NEW ZEALAND 2022
Seattle to Los Angeles to Auckland
Auckland & Waiheke Island
Hobbiton Movie Set
Rotorua, New Zealand
To Nelson, New Zealand
To Franz Josef
Te Anau - Glo Worms
Te Anau - Milford Sound
Christchurch, New Zealand (Aotearoa)
Christchurch, New Zealand & Outta Here
Seattle to Los Angeles to Auckland
September 27, 2022
Even though Christine and I have been planning this trip to New Zealand since June, 2022, it feels a little impulsive now that we've begun to actually move in that direction. Are we really doing this? If not, what the Hell ARE we doing? CK assures me that we're going to New Zealand. I feel excited about that but still a little odd. We're scooting around the planet with some considerable frequency, lately. Last Saturday we were fly fishing on a lake in British Columbia. Tonight, Tuesday, September 27, we are in Seattle preparing to board the first leg of two flights that will take us to the southern hemisphere, a first for both of us. That will happen tomorrow about 11 am. This first flight won't take us west, only south to Los Angeles where we will be on ice, so to speak, hoping for the one lonely Air New Zealand jet to show up. I expect it's like the airline version of waiting for the bus. We'll figure it out tomorrow.
Tonight we grab an early bite at The 13 Coins, an urban diner in Sea-Tac. It has its own naugahyde and black shirt vibe with line cooks in full view, fry pans periodically exploding into greasy flame. They are out of Ahi tuna and ice cream. Out. of. Ice. Cream. How does that even happen in the 21st Century? They just punch Asteroid Dimorphos with a rocket and forgot how to milk cows at the same time?
Our hotel room is comfy and the TV has Mariners v Texas Rangers, one of our last whiffs of local Americana for the next 3 weeks. Of course, the Mariners lose without scoring a run.
It's hotel breakfast again. I can't do the rubbery eggs or even use the tongs to explore the forlorn pile of greasy meat sticks they call sausage. That's a sad waste of a pig's life right there. I'll build a mix of fruit, yogurt, and cereal and wash it down with tea because coffee is never safe in these places. It may even be a decent insecticide. Once, months ago, I actually tried the waffle thing. It wasn't bad, really. It was fresh, hot, and willing to absorb absurd quantities of butter. But I'll pass on that. I'm trying to watch my girlish figure. The waffle cooking station always offers me cognitive dissonance. Decades ago we were promised flying cars and food replicators in the 21st Century. Instead, there's a waffle iron and a bucket of batter.
We're flying in the big aluminum pipe quite a bit in the next 24 hours. We're scheduled for a 3 hour flight to L.A., followed by 13 hours in the air to Auckland, punctuated by a 6 hour layover in the LAX airport. I want to be sedated. Luckily, a friend is retired EMT. He let me in on a not very secret secret, secret to me because I had no clue: that I can ask my Doc to hit me up with brain zonkers to send me into La-La Land to spend considerable air time in the Land of Nod, something much to be desired. Another friend advised me to divide the pills and consume them bit by bit until unconsciousness takes me away. Seems like good advice (thanks, Anne). I'll let you know how it goes.
SeaTac Airport is more crowded than we expect, this being mid-week in the shoulder season. When we imagine the madness that will descend upon this place November 23, just ahead of the Thanksgiving 4 day weekend, we consider ourselves fortunate. While I wait in the queues I entertain myself watching couples traveling with multiple toddlers and/or babes-in-arms. It's arms, legs, bags, bottles, and wheels poking out in all directions leaving a field of debris wherever they tread. Luckily we didn't encounter any toddler melt-downs. It was probably too early in the morning for that.
Our flight boards in an orderly manner but seems to take forever to leave the gate and slither out to the runway. Our plane is in a conga-line 7 planes long waiting our turn to line up with our nose against the wind. The pilot is a joker. He declaims, over the cabin PA, a long list of geologic wonders we will pass over on our way to Los Angeles. “And finally,” he adds, “the most awesome sight on our route can be seen just to the starboard as the plane starts its final approach the LAX,” ...pause... “The In-N-Out Burger.” There chuckles around the plane are significant, revealing how many folks are actually listening to his chatter.
As we float over Los Angeles I lift the shutter on the window. My vision is filled with the constructed works of humanity spreading in all directions until it blends into the smoggy distance. I don't recognize any of the neighborhoods except for the iconic 'Hollywood' sign and the downtown skyline. Our joker of a pilot treats us to a buttery smooth landing and soon we are loose with our luggage inside the sprawling monument to transportation known as Los Angeles International Airport. 48+ million travelers passed through here in 2021. It usually grinds 87 million.
This place is gigantic but it doesn't even make the top ten list of biggest airports in the US but it is the 3rd busiest. And it covers
3,500 acres, a town of its own. It doesn't have light rail transport between its 7 terminals like Seattle does. We're on our own to hike around to the International Terminal where our flight to New Zealand will depart. Along the way we run into this: an escalator running in reverse. The stairs to the left are the only way to go up. The moving stairs are descending.
We are blowing some cash on this trip for some creature comforts, meaning that we got some cushy seats for the 13 hour flight. This affords us access to something called the Star Alliance Lounge here at LAX. This is the proverbial Alice's Restaurant (you can get anything you want). All the snacks, buffet, cocktails, wine, whisky is ours for the asking. If we were 20-somethings we might go wild and stuff ourselves silly but those days are long gone. Instead we search for the showers. They have them and they are very nice. We take full advantage. After a quick hose down, back in the lounge, the public address system snaps on and advises us to make room for a crowd of people coming up from the floor below. Reason: there was a kitchen fire and the smoke is driving people away. Nice. My next plunder is the bar. The bartender is a Latino guy who loves to chat. I order an IPA. "I'll need to see some ID," says he, avoiding my gaze. "Yeah, seriously," I sneer. "Just checking to see if you're paying attention," as he shoves the beer toward me. Instantly he begins explaining how he needs to quit smoking. Another fellow on a stool chimes in with his story about quitting. This goes on for 10 minutes. In the end we all agree that cold turkey is the only way. An hour later I go back for a whisky but he's gone. In his place is a Latino lady with a perma-scowl, not nearly as outgoing as the gentleman was. She takes a $5 tip from a customer and drops it in her jar, stares at it for moment and genuflects, father, son, and holy ghost style. The scowl stays put and I get my whisky.
