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!

New Zealand 2011: Day 18

Dad and I had a very relaxing morning. He went to breakfast but I slept in. The time of our excursion for today changed due to expected drizzle this morning. The sun was shining however, but I didn’t mind the extra sleep!

The only excitement this morning was a fire alarm that went off around 11:30am. Fortunately everyone was already showered and dressed because we were supposed to meet Renee in the lobby at 11:45 anyway. We actually only had to stand around for about five minutes before they let us back inside the building.

Our excursion today was a ride on the T.S.S. Earnslaw, a steamship built in 1911. It was first assembled in Dunedin, but was then disassembled and shipped by rail to Queenstown, where it was reassembled and had its maiden voyage in 1912. The amazing thing is that it is still powered by the original coal-burning steam engine. The coal is shoveled into the boiler at the rate of one ton per hour to maintain full speed. The T.S.S. stands for Twin Screw Steamer, and refers to the type of engine. Since 1969, Fiordland Travel has operated tourist cruises on the ship. The ship is in such good condition because it only sails in freshwater.

Dad and I had a good time exploring the ship. They’ve installed a catwalk into the engine room so you can see the boiler-men at work.

The Earnslaw takes about 40 minutes to deliver passengers to Walter Peak Station, which has a charming little restaurant and sheep farm.

We were treated to a BBQ buffet lunch. It’s interesting that what New Zealanders think of as BBQ is is much more similar to American BBQ than what Australians or Londoners think BBQ is. It was good BBQ, but I avoided the lamb chops since I knew we were going to be seeing sheep later…

After lunch our guide, Lindsey, took us to see the animals. He was a hoot! His commentary was just so funny. He’d do something like point our a landmark and say, “this is commonly known as a ‘tree’” or “this is called a ‘house’” beat… beat… beat… and only then tell you what was interesting about said tree or house.

He first took us to see some deer. Deer are commonly farmed in New Zealand. I believe what we saw were Red Deer. Lindsey had brought a bucket of food and offered it around so we could feed them.

After the deer, we saw sheep. There are a couple different varieties of sheep farmed in New Zealand. The Merino sheep are the most profitable because their wool is worth $60 a sheep per year when they’re shorn. Other types of sheep can be shorn more than once a year, but their wool is only worth between $12 and $25.

There was an Alpaca in with the sheep who is apparently the shepherd, in charge of looking after the sheep. He was completely uninterested in the food we had, but was very interested in us.

But the real treat of the afternoon was getting to hold a baby lamb! She was so cute! And fuzzy. And heavier than I’d imagined. Her mom was not so pleased that she was being passed around and the lamb bleated once or twice, but once you got her comfortable she was quite content to be held. She was only one week old. Adorable!

After we had all had our fill of holding the little lamb and returned her to her mother we went to watch a sheepdog herding and sheep shearing demonstration. It was pretty cool how the dog managed to completely control the sheep.

The sheep shearing was hysterical however! Lindsey grabbed the sheep, who didn’t seem too thrilled to be taking center stage, and upended her. Once she was sitting on her bottom it was like she was a turtle and couldn’t move! She just sort of lolled there while he used an electric clipper to extricate her. The fleece all comes off in basically one chunk because of the pattern he sheared in. It looked really funny!

After that we got back on the Earnslaw and returned to town. Dad and I wandered around the city for a while, browsing through a few shops, finally returning to the hotel to chill before dinner.

We decided to try Fergburger for dinner. The place was packed with a line out the door. They are definitely a cult!Dad had a ‘Fergburger w/ cheese,’ and I had a ‘Tropical Swine,’ which comes with Prime New Zealand beef, American streaky bacon, cheddar cheese, pineapple, lettuce, tomato, red onion, aioli and tomato relish. It was delicious! I loved the pineapple with the onion and the relish. It was huge though! both burgers weighed about a pound each. And they came with fries…

I’ll have to do penance with lots of salad tomorrow (and maybe skip breakfast… and lunch) but boy were those burgers tasty.

New Zealand 2011: Day 17

After last night’s sleep I felt much more rested today! And we made it in the paper! There was a big picture of our plane coming in for a landing at the Te Anua airport yesterday in the Otago Daily Times this morning. We were described as “wealthy American tourists.” Yep. That’s us.

