Travelog: Los Angeles,New Zealand, Thailand 1998
If you are reading this, you will quickly realize that this travelog is in progress. The trip is done, but I haven't finished writing about it. The travelog below contains some complete portions, and some parts which are just brief words or notes to remind me what I ultimately want to write about
11/6/98 Ė 11/9/98:
11/9/98 Ė 11/11/98: Air travel to Auckland, NZ
11/11/98 Ė 12/3/98:New Zealand
12/3/98 Ė 12/25/98:Thailand
Uneventful plane ride to Auckland. I actually saw a good movie on the flight (though I can't recall what it wasÖ nothing like jet lag to knock such things right out of my brain.) Managed to get a lot of sleep, and felt pretty good when I arrived in Auckland at 7am local time. I had to go through agricultural customs though, because I had "used" hiking boots with me. It wasnít a big deal though, the customs people asked a few questions about where I had worn them, then took them off and sterilized them to their satisfaction. Something to keep in mind though for next time: hiking boots, sleeping bags, tents, etc. are an issue if they've been previously used.
Took a cab to my hotel in Auckland. The driver was quite a character. Got checked in at the Aspen Lodge Bed & Breakfast. It's really more like a backpackers hotel than a B&B. OK at NZ$45 per night. Good location, but really pretty much a dive.
I wandered around town a little bit, being disoriented and looking around. Went to the local "AA" office (the NZ equivalent of America's AAA.) Got my complimentary AA membership by showing my AAA card (post note: so far it has not been useful for anything.) Went over to Ponsonby St, and ate lunch at a café called Tuatara. The Lonely Planet guide says it is quite a scene at night. During the day it was pleasant, but pretty empty. Had a very nice chicken satey salad. Walked to the Victoria Park Market, a rather insignificant little collection of touristy shops in a restored building. I can imagine it being pretty cool on a summer weekend, but mid-day on a Wednesday in spring, it really wasnít happening. Walked over to the Sky Tower and had a look around. Itís a pretty cool tower (if you've read my other travelogs, you already know that I go up every tower I find.) It had some very nice displays, and has the cool (and stomach-turning) feature that there are glass floors you can walk over and look straight down.
Rested at the hotel for a while, and then went to eat dinner on Parnell at "La Bocca": Yummy eggplant stuffed with cheese appetizer and Huge garlicky prawns (served very rare). Accompanied dinner with a good beer: Speight's "Old Dark".
The weather was beautiful and warm, 60's and 70's. Just a few clouds. Nice long days (a welcome relief after Seattle fall short days.) The sun doesnít go down till after 8pm!
Arranged for Car rental. National did a really nice job helping me out; lots of good travel info from them.
Went to the Auckland Institute Museum. Unfortunately, the museum is undergoing renovations and is about 1/3 closed. Also, I'm afraid I have to admit that Maori artifacts just aren't that interesting to me. It was worth seeing, but not gripping. If you are into aboriginal art and culture, I guess it is a must. There is a modestly interesting recreation of street in old Auckland, and a lot of war artifacts as well. There is also a temporary exhibit of French art glass that was really great. I spent more time in there than anywhere else in the museum.
Ate lunch at café on Vulcan Lane, near Queen St.. The Vulcan Lane-Queen St. area is a very good area for cafes and people watching. Highly recommended.
Drove over to Takapuna north of Auckland, sat on beach, watched Triathalete club race start. Walked around. Pleasant small area. Drove to Devonport, had a beer and ate some of the famous kumara chips (kumara is a kind of sweet potato.) Talked to a guy who used to drive a tour bus. Got some travel tips. Got back to Auckland proper very late, and had a light dinner at some place on High street. It was the only place I could find that was open and appealing.
There was a slight drizzle in the evening, otherwise beautiful weather.
I've decided to call Auckland: "Little Big City". Itís a city of over a million people (1/3 of New Zealand's whole population) but it's also a small city. I think I like it well enough, but there's nothing really here to bring me back.
Drove north to the Bay of Islands and stopped at several tiny little places on the way. A beautiful drive. Stunningly, amazingly green. I felt like I might run out of the chemical in the eye that produces green. Unbelievable tree ferns everywhere. All the hills and fields are covered with lots of sheep and cows. It's very odd seeing sheep and cows grazing on verdant fields under tree ferns.
The guide books all list the "Matakohe Kauri Museum" as a must see, so I saw it. It's pretty interesting, I suppose. Lots of big boards cut from different trees at different places and some large logs. Lots of historical plaques and displays of logging equipment. But I couldnít help feeling that I'd really rather be hiking through the trees. I've been in a hell of a lot of museums lately, and am having a hard time getting jazzed about them. In the basement there are two large rooms full of "gum", which is the amber from the sap of the Kauri tree. They used to make cuts in the trees to make them bleed and collect the gum to make varnish, linoleum and other industrial products. That practice was banned because it ultimately killed the trees. They also used to dig for buried gum. The amber is quite beautiful and there are examples of the raw amber, polished amber, amber jewelry, and a number of truly stupid sculptures made from the gum. For some reason people had a thing for sculpting lighthouses in Kauri gum. Go figure.
Some dark clouds today, but otherwise beautiful warm and sunny.
Got to Russell and checked into theBrampton House B&B (telephone 0-9-403-7521). It is an attractive modern house run by a very nice older couple. They had the foresight to buy a parcel of land with the best view anywhere, and built their house there. What a view. Wow.
Had dinner at The Duke of Marlborough Hotel. Unfortunately overall it was a bad experience. I was seated at the only table in the entire place that had no view. I had chosen the restaurant specifically for the view too. They wouldnít move me, wouldnít allow me to sit on the deck (they haven't opened the deck for the season yet), and wouldnít allow me to sit in the bar area. So, I picked up my dinner and carried it out to the deck myself. Unfortunately, it was more an act of defiance than anything else, and I was unable to relax and enjoy my meal out there. The view was great though. After the sun had basically set I came back inside to my table. After dinner I told the maitre d' that the situation was unacceptable. I donít think she took my comments to heart. The waitress was very nice to me though, so I left her a good tip. I started with the appetizer of green lipped mussels. I've never liked mussels, but I've heard that they are so good here, and the green lipped ones looked really beautiful at another table. I'm afraid I still donít like mussels. I ate 3 or 4 of them before I just gagged. The Belgians and the Kiwis must love each other; they both have such a thing for mussels. For my main course I had Lamb Wellington. It turned out to be unlike any Wellington I've ever had before. A cutlet of lamb, cooked hard clear through, coated in some kind of seasoning, and wrapped in flaky dough. The result was odd and not really enjoyable. The execution appeared complicated, but result was disappointing. Overall, I have to say I donít recommend The Duke of Marlborough.
