The flight to Auckland is long but very smooth. The jet leg is also tolerable, as it is a net three hour difference, about the same as travel to Hawaii, except one day forward. We left US on Sunday night and got to Auckland on Tuesday morning, erasing Monday from our life completely.
We got a SIM card at airport for one of our phones, got local cash from the ATM, and picked up a rental car, a challenge for Richard: driving a manual transmission car on the left. We deliberately chose a suburban hotel about 10 miles from central Auckland to avoid the rush hour congestion and hefty parking for our rental car. The Quality Inn not only has free parking and wifi, but also a full guest kitchen in the lobby. Though the room is small, and bed is soft, the place is very clean, efficient, convenient and friendly.
We were lucky to have an early check in and settled in. Then we drove to Auckland and visited Auckland Museum (photo, museum), which doubles as a Military Memorial. $25 per person admission is quite steep for a small museum, but the Maori Art (photo, long boat) inside made it truly worthwhile. We stayed there til the museum closed and then went to Parnell/New Market area for dinner before climbing up Mt. Eden, the highest point in Auckland, for a 360 degree sunset view. The downtown (photo, Auckland at sunset) and our own shadow (photo, shadow play) both looked wonderful from a distance.
We got up early on Wednesday to drive over two hours to Hot Water Beach, a unique geo-condition that during 4 hours of low tide time, you can dig a hole on the beach just above the underground hot spring. The hot spring water starts seeping out once your hole is about 2 feet deep (photo, digging). We took a long walk along the beautiful white sand beach, watching surfers paddling out and surfing back. Had a great lunch at Hot Wave Café (photo, nice lunch) before coming back to Auckland. For dinner, we took advantage of the hotel kitchen, bought fresh greenshell mussels and frozen Chinese dumplings to celebrate solstice, when we have 15 hours of sun today.
Thursday was mostly a travel day, but we squeezed a visit to Auckland Art Gallery into the morning. The gallery is in a lovely modern building featuring some Maori architecture elements (photo, facade). It took us almost five hours to drive to Rotorua, passing through wonderful countryside, farms, ranches, (photo, landscape) and we reached our timeshare by early evening. We bought some groceries and took advantage of our full kitchen.
Friday saw rain, clouds and then sunshine. Rotorua is surrounded by a few lakes, which create their own weather. We first went downtown to Government Garden, where a strange and beautiful building stands, namely the old bathhouse, since converted to a museum (photo, Rotorua Museum). Unfortunately an earthquake (less than a month prior to our visit) revealed some structural threats so the museum has closed. Richard was especially disappointed as he was hoping to see the legendary flute in this museum with a romantic story behind it. He was determined to find a similar flute and take it home. So we spent the next few hours combing downtown shops. There were a few but nothing really jumped out. We visited the tourist office and got some tips, and joined a docent-led tour around the Government Gardens. Heather (photo, two docents) was a wonderful docent and gave us a great tour without even going inside the museum. We also explored the red-beak gull refuge (photo, gulls on the beach) and Kuirau Park where we walked around the thermal boiling mud pools, alkaline infused pools (photo, boiling pool), and soaked our tired feet in the temperature controlled pools. By this time, we had about got used to the slightly smelly air.
Saturday was Christmas Eve. We spent the whole day at Te Puia, a giant compound comprising geysers, mud pools, culture performances, craft and art institute and a kiwi birdhouse. We enjoyed the culture performance (photo, dancers and musicians) where ceremony, fighting, playing, and courting were performed by talented Maori musicians and dancers. Barbara participated in the women's part (photo, audience participation). Then we took a guided tour around the compound passing through their kiwi house. The bird is unique and fascinating, very vulnerable and helpless seeming. When we arrived at the Big Splash geyser, it had been erupting for the last hour continuously shooting up to 50-60 feet. Nothing beats sitting on the geothermal heated outdoor steps facing the geyser watching it go off (photo, Big Splash). The Art and Craft institute enrolls young Maori men for a three-year program to learn the carving of traditional pieces, ranging from little koauau flutes to giant house poles and frames. We were impressed by the tribal flutes played at ceremony and wanted to talk to the master carver of the program but missed him just by a minute as he left for home early on Christmas Eve. We were told to come back next day to talk to him. By 5pm everything was closing down. We came back to our timeshare and cooked a leg of lamb for dinner.
Christmas day was sunny and warm. We went back to Te Puia, met and talked to Master James who gave us a nice introduction of the history of the Maori native flutes, materials, techniques, etc. He said he would make one for Richard if we have more time in Rotorua. As we were leaving in two days, there wasn't enough time. He gave us tips on how to contact some makers in South Island so we can stop by. We then went to Huka Falls and saw some rafters coming down the rapids with cheering friends from the bridge directly above the rapids (photo, boaters). We took a hike along the river and found stands of the plant to make Maori flutes from (photo, tall reeds). Last we visited Spa Thermal Park and enjoyed a picnic lunch before taking a soak at the hot spa, where the hot spring pouring into the river, creating a natural hot spa (photo, having a soak). It was one of our best Christmases we have had.
