Friday, July 22, 2011


With all of the sentiment and nostalgia safely packed away in our suitcases, at 5:30am on July 16, we began our 21 day journey back to Canada from New Zealand.

Our first stop was the ultra-modern city-state of Singapore. Singapore is an island at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula. In stark contrast to the squalor, poverty and chaos of Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur, Singapore shines as a gleaming example of how tight government regulation, at the expense of some civil liberties, can produce a next to idyllic society.

Visiting the Merlion, Singapore's symbol
In Singapore, we took the subway only once. It was clean and efficient and cost us $11.20 SGD (about $8.00 CAN) to ride halfway across the city. However, we learned quickly that a cab ride for the same distance would cost us less than $5 SGD. Consequently, we took cabs everywhere which gave us plenty of opportunity to act as willing audiences for the mostly Singaporean Chinese cab drivers' commentary about their city and country.

Sir Stamford Raffles, Founder of Singapore and namesake to
Raffles Ave, Raffles Blvd, Raffles Quay, Raffles Place and Stamford Ave.
Despite the frequent outside criticism of the controlling nature of the government, Singaporeans seem happy and immensely proud of their country and it's accomplishments since gaining independence in 1965.

The Singapore government has a well-known reputation for exerting its influence in areas of every day life that far exceed the mandate of governments in many other countries. Criminal activity is virtually absent. We didn't see any evidence of an organized police force. Apparently, they are closing police stations. Financial incentives for crime are allayed, because the government provides reasonable accommodation and wages for its population. Add to this heavy fines, caning and execution as possible punishments for different offenses ranging from eating on the subway to murder and you end up with an efficient, well organized country inhabited by a polite, well-educated and happy population.

Of course, extraordinary wealth, leading some to pronounce Singapore as the Monaco of the East, probably adds to the happiness as well. Gucci and Prada boutiques outnumber Starbucks and luxury vehicles (BMW's, Jaguar's, etc) are as common as Hyundai's. This is even more extraordinary considering that registration of a car is awarded by lottery and costs approximately $65 000 SGD, making a 5 series BMW ring in at more than a quarter of a million dollars!

The infringement on some civil liberties is what seems to attract the most attention from foreign media. Apparently, the local media is censored to some extent. Private satellite dishes are banned, although the Internet is still free. Gambling was illegal until 2005. Now there are 2 casinos, but you have to present your passport at the door. Foreigners can enter for free. The price for native Singaporeans: $100 SGD per 24 hour period. The Singaporeans we spoke with seemed unphased though. The high standard of living was an acceptable trade-off for the many government "rules".

Overall, we were very impressed. Trish loved it! All the luxuries and amenities of a modern city without the crime, filth or price-gouging and flavored with the intrigue of three different Asian peoples (Chinese (75%), Malay (15%) and Indian (10%)) living in harmony.

The fabulous Marina Bay Sands. Now that's a rooftop pool!
I think the selection of fabulous hotels in Singapore could rival New York. We stayed at the Pan Pacific Singapore. It was amazing! Great location! The rooms are arranged around the periphery of a hollowed out pyramid with glittering glass elevators that slide up and down the interior and exterior of the structure! Cool!

Marina Bay Sands pool on the 57th floor
I would have liked to stay at the Marina Bay Sands just for the infinity pool located on the 57th floor. Access to the Skypark is open to everyone (albeit for a fee if you're not staying there), but access to the pool is for hotel guests only. And for $2000 a night for a family suite, it was out of reach for us. Next time!

Orchard Street
Most of Saturday was devoted to traveling. We arrived at 9:00pm and just managed to squeeze in a swim at the hotel pool before it closed. With just 2 days of our trip devoted to Singapore, we packed so much into 48 hours that our kids were too tired to eat on Sunday and were falling asleep in taxis throughout the trip.

