Sunday, April 17, 2016

Rotorua to Queenstown and Owen's Three Seconds of Fame

You know what, domestic flights in New Zealand are INCREDIBLE. Do you remember the days when you could just walk to your gate? Like, just stroll up to it. No security check, no emptying your water bottle, no taking off your shoes, no removing tissues from your pockets, no pat down because you're wearing convertible pants with lots of zippers because they're perfect for travel, no x-ray for your bags. Do you remember? Neither do I. That's why flying in New Zealand is so incredible. It's like a world I never experienced. No lines. No stress. None of that crap.

So, on this day, we just strolled up to our gate. We boarded the plane in an utterly civilized fashion -- no lining up by row or status. We just stood up and walked on the plane.

We had to change planes in Christchuch, and because it was Christmas Day, most members of our tour group were wearing their very tasteful Christmas swag items distributed by our tour guide.

Our crew's festive attire and spirit attracted the attention of a local TV crew, which promptly interviewed our guide and shot B-roll as we awaited our plane.

Owen made the evening news with his Grinch-like neon green tie.

We bid farewell to the TV crew and hopped on our plane to Queenstown. On the way, we were blessed with extraordinary views of Mt. Cook and the Southern Alps.

Before checking into our hotel, we made an excursion to Arrowtown, a historic gold mine town, for a gourmet picnic lunch and stroll around town. It was a gorgeous afternoon and a perfect Christmas lunch!



Members of our tour group mug for the camera (some better than others).

Remnants of an area where Chinese settlers lived during the Gold Rush.

From there, we headed to Queenstown. If you haven't been to Queenstown, you should know it's one of the most beautiful and fun cities in the world. One of those "If I was a gazillionaire, I would have a house there" places. We checked into the Heritage Queenstown and had a relaxing afternoon drinking tea on our balcony and exploring the city. We took a ride up the cable car, which rose at a 90% angle and made Owen feel slightly unsettled.

Owen and what he looked like after the unsettling cable car ride.

Owen feeling better, back on solid ground with a cup of tea on our hotel room balcony.
We wrapped up a beautiful day with the best buffet dinner I've had in my life at our hotel. The food was absolutely amazing and the views were even better.

I forgot we had our swag on....

Sunday, March 13, 2016

New Zealand Day 4: Volcanic Valley and Ditching the Touristy Maori Village

We were blessed by another 6:30am wakeup call. After a short bus ride from Rotorua, we arrived at Waimangu Volcanic Valley for a walk through the "world's youngest and most exciting geothermal area."

It's a pretty interesting story -- a volcano erupted in 1886 in what was already a tourist attraction with its "Pink and White Terraces" - the eruption destroyed these scenic attractions.

It was a pleasant walk, with most of us shedding layers as the day heated up.

A boat cruise which I described as "not hugely exciting" in my travel journal - probably due to the fact that the volanic eruption 100+ years ago covered up all the interesting stuff!

Exploding mud pond

That evening there was an optional tour "add-on" -- a Maori Village cultural experience. Having been to the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu in Hawaii in the past, we didn't think we really needed to do this. We were the only ones on our tour to decline this opportunity. Our fellow travelers reported that we made a wise decision.

What we missed...
Instead, we caught the hotel shuttle into downtown Roturua, where they were having a street festival, and frankly, I think sitting on a bench on a street corner there was a more authentic Maori cultural experience than anything we could have paid to see. It was fun to see people strolling by and greeting each other - it appeared everyone in town knew each other. We wondered into a hip little bar, had a drink, and then moved on to the Indian restaurant where we'd booked dinner. While at the Indian restaurant, a brass band started playing Christmas songs out in the shopping arcade. It was a fairly random, but very enjoyable evening.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

New Zealand Day 3: Gardens and Lunch on a Dairy Farm

You wouldn't think that a day that is described as "4-hour bus ride, some walking, home-hosted lunch" would end up being one of the best days of the trip, but it was.

After the usual 6:30am wake-up call, we had our final breakfast in Auckland, and were on the bus by 8am. We rode south to Hamilton, a town with some nice residential areas and the location of some of NZ dairy producer Fronterra's extensive operations. We stopped off at Hamilton Gardens, which our tour guide pointed out was International Garden of the Year 2014. So, it must be good.

It was.

Sweetie and I started out by shuffliling in and out of the various "international" gardens, trying to avoid a family with noisy kids and a variety of obnoxious tourists who lacked manners.We were mostly successful. The international gardens were extraordinary. You were transported to Japan (which of course, made us feel like we hadn't gone anywhere on vacation and were instead back home), China, India, Italy, Great Britain....The gardens were extensive and well-maintained.
Just like home

It was incredible, especially given that admission to the gardens were free.