Swim with dolphins - Oh well.
Yummy lunch of seafood stew at the Over the Bay Café in Paihia.
Beer in pub with really interesting newlyweds from Denver. Recognized me from the Auckland hotel.
Dinner at Gables restaurant. Very good. Nice view, good service. Appetizer: Chicken livers. Main: Cajun Moonfish with salsa over saffron rice. Biscotti.
Van trip up to Cape Reinga (almost) most northerly point in New Zealand and 90 mile beach.
Northern Exposure Tours.
Rainbow falls, Kerikeri
Riding Tepaki Sand Dunes on Boogie boards
Fish and Chips at Mangonui fish shop
Lighthouse at Cape Reinga; view of meeting of Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean
<Commentary: Russel vs. Paihia as places to stay.>
Commentary: Recommend buying the Friars' Guide to New Zealand Accommodation for the Discerning Traveler.
Had thought about doing a sailing trip on the Bay of Islands today, but the weather looked bad (wind and rain), so decided to head out for the next destination: the Coromandel peninsula.
Traveled down highway 12 on the West Coast of Northland.
Through Waipoua Forest (incredible)
Tane Mahuta (God of the Forest)
My heart leapt from my chest.
Does it know we are here?
Seasons pass like days, millimeters of growth per year?
Does it remember being young? Growing fast?
I felt like I was having my picture taken with Elvis.
Dutch people eating ice-cream cones. How can they eat? I can hardly breath!
Bypass Auckland on highway 16
To Thames ("The Gateway to the Coromandel"). Got in late (9:30pm).
Staying at Brunton House homestay. Really nice. Only $50/night.
A very very long day. Left Russel around 10am, got into Thames at 9:30pm. Lotsa driving.
In Thames, there is a tidal mangrove behind the local mini-mall. There is a public bird blind (name?) down a short boardwalk in the mangrove. Had a wonderful time sitting and watching the seabirds on the tidal flats. Highly recommended! The guidebooks barely mention it. It takes almost no time to get to, is completely deserted and totally wonderful. Bring your binoculars.
Thames is a delightful little town. Had a pleasant walk up and down the street, and went into an art gallery that was noted in some travel brochure. The place looked like it could easily have been in Belletown in Seattle or Newbury street in Boston, except that the pieces really weren't very good. Kind of clumsy folksy. Charming. The proprietress "goes batty for glass", and went nuts when she heard I had actually visited Dale Chihuly's studio and actually met the man.
Driving from Thames up the west coast of the Coromandel Peninsula towards Coromandel Town. It is unbelievably beautiful here, and so, very hard to drive. The road is really tiny and twisty, but so beautiful that I cant keep my eyes on the road. Fantastic coastline, beautiful trees and fields, truly breathtaking. I like it here so much more than the Bay of Islands. It is much more beautiful. Stunning. I keep on pulling over to take in the views. I cant make it a mile without wanting to stop. The guidebooks list the Coromandel, but definitely give it short shrift. If the Coromandel is a 10, then the Bay of Islands is only a 6 (at best.) The Bay of Islands is a place one would go to "have fun": boating, fishing, riding a high speed super-boat through the hole in the rockÖ The Coromandel is a place of magic. Artists, landscapes, the sea. This is more my speed.
Went to Rapaura Watergardens in Tapu. This place is just wonderful. Sublime lily ponds that would have cheered Monet's heart, lovely plantings, and at each turn a sign with a pity saying on it. The sun is shining, the water is burbling, and I sat and had devonshire tea while a family of ducks pecked at me. I think they liked me. I think some day I will have to keep ducks. I cant believe how peaceful I feel. And I donít understand why the guidebooks donít make more mention of this place. After my tea, a 15 minute walk up to a set of lovely waterfalls. What a day.
Favorite quotes from Rapaura:
"I wanted all things that I might enjoy life. I was given life that I might enjoy all things."
"If paradise exists solely in man's imagination, then the garden is its physical manifestation for all to gaze upon and enjoy."
Just short of Coromandel Town went to "Harmony Gardens", a self proclaimed place of great harmony. Donít bother, it is basically someone's (very large) yard. They've done a nice job planting an attractive garden, but it tries so hard to be some kind of spiritual place that it is laughable. The new age music emanating from hidden speakers adds to the comical effect. Skip this one and go to Rapaura Watergardens instead. Same idea, but Rapaura gets it right.
Drove highway 25 from Coromandel to Whitianga through the mountains. Highway 25 is a steep twisty road, that after about 10K suddenly turns into a dirt road for about 35K. What a surprise. Every once in a while there is a 100' section of pavement, and then dirt again. I couldnít believe that they would have a tight, twisty, mountainous highway that was unpaved. The locals were blasting over it too. I took it very slowly. It was a beautiful drive, but I was definitely white knuckled.
Sitting at the Harbourview Café in Whitianga. Ordered the New Zealand cheese and fruit plate. I asked the waitress what the cheeses were. She replied "thatís a blue cheese, thatís an aged cheese, that a soft cheese, and I'm not sure what that one is." Gee, thanks. All the cheeses were excellent (a blue that was probably Blue Castellano, two cheddars, and a Camembert.) The clove-pickled onions were a nice touch.
Checked into the Harbor Lights B&B (really a homestay) in Whitianga. I'm sitting here now watching a lovely sunset, writing my notes. A beautiful cool breeze is blowing onto the porch here, and far in the distance there are the delighted screams of children playing a game way down on the beach. There's a block of clouds at the horizon, and glowing streams of orange light are flaring out above and below it. Clearly God lives here.
Had dinner tonight at Harbourview Café. Smoked chicken on a bed of salad. Disappointing.
Travelers Tip: The owner of the Harbor Lights B&B tells me that Whitianga has a population of about 1000, but for 10 days starting December 27th, it swells to 40,000. Avoid the Coromandel during this time!
