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!

Sunday, 28 June 2015

There and Back Again: Castles Down Under-er (Part 1)

Let's not mince words: New Zealand is The. Bomb. Or whatever the kids are saying these days. It's da coolest. Totes amaze. Like, bitchin'. Really really great. Just one piece of advice; if you ever get the chance to go, try and do it with unlimited time and an unlimited budget, kay? Cool.

In April, we went to Middle Earth (don't wince at the obvious, you know we were going to call it that at least once, so we might as well get it out of the way at the beginning, right?). We spent two weeks roadtripping from Auckland in the North down to Queenstown in the South, whence we returned to Australia.

We did about a billion awesome activities, so brace yourselves, a very long post is coming...

Our adventure started in Auckland, where we stayed with family friends for one night before beginning our journey southward.

Upon arrival in Auckland, we checked out the Sky Tower, which, standing at 328 meters (about 18,076 feet...maybe you should check my math), awarded us with wonderful 360° views of the city and surrounds.

We even stood over the glass floors, which is scary. Laugh if you want, but it's kind of a bizarre sensation. Try it if you have the chance one day. And if you aren't at all fazed, then good for you.

We had dinner in the tower watching the sun set over the city before heading over to our home for the night to rest up after our very long day.

The next day, we took the ferry from Auckland proper over to the charming village of Devonport, just on the other side of the harbor.

We took a leisurely stroll over to the North Head, where we explored the old bunkers, tunnels, and grassy slopes of the Historical Reserve.

We were especially fascinated by the 'disappearing gun.' It dates from the late 1800s and is designed so that the recoil from the firing of the gun pushes it back down underground, thus making it "disappear." This made it difficult for enemies to place the location from which they were fired upon. The soldiers could then reload the gun under cover before raising it back up into firing position. Clever.

After enjoying the sunshine and a nice lunch in Devonport, we took the ferry back to Auckland and drove up Mt. Eden, a volcanic cone, and the highest natural point in Auckland. The views were amazing, and the grassy crater was a sight to behold.

After taking in the sights from Mt. Eden, we made our way out of town towards our next destination. Our original intent was to drive to Manakau Heads Lighthouse, but due to some miscalculations in the planning stages and a late morning, we realized on our way there that we wouldn't make it before sunset, or even before the parks department closed the gate to the lighthouse road. We made the call to turn around and head straight for our hotel.

The Cambridge Coach House was our favorite hotel of the whole trip. It's an adorable B&B with little cottages fronting a pretty green lawn, complete with a friendly resident ginger cat who greeted us upon arrival and then joined us for breakfast the next morning.

From this lovely start to our morning we headed over to the Hobbiton Movie Set, which we knew would be one of the highlights of our trip.

Unfortunately, the cold and flu gods were not smiling on us that morning; as our shuttle bus pulled into the tour launch point, Grady leaned over and said "is it freezing on this bus?" Um, no, it definitely wasn't, so I felt his forehead--yep, kinda like a radiator. Or the surface of the sun. Crud. But we are intrepid little travelers, and plus, we had booked this tour ages ago and already paid for it. So. Off we went.

And it was so...I would say perfect, but to say it was perfect would be insensitive to the fact that the hubby was sick as a dog the entire time. So it was almost perfect. This is obviously the real deal. I don't believe for a second that the reason we couldn't enter the hobbit holes was because they are just doors applied to the hillsides with no interior. I think it's because they didn't want us to disturb the actual hobbits who actually live there. They even grow real vegetables in the real gardens. No detail was left to chance.

Our guide even told us that they hired someone to walk the path from one of the doors to a washing line twice a day to pretend-hang purpose-made hobbit laundry in order to wear a realistic little path into the grass. No joke. That's some serious commitment to the illusion folks.

We were graced with a gorgeous sunny morning and a fun tour guide, and we would highly recommend Hobbiton to anyone visiting New Zealand--LOTR fan or no. I just wish Grady had been able to enjoy it more.

One day we will go back and do a healthy tour. I certainly would go back again without hesitation.

Looking a little under the weather, but enthusiastic nonetheless.

Now, you're probably thinking that after a busy morning Hobbit-hole-gazing and trying not to die, we would get to our next hotel and let Grady relax and recover. Nope, not how we roll. This is where planning ahead can kind of get you between a rock and a hard place, folks. We must push on! We had booked tours at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves for that same afternoon. Besides, you know what they (medieval medical experts, that is) say: feed a cold, spelunk for a fever. No, that's not what they say? Well, we did, and it did not make Grady feel better. But we did love the caves, and in hindsight, he says it was well worth pushing through.

