Day 197 – The Grand Canyon

This morning began with a 6am wake up call, bags out at 7am, wheels rolling at 8am.

On our drive out of Phoenix our guide, Julie, talked about a variety of things including: Arizona sports teams, Saguaro cacti, local flora, history, and geography.

We made a quick stop at Montezuma’s Castle, misnamed by previous explorers (Montezuma never built anything in this part of Arizona). There was a walking path that made a circle around the cliff wall so you could see the impressive (somewhat impractical) structure. Julie gave everyone on the bus a “Passport to the National Parks” with blank pages for stamping each time you visit a national park or monument. We got four stamps at Montezuma’s Castle alone! One with the date, one for the park, one to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the visitor center’s “new” building, and one with Teddy Roosevelt’s face on it.

Dad in front of ancient cliff dwelling

Squirrel

After that we headed into Sedona for lunch. We were dropped off on a touristy yet charming main street area. I actually suggested a Mexican restaurant for lunch, Taos, which turned out to be quite tasty. I had fish tacos with mango salsa that were really delicious! I didn’t touch my refried black beans though…

The weather has been quite changeable on our trip so far but I don’t mind at all. The intermittent rain is keeping the temperature down and my Chicago skin from instantly crisping in the sun. It rained heavily for about three minutes during the first part of our lunch but by the time we had paid the sky was completely clear again. I bought a couple of postcards and we admired the red rock formations while waiting for the bus to pick us up.

After lunch we continued the drive toward the Grand Canyon. The scenery changes quite rapidly with the changing altitude. It is amazing how there seems to be an invisible line above or below which certain plants simply do not grow.

We stopped at a National Geographic center to watch an Imax presentation about the Grand Canyon. They had popcorn that smelled sooo good, but I managed to refrain. Their popcorn condiments included a lot more flavors than I have ever seen on display before. In addition to salt, butter, and day-glow cheese they also had chocolate marshmallow as a flavor spread. The Imax movie was quite well done, although I would not have wanted to be one of the stunt men in that teeny boat going through those rapids…

We arrived at the Grand Canyon at about 4:40. Dad and I planned to hike along the eastern trail before dinner and take photographs with my shnazy SLR. We threw our stuff down, rushed outside in time for 10 minutes of beautiful weather, and then the sky opened up, soaking us (though thankfully not my camera) with cold rain that felt like it had recently been hail. We took refuge in the Hopi House and did a little shopping. Having only made if about 50 yards we returned to the room and exchanged our wet clothing for dryer stuff and started our hike again.

Grand Canyon Sunset


It was very pleasant. The sun was going down, turning all the rocks and formations bright interesting colors with lots of contrast. The rain cooled things down a bit so it wasn’t too much of a strain to hike in the thin atmosphere. We went about two miles and then caught the shuttle back, just in time for dinner at the El Tovar.

We had a lovely table next to a widow. Through it I could see the forecast thunderstorm approaching. We shared salmon and trout croscanti that were really excellent. I felt like our roles were reversed however when I had salmon and Dad had a Filet Mignon. Our waiter was an interesting fellow. He was an excellent and professional waiter but he had studied Physics in college and knew all about Niels Bohr and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and had even visited Copenhagen to see Bohr’s Institute. We exchanged reading recommendations. I recommended the play “Copenhagen” to him and he recommended “Copenhagen and Faust” to me. I will have to check it out when we get home!

When we left the El Tovar to go back to our room we discovered a large herd of Elk grazing on the El Tovar’s nice irrigated lawn. They seemed incredibly unconcerned by the tourists and the flashbulbs going off…

El Tovar Elk

Day 195 – Phoenix, Arizona

Today Dad and I jetted off for the beginning of our out west adventure. We had an uneventful flight from Chicago to Phoenix and I can guarantee no one on the plane was superstitious (today is Friday the 13th) and the flight was, surprisingly, full.

We landed twenty minutes early only. Oddly, it had rained just before our arrival, unusual for this time of year, and the rain cooled things off significantly. Today it was actually cooler and wetter in Phoenix than it was back in Evanston!

