Incredible Beauty and Sheep Farts

I’m finding myself in a weird wedge of time at the moment where I’m fairly obsessed with the book I’m currently writing, a time-travel romance/suspense set in Heidelberg, Germany in the late 1600s. I find I am driven to wallpaper my world: house, website, blog, Facebook with images of Heidelberg. You know how it is when you’re obsessed with something, you crave seeing it  everywhere? Well, that’s how I feel when I see the silhouette of the ruins of Heidelberg Castle above the Altstadt or the Church of the Holy Spirit Domplatz or hell, even  cobblestone streets. While I am full into this other world (and loving it) I find I have little to no energy for creating a fresh blog post. (And frankly the new puppy hasn’t become any less demanding either!) Ergo, I am turning once again to Adam Jones-Kelly and his ever informative and vastly entertaining blog series OnSite: Eating, Sleeping & Coping Around the World.  Today’s post from Adam helps satiate another obsession of mine, all-things-NZ, and I’m confident you’ll love it as I did.

New Zealand is often referred to as God’s own Country or The Paradise of the Pacific. Make the three hour drive from Auckland north to the Bay of Islands and it’s easy to understand why.

New Zealand is a nature park that accidentally became a country. Her appx. 10,000 mile long coastline sports some of the most pristine beaches in the world. One fifth of the North Island and two thirds of the South island boast mountains so spectacular they jockeyed for attention with the special effects in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. New Zealand has an incredibly diverse landscape, home to a tropical paradise in the north, with glaciers and some of the world’s best skiing in the south.

Only 4.3 million people live in New Zealand, with a population density of about 13 people per square mile. (The number is 30 per square mile in the United States, 244 per square mile in Britain and a whopping 6,500 per square mile in Hong Kong.)

New Zealand’s citizens share space with an estimated 40 million sheep, and the country’s biggest pollution problem is the methane produced by sheep farts. In 2008 the government even proposed a tax on farmers whose sheep passed too much gas. (I don’t think they ever figured out how to measure this, but I’d sure love to have seen the debates in parliament!)

What this all demonstrates (besides the fact that politicians are all completely nutty) is that New Zealand is a remarkably untainted natural oasis. “God’s own country” is perhaps an insufficient description of this stunning land.

I won’t make it to the South Island this trip, but I have been lucky enough to see much of the North Island, beginning with my drive up the coast from Auckland to Paihia in the Bay of Islands.

Encompassing some 150 islands, many of which still remain relatively unexplored, The Bay of Islands is a marine paradise home to whales, stunning beaches and lots and lots of playful dolphins. It was the latter Soo and I couldn’t wait to see. “Swim with the dolphins” tours are as intricately linked to the Bay of Islands as porn stars are to Tiger Woods.

The drive North from Auckland takes you past Ruakaka Beach, through towns like Waipu, Warkworth and Whangarei, and I think we stopped at every one.

In Warkworth we enjoyed an absolutely wonderful meal at a small café called Ginger. I had a traditional New Zealand mince ‘n cheese pie, while Soo devoured a steak sandwich she described as “to die for.” (I tried it, and agreed – I was almost willing to kill for another bite.) We also had a perfectly scrumptious “ginger crisp” for dessert, which was nearly good enough to make me forsake pavlova as my favorite kiwi treat.

The incomparable pavlova

From Warkworth we continued north to Whangarei.

Whangarei (pronounced “fongaray”) is a delightful little coastal town, but the Whangarei Falls steal the show. Passing through town without visiting the falls is like reading Playboy “just for the articles;” No one really does it. It’s described as the most photogenic waterfall in New Zealand, and amazingly there’s never anyone else there. I’ve visited three times, and almost always have the area all to myself.

But, beautiful as The Falls were, dolphins were our goal, so on to Paihia we went.

