I Wonder of There's an Old Zealand?
New Zealand, where the Maoris still practice the haka, where the All Blacks rugby team dominates world rugby and where men are men and sheep are nervous. But it would be springtime and I’d be warm; or at least warmer than Budapest’s several degrees below freezing at the beginning of December.
A really horrible zero-dark-thirty flight, leaving Budapest at 6:30 in the still-dark morning of December 1, 2015, got me to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport a couple of hours later. Plenty of time to clear Passport Control as I left the Schengen Zone, then a relaxing (!) 11-hour-plus flight to Guangzhou, China. I watched three forgettable movies and got virtually no sleep. Since I had no visa to visit China, I was unable to exit the Transfer Lounge (and I use the term “lounge” in its loosest sense), so I spent my eight-hour layover uncomfortably ensconced on a hard metal chair, squirming and shifting to find the least uncomfortable position until my plane was called for the final leg of my flight. Once again, no sleep.
Then another 11-hour-plus flight direct to Auckland, where I arrived at 6:30 on the morning of Thursday, December 3, 2015. Worst part of this leg? Chna Southern Airlines was showing the same movies as on my previous flight! Eleven hours and not a single new movie. Even so, no sleep was available. Tired? You betcha! I was unable to sleep on this leg either, so I arrived in a state of extreme awakeness (is that a word?). But at least I was warm. Temps were around 20 degrees Celsius, or 70 degrees F, and I shucked off my winter coat and walked out into the sunshine.
I exchanged a small amount of money at the airport to get by until I could get a better rate in town, then caught the SkyBus from the airport to Queen Street, Auckland’s major downtown shopping street. The SkyBus into town was waiting at the curb outside the Arrivals section and as I boarded its onboard audio system played “Gonna Be a Bright, Bright Sunshiny Day.” Not a bad omen with which to start my visit. I got off 45 minutes later at the stop only four short blocks from my hotel – upon rounding the corner, however, I did notice that they were all uphill blocks. Oh, joy. Onward and upward.
Trudged up the hilly streets and one flight of steep stairs of the Hotel Albion and found the Reception desk. Since check-in time wasn’t until 2 PM, I had some time to kill. I left my suitcase at the hotel and went out to explore downtown Auckland and get some breakfast. First stop: the Tourist Information place at the Sky Tower, which, luckily, was just down the street from my hotel. Good planning. As I walked down the street toward the Sky Tower, what did I notice on the opposite corner but….are you ready for this?....sitting down?....holding onto yourself?....DENNY’S! OMG, a Denny’s. I hadn’t eaten at a Denny’s for at least 20 years. Their breakfasts are legendary (remember the Grand Slam Breakfast?), and I knew that’s where I’d be heading after my tourinform stop.
So I spent some time with the tourist info lady and ended up booking just one tour, the Waitomo and Rotorua Full Day Geothermal Deluxe Tour. It seemed to cover all the bases over its 12-hour time frame, so what the heck, I was in. I scheduled it for the following Monday, December 7, so I’d have the weekend to catch up on my time zone crossings. And now: breakfast!
Denny’s breakfast was every bit as terribly wonderful as I remembered from days gone by: two eggs, sausage, bacon (New Zealand bacon, not that fake North America version), mushrooms, fried tomatoes, hash browns (OMG! Hash browns!) and whole grain toast, with a side of OJ. It was all I could do to eat with a knife and fork and stop myself from just shoving all that glorious American food (aside from the mushrooms and tomatoes) into my mouth. I took my time and savored every tasty bit of it.
So then it was time for my standard orientation walk around Auckland’s downtown and harbor areas. Everything down there was easily walkable, from the wharf (I was only about 10 minutes away) to the University of Auckland (another ten minutes, but up a very steep hill), Queen Street (five minutes), ferry terminals (ten minutes), etc. I checked out the restaurants and bars I had discovered on Trip Advisor and also noted the ferry times and charges down at the harbor. It was a good wake-up walk and helped clear my head of the long flight muzziness and flying tube claustrophobia.
