Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Our trip to Wellington, New Zealand last Easter to visit our friend Hannah left us hungry for more kiwi charm. Thus, we took the first week of March off from work to visit the famed south island, the significantly less populated bit where Peter Jackson filmed the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

We heard that the most beautiful spots were in and around Queenstown, the adventure sports capital of the world, but because flights there were expensive, we decided to fly in and out of Christchurch and make an eight-day circuit around the center of the south island.

As we began planning the trip, it sounded less and less like a trip I'd actually enjoy: we'd be staying in different accommodations each night and driving between two to four hours each day. However, my desire to see as much as possible (ignited by glossy photos from the Lonely Planet) won out over my natural inclination to linger in a couple of choice spots.

In the end, I'm glad we made that decision. We passed the hours in the car each day soaking up scenery and listening to President Obama read "Dreams of My Father" and other quite serious podcasts. Likewise, rocking up to our bed for the night each evening wasn't stressful as I'd imagined. Each welcome at a new B&B came as a delightful surprise: would they have a tub? the ubiquitous Mackintosh's Toffee and Minties? cable that would allow me to watch American Idol?

I don't think I can recount here how we spent each glorious day, so I may just have to make a top ten list to cover the highlights, retell my favorite stories and draw sweeping conclusions about the differences between NZ, Australia and the United States.

10. a nation of isolation gets personal

I've developed this theory that Australians and kiwis are more inclined than the rest of the world to share personal information with strangers because of their isolation and sometimes limited opportunities for social interaction. An hour after arriving at our cozy Haast B&B on the wet west coast, we tried to make friendly conversation with our hostess. We asked her how long she'd been running the place and she admitted that she was trying to sell the place and was desperate for a vacation. This was awkward, but I'm sure we tried to sympathize. Things just got weirder when she started complaining about her haircut: "isn't it awful?" she asked. 'I hope that was rhetorical,' I thought to myself. We couldn't agree with her and we couldn't really defend the haircut either. We'd never seen this lady before!

Our friends had a similar experience while wine tasting in South Australia. Funny and friendly Texans, Chris and Jess are masters when it comes to polite banter with the pourer/vintner. However, even they were left speechless when their hostess asked their opinion about whether or not she should have told her daughter-in-law that she hated her new grandson's name in the delivery room. Come on, they asked for a sip of the late pick verdelho, not an anecdote about how she alienated her family!

9. the best situated winery in the world

While walking off a delicious lunch of cajun blackened fish around Lake Wanaka, we came upon a sign indicating that the "most beautiful winery in the world" was a mere 300 meters up the hill. Mickey wanted to press on, but I insisted that we check it out. Boy, it was a bold claim, but this place lived up to its hype. The tiny rustic tasting room sat atop a hill overlooking the vineyards, the shimmering lake, rugged mountain peaks and clear blue sky. One of their reds was great, we bought a bottle, but the others were just average. Still, I'd love to return just to view the landscape draped in the color palette of another season: fiery orange leaves or pure white snow.

8. shoe story (short version): woman brings impractical shoes, has to buy totally-not-kidding-around-outdoor-shoe mid-trip

(long version) I hate wasting money on shoes, but it's inevitable because buying women's shoes is a total gamble. You can walk up and down the aisles of a department store 35 times, but you aren't really going to know whether or not they'll work out until you've bought them and walked to work in them. And no one but Nordstrom has a decent shoe return policy.

I brought two pairs of shoes to NZ: some red leather low heels for casual dinners out and my non-sexy European walking shoes for daily romps on trails. I didn't want to bring my running shoes because I wasn't planning to run anywhere (no dangerous animals in NZ) and I just don't want to be the American with the bright white sneakers. I travel light and bringing more than two pairs of shoes wasn't an option either.

Anyway, my shoe karma must not have been good because I started slipping out of the non-sexy European walking shoes and nearly twisted my ankle. They just didn't fit anymore and my situation had become mildly dangerous. If you get injured on vacation, you stand a good chance of ruining it.

Thankfully, Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world, is the place to be when you require totally-not-kidding-around outdoor shoes. It's hard for me to admit this, but I was ready to purchase something approximating hiking shoes. Surrounded by sophisticated poly-whatever jackets and camelbaks, Mickey and I felt really conspicuous in the sporting goods store. Our Zara clothes didn't match the sea of khaki and fleece around us; it felt absolutely necessary to preface our conversation with the sales guy about my need for shoes with the fact that we were city slickers completely out of our element.

Mickey tried to assure me that this or that pair of feminine outdoor shoes were "kinda cute" or "not that bad," but a part of me knew that I'd have to check my notion of acceptable footwear at the door. We ended up with something appropriate for NZ, but I wasn't sure they'd ever resurface in Sydney. I became hyper-conscious of people staring at my shoes and Mickey and I would burst out laughing every time it happened.

