A Bit of Southern Italy: Naples, Pompeii, and Sorrento

On Wednesday it was time to bid Roma a fond farewell.  After a frenzy of last minute packing of all the things, we headed in a taxi to the train station to board our train to Naples.  Penelope was delighted to ride the train—a new adventure!—and Jeremy and I were both impressed by the smooth ride…at 300 km/h, no less. 

We arrived in Naples in short order, but our attempts to board the local Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento were… less successful.  After missing two? three? trains in a row due to crowding (and pushing) passengers on the station platform, we surrendered to the inevitable conclusion that we would need to find another way south.  With all our bags in tow, we headed back to the main Naples train station, just upstairs, and in short order had reserved a private car via the same Blacklane service we’d used from the Rome airport to our AirBnB.  And so we finally headed south to Sorrento in a fancy black Mercedes, having spent quite a bit more money than planned… but very comfortable!  And if that’s the worst travel mishap we have, then we’ll call it a great trip.  🙂

We arrived in Sorrento, checked into our small but lovely AirBnB, and went in search of a nearby grocery store.  As has been our more-often-than-not practice, we made dinner at home that night.

Thursday morning it was back to Naples.  In reviewing the forecast, Thursday was the rainy day, so we opted for an afternoon at the Museo Archeologico, a huge museum dedicated to the archeological treasures of the region.  This time we hopped on the Circumvesusiana without any problems, as the last/first stop on the line is Sorrento.  We all immersed ourselves in our reading, heading along the coast to Napoli.  While the roads afford great views to those traveling along the coast, the train goes in and out of tunnels all along the route, so we only saw the sea in brief glimpses—and on a rainy day, not much of it. 

We arrived in Napoli Garibaldi and headed for the Metro, traveling to the area where the museum (and lunch!) awaited.  Since we were only planning one meal in Naples, it had to be pizza.  We had a fairly tasty lunch, with Penelope delightedly ordering once again her beloved margherita pizza.  But Dar Poeta in Rome still has my prize for best pizza in Italy… so far.

After lunch—and having dried out a bit from our rainy walk to lunch—we were off to the museum.  When Pompeii was rediscovered in the 18th century, the then king of Naples is reported to have said, “bring all the best finds to me!”  And so the archeological museum in Naples is truly a treasure trove of sculpture, mosaic, and fresco.  We started on the ground floor, exploring the larger than life statues of all the usual suspects.  Penelope wandered into one my pics (below)… note her “mains de gallerie”—hands clasped behind the back when in a museum, something she learned on her school field trips.  A most excellent practice for small children!

We then headed upstairs to the real stars of the museum (at least for me): frescoes and mosaics.  And it was truly a wonderful collection of mosaic: floors on floors, floors on walls as hangings, columns.  Some of my favorites:

I’ve always been enamored of mosaic, but ever since reading The Sarantine Mosaic books by Guy Gavriel Kay, I’ve been a wee bit obsessed.  The main character in this duology is a mosaicist, and it’s loosely based on the 6th century Mediterranean world.  After reading hundreds of wonderful pages about mosaic and tesserae, the art form seems even more alive to me now.

The last room at the Naples museum was the so-called Secret Cabinet, wherein are gathered all of the pieces of erotic art from Pompeii and Herculaneum.  The gallery has been around since the early 1800s, but until the year 2000 was available only to scholars  (and, apparently, male visitors willing to bribe museum staff).  The gallery is now open to the general public, but there is a warning on the door that the rooms are not recommended for children under 14.  Ha!  Heeding this recommendation, Jeremy and I toured separately, so that Penelope would remain blissfully oblivious to the giant phalluses (phalli?) that lurked within these rooms.  As a respectable middle-aged woman, I took very few photos… but couldn’t resist capturing these two pieces.   Yes, that’s a set of wind chimes—and note the bulge in the toga. 

After the mosaics, we headed to the frescoes, where I was delighted to see Girl with a Stylus and Tablets—often called Sappho, from Pompeii.

And, in a nearby room, Penelope found her namesake, and, imitating the pose, asked for a photo.  I happily obliged. 

As at every other museum, we finished in the gift shop, where Penelope dipped into her savings for a lovely blue necklace.  Then it was home via the Circumvesuviana train.

On Friday we had another day trip in the cards—a bit closer to Sorrento, but even older.  We were off to Pompeii!  This destination was one of Penelope’s main requests for our Italy trip, and the primary reason we’d decided to come south from Rome.  She’d read a variety of historical fiction (and non-fiction) about Pompeii and its destruction, and so was eager to see the town for herself.

The weather had turned absolutely gorgeous, so we spent a sunny day walking around the ruins.  Unfortunately, about half of the locations on the main guidebook tour were closed for restoration (the baths, various villas), so we didn’t see as many intact frescoes or mosaics as we’d hoped.  But even the buildings themselves are truly impressive.

And we loved our last stop: the Greek amphitheater, carved into the hillside, where we climbed to the top to enjoy the view of the stages as both the Greeks and Romans who lived in Pompeii would have done. 

We hopped back on the now very familiar Circumvesuviana train, to dinner and an evening at home.

