A Travellerspoint blog

New Zealand

Day 8: Sky Tower, Goodbyes, and a Last Stroll

After a pretty late night, I slept in a few hours this morning, lounging around my hotel room and enjoying some New Zealand Television. Around 10:30 or so, I got myself up and joined several tour goers with later departing flights to walk around downtown a bit and head up Auckland’s Sky Tower.

Auckland is, of course, New Zealand’s largest metropolitan area, and although I didn’t have time to see a great deal of the city, what I saw struck me as quite modern and progressive. The Langham was only a short walk from downtown, and the stroll through all the energy of the traffic, pedestrians, and countless tourists was enjoyable. A number of tall buildings, stretching skyward in stark angles of mirrored glass, dominated the city’s center, and the unmistakable Sky Tower seemed to duck in out from behind them as we walked, offering striking views for an instant before disappearing completely the next.

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When we arrived at the base of the tower, the massive concrete column rising above us was downright imposing, and I was so enthralled, in fact, that my neck got sore from staring up so long. After a quick wait in line, we were on the elevator and headed up to the first observation deck where the views were simply marvelous. Looking out over the harbor and the huge marina was particularly mesmerizing, but every vantage point offered a great deal to take in, and I was struck by just how large Auckland is. Buildings, homes, and roads seemed to stretch away from the ocean nearly as far as the eye could see.

After a good half an hour or so of enjoying the views, we caught the elevator down and ate lunch downtown. From there, we took a taxi back to the hotel and went through a great number of goodbyes. A variety of hugs, firm handshakes, and even a few tears were traded. For me, one of the fantastic things about the trip was the camaraderie developed in our group over such a short period of time. And the chance to share so many laughs and memorable experiences with great people was truly a highlight.

After a few more email promises and best wishes, I snuck back out the entrance to take a little stroll on my own, and it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon, completely by accident, a large collection of grassy fields known as the Auckland Domain. Across the large park there were a great number of touch rugby and soccer matches taking place—most of which seemed like loosely organized games between friends. So I found a comfortable spot in the grass and watched the Kiwis chase each other—and various different balls—around for an hour or so.

As the light faded in the park and the games broke up one by one, I paid close attention to a number of goodbyes and a lot of laughter, watching people disappear into the growing shadows, and then decided it was probably time for me to head for home too.

Night 8: The Langham Hotel

Dinner : Tonight, I splurged and ate dinner at Wendy’s. And in all seriousness, after seven nights of first-rate, multi-course meals, the simplicity of a burger from my favorite fast food joint was absolutely fabulous.

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New Zealand

Day 7: Ruakuri Glowworm Caves

After another early wake up call and a couple more hours on the bus, we stopped for lunch and then a tour of the famous Ruakuri glowworm caves. Our guide for this particular underground stroll wore a wool cap, fleece jacket, heavy jeans, and flip flops, and spoke with a pleasant Kiwi accent. But he sounded a great deal like a surfer or skydiver or someone who just enjoyed extreme sports in general, and adjectives like excellent and awesome were frequent parts of his speech. Honestly, I liked him almost immediately.

Meaning den of dogs in Maori, the Ruakuri cave is said to have been discovered around 400 to 500 years ago by a local Maori who was out hunting birds. When he came across the cave, he was startled by a pack of wild dogs that were using the entrance as a den. Formed over more than 30 million years, the extensive collection of caves is the result of water seeping into cracks in the limestone and eroding away the massive caverns existing today.

As we followed our guide into the darkness, it took my eyes quite a while to adjust, but as we passed through a short corridor, things slowly started to become more clear, and before long we were descending in wide circles down a unique ramp spiraling into the blackness much like a cork screw.

Overall, we explored the cave for around an hour and saw all sorts of wonderful stalagmites and stalactites ranging in size from downright huge to tiny and remarkably fragile. We also came across an impressive formation that literally looked like a thin curtain of stone, shaped almost as if it was bending with the breeze in gentle curves.

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And then, of course, there were the glowworms. While we moved through the darkness, they were hard to miss, sparkling occasionally across the ceiling and walls like tiny, neon streetlights. Arachnocampa luminosa, better known to many as the Waitomo glowworm, is unique to New Zealand and is actually the larval stage of an insect called the fungus gnat. The glowing materials are a combination of waste and other chemicals designed to attract insects that have traveled into the caves along the streams. Around the glowing material, the glowworm hangs thin, sticky strands that are then used to ensnare those drawn to the light. Eventually, we came to a place in the cavern where the glowworms were highly concentrated, only a few feet above a bubbling stream, and with the walkway lights turned off, the patch of insects looked like a night sky filled with bright green stars.

