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New Zealand

Day Three: Learning to Love the Bus

This morning we were all up before the sun, and I managed to make a quick trip outside several minutes before our departure to catch the sunrise. The light was just coming up over one of the mountains behind the hotel, and the sleepy little houses and shops were bathed in a soft rose. Hammer Springs is not too terribly far from the tree line, and although it was still early fall, tiny patches of snow could be seen near the mountain peaks.

In addition to the hot springs, the community offers a range of fun activity options, so visitors can go horseback riding, do some trout or salmon fishing, try out a jet boat tour, and even go bungee jumping. No doubt a return trip during the winter months to enjoy the snow or even in the spring and summer for hiking and camping in the region would be great fun.

Today was our first real long ride on the bus, but that gave us a chance to see a lot more of the terrain. Mountains and thick forests dominated the scenery, interrupted here and there by vibrant green pastureland and swift running rivers snaking through yawning curves. Along the narrow roadway, we also encountered a number of post-card worthy, one-lane bridges that didn’t appear to have been built with our large bus in mind. Happily, we didn’t run into any difficulties.

Shannon spoke a great deal today about the forests in the region and the fact that many have been replanted. After he pointed out an example or two, it wasn’t difficult to recognize them. Bunched tightly in strict rows, almost like an overcrowded Christmas tree farm, the replanted forests are remarkably dense, and it’s hard to imagine anything beneath the canopy getting much sun. Apparently most of the replanted forests are made up of a pine that’s native to northern California, but thanks to all the rain and the incredibly temperate nature of New Zealand’s climate, these forests can grow to a harvestable maturity in about half the time it would take for the same trees in California.

We also got a chance to see a lot of the native rain forests, which reminded me almost instantly of the Lord of the Rings films. Their look is certainly distinctive, much more chaotic and wild than the rigid rows of replacement trees. And the greens of the native forests are more olive in color, almost mossy.

Shannon also shared some wonderful stories about the Maori, the islands’ first inhabitants who traveled to New Zealand around 1000 years ago, and some details about the unusual mixture of animals found in the country. New Zealand was originally home to no large mammals—the exception being a couple of small native bats. There were, however, a number of flightless birds in the islands, including the famous Kiwi, which is nocturnal and actually sleeps 22 hours a day when not out hunting for food. At one point, New Zealand was also home to the Moa, a much larger bird, bigger in fact than an ostrich. The Maori hunted the Moa heavily, and, according to some experts, the bird was the first and only animal to be hunted to extinction by a native people. Rachel, who is of Maori decent herself and was seated right next to Shannon, spoke up at this point to mention that there has been a lot of contention amongst experts on this particular point.

We also learned about some of the pests brought to New Zealand in the last couple hundred years or so. Of those, possums apparently are a real problem. Originally introduced to create a fur trade in the country, the possum population has increased to almost 70 million today—or about 20 per person—largely because they have no native predators on the islands. Shannon described a number of measures taken by New Zealanders to get rid of them, including hunting, poison and also the highly encouraged sport of running them down on the roads with cars or trucks.

Abel Tasman National Park

A few more hours on the bus and we start to leave the wild rain forests and mountains and find ourselves much closer to the coast, where pastureland and farms begin to take over. Shortly after noon, we arrived at Kaiteriteri, which is a sleepy little community wrapped around a beautiful bay lined with what must be expensive homes. Most of us made a quick stop at the local market for lunch, and then climbed on board a small ferry of sorts for a pleasant boat ride along the coast toward Abel Tasman National Park.

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Named for the Dutch explorer who was actually the first European to set eyes on New Zealand, the park is made up of more than 55,000 acres of native rain forest. Tasman himself never actually set foot on New Zealand, due in large part, apparently, to what appeared to be an angry collection of Maori locals in boats headed directly for him and his ship shortly after he discovered the place.

Our voyage along the coastline offers some truly striking views, and the water itself is incredibly calm, almost like liquid glass, undulating in lazy swells. There’s virtually no wind, and the only sound is the boat’s motor at the stern and the pleasing hiss of the bow cutting through the bay. Again, I felt obligated to take far too many photos.

The only way to actually get into Abel Tasman national park is by boat. There are no roads or power lines and running water is somewhat scarce. Lined with intriguing coves and sandy beaches, the park’s coastline is a popular destination for visitors looking to enjoy leisurely kayaking ventures. Abel Tasman is also literally filled with beautiful hikes through the rain forest connecting most of the secluded coves and beaches.

After about a half an hour on the boat, we went ashore to have a closer look at one of the coves and take in a little hike. The beach was something right off a tropical island, and as we headed into the trees, the forest was very dense. We stopped at a number of pleasant vista points as we hiked up a slight rise, and from these we all had a great look around. Returning to do some more hiking, and the chance to explore some of the secluded beaches and coves would be wonderful.

