Friday, 25 March 2016

There and Back Again: Castles Down Under-er (Part 3 - South Island Adventures)

Welcome back to the third installment of the Castles Down Under-er, only 7 months after episode 2, and only one month before the anniversary of our trip. Life happens and blog posts get a pin put in them. What are you gonna do, eh? Anyway, here we go again...

Part 3 of our adventure begins on the InterIslander Ferry from Wellington on the North Island to Picton on the South Island. As mentioned in Part 2, we spent the 92 km, three hour journey eating, resting, and reading up on our South Island activities.

This ferry trip is a treat in itself; your South Island experience begins as you slowly wind your way through the Marlborough Sounds on calm, clear waters bordered by steep green hills on all sides. Picton doesn't disappoint either - it is a picturesque little seaside town with a charming marina and restaurants overlooking the water.

After we disembarked from the InterIslander, we enjoyed a lovely lunch at a cute little café on the harbor before heading southward towards Cape Campbell to hopefully see the Cape Campbell lighthouse.

This lighthouse is not accessible by road, but rather via an unmarked "tramping" (bushwalking/hiking) route along the windswept, curving coastline to the tip of the cape. It is a track that can only be followed at low tide, as there are points where waves cover the rocky outcroppings at high tide, cutting you off from a return if you dilly dally. We were lucky with the timing of the tides, and began our hike in the early afternoon, planning to return before sunset.

No one else (bar a group of wandering sheep, it is New Zealand after all) appeared to be taking on this somewhat lengthy hike on this lovely, albeit windy, fall afternoon, and we enjoyed our adventure.

So windy!!

The next morning we woke up in Kaikoura, where we had hoped to go whale watching. We ate breakfast on our little hotel balcony looking out over the South Pacific, and lo and behold, we saw a water spout. Everyone we met for the rest of our trip insisted that we must be mistaken, but WE think we saw a whale. We would be far from the first people to spot a whale in Kaikoura from the shore. Whale-spotting controversy aside, we were quite disappointed later that morning when we arrived at our pre-booked whale-watching tour only to find out that incoming high winds had caused our tour to be cancelled.

Fortunately, the person at the whale watching place who had the sad task of informing people of cancelled tours all morning had another suggestion for our day. He told us about the Ohau Point Seal Colony, which can be seen a short way back up the road.

As it turns out, we were in exactly the right season to see the baby seals on the Ohau Waterfall Walk. This experience was one of our favorites from this trip. There is a short walk up a pretty stream to a waterfall that drops into a little pool where the baby seals learn to dive and play. The seals make their way up the stream to the pool by themselves, leaving their parents to hunt in the ocean.

After watching the unbelievable cuteness of dozens of seal pups frolicking under a waterfall for as long as humanly possible, we headed back down the trail to check out the parents (and older siblings?) sunning on the rocks at the edge of the water.

The afternoon saw us make our way to Christchurch to check into our hotel. After checking in we drove out to Akaroa, a cute historic town on the Banks Peninsula, where we had fresh fish and chips for dinner.

Our whole next day was spent hanging out in Christchurch. For those who don't know, Christchurch was struck by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in February 2011; 185 people were killed, and the damage was widespread and devastating. More than 4 years later, the city is rebuilding, but many buildings still lie as rubble, and yet more are shrouded in scaffolding. Cranes are abundant, and construction is omnipresent.

However, the residents of this city are resilient, and every person we met was cheerful, friendly, and optimistic. Christchurch is on the mend, and their positive attitude is contagious. One interesting revival project is the Re:START Mall, a temporary shopping center built from colorful shipping containers. It opened only 7 short months after the quake, and has food trucks, cafés, outdoor eating areas, a museum-like exhibition, markets, and a variety of boutiques and shops. We enjoyed the morning eating, sipping our flat whites, and perusing the stores before exploring the city.

As we drove through the streets, we were reminded that the rebuilding of a devastated city is a slow, complicated process. Whole city blocks remain flattened, and piles of rubble still wait for attention.

Christchurch Cathedral, a beautiful church located in the center of the city, originally built between 1864 and 1094, sits partially in ruins, awaiting a long-debated decision with regards to its demolition or repair. As of the end of 2015, it sounds like restoration may be considered for this historic structure. In the meantime, you can view the existing structure from the "greenhouse" structure (a viewing hut covered with living plants from which you can look through the safety fence) and the cathedral community worships at the Cardboard Cathedral, which we visited the next day.

We finished our day over at Hagley Park. Hagley Park is a large city park located in the center of Christchurch. It is home to the Botanic Gardens, sports fields, grassy lawns, and...a golf course! Hagley Golf Course, established 1873, is a 12-hole course that sits on the north end of the park. We only played 12 holes (you can play 18 by repeating 6), as the sunset was catching up on us, but it was a fun afternoon of golf; we had the course to ourselves, as no one else wanted to brave the cold wind, I guess.