With the 4 hour time difference between NZ and Singapore, we were all up early on Sunday morning and arrived on Orchard Street for some prime shopping.  The most impressive display was walking into the Takashimaya department store as it opened. The entire staff was standing at rapt attention waiting to greet customers. It felt like we were celebrities and had closed the store for our personal shopping experience.

Orchard Street is lined with shopping mall after shopping mall and they're all interconnected underground, so it's hard to keep track of which side of the street or even which floor you're on. There must be 10,000 different boutiques along the 5 km stretch. As the proud owner of a Y chromosome, I abhor asking for directions. We had decided that it was time for lunch and wandered around and around to find the exit. Finally, I caved and asked at a store. The embarrassed attendant quietly informed me that I was in the second basement (of 4!) and that the street exit was two floors up. Oops.

Despite the dizzying selection, there weren't a lot of deals. Trish was frustrated that her search through half a dozen different shopping malls failed to reveal any running shoes for Harrison and the 3 or 4 Ralph Lauren shops that we sampled were at least as expensive as stores in Montreal and 4 times the cost in outlet stores in the US.

Cavenagh Bridge
After a late lunch, we strolled across Fort Canning Park to Clark Quay and along the banks of the Singapore River. There are oodles of monuments and prominent buildings along the way. The kids' favorite was a statue called "The First Generation" outside the Fullerton Hotel.

No pushing!
To round off the afternoon, we checked out the snake charmer underneath the Esplanade bridge and finally made our way to the Merlion, Singapore's symbol.

Exhausted by the 32C degree weather and 90% humidity, we detoured through air-conditioned shopping malls to finally make it back to our hotel's pool. No one objected to a couple of hours of pool time on a hot Sunday afternoon. Mackenzie even learned to dive!

Singapore skyline and Singapore Flyer
At 6:00pm, we left for a visit to the Singapore Flyer, a gigantic neon-lit ferris wheel that makes a revolution every 30 minutes. The views from the top are awesome. Our timing was perfect as the sun set over the city almost precisely as our pod reached the apex.

Notwithstanding the kids' repeated requests to go on the "Giant Ferris Wheel" or variations thereof ("Is it time yet to go on the Giant Ferris Wheel?", "Are we definitely going on it today?", When are we going on the Giant Ferris Wheel?"), all interest was lost with the appearance in our pod of a very cute Chinese toddler. At least I enjoyed the view.

Our next stop was the famous Raffles Hotel to visit the Long Bar where Ngiam Tong Boon mixed the first Singapore Sling in 1915. Trish and I enjoyed the overpriced cocktail while the kids were delighted to be allowed, even encouraged, to sweep peanut shells brazenly onto the floor.

With our kid's energy quickly ebbing away, we guzzled our cocktails and tried to catch a late dinner at Lau Pa Sat, Singapore's famous market of street hawkers. For the most part, our taxi driver ordered for us on the way over. "You must try the BBQ sting-ray!" he insisted among other recommendations. We tried the chilli squid, the BBQ sting-ray (of course), some fried rice and chicken and beef satay. But we'd pushed the kids too far. Mackenzie was asleep on the table before any food arrived. Trish had to eat with one hand while using the other one to prop up Mackenzie's head. Cassandra couldn't mount enough energy to eat anything and Harrison judged everything as disgusting. Trish ate a little but was also pretty beat after a long day. With so much great food on the table, I did my best to consume as much as I could in a very short period of time washing everything down with Tiger Beer. Delicious! It was a shame so much went to waste.

Cooking satay at Lau Pa Sat
After some difficulty finding a cab, we finally made it back to the hotel around 10:30pm and everyone was asleep before our heads hit the pillow.

We started the next day with a visit to Chinatown. The Maxwell Street Market is similar to Lau Pa Sat and was rated highly for breakfasts for families, but the kids weren't feeling very daring and were looking for some traditional fare. We ended up at ...

