Last chance for Canadiana, for a while
As we leave NZ, I'm putting a few thoughts together. As I think of more, I'll come back and add more notes.
I've decided to start a separate page for Australia. Way too much info and too many pictures!
So, we spent 35 great days in New Zealand. It’s a wondrous place. You can see reflections of almost anywhere in the world, and they are reachable within hours.
We went from tip to tip - Cape Reinga in the north, to Bluff in the south. While it’s not possible to see everything, we saw - and learned - a lot. We saw the largest kauri (pronounced “kody”) trees in the country. We visited some of the most famous wine regions in the world. We viewed unique rock formations. We played on the most beautiful golf courses in the world. And, we sailed through some awesome fjords. Plus, a whole lot more. Now, any one of the sites we saw might have been topped by another part of the world, but collectively, New Zealand highlights an amazing array of beauty in a very small geographical area.
I don’t know if we’ll ever be back again, but it was worth the trip down.
A few observations.
The folks are friendly, Uber-friendly. And it seems to rub off on everyone. We met Kiwis, Aussies, Americans, Germans, Danes, you name it. Willing to share a table and strike up a conversation. You might wound up with invitations to stay with them on your next visit. We certainly did!
It’s dominated by foreigners - generally young adults working to earn some money while they travel around the country or the region. We met a large number of Canadians. it seems that it’s common practice to do a world tour after completing school. And some wind up staying here.
The culture of camping/camper-vans/caravans is quite astounding. I haven’t figured out why. There are countless small to greatly oversized caravans careening around the sharp corners of the mountain roads.
Look at the economics. I did. I looked up the cost for a “self contained” camper unit online. For a month - over $8600 NZD! Then there is the cost of gas, at more than $2 per litre, plus the cost of accessing camp sites along the way. Compare that to hotels - say, $1500 for a car rental, plus $6000 for hotels (@ $200 per night, conservatively). More expensive by far to be a camper.
So, what’s the answer? Lifestyle. Must be. And it’s not like you can reach remote areas. If anything, it makes it more difficult. Not sure I get it.
The economic choice is to do “freedom camping”. That’s the choice for a lot of the younger, low-budget travelers. And it’s becoming a big issue in NZ. These are the cheap campers where there are no toilets or showers. Just enough room to sleep inside and eat out of the back door.
The issue is that, with no toilet facilities, freedom campers have a tendency to leave “evidence” of their presence behind. And with the huge increase in tourism, the problem is becoming very serious. There are signs all over the country forbidding it.
Tue Feb 12/19
Goodbye sleepy town. Hello party town!
We were told be a number of people that Queenstown was “touristy”. They were nothing if not correct! It reminds me of Whistler (just outside Vancouver), or perhaps Collingwood (although it has been years since I was there).
Queenstown is on Lake Wakatipu, and since the 1970’s has become more and more of a hub for four season tourism. If it involves adrenaline, it can probably be found here. Winter ski hills, jet boats, parasailing, bungy jumping/swinging, skydiving, a gondola that will take you up to a luge track. Even a “hydro attack” – a shark jet ski that dives under the water and then springs out of it at a 90 degree angle.
To supplement these activities, there’s a small, multi-block hub of restaurants, bars and stores of all varieties and descriptions. No problem in finding things to do here. All it costs is money.
So, in a period of 15 minutes, we planned out our next couple of days. A 4WD tour that explores Lord of the Rings scenes, a ride on the TSS Earslaw (a turn of the 20th century steamship) that goes to a local farm for dinner and a chance to explore the farm, a jet boat ride up a river and canyon. Plus, we’ll probably head up the gondola at some point. Just hoping the weather holds out. The forecast for Wednesday is good, but Thursday looks cold and rainy.
In getting these tickets, we were given free admission to “Below Zero”, an ice bar completely made out of ice. Face value $20 pp. So we wandered, found “1876”, a restaurant with a record for happy hours - $4.00 NZD for a house beer or wine. Met a lady from SF who was working here for a few months. She and her husband are traveling around the world for a year. Got some insights as to wages here. She’s making $17.50 - $18.00 per hour in her two jobs. Good alternative, but no tips.
The ice bar was very “cool” – ha ha, sometimes I have to laugh at my own jokes. They supplied gloves and coats. We lasted there for one drink, but it wasn’t too cold. Minus twelve degrees. I’ve played golf in colder weather.
Took one last try at fish and chips here. Erik’s Fish and Chips, recommended as the best in town. If that’s the case, I’d say to give it a pass. Nothing special.
Hotel is nice. It has a separate shared kitchen and courtyard type seating area. Room’s nice and we’ve got a small balcony with a harbour view.
Wed Feb 13/19
Our tours of the area began with a 4WD “Lord of the Rings Scenes” tour from Nomad Safaris. A four hour tour, with pickup in the middle of town, in a bad-ass old Land Rover Defender. They’re the kind that can go through anything. Paul was our tour guide – an Aussie born in Sydney, but who moved here and found his own place in heaven (his description) about 3 years ago.
This tour was very cool. Paul was obviously a LotR and Hobbit fanatic, plus he studied the life of Tolkein as well. He was unbelievably knowledgeable about the movies, where scenes were shot and how they were put together digitally. He came prepared with a book full of images from the movie, and displayed how you could see the backgrounds of the mountains in the scenes, and where all the different scenes were shot. He knew all the names of the battles and scenes, which, sadly, I don’t, so I can’t repeat them here.
Apparently, Peter Jackson’s objective with LotR was to showcase New Zealand’s natural beauty. He filmed the movie on an initial budget of (I think) $285m, but final cost was (according to Paul, approximately) $540m. If you google the budget, it says $281m USD, split into three parts. That’s because all three movies were filmed at once. All the scripts were written, all actors cast, all sets built. And filming took approximately 14 months. So, New Line Cinema and Peter Jackson had all that money spent before the first movie opened. Fortunately for them, the trilogy has grossed almost $3 billion USD.
Interestingly, when we asked about the Hobbit trilogy, we were told that Jackson had achieved his objective of showcasing New Zealand in LotR. So, much of the Hobbit was filmed in studio, using green screen technology and CGI. Even still, the budget amounted to $750m. And it grossed about $3 billion as well.
The trip itself took us up along the coast of Lake Wakatipu with some beautiful views, through Glenorchy at the end of the lake, and up to an area called Paradise. Aside from LotR scenes, the area was also the set for the ending helicopter scenes in Mission Impossible: Fallout, and XMen Originals Wolverine.
The best stories that Paul told us had to do with a scene where the fellowship is marching (and marching and marching) across a mountaintop covered with snow. For authenticity, Peter Jackson wanted the actors to really be marching across a mountaintop. So, he used a helicopter to bring the actors up to the top (sorry, I’ve forgotten the name of the mountain, but we saw it from Paradise).
The first story was about Sean Bean, who played Boromir. Apparently, he has a fear of flying. And the other actors, playing a practical joke, told the pilot it was his birthday and he loved daredevil flying. You can imagine the rest. He almost died from fright with the aerobatics the pilot pulled off. After filming, someone told Sean that his acting on the mountain was the best they’d ever seen. At one point, he was looking at the ring and being very solemn. What wasn’t in the scene was the helicopter in the background. He was thinking about the ride back down!
The second was about the same scene. The fellowship had a horse in the group. Now, a horse couldn’t be fit in a helicopter. But a horse costume could! A local brother and sister played the horse clomping across the snow. You’ll notice there are no close-ups that include the horse in this scene. Check it out next time you watch the trilogy.
The ironic part of this movie was our group. We were six in total. There were two Chinese ladies who hardly understood English. Paul had an iPad that translated main scenes for them. Then there was a couple from India who knew nothing about LotR. Hadn’t seen the movies. Hadn’t read the books. Odd choice for a tour!
After getting back, we tried to line up for the gondola, but the line was huge. I’ll have to try that again tomorrow.