We’re staying at the Four Seasons hotel in Scottsdale. Our room is on the ground floor and has a nice patio. I’m not sure if it was the rain that brought all the critters out or if there is just lots of wildlife here but in a few minutes outside I saw a multitude of birds, four horny toad lizards, and two jack rabbits. I dusted off my camera and took some shots of the desert plants. The picture of the day is of some prickly pear blooming outside.

We had a quiet afternoon and then had dinner at the hotel restaurant, Talavera, which is quite fond of using ‘quotation marks’ around their ‘menu’ items. Dinner was tasty. Dad had a vegetarian ‘wellington’ and I had sea bass (probably not locally caught – excuse the desert humor). Tomorrow we meet up with our tour and begin the trip in earnest!

Day 83

The air-conditioning guy came this morning and fixed the AC unit in the beach house! Yay! Although I have to say, that at 79 degrees with a cool sea breeze through the house, we weren’t suffering too badly. I believe in my head it feels like summer, and I suppose that if all summer felt like this it would be wonderful in Florida, but I keep having to remind myself it’s only March!

We lazed around while the AC guy worked. I figured out how to make tea. After the AC was cooling again we slathered on the spf 100+ and headed out to the beach. We played Frisbee, I though I would be horrible, but my aim was actually quite passable after a few practice throws. We also collected some shells. Apparently I have a thing for yellow ones, as every shell I picked up turned out to be yellow or orange.

We played by the tide-pool rocks for a while and then sat in the shade underneath someone’s boardwalk and played in the sand. Sam is quite artistic and crafted quite a monster.

Needless to say I spent the whole time taking photos. The grand total was 675 photos. I expected there to be only about 7 truly remarkable photos but was pleasantly surprised to find there were a lot more. I’m not sure if it’s a testament to my photography skills or just that I had highly photogenic subjects who were willing to pose for me (I’m looking at you, Sam!).

After a couple of hours we headed back to the beach house to hose off and get ready to depart. We grabbed lunch at a beach bar dive, threw our sheets and towels in the dryer, and headed for home.

The drive back to Orlando was as painless as the drive out. Sam kept us entertained with her music selections. I dropped everyone off at Daniel’s house but had to dash out because my parents (who I think are enjoying the fact that I’m 21 far more than I am) were taking me to a wine dinner that night at the Everglades Restaurant.

The evening was quite fun (especially since I wasn’t sunburned, thank you spf 100+). The guest of honor was a master sommelier in training, DLynn Proctor. He was of course knowledgeable and quite affable. He gave excellent notes about the wines we were drinking and communicated his passion for the subject with great enthusiasm.

Dessert was a wonderful duo of cheese (Reypenaer 1 year aged Gouda and Petit Basque) as well as an Engadiner Nut Torte, which I definitely plan on attempting to duplicate.

After dinner there is always a raffle, which my parents never win. Tonight, with beginner’s luck, I won a bottle of 2009 Beringer Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, which should be excellent to drink… in fifteen years or so.

Official Photo of the Day

Sam modeling for me

Runaway Frisbee

Daniel Contemplating the Ocean

No trip to the beach is complete without a piggy back ride

I call this Sam's "Movie Star Look"

Daniel demonstrating his marshal arts moves

Sam uses her District 9 inspired hand to grab Daniel

Daniel works on the sand sculpture

Self-portrait of Daniel in Dani's sunglasses

Day 82

Today Daniel, Sam, and I drove up to Crescent Beach near St Augustine to spend the night at the beach. Daniel’s family has a beach house up there that is literally 30 feet from the ocean at high tide. We ended up taking my car because it had an iPhone/iPod connector hooked up to the sound system. I always think the drive is going to be longer than it is but most of it is in a straight line so it’s a very easy drive.

We left Daniel’s around 3pm and were installed in the beach house by about 5pm. We went for a very nice walk on the beach (after applying spf 100+ sunscreen, at least for us northerners).

Dinner was a the Oasis, a sports bar/seafood shack farther up A1a. Daniel single-handedly polished off a pound of snow crab, although Sam and I got a head start on our sandwiches because apparently the Oasis only has three pairs of crab claw crackers! How can a seafood restaurant only own three pairs of claw crackers?