Paihia is a bustling, somewhat touristy seaside town known as “The Jewel of the Bay of Islands,” though this entire region is so gorgeous that this is much akin to pointing to one M&M in a bowl of M&M’s and confidently proclaiming “That, my friends, is THE M&M of M&M’s!”

We dropped our bags in our room at the Paihia Beach Resort (Soo and I both strongly recommend this wonderful boutique hotel) and headed for the wharf.

We choose the Explore New Zealand tour group for our dolphin adventure. They took us, and about 30 other eager tourists, out on the stunning azure waters of the Bay in search of the graceful mammals, and it didn’t take long to find them. It was almost as if the dolphins were looking for us. They couldn’t wait to swim up alongside out boat, and were literally jumping out of the water in anticipation of the happy tourists entering their world.

Soo and I were delighted, and snapped about 300 pictures. We took turns jumping in the water and swimming with the immensely playful pod.

The dolphins were thrilled when you’d dive down with them or try to keep pace as they raced along beside you. They’d dart, jump and splash along with all the energy of a 6-year-old kid. Their joyful innocence was contagious.

Soo and I spent about 30 minutes each in the water with them. The dolphins are playful and FAST – trying to keep up is exhausting. But it was the most fun exhaustion we’ve ever experienced.

There was nothing we could do to compete with the day we’d just had. We sufficed with going out for seafood (not dolphin) and talking endlessly about our wondrous day. We were on such a high from the swim that just about any food would do.

Regrettably we found 35 Degrees South, a place where depressed sea life goes to die. Our waitress, who spoke no English – not even Kiwi English – may or may not have brought us what we ordered. Whatever it was tasted like the inside of my colon. Soo’s pan-seared scallops could have doubled as rat poison, and they even managed to make my fish ‘n chips taste like sweaty foot. I’m convinced they fed us whatever had died in their filthy aquarium the week before.

We couldn’t eat it.

We tried instead Kava, across the street, and were rewarded with food almost as delectable as the view from this ocean-front eatery. Perfect end to a perfect day.

I’ve yet to be assaulted by one of the famed sheep farts, but I’m pretty sure one of those dolphins let one go while I was diving. Didn’t matter – this was one of the coolest days of my life. I’ll never forget it, or stop appreciating how lucky I was to experience it.

Being Kiwi

The combination of a new puppy in the family (relentless!) and the fact that my guest blogger today, Adam Jones-Kelly, is a wonderful writer, blogger and world traveler (since he was seven years old) has me handing over the helm of my blog yet again this week. For my readers who are drawn to all the travel-love I often indulge in here—plus any Kiwis in the group!—today’s post will be a total delight. I encourage you to follow Adam’s blog at OnSite: Eating, Sleeping & Coping Around the World. He really has a razor sharp take on the places he visits—always spot-on, VERY funny and insightful—and his photos are stellar. I’m partial to his Kiwi post, presented here, because of my love affair with that country. His photos in this post, fairly recently taken, had me fumbling for my Amex card until my husband reminded me of the likely effects of taking a puppy that hasn’t been housetrained yet on a 16-hour Air New Zealand flight. Enjoy!

Brendan Gill once wrote “Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious.”
The Kiwis were apparently paying attention.
New Zealanders are an irreverent bunch, playful, adventurous, and happy, quite possibly the happiest people I’ve ever known. Kiwis don’t just live life, they attack it, with a wink and a grin.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour

The approach to the world’s highest cliff jump has a couple of somber warnings for wary visitors, carefully placed along the gravely walkway.
This is not surprising, since one side of the walkway is a sheer cliff, off which you’d enjoy a 300-foot plummet before face-planting into the canyon below at 100 miles per hour.
What is surprising is that the signs neglect to mention the certain and painful death lurking mere inches away, instead alerting passersby to be on careful lookout for gnomes.
Life here is not real serious.
My favorite all-time Kiwi billboard was selling itself, and proudly proclaimed that it “Stands out like dog’s balls.”
I love Kiwis.
Before leaving Queenstown we all agreed that a ride on the Skyline Gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak was in order, and a visit to Fergberger a must.
So, still peeling so extravagantly from my Bora Bora sunburn that I looked like a leper begging for coins, we queued up for the five minute ride up the mountain. Though shedding skin in such profusion does garner you a great deal of personal space, the line was long, so Soo and I amused ourselves by peeling large flakes off my arm and depositing them at the feet of horrified tourists.
Once to the top we quickly forgot all thoughts of tormenting fellow travelers, so magnificent were the vistas on display as Queenstown spread out before us, enveloped by the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps and kissing the shore of Lake Wakatipu.
It’s catch-your-breath beautiful, and we happily settled in at the bar at the Skyline restaurant to enjoy a drink while staring out the window. (The restaurant itself is a buffet, allegedly a really poor one, and costs a fortune. We failed to come up with any reason to eat there since lounging in the bar area afforded you the same views.)
That out of the way, our last Queenstown must-do was lunch at Fergberger. The hole-in-the-wall joint making the biggest, juciest burgers you’ve ever seen, started a decade ago because the owner, Ferg, believed that locals deserved a spot to eat when they were “drunk to hell.” Their website pleasantly notes that in the early days the restaurant was guilty of swapping “chips for tits.” Ah, Kiwis.
There’s always a line out the door, and once having ordered it takes 20 minutes to get your burger, but it’s mouth-watering oh-so-worth-it deliciousness. Among my favorite menu items are the Sweet Bambi, the Cockadoodle Oink, the Holier Than Thou, the Bun Laden (falafel, of course) and the Cock Cajun burger, which apparently has nothing to do with sex, though after eating one you’ll need a cigarette. I sure did.
We unhappily departed Queenstown on Air New Zealand. (Unhappily because we were leaving, not because we were on Air New Zealand. It is, in fact, one of the world’s top-rated airlines, winning the 2011 Air Transport World’s Airline of the Year award for the second time in three years, but one that, being Kiwi, doesn’t take itself too seriously. And it’s perhaps the only airline on earth capable of convincing me to pay attention to the here’s how you fasten your seat belt, put on your life vest and find the emergency exit in the unlikely event of a water landing routine. Air New Zealand accomplished this by presenting the airline safety features in a video that incorporates Richard Simmons, 70s dance music, flight crew in nothing but body paint and the members of the national rugby team.)
It’s hysterical, completely endearing and utterly Kiwi.
The first few minutes of our flight, however, were less endearing.
My wonderful friend Jo is one of those people practiced at supervising everything around her, even those things that don’t really require supervision. The pilots on our flight unhelpfully declined to allow Jo to manage things from the cockpit, so she was left to fret about how they were doing in the back with the rest of us.

The author with a few of the 40 million sheep that make NZ home!

