North Island, NZ - Kiwi fun

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February 13th 2013
Published: February 14th 2013EDIT THIS ENTRY

Sailing in Auckland harborSailing in Auckland harborSailing in Auckland harbor

Not quite America's Cup style but fun nonetheless.
After one of those long, useless travel days - night at an airport hotel in Hobart to catch an early flight from Hobart to Melbourne, arrive at the domestic concourse and stumble our way to the international concourse, goodbye Australia, on our way to New Zealand, Melbourne to Auckland, and then...another shout out for our Global Entry card, which works here also...nice to have allies who figure that if we're not a threat in the USA we're not a threat here too.

We've been treating ourselves to airport pickups when we first arrive in new cities/countries and so we are met by a jolly, white-haired older woman from the Langham, where we are staying, and whisked away to Auckland, accompanied by her funny running commentary on the lack of highways into downtown, politics, sports, etc. - if Kiwis are all like her we'll love it here.

The Langham is a grand CBD hotel, and we are met out front by Stephanie, our own personal greeter, clad in her faux-Chanel pink tweed suit, and she cannot do enough for us, including a welcome bottle of champagne in our room. Tired after our day of aero-treking, we decide to have dinner at the pub in the hotel and it's surprisingly good, complete with a nice long, cold local lager. After tumbling into bed we're awakened by a phone call from the front desk around 11 p.m. asking if I would like my purse delivered to our room. WHAT???? Apparently, after that mind-numbing local lager, we had causally walked out of the pub, leaving my purse behind. A very nice young man knocks on our door, apologizes for the lateness of the call and hands me over my purse with everything intact. Now that's what I call excellent customer service...when you do something incredibly stupid and they save you from said stupidity. It also gives us a very nice feeling about Kiwis - think we're going to like this country.

The next morning we set out on a nice walk down Queen Street to the wharf area to catch our typical hop on hop off bus around town, since we have only one day here. Auckland is a cheery town, gathered around a waterfront that was redeveloped for the Kiwi defense of the America's Cup in 2003. Waitemata Harbor stretches around a busy port, with
Hang glider off Mt. MaunganuiHang glider off Mt. MaunganuiHang glider off Mt. Maunganui

Life is dangerous - you might as well enjoy it.
a bridge crossing over to the suburban communities, and the brisk waters are flooded with sail boats setting out for a regatta. It's a hilly city, much like San Francisco, and so we get our exercise hoofing it up and down. We enjoy a brief time at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, with an excellent collection of Maori artifacts and a well done Maori cultural performance. As in Australia, New Zealanders who have fought for Queen and country are honored greatly, and the museum has a wonderful exhibit, Scars on the Heart, about the war experiences of New Zealanders, starting with the Maori wars in the 19th century. "Lest we forget" is a phrase we see frequently and both Aussies and Kiwis take their debts to those who gave their lives in conflicts seriously. One sad note is to see the number of New Zealanders who lost their lives in the Great War, far higher in proportion to their population than many other countries. Continuing our jaunt around town, we pass the home stadium of the New Zealand All Blacks, the legendary rugby team, and our bus driver makes sure we pay our obeisance to the team. They're playing at
Fun walk with GrahamFun walk with GrahamFun walk with Graham

Lots of "Falcon breaks"
home tonight against England and we hear it'll be quite a night at the stadium.

It's such a gorgeous day - sunny, light breeze, mid-70's - that we decide that in sailing country we should sail. I had hoped that we could spend the afternoon on one of the America's Cup 12 meter yachts now pleasuring tourists but they're doing a mock race this afternoon which is a bit more than we want, so we settle for a comfortable couple of hours on a harbor sail. Our sailboat holds about a dozen people, and is skippered by Angus, who has a wicked sense of humor, something we're seeing in a lot of Kiwis. We head out past some significant sailboats, hoist our sails, and sit back to enjoy sunshine and the breeze whipping past. Angus invites anyone who wants to take a turn at the wheel to do so, and an older, handsome, white haired man carefully limps his way forward, his face alight with anticipation. You can tell he has a background at sea but perhaps it has been some time since he captained a boat. Angus generously helps him to the wheel, comfortably settles his
Crater LakeCrater LakeCrater Lake

Almost boiling and brilliant color
left foot on a stool to steady him and we fly in the harbor - I can only imagine the pleasure this is giving the old man and smile. We pass under the Auckland bridge and hear the shrieks of the bungee jumpers throwing themselves off the bridge - this is Auckland's version of the Sydney Bridge Climb - glad we did that one instead. It ends all too soon but what a perfect way to spend the afternoon. The redeveloped wharf area is lined with excellent restaurants and we enjoy dinner at Euro, with the setting sun blazing in our faces at our waterfront table.