It was dark by the time we returned to the beach house and the stars were coming out. We decided to wait to go stargazing until later, when they’d really be bright. In the meantime we watched District 9, which I’d never seen before. It was directed by Peter Jackson but didn’t have very much in common with Lord of the Rings or, as the back of the box seemed to suggest, Bladerunner. Definitely not sure where they got a Bladerunner comparison from. Still, it was an interesting movie and we enjoyed it. We also ate s’mores during it, although they were raw due to a lack of cooking appliances.

After the movie we went outside and stargazed, discovering that we all had a deep love of space as children. Sam had an app on her phone that you could point at the sky and it would show you what constellations you were looking at. We found Orion, the Big Dipper, and Cancer, as well as Mars and Saturn.

Around midnight we took towels out to the beach and lay on our backs. Daniel told ghost stories. He’s really good at it!

After about an hour we were getting cold and a little sleepy so we went back inside and called it a night. There’s nothing like ocean air for a good night’s sleep!

Official Photo of the Day

Sam!

Daniel!

Australia 2011: Day 23 (and a half)

This morning began the long process of returning home. I got up, finished packing, and showered at the last possible moment so I would clean as long as possible. Dad and I managed to repack our suitcases underweight. Our only crutch was one small duffel bag stuffed with some dirty laundry and leftover toiletries.

Delta said we needed to get to the airport three hours in advance of our international flight. Murphey’s law dictated that we made it through check-in and security in record time (maybe 15 minutes).

But, the good news is that Australians apparently like to shop while they wait for their planes (or maybe when they get off the plane and buy stuff duty free…). I had $25 Australian dollars to spend and I managed to use it all up on a couple of stylish coffee mugs for Evanston.

We got to chill in the Air New Zealand crown room after that. It was so nice! They had a hot breakfast buffet set up AND (more importantly) free wifi that was faster than anything we’d paid for on the trip.

I was feeling a bit peckish so even though we’re probably going to be fed at least 6 times in the next 24 hours I had some toast and a piece of kiwi-fruit (because it just doesn’t taste the same in the states).

We were on exactly the same kind of plane going out of Australia that we were coming in, so the seats were definitely fantastic. And because we were flying through what I considered day-time I was awake to use more of the media features.

In fact, I used most of the trip catching up on all the media events I’d missed out on in the last couple of years. I watched a couple of movies, LOTS of movie trailers, some music videos, and listened to several Delta radio stations, learning that Kristin Chenoweth has a new album called Some Lessons Learned that is fantastic!

The selection of movies on the flight was huge! There must have been more than 100 to choose from. They had a little bit of everything too… Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, Ice Age (1, 2, and 3), Tangled, Inception, Citizen Kane, Harry Potter 1-7a, the LOTR trilogy, Sideways, (500) Days of Summer…

I watched two full length movies, Ice Age and an old classic I’d missed out on, Tootsie. Both were hilarious. Of the movie trailers I watched the list of movies I thought looked interesting and I’d like to see included Never Let Me Go, Just Go With It, Black Swan, and Barney’s Version (note to the reader: I have not checked these out on Rotten Tomatoes yet, so if there are any duds in there I’m not responsible).

Unfortunately, because the flight was mostly during my daytime I wasn’t able to sleep much. On the way over I got almost 8 hours. This time I might have dozed through two play-throughs of a Pink! best of album. I love the noise-canceling headphones they give you though… man, do they make the flight quiet.

Also, the oddity flying this direction is that you get two Wednesdays. We left Sydney at 10:30am Wednesday morning and arrived in Los Angeles seemingly before we left at 7:00am Wednesday morning. This is a fun peculiarity, but doesn’t weird me out nearly as much as not existing for a day going the other direction.

At any rate, we arrived in LA and got our bags/cleared customs really fast. We recheck the bags with a sigh of relief and headed to the Delta Crown Room to wait for our next and final flight to Orlando. I think Dad would have gone to the El Cholo’s in the airport (even at 8am) for nachos but he decided that they probably wouldn’t be as good as the real thing, and he’ll just have to look forward to them in November. (Nachos are traditional Thanksgiving food, right?)

This crown room was not as nice, but they did have some breakfast foods out. Also, I know this is a really random thing to notice (and definitely to photograph) but they had a really nicely decorated bathroom… (jet-lag is my only defense here).

