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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

March 2010 – New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Australia and back to NZ. Part 1

Busy month.  When we returned from the South Island, we buzzed around getting as much maintenance done as possible in the few days between that trip and our upcoming trip to Andy and Melissa's wedding in Sri Lanka.  Nothing major – just the usual "getting ready to go offshore" kind of stuff.  Before we knew it March 9th had arrived.  We were flying to Sri Lanka via Melbourne, Australia (just for a plane change), and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where we planned to spend 4 days, using the Ritz Carlton gift certificates that some of our friends gave to us upon Frank's retirement.
21 hours after leaving Auckland a flight attendant in her most perky voice welcomed us to Kuala Lumpur, telling us the local time, and casually stating that illegal drugs are not permitted in Malaysia and that the crime for carrying them is punishable by death.  Yes, well we will bear that in mind.
As we cleared into KL, we felt our adrenalin begin to spark & sputter.  The airport alone is a city alive with people moving about in every direction but in no direction.  The terminal is "open air", and packed with cafés and coffee shops.  Of course, Ronald McDonalds' smiling face and waving hand greeted us right away.  We caught the bus into the city a one hour drive for $6 (US).  We liked this place already!
Arriving at the Ritz Carlton, the young man at the front desk must have taken pity on us as he peered at our disheveled and exhausted selves because he said, "I'm going to upgrade your room".  Splendid!  We were taken to a beautiful suite on the Concierge level.  Just as we were about to kick our shoes off, there was a tentative knock at the door.  Frank opened it to a very tall, stately young man who introduced himself to us as Loh, our Butler, presenting us a welcome drink and snacks and asking if there was anything we required.  We weren't sure what to do with a butler, although we felt certain we could sort this out.
The next day we slept until 11:00AM as our body clocks adjusted to the various time zones we had morphed through. Frank signed us up for a 5-hour city tour, and then we walked over to the adjoining Starwood Mall for a bite of lunch.  The vast mall was nearly empty.  It was also very upscale.  Rodeo Drive upscale.  10 stories high. Each floor was dedicated to a specific product.  One floor was nothing but shoes and handbags. Another just watches, another sold only menswear, and so on.  The top floor was nothing but salons and spas.  The bottom floor was filled with high-end restaurants of very ethnic food imaginable. We chose to lunch at a Lebanese restaurant.
Our tour was scheduled to depart from our hotel at 1:00 PM; hence we ate and ran. Other than two adorable young ladies named Citra and Juanita from Indonesia, we had the van and the driver, James to ourselves.  James is a native of Chinese decent and as he drove us about he explained to us that Malaysia represents a melding of the many Asian cultures, as is indicated in the local food, the various religions and the local dress.  As he drove he gave us a very impressive narrative of the history of this country. He took us to the Palace where we were not permitted admittance but could take pictures of the guards who flanked the ornate gates and of the palace that was set back in the distance.  
Outside the Palace
We went to the twin towers but had already decided not to enter because visitors are only allowed up as far as the bridge between the two, and we would have to get in line for tickets at 6:00 AM.  Not for us.  The towers are magnificent, and we were impressed to know that each tower was built by a different country.  I won't spend this entire entry going into their fascinating history so I defer to Google for that.

From the towers we moved along to the Chinese Buddhist Temple whose entry is guarded by statues representing the animals of the Chinese calendar.  I was reminded of placemats in my favorite Chinese restaurant in Houston.  The largest and most prominent of the creatures is the massive and beautifully colored dragon.  We walked through the garden posing by the animal that represented each of our birth years.  Frank's is the boar, and mine is the rooster.  We then took our shoes off and entered the Temple.  We each took turns with the fortune sticks and washing ourselves in the holy water at the fountain. We spent a good bit of time there.
Barb, Citra, Juanita, Frank

Frank - Year of the Pig/Boar

Barb - Year of the Rooster/Cock

  Next stop was the Royal Selangor pewter factory.  We took a tour through the museum and learned the history of Malaysia's tin mining and the process of making pewter.  We were shown how pewter is made and in turn how items are made from pewter.  We were even given the opportunity to do a little bit of pounding and shaping some products.  Amazingly, this factory makes all of its products by hand.  On the way out we were shown the largest beer mug in the world, made of pewter.  It has made it into the Guinness Book.

