Tuesday, March 29, 2011

New Plymouth & the Taranaki

My parents left to return home on March 9th. Although there more than enough beds, our Palmerston North "cottage" has only 1 bathroom and we had to borrow an extra chair so that we could all squeeze around the dining room table.

Despite the cozy accommodations, their stay with us was delightful. My Dad walked the kids to school in the morning and then took advantage of the fleeting days of the NZ summer to do an hour of exploring around our neighborhood. My Mom would supervise Cassandra's knitting projects as she created stylized scarves for her American Doll. The seven of us would spend the evenings playing cards and laughing.

Farewell Dinner at Izakaya
I anticipated that a good wave of homesickness would overtake us if we stayed at home the weekend after after my parents left, so to cover the short term, we made plans to visit New Plymouth and the Taranaki region on the North Island's west coast that weekend. To cover the long term, I confirmed the booking of a trip to the Outrigger Resort in Fiji in late May.

Mt Taranaki
I got off work early on Friday, March 11 and Trish had everything all packed up, so we were able to cover most of the 3 hour drive to the southwest corner of the North Island before the sunset. And the fabulous Mt. Taranaki (aka Mt. Egmont, the stunt double for Mt. Fuji in Tom Cruise's movie "The Last Samurai") was willing to pose for a few snapshots. Despite brilliant sunshine the whole rest of the weekend, the peak was almost always shrouded in cloud cover to the point that it was difficult to determine if there was actually a mountain close to New Plymouth.

We arrived at our hotel, the Waterfront, around 8:15pm and checked in. The concierge suggested that we check out The Garlic Press on Devon St. for supper. The prices were pretty high, so we shopped around but eventually ended back at The Garlic Press because the kids were starving and it was closing in on 9:00pm.

We walked through the door and asked for a table for 5.

We'd seen the look on the waiters & waitresses faces before. "Oh shit, a family with small children that will convince all our customers to not buy that second or third or fourth bottle of wine."

There were obviously tables available and two waiters began to pull some smaller tables together to accommodate us.

A waitress appeared before us to announce "We're sorry. We don't have a children's menu." Trish replied that this was fine; we would order the kids' meals off the adult menu. A look of hesitation. She said "One moment please" as she backed away to confer with another waitress who seemed to be in charge. Some vigorous head-shaking to indicate "NO" and the first waitress made her way back to us. The next line floored us.

"I'm sorry. Children are not permitted in the restaurant at this time." It was 8:45pm. It was a restaurant, not a bar, and the noise level was like the Cage Aux Sports on a game night.

I was too stunned for words. Trish called her bluff and told her that she was full of **it. But the waitress stood firm and shrugged her shoulders with a saccharine smile on her face that meant to cowardly stand behind the wordless message "I'm sorry. This is the manager's policy. I'm just the poor sap that has to deliver the bad news and pretend to sympathize with you about such an asinine rule."

Many of you will come up with suggestions on what we should have done, but we staggered out of the restaurant and asked others on busy Devon St. where we could find a kid-friendly restaurant. Harrison took to screaming "The Garlic Press has RATS! The Garlic Press has RATS!" to anyone who would listen. When we had decided on an alternative choice, the Lone Star (surprise, surprise!), Trish and I walked in silence away from Devon Street. It took about 5 minutes for the pot to boil over. I began to draft a nasty complaint letter in my head. Trish planned to go confront the manager the next day.

Len Lye's Wind Wand
After a couple of drinks, we were still pretty hot under the collar, but no longer frothing at the mouth. On the other hand, the gift of a free Lone Star T-shirt and some competitive coloring ("Oooh! You went out of the lines!) was enough to completely wipe the slate clean as far as the kids were concerned. We closed out the evening with a stroll across the grounds of New Plymouth's cultural center, Puke Ariki and a glance at Len Lye's bobbing "Wind Wand", a 900kg sculpture composed of red glass fibers 45m high and 20cm across that can bend in the wind. As sculptures go, it's kind of lame, so yeah, it was a just a glance.

