Sunday, March 20, 2011

New Zealand Wrap-up

Okay, so my plan to post a blog a day on the New Zealand trip didn't pan out. I am prepared to blame Vodafone (in part), but that's a whole other post. Simply put, Internet access sucked.

Instead, I'll wrap it up in a single post. Let's see... when last we left our intrepid adventurers, they were exploring Tongariro...

After Tongariro (the Chateau is retro-awesome, by the way) we went on to Napier. Napier burned the 1930s, in an event that closely paralleled San Francisco in 1906: bad earthquake, followed by fire. When they rebuilt the town, art deco was in vogue so they ended up with a pretty cool art deco time capsule. I won't really add anything to this story, except to say that it was pretty cool. I am not sure what I was expecting -- maybe sort of Rockefeller Center/Empire State Manhattan-style art deco. Napier was much more low key, and a nice little thriving city to boot. We watched a really great sunset at Perfume Point. I was still ventilating work tribulations so it was surprisingly therapeutic to just sit and watch a sunset. That and the Taranaki Falls walk in Tongariro might have been my most relaxing moments.

After Napier it was on to Wellington. Originally I'd intended our 2 days in Wellington to be basically dead days. However Wellington had a couple interesting attractions that I wasn't expecting, and I turned out to not be nearly as tired as I was expecting. We wanted to go to the Botanical Gardens, but to get there you have to go through the Memorial Graveyard. I was surprised by how cool I found the graveyard to be. I've never been one for cemetery sentimentality, but I thought it was neat how dedicated Wellington evidently is to preserve their memorials to their early pioneers. As for the Botanical Gardens, we got a little confused by the layout and ended up not finding the gardens proper at all, although we did find the rose garden and get some great photos.

Then it was on to the South Island! We took the Interislander ferry across, which was quite nice. There were yet more spectacular views. About this time I was honestly starting to feel a little scenery fatigue. So many great views that they all started to blend together in my head. Didn't keep me from taking some more neat photos though. Picton in particular is pretty picturesque.

The next two stops were Nelson and glacier country. We planned 2 nights in glacier country and one in Nelson, and in retrospect I wish we'd reversed that. Nelson is a wonderful little town and we loved the beach there, but we had to move on to the glaciers. We walked up to the base of Franz Josef glacier (and got some awesome photos) and the next day did a heli-hike on Fox Glacier (and got some more awesome photos), but we ended up with like a half-day of dead time in Fox Glacier. I wish we'd spent it in Nelson, but so it goes. Fox Glacier was a lot of fun, even if I did spend a big part of my time afraid of hurting myself by falling on the ice and having to be airlifted out in pain, or something. Trust me, that's not just an idle fear -- I've dislocated my kneecap twice. We'd done a glacier hike on Mendenhall Glacier before, but Mendenhall is way more level and smooth than Fox. In the end I emerged unscathed, and honestly kind of feel like I accomplished something in so doing.

After that, we wrapped in Queenstown. Originally this was supposed to have been Christchurch, but due to the quake there we changed plans to Queenstown. (Our hotel in Christchurch was just a few blocks from the cathedral that fell, and they weren't anywhere near being able to re-open so our reservation was canceled.) We were scheduled to do a flight to and sightseeing cruise on Milford Sound, but weather scotched that. Instead we took a trip on the TNS Earnslaw heritage steamboat, and took the gondola ride up to Bob's Peak to see what we could see from there. Both of those were surprisingly fun. I particularly enjoyed Bob's Peak, and -- surprise! -- got some more awesome photos.

Then it was a hop skip and 13-hour jump back to San Francisco.

Phew.

All told it was the best vacation I've had in a long, long time. We LOVED New Zealand. And that's not just "that was a great vacation I love this place", I'm talking about love as in making plans for our next trip before we even left after the first one. In particular we want to explore the south island a bit better. Our itinerary was actually pretty good and I think we chose well, but there was a lot of dreary driving on the south island (two 4-hour drives and one 6-hour) and next time we'd pick cities better, and could skip the glacier country since we've seen it now.

And, obviously, we need to get back to visit Christchurch.  Don't think you've escaped us that easily, Chch.

So, yeah, pretty excellent trip. One might even go so far as to say it was EPIC.

Also, I had lamb 7 times -- delicious, delicious lamb, prepared a different way each time. So there's that.

Anyway, obligatory photos:
https://picasaweb.google.com/morrildl/NewZealandMarch2011#

...and some YouTube videos that I took to capture things that still camera photos don't really do justice for:
http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=FD49D656F0FE8EA9

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

New Zealand, Day 5 - Interlude

My mom has a Christmas cactus that, for whatever reason, is enormous. It's easily 4 feet across, and blooms with hundreds of blossoms a couple times each winter. It's pretty amazing. I got one myself at the same time she got hers, but mine died miserably. So we have this in-joke where she'll call me up and say "I just don't know what to do with this ostentatious cactus. Can you BELIEVE it's blooming AGAIN? That's the third time this winter. So tacky, it has no shame."

Earlier today I had a moment like that. We walked around a corner of a building into this spectacular view, and I said, "Good lord, New Zealand. Again with the panoramas? Seriously? Every time I turn around, it's a new incredible view. So ostentatious, you have no shame." ;)

New Zealand is sometimes weirdly familiar. Apparently we've now traveled into a region with different local petrol franchises. We rounded a corner in Hawkes Bay wine country and I saw a Mobil on the left and a BP on the right, with the road lined by vines and rolling hills off ahead. I had a moment of cognitive dissonance where I thought I was in Sonoma -- but the cars were driving on the wrong side of the road! The other day in Taupo, we saw a Subway, a McDonald's, and a Pizza Hut lined up next to each other.