Spent a little time in Whitianga, and went to a shop called The Bone Carving Studio to shop for jade. I've been seeing lots of jade pendants, but most had an unfinished/unrefined quality. The Bone Carving Studio teaches bone and jade carving, and had beautiful stuff. Bought a jade Mauri fish-hook pendant.
Drove down the east coast of the Coromandel peninsula to Rototua. Driving in the Coromandel continues to be insanely beautiful, fun and wonderful. Unfortunately, it is also slow and tiring as the road is very twisty. Once off the Coromandel, the scenery got less interesting and hit a low point in a busy town called Tauranga. In Tuaranga I decided I'd better call the B&B that was recommended. Unfortunately, it was booked up. I was making my calls from the only payphone I could find, which was situated on the only noisy street corner in all of New Zealand. Worse, there was a girl making a zillion phone calls too, and worse still the phone ate my phone card with $9.00 still unused on it. Then I had to relinquish the pay phone back to the girl and go off in search of a new phone card. Finally I made a reservation at a hotel in Rotorua and was back on my way.
The first thing you notice when you hit Rotorua is the smell. Several people had mentioned that Rotorua "stinks", but I guess I wasnít really prepared for the overwhelming sulfur smell. Rotorua is famous for its geo-thermal activity, and lots of sulfur is part of the bargain. Amazingly, I stopped noticing it after just a few hours (the human nose is an amazing thing.) I had made a reservation at The Princess Gate Hotel, an antique boutique hotel that the Lonely Planet guide referred to as "a beautiful, luxurious hotel with crystal chandeliers, canopies over the beds Ö and much much more." I donít know what room they stayed in, but mine was amongst the smallest hotel rooms I have ever been in, with windows and door facing out onto the busy street, and nothing whatever to recommend it. The building is very attractive from the outside, and my room had a tiny chandelier and nice wall paper, but other than that it was of the grade of a "B" motel. I must rate it "Avoid". On the other hand, it has a great location.
I had the hotel book me into a Mauri dinner (Hangi) and performance at a place called Whakarewarwa. Reading about these things they just sounded so touristy, contrived, and stupid I couldnít believe it. However, I'd had more than one person tell me that they really are good, and it is a "must see." Well, OK, it is a way to learn about these people's culture. But, yes, it was very much a "performance". Very touristy. The food was OK, but not noteworthy in any respect. Oh, there is one interesting note: the Mauri Hangi style of cooking involves digging a pit, filling it with wood and putting stones on top of the wood. They light a huge fire which super heats the stones. When the wood is burned up, the stones fall into the hole; they are covered with green leaves, and then the food is placed in wrapped in leaves. The whole mess is then buried for 3 to 4 hours. After that time it is dug up, and the meal is ready. Of course, the dinner I was served was cooked in stainless steel in a permanent "hole", "for health reasons." Right.
I suppose one has to do some of these touristy things to learn about a place and its people. Otherwise, the only way to really learn would be to move here for an extended period of time. However, these things just donít feed my soul at all, and leave me very disappointed. No matter how well done this might have been, it was still a performance and just doesnít fire me up.
Got up early today and switched hotels. Went about two blocks over to the Royal Lakeside Rotorua, a Novotel hotel. For about $10US more, this is a real hotel with full amenities, quiet and comfortable. I think I was really craving this kind of pre-fab normalcy. I also realized that I had left my camera at the Hangi the night before, so after checking in I rushed over there to get my camera which (thankfully) was at security. Since I was back at Whakarewarwa, and hadn't really seen the thermals the night before, I paid again and went on the thermal geyser walk. There are bubbling mud pools, steaming fields, and geysers. There is one very impressive geyser that goes off every 3 or 4 minutes. Very cool. Behind it there is a major geyser (Pohutu) that is supposed to shoot water 30 meters into the air. It goes off 15 to 20 times a day. This I had to see. So I planted myself there and waited. Apparently it had gone off about 1/2 hour before I got there, so the expected wait was less than 1 hour. Cool. While waiting a large group of junior high school children came through and spent a while looking at the geysers and drawing pictures of them. They seemed more interested in me than in the thermals. As soon as they learned I was from America, they immediately wanted to know which celebrities I knew. It was pretty fun. Mostly they asked about the usual teenage heart-throbs: Brad Pitt, (Ö), Margot Kidder. I had a good time playing with them. I told them I used to date Margot Kidder. One interesting note: When I finally decided to fess up that I really didnít know any celebrities, they pressed me that I must know someone famous. I told them I've met Bill Gates (which, of course, is true.) They had no idea who he was. When I told them he is the richest man in the world, one of the girls asked "How much would $100US be in $NZ". I thought that was a pretty surprising question. Why $100, not $1. Besides, the first question I would think of to ask would be "How much money does the richest man in the world have." I think you can learn a lot about people by the kinds of questions that they ask. After I mentioned Bill Gates, they asked me if I knew Bill Clinton. I told them "Yeah, we used to pick up girls together when he was governor of Arkansas." They thought that was cool. Then they asked if I'd met Monica Lewinsky. Wow, school kids in New Zealand know who Monica Lewinski is, but not Bill Gates. Go figure. We then had a lengthy and detailed conversation about the Spice Girls, and when they are coming to New Zealand next, and about South Park, and which episode it is that they donít kill Kenny.
So I'm hanging out and hanging out waiting for the big geyser. Time is passing. I met a newlywed couple from Melbourne Australia who had gotten there right after it had gone off the prior time. They were cute. She was getting sunburned, and he kept on covering her up with clothing. Time passed. We talked. He almost dropped his camera when I told him I had written part of Microsoft Access. Time passed. After waiting about an hour and a half, I was starving and feeling light-headed from the sun. My stomach was bothering me. I gave up. Hi ho.
Walked through the rest of the park, saw the boiling thermal pool where they cook corn and hard boiled eggs for the tourists for $2. Went off and toured the Mauri carving school (also on the grounds of the thermal park.) Its very interesting, and apparently quite famous. I am much more impressed with Mauri art now. When I got back to my car I ran into the newlyweds from the Thermal. They said it finally went off 20 minutes after I left, and wasnít all that impressive after all.
