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.

Into the North

Sunday we had another long drive ahead of us—from Waitomo to Mangawhai Heads.  But since we’d heard about the Hamilton Gardens from the docent at the Katherine Mansfield House in Wellington, we’d decided to stop for lunch in Hamilton.  A good way to break up our long drive—and a chance to see another botanical gardens. 

And what a garden it was!  By far the best one we’ve seen in New Zealand—and maybe my all-time favorite.  While we’re weren’t able to tour all of the grounds (it’s enormous!), we did see three of the largest areas.  I love the approach they’ve taken, dividing the gardens thematically.  We started in the Productive Collection, touring the Herb Garden, the Kitchen Garden, the Sustainable Backyard, and the Maori garden, called Te Parapara Garden.

Next we walked over to the Fantasy Collection, where we were soon to find the simply amazing Katherine Mansfield Garden.

I teach this short story almost every year, in either AP Brit Lit or AP Short Fiction. So wonderful to see the scene brought to life!
The wee cream puffs! Impressive verisimilitude.

In the same Fantasy area we also enjoyed the Tropical Garden, the Tudor Garden, and the just-visible topiaries of the under-construction Surrealist Garden:

We ended our visit in the Paradise Collection: the Indian Char Bingh Garden, Italian Renaissance, Japanese Garden of Contemplation, Chinese Scholar’s Garden, English Flower Garden, and Modernist Garden–just a few of these pictured below.

After lunch at the café, we continued our drive north, passing through the enormous city of Auckland.  This route afforded us a first glimpse of our last stop on this New Zealand adventure.  It’s a real city, complete with traffic and skyscrapers.  We’re looking forward to exploring its sights in our final days.

Just before dinner time we arrived in Mangawhai, where we’d booked two nights at the Mangawhai Heads Holiday Park.  Our cabin there was perhaps the most luxurious we’ve yet had—spacious rooms, dining room table for six, even a washing machine!  We settled in, feeling delightfully surprised.

We’d picked up groceries in town at the tiny market, enough for breakfast and a picnic lunch for our hike the next day.  But since options for cooking were few, we opted to eat dinner at Dune, a restaurant in town.  A most delicious decision!  We enjoyed a tasting platter of twice-cooked pork belly, ribs, chicken—and another of seafood: tuna tataki, mussels, scallops, prawns, crabs, and oysters.  A veritable smorgasbord. 

After dinner, we returned home and started getting ready for bed, when to our horror we discovered the first of quite a few… cockroaches!!  Ugh.  We trapped one under a cup in the kitchen, Jeremy smooshed one underfoot, and another ran directly in between the light bulb and the fixture in the ceiling, electrocuting itself.  Penelope fell asleep while Jeremy and I googled how best to protect our luggage from hitchhiking bugs.  We eventually got some sleep, but decided we’d be moving to another campground the next morning.

On Monday morning we checked out early, and the staff assured us that cockroaches near the beach were perfectly normal, nothing to worry about—but they also refunded our second night’s stay.  Although our car was stuffed to the gills with all of our luggage, we decided we still wanted to do our planned hike before driving on.  So we drove just a few minutes up the road to the Mangawhai Cliff Walk parking lot and prepared for our hike.  We’d timed the hike so that we could walk along the cliff on the way out, and hike back along the beach for the return.  The loop is only possible at low tide, but the tide charts said we’d be in good time for the beach hike back. 

We set out with a packed picnic lunch and lots of water—though it was cloudy in the late morning, the forecast was for very warm weather later on.  The first twenty minutes or so of the hike is along the beach, on the sand. 

And then you begin to climb.  And climb.  About 300 or so stairs (and lots of switchbacks) later, we reached what we hoped was the top.  At the lookout, we paused for pictures and our picnic. 

And then continued on, now high above the sea—with simply terrific views for the next hour or so.

When you reach the end of the cliff track, you start the descent—and so down we went, another 300 or so stairs, to the end of the trail: a gorgeous arch and pebbly beach. 

Since it was low tide, there were lots of tide pools to explore—and waves to chase (or be chased by).

After a few minutes of carefully picking our way along the beach, however, we reluctantly realized that our ankles (and our footwear) weren’t really up to the challenge of the rocks along the way back. 

I’m sure you see where this is going.

Yes, we were going to have to climb back up (and then descend) those same 600+ steps. 

We were all thrilled.  Especially Penelope.

But by the time we reached the top of the cliffs once more, the sun had come out, and the views were even more spectacular.

And we did manage to maintain our good spirits all the way through.  There may have been some discussion of visiting the ice cream truck stationed in the visitor carpark… who could say whether that was the motivating factor in Penelope’s willingness to forge ahead?  🙂

And so we ended as we began: walking back along the seashore, with the tide rushing in, but this time wading happily in the surf. 

Exhausted but happy, we drove on to Whangerai, where we’d secured a single night’s stay at a Top10.  After dinner and showers—and the promised ice cream—we all collapsed into a very sound sleep.

Tuesday morning we had our planned drive to Russell, where we’d be staying for the next four nights.  But since we’d made an unexpected stop in Whangerai, we decided to explore two small parks before leaving town.  The first, the AH Reed Memorial Park, was our introduction to the magnificent kauri trees—and the associated footwear cleaning procedures. 

The kauri trees are being vigilantly protected by the NZ department of conservation, and visitors are required to clean and disinfect their shoes when entering and leaving the forests. 

Our second stop was Whangerai Falls, where we took a beautiful short loop trail all around the waterfall.

After a picnic lunch, we continued north to the Bay of Islands and checked in to our next campground, the Russell Top10.  Our cabin was at the very top of the campground, with terrific sunset views! 

Unfortunately, the forecast was for four solid days of rain… but at least we had a lovely arrival in this beautiful part of the North Island.

Mudpots and Glowworms

Thursday morning began with a surprise Valentine’s Day breakfast.  I’d spotted Cadbury Mini Rolls in the shop the day before and snuck a pack into our basket to surprise Penelope.  She was delighted—and Jeremy and I enjoyed our raspberries and blueberries with thickened cream. 