Finally, we got on our domestic flight. The seats were definitely a step down. They fed us a burger and I managed to snooze for another hour and a half or so. Oh, I should also mention that even with all the movies/music/etc I read an entire Kindle book on these flights as well. It was Forever Neverland, an interesting twist on grown-up (gasp!) Peter Pan.

Mom met us outside security at the airport and it was sure nice to see her! We got our bags in about 25 minutes (lightning speed for MCO). Mom drove home, since Dad was jet-lagged and I couldn’t remember what side of the road you were supposed to be on (seriously, I kept walking down the wrong-side of the hallway and going to the wrong side of the escalators).

By the time we got home at 7pm I was kind of on a second wind and managed to unpack, chat with mom, and putter until about 9:15. Then I went upstair, took the best shower of my life, and went to bed.

I’m writing this now at 6:45am the next morning. Jet-lag being the bitch it is, I woke up at 5:00am, managed to doze until 6:00, then finally gave up.

All in all, this has been a really great trip. I feel rested, relaxed, rejuvenated, and enlightened. What more could you ask for?

Australia 2011: Day 22

 This morning’s wake up was profoundly unpleasant. As Murphey’s Law seems to dictate whenever you have to get up early, you have trouble falling asleep…

But we managed to get ourselves and our bags downstairs by 6:00am. I was shocked to see that our ride to the airport was a personal tour bus. We had the whole thing to ourselves! It was… spacious.

It was also raining and cold in Auckland this morning. It seemed like we were getting out just in time, since the rain was supposed to settle in for the next few days.

Once we got to the airport it was indeed a blow to have to deal with all the hassles of flying commercially. As always my bag was 1kg overweight, but the person checking it in was nice and turned a blind eye. Our flight didn’t have a gate posted until about 20 minutes before it started boarding so we camped out on some chairs next to an incredibly over-priced bookstore.

The flight was uneventful. We had purchased tickets that were “The Works” so we got breakfast. Dad tried their hot breakfast of scrambled eggs, a rasher of bacon, and potatoes. I decided to play it safe and stuck with museli and a muffin. I discovered I actually like museli. It was like granola in really really light yogurt with raisins, fresh peach and maybe orange bits in it. It was actually pretty tasty.

I watched Super 8 after we took off. Dad and I had contemplated going to see this film earlier this summer, but we never ended up going. We should have! It was directed by J.J. Abrahms and I should have had more faith in him, given that I love his previous work. I would really like to see Super 8 again someplace where I can actually understand all the dialogue. The kids in the movie all gave great performances. Especially Elle Fanning!

I dozed for the last hour of the flight. It was weird how empty immigrations and customs were… there were no lines anywhere and I think once we’d gotten our bags we were out of there in a minute and a half.

We took a cab to our hotel in Coogee, which is where Pamela grew up! She’s already departed on her grand tour of Australia cruise so she can’t be here to show us around, but after Dad and I checked in to the hotel, we slathered on the sunscreen and went to take a walk along the beach.

It turned out to be a really scenic walk. There were huge waves coming in at the beach, and we climbed up to one of the coastal cliffs and clambered over rock formations. We returned to the waterfront for lunch. After a bit of wandering we ended up the Coogee Hotel’s brasserie/beer garden. Dad and I shared a Caesar salad and a cheese burger. One of the normal ingredients on burgers here is tomato relish. It was okay, but not as good as Fergburger!

After lunch we got brave and went over to the beach, despite all the things that can kill you. We took our socks and shoes off and (avoiding anything that looked remotely like a shell – stinging shells, look it up) went and stuck our toes in the water, or in my case since a wave twice as strong as all the others snuck up on me, up to my calves, splashing all over. It was cold (Dad hammed for the camera)!

We stayed for a little while, watching some boys trying to body surf on the large waves. Dad saw one really stupid person narrowly avoid getting smashed on the rocks, but since we saw his head bobbing after a few minutes, we figured he hadn’t actually managed to drown himself.

After about twenty minutes we decided to quit while we were ahead and nothing had bitten/stung/or poisoned us. We went back to the hotel for the afternoon and chilled.