<Internet, hot baths, Orchids, water organ.>
<Yummy dinner at a place called Bacchus on Arawa street.>
<Old people tourists>
<Feeling unwell. Giardia?>
Drive to Wellington via Taupo, Mt. P., desert.
<Thoughts on driving in NZ.>
<commentary on mussels>
Drove around Wellington looking for any old Sheraton, Hilton, Hyatt, etc. There are none. The closest thing is a Novotel, and it is outside of downtown and relatively far from the ferry. The Lonely Planet listed the Plaza international hotel as "possibly the best hotel in NZ." Checked in. Wow, beautiful hotel, and the weekend rate is very reasonable.
Dinner: Restaurant at the hotel: Simpatico. Nice "Asian chicken soup", and filet mignon. I should probably have had fish to settle my stomach, but for some reason I wanted beef. Go figure.
Turns out there isn't a 12:30 ferry on Saturdays, so I have to wait for the 2:30 ferry. Oh well.
On Tipping (travel broadens the mind)
I used to think that tipping was a pain in the ass. I always hated the fact that the bill for dinner was going to be substantially more than the prices on the menu (tip plus tax means a 20% to 30% surcharge depending on where you are.) However, after travelling in Australia, France and now New Zealand, I am an ardent supporter of tipping. It should be instituted as the standard way of paying all service providers everywhere. In any economic transaction, there needs to be a clear mechanism for allying the interests of the buyer with the seller, otherwise, one or the other will get short shrift. Furthermore, a feedback loop results in constant improvement. When the service provider can immediately and concretely learn what succeeds and what fails, service will naturally improve. Relying on sporadic compliments or complaints is insufficient. In this case, tipping is the ideal feedback mechanism and method for matching compensation to service. [Boy am I gonna get flack for thisÖ I can feel it already.] Let's face it, even in a fine restaurant in a fine hotel in Wellington, the service basically sucks by USA standards. I would cheerfully give my waitress a 20% tip if she would just keep my coffee filled. (Yes, I just got up with my coffee cup and walked into the kitchen and refilled my cup. And yes, they were mortified.)
Spent a couple of hours driving around Wellington and then went to the Wellington Arboretum. The Arboretum is really nice, really charming, lovely and peaceful. It really helped to restore my soul. It is definitely spring in New Zealand. Spent a while watching a tiny bird with a huge tail doing amazing aerial acrobatics to show off its tail feathers. Quite a demonstration. Birds were singing and flitting all through the place. It was really wonderful.
Off to the ferry. For some reason that I couldnít quite get, the ferry was 45 minutes late. Hi ho. Sounds like another late night arrival for me. I think I'm going to go to Nelson and hang out there for a couple of days. I'm also going to look into what would be involved in my leaving the car in Queenstown and flying back to Auckland. I'm sure the car company will charge an arm and a leg (since that is what everyone wants to do.) We'll see.
I paid an extra NZ$15 for the "Club Room", a private area with free tea, coffee and cookies. I was ushered down there, and was favorably impressed. Electrical outlets (no, I didnít carry my power supply) too. Quite nice really. I couldnít help wondering why there were only 2 other people in there. After we finally pulled out from port, I headed above decks to look around. Turns out that the seats in the rest of the boat are more comfortable, sunnier, airier, and have electrical outlets. I suppose if the boat was really jammed with people, the Club Room would be worthwhile. However, it is definitely not worth it otherwise. The ferry is really very nice; there are $4.00 lockers with multiple in-out privileges! Very nice. There are about 5 or 6 different bars and eateries on board. However, absolutely everything I ordered was terrible. Here's a curious note: I had some shrimp on the boat and was again struck by the fact that they cook their shrimp exceedingly rare here. Yuck. More on the ferry: this ferry is really big. They check in your baggage at the terminal exactly like at an airport. On the ferry there is a movie theatre, video games, bars, etc. Something for the whole family. Apparently they used to do an overnight trip from Wellington to Christchurch, but not any more. Starting in December (the height of the tourist season) they run a faster boat that takes 1/2 the time.
One more thought on travelling: the ferry ride is pretty nice (though very rocky), however it turns out that there are also flights for not much more that take a fraction of the time. Given my time constraints I think I might have opted for that instead had I known. Next timeÖ
Oh, about Wellington. The roads are very confusing, lots of twisty one way streets and streets that change name, etc. However, for some reason I felt much more comfortable there than in Auckland. I think I am a "second city" kind of person. I didnít care for Sydney but people tell me they think I will like Melbourne. In the US, I donít really like LA and New York very much, and far prefer Seattle, San Francisco and Boston. Here I preferred Wellington to Auckland. There isn't really anything I can put my finger on either; I just felt more at home in Wellington.
Picked up another car at Picton and headed off to Nelson.
Dinner tonight at The Honest Lawyer pub, which is actually beyond Nelson in a town called Stoke. Yummy sautéed "Blue Nose" (a fish) with a very nice hollandaise-like sauce.
On Kiwi Distances
The Kiwi's either have no sense of time, or distance, or something. Add 50% to the amount of time they say it will take to get anywhere. They say "you're about 2 hours away." Unh uh. Try 3 hours. And I drive fast. At least the speed limit if not more. Really, I'm no slouch, and I am passing people. I donít know what makes them think things are closer together than they really are.
Checked into my B&B very late tonight (like 10pm): Muritai Manor in Nelson (on highway 6.) A really beautiful restored Victorian house. I hope the highway noise doesnít get to me too much.
By the way, it was a perfectly clear night and the stars were just awesome.
Well Muritai Manor is really beautiful and the owners Jan and Stan are incredibly hospitable. If that weren't enough, they have two great dogs that love you. I sat on the floor in Stan's office to plug in my computer and dial up the internet. The dogs loved that. Made it very hard to type. Was the best laugh I've had in a while. The cars on the highway are clearly audible, but if you pretend really well, you can imagine that it is the sound of surf.
Jan is destined to become the Martha Steward of New Zealand. Bakes bread, arranges flowers, makes her own elderflower soda (yum!), jams, preserves, yikes.
This morning Stan took me on a hike up the hill behind Nelson. Hiked up to the microwave tower, and a great lookout. Along the way Stan filled me in on a variety of local history, and pointed out various landmarks. Even though he is a transplanted brit (they moved here 4 years ago), he climbs like a mountain goat. The trail went straight up without a warm-up, and I proved that I am still not in shape.