I knew I needed to clean up after my journey, but figured a hot shower and a cold beer would put me down for the count, so I only did half of the pair (you get to figure out which half). I did manage to take a brief nap and then hustled down to the hotel’s nice old-fashioned bar for that cold beer along with a lovely seafood platter. I hung around talking to the locals for a while, but still needed to catch up on my lost sleep, so decided it would be an early night.
After yet another tour of downtown on Friday morning, December 4, I caught a ferry to Devonport Island, just 20 minutes away. Devonport has some great views back to Auckland and a pleasant, quiet park and shopping area for locals and tourists to get away from the hustle of the main city (Auckland is too small to have bustle). Did some wandering and shopping and stopped in at the Hotel Esplanade, right across from the ferry dock, for a morning snack of bagel, bacon, cream cheese, fried tomato, avocado and tea.
After a brief visit to my hotel, another shower and a short nap, I found the Shakespeare Hotel and Restaurant a few blocks away (everything was just a few blocks away from my hotel, a fact I appreciated more with every hill I went up and down). This place is a beautiful old-fashioned establishment with a terrace overlooking the street, and it was there I parked myself and went through dinner of a couple of really good craft beers and a plate of fish and chips. The Christmas holiday lights and decorations came on as the evening faded into night around 9 PM or so; in Budapest this time of year it’s dark at 4 PM.
Saturday dawned sunny and clear, and I decided a nice ferry ride to Waiheke Island for some wine tasting was in order. The ferry crossing only took around 45 minutes, a perfect time to spend on the sea, with the sun shining and the breeze in one’s hair and the sea smooth as glass. Upon arrival at the Waiheke Island wharf, I asked the Tourist Info desk for directions to the nearest winery to which I could walk. The young lady advised me to follow the paved road “a ways,” take the first right turn and then walk “a while” further, after which I’d see a sign for the Cable Bay winery, just another “short walk.”
Hmmm, OK, I’d try it and see what happened. Well, it was the Morning Stroll from Hell. First of all, it was all uphill. The initial leg must have been at least one kilometer long, or about 2/3 of a mile. No sidewalks, cars driving on the wrong side of the road, and the only sign of civilization a parking lot about halfway up the hill, manned by a friendly old geezer who talked to everyone who walked that trail, probably because he was lonely and bored. Finally got to that far-off right-hand turn at the top of the hill, made the turn and found myself confronted with another uphill climb. Whew. Trudged up that hill for another kilometer and finally, finally found that Cable Bay Winery sign, pointing off downhill to the right with not a winery in sight. Maybe 200 meters downhill there was a driveway on the left of the road that led to a parking lot back up the hill and there, there was that damn winery. Boy, their wine better be the best in the world after all that trekking. The whole walk took me the better part of 90 minutes.
Anticlimactically, the wine was OK, nothing special. I tasted five types of their latest wines for $10, but didn’t buy any of them. By that time lunch was definitely in order, so I settled down in the winery’s spacious dining area, with wrap-around windows overlooking a large expanse of green lawn and blue sea, for some red wine and a surprisingly good chorizo and cheese pizza, with the thinnest crust ever; so thin I was surprised it could hold up the sauce and cheese and chorizo, although the chorizo was also the thinnest-sliced topping ever. Although I usually drink beer with pizza, when in Waiheke…
My friendly waiter told me how to take the short cut back way to the wharf, which cut my total walking time by maybe 2/3. Yes, it was steeper and just a grassy trail through the trees and forest, but it was much better than my initial adventure and it was downhill, after all, so I was surprised and pleased to get back to the harbor area so quickly. A ferry was just about to leave, so I caught it and soaked up some more sun on the cruise back to Auckland.
I hung around the harbor for a while, watching the giant cruise ships dock, then checked out more of the shops for souvenirs for friends and family. A brief nap to continue fighting that darn old jet lag and I was up and about and ready for dinner. I was hungry after my morning’s exercise so decided to try the nearby Mexican restaurant that had a sign outside saying “Try a burrito bigger than your head.” Well, maybe I wasn’t quite that hungry. As it turned out, the burrito was quite good, nice spices, a touch too much cilantro (Hey! It was a California burrito!), but nicely filling. Washed down with a couple of Pacifico beers, I was content and all was right with the world.