In the evening, we boarded the TSS Earnsclaw, a steamship buit in 1912 to provide transportation on Lake Wakatipu. We took about a 45 minute trip across to Walter’s Peak, where there was a high country farm. There was a buffet dinner – surprisingly good, and then a demonstration of sheep shearing and sheep herding. Fascinating stuff, but you have to feel sorry for the sheep. Imagine being shorn naked in front of several hundred people! The star of the show was Kim, a two year old short-haired border collie that chased a group of five sheep down off a mountainside and into a pen. And she hardly broke a sweat.
Thu Feb 14/19
Our last full day in New Zealand! Hard to believe. Seems like we only left yesterday, but at the same time it seems like we left a lifetime ago.
Today, we had a one hour Thunder Jet jetboat excursion booked. We headed up the Kawarau River, doing the aquatic version of donuts along the way. The driver, Sam, did a headcount after each one. I actually thought of ducking out of sight, but I figured it might not go over too well. :) He was quite the expert driver. His general strategy was to head directly for any island, rock or tree by the shore, and then avoid it by turning as late as humanly possible. All in all, I think it’s a job that is meant for me! It was cool. I had my golf rain jacket on, so I turned down the full length rain coat that was offered at the dock. MISTAKE! I wound up getting soaked from the waist down. Oh well, live and learn.
The weather wasn’t great, for the first time since Auckland. It was raining lightly in the morning, but then it started to clear up. Garrett and Melanie showed up and we agreed to meet at the top of the Gondola. I bought three luge rides as well ($39 NZD for the gondola; $18 NZD for 3 rides). Unfortunately, the weather turned bad and it started raining heavily and fogging in. So, the luge was closed (got a refund) and the view was not great. But, by the evening, everything cleared up and the sun was shining again.
The four of us wound up at 1876, our favourite happy hour bar ($4 NZD beer and wine), and Pier 19, a restaurant right on the harbour in downtown. Pier 19 is one of those restaurants that has a good location, and not a lot else. The prices are high and the food is, probably, average. $29 for a hamburger, $30 for seafood chowder, $36 for fish and chips, $30 for 6 oysters. There are lots of better options in town. Finished the night off at Pog Mahone’s Irish Pub, where they had a real Irish duo playing all the songs we knew from our times in Ireland!
Fri Feb 15/19
Pretty much a transit day. Had to get out of the room by 10:30 and our flight wasn’t until 15:45. We drove out to Arrowtown, an old gold rush town that had authentic looking buildings, converted to tourist purposes. Then on to the airport. Our car checked out ok and we used some time to chill past security. Managed to pick up a bottle of Scapegrace Gold, the number one gin in the world. Had heard about that back in Matakana.
Let’s see what Oz holds in store!
Sun Feb 10/19
There is one great question that faces mankind. Which is better to tour – Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?
OMG. Really? Milford and Doubtful are the two most famoust "Sounds" or "Fjords" in Fiordland, NZ. Every time I mentioned that I'm going to NZ, I would be told "you have to go to Milford Sound". But when I got here, Doubtful Sound started to come into the conversation.
We met a few Canucks on the way who described the two. Milford Sound is about two hours drive from Te Anau. You can get there by car and it's relatively crowded. Doubtful Sound, on the other hand, is not accessible by car. To get there, you have to travel by bus, boat, and bus again. The general consensus among the Canucks we met was that it was better to go to Doubtful Sound.
So the next question is, “what kind of name is “Doubtful Sound”? Milford Sound, I get. Named after somebody or some town called Milford. But “Doubtful”? Who’s named that? Or who comes from “Doubtful”, England, or Scotland, or anywhere?
The answer came from our new best Aussie friend Roger (and confirmed by our tour guide today). Captain James Cook, who charted a huge area of the Pacific, sailed by Doubtful Sound. Because of the prevailing winds and the nature of the sound (or, really, a fjord), he doubted that he could get out if he sailed in. Hence, “Doubtful Sound”. Ta-Da! Look it up. I believe it. You should, too.
So, on our first full day here in Te Anau, we had pre-booked a trip to Doubtful Sound. It involved a bus ride to Manapouri, a boat ride across Lake Manapouri, another bus ride over a pass down to Deep Cove, and – finally – a three hour cruise in Doubtful Sound. Then, the reverse coming back. Altogether 8 ½ hours round trip.
We were promised seals, waterfalls and, possibly, dolphins, We saw the seals from a distance, a bunch of waterfalls, but the dolphins took the day off.
So, our reaction – you will either love it or find it somewhat boring. We had read reviews and saw both opinions expressed, although more people loved it. However, after driving all over NZ, including all kinds of mountain roads, we had already seen a lot of wonders. Doubtful Sound was beautiful, but we thought we saw a lot of similar sights previously. Soaring mountains, towering cliffs. The main difference was that we were on water as opposed to on a road. And it cost about $180-190 NZD pp (and that was a deal, I think). Not sure how I feel, at the end of the day. Definitely beautiful, but not quite what we expected based on descriptions.
So we got back to town and walked around a bit more. We noticed a sign that said “Milford Sound - $49”. The cheapest we had seen was about $80, and that was driving yourself to the docking port. The catch was that it was only for the 9 am tour, so we'd have to leave by shortly after 6 am. No problem. So, at 9 am tomorrow, we’ll be on board to investigate Milford Sound. By the end of tomorrow, I’ll give the definitive opinion as to which is better, Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound!
Mon Feb 11/19
The answer is…Milford Sound! Just not on Go Orange, but more on that later.
In our opinion, not even close.
The two hour drive might even have been the biggest highlight. It’s about 120 km from Te Anau to Milford Sound and they say to allow two hours. For the last 30 km, the sights are really amazing, and you go through the mountain in a long, one lane tunnel that is awesome (to me), or freaking scary (to Wanda). Well worth the price of admission…wait, that part was free. You can make the drive in 1:45 or so, as long as you’re not stuck behind some big campers or tour buses.
Milford Sound is a lot smaller than Doubtful Sound, but the mountains rise up more dramatically and the vertical rises are impressive. There are multiple large waterfalls, and the boats go right up beside a couple of them, not more than 2-3 metres from the sheer rock walls. We saw some fur seals, and got a lot closer than was possible in Doubtful. Finally, there was a view of a glacier on Mount Pembroke, with falls and a river meandering down to the Sound. Weather on both days was good for us. Milford was quite calm until we got out to the Tasman Sea, and then it picked up – a lot. I can’t imagine how the explorers survived in the old days.
Bottom line, for us, thumbs up to Milford. If any of the Canadians that we met on the trip (you know, the ones that recommended Doubtful Sound) read this, we’d appreciate it if you’d send us money to help recover our costs for that trip. 😊
Now, as far as carriers go, there are a lot of tour companies in Milford Sound. I counted 12 larger boats. We had booked on Go Orange (who offered $49 NZD pp for the 9 am tour). I would NOT recommend them to others. Keep in mind, all the tour companies do, basically, the same thing. There are a list of sites to see, and they cover them. So, it’s either about price or value adds.
On Milford Haven, the Go Orange boat, the sound system was not adequate. Tiny speakers were no competition for the noise of the engines if you were on the upper deck, or near the back of the ship. On other tours, we always had a running commentary from a guide. Not on Go Orange. They decided to put on party/dance music like you might have on a party cruise in the Caribbean. Really? I’m on a wilderness cruise and I need to have party music? Finally, from time to time, the captain came on to point out a few sites. He had a heavy accent and didn’t even bother to turn off the music. The net result – could hardly understand a bloody word he said. But, that didn’t change the fact that we saw some pretty awesome sights.
Wed Feb 6/19
I did some re-ordering on the site. I felt it was getting more and more difficult to read updates because of all the scrolling. So, I reversed the order of the postings. From now on, the most recent ones will appear at the top.
We hoped to get one more hike around Aoraki Mount Cook, but the morning brought more clouds and rain. So, we headed out for Dunedin. The drive took about 4 hours.