After the climb I was wrecked. Jan set us out a nice lunch of cheese, olives, ham, pate, crackers, etc. I lost track of how many glasses of elderflower soda I drank.
Passed out for a while, then drove around town. Sunday afternoon Nelson is pretty much closed up tight. Itís a cute little town, but that impression may be colored by the fact that it was dead. The street and place names here are definitely British, right down to "Trafalgar Square" in the middle of town. There wasnít much to see, so I drove further west to the town of Russell where there is an art glass blowing outfit. Living in Seattle I am seriously jaded about glass, and the place in Russell did not begin to hold a candle. Hi ho. Tried to go to the beach, but by that time a lot of clouds had come in and it was blowing in a big way. Oh well.
Jan and Stan recommended The Boat Shed for dinner and it was excellent. Sautéed Scallops appetizer and "Chili Crab" main. Sticky Date Cake with caramel sauce for desert. Of course, the only table they had available (in spite of the fact that the place was basically empty) was outside on the deck, and was the least well protected table on the deck. Moreover, it was a table for 5. So, I sat and shivered in the wind at a huge table for 5, staring at innumerable empty tables. At least the view was good.
Just before my main arrived they told me that a table inside had opened up and I could come in and take it, but that there was another single guy who also wanted a table and did I mind if he joined me. How could I say no? Klaus turned out to be a really interesting guy from Heidleburg, and we had an excellent meal together. We had a lot of fun talking about our travels. It was great.
Got up this morning and have another great breakfast with Stan and Jan. Tried all of Jan's homemade preserves and lemon curd. The ginger preserve was outstanding. Sat around chatting too long, and finally headed off. Jan sent me off with my water bottle filled with her amazing elder-flower soda, and a couple apples for the drive.
Drove from Nelson to Kiakoura via Blenheim and the Marlborough wine region. The drive was, of course, incredibly beautiful. How many beautiful drives can one really do? I guess I'll find out. The Wine country is very pretty, and it is spring here, so the vines are just starting out. Note that Blenheim is considered to be a center for viniculture, but all the vineyards are outside of town on the Nelson side. I didnít realize this, drove into town, then had to double back. The sign indicating the major wine route was tiny too, which didnít help matters.
Had lunch near Blenheim at the Allan Scott winery. Good (but not great) smoked salmon and a really nice Riesling.
Then back on the road. It got more and more breathtaking the closer I got to Kiakoura.
Ended up booking a room for two nights at the Convent B&B. NZ$100 per night. The Convent B&B is a converted 19th century convent. My room (15) is in a newly added wing. My room is attractive and airy, but the bed takes up most of the room. There are many other nicer rooms (especially #12), but none that were available for both nights. They offered to let me take a nicer room the first night and then switch, but I decided I didnít want that hassle, especially with a 9am dolphin swimming trip.
Had dinner at the Craypot restaurant in Kiakoura. Had the "Crayfish" (aka Rock lobster). They serve lobster cold here. When I asked about it, they were really surprised that I would have wanted it hot. No melted butter anywhere in sight. It was OK, but not what I had in mind (i.e. boiled Maine lobster with plenty of melted butter.) OK, truth time: lobster is just an excuse to eat a lot of melted butter. Without melted butter, lobster is just a boiled spider to me.
Went to bed really early last night (yay) and got up early this morning. Had a light breakfast at the B&B and headed into town to swim with dolphins at Dolphin Experience. What can I say? Swimming with dolphins at Bay of Islands is a joke in comparison to Kiakoura. Here they have Dusty Dolphins, which is an open water species and travels in groups of 75 to 300, not 5 or 6. Also, it sounds like they are always here. In Bay of Islands, they tell you to bring your swimsuits, and "if we find dolphins that we can swim with, we'll hand out masks and snorkels." Here, you arrive at Dolphin Experience and they suit you up with a wet suit etc, before you even head out. There is little question, you will swim with dolphins this day. About a 15-minute boat ride put us in the middle of a huge pod of dozens of dolphins. We all got in the water and for a few brief seconds there were dolphins everywhere. But they are very fast. Before I was at all oriented (and before the shock of the cold water was past), the dolphins had moved away. I had a very hard time getting relaxed in the water. Snorkeling is quite different than scuba diving, and I just couldnít relax. After a while I climbed back on the boat for a couple of minutes, calmed down (and warmed up) and then went back in the water and felt much better. It was a weird experience. A little while later the captain called us back into the boat, and we headed off in search of more dolphins. Back into the cold water, and again surrounded by dozens (hundreds?) of dolphins. Apparently the dolphins find people kind of interesting, but only if you stay interesting. One thing they find interesting is noise, so were all in the water hooting and screaming and humming into our snorkels trying to "be interesting" to a dolphin. The other thing they like is if you swim in circles, and if you swim down under the water. However, wearing a wet suit with no weight belts makes it really hard to dive down. The exertion of trying to dive under the water against the buoyancy of my wet suit, plus trying to swim after these incredibly fast creatures, plus breathing through a snorkel, plus hooting the whole while, on top of the energy drain of the cold water, was exhausting me quickly. We went into the water four separate times, and I managed to get one dolphin to play with me for about a minute, but I just couldnít keep it up. It gave me a good looking over, tried to play the "swim in circles" game with me, then zoomed off. It was pretty cool.
OK, so swimming with dolphins was truly amazing. They are really wonderful, fast, beautiful creatures. And how do I feel at the end of the day? The real truth, and nothing but the truth. Drained and slightly disappointed. Deep down, I think I was expecting some kind of beatitude. I'm not sure how it could really have lived up to my expectations, hopes and dreams. Perhaps if they had greeted me in English, crowned me "King of the Dolphins", and asked me what had taken me so long. I dunno. Ask me again tomorrow. Swimming with dolphins was fantastic, but I didnít see god. I wonder what I would have done if I had?
I was so hungry and exhausted after the trip that I immediately went off in search of some major pasta. Had lunch at (?) café: OK Fettuccini Cabonara and good carrot soup. At the café they also sell Lobster (aka "Crayfish"). I asked about it, and they say that they grill them on the BBQ and serve them hot with garlic butter. Sounds like the Craypot is not the place to get Crayfish, eh?