We drove through China town, Little India, Little Indonesia, and so on.  James pointed out that the area by our hotel houses more than ten shopping malls within a one-mile radius.  Many of them are 10–12 stories high.  OMG!  We stopped at a silk factory that creates batik fabrics and after being given a demonstration of the art were given a chance to do a bit of shopping.  We drove over to the incredibly well done and very large War Memorial, spanning all of the wars in which Malaysia or her people took part. We ended the day at Beryl's Chocolate factory – dangerous!  We knew that whatever we purchased here would have to be eaten quickly so it wouldn't melt in the sweltering heat of KL, so we did our dead level best!  Returning to the hotel, Frank and I stashed our goods and took off to explore these magnificent malls.  In fact that is what we did the following day as well.  We got into full sensory overload. 
We ended one day by booking high tea at our hotel, which of itself was a delight.  Afterward in our room, while relaxing after that particularly long day of walking, and getting some rest before dinner we were paid a visit from Loh.  He was just checking to make sure we were enjoying ourselves and seemed to just want to chat. He asked us if we were planning to go out for dinner and whether or not we need any recommendations or reservations.  How sweet!  We eventually went out to a very good Chinese restaurant, and when we returned to the room, I noticed a gentle floral scent had pervaded our room, and it seemed that the room was aglow.  We leaned in to discover that the entire suite was alight with little votives!  Frank turned on the lights and walked into the bedroom, announcing that the bedroom and sitting area were not only lit up with candles but were also covered in rose petals and that the bed was decorated with towel sculptures. Same in the bathroom, and a hot aromatherapy bath had been drawn!  There was a note on the bedside from Loh, telling us what a pleasure it has been having us with them, and that he had had something special done for us.  What a sweetie!

Our final day in KL was dedicated to a 4-hour spa treatment at the Ritz.  It began by two very small women ushering us into our private retreat, which included a very large outdoor courtyard that contained a little pool and large open shower. They served us special tea and then instructed us to disrobe and lay down (on a cloud no less).  We started with a full body treatment – a scrub, exfoliation, face and hair treatment.  His was the men's version and mine for ladies of course.  After being exfoliated and smeared with wonderful oils and lotions we each received a specialized massage.  Mine was phenomenal, yet Frank's must have been even better because before long he was snoring like a chainsaw!  The women were trying very hard not to giggle but I couldn't hold back.  When finished, Frank's masseuse had to prod him awake.  We were then rubbed with another scrub and then told to step into to our private outdoor shower.  I felt like Gumby, legs all rubbery as I forced myself out there.  Following our cleansing, we were directed into the little pool where a luxuriant bath of milk, ginger, rose and other essentials was waiting and in it floated various flower petals and slices of fruits.  While soaking we were served yet another delicious tea.  Our spa experience ended with an aromatherapy steam.  Each of us was seated into a personal steam compartment and zipped in up to our necks.  We steeped out impurities for 20 minutes until we nearly passed out.  What an incredible way to spend a rainy day!  The best part is that we both did all this for under $400 USD!
We really had a wonderful visit in KL.  We ate excellent food, shopped but didn't buy too much because we still had a couple more countries to visit, and saw as much of this very large city as possible.  The worst part was leaving the hotel at 3:30 AM on the 14th ,to get to the airport for our early morning flight to Sri Lanka.

Feb 25 – 28, 2010; Hanmer Springs and then back to Auckland

Our final stop in the South Island was the tiny little resort hamlet of Hanmer Springs, just 90 kilometers inland from Christchurch and known for the thermal hot springs in the center of town.  Marsha and Earl had booked their lodging right in town on the main square.  Frank and I opted for a scenic cabin over by the golf course. We dropped them off and took the car over to our digs. Our cabin was so spacious and well appointed that we decided to kick back and just take it easy for the next couple of days and to enjoy the natural thermal springs before heading back to Destiny.  We made ourselves at home and then walked the short distance to town, leaving the car at the lodge.  We strolled around and got familiar with the few streets in town.  It didn't take long. Then we checked out the Thermal Springs and Spa.  We booked a couples spa experience on the following day.  We had dinner at a charming but forgettable café – the food was pricey and detestable!  We walked away wondering how places like that get away with it. Anyway, back at the hotel we settled in for an evening of Olympics.  Although we enjoyed being able to catch the games, we missed our American broadcasters and commentators. There is a conspicuous lack of commentary during the events here, particularly during the figure skating.  It took us a while to adjust to this, and the fact that our favorite events are not necessarily the favored events of the NZ press but we really appreciated just being able to watch what we could while we could.

Friday, we had a late morning breakfast in the cabin and then got our stuff together and set off for the Spa.  We spent hours there, getting our steam and massage treatments and then entered the thermal springs.  There are 13 pools ranging from adult only to family, 48 degrees C, down to 38.  Some were very sulfurous and quite hot but we tried them all – nearly.  We felt an aversion to the kiddie pools.

