Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Getting Close

I actually did finish a book I was reading, late last night, so hope to have a review up by tomorrow, and get back on track with my reading and blathering again. Thanks for your patience.

A couple of recent purchases I'm looking forward to reading when they come to the top of the TBR pile were Peter Grant's second book in the Maxwell Saga, Ride the Rising Tide, and Ilona Andrews' Magic Rises in the Kate Daniels series. Lots in the pipeline, but summer keeps me very busy aside from reading.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Quiet Time

Sorry, folks. Just trying to catch up with things after a long trip. Hope to get regular posting going again soon.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Last, Longest day

We got things packed up, had a nice breakfast of yogurt, fruit, ciabatta and honey, and tried to drink up the last of the fruit juice, then headed out to the Howick Village Saturday market for a while. Saw a lot of interesting crafts and baked goods, picked up a few last minute gifts to take home with us. Still had some time to kill after we'd finished there, so we decided to go down to Maraetai beach and enjoy the sunshine. Went for a walk on the beach, sat in a café and had a great last meal of a lamb burger for me and a Thai beef salad for Michele, and watched the interplay of water, earth and sky for a while. Took a short drive up the Pacific Coast Highway, then we stopped by the farm in Whitford to say goodbye to Stu and Liz before we headed to the airport.

Our GPS decided to give us one last adventure, and took us on a crazy route that included a mall parking lot and a detour through a construction zone, where I had to have M shift a construction cone out of the way to get through to the other side, and brave a couple of one way narrow bits, but we were determined to get back to the car rental place one way or another. Turned in the car, caught the shuttle to the airport, then began the process of checking in and getting through outbound customs.

Boat ramp at low tide
Far too many hours spent waiting in the airport later, we flew out of Auckland around 7 PM. Air New Zealand does a really nice job, and they're one of the nicest airlines I've experienced, but it was still a horrendously long, claustrophobic affair. I really need to get wealthy so I can fly first class, with its extra leg room and comfortable reclining seats. Arrived in San Francisco around noon, local time, and worked our way to the customs/baggage claim area, where I managed to rip open a bleeding hole in my shin on a protruding bit of metal at the baggage carousel. No one there could successfully direct me to an aid station, so I rummaged through my luggage to find my own first aid kit (yay! finally came in handy to have packed this), and got a piece of gauze taped to it. My pant leg was soaked with blood, but I was wearing convertible, zip-off pants and removed the lower portions to wander the airport in khaki shorts, with dress shoes and brown socks, a most amusing fashion statement.

Breezed through incoming customs and took our bags to the re-check area. M and I took the opportunity to re-pack things, and put our duty-free items in the checked luggage, as well as all the cool weather clothing, but Law and Vicky didn't have room to shift theirs around, so they ended up losing two liters of liquid gold to TSA when it turned out we'd been sent outside of the secured zone and we had to re-encounter security to get to our outbound gate. SF airport did a poor job of marking the exit to the secure area, and there definitely should have been a way to re-check the bags that did not involve leaving the secure area.

Auckland on the horizon
Spent still more hours waiting, then boarded the plane and flew to Boise, arriving right on schedule. Picked up our luggage and headed to our waiting taxi - except he wasn't. They lost our reservation somehow and didn't have a taxi available for us, so we ended up walking home in 100 degree heat. Survived the final trek, and spent the next few hours getting things unpacked, with a wonderful interruption in a welcome home Facetime call from our daughter and her husband. We have lots of catching up to do around the house and yard, but it's good to be home at last.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Around the Firth

Thames at low tide
After a nice little breakfast of ciabatta bread and honey, fruit and yogurt, we ran a load of laundry, and went for a walk along the beach at low tide, like the rest of the senior citizens in the area. Seems to be a large community of retirees in the vicinity of Thames. Checked out of the motor lodge and drove north along the coastline of the peninsula. There is a town called Coromandel on the peninsula of the same name, and so on all the road signs, to avoid confusion, it is listed as Coromandel Town, and that's where we headed. The road along the water is simply incredible. Every time I think I've seen the best road for motorcycling ever, I find another one here. I have to come back someday and ride them all.

The road to Coromandel Town
Coromandel Town, itself, was not terribly impressive but its surroundings and the route made the trip worthwhile. We walked around the main street for a bit, looking in a few shops, but soon turned around and went back to the coastline. We paused for lunch at a place recommended by Liz at the motor lodge, the Waiomu Beach Café, and had a "light" lunch of mussel chowder and roasted potato wedges. The chowder was creamy and rich, and generously peppered with perfectly cooked mussels, and the potatoes were steaming hot out of the oven, with flakes of sea salt and a homemade aioli dip. Washed down with a Bunderberg creaming soda, it put a pleasant spin on the rest of the afternoon, which was made a bit melancholy by the lowering clouds and our return to the vicinity of the airport.

