a tale of two cities.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…and it was raining as we woke up in Nelson early Sunday morning – our first day of rain since we left Christchurch. We darted across the street from our hostel to Elise’s car, loading up quickly and hitting the road. I’d told Joe, my kayak partner, about the incredible luck Elise and I had been having with the weather thus far – nothing but sunshine all along the way. He’d called us the Sun Queens. “Sun Queens no more,” I tell Elise as the first raindrops hit the windshield. “No, it’s just the South Island crying that we’re leaving,” she says. Of course.

An hour and a half down the road, we arrive in Blenheim. The town is immediately underwhelming, and not just because of the overcast sky. It seems flat and one-dimensional, a simple place of 30,000 people with your usual smattering of shops and supermarkets. Although the I-Site is housed in the former railway station, itself a building bordering on “charming” with an exterior paint job of pastel yellows and greens, there’s not much else about the town to catch your eye. The focus is undoubtedly the wine and vineyards lying outside the city limits. In that way, Blenheim seems to function not as a destination itself, but a launch pad, a place from where to explore the surrounding Marlborough vineyards.

Indeed, Marlborough is often hailed as the top winemaking  region in the country, however its history as such is not nearly as extensive as one would expect. For much of the twentieth century, wine was produced only on the North Island, with hardly any vineyards established south of Hawke’s Bay. In fact, even the 1966 Encyclopedia of New Zealand reads, “As recently as the 1960s, government viticulturalists advised that the South Island was unsuitable for growing wine grapes.” Well, this was obviously not the case, to which the number of internationally award-winning wines flowing out of the region today attest. Vineyards cover more than 3,000 hectares (almost 7,500 acres!) of the area, all because one brave Auckland wine company decided to “give it a go” down south in the 1970s. The widely-acclaimed Marlborough Wine Festival held annually in February is just one example of the culture that has grown up around the ever-increasing wine industry.

But in Blenheim, there’s not even a museum to explore, unless you count the Aviation Heritage Museum located two kilometers outside town. Weeks after visiting the town, I learn of the Marlborough Museum, but there was no mention of it in the information center itself. So what does that tell you about the area? If I were the region’s tourism coordinator, I begin to rant to Elise, I wouldn’t waste one second on plans to establish a wine museum in the heart of Blenheim central. Elise and I were interested in learning about the winemaking process itself, but couldn’t afford the wine tours that ranged from $75-$200. They should “bring the wine to the people,” I say – it seemed like an untapped opportunity for the town, in my opinion. Charge five or ten bucks for entry, maybe offer a free glass of wine – which itself could surely be subsidized by the surrounding vineyards.

Blasé Blenheim, I began to call it. It is the town of alliteration, after all, with its Seymour Squares and Pollard Parks. I wouldn’t normally be quite so judgmental of a place, but I was chastised by a good friend after my much-too-positive spin on Invercargill in July. I’d likened my visit to the southern town to a speed-dating session, and decided “Invers” was definitely worth a second date. A few days after posting my entry, however, I received the following email:

“I’m only writing to you to say that Invercargill, if it was a speed date, would be a balding, overweight, accountant. Not a young, successful inner city accountant, but a middle aged accountant who works on his own and struggles his way through life. He’s never had a date in 20 years. He saw the advert in the paper and has come alone, so the only thing he has in his favour is blind hope. Which is sad, as he doesn’t even realise how out of place he is amongst all these younger singles. He has slow, unintelligent and dull, cow’s eyes that would look at you briefly before returning their slow, dull gaze back at the table. His brow line would probably wrinkle to indicate a slow thought processing behind those cow like eyes. He would sweat a lot. Oh, and he would be wearing a plaid suit jacket – which HE thought was fashionable, and still hasn’t realised that it’s not. He would not know what to say, and when you tried to engage him in anything, he would start a sentence, decide it was too boring or not the right thing to say, and stop mid-sentence before returning his awkward gaze to the table. He MIGHT even spill his drink across the table and onto your lap. But he wouldn’t even react quickly to that; his slow cow-like eyes would track the drink across to you, and he might venture to say that he was sorry, before returning his gaze to the table. He wouldn’t have the urgency that can be endearing in many socially awkward people – in this man, there is already that sense of defeat and futility.