We wanted to see more of the geothermal features this part of New Zealand is known for… but we also didn’t want to spend more than a hundred dollars to see a geyser at one of the Maori village sites, since later that night we’d be attending a Maori performance and dinner.  So instead we found a free site about thirty minutes away that featured mudpots (our family favorite).  At the edge of Waiotapu Forest, there is a fairly large series of mudpots, which belched and bubbled to the delight of our whole party. 

We then headed back to town, stopping at the Redwoods Treewalk grove of trees.  Although the Treewalk looked super fun, it was an additional fee—so we opted instead for a walk on the ground.  The redwoods were gorgeous, just like at home… except for the towering tree ferns (and the ever-present smell of sulphur in the air).

After our stroll, we drove back to the campground and enjoyed a quick dip in the pool before Penelope & I went to our evening of Maori food and culture.  The van from Mitai picked us up, and we were off. 

To be honest, I had mixed feelings about attending the evening’s performance.  Although Mitai and the others in Rotorua advertise their events as celebrations of Maori culture and history, there’s a part of me that wonders about the nature of indigenous performances for largely white audiences.  But I also appreciate the Maoris’ desire to keep their culture alive and vibrant—and to share that culture with others. 

Upon arrival, Penelope was delighted to discover that we’d been seated with the only other children in the dinner tent.  The family (from Australia) was in the middle of a short trip around around the North Island before and after attending a wedding, and the three girls made fast friends.  Here they are in front of our hangi dinner (pit cooked, using heated rocks).

The evening began with a short talk about Maori history, then we walked through the reconstructed village to see the Rainbow Springs, a beautiful cold spring (temperature, around 9 degrees Celsius).  Fascinating to see the cold spring’s proximity to all of the thermal features just minutes away.  There we awaited the arrival of the traditional waka, the war canoe rowed by the Maori men.

We then moved to a stage area, where we saw a traditional welcome ceremony, poi dancing, and the haka.  A powerful performance—and we parents reaped the benefit of traveling with short persons, as our two families were offered front row seats.  🙂

All in all, a good evening, one which ended with a Q & A session with one of the older Maori guides working the event.  His remarks, particularly about the survival and recent revival of the  Maori language in New Zealand, were a highlight for me—but Penelope said her favorite part was the poi dancing.  Fair enough—that was pretty cool too.

Friday morning we packed up and checked out of our Top10 Holiday Park in Rotorua, but before we left town we decided to visit the Pak’n’Save, one of the few grocery chains we’d not yet shopped.  Inside is sort of like Costco, very much a warehouse feeling to the place—but just regular groceries, not bulk stuff.  An interesting addition to our grocery experience.  We grabbed some picnic stuff for our drive and headed back to the car.

The drive to Waitomo was just lovely: rolling hillsides that periodically opened to sweeping vistas.  Parts of the countryside reminded me of Europe—farmland and hillsides, dotted with willows or Italian cypresses… but tall tree ferns interspersed throughout make you realize you’re definitely not in England.

We arrived at our next campground, the Top10 in Waitomo, in time to read and relax a bit before our afternoon tour of the glowworm caves.  The cave system is the reason to come to Waitomo, which is otherwise just a widening in the road, not a proper town—but it’s reason enough.  This area is riddled with limestone caves, some small, some enormous—and many filled with glowworms.  The tour we elected to take included a walk through part of a well-lit and paved small cave, ending in a boat ride around a completely unlit lake.  The lack of lights is very much on purpose, allowing those below to take in the spectacle of thousands of tiny glowworms above.  There are no photos allowed on the tour, so I’ll recommend David Attenborough’s trip into the caves.

At the end, we exited through the original entrance to the cave, where the Waitomo River enters and runs underground.  You can see a glimpse of the boat heading back into the cave here—and a family selfie.  🙂

From the caves, we drove to the next town over to gather dinner supplies for an evening at home.  While Jeremy cooked dinner, Penelope ran off to find new friends and I continued reading The Power by Naomi Alderman.  One of the great pleasures of this sabbatical is finding time to read—and I’m managing to do so most days, which has been wonderful.  My favorite so far has been Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story.  The author, Christine Thompson, is an American who earned her PhD in Pacific literature—and married a Maori man she met while traveling in New Zealand.  In this memoir, she interweaves her own story with the history of New Zealand, resulting in a terrific narrative structure.  I really enjoyed reading it, especially before traveling to the North Island (where most Maori live—only 15% of the Maori population resides on the South Island). 

Saturday was an administrative day, for which we were all grateful.  We scheduled no sightseeing and instead spent the day at the campground, at the pool, in our cabin, reading and planning.  And coaxing Penelope to complete some schoolwork: writing postcards in French to her class and completing some pages in her math workbook.  But by mid-day the lure of the countryside made us reconsider, and we set off on two short local hikes: the Mangapohue Natural Bridge Walk and the Marokopa Falls Walk.  Both short walks, ending in some absolutely lovely scenery.

Penelope’s favorite part of the first hike: eating about a pint of ripe, sun-warmed blackberries we found along the trail.
What happens when Penelope says, “Silly face selfie!” and then laughs at our faces instead of making her own.


We arrived in Rotorua Tuesday evening, after a long drive north.  Typically Jeremy and I split the longer drives, with me doing the bulk of country driving while he takes the cities.  We settled into the Top10 at Rotorua for the next three nights, noting the faint smell of sulphur as we carried in our bags from the car.  Rotorua is most famous for its geothermal properties: geysers, hot lakes, and mudpots abound.  The city also has the highest population of Maori in New Zealand: 75% of the city residents.

On Wednesday we planned a very low-key day, with just one outing to a nearby city park to see some of the geothermal features.  The bright green lake and smoky waterfall were quite something, but the footbaths were empty, alas. 