On our way back to the boats, we stopped to check out the Wilson’s Abel Tasman lodge. Only a few steps from the beach, the building reminded me a lot of a ski lodge, complete with wood paneling and fireplaces. Home to a variety of unique rooms, all comfortably furnished, the lodge would be perfect for a romantic get away for two. Especially for an active couple hoping to do a lot of hiking and kayaking between countless hours lounging on any number of secluded beaches.

As the shadows in the forest grew, we all climbed back onto the boat and enjoyed a remarkably quiet ride back to Kaiteriteri. Having spent a lot of time in the sun and breeze today, it wasn’t hard to do a little napping on what really seemed like a quick trip down the coastline to the town of Nelson.

Night 3: The Rutherford Hotel

Accommodations : I was a big fan of the Rutherford. The rooms were modern and spacious, fully equipped, and just downright enjoyable to hang out in. I even splurged on a couple of beers from the mini-bar.

Dinner : We ate tonight at the Oceano Restaurant, located on the second floor of the Rutherford. The setting itself was upscale, but not overly formal. I enjoyed an excellent salmon entree, and a wonderfully fruity panacota for desert.

Posted by Honolulu 23:43 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

New Zealand

Day Two: Trams, Gondolas, and Hot Springs

I’m not much of an earlier riser, but day two pretty much demanded a 7 am wake up call. So I dragged myself out of bed and headed down to the breakfast buffet, which offered a ton of fresh fruit, bagels, pastries, sausages and bacon, eggs, and all kinds of cereals and juices.

I finished breakfast in time to make it to the city’s historical tram tour right around 8 am. Nicknamed the “The Brill,” our tram was built in 1921 and was in service for around 30 years. Electric trams were actually introduced to Christchurch around 1905, and today there’s a fleet of four models from different historical periods that offer visitors a chance to ride around the city center. Driven by a funny, smartly dressed individual, complete with an earring, carefully groomed gray beard, and an engineer’s stripped hat, the tour was full of must see attractions and heavy on humor and historical facts. In total, our trip didn’t last much more than around twenty minutes.

Generally, for anyone who’s planning to stay several days in Christchurch, the tram seemed to me like an excellent way to get your bearings and learn more about places you might like to visit. It stops at a variety of parks, museums, and galleries. And Christchurch itself has a blossoming artists community, so a ride on the tram gives visitors a chance to scope out some of the better places to take in some of the region’s best artwork.

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Somewhat pressed for time, I chased down a taxi with three of my fellow tour goers—Chris, Yosh, and Sam—after the tram ride, and we headed outside of town to the Christchurch Gondola. Basically, the gondolas are enclosed ski lifts that carry visitors up to an excellent vantage point on the rim of a caldera, and the view from the top provides a stunning look over much of the area.

For visitors who have the time, the gondola is a great way to take in the beauty of the Canterbury region and get a better sense about its geological history. The volcanic craters that shaped the land are evident, and the beauty of the ocean and the mountains is dramatic. And there’s certainly no need to take a taxi. The gondola is serviced by a prompt and regular schedule of local busses and entirely accessible for visitors. But definitely plan a little extra time to have a snack or a drink at the café at the top. We all stopped for a little coffee and some fruit juice, and the backdrop was truly second to none. I had no problem taking far too many pictures.

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After a quick cab ride back into to town, we hopped immediately on to the tour bus, or coach as it’s known in New Zealand, and met Shannon Dudley, our knowledgeable and hilarious driver. On the way to Hammer Springs, a little mountain town a few hours north of Christchurch, Shannon offered us a variety of facts about our first real look at the marvelous New Zealand countryside. And as we curled our way along the surprisingly narrow road, a number of dense forests, picturesque mountains, and twisting rivers seemed to pop up around every turn.

Hammer Springs is well known for its geothermal pools, and most of us didn’t waste anytime finding our bathing suits and heading down to the hot springs after checking in to the hotel. The spa facility offers a lot of options, including private saunas and pools at very reasonable rates. There’s also a water slide for kids and a number of children friendly areas. My favorite of the many options, however, were the sulfur pools. They carried a pungent odor, but were by far the warmest. In the cool air of the autumn evening, the views of the mountains in the fading light were splendid and the warm water in the springs felt fantastic. Mustering up the energy to actually get out took me quite a while.

Night 2: The Heritage Hammer Springs Hotel

Accommodations: Our hotel was smaller tonight than the Grand Chancellor, but the room was again very comfortable and came fully equipped with a mini-bar that offered quite a collection of temptations. This time, however, we had a little tile porch outside, furnished with chairs and a little table, and, of course, impressive views of the mountains.

Dinner : Tonight was our first multi-course meal at the hotel, and I enjoyed the potato and leak soup before getting to the main course: rib eye steak complimented with a lovely little onion tart and steamed veggies. And for desert: a powerfully tart but tasty bit of cheesecake. I also enjoyed my first glass of New Zealand wine, a cabernet merlot mix from the Nelson region, which was excellent.