As we headed back toward the entrance, we came across some Black Water Rafters, who were cheering many fleet below us. Dressed in wet suits and headlamps, the enthusiasts float, crawl and occasionally walk through the cave’s maze of rivers and streams while exploring areas of the cavern not included on the walking tour. And to be honest, it looked like quite a lot of fun.

With a few parting shouts and cries of our own, we left the Black Water folks behind, and it wasn’t long before we were climbing the corkscrew ramp and then standing, once again, in the bright New Zealand sunshine.

Night 7: The Langham Hotel in Auckland

Accommodations : The Langham had all of the details right. Truly a luxury hotel, the rooms were simply gorgeous and packed with all sorts of amenities and treats. I particularly enjoyed the large, flat screen television. But the entire hotel, and its staff, was quite impressive.

Dinner: Tonight we enjoyed the Langham’s classy buffet. The spread itself was extraordinary, filled with all kinds of meats, fruits, salad’s, vegetables, and especially deserts. We all ate well at this particular stop. Plus we had a chance to enjoy some of the fabulous Church Road wines from the night before.

After dinner tonight, Craig, Sam, Yosh, and I played a little pool at a pub near the Langham, and then a number of tour goers headed down to the waterfront to check out the nightlife. An impressive array of bright colors, well-dressed club goers and long lines, the waterfront certainly struck me as the place to be on a Saturday night. We all did a lot of dancing and laughing and celebrated our last night together in style.

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New Zealand

Day 6: Napier and Art Deco Tour

We were on the bus shortly after sunrise today, and Wellington seemed to have been up and moving for quite some time. The drive out of the city was certainly a change of pace in that, until this point, we hadn’t really seen a freeway or even any notion of traffic for that matter.

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New Zealand has a total population of just over 4 million, and more than two thirds of that number live on the North Island—1.4 million of which are located at the northern tip in and around Auckland. And as we made our way north toward the Hawke’s Bay region and the town of Napier, the views from the bus were noticeably more crowded with towns and farms and a great deal less wild than what we experienced on the South Island. Even so, the farms and little towns were great fun to look at, and we even ran across large fields full of the strangely round hills Lord of the Rings viewers will remember from Hobbiton. I couldn’t help but spend a moment or two imagining Peter Jackson and his crew scouting through the area for the perfect hobbit house.

A few hours later we found ourselves near the coast again and approaching one of New Zealand’s driest and warmest regions. Completely leveled in the 1931 earthquake that destroyed several of Hawke’s Bay’s communities, the town of Napier was rebuilt in the popular Art Deco style of the time, and today it’s become a vibrant beach destination not far from the famous Hawke’s Bay wine country.

Our first visit in Napier is to the Hawke’s Bay Museum, where we get a look at some of the region’s Maori treasures and artifacts and some delightful contemporary fashion and art exhibitions. The museum also features a comprehensive look back at the terrible earthquake and a powerful presentation of documentary-style interviews with living survivors of the disaster.

After our visit through the museum, we walked a couple of blocks down the street to join a guided tour of the town’s fabulous Art Deco architecture and design. The chance to stroll around the city with a fact-filled guide was really quite interesting, and having seen a number of before and after pictures of the earthquake, taking in the stunning pastels and neon facades of the Art Deco transformation first hand was a striking experience. Overall, Napier reminded me a little of some of the towns around the Mediterranean I’d visited in Europe, and even in autumn, it was hard not to get a sense of the summertime excitement visitors are sure to enjoy here.

Night 6: Scenic Circle Te Pania Hotel

Accommodations : Our hotel tonight was a comfortable little place with bright, modern rooms and wonderful beachfront views. I was a big fan our bathroom: bright, spacious and equipped with a great shower.

Dinner : Tonight we ate at the Church Road Winery, an impressive vineyard just outside of Napier. We enjoyed a simple, down to earth buffet full of all sorts of subtle but truly delicious dishes. I especially liked the Salmon and the chocolate cake we had for desert.