In late afternoon, after some schoolwork and Skyping with grandparents, we headed back to the car for the hour long drive to Matamata… and HOBBITON.  It’s not actually written in all caps, but I wanted to capture my emotion for you.  🙂

Last August when I booked our trip to Hobbiton, I chose the Evening Banquet Tour primarily because it was the longest tour option—and I wanted to be in Hobbiton for as long as possible.  So it was early evening when we arrived at the Hobbit Movie Set gift store and café. We checked in for our tour, browsed the gift shop, and then boarded the bus for the actual movie set, about five minutes away.  There were only about forty people on the tour, with two tour guides, and—best of all—no one else.  No tours before or after, which I think made the experience feel more special. 

We toured the whole village (forty-four hobbit holes!), marveling at all of the amazing detail, before walking over to the Green Dragon Inn for dinner, dress-up, and dessert, then a lantern-lit walk back to the Party Tree, and the bus ride back to the carpark.

I took hundreds of photos, of course, but I’ve distilled them to my absolute favorites below.  I think I’ll let them speak for themselves.  But I will tell you now that when we rounded the corner and first saw Bag End perched on top of the hill, with all of Hobbiton spread out below… well, I couldn’t help it.  I just melted into tears.  An older English gentleman caught sight of my joyful tears and walked over to pat my back, saying, “I feel just the same way.”  Truly one of the most wonderful, most magical moments of my life. 

At the welcome sign, before seeing any of the hobbit holes.
Weepy me in front of one of the first hobbit holes.
Look at the wee mailboxes!
All of the hobbit holes were made to different scales (to be filmed with hobbits vs wizards or dwarves), so some are quite small and others larger.
Penelope at the baker’s house. Many of the hobbit holes had details that suggested the owner’s occupation… baker, artist, potter, blacksmith. And the stands were often perfectly Penelope-sized.

First glimpse of the Dragon Inn, with the Party Tree from Bilbo’s 111th birthday on the left.
Family of hobbits at the artist’s house.
One of the tour guides invited Penelope and Jeremy to stand where we’d end up with a perspective shift. Or as he put it to Penelope, “Do you want to be bigger than your dad?”
Ahhhhhhh! Look at Bilbo’s pipe!
Bag End, readying for the party.
Yes, that’s a real pumpkin. And all of the gardens and fruit trees are real, cared for by a team of more than thirty gardeners.
Gorgeous flowers!
Looking back up one of the hills.
A closer view of the Green Dragon Inn.
Selling cheese at the cheesemonger’s house.
Sam and Rosie’s house.
Signs outside the Inn.
The pub! The ales and ciders here are specially brewed on site.
Or if you prefer water, they have that too. 🙂
A handy place to store your walking sticks and wizard staffs.
“It comes in pints?!?” (note: child is enjoying a flagon of ginger beer, not ale)
Trying out the harp in the corner. After she played for a bit, she went to ask the tour guide if the harp belonged to Thorin.
Gorgeous decorations in the courtyard outside the Inn.
Beautiful details everywhere inside…
And Penelope was delighted to spot this parchment copy of Thorin’s song. Note too she is wearing the One Ring. But she says to tell you that she was careful never to put it on.
A feast fit for hobbits! The food was gorgeous and delicious–and there was lots of it.
After dinner, while the plates were cleared and dessert was prepared, they laid out Shire clothes for us to try on. I seized my chance to become a Hobbit barmaid.
Penelope joined in, posing by the fire.
But what I really wanted, of course, was to get out from behind the bar and go on an adventure. Must have been the Tookish part of me.
Dessert was equally lavish. My favorite was the pavlova, with whipped cream and strawberries–so delicious! Penelope and Jeremy favored the cheesecake. And we all liked the raspberry bakewell with butterscotch and cream on top.
At the end of our lantern-lit stroll back through Hobbiton, we found that the guides had set up a studio light in front of the gardener’s hobbit hole. And so each of us in turn bid farewell to this magical place.
Until next time!

Wellington, Part Two: LOTR Edition

Sunday arrived at last: my long-awaited Lord of the Rings tour!  Wellington and environs are home to many, many filming locations from the trilogy—and Weta Workshop too, of course.  And there are several companies that provide half- and full-day tours for movie buffs and/or Tolkien fans.  After reading reviews of the various options, we decided that some of the imagery might be too unnerving for Penelope, and so I elected to attend the tour solo while Penelope and Jeremy enjoyed a day together in Wellington.  They took in a morning show of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, which has been out here for a few weeks, and off I went to join my mini-bus, along with eighteen other LOTR fans.

Our tour guide/bus driver, Jack, was fantastic.  He actually works at Weta as a 3D modeler, and leads tours once a month or so, just for fun.  He had an impressive store of behind-the-scenes tales about the locations, the crew, and the cast, and the day sped by.

We began by taking in the vista from the top of Mount Victoria, then descended just halfway to see the spot where the very first scene of the trilogy was filmed: where the four hobbits tumbled down the hill after stealing from Farmer Maggot… and a few steps away, where Frodo said “Get off the road!”  Here’s me, ridiculous happy to be standing in pretty much the exact same spot:

and then pretending to hide from a Ringwraith in the very hollow the hobbits hid in (minus the enormous tree added to enhance the proper sense of scale, of course) (and plus extreme drama for reenactment).

After talking a bit more about those scenes in the movie, we boarded the bus and drove to the Miramar neighborhood, where Weta Workshop (and all of its related subdivisions, like Weta Digital and Park Road Post Production).  There I admired a life-sized versions of Gandalf, Azog, and Gollum before we went on our tour. 

Alas, no photos are permitted on tour, as many of the artifacts shown don’t belong to Weta, but to the movie studios that produced the various films.  But seeing weapons, prosthetics, costumes, and animatronics from the LOTR trilogy, the Narnia films, District-9, World of Warcraft… it was all pretty dang cool.  My favorite piece was probably the elf armor—handmade chainmaille with adornments on top.  Just gorgeous in person.  And so fun to hear about the process of design and creation in each of these departments at Weta.  We also had a chance to see a short documentary about Weta’s beginnings and a glimpse at the many projects they’ve been involved with over the last 20+ years.

After the workshop tour, we headed to the River Anduin, also known as the Hutt River, to see the location of some of the water scenes, then to Rivendell for a picnic lunch.  And after lunch, it was time to walk the paths of the elves. 

