Trip Report: New Zealand, Part I

Even if I posted every one of the five hundred photos I took on our first trip to New Zealand, I wouldn’t be able to convey to you the expansiveness of the country and its impact on our flat sky choked family.  Everything in us expanded on this trip – our minds, lungs, hearts, comfort zones and waistlines – as we took a peek at a country we hope to explore again and again.  We had only ten days, but with mom’s perseverance and many recommendations from friends who had paved the way, we came up with a winning itinerary that included Waiheke Island near Auckland, Queenstown (with a little Arrowtown and Wanaka thrown in) and Nelson’s stunning Abel Tasman National Park.

Would you be as surprised as was I to learn that New Zealand is a ten-and-a-half-hour flight and five hour time difference from Hong Kong (which changed to four while we were there)? You can get there from Los Angeles in only one hour more.  Before looking into it, I thought NZ was a rounding error from HK.  This was the first of many discoveries about a country I knew only as having good inexpensive wine, the Haka, a winning Rugby team, a Lord of the Rings connection and a lot of sheep.

I had resisted the idea of a trip to NZ not because I didn’t want to go, but because I thought Mr.E was too young.  I’m so glad mom pushed and we went anyway because the amount of growth I saw in all the kids, but Mr.E in particular, was remarkable.

Despite stiff competition, we were all in agreement that our best day was spent on Waiheke Island.  That particular day, we kicked off the morning with a much-needed run.  I don’t know about you, but for us there’s nothing more fun than a run that includes getting completely lost in a new place, finding a sign that says “tramping trail,” climbing a stile through a cow pasture and ending up at the most beautiful vineyard where we easily secured reservations for dinner that night, then rounding out the run with a stop for the best-boysenberry-muffin-you-ever-tasted consumed on a stroll back along the sands of a nude beach.  Meanwhile mom wrestled the kids up and we headed out to Stony Batter on the East side of the island.  Without too many details, the fort is a combination of incongruous lava rocks scattered across green rolling hillsides left from a volcanic eruption, and a series of spooky tunnels carved in the hillsides to protect Auckland from enemy attacks during WWII (though completed several years after the war ended).

A scenic walk leads visitors to the tunnel entrance. A local mother and her two sons, volunteers for the Stony Batter Preservation Society, linger there with an equal number of tame sheep, one with a terrible cold.  After petting the sheep, paying a fee for flashlight rental and trying desperately to decipher the ominous instructions given about which way to turn and when to ascend the series of tunnels, we headed into the darkness.   We poked around the tunnels until we came to a steep staircase leading to a ladder to a gun emplacement about 100 yards from where we started. This place is wild.

With no time to spare, we made it back to the car and tore off across the island for an afternoon kayak.  After some hesitation on the part of the tour operator over Mr.E’s age, he agreed and set us up with double sea kayaks.  Dudah was on his own, Sidewalk was grumpy about it and Mr.E was raring to go with grand mom.  You should have seen him.  We handed him a paddle and he intuitively knew how to do it and proceeded to paddle like a pro the whole two hours!  He was completely awesome, but not to be outdone by his big brother who had learned a thing or two at Telluride Academy last summer and handled his own kayak masterfully.  Dudah even made a very impressive attempt to swallow an oyster our guide knocked off a rock, but ultimately it ended up back in the sea.  We definitely saw seals, fish, starfish, shags and a baby shark on our peregrination, and possibly though unconfirmed, a penguin and a shark twice the size of the kayaks (personally, I think this was tip fishing, but who am I to say?).

Heading home, we cleaned ourselves up and were off again to Mudbrick Vineyard for one of the greatest meals of recent memory.  Nestled on a hill surrounded by organic gardens, grapevines and lavender with a view of downtown Auckland in the distance, Mudbrick has the most beautiful location, excellent wine and great food.  The kids were terrific and even spent time waiting for dinner to arrive rolling down the hill behind the restaurant.  You can’t beat that for kid-friendly!

Waiheke Island sits in the Hauraki Gulf, a 40-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland on the North island.  Originally settled and named “Te Motu-Arui-Roa” in 950, Captain Cook sailed by the island in 1769 and the first Europeans arrived in 1818.  I would describe it as half-hippy, half-wealthy second homeowner, it reminds me of so many places I’ve been and liked.  A little bit Bolinas/Stinson Beach, a little bit Telluride, Bainbridge Island, Swan’s Island, ME or Salt Spring Island, BC, it has that laid back artist-community island vibe where you can putter the day away at the beach or farmer’s market, but is also teeming with award-winning wineries & restaurants when you want a refined splurge.

We had surfed the Internet to find a house to rent while we were there and ended up with a lovely, quirky cottage with its own orchard and swing in the back and great views in every direction.  You never know what you’re going to get booking accommodations that way, but I was not disappointed with any of the three houses we ended up in this trip, and it’s more fun than a hotel!

Our other days on Waiheke were mostly spent on the beaches.  Onetangi Beach was covered in sea life that made for interesting exploration and play.  Zoë collected over 100 dead sand dollars and lined them up artistically while Ethan and I found a starfish and searched for trophy shells.  We ate meals at the local beachside places, Charlie Farley’s being the best, and wandered the farmer’s market too.