That is about the most activity we had while there – short walks and dips at the spa.  We also had a Jacuzzi in our bathroom, so I could put bath salts in there and pretend as well.  Ah – so nice, but we were ready to get going.  We missed our boat and were itching to go sailing.

So it was that our South Island trip had come to an end.  We arose early on our last day and drove to the airport in Christchurch.  By late afternoon we were back aboard our beloved Destiny.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Feb 22 – 24, 2010 Christchurch, NZ

The city of Christchurch is one of those places with a very European sense and feel. We felt as though we had stepped through the time capsule to a place in a Charles Dickens novel.  Much of the original architecture has been preserved.  The town square is simply charming.  We booked into a beautiful studio for three nights that was close to the town center yet far enough away from the late night partygoers.  There is a lot to do in this town for just about anyone of any age. 

On the first day we walked to the vast Botanical Gardens.  They were as diverse as any we had seen. Earl and Marsha are flower growers in California, so they were really in Heaven, and took off in one direction as Frank and I just meandered on our own. We spent hours walking the paths that took us from one eye feast to another.  The rose gardens were gorgeous! Throughout the entire place were species of trees from every corner of the world, and some were massive.  The interactive herbivorous plant house was straight out of "Little Shop of Horrors" – we loved it. Frank and I are not big horticulturists, yet we enjoyed these gardens immensely. We eventually arrived at a very large clearing where a stage was being set up for one of the free summer series concerts and so we settled in for the show. I have forgotten her name now, but the singer was a young woman from Iceland.  She was incredibly talented, had a very strange tattoo of a vine winding down the side of her face, with the voice of an angel.  She sang in English then performed in her native Icelandic tongue.  Following the concert we left the gardens and strolled through a couple of museums of which there are many, then we ended our day at one of Christchurch's many sidewalk restaurants.

Tuesday was a big day for me.  My nephew, Scotty Johnson is a college kid who decided to study in Sydney, Australia for his Spring (their Fall) semester, beginning his trip with an 8-day adventure to New Zealand with a group of fellow students.  As fate would have it, Scotty would be coming to Christchurch on the 23rd, for just one night.  He wouldn't be arriving until 4:30 in the afternoon so we busied ourselves about town.  We took the old fashioned street car tour of the city, learning detailed historical facts, seeing much of the city's varied architecture, historical points of interest and spotting our own points of interest for exploring later on our own.  It really is a lovely place full of rich history and culture.  Close to 4:00 we made our way over to a café adjacent to the hostel that would house the student group for the night.  We could hear them coming before we saw a large motor coach rounding the corner full of chattering teenagers.  They piled out of the bus and scurried around like ants waiting for bags and direction.  He was thrilled to see us waiting there.  We told him to get settled into his digs and we'd be back to pick him up for an early dinner.  We took him to a good restaurant for dinner; he said this was the first real food he had eaten in weeks.  Poor kid! We enjoyed spending the evening with him.  I'm so proud of him!  He is mostly paying for this whole semester out of his own hard earned money, and he told us that this would be a good growing up experience for him to be so far away from his immediate family.  He would have to figure things out on his own without being able to just go to his Mom and Dad, who are normally just a couple hundred miles away by car.  As they say in NZ, "Good on ya, Scotty!"

On Wednesday, after I spent a considerable amount of time getting some laundry done while Frank read and watch TV, we went shopping and driving around the area, then dined out at a local popular Italian restaurant.  Then on Thursday we set off for Hanmer Springs.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Feb 20th – 22rd Penguins and the East Coast (Oamaru and Timaru)