Originally we’d planned a day trip down the coast for Saturday, to see Positano and more of the Amalfi coast… but we also realized the only sights we’d seen in Sorrento were two different grocery stores.  So we opted to save the coast for a future Italy trip, and to stay put in Sorrento for the day.  Absolutely the right decision!

We had a lazy morning at home, and after brunch, went out to follow our guidebook’s short walking tour of Sorrento. 

That stroll ended at a beautiful park overlooking the smaller of the two harbors, with beautiful views across the bay to Naples and Mount Vesuvius.

After soaking in some sunshine, we stopped at a nearby photography exhibition.  Raffaele Celentano had an exhibit of black and white photography called The Italians, captured over the last two decades—mostly here in southern Italy.  While a few were posed, most of the photos were street shots, capturing everyday life: markets, festivals, and laundry day.  My favorite was a photo of three older women sitting on the sand at the beach, laughing with a contagious joy.

Best of all was the title: Tre Fieri—the Three Graces.  I absolutely adored this piece, so I decided to bring a print home.  I know it will make me smile—and think of Italy—every time I see it on our wall.

Two final recommendations from our afternoon walk: Raki Gelato, which is perhaps the best we’ve had so far—or at least tied with Fatamorgana in Rome.  Penelope and I both had the Zesty Lemon Cream and Jeremy ordered Hazelnut.  Both flavors were amazing—rich, creamy, but not too sweet.  And don’t miss the cookies and chocolates (and everything else they generously offered us as samples, from limoncello to truffle honey) at Nino and Friends, just across the street.  Delicious.

The rest of Saturday was spent in browsing the shops and then, later, packing up for our next destination: Florence! But we so enjoyed our brief sojourn in beautiful Sorrento.

Bella Roma

Saturday morning we headed back to the Vatican, this time for a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica.  As soon as we arrived, we were immediately accosted by “tour guides” and “information agents” who asked with urgency, “Do you already have your tickets? You don’t want to wait in that two-three hour line only to have no tickets!”  Even as an experienced visitor who’d read her guidebook, I had a pang of doubt… but, bolstered by my surety that we didn’t need tickets to visit St. Peter’s, we joined the impressive queue.  Only 17 minutes later, we arrived at the front of the line, passed through security, and headed inside.  The lines do look daunting, but they really aren’t that bad.  Just inside, Penelope and I paused to take a picture looking down the nave.

Jeremy opted to listen to the Rick Steves’ audioguide (there’s a great free app, with all of his walks and tours narrated), while Penelope and I strolled together and I read aloud selections from the paper guidebook.  The church is simply enormous—hard to process just how big, even when standing inside.  Having just finished reading the children’s Bible, the newly-acculturated Penelope was quick to identify many of the images around us, from Noah’s dove to Mary holding Jesus after his death (aka Michelangelo’s Pieta).  It was fun to see her so excited when she recognized these symbols—the great joy of understanding cultural allusions.  🙂

After we finished touring the church, we headed back outside to queue for the Dome—my favorite part.  Being so close to the amazing dome mosaics is such a privilege, and there’s something so wonderful about being able to look both up and down at all of the art that really thrills me. 

We took the elevator back down to the ground, walked across the square, and stopped at one of the many small fountains to have a refreshing drink of water.  Having forgotten our water bottles, this involved some wet shoes as well.


In need of refreshment, we headed north to a nearby pasticceria, the aptly named Dolce Maniera (recommended by Italy connoisseur Lydia).  We picked out several pastries by sight alone, and sat down on a nearby sidewalk to indulge. 

Thus fortified, we resumed our plan for the day and headed to the National Museum of Rome.  While there were many marble busts to admire (and a fun Classico Pop! exhibit), the real star of this museum for me was the top floor: mosaic and fresco.

By the end of the day, we were ready to put our feet up, so we opted for dinner at home and some family reading time.  I finished Robert Harris’ Pompeii, which, though it wasn’t great literature, definitely added some human elements to the great destruction of 79AD.  Looking forward to our visit there next week.

On Sunday my folks had planned to come back into the city for the day, so Penelope and I met them in the morning at the positively enormous Trastevere Market.  By far the largest temporary market I’ve ever been to—a wonderful mix of antiques, clothes, knickknacks, household goods, and junk.   Penelope found two necklaces on various 1 euro tables, while I purchased three scarves from two different dealers.  Penelope announced that I now have enough scarves for a lifetime.  I demurred, suggesting I might now have an adequate number for this trip.  I could easily have spent several more hours browsing the stalls!

Spotted in the market: a rather creative use of colored vs white marble…
Cool light fixture.
One end of the Trastevere Market: the Porta Portese.

After the market, we went our separate ways, and I left Penelope with her grandparents while Jeremy and I met up for our tour of the Borghese Gallery.  The number of visitors is strictly limited and the tickets are timed at both entry and exit—you have two hours to complete your tour of the palace.  But wow, was it fabulous.  Such a pleasure to see art in its original habitat—in some cases, in the very rooms for which the sculptures were designed.  Mosaics, trompe l’oeil, marble sculptures, paintings—this museum has it all.  Some of my favorites:

A pile of sleeping putti. Adorable. Also almost life-sized.
Wonderful trompe l’oeil painting of satyrs on the ceiling.
This. Is. Mosaic. Thousands and thousands of teeny-tiny pin-sized pieces. Amazing!
An artsy shot of my favorite sculpture: Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne.

