Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Queenstown, Milford Sound & the Southern Alps: Day 3 & 4

After a few early mornings and a busy 48 hours in Queenstown, the last part of the trip was all about R & R. We lounged in our condo for most of the morning before heading out to Starbucks for our caffeine fix.

Beautiful afternoon over Lake Wakatipu
The girls were convinced that the shops had still more hidden treasures, so we agreed to part ways for the afternoon. Harrison and I rented a Segway for a few hours. This included a short lesson (it's so easy to learn), a guided tour around Queenstown and then a few hours on our own.

Although pretty high on the geek-o-meter, these things were so much fun to drive around. No one has quite figured out if these things should be characterized as a motorized vehicle (and hence requiring a license, etc) or not. For the most part, we cruised around biking and pedestrian trails. Pedestrians would greet us either with a smile and an uttered "Cooooool" or a silent look of scorn at disturbing their walk/pedal through the park with a stand-up motorcycle.

At the end of the tour, we were turned loose in the Queenstown Gardens. We zipped around the lakefront and took in an authentic disc golf course.

The 9th hole
I had no idea this was a legitimate sport with it's own professional association (the PDGA). Anyways, if you had your own disc, it was free to play, but we were too busy on our Segways.

Crystal-clear water in Lake Wakatipu
Reunited with the girls, we returned to our condo for wine and downtime. The inertia factor was running very high, but I managed to rally the troops for an outing to pick up some world famous Ferg Burgers.

Ready to go drinking!
On the way, we grabbed a drink in Minus 5, a gimmicky bar in a massive freezer. The free drink was pretty lousy but it was cool to drink out of glasses made of ice, sit on animal skins on ice couches and rest your drinks on ice lounge tables. I could probably make a "40 Below" bar on my own deck next winter. You're all invited for free slushies! We had a few laughs getting all dressed up in the winter gear (including Ugg-style sheepskin boots) before heading into the bar.

Finally, the family could be denied no further and once out of our winter attire, we made a beeline for ...

This hamburger joint, nay institution, on Shotover St. is open 20 hours a day and can seat a maximum of 25 people (my estimate), but must serve several hundred huge burgers per hour. In our 5 days in Queenstown, there was always a line out the door.

The Hungry Hoard is distracted by 80s music videos.
Despite the enormous demand, our 5 individually crafted burgers were ready in about 10 minutes. We hoofed it back up the hill one last time to enjoy our Fergburgers in the comfort of our condo. What a treat!

Mackenzie says don't miss Fergburger when you're in Queenstown!
On our last morning in Queenstown, we stopped 'doing' and simply sat by the lake in the sunshine for a few hours. The kids found a nearby playground and Trish and I found a small cafe by the beach. It was an appropriate finale to an amazing trip.

The kind of view that inspires poets & painters
As I've said before, Queenstown has earned it's reputation as the tourist capital of New Zealand. Now 5 weeks later, this is still a favorite for all of us. Many tourists visit only the South Island and I will concede that although 80% of New Zealand's population lives on the North Island, the South Island, particularly the Queenstown and Fiordland (Southern Alps) areas, offers the most concentrated and spectacular New Zealand experience. We can't wait to go back!

Goodbye to Queenstown

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Reflections from Halfway Around The World

Today, April 18 2011, marks the precise halfway point in our trip; the 111th day of a 222 day adventure.

You've read all about our excellent experiences traveling far and wide in New Zealand, but what's it been like between the the clear skies and sunny days?

Nothing has compared to our abominable experience of traveling to New Zealand. The lowest point for me in the entire 111 days was stumbling through the brightly lit airport in Guam at 2:00 am, exhausted and beaten down after a demoralizing experience in Newark Airport and a gruesome battle with a fierce gastro that always seemed to pick takeoff and landing to make its presence known. I seriously wondered if this was an omen for things to come and if it was too late to rejoin Harrison's hockey team.

No - not back in Canada! Ready to go into an ice bar in Queenstown.
Hitting the low right out of the gate has not however set the tone for the trip. Overall, the traveling has been fantastic. Sleeping in hotels, eating in restaurants and spending all day shopping and investing in experiences and laughter is virtually always a fruitful endeavor. It's supposed to be that way. The only two hiccups were a bad hotel in Christchurch (we only stayed one night) and an obnoxious hostess at a New Plymouth restaurant (still haven't gotten the bottle of wine the manager promised me).