The group met downstairs at 9:00 for our bus out to the next valley over to go jetboating. However once we arrived it turned out that out of all of us only three people wanted to go! (I was not one of them). I did feel bad for Renee because she couldn’t go since the majority of guests didn’t go.

I took some good video though. I think it might also explain why I didn’t want to go…

After that, we went to the Kiwi Bird Park. The owner, Paul, greeted us and had personally made the lunch we were going to have. He doesn’t often do that for guests, but Tauck has been coming so long (and he loves having them), so he really pulled out all the stops for us.

Before lunch, Paul, and his assistant zoologist, Paul (two Pauls made it easy to remember everyone’s name!), took us around the conservation area. Twenty-five years ago the Park was a rubbish dump and had to be completely cleaned up. They planted more than 800 native trees, and Paul and his dad started their conservation efforts.

Today they have multiple pairs of mating Kiwi and other endangered New Zealand birds. They actively participate in release efforts, getting the animals back out into the wild. They also have quite a clutch of baby tuataras, which are very special, both to New Zealand and to the rest of the Animal Kingdom. Tuataras are their own branch of the reptile tree (there are: lizards/snakes, turtles, and Sphenodontia). Tuataras are the only remaining member of the Sphenodontia order, and they have been around for 250 million years! To put that in perspective the dinosaurs died out only 65 million years ago. So basically, they’re living dinosaur relatives.

They are also the only four legged animal native to New Zealand. They have the lowest metabolic rate of any reptile. Every winter they go into a torpor (basically a self-induced coma), they only breath once or twice a minute, their heart beats only 5 times a minute, and they can actually go years without eating. No one knows exactly how long they live, but current guesses place it at about 160 years. The zoologist Paul brought out one of the babies (only 12 years old), and it is safe to assume he will outlive us all.

Both Pauls were great. The zoologist was especially into the animals and knew all their names. He took us all around the park, telling us about the animals, what made them special, and what kinds of steps were being taken to conserve them.

The big event this morning was that they candled an egg just laid by a young mating pair to see if there was a chick in there, and indeed there was! Unfortunately, the young couple isn’t mature enough to figure out how to correctly incubate the egg, so they’ve actually swapped it out with an infertile egg laid by a more mature pair. The more mature father is now sitting on the egg like his life depends on it, and hopefully the young father will eventually figure out what he’s supposed to do with the egg.

After our tour of the park, the owner Paul took us back to the restaurant. His wife drove two and a half hours to get us the most wonderful steak and potatoes for lunch. Paul grilled the steak to perfection and the potatoes were the creamiest I’ve ever tasted! It was so good I didn’t put anything on it at all. There was really excellent plum sauce for the steak, not something that would have leapt to my mind as a condiment, but it was perfect. There was also a tasty salad (vaguely reminiscent of coleslaw, only much better). And there was fresh-baked potato bread Paul baked himself. It was a lovely lunch!

After lunch we got a real treat, because Paul is putting together a bus tour of Queenstown. The history tour isn’t supposed to start until next month, but we got to be his test guests. He took us all around Queenstown, and a charming girl (American actually, from Utah originally) who helped him write the script, took us around the city, sharing history and local stories. It was delightful!

After that they dropped us off at the bottom of the Skyline gondola ride to the top of Bob’s Peak. The gondola ride was really steep! It went up more than 1000 feet so our ears were definitely popping. Looking down, there was a very rough track (so steep it needed a nylon hand rail to hold on). I’m not sure what it was used for… Dad suggested it was if they needed to evacuate the gondola. But since we were thirty or forty off the ground and halfway up the mountain, I hoped that wasn’t true.

When we got to the top we were greeted with a fantastic view of the city, lake, and surrounding mountains. Several nice people offered to take pictures of the two of us, and we took a few of others as well.

The mountain is a ski resort most of the time, but in the off-season they do luge rides down the side of the mountain. It looked pretty fun! But Dad and I decided not to press our luck too much. We did a little souvenir shopping instead.