Waiomu Beach fare
We chose to avoid the traffic of the motorway north to Auckland and chose instead to negotiate the country roads on the west side of the Firth of Thames, and drove through little hamlets like Miranda, Wharekaya and Orere before turning slightly inland and encountering Clevedon where we browsed for some time at the Wool Shed, finally discovering a nice merino/possum cardigan for Michele to take home. Checked in to the Howick Motor Lodge a bit later and ended up having a fish & chips dinner from a takeaway place nearby. The tempura fish was decent, the hoki bites passable, but the crab sticks left something to be desired. Spent a quiet evening in our room, organizing our luggage.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Crossing the Coromandel

Overlook near Hahei
Got up in the morning, and had our diverse breakfasts, from fried apples to chinese honey sausages with scrambled eggs. A group effort got things cleaned up rapidly, and we got all the sheets stripped, bathrooms sanitized to mil-spec, counters washed, floors swept and vacuumed, and in short time had the beach house all buttoned up once again. We then caravaned out to the overlook near Cathedral Cove, near Hahei. Lawrence and Victoria left us at that point, as they weren’t up for the strenuous hike down to the cove. Michele and I and Vinnie and Karen took about 45 minutes to hike the trail, which has the curious property of actually being uphill in both directions – walk it sometime. The tui birds were warbling in the forest, and the weather was perfect for a stroll in the woods.

Cathedral Cove
The Cove was made world famous by its use as the setting for the children’s return to Narnia in the recent movie, Prince Caspian, and is characterized by its beautiful white rock cliffs and a magnificent natural archway. I didn’t see the Pevensies at all, but the rest of the scenery was incredible, and the trek in was well worth it. On the way back Vinnie and Karen decided to explore another cove trail, but M and I wanted to get on the road again, so we parted ways with them as well, perhaps to meet in Belgium some day.
We got to drive the winding road across the spine of the Coromandel peninsula in the daylight this time, and enjoy all the views, including one spot where you can see the Pacific Ocean on the left and the Firth of Thames on the right simultaneously. We hunted for a rumoured outlet mall in Kopu without success, then paused in a nice little café at the edge of Thames for a cup of cappucino before semi-randomly selecting a place to stay.

Evening on the Firth of Thames
We ended up at the Coast Motor Inn just north of town, with a number of cute little chalets facing the firth and overlooking lovingly landscaped grounds. The proprietors are super nice folks, and we got settled in rapidly. Our room had a nice kitchenette and a deck perfect for al fresco dining, so we drove back into Thames to explore the main drag and pick up a few groceries to enjoy there.
We dined on smoked mussels flavored with sweet chili or barbecue sauce, slices of sharp cheddar cheese, toasted ciabbata bread with soft bleu cheese, cucumber slices marinated in balsamic vinegar,  accompanied by an Oyster Bay chardonnay and finishing with sliced apples and kiwi fruit for dessert.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

In Hot Water at Cook's Beach

The only other person on the beach. Truly!
After a light breakfast in the morning, Michele and I went for a walk down to the beach in the Te Whanganui a Hei Marine Reserve which covers the coastline here at Cook's Beach, the town. It is here that in 1769, Captain Cook set foot on the shores of Mercury Bay. It is here that in 2013, we set foot on a beach that had nearly the same number of people upon it as that day. As far as we could see, at 9 AM, it was us and one strolling old fellow. It grew to a total of perhaps a dozen by the time we were done with our walk, but I've never seen a beach so uncrowded in all my travels. Heavenly!

In case you thought I was fibbing
The upside to having a few more people on the beach was the nice conversation we struck up with an older woman watching her grandchildren frolic in the surf. Perhaps 15 minutes were spent discussing the beauty of this beach in particular, beaches in general, the enjoyment to be derived there, and what wonderful things grandchildren are. Some things are universal, no matter where you travel.

We continued on to the Purangi (it may mean estuary) at the end of the beach, then made our return trip through town, checking out the beach homes and surveying the shops and restaurants available. It being winter, they seemed to have a slightly casual attitude about hours of operation.

Whitianga Harbor
Back to the beach house, we found that others in our party had dispersed on their own beach walks, so we waited around a while until we could all gather again, then we drove down to the FlatMill landing and got on the ferry over to Whitianga. Whitianga's stores and eateries seemed a bit more serious about things, and it was much like coastal tourist towns anywhere, with some great souvenir shops, cafes, bakeries, and most important for our purposes, a supermarket set a couple of blocks off the main drag. Vinnie and Karen had volunteered to make dinner, so they busily gathered the right ingredients for Belgian spaghetti. We all stopped at a bakery and took the opportunity to sample some more meat pies. My steak & pepper pie was pretty good, and washed down well with a ginger beer.