I did manage to catch the live music at Father Ted’s that night, a duo who sang popular and Irish music, which rounded out the night on a positive note. I thought of looking for a karaoke place, but was disabused when I was told that they do the Japanese type of karaoke in Auckland, where a group of people rent a room in a karaoke café and they all sing to each other. In other words, no public karaoke. What fun is that? Especially when one has no group. So I passed on that aspect of my trip this time. Ah, well, the New Zealanders don’t what they missed by not hearing “Great Balls of Fire.”
Sunday was supposed to be cloudy and rainy all day, so I thought it would be a good day to do the Hop On Hop Off (HOHO) bus tour around town. I could check out the museums and other interesting indoor sights and thus stay warm and dry, while at the same time garner some of New Zealand’s history. The first bus pickup near me was at 9:45 AM, so I had plenty of time for another yummy American breakfast at Denny’s. So good, so good. I caught my bus and the first big stop was the Auckland Museum, high on a hill overlooking the city. It was a stop where the red line bus I was on intersected with the other blue line route, so I could change lines, catch the blue line stuff, then get back on the red line and have lunch along the way. What a plan.
As I alighted at the Museum and prepared to find the blue line stop nearby, I noticed a sign in front of the main doors indicating a Maori cultural performance would be held in about 30 minutes. Hmm, could be a good deal. In addition, I could check out the rest of the museum. My luck was holding. The show itself consisted of depictions of the Maori arrival on the New Zealand islands, which the Maoris named Aotearoa, which means Land of the Long White Cloud. The show was performed by several Maori men and women, acting out their ancestors’ histories and also demonstrating some of the Maori dances and warrior practice routines with sticks, gourds, etc. Very interesting and they were really good at it. As always (from what I learned later), the show ended with a demonstration of the Haka.
“The New Zealand All Blacks rugby teams' practice of performing a haka before their international matches has made the haka more widely known around the world. The tradition began with the 1888–89 New Zealand Native football team tour and has been carried on by the New Zealand rugby team since 1905.”
After the show I snacked on some sticky date pudding and wandered through the museum long enough to get some good general information on the history of Maori and Anglo cultures in New Zealand. I then caught the blue line HOHO route, which turned out to stop at several gardens, the Eden park rugby stadium, the Auckland zoo and not a lot else. It took about an hour and dropped us off back at the museum, where I caught another red line bus to the next stop in Parnell Village. This neighborhood is a quaint area filled with gingerbread houses and cozy tea shops and restaurants and cafes. My stomach was rumbling by then so I found the Di Maria Italian restaurant and scarfed down some really excellent seafood chowder for a light lunch.
It was getting on toward late afternoon by this time, so I completed the red line tour and ended up back at the Sky Tower near my hotel. It seemed like the perfect time to ascend the tower and check out the views from atop, so I did just that. And it was fantastic up there. I was offered the chance to do a Sky Jump (bungy jump off the tower) and a Sky Walk (walk around the edge of the outside of one of the tower’s ledges – strapped on, of course!), but passed on both of them; maybe in my next life.
A brief cleanup and shower and an even briefer nap and I was ready for the evening’s entertainment. It would be an early night as I had to be up at 6 o’clock for following morning for my all-day tour of more interesting things to see and do. Tonight felt like another New Zealand specialty, so I opted for the lamb at Tony’s Steak and Seafood restaurant near my hotel. A couple of pints of Speight’s Gold beer, some oyster appetizers and the lamb with veggies filled a cavernous dinner opening in my schedule. The restaurant’s music tape included a wide variety of songs, from That’ll Be the Day to Universal Soldier; interesting selections. Anyway, the food was great and I lingered just long enough to digest it all with an after-dinner limoncello, then it was off to the hotel and an early nod-off.