Cassandra thought this would make a great Christmas tree.
The next day we had breakfast on the terrace of our hotel overlooking the Tasman Sea. It was a gorgeous Saturday morning.  I picked up some brochures to form a plan of attack at the i-Site within Puke Ariki, right next to our hotel. We shopped our way along Devon St. The girls bought shoes. Trish bought me a print of Mt. Taranaki.

Coastal Walkway
We eventually ended up on the Coastal Walkway, a 10km paved path that goes all along the Tasman coast from one end of New Plymouth's city limit to the other. On this particular day, it was filled with cyclists and joggers and walkers.

No pedals in front - the boys doing the heavy lifting on this one!
We arrived at East End Beach and rented a Wind Wanderer to carry us over the 10km path. Only 4 seats? Trish seized the opportunity to squeeze in more shopping.

East End Beach
With the athletic part of the day finished, we returned the Wind Wanderer and went for a swim at East End Beach. Taranaki is renowned for it's surfing beaches and the attraction goes further as all the beaches are black sand beaches and have very gentle inclines. The water is only knee deep 100m into the water. But it's cold! All the locals wear wet-suits.

Black Sand!
Fitzroy Surf Beach
After a few hours of sun and surf, we met up with Trish for smoothies and sandwich melts at the Big Wave Cafe.

The kids posing on a statue of a mussel

After too much sun, we retreated to our hotel room for a nap and then off to Arborio for a fantastic sunset and evening meal.

Sunset over the Tasman

On Sunday, we checked out of our hotel and discovered that our car battery was dead! No lights left on. I suspected that the battery was finished. Luckily, I had bought an AA membership (Automobile Association, the New Zealand version of CAA, not Alcoholics Anonymous) before leaving Auckland at the beginning of our trip. What could have been a very long wait was only an hour or so before the AA guy put us back on our way.

Before leaving for New Plymouth, everyone at work had told me to make sure I visited Pukekura Park, so that was our first destination after getting our car fixed. We spent a few hours trying to figure out cricket, visiting the small Brooklands Zoo, cooling off beside waterfalls, visiting a Rhododendron dell, somersaulting down the Brooklands Concert Bowl (site of next weekends WOMAD festival) and replenishing at the lakeside Tea House.

Spotting the skinny one in the Tamarin enclosure
The TSB Brooklands Concert Bowl - perfect for runaway somersaults

It was now well into Sunday afternoon and it was time for us to consider heading back to Palmerston North. I wanted to go check out Mt. Taranaki, but was easily dissuaded by the considerable cloud cover around the peak and the kids request to hit another beach.

We took the long way home along Taranaki's Highway 45 - the Surf Highway - that hugs the coast and provides access to some of New Zealand's top surfing beaches. We picked Opunake Beach at random to spend a few more hours absorbing the late afternoon rays.

We finally made it home around 7:00pm after an excellent beach weekend in New Plymouth. All of our noses were a little singed and it took several days to finally dislodge all the fine black sand from just about everywhere and everything. Nevertheless, despite some of the challenges, New Plymouth was a tidy town with great beaches and well worth a visit.  Five thumbs up.

So, you're wondering what happened to the fiasco at The Garlic Press? A few days after our return home, I found the manager's e-mail address online somewhere and wrote him a very nasty message.

I reminded him that New Zealand is not famous for its gourmet restaurants but for the friendly welcoming manner of the people that live here. I pointed out that his locale had distinguished itself as the only restaurant among many we have visited in New Zealand (and the rest of the world for that matter) that felt compelled to refuse us entry on account of our children and this most un-Kiwi-like gesture would surely earn The Garlic Press scorn and ridicule among visitors to several popular tourist and restaurant-review web sites where I would post negative reviews.

