaka’s locale, is known for its wineries, the number of which declines as you proceed further south in the region towards Dunners.
As I got closer to the city, I called Rene and arranged to meet him in the city center, an area called the Octagon which is home to several bars and restaurants, an art gallery and a few shops. From there we went to the Reef for dinner and had a plate of scampi that Jason had just got in and highly recommended, back to Rene’s for a couple drinks, and then out to the bars for a couple quiet drinks.
Jason is a loud, friendly and full-of-life South African who comes from a line of fisherman. To hear him talk of fishing could almost inspire even me to get out there with a line and some bait. That is, if I didn’t think it was incredibly boring. The third roommate, former employee of Rene’s, and now restaurant owner himself was Bunter (I think his name was Grant — most people around Rene end up getting a nickname, like Rabbi, Nugget, Mickey Mouse and The Noise).
We called it a night after a couple cocktails at De Lusso in the Octagon. The next day I would be on my own to wander the city and after recommendations from the boys, I planned a drive out to the Otago Peninsula.
The peninsula is a gorgeous expanse of land covered with thick forests, large farmlands and of course a long and rocky coastline. Even though it was extremely overcast and at times raining, the weather served only to enhance the beauty of the land. It made it seem more alive, greener and even more lush. I set out along the coast and made my first stop at Larnach Castle.
Larnach Castle was an old military fort rediscovered and restored by a fellow named Larnach, and further restored by the family living there now.
Although it is used as their residence, the family has made it a tourist attraction, with a surrounding garden, guesthouses, and cafe. I decided to only check out the gardens, as the whole package would be about $25 (not even sure I would’ve bought the castle for that much). After receiving car maintenance advice from the parking lot guard (my car makes a ticking noise that would be fixed, it seems, by converting it to a diesel), I made my way around the land. The gardens were nice, offering picturesque views of the bay and the rest of the peninsula.
The next stop was the albatross colony, which lay at the very end of the peninsula. By the time I got out there, the wind had kicked up considerably, though the rain had temporarily died. I walked into the visitor’s center and was surprised to see two things: One, a picture of a very concerned looking Prince Charles kneeling next to an even more concerned looking albatross; and two, a price tag of 30 dollars for a tour of the colony. When I say ‘colony’, don’t think that it’s a huge center of all-things-albatross, it seemed like nothing more than one building with an LCD projector. Thirty dollars to see what in reality is — and let’s not delude ourselves otherwise — a big bird? I turned around, went back to the carpark and took pictures of the seagulls that were swarming the lot, fighting for the little scraps left behind by those rich tourists. I figured they looked kinda like albatrosses, and I could just blow up the shots and convince people I actually saw them. For free.
Jason would later exclaim, “They’re charging $30 for that now?! Ah, don’t worry about it, it was too windy for them anyway. Did you see any from the parking lot? In that case they weren’t flying, and you probably wouldn’t see any with their wings spread during the tour either.” ‘Nuff said.
I wandered around town for a bit and made my way to the Otago Museum. It seemed well-designed and rather informative, but something happened to me while I was browsing a Polynesian culture exhibit: I completely lost interest. I mean, don’t get me wrong, you heard of all the museums I went to in Oz, I mean I got a very healthy dose of information with relation to the Aborigines, Australian colonization, etc, etc. But I just couldn’t take any more. If I had to stare at one more tribal spear, I was gonna break into the case and use it to poke my eyes out.
Art galleries were more of my thing now — especially contemporary art — so I walked back to the Octagon and caught the public art gallery for about 20 minutes before they closed.
Jason and Bunter were quite impressed with everything that I had crammed into my day by the time I got back to the house, and they decided to top it off with a drive to Signal Hill. Signal Hill is a lookout point over the city and peninsula, and on a beautiful day it would be … well, beautiful. Because of the weather the views were somewhat limited, but no less impressive.
Jason and I had downed a couple drinks at the house, so it was up to Bunter to drive Jason’s new van, though it was actually Jason who was driving from the back seat. “Bunter put on the rear windshield wipers! Don’t ride the brakes, I just got new brake pads! Tap them, so you don’t put a shine on them!” There are a lot of hills in Dunners, and I found myself lurching forwards and backwards down all of them as Bunter desperately tried not to put a shine on Jason’s new brake pads.