All aboard the Christchurch tram
We made stopovers in Hawaii and Hong Kong on the way to New Zealand. Taking advantage of the warm summer & fall weather, we have traveled extensively around both the North and South Islands. After setting our bags down for a few minutes in January, we spent 9 days exploring the Nelson, Marlborough and Canterbury-Christchurch regions of the South Island. We returned to the South Island in March for a 5 day trip to Queenstown and Milford Sound in Fiordland. For all of us, this was the highlight of our NZ travels so far.

Longest place name on earth
On the North Island, we've spent weekends in Wellington and Auckland. We've explored Napier-Hastings in Hawke's Bay, New Plymouth in Taranaki, Martinborough in Wairarapa and Wanganui in ... well, Whanganui. We learned about Maori culture in Rotorua and went trout fishing in Taupo. We learned how to shear sheep while staying at a farm in central Hawke's Bay and visited the Shire (yes - THE Shire) in Waikato.

We've been amazingly lucky with the weather. In 3 months of traveling, we've had to shelter from the elements for only one day in Christchurch. The forecast for our stay in Queenstown was dismal, but turned out to be 5 glorious days of sunshine.

Palmerston North
Life in Palmerston North has been a little less glamorous. Visitors to New Zealand will likely make the correct decision to not visit Palmerston North, despite it being one of the larger towns on the North Island. There is not much here for tourists. It is however an excellent place to live. It's safe and clean, the people are friendly and the restaurants & cafes outnumber the number of nights we'll be able to spend eating out.

A lime tree in my neighbor's yard
I love being able to walk 7 minutes to work along streets lined with mature oak trees with the mountains of the Tararua Range in the background. There are grapefruit, lime and lemon trees in people's gardens. It's undeniably pleasant to be able to accomplish all of your daily errands (post office, liquor store, groceries and banking) on foot in just under 45 minutes. When we go out to eat, we walk. At first, the kids walked the 10 minutes to school. Trish abandoned accompanying them after the first week. There seemed to be little to mandate parental supervision. No busy streets to cross. No hives of prospective pedophiles or fleeting bouquets of hashish. And tons of unescorted children walking to school. After a few months, the kids managed to convince us of their ongoing persecution at our hands in denying them scooters to assist in their daily commute. So now they no longer walk to school - they scoot.

Tree in full bloom in mid-fall
When I asked the kids about what they disliked most about our New Zealand trip, Harrison and Cassandra both responded that it seems to rain a lot here.  There seems to be a pattern of rain throughout the day and sun in the late afternoon and evening. Now that we are well into fall, this is much more evident. But despite being in the equivalent of mid-October, there are virtually no leaves on the ground and flowers are in full bloom.

Pace of Life
As an amateur sporting organization, Lakeshore seems to have enormous success. Although Trish and I are as competitive as the rest, the drive to succeed that we were imparting in our children seemed to come at a very high cost in terms of their fragile emotions and our over-extended timetable that left little time for anything other than school and sport. Family time certainly suffered. And I doubt Lakeshore parents are unique among affluent urban Canadian parents.

There does however seem to be a striking difference between parenting values in New Zealand and Canada. Most of the sporting activities occur through school. There are organized sports that occur outside of school, but nothing to compare to the August to June hockey schedule or the year round soccer schedule. It's great to see the kids have time to play without XBox and digital TV.

The pace of life is certainly very much slower in New Zealand. Trish has commented more than once that her level of stress is considerably lower than at home.

Without the complicated schedule and electronic distractions of our Canadian lives, we end up spending a lot more time together. We have a lot of movie nights. Mackenzie's favorite thing about being in New Zealand is playing Golf, a fast-paced but simple card game that we often play around our kitchen table. And of course, she frequently wins.

Renting a small cottage in Palmerston North has made me appreciate our house in Beaconsfield. After a weekend away, we all look forward to relaxing in our living room, but I don't think that will compare to our arrival back to 178 Sidney-Cunningham St on August 6th. I miss the Sonos system and tinkering around the house. On the other hand, Trish is not looking forward to returning to our house as she has been delighted that she can clean our NZ home to her exacting standards in a little over 45 minutes, a task that would take her 2-3 days to do in Beaconsfield.