He replied the next morning with a horrified e-mail that said that there was a children's menu and children were of course welcome in his restaurant at any time and the actions seemed to stem from one person who was working her last shift at the restaurant and was keen to close up to throw herself a party. He offered to send me a bottle of wine. I'm still waiting.

Next post: Incredible Queenstown & the Southern Alps.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Day Trips

After a busy few weeks working during the week and spending the whole weekend active and away,  Trish and the kids were in the mood to chill out at home for a few weekends.

My parents were still visiting, so we compromised that we would do day trips on the Saturdays. This blog is about our trips to Wanganui & the River Road and Wairarapa & the Martinborough Fair.

Wanganui & the River Road
On February 26, under overcast skies, we made the 1 hour trip west to the riverside town of Wanganui. After the iSite, the first stop was the Saturday morning farmers' market for a crepe

Mom obviously enjoying her crepe
We set out along Victoria Street,  Wanganui's main shopping drag, only to be reminded that unlike North America, many small shop merchants close their doors on a Saturday afternoon.

Roundabout at Victoria & Guyton Streets
So we did some window shopping, and after a pretty lousy Subway sandwich, decided to get on the road to explore New Zealand's Whanganui River Road. This is a 75.5 km road that takes 3-4 hours to drive which tells you how many hairpin turns there were and how narrow it was. This should also give you a good idea about how much time Trish actually spent with her eyes shut. She was only too happy to sit in the 3rd row of seats (the very back) in our Honda Odyssey, leaving the passenger seat to my Dad.

Whanganui River from Aramoana Summit at km 6
As the kilometers swept by, the landscape became wilder and wilder and signs of civilization became less and less frequent. My Mom & Dad and I remained enthralled with the panorama while Trish and the kids quickly became bored and fell asleep. Greenery is just not their thing.

Koriniti Wharenui
At km 45, we turned off the road to visit deserted Koriniti featuring a fenced-off marae (Maori for 'Meeting Place') and 2 wharenui (carved meeting houses). There were cattle all over the road leading up to the small village and while I remarked at the intricacy of the carvings on the wharenui, the crowd-pleaser for the under twelves was obviously the projectile diarrhea coming from one of the cows that almost hit my Dad through his open car door window. Mackenzie still can't keep a straight face at the memory.

Roadside wild flowers
At km 64, we stopped to visit the stark 1890s convent and beautiful Maori church at Hiruhama (Jerusalem). We could have stayed the night for $5 each, but the site had served as a commune for New Zealand poet James K. Baxter & his disciples and was utterly deserted, so yeah ... none of us were even tempted.

But the church was cool. Mackenzie seized the opportunity to ring the church bell over and over and over and over and over again. Check out the carved altar where the faces have glittering blue Paua shell eyes.

By this time, we were almost at the end of the road and other than stopping in the middle of the road to offend an eagle feasting on a captured possum, we made a bee-line back to Palmerston North.

My parents & I had enjoyed the experience, but Trish and the kids were unimpressed and the deep sighs of boredom became progressively more poignant as the iPod batteries flickered out and the car seats refused to offer up any more comfortable positions. To appease the masses, our next stop was the kids' favorite, the Lone Star in the square in Palmerston North.

No one was unhappy after a few raspberry lemonades (or Syrah's for Trish) and heavily sauced BBQ ribs.

Wairarapa & the Martinborough Fair
The locally famous Martinborough Fair which attracts 15000 people each year was held on March 5, 2011. Once again, our day trip started with lousy weather. The Maori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa or the 'Land of the Long White Cloud'. New Zealand is rich in cloud and, as summer moves to fall, it showers a lot, particularly in the morning. We were close to calling the trip off and it poured down the entire one hour journey east to Martinborough.