Our 6 hour layover is passing without a lot of suffering. A 30-something charming Kiwi fellow sits across the table. We get into a lively chat with him. He lives in Indiana now. What? Yeah. He gets that a lot. His name is Peter. He works developing Human Resources Technology. He gives us a short description of what that means but I can't repeat it. Not because I don't want to but because I don't understand it. We go on shooting the breeze with Peter for a long spell but our time is running short.
The Star Alliance Lounge is very comfortable with its low stress vibe and cashless plundering of food and drink. But at last the time has come to pack up our kit and make for Gate 155 where our plane is scrubbed and ready to pull us over to The Great Down-Undah. All goes well as we install ourselves in the posh part of the plane, the part installed with sleeping pods. Each one is decorated with various buttons and controls plus an entertainment center, giving it a space-age feel.
It takes a while to sort them all out. I have to ask a crew member how the table works since it is hidden too well for me to understand straight away. Everybody is stowed, briefed, and off we launch for 13 hours of high altitude bewilderment. I order a G&T while waiting for them to feed us. For dessert, I shall use my magic pills to knock me silly. But after the ice cream, of course, which is superb I must say. We're in the pipe, hurtling through time and space at 300 knots, most of it in a state of suspended animation.
September 30 – Auckland
The pilot gets us on the ground in New Zealand about 5:30 a.m. If you're wondering where September 29 went, I can only tell you that by traveling west we crossed the International Date Line thereby skipping a day. We are hoping for a quick skip through customs, too, but no. It turns out to be a maze of checkpoints, I think four of them, all needing to see passports and boarding passes. I lost track of why so many. Some of the questions on the Passenger Arrival Card have me scratching my head: “Are you carrying any dangerous weapons like firearms or knives.” Really. I should think a person wouldn't get through security on the other end with any of that. And what if the answer was 'yes'? “Are you carrying any poisonous materials or flammable liquids?” Who is going to answer yes to that? There were others I can't recall that came straight from Planet Goofball way out in the Bureaucracy System, all equally alarming. Here's a bit of the crush of humanity waiting to be processed.
At last the border officials spit us out into the general population. We look around the terminal a little bewildered from unfamiliar surroundings and subconscious jet-lag. Then we spot our driver. Phil is his name and he's pleased as anything to be taking us to our hotel downtown. We play 20 questions and he gifts us with some descriptions of places we're planning to see. Always good to hear other folks' impressions.
Our hotel isn't yet ready to issue us a room. No surprise there since it is only about 7 am. We will be homeless for a few hours in downtown Auckland. We can leave our stuff in their luggage rooms as we investigate our new surroundings like a couple of suspicious old cats who have been in their crates for a cross country drive. The day is dreary with a drizzly mist wrapping the buildings in gray familiarity. This is a lot like Seattle in November. It isn't cold, though. They've just had their first day of Spring a week ago.
As it turns out we're camped just two blocks from the tallest thing in Auckland, the Sky Tower. We are both getting soaked from the drizzle. We begin to imagine that a nice dry interior would be welcome, so off toward the Tower, we trot, hoping for an adventure that isn't so moist. We can't quite see the top of the tower through the drizzle but we trust it's there. As we arrive the advertisements featuring bungee style base jumping from said Tower are unavoidable. The people in these ads all look like their having a wonderfully exciting peak experience. We have hours to whittle away before our hotel room materializes so, what the Hell, says I. I find their desk and sign up for an 11:15 am 636 foot plunge through the New Zealand rain. Sam (Samantha) is our perky, helpful, ground-person who gets us suited up in an orange one-piece cover-all. There are 5 other victims in the room and we all look like human cream-cicles or some version of Dutch propaganda.
I'm the oldest jumper, no surprise there. Everyone else is a 20-something.
Next she straps on some over-built harnesses that cinch
up legs, waist, and shoulders fitted with oversized D rings and mega-carabiners. Clearly we'll be hooked on to something quite sturdy sometime soon. “So why did you decide to do a bungee jump today?,” Sam drawls automatically in her Kiwi accent. “I want to get high.” “Oh that's the best reason yet!” 'Yet', in this case is heard as 'YATE' by way of offering a little local accented flavor. With her magic marker she writes '#6' on my left hand, apparently my jump sequence number, and 84 on my right hand, which is my fully clothed weight in kilograms. Perhaps these numbers will help identify the body parts later. Up the elevator to the jump level. Here is a crew of three buff looking gentlemen all fitted out in harnesses of their own, looking terribly confident about everything. There is a winch here spun with a wonderfully crafted steel cable. This is the heart of the operation. The business end of this cable is attached to a D-ring about mid-spine on the jumper's harness. It is also rigged so the jumper doesn't spin around madly out of control as they descend. A length of about 6 feet of bungee provides a springy deceleration at the bottom of the drop. So, this turns out not to be a gigantic bungee jump but rather a controlled drop on a steel cable for 600 feet followed by 36 feet of bungee. And there is no rebound. They drop you right on the landing spot in one go. It's very slick. A GoPro camera is strapped to my hand in hope to get a decent video of my encounter with gravity. I mean to be a better subject for this but the adrenaline rush caused by stepping into blank space pushes all thoughts of photography out of my ancient brain. I'm chuffed to know that my adrenaline gland still functions well enough to give me this kind of a rush.
