Monday, May 30, 2011

Rotorua & the Maori

The Maori are New Zealand's indigenous population. Although they have migrated to the South Island like most other ethnic groups, most of the different Maori tribes or iwi live on the North Island. Overall they make up roughly 15% of the total population of New Zealand.

The Maori are Polynesian in origin and gave New Zealand its original name of Aotearoa. They arrived here somewhere around the 12th century AD. Over many centuries of isolation, they developed their own language, alphabet and mythology. The Maori alphabet has the same 5 vowels as English, but only 10 consonants - p, t, k, m, n, ng, wh (pronounced as f), r, h, w.

As with other aboriginal populations around the world, they suffer from lower life expectancy, lower incomes, higher crime rates (50% of prison inmates in NZ) and higher rates of smoking, obesity and alcohol & drug abuse. They seem to lead a more nomadic lifestyle, frequently moving from one place to another.

However, unlike North American Indians who have been marginalized from society on reservations and Australian aboriginals who seem to hold a similar status in Australian society to livestock, the Maori hold a prominent position in New Zealand society. They are quite evidently proud of their heritage and although there is some friction between the Pakewa (European New Zealanders) and the Maori over historical gripes, the two ethnicities live together in relative harmony.

The most well known export of Maori culture is the Haka war dance that the All Blacks, New Zealand's all star national rugby team, perform to intimidate the opposing team before each game. Maori warriors used to do this prior to battles to frighten the enemy.

This blog is about our visit to Rotorua, the cultural capital of the Maori people in the middle of the North Island. We spent 5 days in Rotorua between April 6th and April 10th, 2011.

We drove 5 hours in the evening on April 6th to arrive at the beautiful boutique hotel, the Regent of Rotorua. This hotel looks like it would be more at home in South Beach than in Rotorua. The owner, Darryn, really went out of his way to make sure that our stay was perfect including offering advice about the good and bad in restaurants and attractions in and around Rotorua.

We started our first day in Rotorua with a hearty breakfast at Fat Dog. The kids enjoyed the dog themed everything. We walked off the carbs by browsing the shops along Tutaneaki St before heading off to the Polynesian Spa for Trish's 11:00am appointment. She disappeared into the spa section of the facility for the Stress Buster massage while I escorted the kids to the "family spa" section which featured 3 separate pools warmed by geothermal heat to different temperatures. We wasted 2 and half hours playing colors, Marco Polo and "who can wait in the cold air outside of the pool while Dad floats lazily". The kids and the mentally handicapped adults on the side of the pool laughed hysterically as I blindly bashed my nose against the railing while playing Marco Polo. While I felt the sting of the handicapped people's ridicule, Cassandra encountered a similar impact to her face underwater knocking a triangular chip out of her front tooth.

Cassandra ruins her perfect teeth with a chip to her top incisor
Recognizing that Cassandra would need MAJOR orthodontic work, Trish had already taken Cassandra to an orthodontist before leaving Canada. He only charged us $20 for the opening consultation. He said "professional courtesy" after hearing that I was a doctor. Although appreciative, I think it was his way of saying "Don't take all this work ($$$$) to another orthodontist".

After a pretty quiet lunch at the spa, we spent the rest of the afternoon recklessly careening down Mount Ngongotaha and the Redwood Forest at Skyline luge. With three different tracks covering 4 kilometers, we all had a blast and no one chipped any teeth.

I bought a nice bottle of wine to enjoy at our hotel, but later struck out in our choice of Italian restaurant Nuvolari where we enjoyed a less than ordinary meal. It has proved to be almost impossible to get a decent Italian meal in New Zealand. This place was worse than most that we have tried.

Trish didn't sleep at all that night. She waited until our dentist in Pointe Claire opened in the morning (1:00am in New Zealand) and then e-mailed her the picture above to ask for immediate advice. She felt better when our dentist reassured her that the repair would be relatively simple. [It has since been repaired by a local dentist in less than an hour for $65].

After a fitful night of tossing and turning, we chose to spend most of Friday at Te Puia, an outdoor museum/sanctuary/memorial to the Maori culture. The day started with a demonstration of the many different types of Maori dance, including a stand-in from some of the audience.

We then followed our Maori guide on a tour of the park where she educated us about the Maori culture. The highlights of the tour were the national carving school and the geyser park where there were at least 10 geysers that seemed to be erupting almost continuously.

Maori War Canoe that seats 100 people

Hot, steamy and smells like rotten eggs!

Predictably, the kids only got really excited when it was time for a swim in the hotel pool. Admittedly, this was easy on Trish and I as well as we silently took in the warm late afternoon sun over a glass of Riesling only disturbing our sleep-deprived haze from time to time to repeat the parental mantra "That's enough fighting kids!".