Then we went back down in the gondola and returned to the hotel for a quiet evening. I caught up on my blog entries and Dad went to a wine tasting organized by the hotel. He brought be back a really nice sauvignon blanc. Tonight we’re having dinner at the hotel, but tomorrow we might try Fergburger, which has received very high reviews from Laura and her friends and the guide on our tour today…

New Zealand 2011: Day 16

Today was WAY too early. The luggage had to be ready at 6:00am, which meant a 5:30 wake-up call (actually a 5:26 wake-up call because Dad jumped the gun… yes, I do resent those four extra minutes I could have been sleeping…).

The reason it had to be so early was because the luggage had to beat us to Queenstown tonight, and it had to be taken to the airport earlier than us. We had to get up so early that the restaurant had to open an hour early, just for Tauck. It was dark upstairs when we got there… NOT an appropriate time to be awake on vacation.

It was okay though, our day turned out to be totally worth it.

We again boarded our private jet and headed to Te Anau, a tiny town about two hours away from Milford Sound. It actually turned into quite an event, because we were the first jet ever to land at Te Anau. They just lengthened their runway and installed lights. This town is so tiny it has to get its kicks where it can, so they made a big to-do over us.

Our welcoming committee included helicopters, firetrucks hosing down the plane, and the entire town (60 or 70 whole people, including the entire 6 person elementary school) turned out. When we disembarked we were met by the mayor and a whole line of people shaking out hands. They gave each of us a gift bag with stamped postcards, bookmarks, and informational brochures about the area. There were press people there, a bagpiper, people filming our landing… It was quite the show. I felt like royalty!

Renee shepherded us through the crowd after a while and got us installed on our bus. The drive to Milford Sound was very scenic. There were lots of sheep, cows and deer outside Te Anau. There weren’t nearly as many lambs as on the north island though, just a lot of really really fat sheep. Guess spring comes later here!

We were racing a tour bus full of 20-something students from England, but we managed to beat them to all the major locations, including our first stop, which was at mirror lake. The lake was named that because it perfectly reflects the mountain behind it. I used my mad-skills to take a picture of Renee and myself, because Dad’s camera is too complicated for the other patrons on the trip (it has a touch screen…).

Then Renee took a picture of Dad and I. But she told us to remember the scenery only got better…

After about 30 minutes we drove over the line that would be called a continental divide if New Zealand were a continent, where the Pacific Plate meets the adjoining one, causing the mountains to rise 7cm a year.

This line also causes a climate change. The side we approached from was hotter and drying all year long. The other side of the line gets all the rain, and there is a Temperate Rainforest on that side of the mountain. Once we drove over the line there were suddenly ferns everywhere and the foliage was definitely different. After a few more miles we entered avalanche country and started seeing lots of snow.

We stopped to take a 20 minute walk into the beautiful temperate rainforest. I didn’t even know there was such a thing. The driver told us to keep a look out for the waterfall, and then come back and tell him who was the more beautiful sculptor, nature of Michelangelo. Michelangelo got left in the dust!

In the parking lot we saw four Kea birds. They are the only alpine parrot in the world and they are really smart! They have very attractive green plumage, but when they fly they have bright red/orange spots on their wings.

The rest of our drive was quite striking because of all the snow highlighting the mountains. This part of the country got much more snow than usual this year and there were still piles of it everywhere.

The road we were driving on is the most expensive road in all of New Zealand to maintain because of all the avalanches. Sometimes the road used to be closed up to 3 months a year, but now they have a new system. Some people who trained in Canada watch out for avalanche danger, and when it gets too high, they close the road, and drop explosives on the snow, creating a controlled avalanche. It only takes them a few days to clear any snow that ended up on the road and get it open again.

Dad and I started trying to get a good picture of one of the “No Stopping” signs warning about avalanches. They were hard to catch because they went by so quickly.

We took a Southern Discoveries cruise around the actual Milford Sound, which is actually a fiord because it was created by a glacier. It is 800 feet deep in most spots, much deeper than Marlborough Sound which was only about 6 feet in spots! It’s known for its beautiful waterfalls. Unfortunately only two of them were really going because they hadn’t gotten any rain in about nine days.

At first we thought the cruise was kind of a bust after such a beautiful drive, but once we turned around and started coming back we saw a rock full of seals and then, best off all, we encountered a huge pod of dolphins! There must have been 10 or 12 of them. They came right up to the boat and swam next to us. I also saw a baby dolphin playing with his mom.