Then we went into a Countdown grocery store, which was amusing. It was a sort of three-way hybrid of a Safeway, a grocery in London, and the Asian market near our apartment. You see a lot of European brands (they have Kinder eggs here! but no Cadbury Snack sadly), sitting next to straight-up American brands (Coca-Cola, I'm looking at you), and over there are names I recognized from the US but for strange products (yes Schweppes Rasbury... stuff... I'm talking about you.)

Other times New Zealand is totally different. We have been in two different Dick Smith electronics stores now (once on a lark, once looking for a cable to plug our phones into the car stereo), and the larger one felt like an alien Best Buy while the other an alternate universe Radio Shack. (Reading their entries on Wikipedia, that's more or less exactly what they are.) And then of course there's the "flat white" which I've quite come to like. And I love the roundabouts here, beats the pants of the stupid 4-way stop intersections the US uses. Right now we are in Napier. The bay here is awesome, it's unlike anything I've ever seen except in the Bahamas. Very unlike any coast in the US, and I've seen most of them.

So yeah, 50% same, 50% similar, 50% different, 150% awesome. :)

New Zealand, Day 4 - Tongariro

Tongariro is simply amazing. The reason it's a World Heritage area is pretty obvious. I'm not going to say a lot about it because frankly it needs photos. I'll upload a few when we get to Wellington, hopefully.

We went on a ~6km walk to Taranaki Falls. It took a bit longer than we expected, but the falls were very much worth it. I suspect that spending a morning outdoors in Tongariro will be one of my favorite memories of this trip.

For lunch we took the chair lifts up to Mt. Ruapehu, where they have a cafe at 2,000 meters. It was a little surreal eating a ham and cheese croissant while idly looking down on Tongariro spread out below, a few kilometers away. Surreal, and chilly.

Monday, March 7, 2011

New Zealand, Day 3 - On to Tongariro

Today we relocated to Tongariro. I can't really do any kind of justice to this place other than these two observations:

1. Holy f*cking mountains.
2. The Chateau itself is more or less exactly what I imagine the Overlook Hotel (from The Shining) to look like. One hopes it's less possessed.

The scenery here is gorgeous! There were a couple scenic overlooks on the way over the range into Tongariro, but thanks to Vodafone I'll have to upload them later. As for Mount Ruapehu: Dramatic Volcano is Dramatic.

On the way here, we stopped at the Waimangu hot springs area, got a lot of awesome photos, and put our hands into some bubbling spring water straight from a little... uh... geyser hole? I don't know what you call them. Anyway it was like a hot bath, and left a slightly sticky residue on my fingers for a while after it dried. The hardest of hard water. But still very cool, and now I can say I stuck my fingers in geothermal hot water straight from the source.

We also stopped by Taupo to check out the lake there. I could easily see myself spending some lazy days by the lakeside, there.

New Zealand, Day 2 - Rotorua

Day two was Rotorua.

Let me get this out of the way at the start. My family's from Maine, and Lincoln, ME is known for its pungency, accountable to the mill there. So I thought of myself as reasonably well-acquainted with sulfery odors. Rotorua demonstrated that I was mistaken -- the hot springs funk there is mighty indeed. We were out by the lake checking out the hot springs and my eyes were watering like I was cutting onions. Yow!

Aside from that Rotorua was great! We were there only one night and so had less than a full day there (due to travel time from Auckland), but when I saw the gardens there I wished we'd allocated more time. Beautiful place.

We walked along the lakeside for a kilometer or two, which was quite nice, and we got some neat photos (and videos) of the hot springs. We even sat in a hot spring mineral bath spa that the hotel had. I smelled like sulfur until this morning though, so I am not sure I see what the old Europeans saw in it.

By the way, no uploads for now because Vodafone only allows 10MB per day. Which is excellent since you can buy 500MB that expires after a month; I wonder how you're supposed to use the other 190MB you allegedly paid for. Even allowing for NZ being an island and thus having expensive connectivity, I am still trying to think of a reason why that isn't a scam. Maybe I'll find decent WiFi somewhere.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

New Zealand - Day 1, Auckland (more)

We did a surprising amount today, considering we landed this morning. After the Skytower, we wandered around the city center and went into a few stores. After we checked in we had an early dinner, and then went to Muriwai Beach. The wind was absolutely insane, and the views were awesome. I got a few good photos (which I'll upload later -- it turns out uploading YT videos is a great way to burn through a prepaid data plan. ;)

This is going to sound weird, but so far the thing I like most about New Zealand is that it smells nice. That's not to say that San Francisco reeks, but New Zealand just smells.... uh, neat I guess. On the way back from Muriwai Beach, I kept picking up various scents of spices and flowers and similar aromatics; hard to do that in the general vicinity of the 101. At one point I got a really powerful draft of cut clover, and was instantly transported back to being a kid, lazing around in the long summer days and playing outside after my dad had just mowed the lawn. At first I couldn't place the scent but then we drove by a honey farm(!) and I made the clover connection.

So yeah, there are far worse ways to wrap up your first day on holiday trip than a happy flashback to being a kid.

New Zealand - Day 1, Auckland

The flight was less painful than I had been dreading, and we got a surprisingly decent amount of sleep. That was good since we landed very early and had about 5 hours to kill before checking in. So, obviously, we went to the Sky Tower. Pretty excellent place for coffee, and the lounge sells liquor! I love New Zealand already. ;-)

We just checked in and got to our room. I hope I do not look as disheveled as I feel.