So we thought that we would be wading through the fair, but as luck would have it, it stopped raining for the 3 hours that it took us to roam around the fair. Overall, it was a so-so experience. The Wairarapa is one of NZ's premier wine regions and Martinborough is the crown grape, so I was expecting more of a fine food market with cheeses and breads and sauces and wines and ... tons of delicious things to sample and buy. This was more of a crafts fair with people selling sheet metal sculptures and soaps that looked like slices of delicious cake. I have an unrefined taste in anything except single malt whiskey, but everything was kind of kitschy. Enough stalls to keep 15 000 people coming back year after year and none of us found anything to buy. I did however find a stall that sold "lamburgers". Not bad, although mint jelly on a hamburger bun was a new taste for me.

So to salvage the day, we turned to wine. First stop was Te Kairanga, where for $5, we were expected to sample all of the roughly 15 wines on offering. Acidic reds, but delicious whites! Finally, our wallets made an appearance as we made our way back to the car toting a few liquid souvenirs.

Palliser Estate
Our next stop was the more-widely renowned Palliser Estate where Allan Johnson, the chief winemaker was schooling student chefs on a field trip. We got to eavesdrop for free. The 2008 Pinot Noir was delectable! My Dad bought the bubbly.

Mackenzie with Russian Jack
The rain had been held at bay long enough and there were now several excellent reasons to get home lying in our trunk, so we left Martinborough to drive back to Palmerston North. However, I couldn't resist making a few quick detours. A mini-Stonehenge looked cheesy and couldn't tempt us to get out of the car. A brief stop in Masterton also failed to impress other than visiting a statue of Russian Jack and the local McDonalds.

The Wairarapa was disappointing as a destination. Without the fair, Martinborough looked like it would have made for a pleasant preppy wine getaway for young couples looking for a gourmet experience, but didn't offer that much for the hard-core tourist or a family. It did offer up some fantastic wines though. We're still enjoying them.

These two weekend day trips under cloudy skies were somewhat disappointing but were perhaps our ante for the next two weekends when we would have beautiful beach weather in both New Plymouth and Queenstown.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Taupo: Outdoor Playground for Kiwis

Most people know that Queenstown is New Zealand's top tourist destination and you can go as easy or as hard as want. We haven't visited ... yet (our flights are booked for mid March), but apparently there is something for every visitor ranging from spas and wine lounges all the way through to bungy jumping and sky diving with everything in between. However, most of the participants are tourists from outside the country visiting the South Island.

Lake Taupo with Mt. Ruapehu ("Mt. Doom") in the background
When Kiwis want to party or get out on the water or jump out of a moving plane, they go to Taupo. This town is located on the massive Lake Taupo in the middle of the north island, about 4 hours from almost everywhere. Since 76% of New Zealand's population lives on the North Island, it's a pretty busy place on the weekends and the traffic is almost all Kiwi.

My parents left on Monday Feb 14 to visit Napier and the Coromandel Peninsula. We had arranged to meet them in Taupo for the weekend.

I had to work late, so we only left Palmerston North at 6:30pm on Friday and arrived in Taupo at around 9:45pm. Since the sun sets at only 8:45pm, we witnessed the sunset while driving between the Kaweka Mountain Range to our west and the triple volcanoes of Tongariro National Park to our east. Awesome!

We took our time on Saturday morning, enjoying a leisurely breakfast at Zest Cafe opposite our hotel.

We strolled about 10 minutes into town and through the shopping district of Tuwharetoa, Heu Heu and Horomatangi streets. I hit the i-Site (a nationally sponsored tourist bureau present in even the tiniest of towns) to plan the rest of the weekend. Meanwhile, 2 generations faced off in a battle of outdoor chess.

"OK gang. We've got kayaking at 2:30 today, trout fishing at 9:00 tomorrow followed by a hike around the geothermal springs."

"What about the jet boating?"

"But that only leaves us another hour and a half to shop."

"Can I get a purple kayak?"

"Ohh yeah babyyyyyy! I'm going to catch the biggest fish! Yeah!!!"

"I was looking forward to a coffee and muffin aboard the gentle boat trip around the lake."