The oceanside community of Oamaru, boasted two big attractions for us, which were both penguin-related.  A conservation society in Oamaru had set up a preserve in the natural habitat that is home to the largest colony of (tiny) Blue Penguins in New Zealand, and not far from town is a nesting spot of some Yellow-eyed Penguins, which are a very elusive and endangered species.  The penguins actually live in nests and burrows in the ground, along the shorelines of certain beaches.  They leave the nest at daybreak each day to swim miles and miles offshore in search of food.  They gorge themselves on fish and then return to the nest to feed their mates and their young.  When the chicks are young, one mate stays behind to protect the nest.  This is the only place we know of in New Zealand that provides an opportunity to see both species in their natural habitats.
We arrived at our hotel and naively asked the woman at the front desk to help us find out how and where to see the penguins.  She very graciously informed us that we could venture on our own over to the nesting site of the "Yellow-eyed" penguins and that we should drive on over shortly because they come in around dusk.  She further mentioned that we might see several or none at all.  We would need a reservation for viewing the "Blue-eyeds", so she phoned the Habitat headquarters to make us a booking and was told there were only 3 spaces left.  We had no idea it was so formal.  We begged and cajoled for 4 people, but the person on the other end of the phone line stood firm.  Earl and Marsha said they were just too tired and begged off so Frank and I paid the $20 PP and took 2 of the remaining spots.  We were told to arrive at around 8:45. 
The Yellow-eyed penguin habitat is on protected land; you park your car along a dirt road and walk 100 meters or so to a cordoned-off area on the face of a cliff.  There are signs everywhere reminding us to please keep very quiet and to remain as still as possible so not to disturb or disrupt the penguins.  If they become frightened or distressed they will not come to shore, leaving the nestlings to starve to death.  Video cameras are discouraged and still cameras should be used sans flash. The staging area for viewing is covered in tall grass and weeds practically obscuring our view of the beach far below, so we didn't understand all of the warnings and precautions, but abided even so.  Many people were already crowded around the barrier at various vantage points.  We got close to the front of the barrier and waited.  I looked at the ground immediately in front of the barrier and saw holes that appeared to be rabbit or groundhog burrows.  I wondered what they were and thought perhaps these were Stoat burrows.  Stoats are natural predators to these and other protected species such as Kiwi Birds.  Frank indicated that we should move to another area to get a better view of the beach.  Later we realized what a mistake that was.  We moved and waited.  We waited about an hour as several people gave up hope and left, yet others continued to arrive.  It seemed we were all dubious at this point.  I had been straining to see down the 100 yards or so to the beach for so long that my mind began to wander and my eyes started playing tricks on me.  I was just about to give it up when I saw something break the surface at the water's edge.  It was the tiny little head of a penguin.  How exciting!  He belly-floated in on the surf, popped upright and began waddling across the sand and out of sight, obscured by the cliff's edge.  We continued our wait for another half hour, but saw no more arrivals, and then there was a sudden mumbling and bustling over at the area we had originally been situated.  We could see that the penguin had actually climbed the cliff face and was in the bushes not 5 feet from where those onlookers stood.  She was calling to her chick and spreading her flippers in a ritualistic manner.  Apparently the holes in the ground are penguin burrows – argh! Of course we are kicking ourselves for having moved.  We could see her but not very well, so we inched our way over and hoped that someone would give us a chance to get a closer look.  The chick came out of the burrow and began interacting with the adult.  It was an intimate moment and a touching sight.  The group of onlookers became a typical (rude) crowd as people began shoving and chattering loudly, elbowing and stepping on one another, shoving cameras in front of other peoples faces forgetting the warning signs posted all about.  It was upsetting to watch; yet this penguin and the chick seemed locked into their own world, sharing something very special.  It was beautiful. I wanted to swat those rude people.  We could not get close enough for a good picture so we held our cameras over the heads of the others and tried for random shots, and then left.  In spite of the actions of some people, we felt touched by this experience and were very happy that we had come.