Afterward, Jeremy and I rambled through the gardens surrounding the Gallery, stumbling upon a picturesque statue of Byron, and snapping a quick selfie.  And on the way home, we stopped in for pastries at our local pasticceria, Roscioli.  Amazing, amazing treats—best we’ve had so far! 

We all met up again at the apartment, where the grandparents were wilting (being a few days behind us in jet lag adjustment).  They soon departed to their camper in the burbs, and Penelope, Jeremy, and I opted to eat out.  Thanks to a recommendation from a former student (and now colleague!) at Castilleja, we had an excellent choice in mind: Dar Poeta.  A lovely sunset view across the Tiber as we walked to dinner, and it was Penelope who identified the dome in the distance.  🙂

Dinner was amazing.  We all ordered pizza, though I proclaim mine was the best: diavola con salsiccia.  Jeremy, after sampling a slice of my pie, concurred.  Penelope did not, sticking firmly to her own classic choice: margherita.  Dessert, as recommended by Elke, was the absolutely enormous nutella and ricotta calzone.

Penelope’s hand for scale. Also note that we ordered the “small” calzone.

Stuffed to the brim with breaded delights, we rolled our way home to bed.

Monday we had plans to see the Colosseum and the Forum, so we walked from our apartment over to the Colosseum, taking in the sights of the Trajan’s Column and Trajan’s Forum along the way.  We arrived at the Colosseum in time for our reservation, wading through the crush of people and lots of tour “guides” offering information.  Most of our time in Rome hasn’t been too bad in terms of crowds, but the Colosseum was really something else.  A complete zoo—I can’t even imagine what it’s like during high season here.  But we managed to find the right line for our online reserved tickets and were soon inside, touring through both the Colosseum itself and the exhibits describing its long history.  I particularly enjoyed learning about its use in the Middle Ages: homes, workshops, stables.  A medieval apartment complex, of sorts.

After climbing on top of as many pillars as possible, we left the Colosseum and walked just a few steps over to the Roman Forum.  This time we decided to all listen to the audioguide, with Penelope using one of my AirPods.  She was quite thrilled by the chance to listen like the grownups, and we all really enjoyed the tour of the Forum.  And the just-blooming wisteria were absolutely lovely.  A definite benefit to touring these ruins in the spring!

On the way home, we were entertained by a number of street performers—these two were my favorites.

We also stopped by a store in our neighborhood that I’d been eyeing: stationery!  Always one of my favorite kinds of shopping.  I chose a gorgeous leather pencil case, and Penelope dipped into her savings to buy a lovely blue feather pen and ink set. 

Then it was home to dinner and some well-deserved rest!

Tuesday, our final day in Rome, Penelope and I went out in the morning for one final stop at our favorite fruit stand in Campo de’ Fiori, then home to start packing.  By lunchtime, we were joined by my folks, and we treated them to a belated birthday lunch on the nearby piazza.  While the food wasn’t fabulous, it was lovely to enjoy a meal with them on a sunny spring day in Roma. 

After lunch, Jeremy headed back to the apartment for some computer time, I headed out for an afternoon of solo exploring (and shopping), and Penelope headed out to do some sightseeing with her grandparents.  I wandered from area to area, in and out of jewelry shops and leather goods stores, eventually walking for about three and half hours. 

Street scenes from my stroll, including a corner of poetry (translated into French, Italian, and English) and beautiful micro-mosaics.

In the end, I decided the purse I liked best of all was back at shop just around the corner from our apartment.  When I stopped back in, I asked about the bag in a different color, and the owner/artisan said, sure, we can make that for you.  Tomorrow?  Thursday?  A bit stunned, I said we’d be leaving town tomorrow but perhaps my folks could come by later in the week.  But when I stopped by the next morning on our way to the train station, just to check in, my bag was ready!  A lovely dark teal color, with bright leather rounds to accent the front—perfect for summer.  I have to say I still feel so tickled to have a purse made just for me! 

Meanwhile, during that afternoon of walking and shopping, Penelope and her grandparents were visiting the Bocca della Verita, the Circus Maximus, and the Basilica San Clemente.

Rome has been simply wonderful—a perfect introduction to the sights, sounds, and—perhaps best of all—tastes of Italy.  And now we head south!

Roman Holiday

After a long but uneventful flight to our connection in Frankfurt, then a lengthy wait at the Rome airport for our luggage, we finally arrived in Roma!  We’d ordered a Blacklane car service (so fancy!) for our pickup and transport to the AirBnB, and Penelope was super impressed to see the driver holding up a sign with my name on it when we walked into the international arrivals hall.  🙂

We settled into our delightfully spacious apartment and decided to make a trip to the local grocery store for dinner and drinks.  When we arrived at the Carrefour Express I realized how spoiled we’d been in New Zealand—we spent half of our time in the store google translating packaging!