Boxing Day was our rest day from vacation. We took full advantage of our washer and dryer to ensure a clean start for the remaining days in New Zealand. Still, we could not resisit the sunny lure outside, so we went for a long hike up Mt. Maunganui and enjoyed the 360 degree view (photo, summit).
Tuesday was our travel day to Wellington. The ride was long but smooth. We were lucky to get a room with a wonderful view to the water and to the hills behind the city. We walked to the waterfront, up and down Dixon Street and Cuba Street. Found an authentic Hakka restaurant where all customers and staff spoke Hakka or Cantonese except us. We turned in early preparing for a busy sightseeing next day.
Wednesday was spent mostly inside the gigantic Te Papa (photo, museum grounds), the national museum. Trekking the museum was no small task. The building is new and presents a glossy, high tech, and somewhat confusing configuration. There are many Maori historical items, the chronological history of the country, its people and culture. The demonstrations of environmental evolution and deterioration was shocking and real. We also saw some Maori flutes made by contemporary musicologists and craftsmen, whom we have come to regard as friends. After the day's long trekking, we could not resist the gourmet burger, fish and chips. Bad for the diet plan. We drove up to the Mt. Victoria Lookout (photo, interpretive display) around sunset and enjoyed the panoramic city view (photo, sunset).
Thursday we got up early to drive to the ferry terminal, where we returned our rental car, took the 3.5 hour ferry as foot passengers to the South Island. The ride was smooth and very beautiful. After debarking, we immediately drove towards Nelson via Havelock, where we visited one Maori stone flute maker, and another master flute maker in Nelson, which is regarded as the most livable city in NZ. There was even a music jam session in one of the downtown bars. Richard played his silver flute with the house band.
Friday, we got up early to take the long drive to see the glaciers on the west coast, enjoying the lovely countryside along the way and saw some amazing views, very much like the setting for Lord of the Rings. The road conditions have been first rate both in North and South Islands, with great amenities all the way along. Rest stops with picnic tables and facilities were clearly marked and well maintained. We stopped at one to enjoy a picnic lunch (photo, picnic) breaking the long drive, while enjoying the lush surroundings. The Franz Josef Glacier (photo, glacier with fog) and Fox Glacier (photo, glacier with less fog) were the only ones you can see from land and they did not disappoint us. This is the busiest time of the year and we were lucky to get a hotel room and use the laundry. We turned in early as the next day would be even longer.
Saturday, we were on the road again by 8am, destination, the gateway to Fjordland National Park, the small town of Te Anau. It was another grueling long drive day for Richard. The entire day we felt as if driving in a movie setting, with great expanse of fantastic landscapes (photo, summit). It was dusk when we pulled into the town, and caught a 32 minutes documentary about the Milford Sound we were here for. Our New Year's Eve was spent at an AirBandB on the gentle slop above the town, so its celebration was on full display from our porch. A very memorable New Year's Eve.
New Year's day saw us up early again, so we could get to Milford Sound to catch the first cruise out to the sound, which is one of the largest UNESCO Sites in the world. We managed to get on the boat on time and saw a truly amazing sound. All the time on the boat, it felt like inside a movie set of nature, that is too perfect and too unreal. Yet it is real (photo, Milford Sound). There were also a few sea lions lounging around (photo, sea lions) just to remind us we are in true nature. This experience is definitely worth the early getting up, the long drive and a bit of rain. We got all the way to Alexandra on the way to Christchurch. There we found a local B and B, and took time to visit Barbara's long-time clients who spend May to October in Seattle and November to May in Alexandra close Queenstown. We enjoyed a nice dinner at their lovely ranch house.
Monday was the wrap-up day. We drove all the way back to Christchurch stopping along the way at Moeraki Boulders in Oamaru (photo, boulders) and Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. Unfortunately we were at the penguin colony in mid-afternoon, when all adult penguins are out hunting and eating. They only return at dawn with a super full belly, back to their houses (photo, fairy penguin houses) to feed their young. Close to each small house, you could not see inside but you hear the babies longing for their parents. Looking at these all-identical houses set up by sanctuary staff, Barbara worries the parents will get into the wrong house like she might. But apparently they are a lot smarter than us and never mix up their houses. Last dinner we had in New Zealand was at Koji Teppanyaki and Grill and we had some fresh sushi. A perfect ending to the fun vacation.