We left there and drove directly over to the Blue Penguin habitat not far from the town wharf.  Now this is quite a professional set up. We were led to a grandstand that had been built adjacent to the nesting grounds. We sat and listened as the head researcher explained to us a few housekeeping rules before the penguins were to begin arriving.  No cameras of any kind were permitted here.  In fact, no lighting is permitted so as not to cause them night blindness (or to frighten them).  Occasionally, some of the penguins get confused when coming out of the water, and for whatever reason, an odd one here and there will start heading off in a different direction, sometimes ending up in the grandstands, the parking lot, or even on the nearby railroad tracks. Under no uncertain terms were we to engage them.  We were further warned to be mindful of this fact when leaving, and to be sure to look under our cars and to scan the parking lot for these perplexed penguins that had lost their way.  If we saw one we were not to shine our headlights nor try to take photos of them because this would cause them temporary blindness, or make them frightened or agitated and they would then not be able to find their nests.  There have been dead penguins found on the railroad tracks, in ditches and on roads and nearby driveways.  After feeling she had made this clear to us she continued to acquaint us with the nature and habits of these tiny penguins.  Each one is tagged so that at night when they come ashore they are counted and inventoried so that the conservation society can keep track of them.  We could see the nests and burrows and hear the chicks inside them as a few adults scurried back and forth from one to another.  Just when darkness began to settle the first "raft" of Blues arrived in the surf below.  They swim in groups of 20 – 50, called rafts.  They stand at the water's edge for 10 to 15 minutes getting dried off and picking at themselves with their beaks.  Actually they are applying waterproofing to their feathers by means of a gland by their hind legs, which produces the substance.  They use their beaks to spread this stuff throughout their feathers.  When they have finished this process they move en masse to the top of the embankment where they just stand stark sill for another 15 minutes or so.  They appeared to be waiting for an indication that the coast was clear to cross the dirt road that separated the beach from the nesting grounds.  Then one would lean way over and make a mad dash!  Or a mad waddle whatever the case may be, and the others would follow, sometimes tripping and falling face down in the rush to cross the road.  They would enter the habitat and stand in yet another huddle waiting for their mates or chicks to call them to the nest. It is quite an amazing ritual to observe that, from start to finish lasts about 30 minutes. It is nothing short of cute!  As one group would be staging at the top of the embankment another raft of penguins would arrive, repeating the exercise.  We watched 4 separate rafts arrive; numbering over 143 penguins that had made it safely back to shore.  By then it was nearing 11:00 PM and we decided to leave, so we missed the final words of the experts.
On a sad note, as we were checking under our car, we saw a group of 5 young adults standing in a circle around one of the lost penguins with cameras flashing and a lighted video camera running.  The poor little guy was just standing there, frozen.  I began to go over to them, ready to give them hell.  Frank held me back, saying it was not for me to police the premises.  I fumed!  He told me to get in the car, and as he was driving slowly, headlamps off telling me how I needed to mind my own business we saw another little penguin shoot across the lot, running for cover as another idiot tried chasing him in his car, with headlights illuminating the frightened creature.  The penguin suddenly fell forward and disappeared into a ravine, blinded by that motorist's headlamps!  I was beside myself, and in tears demanded that Frank stop the car so I could report this to someone.  He told me that the conservation society's goal was to provide a protected nesting ground for the penguins and had made it clear to us all that they have a "no interference" policy, and that includes staying out of the way of natural predators and acts of stupidity and aggression on the part of inconsiderate humans.  Although I knew he was right, I was still furious and didn't speak to him again until we got back to the hotel.  All I could do was to cry for those precious, defenseless little penguins.  It affected me deeply, and took days for me to get over.
We left Oamaru shortly after breakfast and enjoyed a lovely drive up the coast to a quaint and lovely seaside town called Timaru.  At one time, Timaru had been the Riviera and the Coney Island of the South Island.  I'm not sure what happened to that famous persona, because now it is a charming, low-key little bedroom community, with a magnificent beachfront park, yet we were the only 4 people on the boardwalk. There are sculptures, statues, historical markers, pictures (all relatively new) and a dilapidated amusement park.  Hmmm.  Oh well, we enjoyed a lovely walk, then strolled through the town centre, which reminded me of my childhood hometown of Longview, TX.  It was like stepping back in time.  We discovered the old Customs Bldg. had been purchased by a notable chef from Queenstown, and converted to a steakhouse, appropriately named "Steak @ Customs House".  Intrigued, we made a reservation for 7:30 PM, giving us a chance to spruce up for dinner.  We were not disappointed!  This was one that went into our Top 10 list.  Each course was truly delectable – even the homemade breads! 
We spent one night in Timaru and then moved on to Christchurch.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Feb 18th – 20th , 2010: Invercargill, Dunedin & Moreaki …The World’s Fastest Indian, Beer and Chocolate and Boulders!