McDonalds! Oh well ... at least they had good coffee. Next we wandered around the street markets around Temple, Spring and Banda Streets. We picked up some chop sticks and the girls bought cheap fans. If I had wanted a hand-made suit or dress shirt, this would have been the place to get it.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
We found ourselves in front of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. A parade of orange-robed monks marked the beginning of some sort or ceremony. The tiny seventy year old security guard didn't bother me but virtually shoved Trish and the kids out of the way of the tonsured procession once I wandered off to take photos. Nevertheless, it was a cool introduction to Buddhist tradition for the kids.

Sri Mariamman Temple
On our initial quest for breakfast, we had come across a magnificent Hindu temple in the middle of Chinatown, the Sri Mariamman Temple. With it's colorful ornate rooftops, it was hard to miss. After leaving a Buddhist temple, our next visit was to a Hindu one. While the Buddhist temple was impressive both inside and out, unfortunately the Hindu one was externally very beautiful, but was quite ordinary on the inside.

Sultan Mosque
Our last stop of the morning was the Sultan Mosque, just off Arab St. I've never been in a mosque before and while it was amusing to have to cover ourselves in blue hooded lab coats, the mosque was quite bare on the inside as well.

Hmm, not as spectacular as the outside
Nevertheless, I thought it was a cool experience to be able to show the kids three different places of worship, none of which belong to our religion, within three hours.

With the cultural and education requirements done for the day, the next stop was ...

This was clearly the highlight of the trip for the kids. We had planned to hit the zoo in the early afternoon, and then, after a break for supper, walk to the other end of the parking lot and visit the Night Safari, a whole separate zoo that showcases the habits of nocturnal animals.

Mackenzie feeding the giraffes
Harrison got to feed cantaloupe to some white rhinos while Mackenzie and Cassandra fed carrots to some greedy giraffes. Trish and I were pretty thrilled with the experience as well, but after 4 hours of tramping around a zoo in crazy heat and humidity, we were both exhausted. Neither one of us relished the idea of waiting around for 3 hours until the Night Safari opened, so we made up our minds to go back to the hotel for a breather and return after dark. On the way out, we ducked into the gift shop and just as Trish had finalized which stuffed animals the girls would get, hordes of Singaporean schoolchildren piled into the store and the line for the single cash register went from 3 people to 50. By the time the new treasures were paid for, it made more sense to find a shady bench outside the zoo and take a nap rather than spend 1 hour taxiing between our hotel and the zoo.

The fish going to work on Harrison's feet
We did manage to fill some of our time with a fish foot massage. For a small fee, the kids stuck their feet into a fish tank containing toothless minnow-sized fish that nibble on the dead skin on your feet. The kids said it tickled, but Trish, who is somewhat of a connoisseur on foot treatments, commented that she had never found a treatment that smoothed the skin in such a short period of time (5 minutes!).

The latest reviews for the night safari are not that good. Most of the animal exhibits are visited by tram and there is limited ability for visitors to roam around on their own. Consequently, the queues are pretty intimidating. Overcrowding is the source of most of the bad reviews. During our visit, the zoo was far from empty, but we fortunately had a few great strokes of luck when it came to lining up for the tram and the animal show. After a pretty full day exploring the day zoo, we were also thankful for complimentary transportation around the night safari exhibits. Overall, I think it was a worthwhile experience, although combining the day and night zoo into one day, especially with a 10 year old that wants to see everything, is pretty hard-core. If I visit again, I'll spread it out over a couple of days.

Returning to our room after 10:00pm, we had yet again pushed our kids too far - they all crashed on the taxi ride back to our hotel.

But there was no time to rest. We checked out at 7:00am the next morning on our way to the airport to catch our flight to Bali.

Next Post: Bali - Paradise Lost.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

How to Visit New Zealand

"Don't leave town without seeing the country" was the advice I got from Shawn, one of the anesthetic technicians at the hospital.

Everywhere I've ever visited before coming here was about visiting the place - Paris, Miami, Hong Kong, the Greek Islands ... Even destinations that are renowned for their landscapes and vistas rather than their monuments and cafes still surround a place name such as Banff or Honolulu or Mykonos.