Tuesday morning we all slept late, unpacked, ate lunch at home, then ventured out into our neighborhood.  We are about a block from Campo de’ Fiori, which to our delight turns out to have a market six days a week.  Mostly fruit and veg, which is perfect for our stay. 

The front door of our apartment building.
The mosaic in our entryway…
…which side is right side up?
Morning market scene.
Penelope’s favorite fruit stand.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring our neighborhood, finding a (slightly) bigger grocery store, and capped the day with dinner at Ristorante Campo de’ Fiori, one of the restaurants on the piazza.  While the meal was mostly good, one dish stood out: my caramelle pistache i pere, a pasta dish with pistachio and pear.  SO DELICIOUS.  By far the best pasta dish I’ve had in my life.  Little pouches containing the pear and pistachio blend, white sauce, thin slices of pear cooked to perfection, sprinkled with pistachios.  I’m still thinking about it a week later.

But we couldn’t head home without indulging in a bit of gelato… so we ducked into a gelateria close to our apartment, Fatamorgana.  Another treat!  Penelope opted for strawberry and milk chocolate, Jeremy had the prince’s kiss and carrot cake, and I had the prince’s kiss and crema agnese.  All were delightful, and we decided we’d definitely be back.

Wednesday the jet lag was really hitting us all hard—Italy (eight hours ahead) is proving a much more difficult transition than New Zealand (21 hours ahead).  But we suspected it would be, so we’d scheduled an extra two days in Rome to accommodate for this shift.  We spent a lazy morning at home (though Penelope might beg to differ, as she started schoolwork again.  After lunch, we headed out to do Rick Steves’ Heart of Rome walk.  The walk conveniently begins at the Campo de’ Fiori, then continues to the Pantheon, the Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, and ends at the Spanish Steps.  At his recommendation, we added three churches that were along the way.  It was a great walk, and a terrific introduction to Rome for Penelope and Jeremy. 

A gorgeous day at the Pantheon.
Very cool: the trompe l’oeil dome at Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola. When you run out of money to build the dome… just paint one instead.
Trevi fountain, where we all participated in the traditional ritual of tossing in coins to wish for a return to Rome.

Thursday we opted to spend the day at a museum, so after lunch at home we headed to the Capitoline Museums, via both an incredibly impressive local church we just happened to pass by and some of the many Roman ruins that seem to spring up on every corner.  This time it was the Theater Marcello, a nice preview of the much larger Colosseum we’d see later in the week. 

The gorgeous alter at Santa Maria in Campitelli.

Then it was up to the hill to the Capitoline Museums, which I’d never visited (even though this is my third trip to Rome!).  They were well worth the uphill climb.

The Capitoline museums had a fantastic children’s audioguide, narrated by Marcus Aurelius and his horse. Penelope thoroughly enjoyed the four hours we spent there!
Some of my favorite sculptures.
Under Constantine’s big toe.
Our first view of the Forum!

After a most enjoyable afternoon at the museums, we walked just a few minutes to the Victor Emmanuel monument, where we climbed up and up to take in a lovely view of the city before sunset. 

And on the walk home, Penelope spotted her first Roman cats, coming out to prowl in the ruins closest to our apartment.

Then it was home for dinner—and to await the arrival of my folks, who were planning to stay one night at our apartment before heading out to their camper (in storage) the next day.  Although we aren’t traveling together during our time in Italy, our paths will occasionally intersect, which is lovely.

Friday morning the cold that had been threatening me had set in in earnest, and I was grateful that we’d packed various relevant medicines.  We had brunch at home with my parents, then they set out for the Roman suburbs and Penelope, Jeremy, and I headed for our entry reservation at the Vatican Museum. 

Another collage of favorites.

What a day! It’s truly an amazing collection. And they again had a terrific audioguide for kids, though Penelope said it wasn’t as funny as the one at the Capitoline. After finishing at the always-astonishing Sistine Chapel, we closed down the museum and had to be ushered out by the guards.   A quiet evening at home rounded out the day, and we all headed to bed in hopes of shaking off the last of our jet lag (and my cold).

From Middle Earth to Middle California

We spent much of March at home in California, relaxing from the hustle and bustle of travel and attending to all of the tasks of everyday life: dentist appointments and oil changes—exciting stuff.   But amidst the mundane, we found lovely moments with friends and family—and had a few adventures here in the Bay Area.

Shortly after arriving home, I was surprised by this perfect gift from my good friend Lydia, who knows me all too well.  As a proud #introvert who hates cold weather, I must declare that this sweatshirt couldn’t have been more spot on.  Five stars—will wear again.

Penelope was equally delighted by her visit to a two-story Target in San Jose, where she encountered the exotic sight of a shopping cart escalator for the first time…. who needs to travel abroad to find such wonders?  🙂

Seeing friends and family was one of the best parts of being home—and in their company we enjoyed hiking, running errands, tea parties, and sleepovers (that last one was Penelope). 