Sunday morning we're up early to pick up another rental car and off for an adventure day. Steve is getting almost blasé about driving but then Auckland is a smaller, easier city. The highway out of town quickly peters off to two lanes and we're back in the countryside with lots of cows and sheep. One of the most interesting features are the 15 to 20 foot topiary fences that divide fields and properties, made from carefully pruned trees and plants.

We are driving to Tauranga to visit
Geyser off the lake Geyser off the lake Geyser off the lake

Geysers and fumaroles still forming
a friend, Graham MacGregor, a counselor at Camp Winnebago near our home in Maine. Graham is about our age, a fit and feisty Kiwi, who has traveled from NZ every summer for the last 5 years to work as a trip counselor - pretty nice to get paid to climb Mt. Katahdin and raft the Allagash. Tauranga is a pleasant oceanfront town, and after a quick lunch, we set out to climb Mt. Maunganui, a volcanic cone on a spit of land jutting out into the ocean. Graham assures me it's an easy walk, the Mount is only 750 feet high, the proverbial No Worries. What he neglected to mention was that it is nearly straight up. Graham strides up barefoot and, as usual, I bring up the rear, with many "Falcon breaks" required (Winnebagans will understand the reference). But it's definitely worth the climb with breathtaking views of the ocean and mainland at the top. It's a favorite spot for hang gliders, with huge up drafts, and there's a very expert fellow doing barrel rolls off the top and then causally coming back in for a landing, by carefully putting himself down onto a bench. As he comments in
Val in her domainVal in her domainVal in her domain

We waddled away!
true Kiwi adventure spirit "There's lots of dangerous things in life so you might as well have fun doing them!" We bounce back down the mountain, with me trying to remember Lou Metzger's lessons about dynamic balance, and say a fond farewell to Graham - what a fun afternoon. And on to Rotorua.

Rotorua is at the center of the North Island's geothermal zone and is an active volcanic area. As we learn, the North Island is volcanoes and the South Island is earthquakes. At the center is Lake Rotorua, renown for its trout fishing. We arrive at our lovely B&B, Waiteti Lakeside Lodge, and are welcomed with an icy cold beer by Val and Brian Blewitt, our hosts, and sit to relax on their lakefront porch. They're jolly - seems to be a pleasant Kiwi trait - and joshingly tell us they've put us in the honeymoon suite and we tell them it's about 39 years too late. Brian is a barrel-chested man, skier, fisherman, diver, who has spent his life pursuing athletic entertainments, and Val and he built the lodge from scratch and happily enjoy their guests. The lodge is perched on a small spit

A town with a very wonderfully ironic sense of humor about itself
of land reaching out into the lake, burdened with Val's glorious gardens, and the local fly fisherman can be seen casting night and day. Brian runs a local guiding service and when Steve asks him how the fishing is, he laughingly retorts "The fish just commit suicide and jump on your hook." As with all accommodating B&B owners, they are a fount of information about the area and help us plan the next day. We're so tired from our excursion today we do take away from the local fish and chips shop - crispy and fresh, wrapped in newspaper.

Monday morning Val is anxiously awaiting us for breakfast - the kitchen is where she shines. Fresh cut fruit, home made blueberry-orange muffins, Val's own muesli mix, and warm smoked trout, fresh caught yesterday from the lake...and that's before the bacon and eggs if you choose. This is one of the times that Steve says he wishes he had two stomachs like a cow.

We're heading out for Waimangu, a volcanic valley created by a massive eruption in 1886 by the Tarawera Volcano, with devastating effects. You can hike down into the volcanic valley, now
Wellington schoolgirlWellington schoolgirlWellington schoolgirl

What nightmares of school uniforms....
filled by Lake Rotomahana, and take a boat ride on the lake and see the effects of the eruption. There are steam vents poking up along the lake edge, and miniature geysers spouting, the most recent of which started only a couple of years ago. The surface is dangerously hot, glowing with shrieking colors and bubbling mud pots. We hike down into the valley, along a nicely maintained hiking trail, starting at Frying Pan Lake, with its 130 degree water, and are amazed at Crater Lake, with its cerulean blue jewel like 175 degree waters. The world's largest known geyser, the Waimangu Geyser, 1,300 feet high, suddenly became active here in 1900 and just as mysteriously stopped in 1904. The mineral laden steaming streams continue their way down the slope, with steam vents around every turn, and small geysers spewing forth. It's an unholy landscape, only now beginning to regenerate plant and animal life.