After the meal, Rachel led us in a performance of the traditional Maori greeting known as the Haka. For those of you who’ve seen the New Zealand national team play ruby, the Haka is performed by the players before each match. It’s an impressive combination of dance and chanting that has to be pretty intimidating for the other team. It was certainly intimidating to learn—most of which we did with Rachel on the bus. The chance to try it all out was great fun, however, and everyone enjoyed a great deal of laughter both during and after our performance of sorts. My buddy Craig was especially entertaining.

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New Zealand

Day 5: Marlborough Sounds Ferry Cruise

Unlike yesterday, today was another early morning. We were all on the bus before the sun came up and well on our way as the day’s first light appeared. Although it was most certainly Fall, the temperatures were remarkably mild—even for someone used to Hawaii’s balmy forecasts. We also managed to enjoy a mostly sunny excursion with only brief periods of rain—most of which came during our time on the bus.

Again the scenery was beautiful today, and as we headed east towards Picton and the Marlborogh sounds for our ferry crossing of the Cook Strait, or the ditch as many Kiwis know it, the views out our windows are especially pastoral. We seem to pass endless amounts of sheep and cows, and the grasses covering the fields are a stunning green in the sunshine. Small farms and long fence lines are common, and in the distance, a formidable line of hazy gray mountains guard the horizon.

The ride took a little longer than I expected, and we ended up waiting quite a while at the ferry terminal as a line of trucks, many carrying livestock, piled onto the ship. Known as the Aratere, which means quick path in Maori, our ferry was a monster and just under five hundred feet long. Capable of holding more than 230 cars and nearly 400 people, it was certainly one of the larger boats I’ve been on.

Packed with all sorts of comforts and amenities, including a restaurant or two, a bar, and even a small cinema of sorts, there was a great deal to see and do on the ship. Most folks, however, seemed to eventually find their way to the bow and the large outdoor observation deck to take in the extraordinary view of Queen Charlotte sound. The water was again astonishingly calm, and snaked its way between two olive green shorelines covered in native forests, punctuated here and there with little coves and beaches that were often home to what looked like incredibly secluded houses. A number of birds flew about the ferry as we went, and I thought I saw a seal or two. There was even a pod of dolphins that made a brief appearance at the bow. I could just make out the dark stripe running along their sides as they zipped in front of the boat, lingered there only an instant and then darted back along the starboard side before disappearing completely.

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As we left the sound and entered into the strait, the water became much more choppy and the wind picked up quite a bit, so I headed back inside. Several of us actually played a little poker to pass the time, but I didn’t fair well: total losses equaling 10 dollars New Zealand in around a half an hour. When the North Island and Wellington came into view, the game broke up and many of us headed out on deck again. An unmistakable odor of ocean salt and a vigorous wind greeted us, but the view of Wellington harbor growing in the distance was marvelous. As the tall buildings and ships increased in size, the wind and water calmed a great deal, and an almost tangible excitement seemed to grow amongst those of us enjoying the view.

Te Papa: New Zealand’s National Museum

One of the windiest cities on the planet, Wellington is the country’s capitol and home to nearly 400,000 people. Built directly over on an active fault line, the city is also no stranger to earthquakes and one of the most tectonically active in the world. New Zealand, in fact, experiences so many tremors that it has earned the nickname, “The Quaky Isles,” and actually owes its existence to the collision of two of the earth’s massive tectonic plates.

We got a chance to learn more about the country’s unique geological history today at one of Wellington’s most prized attractions: New Zealand’s National Museum, Te Papa Tongarewa. Actually three museums wrapped into one, Te Papa serves as the country’s National Art Gallery, combined with extensive Natural History and Cultural History exhibits. In other words, just about everything you might like to know about New Zealand and its people is covered within the walls of this marvelous building.

Because we arrived late in the day, our tour was on the brief side. Te Papa itself is a huge complex and there’s really no way to take all of it in only one day, let alone a little over an hour. But we did get a chance to hurry through most of the exhibits, and everything we saw was really expertly crafted, full of bright colors and imagery, and wonderfully informative. The extensive art galleries were filled with an impressive collection of sculptures and countless striking paintings. Te Papa also offered us a detailed and far-reaching look back at the people of the islands, and there were many wonderful Maori treasures as well as comprehensive exhibits about the country’s broad mixture of European immigrants. And I particularly enjoyed the natural history exhibitions, especially the presentations about the country’s geological history and the information about its animals and their evolution over the centuries.