Regrettably, they gave us plenty to fret about for the first few minutes.
It was terribly turbulent upon takeoff, apparently not uncommon for this little corner of the world. (Airfare Watchdog’s list of The World’s Most Thrilling Airports puts Queenstown #2, noting that “Queenstown… lies below The Remarkables, a jagged mountain range seen in The Lord of the Rings. On descent, passengers may feel a sudden drop in altitude caused by strong downdrafts. Bird activity by the runway, as well as frequent bad weather and poor visibility, also make Queenstown Airport a real knee-knocker.”)
On takeoff, we got the sudden drop.
The pilot, to his credit, was racing for higher altitudes, trying to get us out of the chop. But before he could get there we hit one of those downdrafts, and the plane plummeted. Screams could be heard from passengers all around us, and poor Jo, who’d brought two of her daughters on the trip, but left her eldest, Amy, behind in Auckland due to work constraints, was utterly convinced we were all going to die. Jo touchingly and tragically later shared that her one thought in the panic of the drop was that she was heartbroken to leave Amy alone in the world.
As you will have deduced by the existence of this blog, the pilots recovered, and we made it to Auckland just fine. I do think they distributed a wee bit more alcohol on that flight than is usual, however.
Auckland, where I lived as a child, is probably my favorite city on earth. Not because it’s beautiful in the way Paris or Venice are beautiful, and not because it’s exciting in the way Queensland was. (It is beautiful, this city of sails, and of course has its own brand of excitement. But that’s not what you take away from Auckland. It’s the feel of the city, the very Kiwiness, that makes it my favorite.)
When we first lived here 30 years ago my father used to rail at the impossibility of finding decent Chinese food anywhere in Auckland. Now, half the restaurants in town are Asian, and they’re scrumptiously authentic.
The city has changed, but it’s still Auckland. There’s still a family-owned fish & chippery on every corner, still a quaint dairy for every neighborhood. (A dairy in NZ is part convenience store and part old rural country store from our parents‘ early years. And they always have fresh, delicious ice-cream.)
On a typical Sunday afternoon in Auckland, the shopping malls are empty, the harbor full of sails. The landscape is dotted with extinct volcanoes, everywhere you look people are smiling and laughing, and it just feels like… home.
It occurs to me that so much of who I am today was shaped by New Zealand. For the past three decades, most of which I spent living in America, I’ve been busily being Kiwi, though I’m not sure I ever realized it.
And that’s made my life ever so much more fun. I’m so grateful for that part of me that never stopped being Kiwi.

Downton Abbey Meets Invercargill

I just finished reading a great slice-of-life memoir a from a friend of mine in New Zealand. I lived in New Zealand from 1984 to 1986 and will always have a special place in my heart for that magical country “down under.” But what I’m loving about my friend’s memoir, The Boltons of the Little Boltons, is that it is a remembrance of the period of time in my friend’s life when he and his wife decided to move to the UK to become domestic servants to a wealthy, titled, English couple. They were successful writers in NZ who decided to have a Downton Abbey adventure (about twenty years before Julian Fellowes got his brainstorm.)

Like in the States, there is no class system in New Zealand so my friends, who are educated, well-travelled and professional people, had many significant adjustments and singular experiences (which, also, as it turned out, was brilliant material for a book!) I am loving the book and find myself so envious of their experience. Their children were grown and out of the nest when they had their adventure but, even so, England is a long, long way from New Zealand and their entire world.

As I read, I marvel at, not only their bravery (after all they are both intrepid and had lived in other parts of the world for extended periods of time so it wasn’t too much of a jolt for them in that way) but at their flexibility. It’s hard, after a certain age, to accept a wide range of inconveniences, which, I think, travel largely is. You have to be okay with strange beds, strange foods, lack of security in routine or routes, and a general fare of continual, relentless, surprise. When I was younger, that was the very thing I loved about travel—the not knowing, the surprises. Now, not so much. I hate how I’m so damn happy to crawl back into my own bed after a trip. Or how ecstatic I am to see the pets and the garden.

As it happens, I was a newlywed living in the Cotswolds while my Kiwi friends were being cooks and housemaids in London in 1991. They came down to our little cottage in Compton Abdale to see us—since a visit to either Atlanta or Auckland was harder to come by—and they told some of their “Upstairs-Downstairs” tales then. Actually, I might’ve been at a good age to do something similar, but just then I wasn’t “where they were.” They were empty nesters and I had yet to put the first egg in mine. Plus, I had just married and was keen to set up house and see the sights from that particular voyage first.

I think that’s the marvelous thing about memoirs—the re-living of a special time—a time that can never come again—can actually transport you in ways that no DC10 or Euro-rail system can. And if you write—or are lucky enough to share a memorable time with someone who does—you can recreate that time and go back there in vivid detail and living color over and over again. And when you do, inevitably you’ll meet and get to know all over again the most amazing people: not just loved ones who are no longer with us, but someone else who is no longer with us—your younger self.