Dinner was at a cool restaurant near our hotel with delicious food (what's new? Everything we ate in New Zealand was absolutely fabulous) and a friendly server who regaled us with stories of his life in and around Christchurch. We didn't know how willingly people would want to discuss their earthquake experiences, but the ones we met were happy to share stories.

The next morning we visited a memorial to the lives lost in the earthquake - an artist created an installation of 185 white painted chairs, each representing one person killed on the February day. It is an eerie sight, and a poignant reminder that while this brave city is growing, changing, and moving on, it will never forget each of those individuals.

The installation sits across from the Cardboard Cathedral. As I mentioned earlier, this cathedral is the temporary space for use by the community who lost their Christchurch Cathedral to the 2011 earthquake. It was opened in 2013, and is airy, colorful, and another optimistic symbol of how forward-looking the residents of this city are.

As we bid farewell to Christchurch and set our sights on Aoraki/Mt. Cook, we leave you one more time. Come back for the 4th and final installment of the Castles' trip to New Zealand, where we take a hike and see icebergs, conquer a maze, taste wine, cruise Milford Sound, and more!

Sunday, 23 August 2015

There and Back Again: Castles Down Under-er (Part 2)

We last left you with the Castles making their way from Taupo to Wellington. This was to be the longest single drive on our trip, as we planned to go see the Cape Palliser Lighthouse on our way there. To be clear, I am using the term "on our way there" pretty loosely, as Cape Palliser is the southernmost point of the North Island, and not exactly a suburb of Wellington. Even though it is not too far as the crow flies (about 50 km), it takes about 2 and a half hours to get there on the windy coastal roads (at least 100 km). One way.

How fast would YOU drive on this road??
Taupo to Cape Palliser was just over 6 hours, which means our driving totals for the day ended up being right around 9ish hours. At least it's a pretty country!

The Cape Palliser Lighthouse is worth driving out of the way for. It is a beautiful old cast iron lighthouse that was built in 1897, adorned with bright red and white stripes.

We climbed the 253 steps to the base of the light for a closer look, and we were rewarded with views of Palliser Bay, the Cook Strait, and the South Island.

We were also rewarded with a fierce, cold wind, and some impending storm clouds that we couldn't tell if we should be afraid of or not.

Cape Palliser is also home to a permanent fur seal colony, but alas, we did not see any seals on this day. Maybe they were hunkering down for the threatening storm (which seemed to be petering out a little as we left the area).

After checking out Cape Palliser and spotting a bunch of sheep loose on the local golf course (more on these local courses later)...

...we made our way over to Wellington. We had kind of hoped to make it before dark to see the drive in, but as it turns out, it wouldn't have mattered, because we drove in under the cover of very thick fog. Which was fun, if fun to you is driving over a narrow mountain pass with zero visibility whilst Wellingtonians careen past you maintaining the 300km/hr speed limit. Side note: Kiwis don't seem to treat speed limits in the same way that lots of other people do. We Castles have come to the conclusion that the numbers posted by the side of the road in New Zealand are not upper limits, but rather speed requirements. One must never drive less than 2km/hr slower than the posted speed, but 5-10 km faster is acceptable, depending on current rain or fog conditions.

We arrived in one piece and found our hotel, which my sister and Dad had booked for us, as she lived in Wellington and wanted to find us something in a great location. She nailed it. Our hotel was right downtown (an American expression, I have been the CBD, for those of you who swing that way), close to great restaurants and smack in the middle of the Wellington action.

We also had asked my sister and her boyfriend (a born-and-raised Kiwi) for local-approved Wellington recommendations. They returned us a list of activities that was primarily restaurants and other gustatory experiences. We very ambitiously selected as many things as we could, meaning that we were aiming to eat about 5 meals a day for the duration of our time in Wellington. This is NOT a complaint, let me assure you.

We kicked off our tour of Wellington with dinner immediately upon arrival - we dumped our bags, changed out of car clothes, and hit the streets. First we walked down Cuba Street (fun street!) to Ekim Burgers, a food truck offering a long list of gourmet burgers with tons of toppings, chunky seasoned chips with a house-made chutney, and a quirky variety of outdoor seating options. These burgers were SO good. First food recommendation: massive success.

On our way home, we popped into Scopa for Italian Hot Chocolate. These were more like pudding than drinking chocolate - incredibly decadent, and perfect for an indulgent treat on a rainy Wellington evening after a long day of travel. Grady even enjoyed his more once he thought of it as pudding, rather than a disturbingly thick drink.

After the hot chocolate it was time to call it a night, especially because it was starting to feel suspiciously like Grady did indeed pass on whatever bug he fought so bravely for days. A good night's sleep would take care of it, right? Except it didn't. Woke up feverish and generally yucky. But one must soldier on - chin up, keep on keepin' on, go big or go home, yada yada yada. I didn't get nearly as sick as Grady, but it wasn't the best.