When we got here, we checked in at The Chamberson, a new boutique hotel in a loft-type building. Our booking was for an “executive studio, city view”. What a surprise to get a top floor, tiny room, with a skylight. After some “discussion”, we got moved to a one bedroom with a kitchen, but it’s only available for two nights. We’ll have to move back for the last night. Oh well. The upgrade is a great room.
We didn’t get settled until mid afternoon, so we just had time to do a bit of exploration. We booked a 2 hour city bus tour for tomorrow, and discovered that Dunedin has a very active street art community. There are 25+ murals on walls around the downtown core. We got a map and tracked down more than half of them.
On our trek to see the street art, we came across the Duke of Ellington Pub and stopped in. It turns out that Garrett and Melanie were there just the day before! The bartender remembered them, which might or might not be a good thing!
We also started chatting to a local and his partner. He was a funny older guy, and the bartender and others told us that he was Dick Taylor, a local legend, the 1974 Commonwealth Games winner in record time, and also winner at the Toronto Star games in the same year. Typical of Kiwis, he was super friendly. We wound up having an invite to come stay at his place the next time we visit. He lives somewhere north of the city. :)
After completing our art tour, it was late in the day, and we went to the Countdown across the street, got some pate and a few other things for a light dinner in the room.
Thu Feb 7/19
Man, it’s cold! I looked at the weather in Toronto, and it recently got up to 12 C. Here, it was about 10 C this morning. But at least it won’t stay there!
The bus tour was really worthwhile. The driver/guide was a local, born and raised here. He offered lots of insights about the early development of Dunedin, about 100 years of slow decay, and a re-energization and expansion over the past few years.
Dunedin was started about 1848 by Scots from Edinburgh. The used the Gaelic name for Edinburgh (“Dunedin”) instead of calling it simply “New Edinburgh”. In the early days, ships crossed below South America and came across the Pacific Ocean in the “roaring 40’s”, the area between 40-50 S latitude. Here, the winds blew fiercely and could help the ships arrive in NZ more quickly. I did a bit of research – the trip would take between 75-120 days, and the cost was about 15 British pounds. The catch was that they approached NZ from the south. That made Dunedin a natural first point of entry, as it had a great natural harbour. A gold rush followed and Dunedin was the main city in NZ for quite some time.
Later, as the Panama Canal was completed, ships started to approach from the north, and the balance of power started to shift northward. Dunedin went into a slow decline during the 20th century, as it lost business headquarters and political influence.
The city is built on a lot of hills. Centre of town is called the “Octagon”, and there are many Edinburgh influences. Population is about 130k, which includes 20,000 students at the University. Dunedin had the first university, the first girls’ school, the first (and still the only) dental college in NZ. They are still leaders in NZ education.
And, they have the steepest street in the world – Baldwin Street and a neat Botanical Garden, although in my opinion, not as impressive as Christchurch’s. Also, the original Train Station is stunning.
The second part of the trip took as out into the Otago Peninsula. Maybe ten minutes out of town, and you have access to lots of beaches – St. Clair, St. Kilda and Tomahawk, to name a few. The catch is that the water is so cold that only a few surfers in wetsuits would dare to venture in.
After the tour, we walked more around the downtown and visited the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum and the Dunedin Chinese Garden. The Museum had lots of interesting history, and the Chinese Garden was constructed in China and then brought over to Dunedin, which is a sister city to Shanghai.
Then we decided to explore a few areas in more detail – walked through the Botanic Gardens and then back out to St. Clair beach to watch some surfers.
The Speights Brewery is one of the largest in NZ and is based here in Dunedin. We went to the restaurant attached to it for dinner. Good food and good value.
Fri Feb 8/19
We made a trip to the Otago Peninsula today. The peninsula is, at once, wilderness and suburb. A short trip from Dunedin, and yet it seems like a lifetime away.
We drove to the tip, about 45 minutes, to the Royal Albatross Centre. The cost was $52 pp for a one hour tour, but it was worth it because all the funds go to the preservation of these awesome creatures. We saw a few albatross parents on their nests, caring for their newborn babies, and even saw one soaring through the air.
From there we went to Allans Beach, a home for sea lions. At first, when we arrived, we thought the spots on the beach were logs. But they weren’t. We had to give them space, but there were big ones, little ones and in between ones. On the way back, we drove by Larnach Castle, but decided to give it a pass. The castle was built by a wealthy businessman in the late 1800’s. The owner had three wives (the first two died in their late 30’s), and he became a prominent politician. Unfortunately, his third wife wound up in an affair with his eldest son and he wound up committing suicide. But his Castle was rebuilt in the 20th century, and is open to visitors to view the house and gardens. But it is a bit of a hike to reach.
Coming back to the centre of Dunedin, we had an interesting adventure with the owner of the hotel. Meaning, we almost wound up looking for a new room for the night. More on that when I’m not so ticked off.
Sat Feb 9/19
More on the events of last evening. We booked at “The Chamberson” in Dunedin for three nights. Our reservation said “deluxe studio, city view”. There was ONLY a skylight. We complained, and were upgraded to a 1BR for two of the three nights, for $40 NZD per night. Over the two days, our keys stopped working on two separate occasions. On the third night, we had to switch back to the studio. We left our bags and they were moved into the room. We were given keys, and then went out to the Otago Peninsula for the day. When we got back, at about 6:45 pm, our keys didn’t work and the reception was closed! We had to call the owner. He came in about 10 minutes later to make new keys for us. Wanda complained about the misrepresentation of the room. He became immediately agitated. After a minute or two, he said, “why are we here” and did we want to go to another hotel for the night? We explained that no, we just wanted our key but that we felt he needed to represent his rooms more accurately. Then he switched and said that Wanda was “verbally abusing” him and that he wanted us to move out and find another room. Now, we weren’t happy but there was no shouting and there was no abusive language. We managed to defuse the situation and got our keys, but tempers were hot on both sides.
The next morning, I checked out, prepared to pay our fees and write up a scathing review. To my surprise, the owner was pleasant and said that he was sorry our visit hadn’t been pleasant and that he’d taken care of the upgrades and the parking. So, no charge. Good call on his part, I think. Now the only thing I can do in good conscience is warn others about booking a studio there!
We decided that we were going to make it from the top of the country (Cape Reinga) to the bottom (Bluff), so we drove down to the bottom of Highway 1. There actually is tip of land that extends a bit further south, and there are other NZ islands, but Bluff is the southern-most town on the mainland.
We visited Stirling Point, the end of Highway 1, and PeeWee met a new friend (Mia). See the pictures. We drove by 258 Marine Parade as a tribute to Fred & Myrtle and their Paua Shell House. They passed away in 2000 and 2001, and there is no sign that they ever lived there. The only tribute is in the museum in Christchurch. Sad, but it was interesting to see where they actually lived.
Then, it was time to turn the page on the east side of the south island. We drove up the centre to Te Anau, in Fiordland.
One thing I’ve learned is that when you’re traveling, you should never be afraid to meet new people. After wandering around the town and doing a bit of shopping for our day trip to Doubtful Sound tomorrow, we found a happy hour at The Fat Duck. You talk about a small world. As we sat down, we heard the server(a young guy named Liam) speaking to a lone patron at the next table. The elderly patron new somebody in Elora, Ontario. Where’s that? Look on a map. It’s hard to find. Well, the server was from… Elora! So I immediately piped in and told them that my brother and his wife operated a B&B in Elora for more than 10 years.
Pretty soon we were all best friends, although Liam had to go back to work. The lone patron was from South Africa. His name was Roger (about 80 years old), and he was a farmer who started in Kenya and moved around the world. He now lived on the Gold Coast in Australia. And, he was one of the most informed people I’ve ever met. We got a detailed education on Captain Cook and a lot of other topics. After a while his girlfriend and another couple came and joined him, and our conversations carried on. She had spend five years as a child in Montreal. So, it we’re almost related! At the end of the day, we’re going to try to drop in on him on the Gold Coast when we visit in March, and he promised to show us a good time. But not too good – remember, he’s 80!