Went back to the B&B exhausted and took a nap. Eventually I got up, showered and headed into to for a snack at the Craypot: a muffin and coffee. Needed that! Went next door to the Dolphin Experience shop and bought a really nice fleece.
Drove down the road to the only sandy beach local to Kiakoura. Most of the beaches around here are rocks (very beautiful rocks, mind you.) Had a really nice walk on the beach, and collected up bits of Paua shell from the tide pools, including one full shell. Very nice.
Afterwards, I went further south down the road to the seal colony. A fantastically beautiful spot. There were a bunch of kids having a great time finding crabs under the rocks. If you are interested in seal watching, the colony to the north of town is better, because people cant get to the seals, so they hang out much closer to shore and can be easily observed without binoculars. South of the town you can walk out quite a ways, so the seals dutifully arrange themselves way out of reach, which is also mostly out of sight. However, with my binos I was able to watch them exhibiting a range of behaviors. There are also seabirds nesting out on the far rocks. I couldnít figure out if they were a kind of large gull, or if they were albatross. I cant help thinking that there were just too many of them to be albatross. I mean really, you cant just expect to pick up a pair of binoculars, look up, and see bleeding albatross flavored albatross just nesting away without so much as a "by your leave", can you? Anyway, I sat there and watched the idyllic scene: beautiful bay, huge Kiakoura mountains rising up in the background, clouds coming in, waves crashing into the rocks at my feet, birds, seals. After an hour or so my but was as solid as the rock, and my brain couldnít stand the waves of thought any more, so I headed off for dinner.
I donít seem to be able to make decisions any more. Every time I try to make a decision now, I find that I have to leave the place of the decision, go away, and come back. I was looking for a hotel yesterday. I went to the Convent B&B, looked around, left, drove into town, then called them up on the phone and told them I'd take the room. Tonight I went by the Green Dolphin restaurant, looked at the menu, spoke to the waitress, drove into town, drove back to the Green Dolphin, and took a seat. Weird, huh?
Dinner tonight at the Green Dolphin: Nice tomato an bacon soup, and rack of lamb. With Canterbury Draft beer ("CD"). CD is the local beer, and it is basically a dark lager. Very drinkable.
On Kiwi Food Anomalies
I've already commented on the cold Lobster (which I have confirmed on a couple more menus), and the poor service. Here's some more notes. Bread is a separate item on the menu. They won't bring bread unless you order it, and it is extra. Most places offer 2 or 3 different breads. If you order bread, they may or may not bring butter. In Auckland it is usually margarine, not butter. They serve their lamb cooked through. Very un-French of them. Make sure to remember to order your lamb rare. Also, they take their jolly sweet time between courses. They haven't clued into the fact that a person eating alone probably doesnít want to linger over the meal (of course, not all restaurants in the US have figured that out either, but at least US restaurants are generally efficient and want you out of there quickly anyway.) Finer restaurants in New Zealand reserve specific tables. If you show up (with or without a reservation), and the place is empty, they might well seat you at the worst table in the place. If you ask to me moved (I do), they will usually refuse because they have earmarked all the other tables to other diners, who may or may not show up hours later. I donít know what the US table allocation algorithm is, but I like it better. It is super frustrating being seated at a crappy table, and seeing lots of fine tables going fallow all through my meal.
Single Travelers Tip: make your reservation for 2, and ask for a nice romantic table with a view. They'll earmark you into a great table. When you show up, look really dejected and say firmly "my plans seem to have changed."
By the way, the lamb was served rare (as ordered) and was excellent (served on top of a compote of minty apples). It is barbaric to think that they would slaughter those lovely little animals and then overcook them! The side of mashed potato baked with cheese on top was great. Side salad with very nice vinaigrette was wonderful. Definitely recommended.
After dinner went back to the B&B and did some laundry. This B&B is more like a boutique hotel, since it has a couple dozen rooms. Anyway, I noticed that they had a local ice wine on the menu, and went into the kitchen and ordered a bottle (Seifried 1996 Ice Wine: Riesling - Gewürstraminer, from Nelson, NZ). I ended up hanging out in the kitchen with the owners Marc and Wendy, drinking a really nice wine from Nelson and talking for about an hour. It was really pleasant. Marc had made Tarte Tatin for desert and had broken a couple, so he gave them to me. Yum. Marc and Wendy have a beautiful golden retriever, and I spent some time playing with him. Unfortunately, it was raining out, and he was pretty wet. There's nothing quite like the smell of a really big wet dog.
<Whale watching - cancelled due to weather>
Drive to Christchurch
Talk with sheep
Lunch at the Mainline Station Café and Gifts.
Staying tonight at Rockvilla Guest Inn B&B in Sumner, a suburb of Christchurch
Christchurch is Portland, Oregon, with the names and the accents changed. Itís a city of 800,000 people, with the same kind of somewhat-alternative feel that Portland has. Even the weather is the same. It is a cool, overcast, drizzly day. All the people are walking around without umbrellas with that look of grim "its not really raining" on their faces that you see in America's Pacific Northwest.
Sumner is a suburb for rich people who want a beautiful cliffside home overlooking the beach. Reminds me of all kinds of places on the California coast.
Outside my window is a corkscrew willow, exactly like the one outside my house in Seattle. It is gray, cool, overcast. You'd think I never left home.
<drive to Akaroua>
<Wander around lovely Akaroua>
<No penguins today>
<Drive to Mt Cook>
Dinner at the Panorama room at the Hermitage, Mt. Cook.
Appetizer: Salmon mousse parcel. Salmon mousse wrapped in a parcel of smoked salmon surrounded by a nice white wine vinaigrette garnished with flying fish roe and a caper berry. Smells wonderful, taste is a bit overpowering. A nice dill flavor comes through. Goes nicely with a New Zealand Chardonnay. Main course: 1/2 a game hen on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes, surround by a tomato sauce with a side of veggies. Nice. Desert (like I need it), Chocolate mocha mousse.