A great visit with Joy, who was visiting town for a few days!
Penelope and Sophie, both deeply immersed in books while driving to dinner. 🙂

I also had the chance to participate in one of the best parts of my sabbatical so far: the Best American Short Stories class, led by Ellen Sussman.  I first met Ellen through her daughter Sophie, whom I taught at Stevenson lo these many years ago.  Seems just like yesterday!  Sophie’s fabulous mama is a novelist and writing teacher, and she runs an annual class devoted to the Best American Short Stories anthology.  We gathered on weekend afternoons and mornings to discuss these twenty stories, and what, as writers, we could learn from them.  Surrounded by writers, talking about writing—what could be more wonderful?  I love talking about craft, about what works and what doesn’t—and, most of all, the vibrant disagreement and collective wisdom of smart folks who love stories.  Magical.

Penelope was also lucky in her time at home, as her wonderful grandparents had suggested a trip to Southern California to visit with my Uncle Bob… and to spend a few days at Disneyland.  So off they went!  Ears were donned, Dole Whip was eaten, and my mother reported three days of 20k+ steps as they pinballed between the Magic Kingdom and California Adventure.

In addition to the happiest place on earth, Penelope and her grandparents also visited the California super bloom.  Jeremy and I duly noted the super bloom of weeds in the empty lot in our neighborhood.  Perhaps slightly less amazing… but the golden hour is always a lovely time for a selfie. 

As you can see, Jeremy and I were happy to have a break from full-time parenting (and home schooling) after our NZ travel.  In addition to neighborhood walks, much child-unfriendly TV was watched.

In our final week at home, we headed north to Mrs. Grossman’s Sticker Factory for the tour (and gift shop!!).  I’ve been an avid sticker collector as long as I can remember—and seeing the factory had been on my bucket list since I moved to the Bay Area thirteen years ago.  Mission accomplished!

I’m delighted to report that the Mrs. Grossman’s sticker operation is both impressive and wonderfully varied, and I deeply enjoyed the gift store at the end.  Penelope was astounded by my willingness to add sticker sheets to our shopping basket, but hey—if you can’t stock up when you visit the motherland, when can you?

The next day we took Penelope’s grandparents to the Exploratorium in San Francisco, where we all enjoyed a great day inside and outside the museum.

And then it was time to buckle down to packing for our next journey.  In the midst of considering jacket options and finding Penelope’s Italian phrasebook (proudly purchased with her allowance), we made time for a mani-pedi at the salon.  Penelope was thrilled to have a foot bath just like Mama and Grandma—but hastens to add that she was the only one offered a special flower design on her pedicure.  🙂

Ahead of us are the wonders of Italy: gondola rides, the Amalfi Coast, the towers of San Gimignano, the Sistine Chapel, and best of all: So. Much. Gelato. Can’t wait!

Homeward Bound

Thursday morning we woke up, finished last minute packing, left our lovely AirBnB, and headed to the airport. 

Auckland has, hands down, one of the best airports I’ve been to; from the security process to the moving artwork, everything has been designed with the traveler in mind.  Even the bathroom had family stalls—containing one regular-sized and one toddler-sized toilet. 

Also spotted: a life-size Gandalf made of Legos. Penelope was quite pleased, since I think she was expecting more Tolkien-inspired statuary (as seen at the Wellington airport).

After lunch and some final souvenir shopping, we boarded our first of two flights, bound for Fiji.  An uneventful three hours later, we arrived for our lengthy layover.  Fortunately, as a perk of our credit card, we have access to swanky airport lounges… so we checked into the Fiji Airways Premier Lounge, where we enjoyed comfy chairs, a kids’ entertainment area, and a delicious dinner.  And as if that wasn’t enough… Jeremy and I both spent half an hour in the Lounge Spa, indulging in the “Stopover Chair Massage.”  A most civilized way to travel.  🙂

So this is the last post of our New Zealand trip… and what a trip it has been.  I told Penelope on our outward bound flight that I’d been dreaming of coming to NZ for twenty years (and she duly repeated that fact to nearly everyone we met).  But it’s certainly true that this trip was the culmination of years of dreaming and planning—and I felt like the luckiest woman in the world to share this adventure with my family.  Not every day was as peak awesome as Hobbiton… but every day was still New Zealand—and that meant it was pretty much all wonderful.  This picture from last week is a fairly accurate representation of me during my time here.  Happy, happy, happy.  And definitely the tannest I’ve ever been.  Ha!

I’ll leave you with some excellent outtakes from the North Island. 

Much of the packaging and advertising here is in this vein. Love it.
Riding high in Windy Wellington.
Seriously. I love the Kiwis.
Did you know there were golden kiwi fruits?? Equally as delicious as the green ones.
Spotted in Russell, which is actually quite a historical-type place.
Also in Russell. One of many rather interesting lawn ornaments/mailboxes.
We seriously considered importing these. But we’ll be in Venice for Easter this year. Poor us! 🙂
If this car existed in the US, I would immediately buy a white one and name it Shadowfax.
All time favorite NZ snack food. Thanks, Megan, for the recommendation–these are delicious!
Often the gorgeous street artwork featured one or more of NZ’s spectacular birds. Spotted this pillar in Auckland.
Auckland harbor.
Okay, you have to imagine Penelope reading this out loud over and over and giggling. Perfect.