When planning your visit to New Zealand, with one significant exception, you should rent a car and as quickly as possible distance yourself from anything resembling civilization. If you come to New Zealand to visit the cities and towns, you'll be sorely disappointed.

To be brutally honest, there is only one city or town in New Zealand that will "wow" North American or European visitors. This is Queenstown which can't be missed. There are many nice places such as Napier, Wellington, Taupo, Nelson and unfortunately the former Christchurch, but there is unlikely to be anything there that you haven't seen before. You will enjoy your visit to them, but they don't have anything that you need to travel 15 000 km to see.

Don't forget that NZ only has 4 millions inhabitants of which 1/3 live in Auckland (which has all the appeal of Cleveland), so there a great many tiny places. And even more with no name at all.

In New Zealand, the magic is in the tiny places and the spots between the tiny places.

Highway 1 ... the traffic was craaazy!
The number one recommendation about visiting New Zealand is to get off the beaten track and take in the scenery.  Head out onto the country roads (well ... they're pretty well all country roads) and just look around. Go on a hike. Get out on the water.

The Baldrys on a hike next to Queen Charlotte Sound
In my final days here in New Zealand, I've been polling Kiwis about how to see the best of their country in a short period of time. One of the anesthetic registrars (Kiwi for anesthesia resident) Clare Smith put it most concisely in recommending that visitors rent a car and spend their time in New Zealand driving the circumference of the South Island. The South Island encompasses nearly 2/3 of New Zealand's total land mass but only 1/3 of the population. Realistically, you would have to spend a lot of hours on the road to accomplish this enjoyably in under two weeks, but the message is that you'll need to get out of town to see the greatness.

How does Canada compare to New Zealand? After all, Canada is well endowed in natural beauty. Most Kiwis are enamored with Canada whether they have visited or not.  I understand why. Our outlook on life is quite similar. Kiwis and Canadians are generally mild mannered and laid back. Our societies are both overshadowed somewhat by a much more populous neighbor. And while the US and Europe feature fantastic cities, Canada and New Zealand impress with raw natural beauty.

However, Canada is huge and New Zealand is quite small, so the impression is that every curve in the road promises to reveal some new wonder that will yet again urge me to suddenly pull over the car to take pictures despite the eye-rolling and whines of complaint from the other passengers in our car. With it's small population, the landscape is unspoilt and accessible. Outside of a 50km radius from the 3 major cities, highways are 2 lanes and undivided, so you simply don't go flying by at 120 km/hr.  New Zealand roads encourage you to take your time.

And it's well worth it.

This will likely be my last blog post from New Zealand. We have loved our time here and are sad to leave. I'll try to post from Bali, Singapore and Australia but bandwidth at hotels in this part of the world is generally quite limited and expensive, so uploading photos will be difficult.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Baldry's Best & Worst of New Zealand

After reviewing our blog posts over the last few months and stapling our kids to the table for 15 minutes, here are our votes for the best things we've experienced in New Zealand.

Best Places To Visit

  1. Queenstown. Hands down winner! An attractive town in a stunning setting. There are tons of great activities to do in and around town and a whole slew of excellent restaurant and bars where you can relive your adventures of the day. Invest in the flight across the Southern Alps to Milford Sound. It's worth it.
  2. Wellington. A very hip and cool city with a good dose of culture, several great bar scenes and some fantastic restaurants.
  3. Taupo. Adventure capital of the North Island, although a mere shadow of Queenstown. Great trout fishing and water activities.
Dishonorable mention: Wanganui, Rotorua

Best Activities

  1. Skyline Luge, Rotorua. Popular vote from the kids. What better way to spend a school day afternoon than careening down a mountain at 60km/hr in a sled on wheels.
  2. Shotover Jet, Queenstown. Awesome jetboating activity through the gorges of the Shotover River. Look for the red boat.
  3. Splash Planet, Hastings. Not a particularly great water park, but was definitely at the right place at the right time.
Dishonorable mention: Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World, Auckland,  Sharika Farm, Hawke's Bay