Surly Canadians (at least this one) can learn a lot from the Kiwis on how to be friendly and courteous with one another. This facet notwithstanding, due to our heavy travel schedule, we haven't made many new friends. We've been invited to two wonderful dinners at some of my colleagues' houses, but I really miss silly nights where we can really let our barriers down.

Harrison & Cassandra at school. Note Harrison has adopted the Kiwi tradition of foregoing footwear.

Russel Street School has been excellent for Harrison & Cassandra. They appear to be thriving there, but in different directions compared to Kuper in Montreal. Both kids have established comfortable social positions within the school. Of course, they LOVE the 'No homework' policy. Harrison has expanded his horizons considerably with knowledge of current events, history and photography and has vastly enhanced his knowledge of computers. He has his own personal blog with his class and collates his own videos to post online. As always, Cassandra keeps us in the dark about most things, but reports from the teacher are good so far. Surprisingly, between Harrison & Cassandra, the latter most misses life at home, principally because she misses the tight bond she had with Isy Miron.

I've also come to appreciate my job at the Jewish General Hospital. Due to the brevity of my stay here in Palmerston North, the powers that be decided that I would work exclusively in the operating room during my locum. On one hand, this suits me fine as ICU call occurs twice as often as anesthesia call. On the other hand, I miss the academic challenge and interest of the ICU. The anesthesia case mix in Palmerston North also leaves me feeling a little underwhelmed - bread & butter orthopedics, general surgery, gynecology and urology. I've put in less than 5 arterial lines and less than 5 epidurals in 3 months. On the other hand, I've put in many more central lines due to the annoying prevalence of difficult IV access among obese Kiwis. Operations and surgical pathology are more complex at the Jewish General Hospital. Medical pathology in Palmerston North is not really complex - cardiovascular disease for the most part, but it seems that patients seek treatment very late, so there aren't many options available. A common scenario is the octagenarian with a hip fracture that has undiagnosed aortic stenosis with a valve area of 0.5 cm2 an an EF of 35% on top of untreated diabetes and hypertension. I can't assign the blame for this on the physicians as they seem universally excellent. Moreover, the population doesn't seem to be aware of the benefits of preventative or surveillance medicine. They don't have a problem until they start to feel bad.

On call shifts are easy so far. The resident stays in house until 1:00am. I've got at least 6 hours of sleep in my own bed for all my shifts. This coming weekend is my first weekend shift and I only have two weekends during the entire 6 months.

The Next 111 Days
So, what's coming in the next 111 days? Locally, we've explored most places that are easily accessible within a few hours drive. I'm kind of looking for things to do. We'll probably go back to the Wairarapa region to spend a weekend along the rugged coastline. And do more wine tasting of course.

We've got tickets to see two professional rugby games (Wellington Hurricanes vs. Auckland Blues on May 6th and Wellington Hurricanes vs. Johannesburg Lions on June 4th) both in Wellington. We're spending a week in Fiji at the end of May at the Outrigger Resort in a private bure with complimentary butler service - sounds sweet!

Outrigger on the Lagoon Resort - Fiji
We're leaving New Zealand July 16 to begin the trip home. We spend 3 days in Singapore and then another 4 in Bali before moving on to Australia for the last 2 weeks of our trip.

Believe it or not, after all the preparations and despite the feeling that we just got here, we've all started making preparations to resume life in Montreal. Registration forms for hockey and football are in and I've put in schedule requests for work already. Preliminary work on shipping our crate back to Canada has started.

The champions wearing #71 - Harrison's jersey
Thankfully, we've had only one day of regret. The toughest part of the trip so far came on March 25th. It was heartbreaking to listen over the phone to the standing ovation that marked the astonishing 7th straight playoff win of Harrison's 6th place hockey team to take the league championship. There were some serious mixed emotions as we were ecstatic that our team had pulled off such a stunning playoff run to salvage a lukewarm season, but it crushed us to have to experience it 15,000 km away. However, Harrison's coaches and teammates helped make him feel a part of it by wearing his jersey and skating around the ice with a poster my sister made for the occasion. Special shout out for Christine for making an excellent poster.

That's the way things look from here at the halfway point.

Porangahau Beach all to ourselves

Monday, April 11, 2011

Queenstown, Milford Sound & the Southern Alps: Day 2

We awoke in Queenstown on March 19 to brilliant clear blue skies. Real Journeys agreed with us that it was perfect flying conditions to soar over the Southern Alps to join a 3 hour boat cruise up and down the Milford Sound.