One odd thought. Stu and Liz have a fair collection of National Geographic magazines here at the beach house. I was perusing one this morning, and it struck me as slightly ironic to be reading National Geographic sitting in a place one has read about in National Geographic.

Looking back toward Mercury Bay from Whitianga
Our town trip ran a bit longer than planned, so we decided to postpone the planned excursion to Cathedral Cove, but Vinnie and I and Michele wanted to still go down to Hot Beach at low tide. I had calculated roughly that it should be around 6 PM, but when we got down there around 4:30, it turned out that a) it wasn't until 7:30 and b) the shovel rental folks had closed their shop for the winter. At Hot Beach, at low tide, one digs a hole in the sand in a particular area and allows the natural hot springs there to fill your pool with steaming hot water to soak in. The vile and cruel folks at the shovel shop not only shut down, but they had the audacity to display their full bin of shovels just inside the glass front doors of the shuttered building. I walked across the road to the Moko Art Space gallery to ask a few questions, and its lovely proprietress, Sonya, was kind enough to hire us a shovel of her own (she lives above the gallery) and just asked that we leave it by the front door when we were done. So, we hid the shovel in the shrubbery by her car park, went back to the beach house where Vinnie and Karen prepared a tasty and satisfying meal for us all, then around 6:15, the three intrepid excavators returned to the beach, in the dark.

Hot Water Beach after dark
Fortunately, I had packed my headlamp and a couple of mini LED torches in the suitcase, so we were able to make our way with minimal stumbling down across the beach to the hot water area, where there was a rather large group of folks with the same crazy idea. We found ourselves a spot where the sands were hot, and dug like madmen. Eureka! The rumours were true, and we soon had a hole in which we could soak our weary legs and feet, if not one truly deep enough to soak whole bodies in. That would have required more beefy diggers and shovels, most likely. We spent an hour or so fighting the encroaching sea and silting sands, keeping toes warm and watching the moonlit seascape before we headed back across the sands to our waiting chariot, left our rented shovel on our benefactor's doorstep, and whisked home again. A truly novel experience.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Champagne Pool
Had a nice breakfast of fresh fruits: kiwi, apple, grapes, mandarins, a toasted muffin and a bit of sliced cheese and salami, then packed up our stuff and headed to downtown Rotorua to meet up with the rest of the gang. Grabbed a flat white to go at Nando's and a bottle of their famous piri piri sauce, and got on the road south to Wai-O-Tapu, New Zealand's answer to Yellowstone.

Lake Ngakoro
Had a nice few hours wandering the park, looking at all of the bubbling hot pools, sintered terraces, craters, ink pots, and cauldrons, with names like the Devil's Home and the Devil's Bath, Thunder Crater, the Opal Pool and the Oyster Pool, Bridal Veil Falls, Frying Pan Flat and Bird's Nest Crater. Amazing what hot water and sulfuric acid will do to a landscape. Not as big as its American counterpart, it's a bit more manageable for a day hike, and there are no bison to beware of, nor grizzlies to fear (actually, New Zealand has no large mammals at all, which is a relief when driving the winding roads after dark). The day was sunny and clear, and the vistas stretched for kilometers. Two of the most striking stretched across faraway valleys, ending in a geothermal power plant's exhaust stack at one, and a dormant volcano at the other.

Hedgerows at 100 kph
We had a nice lunch, of meat pies and sausage rolls, in the visitor center, then did our bit to help out the economy by buying some souvenirs, too. Headed back to Rotorua to fuel up and pick up some groceries, then drove about 3 hours north to the Coromandel Peninsula and Cook's Beach, where Vickie's parents have their beach home. The route took us through some fertile farmland, divided by hedgerow upon hedgerow, which Michele tried to capture on camera. Some of them were merely a meter tall, while others were six or seven meters. Just north of Rotorua, there are some interesting hillocks dotting the land, and some of them have eroded away, to reveal gigantic granite monoliths inside.

After negotiating the longest, best set of twisties I think I've ever seen between Thames at the base of the peninsula and Cooks Beach on the far side, we got things powered up at the beach house and I prepared a communal meal of basil and tomato rice (not complex at all - Uncle Ben sells some interesting flavours here), Chinese honey sausages, tossed salad, and soft bleu cheese on baguettes, which was topped off by another dose of wedding cake for us all before we dispersed to our suites.