Rivendell (also known as Kaitoke Regional Park) is unusually well-signed for a filming site—in fact, our guide told us it’s one of just a handful of sites in New Zealand that have any signs at all to mark their location.  But so many fans have made their way to Rivendell that paths and signs were set up in order to better corral them… and to keep wandering feet from damaging tree roots and ferns.  Nothing at all remains of the filming, as that was part of the agreement—that every shrub and stone would be replaced exactly as it had been.  But two years ago, an elven arch was installed, at half the scale of the original from the film.  Just in case you don’t immediately recognize it, it’s the arch behind the Fellowship as they leave Rivendell for Moria, and Frodo says, “Mordor, Gandalf, is it left or right?”

I fully embraced my elfhood under one of the most famous trees—Legolas stood just where I did, though alas I didn’t have a bow and arrow.  But an elf-cloak would do. 

Our last stop of the day was the Gardens of Isengard, where Gandalf the Grey arrives to seek the counsel of Saruman the White.  Harcourt Park is a beautiful location, and you can still see exactly the path the two wizards took on their walk through the gardens.  So obviously we all engaged in a bit of reenactment as well. 

By then the hour was growing late, and so our happy band returned from Middle Earth to Wellington.  What a day!  Such a wonderful experience… and it made me all the more excited for our family visit to Hobbiton in a few days’ time.

Back at home, I joined Jeremy and Penelope for a family dinner and then we spent a lovely hour at the Central Park playground, just up the hill from our apartment.

On Monday we were scheduled to pick up our car, but not until noon.  So we decided to spend the morning hours at Zealandia, an urban eco-sanctuary.  It’s a fully fenced, mammal-free park designed to reintroduce and successfully protect native New Zealand species—and it was just a beautiful place.

We spotted eight different bird species in our short visit: the saddleback, tui, little shag, bellbird, kaka, north island robin, quail, and takahe.  The tui’s song is still my favorite, though the kaka is quite an impressively-sized parrot!  And we also saw some of the giant weta…aka cave crickets…which were also impressively-sized.  I am very glad we didn’t spot those in the *actual* wild. 

After our morning hike through the reserve, we hopped in our new rental car and headed over to Miramar, just in time for Jeremy’s tour of Weta Cave.  While he took the studio tour, Penelope and I inspected the various items in the gift shop and the mini-museum.  Though Penelope never quite warmed up to Lurtz, she did ask to have her photo taken with the Smaug-dragons over the Weta sign.

After Jeremy finished his tour, we all headed over to the Miniatures Tour.  Weta has revived the ’60s series Thunderbirds Are Go, and some of the hundreds of sets are kept in the warehouse where they did the filming.  Though none of us has seen any of the old—or new—series, the sets were well worth the tour.  To see how the model makers used everyday materials to create such amazing sets was incredible—and I so appreciated the tour guide’s constant reminder that anyone can do this work.  He said again and again that the most important ingredients were imagination and a willingness to take things apart and put them back together in different ways—such an awesome message.  Especially for a certain seven year old who was listening wide-eyed.  🙂  And who also enjoyed playing Godzilla at the end of the tour.

After the miniatures tour ended, we bid a fond farewell to the trolls in the Weta garden and headed to the Wellington airport for our last bit of Tolkien magic… at least in Wellington.

And the airport did not disappoint.  An enormous Smaug-head (with an animatronic eye no less!)  greeted us as we entered. 

Only a bit further, around a corner, and we caught our first glimpse of Gandalf flying with the Eagles—at life-size scale.  Truly tremendous!

We ended the day with a drive around the Wellington peninsula—beautiful coastal scenery—before returning to have dinner at home and begin packing. 

Tuesday morning it was time to say farewell to Wellington and begin our long drive north to Rotorua… but I didn’t want to leave without seeing the Katherine Mansfield house.  So after we’d packed our car up and checked out of our wonderful AirBnB, we headed just a few minutes north to the museum.  Jeremy and Penelope, less keen to visit a small museum filled with breakable antiques, read in the car while I toured the house.

It’s a relatively small house, but nevertheless a lovely recreation of the home into which Mansfield was born in 1888.  Many of the artifacts on display belonged to her family, who lived here for the first five years of her life. 

Mansfield recalled this house most clearly in her short story “Prelude.”  When I mentioned to the docent that I frequently teach “The Garden Party,” she told me about the gardens in Hamilton, one of which is devoted specifically to that story.  So we’ve happily added a stop to our itinerary.  Stay tuned for those pics next week!

Windy Wellington

After gathering all of our assorted bags and bundles from the ferry and making our way to our apartment (which is delightfully enormous, allowing us all some much-needed solo space), we decided to eat out for dinner.  Jeremy found the Southern Cross restaurant a few blocks away, and we enjoyed a delicious meal there.  Our apartment is in the Te Aro neighborhood of Wellington, just a block from Cuba Street’s many cafes and restaurants, so we are spoiled for choice.

The Bucket Fountain on Cuba Street, Penelope’s favorite art installation thus far.

Thursday we relaxed into a slow morning at home, doing some laundry, reading, cooking breakfast.  But by lunchtime we were on our way to Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand.  It’s a gorgeous building, with an eclectic and interesting collection.  We began with the native bush walk outside, where we spotted (and heard!) our first Tui bird.  Take a listen to the positively astonishing range of sounds it produces:

Next we went to the exhibit on Gallipoli in turns—and a good thing we did, as it was a visceral representation of suffering by Kiwi soldiers in WWI.  The models were enormous—not tiny but instead 2.5 times the size of humans, sculpted with incredible verisimilitude.  Penelope sat outside with each of us while the other toured, happily reading her Kindle.  Her favorite book at the moment is The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, by Jaclyn Moriarity, and I believe she’s reading it for the third time.  🙂

After we finished the Gallipoli exhibit, we moved on to the floors focused on New Zealand history as well as Maori culture, art, and history.  Te Papa does a wonderful job interweaving art and history, along with interactive videos, games, and experiences.  And they have children’s spaces scattered throughout the museum, where kids can try out costumes and instruments and art. 