I got my dates backed up.  Last entry was supposed to be Februaruy 16th – 18th.  Work your way back. We left Queenstown on the 16th of February.  We made good time through a very odd-looking countryside down to Invercargill.  It is way down south in the "Roaring 40's", and a look at the trees and shrubs tells all.  They appear to have been half blown over by the Jolly Green Giant!  I think even the cows and sheep walk a little lop-sided.  The whole area looks like a nursery rhyme about a crooked man in a crooked house…OK enough of that.  Invercargill is probably known for many things, however, the big draw for us is that it is home to the World's Fastest Indian, Burt Munro's famous motorbike that won many races at the salt flats in Bonneville, Utah.  He put Invercargill and probably New Zealand on the map (so to speak). A really good movie was made about him, starring Anthony Hopkins as Burt.  We have the movie. We have watched it twice and probably will again as our dementia kicks in.  We arrived fairly early in the day, so we grabbed a couple of hotel rooms and drove over to have a look at the Burt Munro exhibit of bikes and movie paraphernalia, which believe it or not is housed in Hayes hardware store and museum.  What a hardware store it is!  Throughout, along the aisles are various makes and models of antique and unique motorcycles and motorized bikes.  One section is dedicated to Burt's collection.  The store itself had Frank jittering with excitement.  While I was browsing the museum pieces, he came up to me with a big grin on his face, talking like a little boy in a candy store telling me about all the great things he was finding that he could not find anywhere else.  He said that it is too bad we didn't have the boat down there so that he could really stock up.  He settled on a few items that we thought we could get into our bags for the flight back. He even managed to pick up a very sporty wool pullover sweater that looked quite nice on him.  After dragging him (and Earl) from the hardware store we went over to the local microbrewery.  The boys wanted to tour and taste.  Gosh darn, no tours today but tastings are always going on, so they bellied up to the tap room and got down to business.  The gentleman giving samples was pouring fairly large amounts of the stuff.  After going through all of the beers they moved on to the ciders.  Marsha and I began to get a little worried that they guy was going to have our men on the floor if this went on much longer.  Finally, they had their fill, made some serious purchases of variety packs of libations and then we rallied forth to the museum.  Invercargill's museum is quite extraordinary.  We spent hours there.
Next day off to Dunedin, known as Little Scotland.  We had planned to spend a couple of nights there, arriving just after noon in a cold downpour to find that every single hotel within 100 miles was booked through the weekend. Not ready to give up hope, Marsha and I went to the "i-Site"., where a very kind young lady informed us that there happened to be two vacancies for one night only at the university's lodging house which accommodates visiting professors.  By then it was late afternoon and we were very soggy, so we drove right over.  We were quite impressed with the amenities available to us there – of course the price was on the high side, but desperate times call for desperate measures. It appeared that we had arrived in Dunedin at the worst possible weekend of the month.  It was visiting parents weekend at the university, there was a rugby game in town and some kind of convention.  Splendid!  We got settled in, in time for afternoon tea.  We went down to the lounge and enjoyed ourselves for a while, then walked to dinner after the rains had somewhat cleared.  The next morning was absolutely beautiful.  We enjoyed an excellent breakfast at the hotel and then set off to enjoy the pretty day.  Marsha and I had booked a tour of the Cadbury Chocolate factory and the boys were booked for a tour, tasting and lunch at Speight's Brewery.  We had agreed to meet after lunch.  Marsha and I arrived at the rendezvous with large bags full of delicious chocolates, and sober.  Can't say the same for the boys, although they arrived with big silly grins on their faces.  It was decided that neither of them would be driving any time soon this day.  We had a date with some boulders – the Moreaki Boulders a couple of hours' drive up the coast.
We enjoyed the drive to Moreaki.  There isn't anything to see there except the boulders, and of course some souvenir shops and a not-so-good-yet-overpriced-café.  Of course to get to the boulders you must pass through the café which was built in front of the beach access, and where you are asked to place a donation in the box to help the café maintain the gate at the entrance, which the café constructed so that they could ask for this donation, yada, yada.  Love it!  We donated a few bucks and walked down to the beach.  Wow!!!!!!  These boulders are an anomaly.  They are utterly amazing and most unusual.  There is no one explanation of how they were formed and from whence they came.  There are only found here.  They are nearly perfectly round, scattered up and down the beach, along the sand dunes and in the surf ranging in sizes from a large beach ball to perhaps 5 feet in diameter.  The centers are honeycombed.  Sadly, time, weather and the ocean is doing an erosion number on these magnificent wonders. We stood in awe of them for several minutes and then we posed with them and took pictures.  We scratched our heads in amazement and then we left.  We wanted to get to Oamaru by suppertime to see the penguins.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Feb 15th – 17th, Fiordland!