Awake now before the others, looking out over a beautiful bay, ringed by rugged mountains, a cup of creamy coffee steaming in my paw.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Going Underground

We all gathered in the morning for breakfast at the hotel. The "cooked" breakfast (as opposed to the continental) was two fried eggs, two hash brown patties, grilled tomatos and mushrooms, a breakfast sausage and two strips of bacon, in addition to everything you could eat from the continental. Fully stoked for a long day, we took the opportunity to avoid a rainy and windy day by going underground, first at the Raikuri cave, then the Waitomo Glowworm cave, then the Aranui Cave. Lots of beautiful rock formations, built by the dripping of water over time, in all of them. The glow worms were quite beautiful, especially on the final boat road in Waitomo Cave, and I even got to see a weta (giant cricket).

The cave trekking took up most of the day, but we decided that Law and I and Michele couldn't leave New Zealand without at least seeing a kiwi bird, so we drove to the Kiwi House in Otorohanga and visited the juveniles they have in captivity there. The rest of the grounds are also a quite interesting bird sanctuary, which afforded us the opportunity to see an lot of other native creatures without a trip to the bush. Photography of the kiwis is not allowed, but we got to spend a bit of time watching them and talking with one of the curators who feeds and cares for them. I'll share the image of the giant one we ran down in the car park (pronounced cah pahk).

After our kiwi experience, we headed off to Rotorua, driving through a bit of snow that was falling, and arriving after dark. A quiet night, spent trying to rest up from a bit of respiratory crud I've picked up along the way. Trying local remedies.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

On the Road to Waitomo

Broncos fans are everywhere
We managed to get everything packed up and down to the car fairly quickly in the morning, then checked out of our apartment and drove to downtown Auckland to return a couple of books we'd borrowed from our first hostess. Back out to Whitford, where we stopped at a fruit stand and bought some grapes, apples and kiwi fruit, then out to Victoria's family's farm, where we joined the family for a wonderful brunch of waffles, bacon, fresh fruit, and scrambled eggs. Had a great time talking to everyone there, then Michele and I departed ahead of the rest of the convoy to blaze the trail south to our next destination, soon to be followed by Law and Vicky, Tanny from Brazil, Vinnie and Karen from Belgium.

Just a few rest stops and coffee breaks on the way down. The GPS began to give us troubles when we encountered new signals and roundabouts it didn't know about, but we muddled on through and arrived in Waitomo just after 4 PM. Got checked into the hotel, which was constructed in 1908, and is still owned and operated by the family who built it and who discovered the Glowworm caves here. Relaxed in our room for a while with a 42 Below Feijoa vodka and soda, until the rest of the throng had arrived.

The grand old lady
We all trouped down to the dining room, like Bilbo Baggins and his dwarven friends, and had a great meal. I had the fish selection, baked in parchment paper, with capers, and a mixture of baked potatoes, yams and kumara (a native sweet potato), while Michele had the risotto with chorizo. Got a chance to get to know the Belgian contingent better, finally, and we had a great time talking with Tanny about our respective experiences in Portugal.

Got to have a long soak in a tub in our room, the first one so equipped since we arrived, and it was marvelous to stretch out full length for a change. Calgon, take me away!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Wedding Day - Pakuranga and Maraetai

The boys from America clean up ok
The day began quietly and calmly as Larry and I and Michele got ourselves put together to face the big event. We drifted on down to The Humble Baguette around 9 AM and had a perfect breakfast of Baguette French Toast with Bacon (Law), Eggs Benedict on Bacon (me) and Eggs Benedict on Spinach (Michele). No one else in the place on a Saturday morning, so we were able to relax and just enjoy some time together. Went for a walk a block or so away to the public library's outdoor plaza and a nearby domain (public park) where there was a very complex skate park - deserted.

Back in the apartment, we were able to get our tuxes on. I discovered at the last minute that my grey socks were not going to work with the black tux after all, and Michele's brand new nylons had mysteriously crawled out of her luggage somewhere over the Pacific, so on the way to St. Marks we had to make another stop at the shopping mall for a pair of socks. A half hour early to the church, by design, Larry and I had to walk to a nearby restaurant and have a pair of samosas, meat-filled pastries; in this case curried chicken and curried lamb, just to tide us over until the reception later.

Spectacular! and so are the Botanic Gardens
The wedding was very beautiful, and everything went well. The Father who performed the ceremony was gracious and eloquent, yet down to earth. The bride and her bridesmaids were stunningly beautiful, and the groomsmen as handsome a set of rascals as you can imagine. After the ceremony and reception line (where I met and shook hands with so many wonderful people), the photographer orchestrated a photo shoot just outside, then the wedding party piled into a classic Jaguar and a sporty Mercedes and zoomed off to the Botanic Gardens for more photos. Back to our waiting chariots for a ride out to the Maraetai Beach Boat Club, where the reception awaited the bride and groom's presence.