The last floors we visited were the art galleries, which were again terrifically organized and filled with interactive elements.  We particularly appreciated the deck of cards at the beginning, called 101 Ways to Look at Art.  Each visitor is invited to take a few to use in the galleries.  We asked the docent if the whole deck was for sale, but alas no.  So we made do with this snapped photo—and will definitely be using these questions again with Penelope when we visit the museums of Italy and France.

Friday we opted for another day of exploring Wellington, and this time our focus was on the great outdoors: the Cable Car and the Botanical Gardens.  Wellington has hundreds of cable cars, but all but one are privately owned.  Those hundreds are more accurately known as funiculars, and these two-person cable cars allow hill-dwelling Wellingtonians to park their car at street level and then ascend or descend hundreds of feet to their house perched on high.  The public cable car, on the other hand, carries about a hundred people at a time, from Lambton Quay to the hilltop above, where you can descend through the Botanic Gardens back to the city below.  And the view from the top is pretty lovely too!

We spent the next two hours slowly walking down through the gardens, with an extended stop at the playground en route.  Also spotted: the gorgeous tree fern, a sunlit hillside filled with hydrangeas, and absolutely, positively the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen.  I would like our future hobbit hole to be surrounded by a glade of these specimens.

That evening we ventured out to the Wellington Night Market, noting once we arrived that to call the alley a “market” somewhat overstated the offerings on hand…but we still enjoyed ourselves.  It was just like the Off the Grid food truck gatherings in the Bay Area, and, as at home, we devoured our dumplings and roti burritos.  The live music was a lovely bonus.

Saturday was girls’ day out: Penelope and I started the day by walking from our apartment over to the waterfront, following the harbor to the Wellington Underground Market.  Every Saturday there’s an arts and crafts market that takes over an underground car park, and it was definitely worth the visit.  Though we were mightily tempted by a gorgeous wire bird feeder, I wasn’t sure we could get it home in one piece.  Penelope spent nearly half an hour at the dollhouse miniatures booth, choosing just the right sweets for her “lolly” jar.  I exercised my patience muscle.  And she did end up with a lovely collection of sweets, in addition to a jar of fruits (most appropriately, she chose the kiwis).

After a lunch made to order from one of the booths at the Underground Market, we continued our walk around the harbor, pausing to snap a selfie and gawk at the divers jumping from the various platforms set up by the city.  A climb, a leap, and a splash into the sea.  Very cool. 

The park we’d originally played to go to seemed to be under construction, so we continued walking to Waitangi Park… where we discovered a small Highlands Festival underway.  Mind you, we’d also passed a Holi / Color Festival that morning, and there were huge Chinese New Year celebrations planned for the next few days.  Wellington is definitely a cultural crossroads—another way in which it reminds me of San Francisco.  We watched some Highland dancing for a bit and then found the nearby playground.  An hour there, and Penelope asked if we could return to Te Papa for part of the afternoon.  Sounded good—so off we went, and Penelope enjoyed playing drums and dress-up with other kids.  Afterwards, we browsed some shops as we leisurely made our way home for dinner with Jeremy.

After dinner, we capped our third day in Wellington with a delectable ice cream treat at Kaffee Eis on Cuba Street: after trying a wide array of flavors, we settled on Biscotti (which tasted like Biscoff cookies), Pistachio, Cinnamon, and Bon Bon Rocher (chocolate hazelnut).  All delicious!

Farewell to the South Island

Wednesday morning dawned overcast and rainy, with hints of smoke in the air.  Our last night in Motueka we went down to the beach to do some stargazing, since it was a new moon night.  Amazing views of upside-down Orion and even the Milky Way… but we also noticed a significant orange glow emanating across the bay from us.  It turned out to be a substantial fire in the Tasman region, which continued overnight. 

After a final check of our Top 10 Motueka cabin, we loaded the car and headed to Picton… with a brief stop in Nelson to buy a duffel bag.  I have no idea how we’ve possibly acquired enough extras to need another piece of luggage, but with our ferry departure looming, it seemed better to take the more expedient route of acquiescing to reality.  We can re-shuffle in Wellington!

Three hours later, we arrived, fueled the car, pulled everything out, and walked over to the ferry terminal.  After a brief wait in the terminal, we headed on board.

The Interislander Ferry has simply enormous ships, with cafes and lounges and two movie theaters, and windows everywhere.  Lovely views emerged as we got underway.  Penelope was initially enthralled, but soon the call of the iPad was too strong to resist. 

After an hour or so of games (Monument Valley is her current favorite), we decided to check out the views on the top of the ship, followed by some time in the play area on Deck 2. 

I spent some of the time on board reading and planning for our six days in Wellington, and some of the time rewatching Lord of the Rings.  🙂

As we bid adieu to South Island, I’ll take this final chance to share some random family photos and Kiwiana from our past weeks here…

Penelope discovers the joys of the top bunk.
The wind on the South Island is no joke.
A most excellent suit of armor in a Queenstown art gallery.
Frodo and the Ring, made from 20,000+ jelly beans.
Penelope said, “This milk is so fancy! Take a picture, Mama!”
Penelope and the enormous Takahe statue. Not pictured: its fluffy white butt, which Penelope found most amusing.
Awesome hiking t-shirt spotted at the Nelson Market.
We’re not actually sure this is one of the famed Pōhutukawa trees, but… seemed pretty close?
Is this directive meant to be humorous?
What sometimes happens when you ask Jeremy and Penelope to smile for a picture.
Gorgeous delicate blossoms spotted on a trailside plant.
Yes, I have the sense of humor of an adolescent. But this sign cracked me up.
Me, watching Penelope play in the tilted rooms at Puzzling World.
Penelope saved a lovely green beetle which had ended up on its back in the center of the trail. She placed it carefully right side up in her hand, then safely on the side of the trail.
And a final example of the majestic New Zealand wildlife we’ve seen throughout our travels on the South Island.

Next post from Wellington. Looking forward to settling into our AirBnB for the longest stay of our New Zealand trip: a positively luxurious six nights.