THAT IS INVERCARGILL!

You would go on a second date with THAT?”

In my desire to always speak well of New Zealand and its towns of varying sizes and quality, my aforementioned friend brought to my attention the fact that my reporting was beginning to grow a little lacking in the accuracy department. Could I honestly look someone in the eyes, he asked me, and tell them Invercargill was worth a visit? As any true Kiwi would say, fair enough. He was right. So when sparks failed to fly between Blenheim and myself, I just couldn’t write otherwise.

But that doesn’t mean I still can’t look for some redeeming quality in a town, wherever it may be, and where I found it in Blenheim was in the gardens and public spaces. We stopped first at Seymour Square, named in 1857 for Henry Seymour, one half of the land-owning partnership on which the town was founded. At once my spirits lifted. A grey clocktower as a WWI memorial, a fountain as WWII memorial, even a distinct green bench in memory of Princess Diana, complete with beds of poppies of all colors – all in a tidy park layout. It shifted Blenheim from “forgettable” to “okay” in my mind.

We almost gave Pollard Park a pass, but after Ines won a round of rock-paper-scissors to beat our indecision, we went…and were ultimately glad for it. Small towns need unique features, and this park featured a scented cottage garden designed for the visually impaired by a gift from a certain Myrtle Currie. It was an interesting request on Mrs. Currie’s part, one which I could appreciate and remember.

In the park, the rain started up again and we knew it was time to move on to Picton.

We’d barely driven twenty minutes when we came to Picton, which, just as quickly as Blenheim had bored me, rescued the Marlborough region for me. Pulling into town, we parked down by the aquarium along what’s known as the Foreshore, essentially the waterfront district. Therein lay the town’s instant attraction, despite having a population of not even 4,500. Whereas Blenheim is situated amidst acre after acre of rolling vineyard, not a thing to remark upon in its landscape, Picton is a harbor town, tucked among the misty folds of the Marlborough Sounds. It likes to call itself the “gateway to the South Island,” usually known best as the other end of the route by which the ferries carry passengers across the Cook Strait from Wellington. 

Making our way to the I-Site in Picton (I’m assuming you’ve noted the pattern here; it’s Elise’s first stop in any new town), I see a miniature railway track and on the “engine” rides a white-haired woman in a bright orange vest, and behind her, parents with three small children tucked between them. It’s the kind of miniature train you often see in shopping malls during the Christmas season, circling around and around in a faux North Pole. As I bring my camera up, the volunteer waves with a big smile – wouldn’t you love that job, too? I walk over to the station, where a white sign reads Picton-by-Sea. Another says, “Train rides 20¢” and “Boat hire 20¢.” The track loops around vaguely in the shape of a kidney bean, encircling a small pond in which you can launch miniature wooden yachts.

The whole complex is run by the Picton Modellers Society, headed by Farquhar Wilson, a man I’m lucky enough to meet. He and two other women – all sporting the fashionable neon vest – are volunteers who open and run the park every Sunday afternoon, weather permitting. It’s been around for forty years, they tell me, although the track has changed significantly. “They tried to get rid of it about ten years back,” Farquhar says, looking up from the model engine he’s tinkering with, “But the town wouldn’t hear of it. I guess it’s here to stay.” There are two racks of yachts, all about a foot high, with minute cloth sails, in different colors and with different numbers painted on their sails. They only ask 20¢ per ride or rental but he says many give much more, enabling them to continue their operations and in turn, give back to the community themselves. “Last Christmas, we gave $3,000 to the Lions Club.”