We had a splendid meal of canapes and champagne, fine wine (the Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc was incredible) and entrees of peppered squid, antipasto, followed by a main course of rack of lamb or New Zealand Salmon served on a lemon mashed potato with a seasonal salad, followed by mini pavlova with raspberry couli and lemon tarts. Joy, laughter, speeches, toasts, fun conversations, and more as we gathered to celebrate Lawrence and Victoria's new lives together. Not too many photos to share, it was a day to be involved, not a tourist.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Muddling about in Manukau

In case you thought I was joking about there being nothing in Manukau worthy of mention, Fodor's doesn't even give it a line in the New Zealand guide book I'm carrying. Our apartment is in a high rise building right next to a mall, and we have a panoramic view of the industrial area leading to the airport and south portion of Aukland's harbor. We went over to the mall this morning after breakfast to look around for a bit, didn't buy anything of note, except some shaving gel and cough drops, after lengthy consultation with the chemist.

Headed out to the grocery store to stock up the fridge, then on to another outdoor mall in Botany, and had a great lunch at Nando's. Michele had their piri piri chicken quarter, and I had a Portuguese paella with piri piri chicken breast on top. Spicy! Cruised over to Rainbow's End to see what sort of rides they have there, and what admission would cost. Not really any time to spare this weekend, though.

The Flying Moa
I drove over to the brother of the bride's house around 5:30, only being spun around in circles a few times by the GPS unit, and a small, hardy group of us sat around for a while, getting to know one another, and having a couple of New Zealand beers, then drove over to a restaurant in Ellerslie, The Flying Moa, where we enjoyed some massive plates of barbecue ribs. Food delicious, company convivial, the only surreal note was listening to the live musicians play Bad Moon Rising, American Woman, and a number of other blasts from Law's and my past. We headed out to a bowling alley and played a couple of games; it's obvious why none of us is on the pro tour, rather than working for a living. A low key bachelor bacchanalia, but exactly what an older groom and his groomsmen needed to relax before the big day.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

South to Manukau City

Hundertwasser Toilets
The operative word for the day was green. Lots and lots of green, everywhere we looked. We popped over to the bakery and picked up a couple of breakfast rolls, with ham, cheese and fried egg inside, far far nicer than an egg McMuffin, and stood out on the beach watching the sunrise over the Bay of Islands, then checked out of the hotel and drove south, for the most part. We stopped in Kawakawa for a while to use the most interesting public toilets I've ever seen, the Hundertwasser Toilets. It was very odd taking pictures inside a bathroom, but it simply had to be done, and I was careful to wait until no one else was using them, of course.

Everywhere we looked was like this
Down the main motorway 1 to Whangarei, then cut across the island to the other side to the little town of Dargaville, where we wandered the main street for a while, searching for a farmers market which turned out not to start until much later in the day, but did manage to stumble upon a charity book sale, so I bought a couple of New Zealand cookbooks to play with when we get home.

TokaToka Peak
Zigzagged back the other direction, stopping occasionally for photo opportunities, returning to the motorway at Brynderwyn, and stopping for a pair of pies (chicken curry and lamb fry & bacon) and some ginger beer at the Swinging Cow Café. Chatted with the owner there a while, then zoomed on down the road again. Arrived in Manukau City, where we have an apartment booked for the next few days. There's little to recommend the area except its proximity to the airport and to some of the wedding venues, hence its name, Proximity Apartments. There do appear to be many many shopping malls nearby, and Rainbow's End amusement park, so we may be able to keep ourselves entertained between commitments.

The Swinging Cow

We got cleaned up, and I shaved for the first time in a week, which was especially painful due the fact that my shaving gel had dried up. After sufficient imprecations, the GPS unit spit out directions to St. Marks, where we met up with all the family and ran through the wedding rehearsal. Afterwards, we drove to Howick and had a fantastic meal at the George Bernard Shaw pub. Roast duckling for Michele, and bacon-wrapped Gurran (fish) fillets with steamed mussels for myself. After a couple hours of fun and conversation, it was time to come back to our apartment and crash.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Giants on the Earth

Hokianga Harbor
Spent far too much time driving yesterday, and probably will again today. Picked up a takeaway corned silver and sweet jalapeno jelly sandwich and a couple of Frank fruit drinks at the nearby bakery, fueled up the rental car, and headed up the road to the Waipoua Forest. Rural drive through rolling hills, fields of cattle and sheep, for the most part.

Stopped at Hokianga Harbor for a flat white and to get out of the car for a little bit to take some pictures. Amazing deep harbor that goes so far inland, I thought when we first encountered it that it was a lake, and had Michele searching the map for a lake to get our bearings. Quite windy there.