To the Market, to the Beach, to the Waterfalls

Shall I start by confessing that I arranged our entire South Island itinerary so that we could be in Nelson for the Saturday market?  It’s true.  I LOVE a good market, and my folks said this was one of the best they’ve been to, on several continents.  How could I miss it? 

So Friday morning found us driving the four hours from Kaikoura to Nelson, with a car picnic lunch en route.  Nelson is one of the larger cities on the South Island, so we spent some time that afternoon laying in provisions for our final days.  Also on deck: some schoolwork for Penelope and a special treat: the first twenty minutes or so of The Hobbit movie.  Penelope loved it, especially the dwarf singing… but didn’t want to watch further to see any of the scary parts (and we agreed, given her past scary-movie-to-nightmare ratio).  Dinner at home and some playground time rounded out the day.

Saturday morning I headed to the Nelson market for an hour or so of solo browsing before Jeremy and Penelope joined me.  As predicted, the market was a delightful mélange of produce, crafts, art, clothes, jewelry, and food trucks.  I found a gorgeous charcuterie board made of Rewarewa, also known as the New Zealand honeysuckle, with lovely branch handles. 

Jeremy suggested he might prefer the cleaner lines of the one on the right, but I remained steadfast in my preference for the center one.  And thus I have come one step closer to fulfilling my dream of turning our house into a hobbit hole, decorated with items Bilbo and Frodo might also admire.

And I also picked up these wonderful New Zealand ha’pennies, polished and transformed into earrings. 

After lunch, we headed to the Nelson Provincial Museum, which contains both a permanent exhibition on the history of this city and region, and traveling exhibits.  So we also enjoyed an exploration of the Permian period, complete with enormous animatronic pre-dinosaurs.  It was quite something!

Next we strolled over to the Suter Art Gallery, a small but wonderful art museum.  In the very back gallery room, they had a room filled with art from local New Zealand artists, all available for purchase.  Such a wonderful idea—I’d love it if every museum had this practice!  Jeremy and I saw something similar a few years ago when we were in Edinburgh.  And on this trip, the piece we liked best was available, so purchase it we did.  Of course now we have to schlep the painting around New Zealand for the next few weeks, but we’ll manage.  If these are my complaints, it’s a good life.  😉

We had reservations for dinner at Nahm, a Thai restaurant right on the coast, to celebrate my birthday… as on my actual birthday we will be hiking in a restaurant-free area of Abel Tasman National Park.  We’ve been tremendously lucky with all of our restaurant choices so far—and Nahm was no exception.  Outstanding Thai food, eaten on a beautiful balcony right on the sheltered bay of Nelson’s seashore.  As we waited for our food, we saw a terrific variety of boats sail by.  And Jeremy snapped this pic of me.  🙂

After dinner, we took a scenic drive around Nelson and then decided to hike up to the Centre of New Zealand.  While it’s apparently not the *actual* center of NZ, it’s still a relatively close approximation atop a hill with wonderful 360-degree views.  Good enough!

Sunday we packed up once again and headed for Motueka, our last stop on the South Island.  Though it’s a small town, Motueka is the gateway for the Abel Tasman National Park, so it has more stores, etc than it might otherwise.  We’re here for three nights, and have been assigned a cabin directly across from the pool and playground.  So on the first day we spent our afternoon at the pool, relaxing and also prepping for our time in Wellington later this week.  Dinner at home, along with some laundry and schoolwork.  And after dinner, a walk along the beach to see an old wrecked ship. Bonus knowledge acquired: wet sand can actually and quite suddenly be revealed to be black quicksand mud! Guess who learned that lesson the hard way? Picture of me sputtering expletives (and covered in mud up to my shoe-clad ankles) not included.

On Monday though, we were up early, and after a quick breakfast/birthday celebration for yours truly, drove to nearby Kaiteriteri Beach to board our water taxi.  We had booked a double beach cruise with local company Nelson’s, and we sailed from Kaiteriteri Beach up to Medlands Bay, while the skipper filled us in on sights along the shoreline.  My favorite was the aptly named Split Apple Rock.

We disembarked at Medlands Bay, then hiked over to Bark Bay, where we settled in for some beach time.

See how happy and relaxed we looked?  Alas, this feeling was soon to fade as Jeremy and I began to remember that we are decidedly and definitively not beach people.  Do you know what there is at the beach?  SAND.  SO MUCH SAND.  And hot, hot sun.  Also a feature of this particular beach: sand fleas.  So after we realized that our sandy spot was infested, we packed up and did some hiking along the Abel Tasman track.  Much better.  Penelope disagreed, but was pacified when we reminded her that we’d be at another beach soon.

And about an hour later, we were picked up by our boat and ferried down to Anchorage Bay, where we spent another few hours split between hiking and beach time.  You’ll be relieved to know that both Jeremy and I had the foresight to bring our Kindles.   And that Penelope very much enjoyed playing with other, more beach-amenable families on the shoreline.  🙂  But the wildlife (wekas and swamphens and feral pigs, oh my) was terrific and the views were amazing.  Definitely a beautiful place!

After a long day of adventures, we boarded the boat once more, bound for Kaiteriteri Beach, and then home to our campground in Motueka.  Penelope spent the evening in the pool and on the playground, this time with a French girl her age.  Which I feel should count as her schoolwork for the day.  Well, that and about an hour of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast movie, the French language version. 

Tuesday we had a more relaxed morning at home, but we hit the road around eleven for the next set of Abel Tasman adventures.  This time we were headed for a set of hikes over Tanaka Hill: the Grove and Wainui Falls, both recommended in NZ Frenzy, a guidebook of New Zealand hikes—(and by my folks, who said we shouldn’t miss these two short walks).  While I could have given the drive a pass, due to its twists and turns (seeing a pattern here, dearest reader?), the hikes were indeed quite terrific. 

The Grove feels like a small slice of Cambodia, with huge boulders and vines and trees growing in and around the rocks.  It’s a lovely, mostly flat walk around the rocks, until you get to a giant bit of rock that’s been cut in two by time.  Walking through, you arrive at a lovely overlook of all the meadows below… and then all the way out to sea.  Quite a view!