The international gardens, while extensive, are only a small part of Hamilton Gardens. We also wanted to check out the rose garden. So, we walked over to the rose garden and were blown away by its size. We didn't have a lot of time left -- barely enough to walk quickly to the far end of the garden and then walk quickly back. Definitely worth a repeat visit.

The gigantic rose garden.

 We departed the gardens and headed to lunch with Dot and Ray, who have a dairy farm. It was an unexpected highlight, as we walked into their home and had sandwiches and cake, while chatting with them about their kids (grown up) and the farm. It felt remarkably normal to be having lunch as a group of 15 people in a stranger's home. I chalk that up to Dot and Ray.

The area where they milk the cows was meticulously clean. I felt we could have eaten off the cement floor.

It was already a pretty spectacular day, but we still had a visit to Mangatautari Ecological Island on tap. Mangatautari is NZ's largest ecological island -- it's 3,400 hectares surrounded by a predator-proof fence. The 47 km fence keeps out mammal pests that have been introduced to NZ and that eat the native wildlife. Our guide said we would notice a dramatic difference in quantity of bird life as soon as we stepped through the fence, but all we saw was a one-legged pigeon (see below).

The elusive one-legged pigeon
Our entire group managed to climb up the stairs to the observation platform, which our guide said was a first for him as a tour guide. Go us!

I didn't really care that we didn't see many birds, because this was the first walk I'd taken in the woods IN MY ENTIRE LIFE where I wasn't eaten alive by mosquitoes. It was weird. I asked where the mosquitoes were and our guide said it was dry, so there weren't any. Personally, I think they bug bomb the entire 3,400 hectares. But I'm okay with that.

From there, we went to Rotorua, or Roto Vegas as the locals call it. Our hotel was lakeside, though the weather was not all that fantastic. Drizzly. We had dinner as a group at the hotel that night, and I felt bad for all the other people in the hotel having dinner. Our group was a bit rowdy. Our group was that group of 15 people who are all seated at one table, making a ruckus like they're on vacation or are hard of hearing, or both, and had had too many glasses of wine.

Monday, February 15, 2016

New Zealand Day 2: Tea with a Chief

The harsh reality of tour group travel set in with our 6:30AM wakeup call. As I reviewed our full trip itinerary that was handed out by our tour leader the previous day, I came to terms with the fact that I would be getting up at almost the same time every day on vacation as I do for work. OMG. [In retrospect, it wasn't THAT bad. There's a difference between getting up at 6AM to hop on a bus and follow someone else's well-planned itinerary that might include drinking wine, hiking among hot springs, or cruising through some of the best scenery in the world VS. getting up at 6AM to go do battle with any number of problems and crises that might be thrown your way at the office].

We began our day with a public bus ride (much nicer than it sounds, in Auckland. Their buses are pretty nice) up toward the War Memorial Museum. As we sat around after listening to our guide prepare us for meeting "Prince" (a Maori tribe prince), we couldn't quite figure out why the rush to get up and out the door so early. We had a good half hour to spare. I guess our guide didn't know our group yet and built in a half-hour for those who might sign up for a group tour, but yet be completely unable to follow a schedule.

Prince came and talked. I don't remember much of it because the lady sitting next to me on the steps outside the museum noticed that there was a trail of ants crawling up my leg. I couldn't really get up and move in the middle of the Maori prince's spiel, so I sat there for what was an entirely too-long period of time flicking ants off my feet. I completely missed his profound Maori wisdom. Note how I have one leg touching the pavement in an attempt to minimize the number of ants with access.
Once Prince was finished, we began a walk through the large park in which the museum was set. I kept thinking that soon Prince would wrap things up and it would be time for tea, but we spent at least another hour standing under a large tree listening to Prince talk.
Just when I thought I was going to pass out before any of the older folks did from standing for so long, we made out way to an area of the park where Prince's family had set up tea. It was lovely and Prince's wife and daughter-in-law were very sweet. I could have used  a few more cookies, but oh well.
After that, Sweetie and I ventured to the cafe in the War Museum and had an early lunch. I ordered a cup of vegetable soup, which took approximately 30 minutes to prepare. It was officially the longest I have EVER had to wait for a bowl of vegetable soup, including the times I have prepared it myself from scratch. Once I scarfed that down, we breezed through the museum with the little remaining time after my soup marathon. Random observation: the museum had a small, but fascinating and high quality, Japanese ceramics exhibit. 

After that, we walked back down through The Domain (a large park), and wondered how we could get across the rather significant highway that stood between us and the city center. Just as we were wondering that, three people came upon us and asked how to get to the Museum. We said we'd tell them if they could tell us how to cross the highway and get into the city. It was a fair trade.

That evening, the tour group wandered around the city a bit before riding the ferry across the harbor to dinner in lovely Davenport.

I was careful to check my bag for the odd rainbow skink that might have slipped in without me noticing before we headed across the harbor. We already knew I had an ant problem.