Got up early, but hung around doing basically nothing till about 11am because it was totally cloudy and overcast. Impossible to see any of the mountains at all. The report was for "fine" weather. After a while I went down to the "Adventure Center" and booked onto a heli-hiking trip: a helicopter ride up to a mountain face, followed by a 2 hour hike. This was pending (1) clearing in the weather and (2) finding 2 more people to go. At this point the clouds were breaking up, and I had 2 hours till my heli-hike so I went for a hike (a walk, really) to Kea Point. This was a very easy walk of 1/2 hour in each direction. At the end is a beautiful view of Mt. Cook and the other surrounding mountains. One of the most amazing things was the overall lack of other people. On one of the most popular walks at one of the most popular parks, I saw only about 8 or 9 other people in almost 2 hours time. On a surprising note, the only two other people at the view-point at the end of the walk were also from Seattle, go figure. By the time I had walked the 1/2 hour out the Kea Point, the sun had really burned off most of the clouds and it was getting truly hot.
After my walk I headed back to the Adventure Center, but no other takers had signed up for the heli-hike, so that was off. I got in the car and headed down the road to a place called Glentanner where they have other tour operations. They had a heli-hike trip going and had one other person signed up, but needed a third. I hung out and waited. The number two person arrived after a while and guess what, they're from Seattle. No kidding. So we hung out for about 1 1/2 more hours while the tour people tried for find some guy named "Bill" who wanted to go but had disappeared. Eventually the tour guy told us that it basically wasnít going to happen. They offered us a discounted helicopter scenic flight, and I went for it. It was an interesting and exciting experience, but I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. I think flying with Owen over the Olympic mountains was 1000 times better. The helicopter did allow us to land on a glacier and go for an 8 minute walk, but I cant say that really did it for me.
After the flight I collected up my bags from the hotel and headed on my way off to Queenstown.
The drive to Queenstown was basically flat and straight, allowing some more over-the-top bomber runs. There were even more Lupins, which were spectacular. There were so many Lupins that I could actually smell them from the car. There were some beautiful mountain passes, cut through some kind of schist slate stone that glowed in the sunlight. Just outside Queenstown I picked up a French couple hitchhiking. They were pretty cool.
I had been thinking of doing a backpackers place in Queenstown, but finally decided to stay at B&B again. The Trelawn Place B&B is about 5 minutes outside of town, and beautifully located at the edge of a gorge with spectacular views. The owner of the place is a nut for Corgi's and has three of them as well as a cat. They gave me a loud but fun hello. The gardens around Trelawn are also stunning and immaculate. I think the folks at the Harmony Gardens could learn a thing or two here. The owner is quite a character (they all seem to be,) and a travel nut as well. There is something oddly disconcerting about this place though. I cant quite put my finger on it. Maybe its too neat and clean. Too picture perfect. Perhaps itís a certain lack of privacy. I donít knowÖ
Went back into town for dinner. Queenstown attracts a large japaneese tourist contingent, and I had a strange hankering for sushi. I went into an opal shop that caters to Japanese and asked the Japanese sales person where the best sushi in town was. She directed me to Minami Jujisei on Beach St. The sushi was excellent, though most of the fish were unfamiliar to me. The Marlin was very good and interesting. I also had several different white fishes as sashimi. Two of the three were good, the third was strongly fishy. All of them were tougher than the Suzuki and Hirame that I am used to in the states. The Maguro was unexceptional.
After dinner I went out looking for the "fun thing to do on a Friday night in Queenstown." There just aren't enough human beings here to make any kind of a scene. Went from bar to pub to night club and back again. It was OK. Saw one really good singer-dude in an Irish pub.
Spent some time this morning changing around my car reservation so that I can drop off in Christchurch instead of driving all the way back to Auckland, and booked a flight from Christchurch to Auckland the morning that I fly off to Thailand. I also made a hotel and whale watching reservation for Kiakoura. I'm keen to try to make that happen again. Afterwards I went into town and booked a bus-boat-plane trip in Milford Sound for tomorrow. I hope it will be OK. It sounds exceedingly touristy. I tried to find some less touristy option that would allow me to see an do everything in my limited time, but it just wasnít working out. Afterwards I spoke to a woman who used to live in Milford Sound. She said I should fly out today and go kayaking tomorrow morning. I considered it for a while, and I suspect it would have been a more satisfying option but, I already have my bookings for the tour and for my B&B, and I couldnít help thinking of the disasterous time I had last time I went river kyaking. Hi ho.
<Wandered around town, shopped, yummy lunch at The WholeFood Cafe>
Went to the Kiwi and Bird Life Park after lunch. It really is nice. I was expecting it to be hokey, but it was well done. Finally got to see the giant New Zealand Pigeon, and a couple of Kea's, amongst other birds. I was attacked at one point by a duck! It came at me, head low and looking menacing. I thought it was kidding. I thought wrong. It was pretty entertaining really. He and I spent a while making a variety of duck-like noises at each other, none of which was "quack".
Went for a walk at Queenstown gardens and found myself an idyllic spot by the lake. In spite of the fact that there is no-one in this country, nonetheless a really noisy family managed to invade my spot after only 10 minutes or so. Went back into town and hung out on the lawn near the pier. Finally had a nice dinner of fish and chips and headed back to the B&B.
It is now 9:15pm, it is still light out, and I am sitting on the back porch of Trelawn place writing this with a Corgi at my feet. Unfortunately, I am also being assailed by bugs, so that is all for tonight.
Got picked up at 6:45am to go to the bus for Milford Sound. This is the first time I can recall being on a true "tour bus" trip. I've been on "backpackers buses" (which are a lot of fun), and I've been on tour buses to go to Whistler and Mt. Bachelor on ski club trips, but this was my first bona fide tour. It was everything I expected it to be. Basically old people on a luxury land cruiser with an entertaining driver and obligatory photo stops where our luxury bus has to wait for the luxury bus ahead of us to clear the space. They do everything short of taking the photo for you.
There are basically three kinds of tours in the world: Japanese tour buses (which I donít have to worry about since I donít speak Japanese), Luxury tours (which are almost the same as the Japanese tours except for the language and a certain cohesiveness of the group), and budget or backpackers tours. The latter are definitely the most fun. Sure, you're in a van without air conditioning, and the seats aren't as comfy, but it feels more real. There's fewer people, they're younger, and they play funky music. And usually, the people on the bus are going to some destination where they're going to do something active; they're not just looking out from the inside of the bus and taking the designated photos at the designated stops.