We don't jump the whole height of the tower, that is to say I don't. CK declines this particular adventure. The top would be 1,076 feet. We jump off a lower level. Standing at the jumping-off spot the drizzle feels like someone is slapping me with a soaking sponge repeatedly. Looking down through the mist, the landing spot is only partially visible, fading in and out like a TV picture from a distant station and a bad antennae. The Jumpmaster snaps me in and leads me to the edge. It's time to do it. I step off into nothing. The sensation of free fall is quickly interrupted by my accelerating self catching up with the lazy floating drops of rain. At 32.1740 ft/s2 I overtake them in a heartbeat. I am soon getting a face washing of ice water coming from below as if from a shower head attached to a fire hose. The harness pulls tight as the winch brakes kick in and the bungee stretches out to drop me on the deck with the same energy as tossing a sweater on a chair. Sam is there to beam a cheery grin at me and snap me out of the harness. "This gives a whole new meaning to the term 'rain drop'", I quip. "HA! I'm gonna use that one later!", she snorts. Christine is happy to see me, I think. If the cable had failed she would be going through my pockets for loose change.
Cheap thrills being the Order Of The Day, we press our luck hoping for our room to be available. We shuffle through 4 blocks of rain back to the hotel and voila!, the room is ready and they've already moved our luggage up there. Sweet. On the way I spotted a barber school offering low price (should I say cut-rate?) hair styling. It opens at 1 pm so I plan accordingly. I need my ears lowered. The base jump didn't cause me to loose enough hair in the proper places.
I arrive at the barber school at 1:05. It's already crowded. I think I'll have to wait but, lucky me, there's one kid free to take me. His name is Shane. He looks about 23 to me but he's only 17. He's a musician with skills in drums, bass, and piano. He's a native Aucklander. He's never heard of Lopez Island. Doesn't know where Victoria B.C. is. I have to produce it for him on Google Maps. He's just a kid, sure. He gave me a good cut and even though it is no charge, I tip him about $15. Bargain. And now I can romp around the spa in Rotorua without my silly bits of hair getting in the way.
CK is excited to try the pool at this City Life hotel. More accurately she is excited to try the pools at ALL the hotels we stay in. This particular hotel advertises its pool as heated. This seems attractive until she arrives. Slipping down the ladder she encounters something resembling tepid soup. This pool is warmer than 90F. Too much, even for CK. Determined to take her aqua-exercise she soldiers on and gets it done, though feeling more than a bit like boiled fish at the finish. On a scale of 1-10 CK rates it a 7. It gets a mark as high as that due to the modern facilities. One down, half dozen to go, I figure, not including the many hot pools, plunges, and spa opportunities down the road at Rotorua. I expect this could be CK's Happy Place.
We dine out at a spot near the hotel the CK finds online. The atmosphere of Tony's has some character but the food is unremarkable. I order a Martini but they are out of olives. Out of olives on a Friday night. Insert your favorite expletive denoting incredulity here ________. CK orders apple pie for dessert. This pie doesn't have a normal pie crust. Instead ,the baked apple is enveloped in sponge cake. It is edible but we just don't identify this with pie. My best experience at Tony's is Clevedon Oysters, a local fish. Very fresh and worthwhile. But I think this is a one and done.
Tomorrow we take a launch out to an island in the harbor famous for fleecing tourists. We want to let them take a crack at us.
Auckland & Waiheke Island
Our first full day in New Zealand begins at the City Life hotel in downtown Auckland. Our goal is Waiheke Island, about one hour across the sea by ferry. We must arrive at the waterfront before 9 am to make decent use of the day. We're on foot using Google as our guide but it gives us a merry chase in circuitous directions. Google Maps is usually very reliable but not today. We're taken far out of our way in the wrong direction. The weather adds to the annoyance. Rain and wind is the order of the day again. We're wearing our foul weather gear with hoods pulled up and umbrellas out. They are the tiny, weak collapsing kind of bumbershoot that can blow up at any moment. They are tested to the max in this weather.
Despite the extra steps caused by an errant Google we arrive at the ferry terminal in plenty of time to catch our boat. Here we expect to be two of only a few tourists determined enough to go to Waiheke in a rain storm. Surprise! A tarted up and heeled Hen Party, also known in these parts as a 'Hen-Do' arrives twittering and squeaking across the puddles. Our guess is Bachelorette Party and they seem determined to do some damage to some liquor bottles somewhere. Then another group like this shows up. And behind them is group of bros, also out for a drunken romp. We used to call this a Stag Party. Not sure if this is the correct term these days.
We're peckish, too. Our hotel isn't one to offer pseudo-food in the morning. Happily there's a small snack service on the ferry. Sadly they offer nothing really worthwhile. But putting something down the gullet seems to be called for so we obtain some peanuts and a couple of oily blueberry muffins encased in plastic with tea and orange juice to coax it down. The engine roars and off we go, into the stormy weather, bouncing along like an oversized waterski boat toward Waiheke. This island is cottage country, dotted with vacation homes. It's also a playground for Aucklanders and anyone else looking for upscale restaurant experiences and catered events.
After an hour of wave hopping through the driving rain we exit onto the island at the village of Matiatia. Our choice for transport is the Hop-On/Off Bus that routes the main road away from the port and back again. The
driver describes the wonder vistas that we cannot see because of mist and rain. The water streaming across the bus windows presents a wet landscape through an impressionistic filter. Tree branches, heavy with rain, periodically slap the top of our double deck bus. The driver informs us that during summer there can be 30,000 people on this island on weekends. Wow. The road across this island must be one enormous traffic jam.