The next day was packed with activity. We wanted to see (and eat!) as much as we could from Hill and Dan's recommendation list, so we got an early-ish start at the Leeds Street Bakery, where the food was fresh, local, and de-lish. 

Second breakfast followed immediately afterwards at the Memphis Belle, where we got our morning coffees and another bite to eat. We also got to have a lovely sit in the sunshine and watch the bold little birds enjoy our crumbs.

After breakfast(s), we walked down Lambton Quay to the cable car, which would take us up to the Botanic Gardens. This delightful old red cable car runs passengers up and between the CBD and the top entrance of the Botanic Garden, and has been running since 1902.

We spent the morning walking around the gorgeous Botanic Gardens. There were plenty of places to enjoy the view, the flora, or the sunshine, and we could easily have passed the entire day wandering the myriad paths.

Upon our descent from the Botanic Gardens, we wandered along the waterfront to Te Papa, New Zealand's National Museum. This museum is SO cool. This is another activity that, given the chance, we would have and could have spent an entire day or more exploring. It is a massive museum with levels that focus on different time periods in New Zealand's history. It is detailed and thorough, and we lament the fact that we had so little time there. 

Walking along the waterfront in Wellington
After Te Papa we walked to Prefab, Hill and Dan's favorite lunch spot. Unfortunately, we didn't realize until leaving the museum that it wasn't exactly "lunch time" anymore. It was already after 3:00, and a quick check of the website for directions revealed that the restaurant closes at 3:30 pm. Uh-oh. We hoofed it over there, arriving at exactly 3:38. Luckily, the first waitress we saw was sympathetic to our cause ("we are so sorry, we didn't realize you closed at 3:30, we are leaving Wellington tomorrow, and this is my sister's favorite lunch spot, and we will simply die if we can't eat here!" - swoon, back of hand to brow, deep sigh...word-for-word true events up until a point, I'll let you decide when), and she let us order something and even let us sit down to eat while they started tidying up. We thought they hated us, but when we were done they even gave us a free focaccia baguette for the road! Little did they know that this baguette, along with a jar of peanut butter, would just about sustain us for the next four days. The food at Prefab was just what we were quickly learning to expect from Wellington - high quality, fresh, and flavorful.

After lunch (more like afternoon tea), we popped back to the hotel to pick up our car and drove over to Miramar to visit the Weta Cave, home of Weta Workshop and Weta Digital. Weta is the special effects and design company behind The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, King Kong, Avatar, Mad Max, and so many more movies and shows. 

We didn't take the guided tour of the workshop, but we watched the information video and browsed the prop displays and gift shop before chilling with the trolls for a few minutes before making our way back towards Wellington proper. 

On our way there, we stopped briefly at the Roxy Cinema, 

and then drove up to the Mount Victoria Lookout. The sun was just setting, leaving us with a sparkling view of the Wellington city lights and the harbour.

The last stop before dinner was the Embassy Theatre, a lovely old 1920s cinema that is famous for hosting the world premieres of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, as well as the Australasian premieres of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.  

Our final Welly culinary experience was to be Havana Bar, a cool little spot housed in historic cottages, serving yummy cocktails and wine and seasonal tapas and small bites. We ordered a few different things to try, with both of us claiming as our favourite the seared haloumi and sweet red pepper relish on grilled crostini. Delicioso. Especially along with a Central Otago Pinot Noir and good company.

The next morning we reluctantly left Wellington. We loved this city, and we plan to return some day hopefully in the not too distant future. 

On our way to the ferry terminal we made a couple quick drive-bys. First was the Beehive. This is what people call the Executive Wing of the New Zealand Parliament Buildings. 

It's a pretty cool looking building, and conveniently on the way to our next stop, which was my sister's old apartment. She lived with her boyfriend just down the street, and we couldn't resist checking it out. After sufficiently creeping out the new tenants and neighbors by leaning out the car window to take photos of their building at the crack of dawn, we made our way to Aotea Quay, where we were to catch the Interislander Ferry across the Cook Strait to the South Island. 

We were to sail on the Kaitaki, a 1600 passenger ferry equipped with cafés, play areas for kids, and even a movie theater to keep people occupied on the three hour journey across the Strait to Picton. We passed our time looking at South Island brochures, snacking on baguette and peanut butter (told you), and even sneaking in a nap. On our way out of Wellington Harbour, Grady and I took in the view from the upper deck (in the bracing wind, if bracing means freezing and gale-force in Kiwi-English), where we even spotted a dolphin who came out to see us on our way and play in our wake.

Here is where we leave you, since we know most people don't have hours and hours to read long-winded blog posts about other people's travels. Come back soon for Part 3: South Island Adventures!