There was one woman on the bus that was the most sour looking person I've seen in a long time. I tried really hard not to form a prejudicial opinion of her, but she just looked so bitter. (Isn't it interesting how all the adjectives for such a person relate to taste.) Watching her made me very introspective; I found myself wondering (as I so often do) what my appearance says to strangers.
Along the way at one of the stops there was a "Kiwi Experience" bus. The bus looked just as nice as the Fiordland Travel bus, but was full of happy looking young people. This evening I stopped by a backpackers travel place (where I probably should have gone in the first place) and picked up some brochures. For less than I paid, Kiwi Experience offers a Coach-Cruise-Fly tour that includes a boat cruise lasting 3 hours (almost twice as long as the one I did.) I think I would choose them next time (though I donít really know since I haven't used them at all.) I also picked up a leaflet from Adventure Biking. They offer a bitchin' sounding mountain bike tour. Sigh.
So back to the tripÖ the scenery from the bus started out as more farmland, and eventually arrived in the Fiordland national park. The bus drivers commentary was amusing, but not very enlightening. It was nice hearing about some of the flora and fauna, and I was a bit surprised that he would give the detail that he did to this particular audience. Also, it turns out that the driver is a serious fisherman, so we got to hear about which little lake had the best fishing, etc. Colorful. We stopped at a very attractive lake called "Mirror Lake". The day was very calm, so the mirror effect of the lake was dramatic, and I got a lot of good photos. One of the highlights of the trip for me was a stop just before entering the Homer Tunnel. There were three Kea's there by the side of the road. Kea's are the worlds only alpine parrot. They are a goodly sized green parrot, with bright red coloring on the undersides of their wings. They are also fearless, and extremely inquisitive. The roof of the bus is glass, and it seems that the Kea's like to look down into the bus. Very entertaining. It turns out (by the way) that Kea's are also very destructive (there were warning signs about them at Mt. Cook.) They seem to like to tear apart stuff in their inquisitiveness. Shoes, clothing, backpacks are all nice targets for their strong beaks and claws to tear apart. All in all a very endearing creature. There were also wonderful "Mt. Cook Daisies", which aren't actually Daisies, but are actually the worlds largest buttercup (presumably genus Renunculus.) Interestingly, I had been looking for both Kea's and Mt. Cook daisies when I was at Mt. Cook, but found neither, so it was really nice seeing them on this bus ride.
After passing through the Homer Tunnel, the terrain gets much more interesting, and the true nature of the Fiordland starts to show through. Huge jagged peaks rising almost vertically, snow and glaciers. Forests of Beach trees and ferns. After about a 4.5 hour trip (with a mandatory 1/2 hour rest stop at Te Anau for the bus driver) we arrived at Milford Sound and boarded the luxury cruse liner with people from a half dozen other tour buses. The boat holds 300 people, but I suspect there were only about 200 today. Very intimate. Milford Sound was stunning in spite of all the touristy silliness. I was grinning in spite of myself, especially when a pod of dolphins starting jumping along in our bow wave. Clearly one has to see the place from the water. Sheer rock faces rise directly out of the water (and apparently go 1000 feet almost straight down below the water too.) Waterfalls abound, and trees and vegetation cling tenaciously to the mountains. Many of the mountains are so steep that they have "tree avalanches". When one tree lets go due to rain, disease, or earthquake (5000 earthquakes per year in this area), it causes a domino effect that brings down a whole wedge of trees. The evidence of such natural deforestation is plentiful. Alas, the cruise only lasted 1 hour 40 minutes, including time spent eating lunch.
Afterwards I had elected for the plane ride back, which was awesome. I asked the pilot if I could ride in the co-pilot's chair, which he agreed to. Yee ha. Highly recommended. Donít be squeamish, ask! The views were awesome, and even though it was overcast and we hit some rain, it was still a great thing to do. There was an alpine lake with a water fall cascading off of the side of it that was particularly stunning.
After we got back to Queenstown, I had a Yo-Yo (two shortbread cookies stuck together with butter frosting, yum) and a cup of coffee at a café named the Vudu. Funky. Then over to the pub for a beer. Finally, went to a really cool (and well hidden) restaurant named "The Cow". Since I was alone, they sat me down at a table with another guy who was eating alone. I really like this practice of seating solo travellers together. Of course, it turns out he was German. Nice guy. For dinner I had a smashing bowl of broccoli soup (no cream, eh), yummy homemade bread, and a really big bowl of spaghetti bolognese (good, but not great.) Way too much food, and very filling.
<Commentary: introduced plants and animals in NZ>
Drove north to Hokitika, via Fox Glacier and Franz Glacier
Practicing my rally car drivingÖ not ready for Gruppe B yet.
Dinner tonight at Café de Paris with English woman
Staying at Teichelmann's B&B.
Teichelmann's was quite pleasant. One thing they do that is exceptional is that they give you a printout for wherever you are traveling to showing travel times and sights all along the way. Very cool.
Stopped in at the numerous Greenstone (jade) carving merchants in town. Of them, Traditional Jade had the best prices, though none of them had really exceptional work. Nice, but not exceptional. <Write about where to find the best carvings.>
<Drive to Kiakoura>
<Staying at The Old Convent again, this time room 12 (much nicer room)>
<Dinner at the B&B, but Marc was out of town, so I still donít know how his cooking is.>
Whale watching: 4 or 5 sperm whales, Wanderer Albatross, other species of Albatross', dolphins.
Drove to Christchurch. A really interesting city, lots of cafes, antiques stores, record shops, funky clothing shops. I wish I had spent some time here during the day when some of the shops were open.
Hotel: Copthorne Central (formerly the Quality Hotels Central.) <no AC>
Dinner: The Loaded Hog
Today I start the long haul to Thailand. It's funny, when I planned this trip it was originally to go to Thailand, but I'd always wanted to see New Zealand, and I figured, "heck, New Zealand's close to Thailand, I'll go there first." Well, it's not really true. From Auckland it is about 14 hours to Bangkok, including a stopover in Sydney, Australia (I donít think there is a direct flight.) Add to that my trip from Christchurch to Auckland, and it is a very long day.
Fly Christchurch to Auckland
Auckland to Sydney Australia
Sydney to BangkokClick here to go on to the Thailand travelogÖ [Back to travelogs]
© 1998, Andrew Sigal