Thursday, August 30, 2012

New Adventures

Kia Ora! In New Zealand, hello, thank you, and welcome - in this case, welcome to new adventures. I got married on August 15th to one of the greatest (and most patient) guys I know, and for our honeymoon we wanted to go big and kick off our new lives with an adventure (we figured we better do it now since by the time our kids graduate from high school we will be very old...and perhaps not fully cognizant), so we made one of our dreams come true now and bought tickets to The Land of the Long White Cloud.
We headed out the day after the wedding for a 10-day trip to both the North and South Islands. NZ is 19 hours ahead of CA and it's about a 13-hour plane ride to get there from LA (thank the Maker for ambien) so even though we left on Thursday night we actually arrived on Saturday the 18th. Here's our report for those who like reading and want more details of the adventure, otherwise just look through the pictures and wait for more on facebook:
QUEENSTOWN Long live the QUEENstown! This was our first stop and by far my favorite, evidenced by the fact I took more pictures here than anywhere else. It's a town of about 28,000 on the South Island and close to Milford Sound which is one of the main places we both wanted to see. The first thing we saw when we got off the plane was a range of high jagged mountains aptly named The Remarkables. They're one of the few ranges in NZ that run North to South and were used various times for scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies.
We decided we came at the right time of year (even if it's still winter there) because The Remarkables are prettiest when they're still dusted with snow. Queenstown is also nestled by a lake - Lake Wakatipu which is more narrow like a river but is 56 miles long (there are some interesting legends about the lake).
Our first tour was a bus ride through Fiordland (very picturesque)
to the Milford Sound where we took a 2-hour cruise through some of the area and took some pictures of the very recognizable Mitre peek.
Thankfully, we did not get seasick as these waters were pretty still (dramamine helped too. Curse my sensitivity to motion.) It was truly beautiful here. Of all the areas we saw, I'd like to go back to this one, explore some more and do the famous Milford Sound walk.
On our second full day in Queenstown (and our nerdiest), a jeep picked us up for a tour of different Lord of the Rings sites used in the movies.
I liked this tour a lot because it was more personal - only 4 of us in the jeep including our British Kiwi tour guide Georgia, who was very Celtic looking. She stopped at different sites, beautiful with or without the movie, including the Forest of Lothlorien, Isengard, Amon Hen, some Rohan shots, etc...
(I have more details and pictures for fellow enthusiasts interested). At any rate it was awesome and apparently NZ a very popular place to film. Georgia pointed out sites where Willow, Chronicles of Narnia, and X-Men Wolverine were filmed. It's a gorgeous, feels-like-you're-in-the-middle-of-nowhere place and very uncrowded. In fact, there are more sheep than people in NZ. After our tour, we went to a famous burger place in town called Fergburgers (a must for anyone visiting). I tried a venison burger called the Sweet Bambi, which I must admit was very tasty. Vic had a burger I like to call the Heart Attack - a half pound of beef, bacon, and cheese.
Our last 2 days in Queenstown were spent taking the Gondola up the side of the mountain, hiking, watching paragliders and parasailers (apparently this town is the adventure capital of the world), and learning about greenstone (jade) which NZ is famous for and was valued by the Maori people far more than gold.
Yep, I was a bit sad to leave this city after four days. This is a definite must return.
ROTORUA On August 22 we headed to Rotorua on the North Island which we were told is a big tourist city because it's a Maori cultural center and a heavy geothermic activity area - their version of Yellowstone National Park except you have to pay pretty handsomely to see their geysers.
Even though Rotorua's much larger than Queenstown, it felt much quieter...almost too quiet, like a ghost town. The Rotorua museum is in an impressive Edwardian-style building in a central area known as Government Gardens.
We learned about the first polynesians who came to the islands and the popular mudbaths there (unfortunately we didn't get to take one of these but we did buy some mud soap). Despite the fact that the American dollar is stronger in NZ, things were still pretty expensive, especially food. I didn't figure it out til later (thanks to Taxman Vic) but they have a built-in 15% tax on anything you buy. I admit, with only partial shame, that the first of our two nights there we just got dinner at Pizza Hut next door (much cheaper). The next day was our second nerdiest day and one I was very excited for: we went to Hobbiton.