Mount Cook! The highest peak in NZ.
Joey, our Kiwi GPS voice, got totally lost leaving Christchurch. He tried to lead us down a couple of dead ends. Construction was everywhere, especially on the motorway. Eventually we made our way past the turmoil, and on to the mountains. Took over four hours as we wound our way past Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki (two beautiful glacial lakes). We stopped in Twizel for a few supplies, because we were warned that there was nothing available in Mount Cook Village.
So, the people who told us one day here would be enough were right! If you’re into hiking (serious stuff) or mountain climbing or the like, you can certainly spend a lot of time there, but that’s not really us.
We arrived just as some weather was settling in. Mount Cook was shrouded in clouds and a light drizzle was falling. We stayed at the Mount Cook Lodge, one of three (I think) options in the village. Let’s say it’s “rustic”, but compared to the Southwark in Christchurch, it was a palace. It’s also the only place we have seen in NZ that charges its guests for internet.
So flights over the mountain would be useless and things were looking bleak (literally and figuratively). To the right of Mount Cook (facing it), there’s another mountain, and the other side looked pretty clear. Major micro climates here! That was the path to the Tasman Glacier, so we went there. After a short car ride and a short but steep climb, we saw the Tasman Glacier and the Terminal Lake at the bottom of it. You couldn’t get close, but it was quite impressive. In the lake was a pretty large iceberg that had broken off from the glacier. Distressing to thing that the glacier is receding between 480 and 820 metres per year!
Then a miracle happened. Wanda has a reputation for bringing good weather with her. As the evening progressed, the clouds cleared, the sun shone and the mountain revealed itself to us! Not for long, but long enough to see the majesty of Mount Cook. In the morning it was shrouded in clouds again.
Overall, I’d have to say that the Canadian Rockies are more impressive, but these are still beautiful sites. And I thought I could see some little Hobbits running across the mountains in the distance!
The restaurant at the Lodge had a Pub Quiz that evening. Being Canadian helped in two questions – what is Canada’s national animal, and how many time zones does Canada have (the answers are the Beaver and six time zones). We’re planning another walk in the morning before heading to Dunedin.
The drive down to Christchurch from Kaikoura took about 2 ½ hours.
Christchurch was an unscheduled stop. The original plan was to drive 6 ½ hours to Mount Cook and spend two nights there. The first night was ridiculously expensive because there was only one room available that we could find. On our travels, we ran into a couple that told us that there is nothing to do except look at the mountain or hike, so one day would probably enough. Turns out they were right (more on that later). But a good call to change plans.
We found Christchurch to be a fascinating city. It was hit hard by earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. But, that aside, it’s the second largest city in NZ and looks very “traditional English”. At the same time, the damage of the earthquake means that the entire city is rebuilding and there are very modern structures emerging.
In NZ, Feb 4 is “Super Bowl Monday”, so we stopped in the local i-Site (government info sites found everywhere) to ask about what to do, and find out where the Super Bowl was playing. Four locations. We headed for the Pegasus Inn, and I introduced PeeWee to American style football. We watched the first half of the Patriots/LA Rams, and then continued on our way, monitoring the game on my phone.
Downtown is very small and walkable. The i-Site suggested a walking route that showed us a lot of highlights. Past the Avon where the punting boats, kayaks, and canoes were for rent. Into/through the Botanic Garden, which is an absolutely spectacular walk. The Garden is part of Hagley Park, an absolutely huge downtown park (bigger than Central Park, I believe). It encompasses the Botanic Garden, Rugby fields and even an entire golf course. Then through the Canterbury Museum which was a weird and wonderful collection on memorabilia that included “Fred & Myrtle’s Paua Shell House”. Fred & Myrtle were from Bluff (at the southern tip). They collected and decorated their house with shells, and opened it to the public for 37 years, 7 days a week. An odd pastime, to be sure, Now the key part of the house has been relocated to the Museum. Following on, a sighting of Christ’s College, the most exclusive private boy’s school in NZ (funny uniforms, though). Up the street past Christchurch Cathedral, then Anglican cathedral badly damaged in the earthquakes (we saw it on the way downtown as well), and by the Cardboard Cathedral (temporary replacement as the seat of the Anglican Church there) and the 185 White Chairs memorial, remembering the people that died in the quakes.
There are two Mexican restaurants that we found – Casa Publica and Mexicano’s. My brother was through here a few days ago, and recommended Casa Publica. We went to both. Problem with Mexicano’s was that they could do very little to remove cilantro from any recipes. It seems everything was pre-prepared. So on to Casa Publica, where they had no such problem. Good small bites, and interesting servers. It seems that most serving positions are held by foreigners. The three that we talked to were from eastern Europe somewhere, Ireland and…. Mississauga, Ontario, right next door to Oakville.
Our hotel in Christchurch was a last minute decision, so there was a limited choice. We wound up at the Southwark Apartments (25 Southwark Street). Close to downtown, but NOT recommended. It made a university dorm room look good. Plus, it was in rough condition, the door lock only responded to the key intermittently, parking onsite was fully booked, and there was no a/c in the room, which made it very stuffy. Oh well, we weren’t there for long.
Sat Feb 2/19
Kaikoura is about 130 km south of Blenheim. After leaving the endless vineyards of Marlborough, we got to the coast and drove along some beautiful scenery.
Kaikoura is known for whale watching. We are booked on a whale watching tour tomorrow. Sperm whales are in the area. It’s a small town on a peninsula. The main town is on the north side of the peninsula, and there are some more houses on the south bay. You can walk from one side to the other – either over the big hill that makes up the peninsula, or up and around the perimeter. But then, don’t forget you have to come back.
There’s a fur seal colony out on the rocks. We didn’t see much, but then I discovered in the evening that you have to wade through some water (depending on the tide, I suppose) and walk a long way out to see them. Well, I’m guessing we’ll see them from the boat tomorrow. Also discovered, from a gentleman visiting from Calgary, that the seas can be pretty rough. He was whale watching today, and a few people on the boat took advantage of the paper bags during the cruise.
We are staying at the Kakatu Retreat. Not sure how we wound up here, but we did. On the website, it refers to itself as a hotel, but it’s a bed & breakfast. It’s about 4 km south of town, right beside the local golf course. At first, our reaction was “oh no, what have we done”. There were places both in town and on the south bay that were much “closer to the action”. However, after walking around the town a bit, we discovered two things: a) there’s really not that much “action” in Kaikoura, and b) Kakatu is really a neat place.
It looks like it’s in a new subdivision, but there are other apartments/B&Bs there too. There seem to be 7 different units – two on the lower level, four on the middle floor, and one (?) on the top floor. It is 100% handicap-friendly. The owner doesn’t seem to live here, and it’s set up so that guests can share a spacious living/rec room with couches, TV, bookshelf, games and a ping pong table, and large dining room and kitchen, fully equipped, and a big wrap-around porch that was sheltered from the wind (at least with today’s wind direction). The place is equipped with Samsung smart TVs, so you can access Netflix, Youtube, etc. – first time I’ve seen that on this trip, to the best of my recollection. Of course, I didn’t pay that much attention because I didn’t come to NZ to watch Netflix.
And, it’s the first B&B I’ve ever seen where the person who met us (not the owner) is also the teaching pro at the golf course next door.
Overall, a quiet day. Walk out on the rocks, visit to south bay, walk around town, quick dinner and relax on the balcony, playing golf (the card game).
Also, we have been outside at night several times, gazing at the stars. It's truly amazing how many you can see when the air is note filled with pollution and the environment is not constantly flooded with lights.
Sun Feb 3/19
Quiet day. We were scheduled to go whale watching. Showed up shortly before 11 am. We were told it was cancelled because of winds/weather conditions.