Best Beach

  1. Waimarama Beach, Hawke's Bay. The nicest beach we have ever seen. Far enough away from the nearest town (45 minutes from Havelock North) to be unspoilt. So beautiful it could be on the set of a movie. Everyone enjoyed the surf.
  2. Opunake Beach, Taranaki. Quiet black sand surf beach off the Surf Highway framed by volcanic cliffs on either side. There was more heat coming from the black sand than from the sun.
  3. Porangahau Beach, Hawke's Bay. Great setting for a late fall stroll. Completely deserted.
Best Hotel

  1. Lakeridge Condos, Queenstown. A 10 minute hike up the hill out of town, but with great views over the lake and super-luxurious.
  2. Alpine Springs Motel, Hanmer Springs. With the Southern Alps as a backdrop, the sunset over the golf course was spectacular. Very luxurious and a 6 minute walk from the hot pools.
  3. The Claremont, Martinborough. Spacious and luxurious although a little out of the way.
Dishonorable Mention: Southern Comfort Motel, Christchurch.

Best Restaurant

Mackenzie digging into a Fergburger
  1. Flame Restaurant, Queenstown. The clear winner for the incredible ribs.
  2. Fergburger, Queenstown. Heavenly gigantic custom made burgers according to your exact specifications. Apparently repeat visitors make a specific pilgrimage back to this place.
  3. Izakaya Yatai, Palmerston North. Our local favorite. Atypical Japanese restaurant within walking distance from our house. We've been 6 times and will spend our last evening in New Zealand here.
Honorable Mention: Oh Calcutta, Parnell, Auckland, Istana Malaysia, Wellington
Dishonorable Mention: Every single Italian restaurant we tried, The Garlic Press, New Plymouth.

So that's the best and worst we've experienced in New Zealand among a very long list of activities, hotels and restaurants.

It was fun to reminisce about the places we've visited, but we're all starting to feel a little nervous about leaving in 10 days time. I think we all share the same feeling of excited anticipation at adventures to come and our Montreal homecoming, but are introspective about the journey's end.

Next Post: How to Visit New Zealand

      Saturday, July 2, 2011

      The Beginning of The End

      It's really starting to feel like we're in the home stretch now. Our cupboards are bare.

      Cassandra's Closet
      We've spent the last two weeks repairing and packing our crate. Although 1/3 of the crate was empty on the way here, we needed to pile all the family on top to get the cover on. Really hope the wine bottles didn't break!

      Our crate leaves for Canada
      The shipping company came to pick it up on Monday. I was shocked to find out it was 112kg heavier on the way home - souvenirs for all of you guys!

      We posted our car on Trade Me, the NZ version of Craig's list, and it sold in under 72 hours. In return for a drop in price, the buyer agreed to let us keep it until the week we leave.

      All of the utilities have sent their final bills. We've made reservations at all our favorite restaurants for one last visit. The guys from work are taking me out for a few drinks this Thursday. Gotta get me some Vitamin E.

      Harrison and Kiwi buddies
      Harrison had a sleepover last weekend with some new Kiwi friends. We got off relatively easy with 5 boys, a trip to the local go-karting joint, 9 litres of Mountain Dew and nearly 8 straight hours of the Family Guy. At the final hour, he is ambivalent about his return to Canada on account that he will miss his new girlfriend Zoe.

      The real challenge comes this weekend when nine 8 year old girls invade our house for Cassandra's sleepover. The locals have applauded the advance planning it took to be on call at the hospital from Friday night to Monday morning. Trish however has managed to recruit another Mom to help with the bedlam.

      And two weeks tonight, our suitcases will be packed and beside the door awaiting the 6am taxi pickup to the airport. The goodbye's to new friends and colleagues will be completed and our voyage home will be about to begin.