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New Zealand mussels

New Zealand green-lipped mussels; what more could you ask for?

So where was I? Ah yes, talking specifics about New Zealand. Below I’ll give a rundown of the various places we visited on the North Island, but I also want to give a few quick general observations.

1) The accents: One of my favorite Flight of the Conchords clips is where Jemaine ridiculously tries to differentiate between Aussie and Kiwi accents to an oblivious American (“They’re like, ‘Where’s the Cah?’ and we’re like, ‘Where’s the cahhh?'”), but after a couple years here I actually can tell the difference, and there’s something that’s just extra silly about a New Zealand accent. They seem to reverse their i’s and e’s in particular. For instance, a couple of my spin instructors are Kiwi, and I always giggle when they tell us to “het the piddle” or “tep from the hep.” A few times at various restaurants during our trip we’d have to suppress giggles when a server came over and asked if we wanted some “frish peepah.”All in all it was just very endearing.

2) Kiwis seemed a lot less resistant to outside companies/popular chains than Australians. Obviously I was most keenly aware of the American stuff, but everywhere we went there seemed to be a Burger King (NOT Hungry Jack’s), a KFC and a Starbucks. And of course there are multiple Dunkin Donuts outlets in Auckland. Now, it’s not like I’m a big fan of any of those chains other than DD, but it was just sort of nice to see them acknowledge that you know what? This stuff tastes good, it’s cheap, and people like it. Sometimes Australia seems to be unnecessarily provincial in rejecting outside influences.

3) Is New Zealand the happiest place on earth? For pretty much the entirety of our trip, the leading news story was about how a major snowstorm had crippled travel across the United States. There were a few token references to the December 26 aftershock earthquake in Christchurch (more on that later), and some mentions of the New Zealand miners who were tragically killed in a November explosion, but on the whole there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of bad stuff that happens there.  Like, the only violent thing we kept hearing about was a worrying trend in juvenile youths attacking police officers. Obviously I’m most recently coming from New York which admittedly isn’t comparable, but I feel like even the news in northern New Hampshire/Maine was often a lot bleaker and more crime-laden than what we saw in New Zealand. Perhaps American news is just a lot more sensationalized.

In spite of some fairly severe earthquake damage in Christchurch, the Kiwis abide.

On the other hand, one of our favorite TV commercials was a public service announcement which we each initially thought was a joke. To my great disappointment I can’t seem to find it on YouTube, but it began by flashing statistics about young men’s propensity for cooking while drunk (really? all the drunk people I know order pizza. Anyway…). It then quoted some number about oil fires and explosions, and ended with the solemn message: “Next time, use the microwave. Don’t drink and fry.” So apparently drunken frying is a major national issue in New Zealand, and if that’s one of their core national problems, it’s seems to me life is pretty good.

4) Air New Zealand. What a fantastic airline! I’d heard great things about the amenities, the nice planes, and the friendly service, but I figured I’d still have to adjust my expectations since living here I’ve grown accustomed to crappy budget airlines like Jetstar and Virgin Blue. But I can confidently say that my three ANZ flights (two international, one domestic) far surpassed the three Qantas flights (one international, two domestic) that I’ve taken. The seats are really comfortable and come with personal entertainment systems filled with movies and TV shows (mostly American – score! – but also a hilarious Kiwi show I discovered during our trip called The Jaquie Brown Diaries. Naturally they don’t show it in Australia, but apparently it’s on Logo in the U.S., and I highly recommend checking it out). The food wasn’t bad, but even better was that New Zealand wine came standard. Even the famous safety video didn’t disappoint. In short, it was well worth the extra $20 or $30 over Jetstar or Virgin Blue, and I would certainly consider it for any Trans-Pacific flights back to the U.S. Especially since they’ve just debuted the innovative “Skycouch.”

On to the specifics!