While on the ferry we get some help. On recommendation from two friendly island residents, one an expat American from Chicago, we decide to investigate the Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant. The bus drops us in their parking lot. We are the first customers. For a moment it looks like we
may have the whole restaurant to ourselves. But soon it becomes clear that we are just a few minutes ahead of the noon rush. Tables are soon filled.
Our table is next to a large window with the storm swishing wind and rain across our view. We feel a breeze through the wall.
There's a leaky roof just two feet to the right making a persistent puddle on the tile floor. There's a radiant heater overhead to keep us cozy despite the structural flaws. Our lunch is half a dozen oysters on the half-shell, crispy fried squid, lamb rump with sauce, and a cheese plate adorned with grapes. We both order glasses of local reds, a Cab and a Syrah. We can ignore the drippy ceiling and the draftiness because the food is amazing and the service lovely. We can't linger, though, because we want to visit one other spot and the bus must be caught on its next loop around or we'll run out of time. Away we stumble through the rain.
The bus makes us wait in Watiatia for 20 minutes before it rolls us out to The Heke Distillery & Pub. This is a busy place, even in stormy weather. We stroll through the premises not seeing anywhere to reasonably alight until we come to a halt next to the bar. Turning to survey our situation and consider our options we are tapped from behind by a tall fellow who invites us into the 'library', a cozy corner of the pub next to the bar. He introduces himself. He is the owner, Mark. He has studied at the University of Washington and lived in Los Angeles for a spell. He's even been to the San Juan Islands, our home base. He treats us to full descriptions of the three single malts he crafts here.
They are made with various degrees of peatiness and rest in bourbon or French oak casks for 5 years without any climate controls in the aging room. I go for their sampler, a flight of 3 different flavored drams with a lager chaser, a Boilermaker. CK orders bourbon truffles and Mark provides a honey bourbon on the house. He explains what Waiheke means. Wai is water. Heke has several meanings depending on context. With respect to today's weather it could easily mean 'falling', as in Falling Water. We enjoy chatting with Mark and thank him profusely for making our day with his excellent hospitality. Lucky us!
We are tempted to stay longer than we should most likely because the lovely whisky is beginning to fog our minds. But we come to our senses when we realize that we must catch that bus before it stops running at 4 pm. I grab Mark's portrait on the cell and off we stumble through the driving rain toward the bus stop. But our bus doesn't seem to be arriving when we need it to. Lucky us, we find a shelter at the bus stop that keeps us quite dry. Our Hop On/Off bus should be showing up but it doesn't.
Instead a local island bus rolls up to the bus stop. The driver sees us in the shelter and opens his door. We don't have the proper pass card, of course. I ask if we can pay him to take us to Matiatia. He smiles and waves us on, motioning us to sit down. He delivers us to the dock in plenty of time to catch the boat. Awesome.
Lots of folks are trying to get off the island. Too many for one boat and the line gets cut off before we can board. We have to wait for the next sailing. In total we wait 45 minutes in a queue on the dock. All the while I'm trying to imagine the madness this becomes in summer with the crowds in full press. Yikes.
On board, the Hen and Stag Parties are here again for the ride back but in an altered state of consciousness. The ladies take a table, plop a 12 pack in the middle with a bag of chips and consume the lot while chattering simultaneously. The boys are drunk as a gang of landlubbers in the grog locker. They screech old Bon Jovi hits a capella. Lucky us, they don't remember but only a fraction of the lyrics.
Back on shore our walk back to the hotel is far more sensible and direct. We have none of the confusion we experienced in the morning. It all makes sense now, somehow. Our confidence in Google is seriously damaged.
There is no evening meal tonight. We're still quite content with our superior quality lunch and Waiheke whisky experience.
Tomorrow we obtain our own wheels and try to drive on the wrong damned side of the road.
Hobbiton Movie Set
The weather man lied. It is supposed to rain today, all day, according to the mojo wire, interwebs, Google, evening news, et al. Not. A bright sun sweeps over a soggy Auckland landscape and we feel lucky for it. The atmosphere feels thicker, though. From day one we noticed the air being dense in a sub-tropical way. Increased solar radiation today is giving it an extra little punch.
It is Sunday morning. Everything is closed. Even the Dunkin' Donuts isn't stirring. We realize our blunder now. We failed to cadge any muffins or crumpets the previous evening for morning bites with our hotel room tea. Instead, we'll redirect our energy to getting out of town.
Our first job is to walk to the car-for-hire joint. Our usual mode of travel in foreign countries doesn't involve rental cars. We are typically on foot or hunting out the public transport. But that won't work here in NZ. We need to pilot our own wheels. The main worry with this is the upside-downness of it all. We are accustomed to driving on the right -hand side of the road while this country does it like the UK, that is, the left side. This tyrannical challenge to our habits gives us both some fits. We think we will be ok...but... what if we have a lapse of concentration and drift back into the US way of doing things? We may find ourselves in deep do-do really quick. CK takes the wheel first. I'm tasked with relaying navigational data and providing commentary on which lane to go to after crossing intersections. Things go pretty well, no silly blunders. But it does become hilarious whenever CK goes to use the turn signal. I can tell when she is planning to turn: the windshield wipers spring to life. All day she is doing this. She can't stop. She says she knows the turn signal is on the right side of the steering column but reflexive habit makes her flick the left control and the wipers commence. HA!
We are percolating with What Are We Doing In The Left Lane Tension as we roll out of town in a new Kia sedan. We want to get to our next stop in one piece with no scratches. We're looking forward to this: the Hobbiton Movie Set from the “The Hobbit”. We'll drive for about 2 hours to get there. CK has the wheel and gets us safely there despite my passing out for 30 minutes. There's only one highway. Can't get lost, really.