Tane Mahuta
Onwards to the forest. The road in was a fantastically twisty bit of tarmac, the kind that made me wish for a motorbike to test upon it, and we ascended into the coastal mountains rapidly. The first of the ancient Kauri trees one encounters is Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, and it is so big it's hard to get perspective. I took several pictures, but none of them captures its true stunning mass. There are entire ecosystems living high in its branches. It's been alive since the time of Christ. The only things I could think of to compare its size to were a Greyhound bus and a 777 airliner, but even those don't do it justice.

We went on a forest walk to see a number of other examples of these trees, logged nearly to extinction in the 1800s, and saw the Four Sisters, as well as Te Matua Ngahere, Lord of the Forest, 16 metres around at the base! At one of our stops, we met a great couple from Southern New Zealand, and chatted with them for a while about our travels; they've spent time in the United States traveling, then ran into them again at the Four Sisters, and ended up keeping  each other company for the remainder of our visit, kindred spirits awed by the splendor and majesty of these mighty forest giants.

Near one of the "small" kauri
Ate our lunch in the car in a crazy hailstorm, headed back home around 2. Stopped for a few more photo ops along the way, and picked up some fresh Hokianga flounder to fry up for dinner. It was white, flaky, and delicately flavored, moist enough to eat with merely a squeeze of lemon.

Driving back to Auckland today for the wedding this weekend.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

To the Treaty Grounds and Beyond

Whare Waka and Ngatokimatawhaorua
After breakfast in the morning we popped over to the Krumbz Bakery to check out what they had in the cases, and decided we had to get back there for lunch. We drove over a single track bridge to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. For my American friends, this the equivalent to Independence Hall in Philadelphia which Michele and I visited last year. Huge historical and cultural significance.

Hobson's Beach
After extreme lawlessness of the whalers, sailors and sealers in nearby Russell grew too much to bear, the local Maori chiefs sent an appeal to the King of England in 1831, and he responded by sending his envoy, James Busby, to restore order in 1832. The Maori chiefs were eager to increase trade for technology with the Europeans, and to forestall foreign adventurism (especially by the French), Busby's successor, Hobson, worked to draft a treaty which would give the British exclusive rights, and guarantee the property rights and sovereignty of the Maori people. The treaty of Waitangi was signed on this location, and there is a huge celebration here every February 4th.

Maori Warriors
If you come to visit - and folks, I can't stress this enough - spring for the extra bucks to take the guided tour and experience the Maori Cultural Presentation. I almost skipped it, having already seen the MCP at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The young lady at the counter wasn't really all that convincing, simply saying that different tribes had different dances and songs, but for some reason my normally frugal instincts failed me and I whipped out the wallet. This is a "must-see" if you are ever here.

Revered Ancestor
You can enjoy a short movie about the Waitangi Treaty in the Visitor Center, and enjoy a beverage or a snack while you're waiting for your tour to start. Our guide, whose name I can't hope to pronounce, met us just outside the center, and we began our tour at Ngatokimatawhaorua, the 35 meter waka, or war canoe, which was built for the centennial celebration of Waitangi Day in 1940, and which is taken out annually by 80 rowers and 40 spares, so paddle at a maximum speed of 13 knots around the harbor with other, lesser craft. It is a high honor to be one of the paddlers, and our friendly guide confessed that this privilege has so far fallen to his older brother, and he has not been able to row it himself, though he has trained for it arduously.

Having arrived early in the morning, our group consisted of ourselves, a nice family from Victoria Australia, and a pair of lovely ladies from Cork, Ireland. As we interacted with our guide, with us questioning him and him returning the favor, it was fun to see the diverse perspectives...except on one subject, the economy. The consensus from around the world is that there's a recession going on.

View from the Treaty Grounds
From the Whare Waka (Canoe House), we walked a short way to view Hobson's Beach, where the new lieutenant governor strode ashore, the treaty in his grasp, eyes flashing, boots polished...well, you get the gist. Onwards to the treaty house, where Busby and his family lived, and thence to the Whare Runanga (Meeting House) which was built as the spiritual, historical and artistic repository of all the Maori tribes. Traditionally, each Maori tribe maintains its own meeting house (used strictly for tribal functions, they lived in simple dwellings the rest of the time), but this one was commissioned by one of the Maori members of Parliament for all his people.

Through no fault of my own (though some may claim it was due to my obvious girth and evident prosperity as a provider for my people) I was selected to be the "chief" of our visiting tribe, to stoicly endure the martial challenges of the resident tribe, and to accept from them a peace offering and invitation to join them in the meeting house. I crossed something off my bucket list in pressing noses with a Maori chief, and had to deliver and off the cuff thank you speech to respond to his welcome. We were then regaled for about a half an hour with awesome displays of Maori song, dance, games and martial prowess.