"Daddy, can I have an ice cream?"

"La-la-la la la-la-la."

I'll let you fill in the names of the speakers.

So we browsed through the stores. The men wore expressions like they were assessing the damage from a head on collision. The woman wore expressions of excitement and angst: excitement at the prospect of newly owned treasures, angst at the prospect that their allotted time in the candy store was tick-tick-ticking away. But everyone got something. We all bought flip flops - jandals in Kiwi. Many necklaces with Kiwi pendants filled with blue Paua shell were purchased. My mom bought a cerulean merino-silk-possum sweater. I bought Kiwi-themed wine glass markers. Yeah! I win!

Lake Taupo lies in the caldera of an ancient volcano. It is the largest crater lake in the world at 916 sq. km. It has 32 tributary rivers and only 1 river draining it - the Waikato river.  Rapid Sensations was an easy choice once we learned that we would be spending the beautiful Saturday afternoon kayaking (read: floating) downstream. It was hard not to smile. To boot, a naturally occurring thermal spring bubbles into the river about 20 minutes from our final destination, so we got out and swam in crystal clear water that was a sandwich of slightly too hot on top and slightly too cold water on the bottom.

Here are some pics.

Notice Cassandra reserving her purple kayak

Teenage girls jumping from the cliff
... in a different kayak because the other one was too big

We did it!
Alright - enough good ole fun! We had earned a drink and a snack. So after a shower and a power nap, we headed to Lake Terrace to snag a choice table at Scenic Cellars.

We finished the night at the Waterside restaurant on Lake Terrace. The whole town was hopping as earlier that day, there had been 5000 runners and walkers taking place in the Great Lake Relay. Unfortunately, the atmosphere and the buzz far exceeded the quality of the food.

We were up early the next day (Sunday) to catch a quick breakfast before joining Richard of Trout Catching (that's positive marketing; all the other companies had names like 'Fishing Charter' or 'Trout Fishing') aboard White Striker IV for 3 hours of rainbow trout fishing. Once again, awesome weather and the experience of being out on the water was worth the trip. Richard quoted that the average catch was approximately 1 per hour. We preserved his reputation and caught three fish, although one was 1/2" below the minimum size of 16". So we proudly returned to harbor with 2 good sized rainbow trout.

Harrison landing our first fish

The happy anglers
Lunch time!
A local restaurant agreed to cook up our catch for lunch.

In the afternoon, we went for a 90 minute walk around the Orakei Korako geothermal springs about 25 minutes north of Taupo.

Twenty million liters of boiling water trickle out of this hot springs site every day. The water is way too hot to swim in and besides, the rotten egg smell is more than a little off putting. Here are some pics.

The hole is a lateral geyser that was spraying water everywhere and whistling like a kettle
Water boiling out of a break in the sulfur crust

Looks like a giant ice cream sundae

Bubbling mud pool but no Shrek or Fiona.

The hike finished with a walk through a Ponga Giant Fern forest. This is also known as the silver fern which is one of the national symbols of New Zealand and appears on the All Blacks uniforms.

New Zealand's silver fern

A very cool thing happens to these leaves when they fall off the tree and die. The silver color turns to gold and bronze. It might not come out that well in the photo, but it's breathtaking and gives a new meaning to gold leaf.

Golden Leaves!
What a busy weekend! Just about everyone fell asleep in the car going back home. I had to switch with Trish after about 90 minutes of driving. Despite being very busy for the weekend, we all know that we haven't visited Taupo for the last time. It's so much fun and has so much to offer that it's worth at least one more visit before we head back to Canada.

One other footnote: I've always remarked with some amount of pride that I have a knack for maps and quickly finding my bearings in new places. This seems to be less true in New Zealand. I hadn't really come up with a reason until this weekend.

Meet you where?

I think this is because the Maori name of streets are essentially unintelligible, at least to my brain, so I can't pronounce let alone remember the street names.