This set is located on a sheep farm. The owner, a fellow named Alexander, was charmed by Peter Jackson into giving up a chunk of his pasture for movie production during the filming of “Lord of the Rings”. A Hobbiton set was constructed for that film and then totally struck, or demolished, afterward. Years later, when “The Hobbit” was being planned they decided to rebuild Hobbiton in that spot but this time with more permanent construction and more Hobbit village for touring. And this is what we see today. It isn't the original LOTR set. I didn't know that.
All of the Hobbit Holes are facades. None of them have finished spaces beyond the doorway. Some have just enough room for an actor to make an entrance or exit, but nothing more than that. The homes are built in different scales depending on how they would be used in the film. If they were to be part of the backdrop they were made small. If actors were to interact with them they were scaled much larger. Various Holes are staged by the designers to reflect the occupation of the 'owner'. We see an apothecary, a beekeeper, a baker, a fisherman, a weaver, and even the town alcoholic. On the highest hill in Hobbiton we find Bag End, the home of Bilbo and later, his nephew Frodo. They actually filmed the auction scene on this spot, not in a studio.
We are here in Spring and flowers are blooming, birds are singing, butterflies are buttering, lambs and fresh grass are everywhere. This must be the perfect moment to see Hobbiton. There's a couple of pheasant roosters parading about, fairly well habituated with humans. They don't fly off. Perhaps they've had their flight wings trimmed, I'm not sure. They don't seem disturbed by the tour group except to give a snooty crowing sound and an indignant wing flap in our direction.
Yes, we must travel with a tour guide. We aren't allowed to simply romp around Hobbiton, investigating every chink in it. We have a minder who keeps up a continuous rap, telling us stories of how Bilbo's Party Scene was managed, for instance. This required dozens of extras, men, women, and children to be on set and in celebratory mode for 3 days. Children were given unlimited access to sugary sweet snacks and drinks to keep them hyped up. Adults were given 'beer' which kept them 'drunk'. I put these terms in parantheses because they were served only 1% beer. The adults believed that it was real beer and acted just as loaded as if it were the real thing. Placebo power! Tricksy characters, these film guys. And, yes, if you were wondering, the Party Tree is a real live thing.
The best thing on the set is the Green Dragon Inn. It's the most wonderful building of its kind ever.
I hope the photos do it justice because this is the pub that dreams are made of. The artistry and craftsmanship that went into it gives me reassurance for the future of humanity. It is awesome. They offer Hobbit Style Feasting here on weekend evenings. I'll wager its perfectly magical. But we couldn't do it. Our schedule takes us onward, down the road to Rotorua for our next sleep.
When we wake tomorrow, we'll be in a town known for volcanic activity in the form of hot springs and spas. We may even splash around in something spa-like and hot. We'll also tour a traditional Maori village.
“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
―J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Rotorua, New Zealand
Yesterday we left Hobbiton in dappled sunlight, quite beneath notice, and urged our white Kia sedan toward Rotorua. CK does the driving, I the navigating. We grab a pub-ish meal at a local bar with a likely sounding title, The Pig and Whistle. It is nothing remarkable. A rugby match adorns one television screen and a drunken Red Bull Soap Box Derby from 2019 infests the other. But I am making a note to myself to investigate the preparation of Harissa, a pepper paste from NW Africa. The chicken in my salad is painted with it and I'm now a fan.
Our hotel is motel-ish. It advertises spa treatments and massage. The room comes with an over sized soaking tub. There's a well appointed kitchenette that we take full advantage of for tea, coffee, and reviving left over road food bits. Rain begins to pelt the place just about bed time. This continues all night, a real frog strangler.
In the morning the rain lets up a little as we venture out to the coffee shop that CK scouted out for breakfast the previous evening. Breakfast needs to be efficient. We have a morning tour at a place called 'Te Puia'. In the Maori tongue this is simply “The Hot Spring”. This is an all Maori operation and quite well done. Our tour guide is a young Maori lad with a heavy NZ accent. He has a lot to say and he says it rather quickly. I feel that his chatter is flying past me and I haven't the reflexes to catch it. Our first stop on the tour is to visit their Kiwi Preservation project.
This is an attempt to breed and raise this super-endangered bird, native to New Zealand. For many thousands of years it enjoyed a world free from predators and therefore lost its ability to fly. It became a plump, slow moving thing of about 2 kilos, quite unaware of its deliciousness. When humans arrived they began to hunt it. When Europeans brought their dogs and cats, the fate of the Kiwi began to look very similar to the DoDo. Now the Maori are trying to block their extinction with this project. The birds are kept in terrariums, away from sunlight. Their day is controlled artificially. During tourist hours their lights are turned off to simulate night. This makes them more active. Tourists view them through glass walls in very dim light. Photos are prohibited. In these conditions you might imagine that they are difficult to spot and you would be right. It's extra devilish to see them amidst the murky shrubbery in their terrarium. But we manage to get some good looks with a modicum of patience.
Exiting the Kiwi Project, our guide steers us to the hot springs. This looks like Yellowstone Park with steamy hot water, bubbling mud holes squirting boiling slop, and scalding geysers all bunched together in a small area. A demonic flavor of hydrogen sulfide camps in our heads. We've gone from The Shire to Mordor in 24 hours. Our guide is speaking but I can scarcely hear him over the hiss of steam vents all around us. I can't see him half the time due to the white mists rolling by. We are to stay on the paths and observe the warning signs. If we fall into a hot geyser, nobody is coming to save us, he warns.
He ushers us into a Maori meeting house for a quick cultural primer and a look at the hundreds of wood carved images depicting mythical beings and ancestors from an idyllic past. The best science has the Polynesians arriving in New Zealand about the beginning of the 14th century. Ancestral connections, we're assured, are older than that.