Meeting of Chiefs
Michele and I then wandered the grounds for another hour or so, getting a better look at some things we'd breezed by, and checking out the luscious forested grounds. We popped back into town after that, grabbed a couple of meat pies from the bakery (mine was smoked fish, and hers was steak and mushrooms) and ate our lunch at a picnic table overlooking the Bay of Islands, with our guardian gull to keep the rest of the birds from bothering us.

We drove up to Haruru Falls after that, only about five minutes away. While pretty, and reasonably photogenic, it's not enormously impressive, but would be a good spot for a picnic at the park below, perhaps, and it appears they rent kayaks there in the summertime that you could take out on the river below the falls for a better view.

From there, we took a drive up to Kerikeri, Along the way, we stopped at a roadside mandarin orange stand and picked up a kilo of fresh picked, spray-free, ripe fruit. Kerikeri proper was very similar to the main drag in San Clemente (or probably any coastal tourist trap around the world), and so we poked about in a few of the stores, including one where we had a nice chat with the proprietor, a woman whose farm had been confiscated for redistribution by the government of Zimbabwe, and who came here to start her own woolen clothing shop. The merino/possum/silk blend is wonderfully soft and and soft on the eyes as well. Evidently possums are a huge problem predator here in New Zealand, and...well, making lemonade out of lemons and all that...

Haruru Falls

Just north out of the city, we arrived just at closing in the historical area, and had to settle for outside pictures only of the Stone Store, Mission House, and old Anglican Church there. Didn't get a chance to explore the Maori Village and pa (fortification) at all. Again, a marvelous park area for a family picnic, a footbridge across bubbling falls, and sailboats drifting at their moorings complete the scene.

Back to the motel, with a stop at the supermarket along the way for a few minor items, like toothpaste. Do you know how hard it was to avoid all of the Colgate-Palmolive brands? They own the world. Finally settled on a South African brand, MacLean's (probably a subsidiary after all). Relaxed in our room for a bit with wine, bread and cheese, then walked down the coast to the wharf, and popped in to 35 Degrees for a meal at a window table overlooking the harbor. We weren't terribly famished, so we settled for sharing a smoked fish and spring onion pate over toast and a pot of green-lipped mussels, steamed to perfection, with still more bread and butter, and a small basket of fries, accompanied by their homemade tomato sauce (a very delicate cocktail sauce).

Back to the room for a dose of CNN, a Calippo for dessert, and a quiet good night.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Driving to Paihia

Coca at work
After breakfast in the morning, we got a visit from Coca, the neighbor's cat who had been standoffish on the day we were first introduced, but who had decided we were her best friends ever suddenly as we were leaving. We left her to lounge on the sofa when we went to pick up our rental car. The rental agent, Stuart, had a very dry and understated wit, and was a joy to deal with, and we were soon on our way. Parked the car in the secure garage and were able to load at leisure, then get out of town around 11 AM.

Orewa Beach
The GPS unit was useless to us while crossing Auckland CBD and finding the way to the Bay Bridge. Simple verbal instructions from Stuart remained in our brains long enough to get us out of town. Unfortunately, there was a construction blockage on the 1 Motorway heading north, and and thousands of others were detoured off into the suburbs, which led me to my first initiation into the roundabouts, and I got honked at by an irate Kiwi for the first time. Yay, me. Finally got the GPS unit to quit whining and give us some useful direction, and found ourselves back on Route 1 after a scenic drive through the suburbian neighborhoods, headed to Paihia.

We stopped at Orewa for lunch at a rustic place modeled on a Swiss chalet called the Pine Café. Seemed to be only frequented by locals and disoriented visitors, and we had a lovely conversation with the owner, Michael, from south China. In the middle of our meal, a couple of older Kiwi ladies stopped by to chat as well, and we also had a good time chatting with them, one of whom had done nine months in a camper van touring the U.S. with four young children thirty years ago. Michele had a Kiwi Burger and I had fish & chips - both delicious and lovingly presented.

Back on the road again for a short while, then stopped at a gorgeous beach to wander about and walk off our meal. Puttered about in the tide pools, then decided we'd best be on our way north again, though we could have played there all day. Didn't leave the car after that until we arrived in Paihia around 4:30 and checked in to our hotel. The views alternated between seascapes, rural Shire-like farmscapes, and subtropical forest, and the route was sufficiently twisty to make my BMW motorcycle club friends drool. I did.

We'll always have the Shire, Mr. Frodo
The Sea Spray Motel in Paihia turned out to be a much nicer place than I'd anticipated. We have a nice large living room and kitchen, spacious bathroom and a bedroom nearly as large as our own at home, with a Queen bed. There turned out to be a hot tub for guests (there are perhaps a half dozen of us), and laundry facilities which we'll definitely need before we leave here. We went for a walk after checking in to orient ourselves with the local scene, and picked up some brochures from the iSite and walked around on the wharf, watched some fishermen toss their lines into the bay, and found a couple of small grocers, where we picked up a few things to keep in our fridge for breakfast and snacks.