The driving just keeps getting more interesting and the scenery more spectacular as we make our way to the land of New Zealand's fiords, on the southwestern end of the South Island.  We gave a lot of thought to which sound we would visit, Doubtful or Milford and what to do, i.e., take a day tour or book an overnight cruise of the sound.  Doubtful Sound would be a more expensive and more involved endeavor compared to the popular Milford Sound, which would certainly be busier.  Part of the decision was made for us when we discovered that all of the overnight cruise line operators were booked full.  A day-cruise it is, so now, where to go?  We drove into Te Anau, which seemed to be the jumping off place for either of the Sounds, and held the closest and most accommodations for Milford.  After driving all around the town, which we found vaguely unimpressive, and finding no available rooms, another decision was made for us.    There is a small village called Manapouri, which is the closest town to Doubtful Sound.  It is rustic and incredibly beautiful!  We stayed at the nicest place in town, which was akin to a backpacker's resort or a Holiday Park.  The view from our balcony was worth a million dollars!

We booked the 6:30 AM tour for the next day, and then went hiking.  We found a small grocery, bought supplies to pack our lunch for the tour and some grub for dinner, including great big steaks to cook on the community grill.  Marsha and I went into the community kitchen to cook the sides and to scrounge up some plates, etc.  We dined on our balcony to a picture perfect sunset.  No one wanted to ruin the moment running for a camera, so we just relaxed and enjoyed ourselves.

Up at the crack of dawn the next morning we drove down to the wharf where we met the tour boat.  The morning was very foggy, giving us a fabulous sunrise over Lake Manapouri.  It is a very large body of water and is a wildlife & bird sanctuary.  It is flanked by mountains and is simply beautiful.  We could see the fog begin to slowly lift and beneath the edges a very blue sky threatened to reveal itself.  The boat slowly made its way across the lake to an old power station where we boarded buses to take us on a very winding road through Fiordland National Park, over the mountain pass to Doubtful Sound. We managed to get a very witty and informative bus driver who either had us in stitches or had us "oohing and aahing" during the entire ride.  We took heaps of pictures, praying that some of them would do the scenery justice. The fog continued to lift, revealing an incredibly clear blue-sky overhead.

At last close to 2 hours later, we arrived at Doubtful Sound where we boarded another large touring boat.  We were told over and over again how fortunate we were to have arrived on the early tour and to have been blessed with blue skies.  Apparently, since this was mentioned at least half a dozen times, this is very rare because Fiordland itself is usually cast in fog and overcast with chilly drizzling cloud cover.  We were able to see clearly the top of every peak on every mount.  The downside to this rare opportunity is that the hundreds of waterfalls that normally decorate the many hill faces were but a trickle for us this day.  That's OK; we'll take the warm sunshine and the clear visibility.  We rode out to the mouth of the Sound to touch the waters of the Tasman Sea.  This we were told was an additional treat because normally the Tasman and this entire area is generally sloshing with turbulence.  Toward the end of our tour, the Pilot informed us that the Sound was so incredibly becalmed today that he was going to give us one more special experience.  He turned off the engines and let us drift, listening only to the sounds of nature all around us.  It was an extraordinarily Spiritual moment.  Alas the boat ride back across was just as incredible as coming out, as we had taken a circular route through the Sound.

When we arrived back at the wharf to board our bus, Frank and I felt a quiet sense of awe.  In the bus on our return to Lake Manapouri, we were able to see sights that had earlier been obscured by the dense morning fog.  WOW!  The vistas were indescribably picturesque, like something we have only seen in a 3-D IMAX cinema.  We couldn't believe it could get any better than this until we arrived at the lake for our final boat ride back to the village.  The lake was intensely calm; so calm that the hills and mountains reflected flawlessly upon the surface of the water, only to be disturbed by our watercraft as sped back to pick up the next group.   There is so much beauty here!  No wonder New Zealand protects her lands and waters so aggressively.  We were very pleased that we had made the decision to come here on this day.  Serendipitous!

We returned to our motel to find that we had a message from our friends Jan and Dave (s/v Baraka), wondering where we were in our travels and letting us know that they were staying in Manapouri and were planning to tour the Sounds.  Well, of all the places to run into someone!  It turns out that they were staying in a campground right next door!  Will wonders never cease?  We had an after dinner get-together with them and made plans to meet for breakfast the next morning before heading out.  They were going around the South Island clockwise, and we were going counter clockwise.  Next stop Invercargill!

Feb 12th - 15th, Onward to relaxing Wanaka, & adrenaline-charged Queenstown

Moving on!  We left the glacier country to head to lake country.  The stretch down to Wanaka was a fantastic drive, along the two longest lakes in the country: Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea.  New Zealand is a compact version of everything you would want in one country, and the scenery seemed to morph as we drove from glaciers along mountain byways to immense lakes rimmed with lovely warm beaches with lazy waves lapping at the shoreline.  We were once again reminded of areas of Switzerland, specifically the Interlaken area as we drove along the scenic motorway.