There is an artist's school here where stone carvers, wood carvers, and weavers are trained in ancient style and technique. That isn't to say that modern tools aren't in use but the way they use them honors the old ways, we are told.
Lastly we visit their art gallery where finished masterpieces are on offer for not inconsiderable sums. Most sculptures and weapons are less than $10K and some are NFS. Proceeds go back to supporting the center and to train artists. I meet the cat in charge of the gallery today, Tipene Oneroa. A muscular, friendly fellow in his late 20's. He shows us around to the student produced items and we get some personalized insight. He explains some of the symbolism, the purpose of some objects, and some stories of his own path as a stone carver. Really good stuff.
By now we've spent more than 3 hours here and all of it was fascinating and different than just about anything we've encountered in our travels. Outstanding. And now our ancient persons need a little rest before the afternoon excursion. We slip back to the motel-ish hotel for a short timeout and a lie-back.
Soon we're back in the auto on our way to a hot spring bathing experience at a place called 'Hell's Gate'. This is a commercial spa zone featuring mineral baths and volcanic silica mud experience. Here are families with kids, young, and old taking a soak in the tepid water. I wouldn't say it was very hot, only about 95F. We enjoy this for what it is but we can't help comparing it to 'The Blue Lagoon' in Iceland. We're fatally spoiled in this area. With any luck we'll be back at the Blue Lagoon, boiling our bones in April, 2023. Stay tuned!
The evening meal is at an Italian themed place near our pad, Urban Gusto. Like everywhere else in the world they are working with a skeleton crew. Service is ok but stretched thin. We are there early, as is our habit, therefore we don't experience the true impact of short handedness on their part. CK orders a glass of red and I ask for a Hendrick's Martini, up with olives. The young lady taking our order asks me to repeat my request. She scribbles madly on her pad. Off she goes but comes back in 3 minutes asking me to describe how to make this drink. As I explain I'm thinking that maybe the bartender doesn't know how to do it. 10 minutes later the bartender appears at table to ask me the same question. It turns out that he not only doesn't know how to make a gin Martini but he does not know what Vermouth is. I don't even mention bitters or olive juice. Curiouser and curiouser. So I tell him that I would like two shots of Hendrick's Gin with two bits of ice and three green olives. That will do. Hilarious! This is only the second bar I have encountered that did not serve Martini. The first was in Quebec City. They knew what a Martini was, they simply choose to serve neat gin instead. We had nice plates of food, albeit Italian-esque, not quite European style but tasty just the same. And it is pouring rain again which compels us to sprint, senior citizen style, to our Kia car.
Tomorrow we are out the door early with two hours drive to get to Napier.
Cheers for now.
Rotorua Motel-ish Hotel: There's a corrugated roof over the spa tub next to the bedroom. The rain uses this as a snare drum for hours. Luckily we are exhausted enough that it doesn't matter much.
We are up with the crows packing the car for a drive to Napier on the east coast of the south island. There happens to be sunshine after that downpour last evening. We're grateful for it.
We have more Left-Lane-Tension navigating south on the main highway. This is a two lane track carrying large trucks and buses. As you might imagine, this gets a little hairy as a double trailer semi appears in the opposite lane murdering the speed limit on a sweeping curve. I haven't mentioned this before but I will now. Since we began driving NZ highways we have passed about 10 thoroughly trashed and abandoned wrecked cars along side the road. Some are adorned with caution tape. We're wondering if they've been left there on purpose as a visual reminder to stay alert or if Covid has simply decimated all the towing services. It is a mystery.
We speed past farms, orchards, and scads of sheep and cattle. We also see vast pine tree farms. CK points us toward a roadside attraction. Huku Falls is a few minutes off the main road but worth the time. The Waikato River is normally 100 meters wide but here it gets pressed into a slot 15 meters wide. The result is some madly focused liquid energy that threatens to shake the earth. Further on CK pulls into a scenic overlook featuring another chunk of falling water. This one is Waipunga Falls. This one seemingly sprouts from out of dense forest from two directions into a deep draw that isn't visible from our standpoint.
More miles roll by. We inspect the landscape and declare that it isn't boring. There is no flatness here. Everywhere we see rolling terrain gardens and sharp pointed hills. A lot of it looks to be under cultivation or in use as pasture. Orchards come into view as we approach Napier. It is Spring and the apple blossoms are in full tilt boogie.
We're grateful to arrive safely at Napier after some hours of Left-Lanedness. Driving on the wrong side still isn't second nature to us. The way these things go we'll probably get the groove of it on the last day, just in time to never need it again. We check into our hotel assisted by a manager with an extremely posh Oxford accent. This guy was definitely born and raised in England. He has the Oxford Don look, too. Bad haircut, facial stubble, wrinkled trousers, and snappy tie under a waistcoat & jacket. Very helpful and polite in a competitive way.
From here we set out on foot to visit the National Aquarium, about ¾ mile from our digs. To get there we stroll along The Marine Parade, a developed path along the beach at Hawke's Bay. Lots of amenities here such as playgrounds, a large skate park, and some water features. The aquarium isn't a very impressive facility and looks a bit dated. If we consider the aquariums in Seattle, San Diego, or Vancouver B.C. it is very small and needy by comparison. But it is what it is. There are some lovely specimens to inspect including the corpse of a Giant Squid.