We had lunch on the boat, which was very casual but tasty. We had sandwiches on bagels (the first bagels I’ve seen on this trip) with some excellent tomato soup, perfect for a cold day.

Our drive back to the airport was just as scenic. For our snooze-and-cruise Renee played a movie-score (1492) composed by the greek composer who wrote Chariots of Fire. It reminded Dad and I of the soundtrack to Ka, the cirque de solei show in Las Vegas. It drizzled a little bit by the rainforest, but it was actually nice because some of the waterfalls started running down the mountain sides.

We hopped back on board the jet (no crowds in sight this time) and took a 15 minute flight to Queenstown. Because of the rugby world cup there is more security than usual for these flights. Today’s was weird though… they confiscated all of our hand-carries and made them ride in the hold… The hole in this plan? It meant there were 17 cell-phones and iPads that couldn’t be turned off or switched to airplane mode… whoops.

We have been so lucky with the weather on this trip. We’ve had wonderful weather for flying. Any place we go the weather clears up as soon as we get there and we get sun and warm weather for our sightseeing.

The same applied to our trip into Queenstown. The ride was remarkable smooth, especially since we’d been warned the mountains might make it bumpy, and the sun was setting, turning the mountains gold and pink as we drove to the hotel. The Remarkables were quite a sight lit up like that.

Dad and I were more tired than hungry so we ended up skipping dinner and going straight to bed. Ah… what a day…

New Zealand 2011: Day 15

This morning Dad and I toured the city. Our local guide was excellent. Her name was Charlotte, and she hailed from Brooklyn… Brooklyn, NZ that is, which is on one of the hills surrounding Wellington. Her hair was short and kind of spiky on top, getting longer towards the back. The joked that she’d worn her hair like that since 1980 because the wind was so strong in Wellington it wasn’t worth owning a brush!

She was delightful however, quick with a self-deprecating joke, and was an absolute fountain of knowledge. She started by taking on us on a quick coach ride through the city, pointing out landmarks, like the Embassy (Movie) Theatre, where all of Peter Jackson’s films world premiere.

Then she drove us up to the top of Mount Victoria. We had to climb a few steps from the parking lot to the absolute top, but the view was totally worth it! There was a 360 degree view of Wellington. The city lived up to its nickname of ‘Windy Wellington’ and it was quite breezy at the top, but Dad and I both had fun taking panorama pictures and video. The rest of the group didn’t last long because it was quite chilly, so we headed out quickly. 

Renee and Andy had some interesting times in the parking lot while we were up taking photos because they found a clearly abandoned car (a red sports car… some brand that started with ‘M’) they suspected was stolen, so Andy called it in. I never found out the end of that story…

Anyway, after Mt. Victoria we drove back down to the city. Charlotte pointed out the window and across the bay, near the airport, a giant sign has been erected a la Hollywood that says ‘ALL BLACKS’ on a hill side. Obviously that is referencing the New Zealand rugby team, supporting them in the upcoming Rugby World Cup.

Charlotte was excited to see the sign, because it was only about 48 hours old and it was the first time she’d seen it. She told us the saga of how the sign came to be. Apparently Wellington’s other nickname (post-Peter Jackson anyway) is ‘Welliwood’ and that’s what the sign was supposed to say. But half the city thought that was copy-cating Hollywood, and was beneath them. A big fight broke out over the issue. Finally a Facebook campaign started which sparked a write-in contest. Finally they settled on All Blacks.

We got off the coach near the city center near parliament (Wellington is the capital of NZ). The security is much less obvious than around the White House (There was one security guard). Dad commented on this, I told him it was because the rest of the world wasn’t pissed off at New Zealand.

There are three very interesting buildings right next to each other. The oldest one is now the legal library, and is pale yellow with a red roof, in a vaguely victorian style but with some greek and/or roman columns. The next building over is stately grey marble and granite… but it doesn’t look finished, it seems to be missing a wing (and it is, more on that later). The last building is circular, grey, and nicknamed ‘the Beehive.’ It also has a story. 