We met our pilot at the airport to take the 40 min flight across the Southern Alps. The scenery was sensational, although the pictures through the plane's windows will not accurately show the true majesty of what we witnessed.

Getting ready for takeoff
Co-Pilot Harrison

Queenstown Airport
Western end of Lake Wakatipu
Milford Sound by air
Terra Firma in Milford Sound
It rains 220 days a year in Fiordland. Fortunately, it had rained heavily the day before our trip and the morning mist at Milford Sound soon lifted making for pleasant dry cruising conditions to see the torrential waterfalls that drain into Milford Sound.

Our boat, the MV Sinbad

Good hot chocolate!
A few of the dozen or so waterfalls that drain into Milford Sound.

Although every tourist boat dips its nose into a few of the waterfalls and our captain issued several disclaimers about water damage to expensive cameras, I couldn't take my finger off the shutter button. I love this sequence of photos.

The sound of the water is deafening ...
The wind created by the tons of water falling each minute ...
Here it comes ...
... Under the waterfall
By the time we arrived back at the cruise terminal, the sun was out and the clouds had cleared from Mitre Peak.

Mitre Peak

The pilot took a different flight path back to Queenstown and now the afternoon sun was shining. I'm sure I looked like an idiot with one hand holding the video camera glued to one window while I snapped away with the regular camera in the other. I'm running out of words to describe spectacular scenery, so I'll just show the pictures.

The Milford Sound cruise has long been sung as New Zealand's top tourist attraction and is sort of a "must-see" for any visitor to NZ.  It was spectacular but really paled in comparison to the experience of seeing the majesty of the Southern Alps from the air.

Taking a flight to Milford Sound may sound like an elitist thing to do, but it made a huge difference in our case. First, the trip by road from Queenstown was 4 hours there and back, so any kind of impression imprinted in the kids' memories would have been darkened considerably by 8 hours spent in the car. The flight was 40 minutes there and back. This also left us another half day to enjoy Queenstown.

Second, New Zealand is a very touristy country. Tourism expenditures totaled $22.4 billion in the fiscal year ending in March, 2010 and tourism accounts for nearly 20% of New Zealand's total exports of goods and services. No matter which fantastic vista you are visiting, there will be several companies that will rent you bikes or horses or kayaks to enhance your experience. Even more companies will take you out fishing or hang-gliding or sky-diving or jet-boating or hiking. There will be several flight companies and helicopter companies that will offer to buzz you around the clouds.

I had decided that I would get the family up in the air at least once during our trip and I figured that this was the best opportunity. Touring the North Island volcanoes from Taupo was a close second.

Back in Queenstown and giddy from the morning's experiences, we headed back to our condo to unwind. Wine glasses were refilled several times. Pictures and videos drew oohs and ahhs from ... well, me and to a lesser extent Trish who observed my excitement with considerable amusement.

At this point, we were all thoroughly convinced that Queenstown is the BEST place to visit in New Zealand. However, it isn't only the adventures and attractions in and around Queenstown that give it this deserving award. After being active all day, travelers have ample opportunity to relive the exciting moments of their trip in the many excellent restaurants and bars and purchase mementos of their stay in the many shops that line the attractively laid out waterfront and streets of Queenstown. It offers the whole package. Although less patterned than the ski resorts of Mont-Tremblant and Whistler, there were definite similarities.

I'm sure some urban planner has thought this out quite thoroughly and we fell in line without a struggle. After a relaxing afternoon, our first stop was Central Art Gallery to see if there was a painting from a NZ artist that we could use to grace our walls in Beaconsfield. After living in our house since 2003, our walls are still relatively bare. We ended up buying an original from a NZ artist named Brian McCracken. You'll all have to come over and see it when we get back to Montreal in August.

Less than half a block away, we struck gold again at Flame Bar & Grill. Good thing I had made a reservation as the restaurant was at capacity by 7:00pm. I should have taken a picture of their signature dish, the delicious half rack of ribs that filled a 16" x 12" cutting board, but it looked far too delicious and I was far too hungry, so I'll show you one I stole from Trip Adviser. Harrison polished one off too.

Yeah - this is a HALF rack! So delicious!
After dinner, there was more shopping and once again a visit to Patagonia Chocolates to power our walk up the hill back to our condo.

Patagonia Chocolates
Fashionista at Four dressed in "All Black".

What an awesome day!