Just outside the motel, Paihia
Later on, we drove back down to the booming centre, and had dinner at Amazing Thai, which WAS! The service was the fastest and most attentive of any we've seen here so far (I think winter in NZ is a little relaxed), and the food was truly scrumptious. There was a twofer deal, and we shared a Ginger Lamb and a Beef in Oyster Sauce - nearly licked the plates clean. They have a sister restaurant (or perhaps it's actually a cousin; the genealogy was murky) in Rotorua we'll have to take Victoria to when we all go there after the wedding. Back to the motel room to relax and watch CNN. It's amazing how much actual NEWS they get in other countries compared to what our media spoon feeds us. Enjoyed my rediscovered love with a Ciloppo for dessert, and toddled off to sleep well sated.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Wandering Waiheke

Setting off from Auckland
After preparing a nice breakfast of sausage (purchased at the French Market) and eggs, we headed downtown and caught the 10 am ferry to Waiheke Island. The skies were blue and the winds mostly still, so it was a beautiful ride out through the harbor on the upper deck. Note to travelers intending to take and early morning ferry: take along a towel to wipe down the seats; I used my stocking cap. Aside from the prospect of soggy breeches, all was perfect, and the views incredible.

Rangitoto Island (shield cone volcano)
Decided not to take any of the guided bus tours available, but to strike out on our own to explore. We hired two scooters (vastly underpowered for the big guy), and were free to move about the country. Quite by accident, we found ourselves at Blackpool Beach and the Esplanade at low tide, then found the Sea Scouts in town were having a car boot sale (think very small flea market), so we had to browse that for a bit.

Palm Beach
Had a good ride to Palm Beach, where we dismounted for a while and walked on the beach and the rocks, exploring the tide pools. Tons of little snails stranded, but no leviathans reported, and the lunch selections there seemed a bit sparse - Palm Beach Fish & Chips appeared to be the only establishment open, so we got back on our screaming yellow machines and headed to Onetangi.

Onetangi Bay
We relaxed for a while at a beach front restaurant appropriately called...The Beach Front, where the service as also...relaxed. The view over the Onetangi Bay was too beautiful for words, so we didn't complain as we dawdled over a Mac's hard cider and anticipated our introduction to a New Zealand delicacy, the meat pie. If you're from the U.S., and I say "chicken pot pie" you get a picture in your head, most likely, of the prototypical Swanson's frozen pie which your mom popped into the oven when she'd had a rough week cooking and cleaning for her idyllic Ozzie and Harriet family, and though you perhaps have a whiff of nostalgia for that delectable treat, it doesn't inspire awe in the slightest.

The pies here, however, consisted of a blend of meats and veggies (mine was chicken & leeks, Michele had steak & kidney) in a delicately flavored sauce very unlike the salty gravies we're accustomed to, baked in a porcelain boat with a top made of filo dough, crisped to a perfect brown. The French fries accompanying our pies were perfectly cooked, but paled in comparison to the main course. Pot pies on steroids!

Back on the scooters, a little heavier, we rode back across the island to Oneroa, where we discovered the hidden gem of Oneroa Beach down a long winding pathway. Wandered down to the water's edge amid scattered  seashells and the occasional starfish, and checked out the yachts floating serenely on the tide.

Near Cable Bay
Next we decided to see about some wine tasting, so we went towards Cable Bay, and enjoyed both rustic and panoramic views along the way until we discovered Jurassic Ridge Winery. A couple from Wellington were just finishing their tasting and took their time choosing a bottle or two for the road, but when they finished we had the owner/vintner/oenophile all to ourselves for the rest of the working hours, and we chatted with him, got educated on the fine science of viniculture, and tasted some really really really (did I say "really"? already) tasty wines, which have won some major awards for obvious reasons. We picked up a couple bottles of his Sauvignon Blanc at a reasonable price when it was time to depart, and had just enough room under the seat of the scooter to carry them without jettisoning our other luggage. Priorities, right?

Return to Auckland

Zipped on back to Matiata Harbor, dropped off the scooters, and caught the 4 PM ferry back to Auckland, with a detour to Devonshire wharf along the way, so we got a bit of a bonus sightseeing there. Walked back to our apartment and relaxed for a bit with a few appetizers, then went to the grocery store down the road for a few necessities, and had a light dinner of baguettes, brie, a Kapiti emmenthal, olives, tomatoes, cold pizza and a Fruju lemon and grapefruit popsicle to finish it all off.

Bon appetite, y'all.