We're up for an early dinner but, in the words of the late, great Anthony Bourdain, “Noooo reservations.” Three joints turn us down until we settle on Trattoria alla Toscana. We were trying to get some 'authentic New Zealand cuisine' but can't get in to the joints advertising this. Yes, Italian-esque two nights in a row. The food and service are fine. I get oysters (from Waiheke Island) and snapper. CK has a nice ravioli. The crazy part is, again, ordering a Martini. Our server's eyes get wide and blank when I ask if I might have one. Oh oh. Not again. She hurries away but returns in two minutes. “Do you like soda water in your Martini?”, she chirps hopefully. “Um, I get the feeling you don't know this drink. It's really two shots of gin and ¼ shot of dry Vermouth chilled over ice.” “Ok”, she hurries away. 3 minutes later the host arrives and asks which gin I would like. I see they don't have a large selection so I go with Tanqueray.
He hurries away. 5 minutes later he arrives with a whisky glass. Pale orange liquid can be seen between two dozen ice pellets. The garnish is two orange slices and two green olives. I don't know what this is but it isn't a Martini. I don't send it back but take my medicine like a man. There may be a pattern here: Martini's aren't a thing in New Zealand? But that doesn't play out. I mean to say, if I were a bartender and someone ordered a cocktail I didn't quite recognize, I'd hit Google for the recipe. Boom. No problem. And again, who hasn't seen a James Bond movie? He never drinks anything else. Tomorrow we'll be in Wellington for meal time. I shall make it my prime directive to order a Martini one more time. I can't wait to see what happens.
Our sleep in Napier, New Zealand, is not uncomfortable. It's a decent room and the beds are ok. It does, however, come with audio punctuation provided by the gym next door. Thump, thump, thump goes the sound system. We can hear the trainer's voice but not so well that we can understand her. The music is all carried by the bass notes and percussion. Luckily we are gassed and ready to sleep. It will take more than a room full of dance-music fueled adrenaline junkies to keep us awake at 10 pm.
The exercise fiends are all fired up again at 5 a.m. It sounds identical to the late night version. The athletic, sweating intensity is leaking into our room, underscored by the voice of the dominatrix in charge of the crowd. Clearly these youngsters don't have enough to do. I'm awake anyway because I'm like that, nothing unusual. CK can probably hear it but powers through her last minute snoozes just to spite it.
We have a 4 hour plus drive to Wellington. The weather forecast speaks of darkness, rain, wind, and, just for laughs, a serious chance for a late night dumping of half frozen slush on the town. We aren't 45 minutes out of Napier when the Google Lady (we call her Griselda) chirps up and orders us off the main road. We obey but question why. A short investigation reveals that there is a serious slowdown out there on the main line due to construction. Ms. Griz is leading us around it. This detour proves to be enormous. For hours we find ourselves roaming farm roads, twisting around crazy hills, and plunging through mini-valleys and washes. We didn't ask for the scenic tour but we get a major dose of it. The Gorge Road and Ballance Valley is so convoluted and overgrown that visions of Maui and the Road to Hana come to mind. Other scenes are bucolic vistas of lush green close cropped sheep pasture, dotted with, well, you know, sheep.
Most of this day is devoted to driving so that's what we have to talk about here, mostly. The default speed limit on a motorway seems to be 100 kilometer/h, about 60 mph. The locals don't believe it. They seem to be entitled to at least 125 and often 140+. We don't want to get pinched so we're being extra lawful about our speed. The conflict comes in feeling like a road hazard because of our law abiding cowardice. The 100 km limit only seems to be in effect for about 5-7 kilometers before a road crew slowdown or a set of wicked curves forces the brakes. That's cool, but we wonder why post a 100 km limit on such roads at all? We pull over a lot to let the conga line behind us move on at a more hazardous pace.
This KIA we're piloting is pretty new. It has several features we don't have on our ancient buggies at home. One of them is the Proximity Warning System. If we drift a bit toward the edge of the lane, left or right, we get a chirping sound and sometimes a servo motor tugs the steering wheel in the correct direction. Our tendency is to be a little too far to the outside edge of the lane. We feel this is due to our being wobbly about driving on the left hand side. We just don't trust our instincts to be in the left lane while processing the movement of traffic, signals, signs, pedestrians, etc. So, the damned Proximity chirping is a regular feature of driving this thing. It's always going off. And we notice that on some of these roads, the oncoming traffic frightens the system. Several times a large truck rounding a curve is momentarily aimed right at us and going like stink. The warning system in the car freaks out, jerks the wheel and squeals like somebody goosed Alvin the Chipmunk with a garden rake. Our hotel in Wellington is The Bolton. It's somewhat posh. Posh enough to have valet parking included in the deal. Fine with us. The Proximity Warning in an underground garage is an annoyance we can do without.
Looking for our next meal, we are turned down by the hotel's restaurant. Full up. Instead we find a spot at 'The Old Bailey', a pub-ish thing 3 blocks away. The weather is nasty, so walking any distance isn't on our dance card. The menu isn't English pub food, rather, a step down from there but good grub nonetheless. The server asks us if we want drinks. Here's my chance to ask about a Martini. Sorry. She's sorry but they don't make cocktails. I notice the array of spirits behind the bar. I want something softer than whisky so I ask for dark rum figuring that since they don't make cocktails, I'll automatically get rum neat. She returns in a couple of minutes and plops a cocktail on the table, a rum & coke. CK jumps in, “What is that?” giving the server the side-eye. It's a rum & coke, of course, isn't it what we asked for? I explain that I thought I was ordering rum neat, sorry for the confusion. I didn't confront her with the 'no cocktails' thing. Away goes the R&C and back comes a dram of rum. Curiouser and curiouser. I mean to say, I'm kind of looking forward to figuring out NZ bar culture. We'll have a grip on it just about the moment we leave for home. That's always how these things seem to go. By the way, our restaurant bill tonight: $28 US. The Yankee greenback has significant advantages here.