Farewell, New Zealand.  I hope we will be back soon!

Kauri and Kiwi and Auckland Too

Our final stop before Auckland was the Kauri Coast Top10 Holiday Park, located in Trounsen National Park.  It’s the best place to see the ancient kauri trees—and perhaps spot the elusive kiwi in the wild.

So on Saturday morning we packed up and headed southwest, choosing one of the three routes Google Maps proposed for our consideration.  Unfortunately, Google did not indicate that our selection was a logging road, unpaved, and would remain unpaved for most of the drive.  The views—forest and hills and lots of sheep—were much appreciated—the road was… not.

But the back country also afforded us the chance to see not one but several Eastern Rosella birds—and they were magnificent! 

Not my photo… wasn’t able to grab my camera in time. But they looked just like this amazing specimen. Absolutely gorgeous!

We finally arrived at the campground in the early afternoon, unpacked, and then headed out for a walk in the nearest stand of kauri.  These trees have particularly shallow root systems, so the Department of Conservation has built boardwalks throughout the park, allowing visitors to see the kauri relatively close—but not to trample their roots.

Some of the textures of the kauri forest. And a hidden Minion, spotted by Penelope.
Catching raindrops falling from the tree canopy.

Although it showered off and on through the afternoon, we very much enjoyed our first walk through the kauri forest.  That evening Jeremy cooked us a lovely steak dinner, and we started planning our time in Auckland, just around the corner.

Sunday we had a break in the rain in the afternoon, so we seized the opportunity to drive south to a different part of Trounsen Park—to see the very largest kauri.  First was Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, which is believed to more than two thousand years old.

And then, about 2km up the road, the Four Sisters and Te Matua Ngahere, also known as the Father of the Forest. It’s hard to convey just how massive these trees are in photos… but here are my attempts!

My attempt at a vertical panoramic photo… the trees don’t actually bend that way!

After dinner that night we’d signed up for a nighttime forest walk, in hopes of spotting the nocturnal kiwi.  Along with seven others, we joined a local guide and headed back into the forest for a two hour walk.  He led the way with a large red flashlight, and we trooped along behind him, as quietly as possible.  Spoiler alert: two hours later, we’d seen… zero kiwi. 

We weren’t too terribly surprised not to see any of the birds, as the tour advertises about a 50% success rate.  We did hear several kiwi, both male and female, identified by the guide as he listened to their warning calls to one another.    

The walk was still quite amazing, especially since we spotted tons of glowworms along the trail.  They’d taken up residence in the exposed root systems of fallen trees, and they glowed quite brightly along the trail.  And the stars were absolutely amazing to behold, as there was almost no light pollution.  Probably the best stargazing we’ve been able to do the whole trip. 

Penelope was a bit disappointed not to see a kiwi, but I reminded her that it’s just one more reason we’ll need to come back to New Zealand.  🙂

Monday morning we were up bright and early for our drive into Auckland.  We were due to return our rental car to Apex, but we had just enough time to stop at New World grocery store in Wentworth for a long-sought-after prize: the elusive scallop mousse.  Jeremy first tried this seafood rillette somewhere on the South Island, and he’d been searching high and low ever since.  But despite following the recommendations on where to buy from the product’s website, we’d had no luck.  But the winds changed at last, and he was victorious:

Also purchased: an oyster version and several traditional pork rillettes as well.  Penelope tried a bit of one of them, and declared it hers, demanding that she too have a pork pot for lunch.  And while “pork pot” doesn’t sound quite as classy as a “rillette,” it does have a certain alliterative appeal. 

Greatly pleased by his shopping success, Jeremy drove us on to Auckland, where we dropped off our bags at our new and lovely AirBnB apartment on Queen Street, and then drove across town to return our rental car.  And it was during that short stretch of city navigation that someone (cough, Jeremy, cough) made the only real driving mistake of the trip.  It’s true we stayed on the left, but went a bit too far to the left, entering the bicycle-only lane…. Fortunately, we were able to correct the mistake after a short (but harrowing) city block.  I’m sure the locals were amused.

Having returned our rental car, we walked home and settled in to our final New Zealand home.  We’d made dinner reservations at a Brazilian steakhouse on the harborfront, and I was keen to explore a bit before dinner.  So while Penelope and Jeremy relaxed at home, I walked down Queen Street, browsing in various stores and taking in the sights.  We met up for dinner at Wildfire (very tasty!) and then hit a grocery store before heading home for the evening. 

Tuesday was our first full day in Auckland, and we began by staying home to take advantage of some of the apartment complex’s amenities.  Penelope and I went for a swim at the indoor pool while Jeremy used the gym.  An early lunch at home, and we were off to the Auckland Art Gallery.  What a wonderful surprise that turned out to be!  We expected the New Zealand art, and the Maori moko portraits—but they also have a small, jewel-like collection of European pieces as well.   A few of my favorites:

My favorite piece from the contemporary New Zealand floor of the museum–even more vivid in person.
A painting based on one of the ballads I teach in AP Poetry–fun to spot this one.
This one was the best surprise of all. Waterhouse is one of my all time favorite painters, and I’d never seen or heard about this version of Lamia, based on Keats’ poem.
And one more–a wonderful little tonal piece.