According to the boys, Signal Hill is where teenagers go to make out and smoke weed. We did neither, but got a few snaps off before the rain kicked up again. (Later, when I told Jess about my trip, she immediately smiled and responded, “I used to go up there to make out with boys”).
On the way back they showed me Baldwin street, and yes, it was pretty damn steep. Bunter told me of a story about some girl who died when she and her friends decided to try rolling down it in a shopping cart. Apparently there are little breaks built into the road and sidewalk because on really hot days the tar actually melts off the asphalt and flows down the street. Jason’s car powered it’s way up and since there’s no exit at the top, we barreled back down as well (“Damnit Bunter, tap the brakes! You’ll put a shine on the pads!).
The last stop during the impromptu road trip was the university, and Bunter drove me through the student ghetto that is Castle Street and told me of all the riots that have happened there. The campus itself was quite stunning and if I had more time there, I would’ve liked to walk around it.
That night, after Rene finished work, we went out to a Japanese restaurant called “Yaki” for dinner. This place was a favorite with the boys. It was the Asian equivalent of tapas-style food, and we sat at the bar right in front of the chef and ordered food, sake, beer and plum wine until we exploded. The boys were fascinated by the chef, and Jason bought him a couple beers and got his picture taken with him. Every move he made, every slice, every toss of the pan was watched carefully and commented on by Jason and Rene. As it was his turn, Bunter got stuck with the check.
The next stop was a couple bars for some cocktails. The first, Toast, was another favorite with the crew. The head bartender and manager, Leggie, was a friendly guy who definitely knew what he was doing. He had even painted the murals that covered the walls and ceiling. The cocktails they offered were well designed and delicious. I walked out with a lot of ideas for Barluga.
Next was Pop, a posh basement-level cocktail bar, which would cater to an upper market crowd. The much respected and much anticipated bartender Chris was absent, but his replacement did a great job. Especially considering we were ordering all of his most complicated drinks. When he found out that I was a fellow bartender from another well-respected cocktail bar, he definitely sharpened up his game, and after my first sip of every drink would furrow his brow, arch his eyebrows, keel his head forward and ask “Is it OK?” And it wasn’t that I had some aura of what seemed like good bartending skills around me, it’s just that when you’re a cocktail bartender and you’re serving a colleague flash homegrown cocktails, you put your heart into it, you go that extra mile, and you hope that he goes away saying “that guy knows what the hell he’s doing.” Indeed, that guy knew what the hell he was doing.
Before we succumbed to our food coma, we called it a night and went back to the house. I bartended for the boys out of their house stash of booze and we stood outside chatting. Rene and Jason were going on about the chef from Yaki, doing a post-game analysis of his ingredients and methods. “Then he just fried it up, mixed it with some salad and used that squirt bottle with the sauce and just whoosh-whoosh and it was done.” “What did he have by the prep station, it was that hot sauce, the sweet and sour sauce …” To hear two great chefs go on with such passion about their jobs and show so much respect for another, it made you appreciate all the hard work that goes into that industry.
Rene has a cat named Dog. It took me no less than 5 minutes to figure out how it earned that moniker. I was typing on Rene’s laptop when it sat next to me, brushed up against my leg, jumped up into my lap and curled up on my outstretched arms, which were still trying to bang out an email. It was the first cat I had met that actually craved attention and showed affection like a dog. For the first time, I found myself enjoying the company of a cat.
Jason made me promise to try his fish curry at the Reef, so we got ourselves ready and went down for lunch the next day, just before I’d take off and head back to Wanaka. The curry was prepared by Rene and as it was a slow afternoon, he sat with us as Jason and I polished off a fantastic dish. After lunch I thanked both of them for a great time and set off back to Wanaka. I took another route home that was flatter and straighter, but equally scenic.
It was my first real trip in New Zealand, nearly 9 months after arriving in the country, and it was an incredible success. And even though the weather wasn’t perfect, everything else was.