Auckland: We flew into the “City of Sails” late at night and were only there for about 10 hours so I can’t offer much of an opinion, but I liked what I saw. It’s not the most exciting city I’ve ever visited – almost more like a big town than a city – but seems like a very lovely place to live. It’s extremely hilly – like, as steep as San Francisco, but a lot more compact – and offers stunning views of the surrounding harbor. There seemed to be a lot of Japanese restaurants around (nothing wrong with that!) and of course they had a Dunkin Donuts, and we walked down one cute little laneway street filled with cool boutiques that sort of reminded me of Melbourne or London. We stayed at the SkyCity Grand (no, I’m not a gambler, it just got the best reviews of all the centrally-located hotels), and were quite pleased with its spaciousness, amenities and views of the harbor and Sky Tower. And, this being New Zealand, of course there were multiple spots to bungy jump right in the middle of the CBD:

Rotorua: We rented a car in Auckland and drove about three hours to reach Rotorua, which is famous for its geothermal geysers, its mudpools and its large lake. It’s also regarded as sort of the heart of Maori culture in New Zealand, and offers the widest range of Maori cultural experiences. We were only able to spend one night here (in retrospect I wish we’d stayed at least one night longer), but we managed to pack in a lot of activities. The hubs and I both quite liked Rotorua, which may have been positively affected by absolutely glorious weather (about 80 degrees and sunny).

After arriving in the early afternoon, we took a stroll by the lake and then grabbed lunch along a fun little dedicated food laneway called “Eat Streat.” It’s actually where I took the picture of those delectable green-lipped mussels up above; that was probably one of my favorite menu items throughout the course of our trip. After that we walked around the town – perhaps a bit touristy, but also filled with restaurants and bars – and then walked over to the Polynesian Spa, where we were able to rent a private sulphur pool with a great view of the lake. Granted, the atmosphere was a bit tainted by a nearby flock of squawking seagulls, and of course the lake is famously smelly, but overall it was quite enjoyable:

Sulphur bath at Polynesian Spa

Not a bad view at all

In the early evening we cleaned up at our hotel and got picked up for an evening at Mitai Maori Village. Everyone I talked to and everything I read recommended taking a night to experience a Maori hangi dinner (where everything is cooked in the ground, yum!). In many ways its akin to going to a luau in Hawaii – you feel a little awkward gawking at these supposedly sacred rituals (particularly when we lined up along the creek and they canoed back and forth four times to ensure everyone got a photo!), and there’s something disconcerting about paying  to experience the exotic – but ultimately I think it was really great to learn a bit more about Maori culture, and I didn’t find it particularly cheezy or dumbed down. I chose Mitai because it got the best reviews on TripAdvisor, but it’s also a lot closer to town than some of the other options, and the concierge at our hotel further vouched for it as the best overall in terms of performance and food. All in all I really liked it, except that it ran a bit too long at the end. That is, it would have been nice to leave when we finished dinner, but instead we had to walk through the dark (and cold!) down a poorly-lit path so they could give us a pitch about glowworms and their spring (which we also saw earlier). I might have just been tired, but I wish that part had been optional.

We stayed at a funky boutique hotel called Regent of Rotorua, which I loved. Again, I chose it based on TripAdvisor reviews, but also because most of the lodging options in town seem to be 3-star motels. While the Regent is is what used to be a motel (so it’s only two floors, and the pool has a somewhat Palm Springsy kitsch feel to it), the rooms feature snazzy decor with huge bathrooms, flat-screen TVs, and iPod docks. The only minor hiccup was that our AC didn’t work when we first arrived, but the friendly guy at the front desk (Darren) sorted it out for us while we went to the Polynesian Spa, to our great relief. It also has a great location right by the lake, but also within walking distance of the town’s other restaurants and bars, as well as the public sulphur springs park:

Who knew stinky, gurgling mud could be so cool?

On our way out of town the hubs indulged my whimsy by stopping for a quick ride at Rotorua’s famous ZORB. The town prides itself as being the home of the giant bouncing ball that you ride down a hill (yes, it’s as silly as it sounds). The whole thing took about 45 seconds – they drive you up a bumpy road, strap you in to a giant rubber ball, and then bounce you down a long green hill. I felt slightly dizzy by the end of it, but it was definitely a funny sensation bouncing upside down like that, and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who’s in town.