We drove another twenty minutes of twists and turns, this time along the radiantly blue sea, and we arrived at the turnoff for the Wainui Falls Track.  This hike is about an hour and half round trip, at least at our meandering pace, and a lovely hike indeed.  Lots of palm trees, ferns, and birdsong.  The trail follows the Wainui River, sometimes close by, sometimes far above, to the highest falls in the Golden Bay region. 

We crossed several bridges, one a very high (and therefore somewhat unnerving) swing bridge with success, finally arriving at the Falls.  At 20 metres high, the Wainui Falls were indeed impressive—and I particularly appreciated the lovely rainbow spray as they entered the deep pool below.  Gorgeous.

Jeremy elected to drive home (I’d driven the outbound trip), saying he’d prefer me to read and not look at the road.  Doesn’t he know it’s my anxiety that keeps us on the road??  Apparently not.  But Penelope and I dutifully ensconced ourselves in our books and Jeremy got us safely back to Motueka.

Once home we started the process of reassembling all of our stuff.  Wednesday morning we’ll drop off our rental car and take the ferry from Picton to Wellington.  Since we’re staying in Wellington for six nights, we won’t need a car on the North Island right away.  But that means that we need to smoosh everything back into our bags so the luggage can be checked on the ferry.  An hour into packing, and I have my doubts.  Perhaps we will be stopping en route to Picton to buy a duffel bag?  Time will tell…

Hikes and Puzzles and Dolphins, oh my!

Monday we were northward-bound.  After an early lunch in Te Anau, I successfully drove us from to Arrowtown, just north of Queenstown.  The astute reader will notice we seem to be backtracking, and there is quite a bit of that here in New Zealand—there just aren’t that many roads!  Arrowtown is a historic gold mining town, and many of the little mining cottages have been preserved and turned into shops.  A fun place to browse for an hour; Penelope found her much anticipated tiny bottle of Paua shells and I purchased a pair of earrings (always one of my favorite souvenirs!). 

We switched drivers in Arrowtown and soon discovered that the drive from Arrowtown to Wanaka involved crossing what seemed like quite a mountain.  The views were tremendous, as you can see.  But you’ll have to imagine me squeaking in terror as we approached hairpin turn after hairpin turn—while Penelope was simultaneously saying “Go faster, Daddy!” and laughing with delight.

We arrived in Wanaka in late afternoon, and I have to agree with our guidebooks that the town feels exactly like Queenstown’s little sister.  Smaller, but still the ski-town vibe, filled with backpackers and tourists.  We settled in at our cabin, which is no longer a Top10 property and has subsequently been renamed Mt Aspiring Holiday Park.  But still a fine place for two nights’ stay.  Penelope was particularly pleased to hear that this park has a pool, especially since it will be in the 80s during our visit.   Dinner that night was at the Red Star Burger Bar and was so tasty we’re considering returning for round two…   The evening ended with pool and playground time, and some of the penultimate chapters of The Hobbit.

Although my folks (who have been to New Zealand three times, each trip lasting several months) recommended the Rob Roy track to us as “one of the best day hikes” they’ve ever been on—which is really saying something—we decided it was too ambitious for certain members of our family….  So on Tuesday morning we opted for two shorter hikes instead: the Mt Iron track and the Waterfall Creek Trail.  The first had terrific views of the whole valley and Lake Wanaka, while the second headed around the lake and allowed us to see That Wanaka Tree.  Yes, it’s really called that.  And #thatwanakatree on Instagram has over 37K posts (so far). 

Home to our cabin for lunch, then we headed to Puzzling World for the afternoon.  I wouldn’t say it’s a must-see attraction, but it was certainly a fun way to spend a few hours.  We liked the inside optical Illusion Rooms best, especially the Tilted House rooms and the Roman Latrine entrance to the bathrooms.  The Great Maze outside was tough, though, and we bailed via an emergency exit after about half an hour.  Just before we left, we visited the gift shop—where Penelope was tickled to realize that the attraction’s initials were her own as well.

We headed back to Red Star Burger Bar for dinner, and then an early evening at home—schoolwork and blogging and a family game of Uno before bedtime. 

Wednesday was our longest day of driving of the entire NZ trip—from Wanaka to Kaikoura—and we were on the road for more than nine hours.  Fortunately, we had lots of beautiful country to see on the way.  We also knew just where to stop for our breaks: the fabulous playground (with ziplines big enough for parents!) next to the grocery store in Lake Tekapo, the enormous i-Site and gift store in Geraldine, and an amazing Indian dinner at Maharaja, an Indian restaurant in Christchurch.  And as a bonus, I finished reading aloud The Hobbit to Penelope (and Jeremy) as the long driving day came to an end.  We arrived at the Top 10 Holiday Park in Kaikoura around 8:30pm, and Penelope managed to squeeze in some playtime at the jumping pillow before bedtime rolled around.

Thursday morning we got up early for our Dolphin Encounter cruise.  Kaikoura is famous for its oceanic wildlife, from whales to dolphins to seabirds.  The dusky dolphins are among the inhabitants of this gorgeous area, and they are famous for their friendly, inquisitive, and acrobatic nature.  There’s just one company here that takes folks out to swim with the dolphins, and it’s a wetsuit, snorkeling kind of adventure.  The dolphins are not fed or enticed to come over toward the boat and the swimmers, but they generally do—and in the process, put on an amazing performance.  Needless to say, we were pretty excited for the morning!

Penelope and I opted for the role of spectators aboard the vessel; Jeremy, less keen to sail, decided to stay home.  After a brief wait while the swimmers donned their wetsuits and heard safety instructions, we were all bussed over to the South Bay, about ten minutes away from the tiny downtown.  We boarded our boat: three spectators and sixteen swimmers along with one skipper and two guides. We sailed for about 25 minutes until we spotted our first pod of dolphins—they tend to roam in pods of a hundred to nearly a thousand.  We had a “smaller” group of a hundred or so, and their constant activity made for a non-stop show for the next two hours.  While the swimmers came in and out of the water, surrounded by the curious dolphins, one of the guides showed us the best place to stand.  And so Penelope and I spent the rest of the voyage at the bow of the boat, where the dolphins liked to “surf” the pressure waves when the boat was moving… and play when we were floating along.