Monday, December 7, 2015, up at 6 AM – yucchh! Quick shower, pick up a BBQ bun on the way to my Sky Tower pickup point for the tour, and the tour bus arrived at 6:50 AM as promised. Grayline Tours are usually punctual. Picked up a few more tour members and waited for a couple of late arrivals (Japanese, of course); we were then issued our morning snack and it was off to the wilds of Middle New Zealand. After a really boring two-and-a-half-hour bus trip, during which our driver/guide demonstrated his incredibly detailed and crushingly dull knowledge of all sorts of worthless information about New Zealand and the sights we would see today in a monotone that would have put even Madonna into a stupor, we arrived at the Waitomo Cave. (Luckily, there was a toilet on board the bus for those of us who couldn’t wait the two hours to find a bathroom.) This cave is famous for its glowworm population and is carefully guarded by the National Trust, or someone equally important.
We entered the cave at the top, in the middle of a hill in the middle of a forest or jungle, whichever you prefer; it was more like a jungle to me. Our guide, who was the great-granddaughter of the Maori tribesman who first explored this cave back in the late 1800s, took us through the various caverns, filled with stalagmites and stalactites, which were still dripping. If I’d have stood under one of those dripping stalactites for, oh, say, 10,000 years, I’d have become a stalactite myself. I chose to move on.
We moved deeper into the caverns, checking out the formations and ooo-ing and aahh-ing at everything. When we reached the big open-space, high-ceilinged area called the Cathedral, our guide told us we could sing a song there and it would echo throughout the caves. I came within a hairs-breadth of bursting into Blue Suede Shoes, but contained myself just in time. Bog knows how the poor glowworms would have reacted to Elvis.
We descended even deeper into the caverns and then boarded a large rowboat for a trip on the underground river, through the glowworms’ primary lair. The little guys were scatted all over the cave ceiling and it was a wondrous sight to behold. We were admonished not to light a light or take a picture or, in fact, to utter a sound, as the tiny worms were quite sensitive to pretty much any stimulus at all. We finally exited the cave after about ten minutes and were on our way again. Apparently, the national treasures of New Zealand are not quite up there with the pyramids of Giza.
It was another two-hour ride to the Agrodome, a working sheep and cattle farm in the hinterlands. Here we were treated to a sheep-shearing demonstration and a nice ride around the farm to pet the sheep and cows and deer and even feed the little alpacas. Been there, done that. We then bussed through some lovely gardens and dropped some of our tour group off at pickup points for the Polynesian Spa and the Hobbiton, a movie-created site of the Hobbit village for Lord of the Rings (I passed on that one also as I’m not partial to small people with large furry feet). We would pick them up later.
Our next stop was the Maori Cultural Village, at which we saw a hot-water geyser (which erupted for 20 minutes every hour), a pool of boiling mud (that was a real interest-holder), a couple of fumaroles and a real, live New Zealand kiwi bird. (Actually, we just walked through the kiwi bird’s domicile building, during which time he never appeared, so we never got to see him; the crowd was crushed).
But our big event was the Maori Dance Show, which, it turned out, was just a bigger performance that the one I’d seen at the museum – with one exception. There must have been a thousand people in the large hall to watch the dancers on stage. The male and female dancers went through several of the dances again and, as their finale, the men performed the haka. One new twist: after this haka, the Maoris, descendants of original Maori warriors, urged several male members of the audience to join them on stage to learn the haka. I needed no urging, and leaped up on the stage. I grunted and war-cried and beat my chest with the best of them. Yes, sports fans, I was instructed in the general moves for the haka and am now a full-fledged Maori haka sort-of demonstrator. The next time the New Zealand rugby All Blacks do their haka, I can join in.