For dinner we went to a restaurant called Ceviche that was diagonally across the intersection from the hotel. There was a private function going on inside the restaurant but they sat us on the balcony. The evening was quite mild and with the heater taking off the chill it was lovely.

I had gnocchi that was edible, tasty even! It was unusual, it was very large, about as long as my hand and had been stuffed with ricotta, spinach, and walnuts, and was served with a pesto sauce. Dad had tuna tartar. For our mains we both had fish, his was barimundi and mine was ocean trout served with wasabi mashed potatoes. It was a lovely evening and a great way to end the trip.

New Zealand 2011: Day 21

Yesterday’s weather blew away (literally) leaving us with one last beautiful day in New Zealand. Having fairly thoroughly explored the city, we kept things pretty low key. We decided to go check out the art museum because it just received a huge private collection as a donation. There are apparently many paintings that haven’t been seen in several generations.

We walked over to the art museum, which is near the university. It was very breezy! But beautiful and sunny.

The museum staff was very friendly. Dad got a map. He tried to hand it to me to chart our course through the museum, but since I’m only luke-warm about art museums to start with, I told him he should do it, since he actually cared about what was there.

It’s not that I don’t like art. I do, but I’m the first to admit that I know nothing about it. Certain periods (back when things were representational) intrigue me and every once in a while I find a painting I absolutely love, but I have no use for anything after impressionism and I think paintings by chimpanzees and elephants have more artistic merit than most modern art.

The museum turned out to be a fairly eclectic mix of all styles and periods. There was one gallery dedicated to New Zealand art, but most of the upstairs was for the new stuff. It was sort of haphazardly arranged I thought. There was no unity of time period or style, just a bunch of paintings hung together with statues in the middle of the room.

I found one artist I liked. His name was Edmund Blair Leighton and he painted things inspired by Arthurian legends. I loved his compositions. They all told stories. My favorite was one of a woman sitting on a window ledge tying a scarf (as a love token) around a knight’s helmet. The mounted knight is outside the window, leaning down, reaching out for the helmet. The look on his face was difficult to interpret. Was he impatient or did he love her back? Was he going jousting or was he going off to war? Did he think he’d ever see her again? I guess that’s what I think art is supposed to do. Make you ask questions and spin stories in your head.

After the art museum we walked over to the University again to go to the Relax Lounge and get another Chai Tea Latte. It was just as good as I remembered. I think what makes it better is the powder they put on top. My educated guess based on smell and taste is ground cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and sugar. I’ll have to experiment when we get home!

We had a lazy afternoon at the hotel and went to Eight (the hotel restaurant) for dinner because everything (literally everything) else in the city was closed on Monday. Eight didn’t disappoint. We decided it would have been Mom’s favorite restaurant on the trip because the papadums were less than 10 feet away from the sushi…

I had: salad (honey mustard dressing), vegetarian hoisan stir-fry, butter chicken and garlic naan.

Dad had: salad (Eight dressing), sushi assortment, a variety of Indian dishes and garlic naan.

Dessert is the only thing Eight doesn’t seem to get. Consistently the best thing seems to be pineapple dipped in the chocolate fountain. I did manage to get a slice of pretty good chocolate cake and Dad and I discovered that we sort of like Turkish Delight (although it get’s stuck in your teeth…).

Tomorrow’s wake up call is before the crack of dawn (5:30am… 3:30am Sydney time yuk!). I mostly packed before bed so that leaving in the morning will require minimal brain power.

I sure will be sad to leave New Zealand! I had no idea how much I’d end up falling in love with this country!

New Zealand 2011: Day 20

This morning was very lazy. I slept in, Dad went to breakfast and ran into a few of our tour-mates before their bus left. The morning was quiet because it was raining buckets outside. We didn’t really mind though, it was nice to have a quiet day to relax.

Around lunchtime we decided to go brave the weather and take a walk. Restaurant options are pretty limited in this city on Sunday. There was a whole line of Asian restaurants we remembered from last time, and they seemed like likely suspects.