Penelope particularly enjoyed the special exhibit, entitled From Pillars to Posts: Project Another Country, which invited visitors to participate in the building of an enormous miniature city.  We spent some time admiring the amazing works of the artists and visitors alike, then set to work on our own masterpiece. 

After a stop a neighborhood café for a drink and a chance to sit down, we walked over to the SkyTower and paid to ride the elevator up 51 flights in 40 seconds.  Did I mention that the elevator floor was partially glass?  A dizzying effect, but very cool!

Once at the observation deck, we gazed out and down at Auckland, taking in the views all around.  Penelope was impressed by the glass floor panels scattered throughout—and though she was initially nervous about standing on it, she soon began walking back and forth across glass and concrete and steel alike.  And we all paused to watch the live feed of the grandmother who was about to do the SkyJump—an impressive feat!  Maybe I’ll be brave enough when I’m in my seventies.  🙂

After the Sky Tower, we walked back to our neighborhood to have an early dinner at Tanuki’s Cave, a yakitori restaurant just a block from home.  Two thumbs way up—fabulous food!  Then Penelope and I were ready for our girls’ night out: we had tickets to see the musical production of Aladdin.  Penelope had really wanted to see the musical when it came to San Francisco last night, but the prices rivaled those for Hamilton, so we’d opted not to go.  While in Wellington a few weeks ago, Penelope caught sight of an ad for the Auckland production, and I’d checked the prices… and they were so much less expensive that we decided it’d be a fun night out for our final days in New Zealand.

What an amazing show! The Genie was fabulous, with great singing and a wonderful delivery of all the best lines—and of course lots of great Kiwi references thrown in as well.  All of the cast was just wonderful—but it was the overall production that really wowed both of us.  The dancing, singing, and the costumes!  The lights and the fireworks and the streamers falling on us during one of the musical numbers!  A fabulous evening.  Am I slowly becoming a musical theater convert??  Hmmm. 

On Wednesday Jeremy opted to stay home while Penelope and I explored a few other neighborhoods and find souvenirs for friends and family.  We started at the Auckland Museum, which had an amazing gift shop—and is in the middle of the Auckland Domain, a beautiful wooded area, capped by the museum at the top of the hill. 

After the Museum, we walked down the hill, through the forest, and across a small stream, emerging in the adorable neighborhood of Parnell.  There we visited a few shops, had a delicious lunch at a local pizza place, and continued our walk around Auckland.  I’d promised Penelope a sweet treat on our last day in New Zealand, so we Googled “best ice cream” in Auckland and struck out for Giapo, about a 20 minute walk away.  I was imagining a simple gelateria, a lovely preview of our time in Italy in April… but that’s not exactly what we found.

I’ve since realized that Giapo is quite a famous ice cream shop, but we really had no idea.  We walked up to the store, got in line, and were soon ushered to a small table, where a young woman treated us to samples and stories about every single one of the nine flavors available.  After we were done sampling each in turn, we then moved to a description of “different ways to hold” the ice cream, including a cone topped by a giant chocolate squid, wearable tiny cones shaped to fit on top of your finger, or served inside a sweet Yorkshire Pudding.  I swear I am not making any of this up.  It was an absolutely extraordinary place.  Penelope opted for the NZ Hokey Pokey and I decided on the “Kiwi as” Afghan Cookies—both in regular waffle cones, thus demonstrating some admirable restraint.  🙂  Toppings are complimentary and complementary, designed by the chef to enhance the chosen ice cream flavor.  And the cones are quite enormous, even without a miniature SkyTower of chocolate added to the top.

After finishing as much as we could of our ice creams, we took a taxi to the Ponsonby neighborhood and spent the next hour or so strolling around its shops along the main road.  And then we returned to Queen Street and our apartment, after finding a few new items for my sister’s NZ candy sampler.  

While Jeremy took Penelope swimming at the apartment pool and cooked dinner at home for the two of them, I headed back out to dinner at Papparich with one of my Castilleja alums, class of 2009.  Rebecca just moved to Auckland for a new job about a month ago, embarking on an expat adventure, and it was so fun to catch up with her!  We spent a lovely hour together, chatting about our mutual love of New Zealand and life since Castilleja, all the while enjoying a delicious Malaysian dinner.  Since it’s my wonderful Casti sabbatical that allowed me to take this trip, it felt very fitting to spend my last night here with one of my former students. 

And then it was home to the apartment for… the PACKENING.  I wish I’d snapped a photo of all of our stuff spread hither and yon across the apartment as I gauged whether or not it would actually all fit in our various suitcases.  Alas, you’ll have to use your imagination.  Around 11pm I declared a temporary retreat and abandoned the task, deciding we’d sort it out in the morning. 

[spoiler: it all fit, but one bag was overweight by 1.7kg.  fortunately, we had a sympathetic airline employee at the bag drop desk.  no excess weight charges.  lucky us!]

Bay of Islands

On Wednesday we woke to a rainy, misty morning—and the bay view from our cabin deck showed not the gorgeous bay but instead, a total white-out. 