Unfortunate circumstance, since this is the only reason we came to Kaikoura. Anyway, we made the best of it. We played a round of golf. A couple of hole-in-ones, 3 birdies and an albatross. Normal round. :) Ready to move on to Christchurch tomorrow and to watch the Superbowl tomorrow!
I won't be writing a blog posting on Kaikoura, since we missed out on the key attraction to the area.
Wed Jan 30/19 - Omaka Heights B&B
Happy birthday, mother!!!! Day one birthday (it’s not Jan 30 yet in Canada, but it is here).
Up early. Thought I’d give the Pancake Rocks one more time to see if the blow holes were blowing. It was high tide and windy at 6:30 am. Sure enough, they didn’t disappoint. And I was the only one who saw those waves come crashing in!
After that, we got on to the four hour drive back to the east side of the Island, to Marlborough (not “Marlboro”, like the cigarettes) country. Three nights planned in the Blenheim area. First night at a B&B just outside Renwick, and then two in the Chateau Marlborough, right in Blenheim.
I think that the Marlborough area is the largest, most famous wine region in NZ. In one booklet, we read that there are 27,000 hectares of vines planted. The wineries here look much fancier and more prosperous than those in Nelson. A testament to volume and recognition of the quality of the wines.
After checking in at the B&B with Paula & Russell, we decided to go exploring. We started down the street at the Highfield Winery. They have a big tower that offers a 360 degree view. Wines were pretty good, but Wanda is coming to the conclusion that she’s not really a big fan of NZ wines. Oh well, more for me!
After that, we sought out Cloudy Bay, a name I definitely recognized. Had some wine and oysters in a very cool backgard. Tables, bean bag chairs, bocche ball game. Lots of fun. There was even a couple there doing a bike tour of wineries…with an infant! They had a trailer on one of the bikes.
Finally, we went into the town of Renwick. Paula had recommended the Woodbourne as a real kiwi pub, so we stopped in. Well, real Kiwi pub apparently means tough looking guys in short shorts and work boots, and the TV showing a horse auction. Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves at the Cork & Keg, a more traditional pub where we had some good food for dinner.
Coincidentally, on our mother’s birthday, my brother Garrett and his wife Melanie dropped in…all the way from Canada. They are actually touring NZ and Oz at the same time, and this was the first time that our paths have intersected. They stopped by our B&B to enjoy a glass of wine, compare notes and send a brief video to our mom!
Thu Jan 31/19 - Chateau Marlborough
Happy birthday mother! (day 2). Now it’s Jan 30 in Canada. You’re so special you get to celebrate it twice. 94 years young and still raising cain!
Moved down the road 15 minutes, to Blenheim.
It is dawning on us that three days here might have been a tad too much. Blenheim is a quiet little town surrounded by vineyards. So, if you’re not tasting wine, we found a limited amount of options.
We toured around the town on foot. Found the Blenheim Golf Club, a 9 hole track. Very basic, with too many trees. 😊 About 10 minutes walk from the hotel.
Tried our hand again at wineries, but struck out. We did, however, find ourselves a specialty BEER brewery – MOA – and had a tasting there. Neat spot. It was started by a winemaker who realized, I think, that Kiwis like beer more than wine.
In the afternoon, I went back to the Blenheim Golf Club. The price was right - $20 NZD for a round, plus $20 for the club rental (they were almost as old as me!). Got in 15 holes in 2 ½ hours, but I had promised to be back at the clubhouse by 5 pm, since the president had to come back from his home to take back the rental clubs. Dry, tight, not great condition, but a nice walk in the park. I got to talking to the president when he came back. Nice bloke. He said that I would have been welcome to play in the men’s day event early that day, had he known I was around. Oh well, too bad, but Kiwi’s are pretty inviting.
Another day of 32 C temperature, so we had to spend some time in the pool too. Sorry, Canadians in Canada!
Finally, the old train station has been converted into a wine store/restaurant. The Wine Station has 80 local wines that can be tasted or purchased by the glass. Great variety, ranging from $20-30 bottles up to $80-100 or possibly more.
So, you might ask – what about Kim Crawford or Oyster Bay? Those are two pretty famous well known NZ brands of wine. Well, I asked. They are virtual wineries. They don’t have “cellar doors” (tasting rooms) or a physical winery. They are marketing organizations that sell wines purchased from various vineyards. That was a surprise to me! Plus, Kim Crawford is a MAN.
Fri Feb 1/19
No more wineries, please! Well, maybe one more. But not right away.
We decided to go play the Marlborough
Golf Club, 10 minutes away near Renwick. Similar to the Blenheim Club, it was in rough condition, and it was pretty tight. Temperature dropped today down to about 26 C, with clouds overhead and very strong winds. We both broke 100 easily! But they only had 15 holes playing. Holes 12-14 were closed for maintenance.
Cost was $35 NZD, plus $20 for clubs. Another good deal, but a bit frustrating round of golf.
One final wine tasting, at Villa Maria, right by the golf course. Free tasting! Apparently, they are the most decorated winery in NZ. Had a really nice Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
An observation about wine here, there and everywhere. When we were in Italy, we visited some areas including Montelcino (where Brunellos are produced). That was a few years ago. I looked up some wines on the LCBO (government liquor stores in Ontario), the costs were quite similar to the costs in Ontario. A bit cheaper, but not a lot. Similarly, I’ve looked up some wines that I saw here and that are sold in Ontario, and it seems that there’s maybe a 10-15% difference in price. But when I asked about shipping and duties, I was told that shipping costs are high and that there’s a tax of over 100% to ship wine to Canada, at least until the TPP comes into effect. I do not understand the math, how it can be so similar in cost at the retail level and yet individually the economics just don’t work.
Now back to Blenheim – one more thing. There are a lot of cars here, and cars have the right of way unless you are in a clearly marked crosswalk. There don’t seem to be a lot of them around! So, it’s a tough thing, sometimes, to cross the roads. Plus, you have to remember to look RIGHT (not yet intuitive). And Kiwis, like Ticos in Costa Rica are really nice – until they get behind behind a wheel. One time, we were on a deserted side street and a car came driving up – pretty fast – to turn the corner. The old man driving started yelling at me, saying I should be looking before I cross the street! Not sure what the greatest influence was, his age or the steering wheel. But at least he didn’t hit us to teach us a lesson.
Tue Jan 29/19
NZ seems to be a combination of Ireland, Scotland, Nova Scotia, Hawaii, the wine regions of California or Europe, subtropical rainforests, mountains to rival the Rockies and fjords like those found in Norway. All in a very small area. You certainly don’t have to go far to see something different and interesting.
In general, our plan was to stay on the eastern side of the South Island. But Conrad traveled here about 5 years ago and spoke highly of the Pancake Rocks, in Punakaiki on the west coast. There aren’t very many places to cross over from west to east (or vice versa), but we decided to make the trek down.
The drive took about 4 hours, more or less. And it’s important to gas up, because there aren’t any gas stations for a long stretch! We arrived around noon, parked at the Punakaiki Resort and walked to the Rocks. It was low tide, so you could see a lot more of the rocks, and the blow holes weren’t blowing. Really fascinating and unique formations. Also found a Cavern just outside the town. We got the nerve to go in about 20 yards, but then it started to get very small!
The town has got two general places to eat – a café and a tavern. The tavern sells some pretty good meat pies for $4.80 and the owner has some good stories to tell, primarily about Tui beer and their commercials.
At high tide (7 pm), we went back to see the difference and see if the blow holes were finally blowing. Sadly, they weren’t. I guess there wasn’t enough wind and the waves weren’t big enough. But still an impressive sight.
Sat Jan 26/19 - Nelson: The Hotel Nelson
Left early for the ferry. Didn’t help. More or less “first on, last off”. But a fascinating process to see how many trucks, cars and people can fit on a boat. The travel time was 3 1/2 hours. Arrived in Picton, and then had about a two hour drive to Nelson.