Armed with umbrellas and long coats we managed to time our walk to lunch with a break in the rain. We ended up eating at a good Korean place (which was sadly empty). Dad had bibimbap and I had a lunch box with Korean BBQ chicken. My lunch box was good, it came with white rice, a shredded salad, apple slices, tempura shrimp, tiny spring rolls, dumplings, a strange fried ring-shaped thing which was not onion, and a lot of chicken. It was really good but I didn’t make my way through too much of it!

There was a TV on, playing some movie. Our best guess was it was a Japanese film dubbed into Korean. The only reason I paid any attention to it was that it sounded a lot like the dialog between Sun and Jin in LOST! The plot was completely incomprehensible, and I don’t think it’s because I don’t speak Korean…

After lunch Dad and I found another break in the rain and scooted back to Real Groovy, the same interesting little CD shop we found last time. We decided to have a contest to see who could find the best CD.

The rules:
    1. There was a $7 cap on the cost of the CD.
    2. The CD had to be by someone you’d never heard of

Other than that, it was a free for all. We actually ended up pitting 3 CDs against 3 CDs. After we cashed out and returned to the hotel we started ripping them and the judging commenced.

It was close, but I beat the pants off him 🙂

My strategy did seem to have been more effective than his. I was browsing in the Pop/Rock section, looking for female artists recording under their own names (no bands), with interesting/professional album artwork. He was in the Alternative section, looking for similar things, although he was more amenable to bands.

One of my CDs was actually so good we’ve already ordered three of her other CDs from Amazon.

My selections:

  • That Girl by Stephanie Kirkham: B-, Good voice, good lyrics, needed more interesting music.
  • Storybook by Texas: B or B+ (depending on later tracks), good voice, nice orchestration, first two songs much better than middle tracks, but it’s got potential.
  • The day’s winner: Darkness Out Of Blue by Silje Nergaard: A+, Amazing album! fascinating orchestrations, brilliant lyrics (so good Dad actually noticed). Definitely a new favorite artist.

Dad’s selections:

  • Tuning In by Beki & The Bullets: C, material more interesting than performance, first two tracks are almost the same song, sounds like it belongs in the Twilight Soundtrack, but they have a great name.
  • Beneath The Sleepy Lagoon by Ghostplane: D (assuming F is reserved for rap and death metal), too horrible for words, nice packaging.
  • The National Velvet EP by Dana Eclair: C-, Nothing special here, his voice isn’t great, it’s a little repetitive and most of the songs don’t go anywhere.

Dad purchased one additional CD that he chose not to enter in the contest. However he should have! Technically it might not have been sporting because it was a compilation of a whole bunch of different artists who played live at a folk music festival in Dunedin, New Zealand. It had a whole bunch of really good songs on it! It included a few by the guys from Flight of the Concords and today’s first hand’s down 5 star song, “Waiting For Love” by Raylee Bradfield, who has a myspace at www.myspace.com/rayleebradfield and sells some songs on iTunes. The live recording on this album is the best recording of “Waiting For Love” but she also has a really good Christmas song called, “Luke.”

The other find from the shop was a Bic Runga CD. She performed live with the Christchurch Symphony. They guy who produced the CD desperately wanted to record the event, she was a little hesitant because most live albums are a mash up of 6 or 7 performances and have been rehearsed ahead of time. This event was one night only and there was no chance for rehearsal. Finally he convinced her to let him record it, and if it was no good, it would never be released. It’s fantastic! Definitely a find.

Tonight for dinner we went across the street (because even if it’s raining it couldn’t take more than 30 seconds to cross the street) and had a fairly authentic pizza, although the crust wasn’t very Italian. It was quite good and the lighting was really cool!

Trip Recap

Highlights

  • Lunch with Janis and Adriaan on their veranda
  • Lunch with Pamela’s family
  • Jenolan Caves
  • Feeding Kangaroos
  • Lunch at Kerry’s dairy farm
  • Ozzy’s mussel boat in Marlborough Sound
  • The drive into Milford Sound
  • The Kiwi Bird Park
  • T.S.S. Earnslaw’s engine room

Food

  • Best Breakfast: The Langham
  • Best Included Meal: toss up between the dairy farm and Kiwi Bird Park
  • Best Hotel Dinner: The Langham’s 8 buffet stations
  • Best Asian: Chat Thai
  • Best High-Brow Dinner: Tetsuya’s
  • Best Low-Brow Dinner: Fergburger
  • Best Chai-Tea Latte: Relax Cafe!!!!!!!!!