As with every place, our time there was too short, but off to Queenstown we went.  Queenstown is about as opposite from Waiheke as you can get.  Located on the southern end of the south island, Queenstown was in the throws of an unseasonably cold fall.  We built fires every day, wore every stitch of warm clothes we brought and wished we had more, but in exchange were treated to a bona fide fall, Vermont style!  Snow on the imposing surrounding mountain tops, gold and red flaming trees on the hillsides and dramatic skies over lake Wakatipu.  The house we rented matched the city.  It was new and sleek, dramatic, vulnerable to the elements and cool though somehow a little imposing.  I found myself wondering if anyone does anything but extreme sport tourism in Queenstown?  My Brother-in-law would be in his element here.  At any given moment you can see jet boaters, Para gliders jumping off mountain tops, helicopters and prop planes, bungee platforms, mountain bikes, luges and any other number of adrenaline-inducing events interacting simultaneously with the jagged mountains that ring the city perched on the banks of the icy lake. It feels like a “do” rather than “be” kind of place.

I loved sleepy Arrowtown.  This charming to the point of precious main street town ½ an hour from QT was lined with restaurants and quaint shops.  We spent a morning there then dropped Dudah and mom at the stables for frigid but great horseback riding while we went to Wanaka to explore another lakeside town that was equally dramatic, but with a Lake Havasu vibe.

Most of our time in QT was spent on bicycles, the gondola, the luge, and the trampoline at the house.  We enjoyed the unstructured time to be outside, kick the soccer ball around the huge yard and improve the bicycle skills of all the kids.  One morning we ventured to town to see the Kiwi Bird Park, an endangered animal sanctuary that is clever and informative.  We saw a real live Kiwi and were surprised by how big they are and that they have evolved to have neither wings nor feathers.  Even calling them birds is a bit of a misnomer.  Who knew?  They have a small Maori culture exhibit there as well.  We also enjoyed great meals in QT and Arrowtown at Saffron, Joe’s Garage (for breakfast) and Jack’s Point as well as the famous Fergburger.  Our best discovery was a dry Riesling from Amisfield Vineyards, which we sampled and then sent home a case to Hong Kong. It’s surprising and tasty if you’re a dry white wine drinker.

Our one adventure day in QT was unforgettably cool in my opinion.  At the recommendation of friends I booked a flight to Milford Sound on a prop plane and then a two-hour nature cruise on the fjord.  My entire party balked at the flight and was more scared than excited, but they all got on the plane and though white knuckled, they all made it.

I thought the views were tremendous and the cruise around the Sound was extremely chilly, but also glorious on a rare clear and sunny day.  It’s an extraordinary place to see and I stand by the flight as the best way to do it.  We saw the Milford Trail, the highest waterfall in NZ coming from a glacier lake we looked down upon, and so many other otherwise inaccessible sites on the way, but it was admittedly somewhat alarming to be flying straight at the mountain as the pilot often waited what seemed like too long to adjust our elevation to the seemingly quickly approaching cliff.  I hold firm that it’s much more dangerous, statistically, to put your kid in the car and drive to soccer practice, but fear is fear, rational or not.  You can’t reason people out of fear, and if you put me at the top of a Black Diamond on skis I’ll eat crow pretty fast.  Still, I think they ended up enjoying the day.

Our final destination was Nelson.  With only one full day to spend I took advice and booked an all-day charter boat on Abel Tasman National Park.  I’m so glad I did.  Though we had an unusually cloudy day and again were bundled as best we could, we still kayaked, waded in the water, hiked a small portion of the trail and enjoyed a nice fresh lunch on the deck of the boat.  Abel Tasman is known for it’s golden sand beaches, turquoise waters and prolific sea life and parkland.  Much of the territory is protected marine reserve and all a national park, so it’s teeming with sea life and kayakers who, like us, arrived to see it.  From our tour guide who grew up on the bay we learned so much about the area and even a few useful New Zealand phrases like “I’m wet as a shag” which means to be soaked to the bone (the shag being a cormorant) and “shagging around” which means to look like you’re not doing anything but you’re actually quite busy.

Our house in Nelson was a riot.  A turn of the century Victorian that mom suspects was jacked up a level to get a better view, it was one of those adorable charmers, but quirky beyond compare.  The attic room had a bathtub sunk in the middle of the wood floor, but the house was gracefully spacious and teeming with light through its gorgeous windows.  I could have sat on the porch all day.

Instead,  we again took advantage of rock star grand mom to hold down the fort while we ran the hilly town to get oriented and pick a dinner spot.  We ended up eating at a fantastic place located not two minutes from the house.  It was called the Boat Shed and the chef’s choice menu was out of this world.  We also had a solid breakfast at Lambretta’s right in town.  Nelson is much more industrial than I expected and seemed more like Berkeley or Santa Cruz than Laguna Beach (as a friend described it) to me. We definitely didn’t have enough time to explore here, but I’m glad we went and got a glimpse.

Summer arrived in Hong Kong while we were away.  By the time we got back the pool at the American Club has opened and the sun is shining.  We turned on the air conditioners and busted out the bathing suits again for the season.  While New Zealand really is the perfect antidote to Hong Kong, it’s everything that Hong Kong is not, still I was surprisingly happy to be in Hong Kong.  This life, while not always fulfilling, is a blessing to be enjoyed as long as it lasts.

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