I’ve only got $1.50 in my wallet, but I give it all to them to rent a yacht. I drop it in the water and Elise and I laugh as the wind catches its sails and sends it dipping far over to the right. This little park made the town for me – for all I could’ve cared, the rest of Picton could be worse than Blenheim and I would still leave starry-eyed and in love. I’m still such a kid at heart and places like this have such a magic about them to me. It’s that beautiful simplicity childhood is all about – finding joy in the little things, in little wooden yachts that sail around a shallow pond while a miniature locomotive makes it way through the park. “If you like them that much,” Farquhar says as I take a final photo of the yachts, “You can buy one for a hundred bucks.” Don’t tempt me, Farquhar, I just might.

I would’ve happily sailed my yacht all day – or at least until the complex closed – but I could see Elise was getting restless. On to affairs of a more grown-up nature – the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum, home to the world’s 9th oldest ship. It’s a fact the museum touts but one that I’m wary to blindly believe, although it is yet another distinctive feature of Picton, something to set it apart. Inside the museum, adjacent to the dry dock in which the preserved ship now sits, a woman volunteer behind the desk talks with another man about the difficulty of predicting visitors to the museum. “Friday and Saturday were dead, but today’s been a good day. A real good day.” Unfortunately I didn’t contribute to the good day and pay the ten dollars to board the boat – which you can simply view outside on your own anyways.

The Edwin Fox, the oldest merchant sailing ship still afloat, needs a full-on wardrobe for the number of hats she wore during service. From India to England, from Australia to New Zealand, the history of her service reads like a résumé any ship at the time would be jealous of:

1853 = Built in Calcutta for the East India Company.

1854 = Recruited for service as a troop ship in the Crimean War, with even Florence Nightingale as a reputed passenger.

1856 = Chartered by British government to transport convicts to Australia.

1858 – 1872 = Carried a range of cargoes, including enough pale ale to India to earn the nickname “Booze Barge.”

1873 = Chartered by Shaw Savill Company to carry immigrants to New Zealand, with a total of 751 passengers over four voyages.

1880s = Refitted as a floating freezer hulk to service the burgeoning New Zealand sheep industry, as steam engines began to be developed.

The more I read of her history, the more the Edwin Fox began to remind me of some aging celebrity, a Madonna of sorts, determined not to be made redundant or irrelevant. Ever caught in a series of makeovers, forever changing industries and continents, I marveled at the variety of roles the ship filled and at how long she managed to stay in service. Of course, you couldn’t tell it today, looking at the ship as she rests in peace under a fairly humble structure of mostly corrugated metal, but at one point she had quite the illustrious career.

Not far from the Edwin Fox was the Picton Museum, where a darling old woman (this town seems to be full of them) greets us from the front desk. What begins as a conversation about how they only accept cash – because I don’t have it – turns into talking about a range of things. “I haven’t been to Virginia,” she tells me, “But I have been to Ohio, New York, and Nova Scotia.” She eventually lets us slip by her for a “quick peek” at the museum for free – “But don’t tell anyone I let you,” she whispers. This wasn’t her biggest favor to us, though, as the museum itself betrayed nothing too earth-shattering about the region, but she did pass on a brochure describing the Picton Foreshore Heritage Walk. The walk took us along the waterfront through the park with its classic Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck statues, to bronze plaques commemorating Captain Cook and various others of lesser prominence, and to old façades, railway stations, and war memorials. What there was to see along the way wasn’t any more impressive than what Blenheim has to offer, I just found the presentation of it more appealing. Picton has learned to promote itself, it’s a place you feel confident in visiting. I liked it immensely.

The next day, we boarded the Interislander Ferry, which takes about three and a half hours to cross the Cook Strait. As Elise and I whiled away the time with card games and meat pies from the café, I was reminded of other ferry crossings to Helsinki and Callais, where the boats seem more like multi-level cruise ships than passenger ferries. Within hours, our first glimpse of the North Island appears on the horizon. Although I spent my first weekend in New Zealand in Auckland, seeing the North Shore, Devonport and Piha Beach, my arrival to Wellington still feels like my maiden voyage, the North Island still very much Terra Incognita to me.

In the end, the last day of our trip “was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” It was Blenheim and it was Picton, two towns so close on the map, yet so different in personality.

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