Saturday, January 29, 2011

We made it to NZ! Auckland.

After an excellent experience in Hong Kong and an 8 hour sleep aboard Air New Zealand, we landed in Auckland at 11:30am on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon in the middle of summer.

We didn't have much trouble clearing customs or "biosecurity". New Zealand is ultra-strict about entry of any sort of biological material into their country. I had heard stories about people being fined $400 for forgetting an apple in their bag, so we declared everything - the sand dollar Christmas decoration we picked up in Hawaii, our snorkeling gear, even our hiking shoes. But they really weren't all that interested, so it didn't take very long. Only the sniffer dog was unconvinced of my backpack's cleanliness, but his handler couldn't find anything to back up his suspicions. Lucky us!

View of the City of Sails from our hotel balcony
I was excited to explore Auckland, the City of Sails, where it is estimated that there are over 250,000 boat owners among the 1.3 million people that live here. Auckland residents repeatedly vote that their quality of life is among the best among city dwellers anywhere in the world.

We had an excellent harbor view from the balcony of our apartment and I could see no fewer than 4 yacht clubs. So I was so psyched to go out and stroll along Quay Street, the road along Auckland's waterfront. We caught a late lunch along the lower section of Queen St., downtown Auckland's main street.

Before I go on, I want to tell a story about traveling around Europe many years ago. We (me and some people I can no longer remember except that they were fun) were in Berlin. I had read about how Berlin was supposed to have this crazy club scene and I was imagining a city core like Montreal's ... X 10 at least ... during Grand Prix. It was Friday night in the spring, so we went to one of the areas of Berlin that the Let's Go recommended as being one of "the" areas to go to to party in Berlin. And it was dead. We asked the barmaid and she said that we were in the right area. So we tried another bar. Crickets. So we caught a cab to another "it" neighborhood. More crickets. Finally, out of frustration, we decided to walk over to one of the areas that the book had recommended to stay away from because it was dangerous and we might get mugged. There was a little bit more activity and we sulked in a bar for the rest of the night wondering if we had just chosen the wrong areas or the wrong bars or the wrong night or if Berlin was really like this. After all, not every city can have a nightlife like Montreal's - Toronto, for example ;).

Auckland was like that - BORING! Sort of scenic by the standard of most cities, but a disgrace from NZ standards. Better than Detroit or Cleveland, but ...

Beautiful Saturday afternoon in the middle of summer, nobody around the waterfront or downtown sector except other tourists. It's virtually deserted. I even asked our waitress if there was some huge sporting event where everyone was in front of a TV somewhere. She replied that this really was downtown Auckland. Maybe everyone was out on their boats.

Parnell pub "The Bog" at 4:30pm. Why are the benches all empty?
The next day (Sunday), we went to Parnell, a hillier version of Montreal's Sherbrooke Street as it runs through lower Westmount or Toronto's Bayview as it runs through Leaside. Two Ferrari's parked along the street. Lots of preppy boutiques. Looking more promising. But all the stores are CLOSED!! Whatever stores were open are empty. It was almost eerie. You could have shot some post-apocalyptic deserted scene in a movie here without any problem.

 Same thing for Ponsonbury and Remuera.

Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World, Auckland
 We also checked out Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World -  a pretty cool aquarium but overpriced for the 45 minutes it takes to get to the generously sized gift shop. It was priced like an amusement park. We were sort of expecting to spend a significant part of the afternoon there. Anywho, the kids had a good time, but I'll label it Tourist Trap.

People did seem to come out to play in the evening and we had a fantastic Indian meal at Oh Calcutta! on Parnell St. Trish and I are pretty big fans of Indian cuisine and Trish went so far as to say that this was the best Indian she had ever had. The kids had never really tried Indian before and even they got into it.

Monday, January 10, 2011 was a business day. We had already managed to get hooked up with mobile numbers through Vodafone. That was pretty straight forward - we removed the Roger's SIM cards and put the Vodfone ones in. I'd already opened a bank account with ASB (voted best customer service of any business in NZ!) before I left home and had gotten the hospital to deposit part of my relocation allowance (to pay for the flights) there, so there was a good heap of change waiting for us when we arrived in NZ. All it took was a 30 min meeting at the bank on Monday morning and our banking was all set up. Kiwi customer service is awesome!

Then we were off to buy a car. I'd found a couple of used car dealers on the Internet before leaving Canada and we headed to the first one on the list who had also offered to buy our car back again at the end of our stay in New Zealand. We visited Real Wholesale Cars right near the fish market. This was a huge parking lot of imported cars previously driven in Japan all with around 100K on them. No hustling salesmen. The owner, who was busy passing a kidney stone ("Not as bad as the last one!") told us "Alright, toddle off and find one you like. Grab the sticker and then come back so we can talk turkey." The kids settled on one and it was among the cheapest on the lot so Trish and I were OK with it. For the test drive, the owner essentially handed me over the keys and told me to take'er for a spin. He didn't feel he had to come with me and had no interest in seeing any ID. I signed a bunch of papers, forked over the cash and within 90 minutes had bought a new car.

Let the derision begin!
Yes, I really hate mini vans. They make me feel like there's a banner flying behind the car that says "Check me out - I'm in my forties and live in the suburbs!" But for this trip, it was the clear choice. I don't want to screw around with maintenance and repairs, so a Honda Odyssey makes it simple. We've got tons of luggage, so it's got to be big. We're going to be spending a lot of time in this thing, so it's got to be comfortable. Anyways, it's only for 7 months and it runs well.

We had slotted a whole day to get these things done, but we were done everything by noon. They were going to prep the car for us and we had to pick it up by 5:00pm. So we had some lunch and decided to head to one of Auckland's more famous beaches, Karekare beach where the movie "The Piano" was filmed.

Karekare Beach
Unfortunately, we got hopelessly lost and got some really bad directions from the locals and had to turn back before we could have a proper visit to the beach.

That night we had dinner at Auckland's Sky Center, which was only a few minutes walk from our hotel, and with not much else going on, decided to go see Tangled in 3D.

We had originally planned on staying 4 nights in Auckland, but although it was well kept and had obvious affluence, we felt that we had seen everything we were interested in seeing in 2 days and were anxious to get to our new home.

If you ever plan to visit New Zealand, you can think of Auckland a little like Athens. It's nice and has some cool things going for it, but there is so much other truly fantastic stuff outside of the big city that you shouldn't be tempted to waste your time there.

For instance, Palmerston North is only 550km from Auckland, but the drive took us 8 hours. Ask yourselves when was the last time any of you were so enthralled with the scenery while driving that you felt that you had no other choice but to pull over and take pictures. I shot over 80 photos during that trip. I could have shot more, much more. I'll post some of them next post.

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