In a town called Matamata, about 45 minutes north of Rotorua, is rolling green farmland where all the Shire scenes were filmed, and this time the set left standing for visitors (or freaks, depending on how you look at it. In our tour van, I was the only girl amongst a group of Dungeons-and-Dragons looking bachelors - except for Vic now, of course). The Alexander family owns the 1250 acres of lovely farmland and runs the tours. There are about 17 hobbit holes still intact, including the green-doored Bag-End at the top and the famous tree just above (which actually has fake leaves. Sh...I have a few. The van driver gave it to me for answering a trivia question). It was cool, and pretty magical being there, but nothing quite compares with the transformative world of movie magic, and how it looks on film. (Thanks to the Makers of this great trilogy.)
That night we went on the Tamaki Heritage Experience, where a bus picked us up and took us to a Maori village where they introduced us to cultural games, weaving, warrior training, and some 'Haka' practice which Vic excelled at.
For those who don't know what Haka is, just google "All Blacks Rugby" (NZ's top national sport) and you'll get the idea. They then entertained us with singing and dancing and had a big 'Hangi' meal at the end where they cook the bulk of the meal in the ground. Had an interesting flavor - almost a hint of smoky sulphur which I don't think I'd want to duplicate each night.
On the way back our bus driver had each nationality aboard sing a song from their country (all we could think of was "Yankee Doodle Dandee" so we sang that. I don't even know what that song means). Then the driver honked his horn repeatedly and drove in circles in the traffic roundabout until we finished singing "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes." I think he was completely sober too. Ah...AUCKLAND
The next day (Aug. 24th) we headed to Auckland - about a 3-hour bus ride north, but along the way we stopped at the famous Waitomo glowworm caves. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take pictures inside. Apparently the flashes of light disturb the worms, but they give off these tiny blue lights in the cave and it really looks like you're looking up at the night sky. We took a little boat ride through the limestone caves where we had to be completely quiet too (I guess they don't like noise either. Sounds like a glowworm rest home to me).
From there we continued on to Auckland. The city has a nice feel to it - like something in the Northwest (I kept inadvertently calling their Sky Tower the Space Needle). It's mellow, cultural, pretty, and surrounded by old volcanic hills and bays. By the time we came to this city, around day 6, Vic and I were speaking in quasi British/Kiwi accents to each other, almost without thinking. (By the way, why can't we use expressions like 'cheers,' 'brilliant' and 'mate?' And while I'm asking questions, how come the US didn't just adopt Kilometers and Celsius like everyone else?)
The Auckland Museum was great – again lots of information and exhibits on the Maori people and history of the Islands. Interestingly enough, a lot of explorers/settlers bypassed NZ initially because of all the brush and sheer cliffs, which to them made it seem uninhabitable.
Albert Park was also a very pretty park and since it had a fountain I had to keep with tradition and make a wish there. The All Blacks had a big rugby game against Australia over the weekend so the streets were filled with excited fans, including a group of hardcore enthusiasts who would go into the intersection on red lights and dance in their All Blacks apparel. It was fun to watch. The city and people have a great energy. Despite all this, though, I still missed Queenstown and would have gladly traded 2 of the 4 days in Auckland for two more there. Additional things we did in Auckland: tried a Lamb burger at McDonald’s since that’s the current craze now, went to the Auckland Art Gallery (also very cool and modern), visited the Maritime Museum where we saw the famous ship that took America's Cup, and climbed One Tree Hill, which U2 wrote a song about. It’s on a really pretty hill (of course) surrounded by what looks like a peaceful English countryside scattered with a good amount of sheep.
There’s a tall obelisk monument there but the actual tree, a gift to the Maori, was sadly hacked down by activists a few decades ago. They're currently arguing about what to replant. In the meantime, I tried to fill in and be a tree for awhile. I think in an alternate reality, I would have made a good tree.
The 360 degree view at the top was invigorating and a great way to say goodbye to Auckland and the amazing country of New Zealand. FINAL OBSERVATIONS - They have very clean bathrooms everywhere you go - The drinking water, including tap, has absolutely zero floaties in it - Their version of a 'large' drink is more like a small in the US - People there are generally very friendly and easy going - I think we should adopt their system of shopping baskets - 'Rocket' is another name for arugula - Instead of 'To go', 'Yield' and 'Exit', they use 'Take Away', 'Give Way' and 'Way Out'
- Tourism is supposed to be the number one industry in NZ and I for one have to say they're very good at it and seem to treat visitors with gratitude for that and graciousness in their service. Thank you New Zealand! I would go again, 1,000 times over, (as long as I have ambien for the plane ride.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