I played golf at Hidden Lake (Ontario) with a guy in the spring. He comes every year to Nelson, for three months. Why?
Well, it gets the most sunshine of anywhere in NZ. It has a great beach - Tahunanui - which is very shallow, and sits with a background of the mountains of Tasman. And, it has a series of very nice restaurants especially on Trafalgar, between Hardy and Selwyn Place. We had a very good dinner at Lombardi’s, an Italian place where the owner chases the staff around. Overall, it’s a quiet small town, ideal for retirees and families on holiday.
Our hotel was a bit of a mistake. It’s driving distance to the downtown, and to the beach. A better choice would have been to stay down close to the beach. Oh well. Nothing was too far away.
Sun Jan 27/19
Nelson is another wine area - they seem to be all over. We looked at options for wine tours. There were two, and they cost between $120 - $135 pp. Seemed like a lot for visiting 4 wineries in a small area. So, we went on our own. Just had to concentrate on whites, so I could make sure I stayed OK to drive.
Overall, I have to say, results were disappointing. We visited Seifried Estates, the oldest vineyard in the region, Te Mania, Brightwater Vineyards (which was closed) and Fossil Ridge, which grows its own olives, walnuts and macadamia nuts. None of them were knockouts, especially compared to the ones we visited in Napier.
After that, it was off to the beach and later, trying the fish & chips at The Sands (recommended as the best in town). It’s across from the beach and is owned by Roy, and Aussie. He stays open on Christmas Day and gives away free beer, so make sure to visit him then!
Mon, Jan 28/19 - Kaiteriteri: Split Apple Eco Lodge
Eased on down the road to the Split Apple Eco Lodge, between Kaiteriteri and Marahau. We booked a sea shuttle from Kaiteriteri (they run from both towns) into the park. We got off at Anchorage Beach and took a hike to Cleopatra's Pool, a swimming hole with a natural slide. The guide map said "easy hike". It didn't add "if you're a mountain goat". But, it said it was a one hour hike and we did it in 54 minutes there and 48 minutes back, so we felt a sense of accomplishment.
Afterwards, we drove over to Marahau and discovered a neat place called Hooked. They had a happy hour (even though they were the only place in sight) and a great cheese plate.
The Split Apple Lodge is named after a site down in the bay - a round rock split right in half. It's owned by Fran and Daniel, German transplants who moved away from Germany in 2015, just to find that Nelson had the largest German population around. Great hosts and the lodge is set high on a hill with a great view of the water below.
Thu, Jan 24/19
Routine is important. Never forget that!
When we travel, we have a somewhat annoying habit – one person asks the other, “do you have the passports”? The other person will say “yes, I do” in a slightly irritated tone. Well, today is the day we strayed from the routine, and we paid the price.
We left Napier for the 4-1/2 hour drive to Wellington. Problem is our passports slept in and stayed in the safe. Halfway there, we had a “road to Damascus” moment where we were struck by the realization that we didn’t have them! Called the hotel – courier couldn’t be guaranteed to arrive in time. What to do? Drive back and revisit the scenery. So, it was a 9 hour drive. Got in at 7:30 pm.
Highways in NZ are, by and large, two lanes (one each way), with periodic passing lanes as you go uphill (and there are a lot of hills). Surprising, but the only “motorways” that we’ve seen so far are in Auckland and approaching Wellington. Coming into Wellington, we had to go through the Rimutaka Crossing, a pass through the mountains. Doesn’t look like much on the map, but it has a series of switchbacks that would make the Alps or Rockies proud! And it’s one of two ways to get into Wellington by road.
The bright spot was that the weather turned – it was about 15-16 degrees C, so it was a good day to travel. At least that’s some consolation.
Not much of an introduction to Wellington, but we did wander a bit. The city has a very different vibe from Auckland. Saw people living in the street for the first time in NZ, and a really wide mix of establishments. Very “down to earth” on Cuba Street and Courtenay Place. But fascinating at the same time. Caught the tail end of a Kiwi pub trivia night.
And always remember your routines.
Fri, Jan 25/19
Last day on the North Island!
We have learned a number of things while we’re here:
- It is really nice not to worry about tipping! In North America, you have to fret over levels of service, what you should tip and what the server expects. Sure, things here might be more expensive (on the surface), but it’s an all-in number. No additional taxes, no tips.
- NZ is a bigger place than you think! In 13 days, we have traveled 2,627 km on the North Island (even if some of them were duplicated yesterday).
- We bought a Tom-Tom GPS before we came here. I assigned a Kiwi voice as guide. We named him Joey. Whenever we arrive somewhere, Joey says “get your jandals, togs and chillibuns and get going”. We had no idea what that meant. So, in Napier (actually Ahiriri), we met a couple of locals and got to talking. It’s easy to do that with Kiwis. So I asked them what the heck that meant! Jandals = flip flops. Togs = bathing suits. Chillibuns – really, “chilly-bins” = coolers. So, it’s “grab your flip-flops, your bathing suit and your cooler…”. Who knew?
Wellington brings to mind some other cities like Saint John’s NF or San Francisco. You have to be ready to climb some hills!
We spent a cultural day here. Made a visit to Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand. Many interesting displays (and free admission), the best of which was about the Kiwi participation in Gallipoli in WWI. Very moving, and it included realistic, larger-than-life figures of various real characters who were there.
The waterfront is really active and engaging. Restaurants, vendors, people jumping into the ocean or swimming the harbour …. Really neat.
We had to go to the Parliament Buildings, of course. There’s a section called “the Beehive”, where social functions are held and various offices are located. We got there with 30 seconds to spare before a tour started, so we were fortunate enough to have a tour and detailed explanation about NZ’s parliamentary system and history. I didn’t know that it was one of the few unicameral governments based on the British Parliamentary system. Canada should follow suit!
After that, we hopped an Uber back to the hotel and parked the car on the street rather than pay another $30 for valet parking. And more exploring downtown. We discovered that there’s a Friday Night Market, running just off of Cuba Street. All kinds of street food and different displays. We settled on some Indonesian Goreng dishes.
Overall summary of Wellington – interesting city with character. Not as affluent as Auckland, but it’s lively and lots of things to see and do.
Final note – don’t be afraid to complain! We booked through Hotels.com and they always send a “how did your check-in go” email. Well, the Mercure Hotel was…just weird. We got room 104, and the door didn’t open fully – it had a doorstop so that the door wouldn’t smash into the glass bathroom door. Totally bizarre layout. Plus, crowded room and paper thin walls. So, I left that feedback on Hotels.com. Got a call from the hotel, apologizing and offering an upgrade. By that point, it was too late, but at least we they comped our parking charge! Nice
Tue Jan 22/19
First off, let me thank you for your concern! I've heard from several people that they're worried it's too hot here. Don't worry! Australia is having a heat wave (40+ C), and Canada is have an Arctic cold snap (-25 or even colder), but we are just fine: 25 to 28 C and sunny, for the most part. But thanks!
There are three reasons to go to Napier: interest in Art Deco, in wineries, or in golf at Cape Kidnappers. Fortunately, we were interested in all three.
We left Rotorua early because it was a 3 hour trip to Napier. We wanted to have as much time as possible. After checking at the hotel, we went straight to Cape Kidnappers, a "farm" (resort) and golf course right on the Cape. I'm not talking any old resort. It costs at least $2,000 USD to stay for a night, and a round of golf is over $650 NZD. We asked at the gate (automated) if we could come in to take a look. Were told "no" and that it was a very busy day. Hmmm...wonder what that means. As fate would have it, Vicki (the registration agent at the Masonic) used to work there. She made a tee time for me for tomorrow, 1:30, to play 9 holes (telling me I could back out if I changed my mind). So, all set, sort of. Nicest place from which I've ever been rejected!
So we went immediately to plan B - wineries. Stopped at Elephant Hill (I couldn't find the hill!) and Brookfields Vineyards (recommended by Fodors). Cheap or free tastings, and very nice wines.