Accommodations

  • Best Hotel: The Four Seasons in Sydney
  • Best Hotel Room: The Copthorn in Wellington
  • Best View: Queenstown
  • Best Turn-Down Chocolate: The Crown Plaza in Queenstown

New Zealand 2011: Day 19

Today is the last day of the tour. It’s mostly unscheduled, they only things we need to do are get from Queenstown to Auckland (our last time in the private jet) and then our farewell dinner is at the Skytower in Auckland.

Bags had to be out pretty early, but it wasn’t too bad, only a 6:45 wake-up call to pack and get them out by 7:30. Dad and I went downstairs for breakfast and checked out. He managed to have eggs and toast, but after last night’s Fergburger (my breath still sort of tasted like onions after three brushings) I opted for a banana and a pot of tea.

Our coach didn’t leave for the airport till 9:45, so we had some time to kill down in the lobby. Dad showed me a game on his iPad that is quite fun, and I sat next to the “fireplace” (an art deco-ish counter with three gas powered flames behind glass panes) and played for a while.

It was raining in Queenstown this morning, but we didn’t really mind. I just figured it made the fire cozier.

We checked the seating chart on the bus and discovered that we’d come full circle throughout the tour, and we were in the front again.

The ride to the airport was short and security was not too much of a hassle. We boarded the plane and Miles and Charlotte served us all tea and coffee after we took off and tasty little smoked chicken sandwiches for lunch, with rocket and aioli. There wasn’t much too look at over the South Island because it was covered in clouds, but Charlotte came around to chat with a bunch of us. She was just so personable! It was really nice having the same stewards all week. Charlotte genuinely seemed interested in what we’d done on our trip, and wanted to make sure we were having a good time. It seems like a pretty cool job. They got to stay in Queenstown with us, so they had a bit of down time in a beautiful part of the country.

It will definitely be a real step down to fly commercially again…

There were horror stories in the morning paper about traffic in Auckland due to the Rugby World Cup, but we had no problems at all getting to the hotel.

It’s going to be a little confusing, because after as many hotel rooms as we’ve had in the last week and a half, we’re now back in our original hotel… in a different room… So far I haven’t gotten lost or forgotten where I’m supposed to sleep, but our stay is young…

Our room is almost identical (except this one smells a little more like old furniture, but oh well). Dad and I opted for a quiet afternoon at the hotel, updating our blogs now that we finally had a fast enough internet connection. I remember when we arrived at the Langham the first time I thought, “wow, this is a slow internet connection!” But now that we’ve spent two weeks in even more obscure parts of New Zealand, when we arrived this time I though, “wow, this connection is fast!”

Our farewell dinner was at the Skytower, which is over 1,000 feet tall. We had drinks in a little partitioned area, then went to the tippy-top to the rotating restaurant. Renee did a fair amount of hovering for us, making sure everything was being taken care of, because Tauck has never done a dinner at this restaurant before.

It was quite an enjoyable meal. We sat near Renee and she had some pretty amazing stories to tell about places she’d been and things that have happened on various Tauck tours. The food was good, the highlights being the pumpkin soup and grilled snapper.

When we were done with dinner we descended from the tower and (surprise, surprise) had to exit through retail. The gift shop had life-size displays of various Lord of the Rings icons and other movie tie-ins filmed in New Zealand. I was too much of a nerd to resist having my picture taken with Avatar’s Neytiri…

Renee bid us farewell back at the hotel. She gets to fly home with most of the group tomorrow, and has 5 (whole) days off before her next tour.

Renee has been an absolutely wonderful guide! Never on a tour have I felt more taken care of, entertained, and enlightened by one person! She was wonderful with us, but what really impressed me was how she was greeted by everyone we visited. It was like she was a member of the family, everywhere we went. And everyone told us how much they looked forward to seeing her and her guests.

This was definitely one of the best vacations Dad and I have ever taken! It was everything a vacation should be, entertaining, enlightening, relaxing, fun… I’m so glad we decided to come spend time with Pamela and her family and visit New Zealand. I can’t wait to come back!