O Canada, ay?

I love Banff! And I mean that. If I had another bumper sticker (next to the I Love NY and the Yellowstone one) that is what it would say.

I just got back from a trip to Canada with some friends who participated in the Calgary Iron Man 70.3. I pretty much had two main thoughts as I laid on the grass all day waiting for the triathletes to roll in: A) I need to be out there doing this too - being a spectator gets old; and B) These people are crazy. I like my daily runs of reasonable length where my muscles aren't screaming the following day.

My friends' (Lana & Tony) hard work paid off, though. They got into the world championships next month in Vegas. I, on the other hand, found running around Calgary's Prince Island the highlight of my athletic exertions. There's something about a city built around a river. It reminded me of Europe. So did the fact that everything closed around 5pm. Seriously? Museums, shopping, even Subway and Quiznos, closed in the evening. When I asked the concierge about it she informed me that Calgary is pretty much dead at night, no one hangs around (I guess in that way it resembles Salt Lake City).

While we were there, even the daytime was dead because of some long holiday weekend that most Canadians we asked couldn't tell us the purpose of. Random holidays sound great to me! The people were really nice though, and their accents pretty charming. To me, it resembles a Minnesotan accent. I think I picked it up while I was there. I keep talking like a Canadian and adding, "ay" onto everything, and it's not because I'm making fun of them either. Accents for me are really just addictive.
After Iron Man and a day at the Glenbow museum (which I really enjoyed...enhanced my appreciation for modern art and tried to make some of my own with Lana - see picture)

we headed to Canmore just 12 miles from Banff. We stayed at a nice resort called the Falcon Crest (like the tv show if you're old enough to remember) and loved it there as well. It was like an even cooler version of Park City or Jackson Hole and yes, the weather was cooler up there too. A nice 70 degrees.

There was a unique mountain range there called The Three Sisters and pretty much beautiful mountains all around. We headed into Banff the next day and that was definitely my favorite part of the trip, even though driving up through Glacier was awesome too. I've never enjoyed breathing so much. The scenery in Banff just had it all going on, from the glacier-cut mountains, to the glacier-milk waterways (a term for the milky greenish-blue water. Looks so good I could drink it.)

The place just has good vibes. I think I liked it almost as much as Yellowstone and that's saying a lot for me. We saw a new animal to the side of the road almost throughout the entire day. It was like someone was cueing them to show up (I secretly think they might have been). It was almost too good to be true. We saw a total of 8 bears.

EIGHT BEARS in one day - 2 black cubs, 2 brown cubs, and 4 mamas. It was awesome. And our grand total, thanks to Lana's computing skills, was 28 animals. Unfortunately, I've still yet to see a wolf.

Two of my favorite spots were Lake Louise (better than a postcard) and Takakkaw Falls actually in Yoho National Park right next to Banff. I had a Lord of the Rings moment. I just needed the soundtrack as I ran through the trees pretending to be an elf. If only...

Anyway, it was a great little vacation and refreshing to see new beauties. I'm also considering moving there now. Why not? Canada starts with a C just like my first and last name. By the way, I didn't realize that calling ourselves Americans bothers the Canadians. Apparently since we're all from North America we're technically all Americans so I guess they don't like the fact we usurped the name for ourselves. I'm sorry, but United States citizen is too many syllables when I can just say American. If they wanted to be called Americans they shouldn't have named their country Canada. Other than that, Canada's got my vote!