So, the story on the unfinished middle building: It actually begins before it’s construction. In the early 1910s they decided they needed more room, so they started planning to build this new extension. But, when WWI broke out they didn’t have the money to transport the building materials (Italian marble and such) from Europe. The New Zealander’s had never considered their local building materials to be viable for a building like that, but left with no choice they had to resort to local granite and marble (I think it’s beautiful). The right-end turned out quite nice… but they never got around to finishing the left half due to money problems.

The way the Beehive came into being also had a funny story. Apparently one evening the Prime Minister was having dinner and drinks with an architect friend. After dinner they polished off an entire bottle of scotch. The Prime Minister leaned over to his friend and started lamenting how embarrassing it was that the building wasn’t finished, and oh, what were they going to do? The architect then turned over his cocktail napkin and drew  a picture of the Beehive. A few years later it came into being.

As a result, the courtyard these buildings line has a quirky feeling to it, with all the different architecture styles. Charlotte said she liked it that way, because New Zealand and Kiwis were quirky. I liked it too.

After that we hopped back on the coach and drove to the base of an old-fashioned cable car. They only took the victorian era cars off the line a few years ago. Now they’re Swiss. A few University students were in our car because there is a stop for Victoria University of Wellington on the line.

The ride up the hill only took 10 minutes or so. At the time I severely underestimated the distance we’d climbed (I had to do it on foot later in the day… more on that later).

At the top was the requisite gift shop (with one of the original cars on display) and cafe. A leg of the botanical gardens was also there. We went to the botanical gardens, but we got back in the coach to do it because we went to the rose(less) garden and the Begonia House.

There was a small Peace Garden off to the side of the rose garden. I never could figure out where the flame was, but given how many wars are occurring in various parts of the world maybe it couldn’t show its face. The water was quite pretty, not because it was crystal clear or anything like that, quite the contrary actually. There was green scum everywhere, but it was in the most beautiful patterns. Yes folks, I saw beautiful algae.

The Begonia House was… well, it was full of flowers. They were pretty. For flowers. 


I guess appreciation for flowers hasn’t kicked in yet.

I got a kick out of them proudly displaying a living sample of Bromeliaceae Tillandsia usneoides. Or, for you fellow non-flower lovers, Spanish moss. That’s a weed where I come from…

Next up was a beer tasting at Mac’s Brewery. They gave us two samples. One was a pale yellow Pilsner with lots of hops in it. The other one was more red in color and was called Sassy Red, and was described as a bitter. It was Charlotte’s favorite beer, and was produced locally. Out of those two the Sassy Red was definitely better, and almost everyone in our group agreed.
Dad bought a glass of stout but had them pour it into three taster glasses (I thought the tasters were kind of large). He gave one to me and one to the lady across from me, who had mentioned she liked darker beers.

Dad definitely liked the stout the best. I didn’t like it as well as the Left Hand stout he had at The Girl and the Goat earlier this summer. I was on the fence whether I liked the Sassy Red or the stout better. The stout had more guts, but I thought it was too bitter.

After that, we walked a short distance to the famous Te Papa museum. The museum is famous because it has won all kinds of awards for interactive excellence and engaging visitors. They figured out that the best way to engage children and keep them from just madly mashing buttons is to have the informational spiels spoken by children.

Our group was broken in half and we each got a tour guide to take us around the museum. Our guide’s name was ‘T’, short for Terry. He was very knowledgable and liked showing off his museum.

I didn’t end up staying that long at the museum however, because (drum roll please) the amazing wonderful fabulous Laura Shultz met me in the New Zealand Wildlife exhibit. 


We pealed off from the group and I got to see a student’s eye view of the city. We walked along the harbour (or bay? never really figured out which was the more appropriate term). She caught me up on some of her adventures. She showed me where she volunteered at WOW, which is currently doing a wearable fashion project. It’s apparently quite spectacular. 

We found an ENORMOUS slide by the water, shaped like a lighthouse. We of course had to climb it and slide down. Neither of us had had lunch, so she decided we should go to Cozy Cake Shop. We accidentally missed it though, so we actually ended up going to Midnight Espresso on Cuba Street (coincidentally, this was right across the street from the French restaurant Dad went to for lunch). 