Then we progressed to Art Deco. The Art Deco Trust offers tours of the downtown. We took a 2 hour walking tour in the afternoon. Current Napier emerged as the result of 7.8 strength earthquake on Feb 3, 1931. It destroyed the town, and over 200 people were killed. The residents decided to rebuild in Art Deco, with other influences (like Maori designs). Today, the town looks a bit tired and there are a number of empty buildings, but it's a fascinating example of Art Deco.
In the evening, we decided to walk past the port area (huge timber exporting) to the restaurants and shops in Ahuriri. Took longer than we expected - about 50 minutes! But at least we went the flat route. Busy spot, even on a Tuesday night!
Wed Jan 23/19
I discovered an important thing about maintaining a website – write your entries outside the site, to maintain a record. I accidentally deleted yesterday’s entry and had to recreate it from scratch!
We visited the Napier Museum (free admission). One floor on the earthquake, one floor about Maori history and one floor of changing exhibits. Toured the downtown on our own as well. We headed out for Cape Kidnappers, but first drove up the "hill" to the Bluff Lookout (warning - don't try to walk it!)
If you’re not a golfer or interested in golf, skip the next four paragraphs…
But today is about golf at Cape Kidnappers. We decided that we were going to be firm – if it didn’t look totally awesome, we’d simply say we changed our mind (take a lot of pictures quickly) and leave. At the gate, they let us in! It’s a 15 minute drive up to the clubhouse, and Vicki told us that they monitor progress with cameras and binoculars so there is someone there to meet you when you arrive. We didn’t see the cameras, but sure enough, they were waiting. The decision to play was pretty quick. Cape Kidnappers is ranked the #6 course in the world outside of the United States. And it looked like your own private golf course. Vicki said to ask to play the back 9. So I asked. I was told yes, that could be arranged, but I might not be able to get off until approximately 2 pm. Tom (the pro shop attendant) showed me the tee sheet. I think there were 4-5 groups in the morning, and 3 of the foursomes would be making the turn around 1:00 – 1:30. And sometimes they stop for lunch after 9 holes. That’s a busy morning for this course! In the afternoon, I was listed as a single, and then there was a foursome after me. That was it!
So no worries – we’ll go out later. The 9 hole rate, including club rentals (the same cost as at Rotorua, but way better clubs!) and a power cart…$450 NZD. Wanda said to think of it as paying $450 for sightseeing, and you get the golf for free. Clubs were Titleist 917 woods, AP1 irons, Titleist wedges (not Vokey) and a Scottie Cameron putter.
The course was awesome. Wanda and I took so many pictures that it might take some time to sort through the best, but the course was amazing. The fairways were generally pretty wide, but then things got tight, and you couldn’t afford to go wide, because the balls would be gone off of the cliffs. It was a “perfect” golf day – only a 2 club wind, and sunny and warm. The views from the 15th greens and 16th tee box were especially astounding. PeeWee served as my caddie but he had trouble reading the greens.
And to top it off, I played well. That always makes the experience better. Shot a 38, while allowing 2 mulligans for not knowing the course. Hey, I’m here for the sightseeing, right!?! Even birdied the 18th. Good read, PeeWee! Tom recommended playing up one tee box from what you play normally, so I did. Even the greens had a slope rating of 134. Whites were 139 and blues were 145.
OK. Welcome back, non-golfers. As we left, we asked the pro shop if we could make a quick visit to the “Farm”. We were told sorry, no. They were very busy there. Sound familiar? The lady manning the desk did refer us to a restaurant called Mister D and a bar right beside it called Monica Loves. Mister D was closed, but Monica Loves, we would have never found it without the referral. It was less than a block from our hotel, but down a small alley. There’s a neon sign “Who Shot the Barman”, but that’s it. And they’re only open 4 days a week – Wednesday – Saturday. Also, stopped back in Ahuriri at Paddy’s Irish Pub, and went shopping at Countdown, the kiwi grocery chain and got some cheese pate and crackers for dinner on the patio outside our room, overlooking the bay. Overall, a great day!
Sat Jan 19/19
Busy day! Decided to pack in a couple of attractions on the way to Rotorua.
1. Waitomo Glow Worm Caves. About a 3 hour drive. Very interesting tour and short boat ride to see the ’glow worms’. Turns out that they are tiny slug-like creatures. They are cannibalistic and drop strands down from their perches to catch insects. The glow is caused by their bodies as they eliminate waste. Fortunately, there are no droppings (they’re on the ceiling of the cave)!
2. Hobbiton. The location and complete recreation of the Middle Earth set from “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings”. About 1-1/4 hour drive from the Glow Worm Cave. Fascinating. I have to say that, while I’ve seen the movies, I’m not a fanatical fan. But it’s really neat to see the set, and learn lots of anectodes. For example, when Gandalf hits his head on one of the beams, that was an accident and they used his pained reaction, which was real. Another example - the set was built with the aid of the NZ army. In return, the soldiers got roles in the film - they were the Orks. And apparently, they took the fighting very seriously (I guess they didn’t realize they were supposed to lose!). Three of them wound up in hospital.
Finally, it was on for another one hour to Rotorua. This spot was recommended to us by a lot of people, but our book describes it as “Roto-Vegas”. Lots of attractions have been built up. Got in late in the day, so we’ll have to see about that tomorrow. We’re right downtown and discovered a strip of restaurants called “Eat Streat”, with lots of options.
Sun Jan 20/19
After a period of lots of rushing around, we decided to have a “slow” day. There are a lot of things to do in Rotorua: spas, walks through the redwoods, Zorb (putting yourself inside a big ball and rolling down the hill), gondolas, luging down a hill, etc etc. We decided to do none of the above.
Rotorua is known for its geothermal springs, so we decided to find some. A short walk from the hotel is Kurau Park, a large area with a lot of thermal springs bubbling to the surface - steaming ponds, bubbling mud, rock piles with steam escaping. Great walk, and very convenient. On the way, we came across a huge antique car show in the park. Saw a number of cars I didn’t recognize, including one that was manufactured in Rotorua.
In the afternoon, we decided to play a round of golf. Went to Rotorua Golf Club, which has geothermal springs and a crater onsite. Other than that, it was not that interesting a club, and not in great condition. Add in lousy rental clubs and I’d say it was not great value for $245 (including power cart). But it was still fun.
Interestingly, www.golf.co.nz is an online site. It quoted $45 for “affiliates”, $55 for “non-affiliates”. I went through to the final stage and would have been charged $55. I backed out when I got to payment because for same day, it said to contact the club. When I did call, they said $70 for non-NZ residents. Seems like an odd system to me. Next time, I’ll try booking online and see what happens.
Mon Jan 21/19
Off on a trip to Taupo today. That's the place that Conrad went bungy jumping when we was traveling.
On the way, we made a new friend. We picked up a Kiwi named PeeWee along the road. He said he'd like to travel with us for a while. Check out the pictures and you can meet him for yourself.
In Taupo, we saw the lake (visibility wasn't good), the Taupo Bungy - impressive and scary, and only $180 to scare yourself to death and Huka Falls. We checked some geothermal sites, but all charged admission. After Iceland, Hawaii and Costa Rica, plus the free public park in Rotorua, we decided to give a pass on those.
Overall, Rotorua is a nice spot. Depending on your interests, 1-2 days is enough. On to Napier tomorrow!
Fri Jan 18/19
A transition day. Getting set to leave Northland. Headed for Rotorua, but we needed a stop. Matakana is less than an hour north of Auckland - a micro-wine producing region.
Took a detour across to the west coast and down through the Waipoua Forest, where the largest Kauri trees in NZ are located. Really impressive. Look to the blog for more.
Matakana was an upscale little town. It looked like it would be a weekend getaway for Aucklanders. The downtown had a few restaurants, and a neat little bar called the Vintry, where we had a wine tasting (5 samples for $9.50). Justin, the bartender, was very knowledgeable.