We took the triple cave tour, which includes the Ruakuri Cave, the Aranui Cave, and the famous Waitomo Glowworm Caves. All three were great experiences, but the Waitomo Caves especially were an almost out-of-body experience.

The Ruakuri Cave was our first tour. In this cave, we learned a lot about the formation and history of caves in the area, saw some cool fossils, and we got our first glimpse of a few glowworms here and there. Curious about these little guys? You should be, they are really fascinating. What we see in the caves is actual not a worm at all, but the larval stage of a fungus gnat. But, as our tour guide said, glowworm sounds a lot more appealing to tourists than fungus gnat larva, so there you go.

Due to our earlier Hobbiton adventure, we were on the last scheduled tours for both the Aranui Cave and the Glowworm Caves. This meant that on the Aranui Cave tour, we were the only ones, meaning we got a personal tour (and we could keep it short for Grady, who was getting progressively sicker throughout the day).

Can you diagnose an illness just by looking at someone's eyes?
Our tour guide even sang to us (and then she told us to try and get our guide on the Waitomo tour to sing...challenge accepted). The best thing about the Aranui Cave is the colony of Cave Wetas that lives just inside the entrance of this cave. These large insects are native to New Zealand, and are the namesake of Weta Workshop, the special effects company behind The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (more on that in the next post!).

Our Waitomo tour was small as well, and we did manage to convince our guide to sing (peer pressure - not just for middle-schoolers!). It is nearly impossible to describe this cave experience in words. Drifting along the underground river, listening to the deep, melodic voice of our guide as he sang a traditional Maori love song, gazing up at millions of glowworms on the ceiling, surrounded by utter darkness; it was a positively magical experience, and one that we recommend to all.

We couldn't take pictures (not allowed!), but this is an approximation of what we saw, only more glowworms covering the entire surface of the ceiling.
Photo credit:

Now, after a very long day, we finally made our way to our next stop in Rotorua. It was soup for dinner (it's practically medicine, right?) and straight to bed, because we were hoping to keep moving the next day (remember when I said you should tour NZ with unlimited time? Uh-huh. Then you won't have to guiltily keep pushing your sick spouse onward).

Day 4 of our great Kiwi adventure was spent exploring the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland just outside of Rotorua. This park is an active volcanic area full of colorful geothermal features, like boiling mud (which is surprisingly mesmerizing!),

geysers, sulphur pools,

The Champagne Pool
Sulphur steam facial!
shockingly green lakes,

The water matched the neon green on his vest...
and generally prehistoric-looking things. It was another warm sunny day, and we strolled around the park taking in the sights - strolling in the sun wasn't bad for Grady's persistent fever, but I'm sure the rotten-egg smell that some features gave off wasn't the most pleasant.

After marveling at the volcanic features of the Rotorua area, we headed down to Taupo, a town on the shores of Lake Taupo. Lake Taupo is the largest freshwater lake in Australasia (it's about the size of Singapore!), and was formed in the crater of a volcanic eruption. We stayed here two nights, which felt very indulgent and relaxing after being constantly on the move so far.

Taupo is a sweet little town with cafés and restaurants along the waterfront, and plenty of fun activities.

A unique attraction in Taupo is the Hole-in-One Challenge. This a little stall on the lakefront where you can hit golf balls at a pontoon 111 yards away floating in the lake. If you sink it, you can win $10,000. Grady and I gave it a go. Unfortunately for us, it started pouring rain a few minutes in, but we were not to be deterred. Grady, of course, seriously impressed everyone there, and landed it on the pontoon a couple times. No hole in one, but there's always next time!

Taupo also boasts Huka Falls, a waterfall just up the road from town. Here, Lake Taupo drains into the Waikato river, and the falls are created where the river, normally 100m wide, squeezes through a 20m gorge and shoots out over a 20m drop into a bright blue-green pool. 220,000 litres of water per second creates a deafening roar as the water rushes through the gorge and over the falls.

After a nice easy day in Taupo enjoying a leisurely brunch, trying to win $10,000, and visiting the falls, we enjoyed an evening cruise aboard the Ernest Kemp.

We enjoyed mulled wine and yummy appetizers as we cruised out to the Maori rock carvings, which were very cool.

After a quick dinner upon our return, it was off to bed so that we could get up early to drive to Wellington in the morning.

On the road again...
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Castles Down Under-er - Wellington, Christchurch, seals galore, and much more!