And so, bruised, battered and worn out from all the excitement, we boarded the bus again for our three-hour drive back to Auckland. Interesting sights and a long day on the bus; think all that is worth the $200 US it cost? OK, we did get a box lunch and another snack, so maybe…
We got back around 8 PM and, after another shower to wash off the sheep wool and glowworm dust and Maori war paint and spatters of boiling mud, it was over to the Brothers Microbrewery for some more of that great craft beer. After a few pints, I decided dinner could be another snack, so ordered up a plate of meatballs and fries – I ate so well when in New Zealand! Bushed by 11 PM, I hit the sack in anticipation of my last two days in town.
Tuesday morning I took a local bus to the Karangahape Road district for some local shopping. I wandered the area for a few hours, but was unable to find anything interesting in this somewhat low-rent part of town. I did have a very nice lamb samosa for breakfast at one of the small Indian stands on the road, which sort of made up for not finding the things I was looking for. Around lunchtime I took another bus back to the harbor area and wandered parts of it I hadn’t seen previously. I ended up at Shakespeare Café for the lunch special of steak and fries and two more beers. My system was screaming for vegetables, but I crushed down its pleas and went on stuffing my face with everything bad for me.
In the afternoon I decided to do Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium, which specialized in its penguin colony, so I avoided much of the light rain and heavier winds that rushed through Auckland that day. Dinner found me walking to another nearby place, the Grand Harbor Chinese Restaurant, as I had been craving some good Chinese food for several days. And this place fit the bill. It was great! I had a lovely fried squid appetizer followed by Szechuan Lamb (what else in New Zealand?), rice and some Tsing Tao beer. To die for! Spiced just right, the lamb dish should be the envy of lesser local restaurants all over the country.
When I arrived back at my hotel the bar was having its weekly quiz night. I stopped in for a pint and listened to the questions, but it was too New Zealand oriented for me (I had no idea of the name of the first Maori king), so I hied off to bed.
Wednesday was my last day in town, and, since my flight didn’t leave until 11 o’clock that night, I took full advantage of the time remaining. I surged out of my hotel after storing my bag and rushed down to Denny’s for my last big American breakfast – eggs benedict. Mmmm. I then hustled down to the harbor area for a last turn around the shops I’d missed previously. I was amazed to find out there were so many. I also never thought I’d find what I wanted so late in the game, but, as usual, Fate was kind to me and I found them all in the first two stores I visited.
I killed the rest of the morning and afternoon just lazing around the harbor, watching the ships sail in and sitting on the dock of the bay, channeling Otis Redding. A yummy crab cocktail at The Crab Shack in the harbor area and a last cocktail at the Lenin Bar overlooking the wharf and it was time to head for the airport. I got there about three hours before my flight and found I could check in immediately. When I did, I found, to my surprise, that my itinerary had been changed. Instead of Auckland-Guangzhou-Moscow-Budapest, it would now be Auckland-Guangzhou-Urumchi-Moscow-Budapest. What’s up with that? There was no change or delay in the total time aloft, but I’d have one extra stop. Oh, well, as long as I got home I was OK. Just hope my bag managed to keep up with me.
As it happened, everything worked out just fine. I slept on all of my legs, but was surprised when I had to clear Passport Control in China and Russia; I thought Transfer Passengers were spared that extra step.
The worst stop was Moscow; after leaving my flight I checked in with the Aeroflot Transfer Desk and got my boarding pass for the new airline and was told they would begin boarding in 20 minutes and that my gate was 20 minutes away. Hmm, not amused. So I hustled and bustled and scampered and almost ran the entire way. It must have been a quarter of a mile away. It was the last gate in Terminal F at Sheremetyevo Airport. It was so far away I thought it might not actually still be in Russia. Boarding started at 8:25 PM and I got to the gate at 8:23 PM, out of breath and wheezing and coughing and generally a very unhappy camper. And they didn’t even serve vodka on the flight.
So, home again to winter’s gales after spending most of my trip in shorts and polo shirts. Still, good to be “home.” And my suitcase came whistling happily down the baggage carousel, festooned with all sorts of new and colorful transfer tags. But here! Next trip? Who knows? My list of closer destinations continues to shrink, especially for the winter months. But watch this space for more updates as and when. Happy holidays to all and to all a Good Night.