The loading (Plume Villas, just outside the town a couple of km) was on a quite beautiful property. Each “room” was a separate small building. Condition. seemed to be brand new. Grounds were expansive but oddly designed. But a very nice, quiet spot to spend an evening.
Tues Jan 15/19
About 250 km north of Auckland is Paihia, a small tourist town on the "Bay of Islands". It's basically a tourist trap, but a very nice one and it has historical significance. It is adjacent to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where the Maori signed the treaty accepting British rule. Paihia is also the site of the first cricket game in NZ.
Stopped in Whangarei on the way up. Nice harbour area. You get a bonus point if you can pronounce the name correctly (as long as you're not a Kiwi).
Paihia has a strip of motels and some restaurants by the dock that launches ferries and tour boats to all the popular spots in the area. We shuttled over to Russell, across the bay. Walked across the peninsula, through an area where kiwis live. Searched all over, and then realized that they're nocturnal, and we're not.
Grabbed fish and chip takeaway at Vinnie's. Great meal and a great price ($22 for 2 portions).
The next couple of days will be interesting - we're going on a day tour of the bay, and then making the long trek up to Cape Reinga, the northernmost point of New Zealand.
Wed Jan 16/19
Took the Fuller Tour "Cream Trip" - a 6 1/2 trip that included all the sites, plus then some. Wanda and I and about 150 of our closest friends headed out on a cloudy and windy day. It's not called the "Cream Trip" because it's the best; it's because the boat used to collect cream from the farms on the various islands.
The all female crew took us to lots of spots around the bay, including the "Hole in the Rock", Marsden's Cross, the Black Rocks and Otehei Bay. The captain couldn't get us through the Hole in the Rock, but she swung around the other side and actually backed the boat in for a close up view!
We saw lots of dolphins (Bottlenose and Common) and even a Bryde's whale and two babies. Didn't get to swim with the dolphins, but I did try "boom-netting" - basically, a wave pool while hanging in a net on the side of the boat. Now I know what fish feel like when they're caught!
Liked the fish so much that we had it again, only with John Dory fish this time. Too much detail? OK. I agree.
Thurs Jan 17/19
We decided to make a pilgrimage to Cape Reinga (or Te Reinga). That's at the very northern tip of NZ, where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean - and you can see that interaction as the waters collide. It is also a sacred spot for the Maori people, as Te Reinga is the spot where the souls move to the afterlife. They step down the roots of Te Aroha (the ancient Kahika tree on the rock) on their journey to Hawaiki, their spiritual home. It's a very moving spot, and well worth the 2-1/2 hour drive.
On the way back, we detoured to 90 mile beach. Saw some wild horses on the way. Now, 90 mile beach is really 60 miles long. So why is it called "90 mile beach"? Simple explanation. As you cross over the equator, the 6 flips over to become a 9. Et, voila!
Met a couple from Ottawa on the beach. They came in November, to miss the hot weather down under. They're going back on the Jan 21. How do you feel about that now, eh?
Sat Jan 11/19 & Sun Jan 12/19
We made it!
Got to the hotel mid-afternoon. It was funny – we left Saturday at 8:45 am and arrived Sunday afternoon at 1:30 pm. All in a 5 hour flight!
Our initial impression of Auckland was lack-lustre, but after some exposure to it, we found it to be a vibrant, exciting city. With 1.6 million people (1/3 of the total population of NZ), it is definitely a cultural centre.
On Sunday, we walked the downtown, Wherever we go, we try to find Irish pubs. It's what we do. They are abundant here. The Fiddler - right across the street from the Sky Tower, Father Ted's, Danny Doolans. That's just to name a few. The other thing that this place has in abundance is Mexican restaurants. We landed at the Mexican Cafe for dinner, where it was quite enjoyable. When my brother Garrett arrives, he won't be homesick! (he lives in Mexico now, and is visiting here as well).
Mon Jan 14/19
We had lots of suggestions on places to go, but since we're here in NZ for over a month, we decided to stay in town. We thought that we'd try to visit One Tree Hill (high above the city, offering a great panorama), Mount Eden (ditto), and possibly the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
The weather changed the plans somewhat. We were told that, like Nova Scotia, you can experience all four seasons in a single day. Well, it pretty well happened. Torrential rainfall until noon, sunshine for a while, more winds and some rain, and then a pleasant evening. All par for the course.
We wound up visiting the War Memorial Museum first. It is NOT a museum about war. It is the Auckland Museum, and it was built behind an historical War Memorial. Hence, the name. It is a fascinating museum that provides a lot of info about the Maori people and their history, and moreover about the Polynesian people and their migrations throughout the Pacific. There are also interactive exhibits about the formation of NZ and the formation of volcanos and earthquakes. Well worth a visit.
When the weather cleared up, we made it to One Tree Hill. That was a challenging walk, and it was an adventure getting there. Sheep and cows were grazing in the fields surrounding the monument at the top. Initially, there was a single tree at the top, but it was seen to be a symbol of colonialism. Now, there is an obelisk dedicated to the Maori people. Couldn't stay as long as we might have because of the strong winds and another approaching storm.
When we returned to the city, we took a walking tour suggested in a magazine. It was close to our own ad-hoc tour the day before, but we found all kinds of fascinating places. There's one neat place called the Elliott Stables (on Elliott street). A former stable, it now houses 8-10 different restaurants with a large common seating area in the middle. Sort of a food court on steroids. We picked Korean (and loved it), but everything looked good. Then walked through the harbour area and eventually got back to the hotel.
Read the blog for more details.
Thurs Jan 10/19
Yesterday was taken up with waiting in LA and the 8 1/2 flight to Tahiti. NOW it feels like the trip has started! Got in at about 10:15 pm.
It might be easier to list three things that I DO know about Tahiti, but here are three things I didn’t know about Tahiti:
1. This is the rainy season! So far it has just been cloudy and a few drips of rain. Keeping our fingers crossed.
2. Tahiti is only 5 hours behind Eastern time. Why, Hawaii is 6 hours difference, and the exotic idyll of Tahiti seemed that it should be much further away. But it’s just a-way further south.
3. OMG - this place is as expensive (or moreso) than Switzerland! Maybe it’s just the hotel, but I doubt it. $45 USD “American breakfast”, $25 USD cocktails...looks like a good place to lose weight!
Today, we will be off to explore the town and plan our two full days here before heading to the land of the Kiwi and the Tuatara.
Fri Jan 11/19
Yesterday, we wound up taking a round-the-island tour with Dave's VIP Tours. Our thinking was that we'd get oriented first.
I can save you a lot of money, if you're planning a trip to Tahiti: go to Mexico, or Costa Rica, or Hawaii, or....
The island certainly is scenic, but we found a big discrepancy between the beauty of the resorts and the condition of the town and residences of locals. Dave said "you're either very rich or very poor. Not much of a middle class".
I can't comment on the diving, but two days here will be enough, I think. I hate suffering in 25-30 C weather in January!
Fri Jan 11/19 (evening)
Spent the day on a trip into Pape'ete, the main city in Tahiti. Searched the market for pearls, and found some ranging for $10 to - wait for it - $2900 (for a single 12 mm loose pearl, not in a setting at all). We settled at the low end. Wrote a blog posting on what we liked (take a look at the Travel blog). Then did a bit of snorkeling in the lagoon here at the hotel. Hotel's happy hour was BS. Only 1/2 price on the drinks that nobody in their right mind would drink. A storm has come up, and we're getting ready to head to New Zealand early in the morning! Can't wait to be standing on our heads at the bottom of the world!
Bright and early to the airport. We built in a “snow day”, just in case we ran into a winter storm in Toronto. As it turns out, all we have to worry about is a bit of rain. Mild weather for this time of year!
Not much to report on in LA. We got there and stayed close to the airport. So there’s not a lot within walking distance, and with not a lot of time, we just spent the day “chilling”.