So it was the right day for a lazy morning at home, with blogging and reading and schoolwork.  At lunchtime we decided to head into Russell’s tiny downtown for a bit to eat at the historic inn and restaurant, the Duke of Marlborough.  Lovely to eat outside even in the showers! 

In earlier days Russell was known as “the hell-hole of the Pacific,” a lawless town of whalers and other piratical types.  Today it seems visited almost exclusively by retirees.  A quiet, settled kind of place.

After lunch we were planning to head out for a drive around the area when suddenly our rental car lost power on a hill.  After a few minutes of unadulterated fear (and accompanying hand-wringing from yours truly), and turning the car off and on again, we regained power and were able to get back to our Top10’s parking lot.  And from there we called Apex Rentals, then AA (aka AAA in the States), and then waited for an hour for the local mechanic to arrive.

While the mechanic and Jeremy zoomed off into the hills to diagnose the problem, Penelope and I retreated to the deck outside the Top10 kitchen.  I worked on my blog while she played at the playground below.  While there, I noted this lovely herb garden, on a vertical planter at the edge of the deck.  What a thoughtful addition to the communal kitchen area!

Jeremy returned from his exhilarating hill drive, with news that the mechanic couldn’t replicate the problem and we should just continue driving the car.  I have reserved judgment.  And planned our future route without hills (note: this is not actually possible).

In the meantime, the showers had abated and the day was now merely overcast, so we decided to head to the beach for the rest of the afternoon.  The weather wasn’t ideal for a beach visit, but that didn’t deter Penelope. 

And she was delighted to discover two kids from our Top10 campground there as well.  They spent a happy hour or two swimming, jumping in the waves, collecting seaweed, and building sand castles.  We waded and chatted with the girls’ mum; their family is newly emigrated from England, and they are staying the Top10 until their rental house is available at the beginning of next month. 

Dinner at home—and a movie—rounded out the day.  Our campground has an impressive array of DVDs to borrow, and Penelope was excited to check out Sherlock Gnomes.  Adult rating: only very mildly amusing, though I appreciated all of the references to the actual Sherlock stories. Penelope rating: two thumbs way up. 

Thursday morning was a bit drizzly, so we spent our time indoors.  Laundry, schoolwork, reading—just a bit of NZ planning left!  Hard to believe we leave a week from today.  After lunch we walked down to the Russell wharf and checked in for our afternoon cruise around the Bay of Islands.

The cruise began with points inside the Bay, including a view of the spot near Motouarohia Island where Captain Cook anchored the Endeavor in 1769. 

We then continued through the Bay out to the open sea.  At this point, Penelope declared her love for the rollercoaster swells, and I began to feel a bit green about the gills. 

Nevertheless, we stayed in our seats above deck as the boat headed for the Hole in the Rock.  We arrived without incident, and paused nearby to admire the island being slowly weathered away by the sea.  And to notice the huge number of fish right near the surface, due, the captain said, to the rainy weather.

On the way back, the boat stopped at Otehei Bay for an hour, where Penelope explored a new beach and we enjoyed an afternoon snack at the café. 

We cruised back to Paihia, across the bay from Russell, where we enjoyed a delicious Indian dinner at local favorite Greens restaurant. 

Don’t worry, we do actually talk at meals. But this was a perfect shot of reading time before dinner was served. 🙂

Friday was our final day in the Bay of Islands, and with rain once again in the forecast, we opted not to do the day hike we’d originally planned and took an administrative day instead.  After breakfast we Skyped with my folks, read for a bit, then headed out to Kerikeri, the nearest town with sizeable grocery stores.  We needed to procure provisions for the next few days, as we were heading way out in back country for our last few days before Auckland.  No stores there!

Interesting side note: yesterday on the Bay of Islands cruise we learned that there are no plurals in Maori, so to indicate more than two, they simply say the word twice.  So Kerikeri means “digdig” or place of much digging.  🙂

Alas, on our drive we made the mistake of taking the long way around, thinking that way we’d see some new and interesting scenery.  Instead we had to drive on gravel roads in thick bush for about an hour.  Not tremendously fun.  At least it was only light showers. On the way back, we opted for the car ferry between Opua and Okiato, despite the repetition of scenery.  Much wiser!

We did, however, stop briefly in Kawakawa to see the Hundertwasser toilets.  Our guidebook had informed us that it was completed in 1999 by architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and is one of the few public toilets seen as a work of art;.  And with that description, how could we not stop??

The toilet facility was indeed pretty cool, but I really liked the bench outside across the street.  Wonderful mosaics of NZ birds!

Then it was back at home for dinner and an evening in our cabin.  Since the forecast prevented time at the Top10 playground, Penelope had the luxury of another DVD rental from the reception collection.  This time she picked Nut Job, which is evidently a heist film about squirrels.  Jeremy and I opted not to watch this one, and I began packing us up for our last Top10 of the trip, on the Kauri Coast. 

Although Russell would likely have been a better stop had we not had several days of rain, it was still lovely to see the Bay of Islands.  I’m glad we came.