On Christmas Eve we left Rotorua and drove through the center of the North Island to Hawke’s Bay. I didn’t know much about the region other than a vague awareness of its wines, and I knew that Cape Kindappers (New Zealand’s most famous golf course and one of its best luxury resorts) was nearby. Mainly we went there because we needed to stop midway between Rotorua and Wellington for Christmas, but it ended up being one of my favorite parts of the trip. The region is known for having New Zealand’s sunniest weather (a relative statistic, but still), and sure enough it was perfectly warm and sunny all three days that we were there. Upon arrival we stopped for lunch in Napier, known as “the Art Deco Capital of the World.” It features a lot of beautiful Art Deco buildings that were built following a devastating earthquake in 1931, and also fronts some lovely coastline. The town itself was kind of crowded (for some reason it sort of reminded me of Sausalito in Northern California), but it does have a lot of restaurants, and the hubs was able to get his favorite iced coffee at Starbucks.

For dinner on Christmas Eve we drove out to Elephant Hill, a winery near Cape Kidnappers with a restaurant that I’d read about in Travel + Leisure. Between the drop-dead gorgeous scenery, the mouthwateringly delicious food, and the fantabulous wine (I loved the Pinot Noir, and the hubs liked the Reserve Syrah), it was just a perfect meal. Not so perfect? Driving back to our lodge through darkened lookalike vineyards with no streetlights and confusingly-named roads like Waimarama, Te Mata Mangateretere, Pakowhai and Puketapu, which are awfully hard to read quickly off a map or even Google directions. I’d say a GPS is imperative when driving through New Zealand, but in retrospect the words are so long and often similar to each other that I wonder if it would have just made things even more confusing. Oh well, we eventually made it back to our lodge, and ultimately I’m quite happy that we went to Elephant Hill:

The Elephant Hill Restaurant terrace, with Cape Kidnappers in the background beyond the vineyards

The vineyard entrance at sunset

On Christmas morning we woke up, ate a lovely breakfast at the lodge, and headed out for a morning hike. Although we’d initially planned on walking Cape Kidnappers, the timing of the tides was kind of off and would have required a lot of negotiating across rocky cliffs, so we instead opted for the closer-by Te Mata Peak. Malcolm, our superstar innkeeper (more on him in a minute), recommended it because it’s only about five minutes outside the village of Havelock, and allows you to drive up and park and then easily choose your route. If you’re at all familiar with the Bay Area, it was quite reminiscent of driving up to Tilden Park through the swish Berkeley Hills, with lots of mansions and ultra-modern houses built into the cliffs.

Essentially we started close to the summit, then climbed over a succession of smaller peaks before descending across a rolling valley and walking along an ancient Redwood forest. The initial views looked out over green hills, farmland, the Tukituki River (love that name!) and the gorgeous bay:

We then headed inland, and the scenery at once became both rockier, and more alpine. At one point as we walked along a ridge I couldn’t help but twirl around and do my best Maria Von Trapp impression; the hills in New Zealand really are beautifully alive!

Kate near Te Mata Peak

Not a bad way to spend Christmas morning

Following our hike, we cooled off at Westshore Beach near Napier. I actually found the water a bit too cold (I’ll say it again: what a wuss I’ve become!), but the black volcanic sand was fascinating and gorgeous:

Westshore Beach outside Napier

I suppose the reason for all this activity was twofold: for one, we wanted to keep busy on Christmas, because there’s nothing like sitting around doing nothing to make you think about the fact that your friends and family are half a world away (in the snow), and suddenly you’re quite sad. Secondly, we had chosen our Christmas hotel, Breckenridge Lodge, specifically because of its chef and renowned food, and knew that we needed to work up a proper appetite. The innkeeper, Malcolm, previously worked at  a number of New Zealand’s top restaurants, and was even executive chef to New Zealand’s governor general (like the Queen’s official delegate, long story…). The lodge, which is set in the middle of a gorgeous chardonnay vineyard, consists of five rooms, and includes daily cooked breakfast and, for an extra fee, a 5-course meal with matching wines. This was our Christmas present to ourselves, and I’d say it made the trip. Granted, while the rooms were nice and Malcolm’s personal service and know-how were fantastic, I don’t know if the lodging itself was worth the price (no TVs, the Wifi didn’t work, no music player of any sort), however the hubs and I both agreed that with the incredible meal included it was well worth it. It was the most spectacularly relaxing, picturesque atmosphere I’ve ever experienced.

So anyway, after we returned from the beach and our hike on Christmas, the hubs and I hung out on the terrace reading while Malcolm brought us different glasses of wine to try from his cellar. I rather enjoyed myself:

Before dinner we had cocktails with the three other couples staying at the lodge. Two were from England, and one was from Ireland; we were by far the youngest. It was all quite civilized and fun, though!

The dinner table set for an evening of excellent wine

I wish that I’d taken notes (or more photos) during dinner, but I’m a bit embarrassed to admit by that point I was rather tipsy from all the great wine. (Of course, the other way to look at it is that I enjoying myself too much to take notes). As I recall, highlights of the menu included a local oyster shooter; fresh watermelon soup with local prawns and avocado; local turbot; roast turkey; New Zealand camembert with freshly-baked gingerbread; and plum pudding. Everything was local, everything was so fresh, and Malcolm thoughtfully paired each course with the perfect glass of New Zealand wine. Only once before have I had the opportunity to eat a meal and have the chef personally explain each component to me, and if you’re a foodie, I highly recommend it! It definitely takes eating to a whole new level of enjoyment.

It was the most perfect way to cap off a lovely Southern Hemisphere Christmas. I feel so fortunate that we were able to stay at the lodge (and that the weather cooperated, and that everyone we met was so nice, and that the New Zealand dollar is weak against both the USD and AUD!); I will always look back on this as the best possible way to spend a Christmas far from home.

The next morning, we packed up, ate yet another delicious breakfast (including eggs and lavender honey fresh from the back garden), and set out for Wellington. Malcolm packed us goodie bags for the road filled with chocolates, local cherries, and fresh-baked fruit mince tarts (seriously, best innkeeper EVER)! The four-hour drive to Wellington, while scenic, consisted of lots of one-lane roads that crawled through small towns. The hubs found it to be less-than-enjoyable driving, until we came to the town of Upper Hutt, where we basically had to drive alongside the top of a winding cliff… on the damn HIGHWAY! Being afraid of heights, I most certainly did NOT enjoy that part.

Wellington...meh

As with Auckland, we only spent a few hours in Wellington so I can hardly offer a qualified assessment, but I wasn’t a huge fan. Granted, it was Boxing Day so a lot of stuff was closed, and the weather was a lot cloudier than anywhere else we’d been to that point. It was also the most insanely windy place I’ve ever been in my life; somehow the fact that its airport is notorious for bumpy landings and takeoffs had escaped me until we got there. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to be flying out on a 10-seater to the South Island. Although the city has some cool, colorful buildings, we found a lot of it to be sort of grungy. Again, it’s probably because of the day, but everyone we encountered seemed to be a skater punk teenager (God I sound old). Fortunately we found some reprieve from the wind at a very cool microbrewery-cum-Japanese noodle bar (Hashigo Zake, if you should find yourself in downtown Wellington), and passed some time before turning in our intrepid Kia Cerato at the airport and flying to the South Island. By the way, if you fly domestically in New Zealand there’s apparently no security gate or x-ray machine to deal with; at least we didn’t go through one.

So when I started this post I planned to write quick-hit thoughts on each destination, but we both know that just wasn’t gonna happen. I apologize for my ramblings, but I think I’ll have to save the South Island for another post. Lucky for you, we only stopped in three places there (but man did we drink a lot of amazing wine)!

To be continued…

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