Stepping out, waddling back to the hotel we notice that a lot of the buildings look modern, not much early 20th or 19th century architecture. I'm guessing that with all the earthquakes they have here the buildings are going to look either new or broken. May the quakes hold off for a bit, until we clear out.
And hey! Look at that! This hotel room is dee-luxe. It has a wee clothes washer which we pounce upon instantly. That thing is grinding our grungy threads within moments of our discovery of it. Later we spot a dishwasher hiding under the stove top. Nice but unnecessary.
Tomorrow we're out of here early to embrace a solid day of transportation including a float across the sea. We're covering mileage much more than exploring. For now, anyways.
You know I still haven't seen a starry South Pacific sky and the forecast doesn't look promising.
To Nelson, New Zealand
The Bolton Hotel: A peek out the window before dawn reveals none of the sloppy snow predicted yesterday. Perhaps our luck is turning? Not that we've had such bad luck, it's just been a little scratchy with all the rain and wind. Speaking of wind, there was enough of a blow overnight to stir things up. CK said she could hear the building stretching, popping, and creaking which seems odd in this sleek glass and plastic structure. We wonder if this is a feature of earthquake mitigation architecture or if we're merely haunted. Just then we notice the old cemetery directly below our 7th story window. No time for breakfast. We must away.
Down in the lobby a bearded and liveried fellow in skinny pants and pointy shoes makes our car appear at the door precisely at 7:30 am. We pop our bags into the boot <see, I'm adjusting to the local jargon> and set course for the waterfront where we have tickets waiting for the ocean-going ferry across Cook Strait to Picton. While driving, a short bit of navigational confusion conspires to slow us but we find the rental car return zone eventually. Car key dropped in the box, bags in hand, find the terminal and queue up for check-in, then the P.A. crackles to life. The voice of authority informs us that the 8 a.m. sailing is canceled due to rough conditions on the Strait. They will update us on the status of the next sailing as soon as possible. This situation seems familiar and serves to mock us for daring to think that we may have escaped 'The Curse Of The Washington State Ferry System' here in the South Pacific. It seems to be stuck to the bottom of our shoes like vengeful toilet paper.
So, now the weather will need to change and a ship will have to arrive and be ready to take us. I prepare for multiple hours of lethargy. I scrunch in my plastic chair and fade into a slump-nap. I am jerked into unwilling consciousness by an 80-something Scotsman on my right who apparently thinks I should speak with him instead of sleeping. I must pull my wits out of the dream I was having before engaging him. I may have mumbled unintelligible things. Probably did. I'm polite although I'm not inclined to be. Why did he wake me up? I wouldn't do that to him! Bah! He moved here from Edinburgh in the 70's. He's on his way to Christchurch to attend a grandson's wedding. He's marooned on this beach as well. I wish him luck.
The next possibility for a boat is 2 pm. And there's no guarantee that there will be a boat at 2 pm. We don't panic. We have our towels. And this isn't October in Vladivostok. We'll survive ok but the tour may have a serious chunk taken out of it.
CK gets on the phone to our NZ tour agency. Turns out that they were already tracking the issue and figured we would be dealing with this canceled sailing. Soon they have an alternative in place for us. By 11 a.m. we are in a taxi motoring to the airport. We get a brief tour of the Wellington waterfront along the way. Bonus!! We will be flying to Nelson on an Air New Zealand flight.
We find that the little airport terminal in Wellington is well done. It's modern, airy, with plenty of services. Best of all, not overly crowded. Outside the wind is still blowing a gale under clear blue sky. I pick up a salad-in-a-box. There are chunks of a kind of sweet potato called Kumara in it. One bite and that's that. It's a starchy nothingness that reminds me of plantain or poi. A half dozen bits of it go into the bin. Sorry. There's a display of costumery worthy of some attention. The signage is proclaming an event called WOW, World Of WearableArt, a thing they've been doing here for 30 years. The photo of the computer key dress in yesterday's post was one of the items. Here are some more.
Our plane is a prop job, no security check needed. Flying is probably our best option in this case. If we were to take a late sailing today (presuming there is one) we wouldn't reach Nelson until after 10 p.m. That has every potential of being a stiff grind. Driving on two lane roads in the dark is something we avoid these days, if possible. We board at the plane 12:45 pm. We have 35 minutes in the air. Over Cook Strait we spot our ferry far below, chugging its way through the whitecaps toward Wellington. It is behind schedule. We are pleased to be flying but disappointed not to get a seagoing experience in the South Pacific. The only bit of boating we can claim now is the ferry to Waiheke Island last Saturday. But today we get a bird's eye view of the terrain before we touch down in Nelson.
As you can tell, this day was all about transport again, no real tourist adventures to report. Our hotel is pleasant, not as fancy as The Bolton. We're out to dine along the waterfront at a small joint called The Boat Shed. I enjoy sweet oysters and their version of Ceviche. Excellent stuff. CK has a plate of Red Snapper. Our server is a young lady who just moved here from Washington DC a month ago. My curiosity about New Zealand bars is still with me. It seems that this joint offers gin and vodka tonics so I ask the lady if they only make those particular cocktails. She said yes. I mention my experience with ordering Martini's. She tells me that yeah, some drinks just don't get any attention here. I am learning about this, inch by inch. I now scan each bar I see looking for what kind of glasses they have. The last two bars have only had wine glasses, champagne flutes, and whisky hi-ball glasses. I will take it as evidence that the bar does not serve cocktails beyond the ubiquitous G&T and Rum & Coke.
We have no energy to go sight seeing. It will be an early turn in tonight. Tomorrow we drive 5+ hours to Hokitika. We may not do much sightseeing tomorrow, either. But stay tuned. There's always something.
Kia Ora, Nelson. Kia Ora means 'hello' or 'welcome'.