Arriving in Wanaka, we went through the rigors of seeking out a hotel with two king rooms.  Again we were met with No Vacancy signs.  At the last stop, the manager made a phone call for us to a condo complex.  There were two gorgeous, streamside units available for us to rent.  We were lucky! Each was a very roomy 1-bedroom, spa bath, fully equipped kitchen, nice den and dining area and the bonus was that we had washers and dryers in the units, all for $180 NZD/night.  Not bad for scavengers.  Frank and I set off on foot to do a little exploring, ending up at the grocery store where we bought food to cook for dinner that night and for light meals.  We returned to the apartment and settled in to watch TV, wash laundry and enjoy the spa tub.  The next day the four of us set off for Puzzling World.  We spent hours going through the illusion rooms, and then we headed for the maze.  This maze has four towers, on each red, blue, green and yellow.  The objective is to find your way from the starting point through to all 4 towers and then back to the exit.  There are escape doors for those who get frustrated and give up, or get too lost.  Marsha and Earls set off together and then Frank and I set off after.  We aimed for the yellow tower first.  We found the green tower a couple of times, eventually made it to the blue and red, and were just about to give up on the yellow when we hit it!  We had a wonderful time.  Even the café had all sorts of puzzles and mind twisters for us to work on at our table.  We bought a couple to bring home with us.  The bathroom toilets were even fun!   We spent the rest of our visit taking long walks along the beach trails and nosing around the magnificent holiday homes.  It was just a beautiful and tranquil place to spend a couple of days.  Frank and I left Wanaka early in the morning, heading for Queenstown. Earl and Marsha decided to stay another day and made arrangements to take the bus into Queenstown to meet us so we took the car and agreed to scope out accommodations for them when we got settled.  The drive was just beautiful.  It is one that needs no words, just an appreciative eye.

We could feel the adrenaline of the city as soon as we saw the Welcome sign.  It was abuzz.  It was happening.  It was as though we stepped out of the wilderness into OZ!  Something is going on everywhere you look!  The streets are teeming with people of all ages and nationalities.  There are outdoor outfitter stores on every corner (this is also a ski town in the winter months), and storefronts advertising dozens of adventure activities such as bungee jumping, skydiving, river rafting, sheep shearing exhibitions, paddle wheel boat rides, rock climbing, and so on at every other corner.  We found a lakefront one-bedroom studio apartment just on the edge of the hustle bustle epicenter, took a few calming breaths and then walked right into the madness of city centre.  We signed up for the 4-hour "High Five" adventure, which included a jet boat ride on the Shotover River, a helicopter ride, 5 luge rides and the gondola.  We have no idea what the "high five" part meant.  Fortunately there were two openings in the 2 PM time slot.

We boarded the 2 PM bus ride to the Shotover River.  We didn't really know what to expect at the river except that we were in for quite a ride. 

We were not disappointed! It was a thrill ride. The jet boat was a flat bottom, aluminum hull with about an 8-inch draft.  It seated 16-20 people in rows with a lap bar kind of like a roller coaster. The river was shallow and rocky and wound through walled rock canyons at a very fast current.  The driver maneuvered this thing like a whip!  The entire ride lasted about 30 minutes and went nearly non-stop up and down the river, whipping us and spinning us all over the place. We laughed and shrieked the whole time.  What a fun deal!  After the jet boat, we piled into the bus to go to the helicopter ride.  It soared us over the entire scenic Queenstown area, landing us at the Luge, where Frank and I both rode the advanced track.  I had a difficult time not running up the backs of riders in front of me – I just couldn't seem to go fast enough, nearly toppled over on a couple of curves – loved it!  When our five rides were done, we finally rode the gondola back down the mountain feeling sad that our excitement was done for the day.   We had an early dinner and plopped into bed.  The next day, since Earl and Marsha were in transit, we took a drive over to see The Remarkables, Queenstown's (famous) mountain range, which is a ski venue in winter. The mountains truly are remarkable, and can be seen in the Lord of the Rings movies (or at least one of them).  We then drove over to scope out Deer Park.  Many of the Lord of the Rings scenes were filmed on that land.  Unfortunately, we drove all over the place, followed all the directions and never found the entrance.  We saw several other cars seemingly doing the same as us, so we figure the entrance has been sealed for whatever reason, perhaps because it is someone's private land – who knows.  So, we returned to town, had a wonderful Thai dinner and then met up with Earl and Marsha for dessert.  The following day, they took the car to go visit with some friends down the road and so Frank and I spent the day just walking around, shopping and exploring Queenstown's greater CBD.  Being Valentine's Day, we dressed for dinner and celebrated at a fabulous French restaurant called Les Alps.  Fabulous!  For dessert, we had rose chocolate flourless cake!  Wow was that decadent! Frank presented me with my beautiful NZ Greenstone pendant.  I gave him a mushy card.


Feb 15th, we got up and took off for Fiordland!