Having learned our lesson with our lousy restaurant choice the previous evening, we followed Darryn's advice and sat down at Seismic Gastrobar for dinner. Great steak and burgers and if we hadn't already been back in our beds at our hotel, it was supposed to be fun at night too.

Well deserved reward after a day of culture
After a full day of culture on Friday, Saturday was about fun. We set out to visit Hobbiton, the actual New Zealand movie set for Frodo & Bilbo's home in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. On the way there, we made a pitstop in Tirau, a cosy town with Christmas shops and antique boutiques ... and a community center shaped like a giant dog.

Tirau's i-Site
Without further ado, we arrived at Alexander Farm to take our tour of Hobbiton. We had to sign a pretty hefty confidentiality agreement before embarking on the tour stating that we wouldn't post any pictures on the net, because the same set will be used for the upcoming Peter Jackson movie, The Hobbit, now filming in New Zealand. So these are the only two pictures that I'm allowed to post, but I have a ton more with video footage as well that I can show you when I get home.

The experience as a whole was pretty cool but being a HUGE fan of the Lord of the Rings in both print and film, I'm certain I'm more than a little biased. The guide, who was pushing 80, was dead on in all his facts about the movie and what angle this shot or that shot was taken. For example, at the beginning of the first movie, the Fellowship of the Ring, when Gandalf comes to Hobbiton to attend Bilbo's 111th birthday and the kids chase his wagon, where did Gandalf let off the fireworks? And where did the scowling hobbit stand?

Entrance into Alexander Farm & Hobbiton
One of the most interesting factoids was that Bag End, Frodo and Bilbo's prized hobbit hole in the hill, was supposed to be in a hill underneath a huge oak tree. Alexander Farm did not have any suitable oak trees, so they bought one from a farmer down the road (for NZD $11 000!) and had some tree expert take 1000s of pictures of where all the branches were located. They cut it into bits and reassembled it on the set and then had students stick 250,000 fake oak leaves on it. All this for 12 seconds of screen time!

Well, at least I liked it. The kids seemed to enjoy it as well, but Trish, who has no interest in anything related to Lord of the Rings, felt it was a bit long and expensive to walk around someone's farm.

A 1 year old lioness who was just starting to perceive kids as "snacks"
The final event of the day was a visit to Paradise Valley Springs Wildlife Park. The big draw was a lion cub that the the kids could pet. It ended up being a half-decent zoo for something 30 minutes outside of the thriving metropolis of Rotorua. The lion cub was not as cuddly as we expected, but still sat still long enough for the kids to stroke it's body through the cage.

Other highlights included interacting with all sorts of local wildlife that the kids could feed or ... smooch ...

Doe, a deer, a female deer ...
Huge trout in the Ngongotaha Stream
... marveling at the gigantic rainbow trout in the Ngongotaha Stream, replenishing our water bottles in the Te Waireka Spring and catching the 8 second event of lions copulating on film.

The selection of restaurants in New Zealand is somewhat limited. If you like lamb and steak, you'll be happy here. If you can't live without Italian, Szechuan or Mexican, stay far away. Sushi is so-so, although there is an excellent Japanese restaurant close to us in Palmerston North. There is however an excellent selection of Thai, Indian and Malaysian cuisine. We successfully introduced our kids to Indian food at a Parnell St. restaurant in Auckland. Now we eat Indian as a family at least once a month.

We took the kids to a Thai restaurant for our last meal in Rotorua. Darryn's suggestion to go to Amazing Thai was a great start for the kids to eat some more sophisticated Asian food. Since then we've brought them for Dim Sum at a local Chinese restaurant, imaginatively called "Chinese Restaurant".

Mt Tongariro
After a busy few days, we took our time on Sunday morning before sitting down for brunch at Capers Epicurean. On the drive back, we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the active Tongariro volcanoes (Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe) without cloud cover. Once again, I tested Trish's patience by pulling over every 5 minutes to take more pictures.

New Zealand has 3 big cities: Wellington (North Island), Christchurch (South Island) & Auckland (North Island) which I would rank in that order, Auckland being a distant third. It also has 3 "touristy" towns: Queenstown (South Island), Taupo (North Island) and Rotorua (North Island). Queenstown is hands-down the best experience we have had in New Zealand. Taupo was also very fun. We all felt that Rotorua "stretched" it a little bit. The town itself is not that attractive and the adventure attractions like the luge and Zorb seemed somewhat irreverent beside this "sacred Maori area". Like saying "Don't miss your chance to bungy above St. Peter's Basilica."

No particular story around the next picture. Trish didn't want to eat here for some reason.

[Insert witty joke here]
After our trip to Rotorua, we spent 5 of the next 6 weekends at home. I was on call Easter weekend and we went to see a rugby game in Wellington on May 6th.

The biggest travel update that I have waiting is our trip to Fiji which will be the subject of the next blog.

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