Posted by Honolulu 22:24 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

New Zealand

Day One: Arrivals and Frist Impressions

I got my first good look at New Zealand from the backseat of a taxi on my way to the hotel from the airport. It took me almost 10 hours of actual flight time to get from my home in Honolulu to Christchurch, the largest city on New Zealand’s south island, but what I was seeing through the taxi’s windows seemed almost familiar. Except, of course, that everybody was driving on the wrong side of the road, and that all of the street signs were the wrong color and shape, I felt a lot like I was passing through an American suburb. The homes, cars, and even the bright orange and red leaves on many of the trees all felt like images I’d seen somewhere before. We passed by several different parks and joggers, many pushing fast moving strollers, and all sorts of bicyclers and rollerbladers. Honestly though, the familiarity of what I was seeing was sort of comforting after such a long flight.

It really wasn’t until we got a little closer to the city’s center that I started to notice some pleasant surprises. The structures lining the street seemed to grow older as we continued, and brick homes popped up here and there. Larger brick buildings, with wonderfully ornate facades, became more prominent, and colorful storefronts and gardens were everywhere. In total, it didn’t take much more than ten minutes to get into the center of the city, and the layout there reminded me a lot of some the European towns I’ve visited, complete with a number of pedestrian walkways and squares.

It wasn’t long before I was lugging my purple duffle through the rotating doors of the Grand Chancellor Hotel, which was without a doubt the tallest building in town. In the lobby I met a number of fellow tour goers, including Neil Dudley, who is a pretty important guy at Scenic Tours—the company hosting all of us on the trip. Neil was an affable fellow right away and quick to laugh, which worked out well because we ended up being roommates in most of the hotels we stayed at. I also met Rachel, a Scenic Tour Director and the leader of our group. She too was quick to laugh and had a bright smile and warm way about her that I liked instantly. In short, after more than ten hours of excitement, and a great deal of jet lag, I felt like I was in good hands.

Cathedral Square

After unpacking my duffle and checking out my room a little, I headed downstairs and into the city for a little stroll. The center of Christchurch is filled with all sorts of little shops and great window-shopping, so I wandered down several streets, looking in all kinds of windows, without any real goal in mind. Without much effort I stumbled upon a charming city square featuring a large modern sculpture. Shaped a lot like an ice cream cone—one nearly the height of a two-story building—the metallic sculpture was bright in the sunlight and had ornate cookie cutter shapes sliced into to its circumference. The whole thing reminded me a little of an Olympic torch without an actual flame, and while it certainly stood out in the square, it did so in an impressive way and was hard not to admire.

I sat for several minutes on a bench near the sculpture and watched people snapping photos of their friends. Eventually, I decided to wander over to the square’s prominent stone cathedral for a look inside. I’ve always been a fan of cathedrals, and this one was certainly delightful. Constructed with beautiful stones and sweeping lines, the building shared many similarities with those I’ve seen in Europe. Overall, however, it was much less flashy, with fewer of the gothic and baroque details found in France and Italy, and gave off a refreshingly austere and subtler sense of self.

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I’d also walked in at an opportune moment because a large choir of both men and boys was practicing near the altar. Dressed in long, flowing garments, they were covered from head to toe in black with just a moment of white around their necks. The conductor, standing in front of the group and closest to me, was actually quite a show all by himself. His arms passionately gestured about him, punctuating particular notes with long fingers, and he had no problem stopping everything suddenly to offer commentary and direction. Then, as quickly as they stopped, the boys and men were at it again, filling the stone building with the beauty of their voices.

Night One: The Grand Chancellor

Accommodations : The hotel itself was a nice place and big. The service was prompt and courteous, and my room was very comfortable, complete with a gigantic bathroom and an all too tempting mini-bar. The New Zealand chocolates were particularly hard to pass up.

Food : Dinner was a buffet with all sorts of tasty options. I enjoyed the grilled chicken breast, roasted potatoes, and the nice selection of fresh fruit.

Posted by Honolulu 22:09 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

New Zealand

Prologue: One Very Pleasant Phone Call

When it comes to New Zealand, I guess I’m probably like a lot of people in that I didn’t really spend much time thinking about the place until after I’d seen the Lord of the Rings films. For me, the spectacular natural settings in those movies were really the stars of the show, and I suspect that even the viewers who didn’t care much for the films must have been at least mildly impressed by New Zealand’s remarkable landscapes. In my case astonished is probably a better word.

So when the folks at Pleasant Holidays called me this spring to ask if I’d be interested in joining several members of their team on a seven-day tour of New Zealand, I was understandably excited. As a freelance writer, I can’t think of a much better opportunity, and the chance to take in some of New Zealand’s natural beauty first hand certainly didn’t disappoint.

What follows is a daily look back at that trip and the many excellent experiences I shared with a group of around 40 travel professionals from a variety of different companies. I was a little surprised, incidentally, when I discovered I was the only writer on the tour, but that certainly didn’t keep me from enjoying myself and making a lot of new friends.

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Posted by Honolulu 21:27 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

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