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The Jester House's signage promises lunch, a wine bar and 'tame eels.'

Courtesy of the Jester House Cafe/Handout

I came for the Jester House’s caramel slices, but I stayed for the New Zealand longfin eels.

Having already inhaled more than a few sugary squares at other cafés since motoring out of Auckland a week ago, I’m powerless to resist the Jester’s when we get to Tasman. Not only that, its whimsical roadside signage promises lunch, a wine bar and “tame eels.” You don’t see that fronting too many Tim Hortons.

Just as Britain has pubs and Canada has Timmy’s, most Kiwi settlements are home to at least one café. These versatile community hubs are a refreshing change from the chain-dominated roadsides of North America and serve a pleasing range of espresso beverages – “flat whites” are the national staple – local wines and beers, and meals ranging from beetroot- and fried-egg-topped “Kiwi burgers” to savoury pies filled with cheese, steak, lamb, fish and more.

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Like New Zealand in general, its cafés do things differently. These four enhanced our two-week South Island road trip in memorable fashion.

Jester House Café, Tasman

Breakfast fare at the Jester House Cafe, which also serves lunch and high tea.

Courtesy of the Jester House Cafe/Handout

Having devoured their al fresco lunches, my two young daughters borrow faux-fur tails from an outdoor dress-up station before joining a family stroll through an aptly named “enchanted forest” filled with ramshackle wooden play structures and super-sized musical instruments.

After peering over a hedge at the fairytale-themed Boot B&B – the footwear-shaped digs turn out to be too small to accommodate all four of us – we return to the café to purchase several condiment cups filled with minced mystery meat. Wooden stir sticks in hand, we walk to the nearby stream where the Jester’s slimiest attraction, a colony of several dozen obsidian eels, is wolfing down scoop after scoop of the tentatively offered goo. We join the half-dozen feeders already lining the banks and watch in horrified fascination as the metre-long eels wriggle toward our outstretched stir sticks, chomp on the meaty tips and lunge toward the next offering.

“Daddy, get it back!” my younger daughter squeals when her stick is yanked from her grasp by one notably nightmarish eel.

Visitors feed the Jester House Cafe’s colony of New Zealand longfin eels.

Adam Bisby/The Globe and Mail

“Sorry honey, I’m not allowed,” I reply, pointing to a sign reading “please do not pick up the eels” and silently thanking the fingerless idiots whose actions must have warranted such signage.

Back at the café, I ask a barista why anyone would want to handle the eels. “Instagram,” comes her laconic reply and I am again reminded that our planet is doomed.

Stationhouse Cafe, Moana

The Stationhouse Cafe's patio overlooks Lake Brunner and the historic Moana's railway station.

Adam Bisby/The Globe and Mail

The amply-patioed café overlooking both Lake Brunner and Moana’s historic railway station is empty when we arrive, the daily TranzAlpine train having departed about an hour earlier. But from around noon to 3 p.m. each day, the barista tells us, passengers opting to stop over in Moana instead of the turnaround point of Greymouth fill the place and do serious damage to its supplies of banana- and pineapple-filled hummingbird cake before embarking on the four-hour return trip to distant Christchurch.

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We all agree that Moana deserves much more than a three-hour stopover. Suspension footbridges abound in New Zealand, and Moana’s 20-metre span proves ideal for plunging into the warm waters of Lake Brummer and reaching the string of sandy beaches and hiking trails lining the mouth of the Arnold River.

Northward we “tramp,” as the Kiwis say, and soon enter a lush labyrinth of dangling vines and primordial ferns. Just before the trail loops back toward the bridge, a metallic glint catches our eyes through an opening in the forest canopy. There, suspended above the hillside leading down to the river, is a chrome bicycle handlebar lashed to a nylon rope. With a second cord easing bar retrieval and the main rope fastened to a robust overhanging branch, the intent is clear and we proceed to earn our hummingbird cake by swinging Tarzan-like over the river and tumbling Icarus-like into its languid current.

Matheson Café, Fox Glacier

Lake Matheson's swimming dock offers superb views of Mount Tasman and Mount Cook.

Adam Bisby /The Globe and Mail

Ask my daughters which South Island glacier they prefer – Franz Josef or Fox – and they probably won’t wax poetic about the waterfall- and cairn-strewn approach to the former or the stunning viewing platform mere metres from the latter. Instead, they will note two things: One, that the picturesque lake fed by the Fox Glacier is a dock-jumper’s delight; and two, that the cakes served on the glorious patio of Lake Matheson’s namesake café almost make up for the lack of rope swings.

Their parents, meanwhile, are similarly taken with the dock, what with it facing Mount Tasman and Mount Cook – New Zealand’s two highest peaks – in truly stunning fashion. For me, however, the path to the dock is the real joy, draped as it is in verdant rainforest and with three viewing platforms punctuating its four-kilometre lake-encircling length.

Central Cafe and Grill, Geraldine

Our appetites whetted by a sunny morning stroll through Geraldine’s bucolic Rhododendron Dell, we descend upon this homey eatery eager to wolf down its chimichangas and BLTs. I am less eager to wolf down “the Gotham,” which with one kilogram of ground beef and 600 grams of bacon and cheddar is said to be “New Zealand’s largest burger.” Polish it off within 30 minutes, I’m told and I’ll get my $75 back, my name on the Wall of Fame and … wait for it … a free T-shirt.

As much as I long to show off said shirt to local emergency room staff, I opt instead for a ribeye steak sandwich, its soft sourdough bun piled high with caramelized onions, salad greens, sliced tomatoes and chimichurri sauce.

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And it’s a good thing too, given the amount of jam I am about to consume. Geraldine, you see, is the home of Barker’s of Geraldine, an iconic Kiwi preserves purveyor that operates a tasting room less than 100 metres north of the Central Cafe.

Jams are just the beginning. From fruit syrups and relishes to savoury sauces and dressings, the compact emporium’s shelves are crammed with jar after jar of preserved goodness. Sample jars and spoons are arrayed below the shelves, giving visitors free licence to taste as much passionfruit curd as their curd thresholds can withstand.

We leave with a full box of various condiments, the New Zealand green tomato chutney being my personal favourite. Slather enough of it on the Gotham and maybe, just maybe, I’d have a chance.

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