I took dozens of photos and videos, but I also managed to put the camera away from time to time, just to enjoy the spectacle unfolding before us.  In addition to the dusky dolphins, we saw common dolphins racing by, a few New Zealand fur seals swimming, and several albatross bobbing along on the surface of the sea.

But one short video is definitely worth sharing… I actually caught one of the many dolphin somersaults! 

Later that afternoon Penelope and Jeremy spent some time at the holiday park pool while I explored Kaikoura’s shops solo.  Always willing to do my part for the local economy.  😉

After dinner at home, we capped the day with a walk down near the peninsula trail, where we hopped off the trail and wandered out on the rocks of low tide.  A bit of tidepooling, but mostly just appreciating the amazing sunset unfolding before us.

Just another wonderful day in New Zealand.

Te Anau and Milford Sound

We arrived Friday afternoon in Te Anau, and Penelope immediately set off for the holiday park playground.  We are staying in holiday parks on this first leg of my sabbatical for just this reason—it’s still summer school holidays here in NZ, and there are lots of kids around for Penelope to play with at each of our stops.  She spent the next few hours running around with a small pack of Kiwi and French kids, while we settled in to our new cabin. 

I’m in charge of all of the packing and unpacking, which means I have transformed into the family Google.  Everyone asks me when they need to find something.  But I actually don’t mind, because it satisfies my type-A personality to know where everything is.  🙂 Jeremy is in charge of the cooking and washing up, and last night’s dinner was another delicious dish: meatballs in Bolognese sauce.  I could get used to this division of labor!

Saturday morning we slept late, read for a bit, then headed into Te Anau to see the Department of Conservation center and its displays about Fiordland and walk through the tiny downtown of Te Anau.  Today was an “administrative day,” a term my folks coined for a day off from sightseeing to relax, catch up on tasks, and plan for the week ahead.  They’ve been traveling the world since they retired ten and a half years ago, so they know a thing or two about maintaining sanity on long trips.  We’ve built in at least one off-day a week during our time in New Zealand, and I’m so glad.

After lunch at home, we had an eagerly-anticipated treat: the great New Zealand candy sampler buffet! 

As we traveled over the past week, we’ve picked up various unusual candies: Whittaker Nelson Pear & Manuka Honey chocolate, the mysteriously-named Pink Smokers, and lots more.  We set them aside until today, when we laid all of them out and had a taste of each in turn.  Many were enjoyable, but our favorites were the dime-store candies: Beacon Strawberry Fizzers, a kind of taffy, and the Swizzers Doubles Lolly, which I actually remember first having sampled in England when I was a teenager.

After emerging from our sugar coma, we each indulged in some favorite pastimes: Jeremy spent some time coding, Penelope found new friends at the holiday park playground, and I read the New Zealand poets issue of Poetry magazine, as recommended to me by Castilleja’s fabulous librarian.

We rounded out the day by heading to the small but gorgeously appointed Te Anau cinema to see a short documentary movie about Fiordland National Park.  A lovely way to anticipate some of Sunday’s adventures.

Oh!  And I also have a new vocabulary acquisition: TRUNDLER.  Pronounced “trundlah” here in NZ. A useful sort of word.

Sunday we woke early and hit the road right away—we had a 10:30am cruise to catch, and the road there was said to take at least two hours without stops.  The principle reason to stay in Te Anau for most folks is its relative proximity to Milford Sound, one of the beautiful fiords of Fiordland National Park.  You can travel there by helicopter, by foot on the Milford Track, or by the Milford Road, finished in 1954.  We elected to take the last option and thoroughly enjoyed the drive.  The land around the road goes through quite remarkable changes—from pastureland near Te Anau to forest and then to rainforest, all within and around the mountains of the Southern Alps.

Our plan was to drive straight to the Sound, take our mid-morning cruise, and then make our way leisurely back along the same road, stopping in the afternoon at the various short hikes and sights.  We saw very little traffic on the way to the Sound, which was lovely, and the vistas were spectacular.  We arrived with plenty of time to spare and in short order boarded the Milford Mariner, operated by Real Journeys.  After considering all of the options, we chose the Nature Cruise, aboard which our commentary would be provided by a naturalist. 

Milford Sound was stunning.  We were so lucky with the weather—it’d been raining all night the night before, so dozens and dozens of waterfalls were running, but as you can see from the photos, we had sunny blue skies dotted with clouds. 

We saw two pods of bottlenose dolphins swim by, three different groups of New Zealand fur seals basking on rocks, and countless birds wheeling in the sky.  But Penelope’s favorite part was probably when the skipper steered us directly under one of the larger waterfalls.  I have to agree… that part was pretty awesome.  🙂

It didn’t start raining again until mid-way through our drive back to Te Anau—and even then we had only intermittent showers.  We were able to make stops and short hikes at the bridge over the Tutoko River, the Chasm, and Mirror Lakes—all landmarks along the Milford Road. 

When we arrived back at the holiday park, we had a few hours of relaxing before our dinner reservation at the Fat Duck in town (where Jeremy was to devour his first bowl of New Zealand green-lipped mussels).

Penelope was delighted to discover that the little boy she’d seen on our boat that morning was also staying at our holiday park, and they spent the rest of the early evening running around, coloring, and enacting “mysterious ninja battles”—even resuming for an extra hour after our dinner in town.  It’s light so late into the evening that we have adopted a somewhat laxer approach to bedtime, and Penelope is often up until 9:30pm.  Fortunately, our mornings are typically less harried than the usual school day at home, and she can sleep in a bit. 

Monday morning we packed up and Penelope bid a somewhat teary farewell to her new friend Francesco, whose family is from Milan (though they now live in Hong Kong).  She is gathering quite a range of global friends along the trip!