Te Papa also has a lot of thrilling activities, including hands-on traveling exhibits, a virtual earthquake experience, and a bungee jump simulator—just to name a few. On my next visit to Wellington, Te Papa will definitely be my first stop.

Night 5: The Duxton Hotel

Accommodations : Tonight, believe it or not, I actually stayed in the presidential suite. Having Neil as a roommate has certain advantages apparently. Did I mention he was an important person at Scenic Tours? At any rate our room was outstanding: leather couches, a gigantic bathroom, extra half bath, powder room, large dinning table, two TV’s, a full bar, and remarkable views of Wellington’s harbor and skyline. Chris, Sam, Yosh and I—along with the Dutch couple, Wouter and Renata—took advantage of the large facilities for an animated game of poker this evening. I faired much better tonight and won back most of what I lost to Yosh earlier on the ferry.

Dinner : Another fancy three course meal tonight at the hotel. I enjoyed a marvelous vegetable soup, and some excellent muscles. And as a group we enjoyed some birthday cake and a raucous rendition of the standard sing along. The occasion and the evening belonged to Karla, one of our tour’s most colorful characters.

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New Zealand

Day Four: Wine Tasting in the Nelson Region

Today I slept in a bit and enjoyed a leisurely morning at the hotel before joining an afternoon tour of the Nelson wine region. Our hosts today were Bay Tours, who do all sorts of guided trips around the Nelson region, but specialize in winery visits. After a quick trip up one of Nelson’s larger hills for a good look at Tasman bay and the surrounding region, we left the tightly bunched homes of the suburbs and drove into what seemed like an endless valley lined with row after row of gold and green grape vines.

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Our first tasting stop was at the Waimea Estates vineyard, and here we got a chance to peruse the facilities while learning a great deal about how you actually make wine. Our guide from the winery did a nice job of making things simple and thoroughly explaining the difference between making white wines and reds. During the visit we also learned a little about lots of machinery and how the wines are stored. Then, of course, we tasted a number of exceptional wines. Many of these offered wonderfully subtle and dry flavors, but I especially enjoyed their Riesling.

From there, we headed for the Grape Escape, which features the wines of the Richmond Plains and Te Mania vineyards. Here Roy Thompson, our Bay Tours’ guide, sat us all down at a large table and passed out a variety of different foods in small portions. The samples included everything from fresh fruit to cooked chicken to bread and olive oils and even pickles. We tried a variety of wines and tasted them with the different foods to get a better sense of how they coupled with different flavors. The contrast of the pickle with several of the wines was particularly stark and brought out some wonderful contrasts.

Next, we stopped off at the Seifried vineyard, one of the oldest wineries in the region, and they, again, offered us the chance to try a number of their vintages. Not surprisingly, they were all enjoyable, some a little sweeter here than at earlier visits. I did, however, come across my favorite variety of the trip at this stop. The last of the wines we sampled, the Seifried’s Riesling Ice Wine is usually classified as a desert wine and was fantastically sweet and flavorful. This particular vintage gets the ice in it’s title because the grapes are frozen before being pressed, creating an unusually concentrated and intensely flavored juice.

The last stop of the tour was at the Stafford Lane orchard, where I don’t mind admitting we all had the most fun. That may well have been due to the fact that we’d had quite a bit of wine by this point, but I’m not entirely sure. I am reasonably confident, however, that everyone was feeling at least a minor bit tipsy. Michael McGrath, one of the Stafford owners, was a very entertaining host and told all sorts of jokes and stories, which really made for a charming experience. And along with some outstanding wines, we also got to taste some of the first-rate olive oil they make on the property, served with a variety of breads and fresh olives.

Another of the highlights at the Stafford Lane stop was the cute old dog who entertained us throughout, and then ran long, high-speed laps around the buildings several times before our van left the vineyard. The scene was remarkably funny and all of us cheered wildly for the performance, then laughed ourselves silly on the ride back to the hotel.

Night 4: The Rutherford Hotel

Dinner : We enjoyed dinner again tonight at the Oceano. I started things off with a tasty potato soup, followed by a delectable lamb chop entrée, and a sumptuous chocolate mouse.

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