Midnight Espresso was very cool and trendy. We both had Chai tea lattes and excellent pear/chocolate chip muffins. We got the lattes to go and kept walking towards her flat because she had class in the afternoon.

It was so nice to get to see her! I’m so lucky that she had time to spend the afternoon with me because otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten to see her till December! The rest of Northwestern won’t get to see her till January, which is a long time to be Laura-less.

Laura lives in a flat, which is a stand-alone house with four bedrooms. The flat is up the hill from the University. And the University is a long way up. A long way. (Remember how I said I underestimated it?).

There is a hill that Laura affectionately calls ‘the hill of death’ that must be climbed to get to the University and her flat. The hill deserves its name. It is nearly vertical. The tour had been feeding me far too well, and getting up the hill probably burned off the calories from my muffin, but man were my calves burning!

Poor laura has to climb it every time she want’s groceries…

I wheezed my way up, following Laura (who now has calves of steel) to her flat. Non of her roommates were home, but I got to see her room, the living room, and kitchen. It seems like a great place to live, and actually the interior reminded me a little of Chapin… similar carpet, high ceilings, white walls… same vibe. And Laura is lucky enough to be in one of the only housing options on campus that has unlimited wifi. At all other locations you have to buy a plan, which limits the number of megabytes you can use per month. I would not do well on that system. At all. 


Laura is also blessed to have a friend studying computer science, who set her computer up so that Firefox routes itself through a server in Ohio, tricking the network into thinking she’s in the states, so all of her American websites (like Net-flicks and Hulu still work). I’m not going to steal her thunder by telling any of the amazing stories she told me, but I will say I got to hear all about her travels over New Zealand, and you should all look forward to hearing them too!

Laura usually has biodiversity and New Zealand lit in the afternoons, but she was actually skipping them to attend a special seminar as part of a leadership program on campus. On her walk over she gave me a quick tour through the university buildings. The route she takes to get to class is hysterical, because basically she walks into the 1st floor of a building on one end of the university and ends up on the 4th or 5th floor of a building on the other end of campus without changing elevation. Yes, Wellington is hilly.

On the way Laura showed me the tuatara (lizard-like things and the only four-legged creatures native to New Zealand). They are endangered, but the University has a pair I assume they’re trying to breed.

Laura also showed me where the student union and library were. I had two hours to amuse myself while she was in her seminar. She recommended a book from her New Zealand lit class called Bone People. I started trying to find it in the university bookstore (which was really nice, with an attached cafe) but they didn’t have it. So I went over to the library. I was really proud of myself because I figured out how their filing system worked (it’s not the Dewey decimal system), but then I couldn’t find the books… I walked all over the library (which in Wellington means up and down all the staircases) and all I could ever find were the periodicals.

It was okay though because I had a New Zealand travel guide in my phone that I’d never gotten a chance to peruse. So I read all about Wellington (Charlotte and/or Laura had already told me everything) and about Queenstown and Milford Sound where we’re going tomorrow.

I met Laura at the appointed spot and time, having never gotten lost. Score!

Laura picked a strategic spot to meet, because it was outside the classroom where her friends, Christina and Katherine, were getting out of class. They were both really nice! Christina’s mom was in town for their mid-semester break, and she was taking the girls out for dinner. Laura was going so I tagged along, but I did not expect Christina’s mom to buy my dinner since I was only a visitor, but she insisted. She was a very nice lady from San Diego, California.

We went to a restaurant with a great name and even better food. It was called Abra-kebab-ra. The most similar thing we have to it in Evanston is Pomegranate but this was 10x better.

I had a great time chilling with Laura’s friends, hearing about their classes, travels, and experiences in New Zealand. Laura and I ended up going back to Midnight Espresso with Christina and her mom and I got another tasty Chai latte. They just make them better here. The good news is Laura now knows how to do it and will show me once she’s back in the states!

I was fading a bit due to my early morning and Laura was also tired because she’d gotten up early as well to finish a paper, so it was a relatively early night. Laura was really sweet and walked me most of the way back to my hotel, since I didn’t exactly know where I was going.

It was a wonderful day, hanging out with one of my best friends! And the fact that it was halfway around the world from our home made it even better!