After our workouts of the past couple of days we decide we need a lazy afternoon and so retreat to Waikite Valley Thermal Pools and skinny dip in a sybaritic private hot mineral pool for the afternoon. Rotorua is a major tourism center so we figure we better explore the town for dinner and are we glad we stayed at our B&B - it's almost reminiscent of a sadder NJ shore town, fallen on hard times and getting by on former dreams. But Steve's happy - there's a mediocre Italian restaurant in town so he gets his red sauce fix for the week. Rotorua is known as the zorbing capital of New Zealand but we decide to take a pass since zorbing involves crawling into a large transparent plastic ball and rolling down a slope - not for the faint of heart! Val gets one more chance to surprise and delight at breakfast the next morning - silver dollar pancakes with homemade stewed plum sauce - and we waddle out to our car, sad to leave this lovely place.

It's a long drive to Wellington, down the spine of the North Island. On the way out of town we're delayed by herd of cows meandering across the road - they clearly have the right of way. Lake Taupo is a huge, deep blue lake in the center of the island, renown for its fishing, and we inch our way around its curves and rock walls, frequently at a speed as slow as 25 km per hour. Huge volcanic cones rise out of a high desert landscape, and there is a snow capped one in the distance. I can tell that Steve is relaxing into driving, since as he passes a slow moving car he casually remarks "Must be an American who's only been driving a couple of days." We stop at the National Army Museum for lunch in a godforsaken, windy town at the top of a pass and get a chuckle out of a display of a tank, the sign for which states that after the army bought it they realized it was not rugged enough for their America the Pentagon would hide a similar mistake. Mid afternoon we stop for a stretch break in a town called Bulls and the Kiwi sense of humor comes through loud and clear on the sign post - the one pointing to the public restrooms says "Relieve-a-bull." There is a small local historical society on the Main Street and we meet a wonderful woman, who is clearly the heart and soul behind the operation - she points out the picture of her brother-in-law driving a 1950's truck loaded with bags of wool, and happily tells us the story of how she married the boss, as she notes "That's what comes of sitting on his lap" and that he taught her to drive when she was 49, and that she frequently walked home during the lessons - what a great fount of local lore to meet and gab with. The Kiwi sense of humor is evident on our drive with lots of signs and store names, my favorites being the sign "Need a bull? Call 0800 HEIFER", and the advertisement for a community musical called "Licensed to Kilt".

Finally into Wellington, New Zealand's capital, and our hotel, The Museum Art Hotel. We clearly are not cool enough to stay at this boutique hotel, and the lobby art is fascinating - lots of motorcycles as art - but our room has to be one of the trendiest but most thoughtlessly designed rooms we've ever seen - double headed shower but no room for a bar of soap, square toilet seats...I could go on and on. The saving grace of the hotel is that the restaurant in it is called The Hippopotamus. On the recommendation of a friend we go to the Green Parrot Cafe for dinner, a Wellington legend with Formica tables and delicious lamb - Peter Jackson's wrap parties are held here. Our waitress is studying at Victoria University here...but she hails from El Dorado Hills near us at home.

We only have the morning in Wellington, and on the recommendation of the same friend, Richard Raisler, we spend it at the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum, the national museum of New Zealand, which is truly marvelous... and free. Very interactive, with exhibits ranging from a brilliant glass floor back lit map of NZ, giant squid, to Maori artifacts, to the flightless Kiwi birds (we finally get straightened out as to the derivation of the term Kiwi for New Zealanders - it's from the bird, not the fruit), to a wonderful multi-media piece highlighting the story of modern New Zealand - our tour guide is gracious and knowledgable and we have a wonderful morning with her. Good news - the Starbucks app works in Wellington! Steve gets to enjoy his extra hot soy latte and I am fascinated with the gaggle of high school girls, queued up for their morning caffeine fix - they giggle, they gossip, they primp - and then, startled like little birds, hurry away to their lessons for the day. School is back in session now, so every day we are greeted with the sights of girls and boys wearing their school uniforms - usually bad fitting jackets and jumpers, in school colors, even the little ones struggling to tie the old school tie.

Now off to the other half of New Zealand - the South Island - wine tasting, heli-hiking, sailing, fishing - the adventure continues.


15th February 2013

thank god
I hope you're saga will continue for some time longer-- finished Netflix's House of Cards this a.m. (just wait, if you don't know what I'm talking about -- it just came out), Downton Abbey's heading for the finish line, so must rely on you to keep my adventure fantasy alive...winter in chicago just s u c k s!!

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