7. Mickey's innocence warms my heart

Same store, different story. Before descending upon the ladies footwear area of the store, we browsed the tents. Mickey pointed to a model tent and said, 'I never knew whether those were for pets or what.' It was hard not to laugh. 'Love, I think those just try to show what the tent will look like when you assemble it.' I love being reminded that Mickey's notion of the great outdoors is centered around mosquito nets in India, not nylon tents with Girl Scouts.

He also had me nearly in tears of laughter when he dutifully followed the advice of a tour guide. We were putting on rain slickers and life jackets in preparation for our ride on the Shotover Jet boat with a bus load of American senior citizens. Their guide called everyone over for a group photo and I had to grab him by the slicker before he picture-crashed. 'I think it's just for their tour group, honey.' He's so precious.

6. NZ: a glutard's paradise

New Zealand is a nation of only four million, but most of its restaurants cater to glutards like me, amazing! We enjoyed some really great meals for reasonable prices because of the favorable exchange rate for the US dollar. I was delighted by the number of menus which indicated gluten free meal options and impressed with the servers' apparent knowledge of my condition. I ordered NZ lamb as often as possible and was never disappointed.

Another standout was the creamy pumpkin and feta soup from the Lake Matheson Cafe near the Fox Glacier. I feel that when you stumble into an American town of 3,200 people, you're bound to find a McDonald's and maybe an Arby's, but your restaurant options end there. In NZ, we found charming cafes serving fresh food in towns of all sizes. It was such a remarkable treat.

5. spotting wildlife in the wild, or how I became a bird nerd in NZ

My fellow American expat friends in Sydney and I adore wildlife parks. Jess got up close and very personal with pretty much her favorite animal, the wombat at a wombat rescue center in South Australia. Likewise, Lee loved posing with the koalas at a wildlife park in Port Stephens.

I enjoy admiring kangaroos up close because I can marvel at their long, powerful legs and ooh and aww over the joeys when they poke their chihuahua heads out of their mums' pouches. However, there's something thrilling and primal about seeing a kangaroo or any animal in its natural habitat. Of course I rarely get close enough to spot a joey, but that's what makes the experience special. Instead of paying $10 to pet and feed animals in a fenced in park, I love catching the chance glimpse of a wild animal, observing its seemingly timeless routine.

In NZ we were looking for native birds, not kangaroos of course. When Europeans began colonizing the islands a century and a half ago, exotic bird calls filled the air day and night. Since the introduction of dogs, cats and stoats, a weasel-like creature, the number of New Zealand's native birds have dropped dramatically. Take for example the beloved kiwi, a remarkable flightless bird that once numbered in the millions is now in danger of extinction with only a few thousand surviving in protected pockets.

Though Mickey and I didn't spot a kiwi in the wild (we would have loved to, but they are nocturnal), we did find two in Queenstown's bird sanctuary. We were lucky enough to spot and photograph two species of native birds: the clever but naughty kea in Arthur's pass (they love destroying windshield wipers) and the keruru, a NZ pigeon, near Lake Te Anau. We found the three keas looking for trouble on the roof of a cafe along the main road. The gorgeous keruru (looks nothing like a regular pigeon with a white breast and beautiful iridescent blue green wings and head) we heard before we saw along the Kepler track. It's known for the 'whoosh' sound of its wings.

4. most stylish nation per capita

For some, Bed & Breakfast is synonymous with old & chintzy. I'd argue that in NZ, this is almost never the case. We stayed in a number of modern, stylish B&Bs and boutique hotels that made our trip all the more enjoyable. I particularly loved the Queenstown Chalet and Dun Luce in Te Anau. Kiwis' insistence on world-class style, coffee, fashion, food and design never ceases to amaze me.

3. dipping an oar into the world of extreme sports

Many young backpackers who pass through Queenstown splurge on a bungee jump. After all the "sport" was invented there. I don't think I need to explain why I didn't partake in this aspect of local culture; if I'm looking for thrills and frights I can bird watch and shop for hiking shoes.

Still, I didn't want to leave Queenstown without having done something a bit risky at high speeds outdoors. That's how we wound up riding the Shotover Jet with the American senior citizens. The whole thing was cheesy, but totally safe and a lot of fun. The noisy boat goes barreling through the canyon along a sometimes shallow river, narrowly avoiding gigantic jutting boulders. Every couple of minutes the maniacal driver will twirl one finger in the air indicating that he's about to pull the boat into its trademark 360 degree spin. At that point, we had to hold on to the heated handrail for dear life. The cheesiness (they had a wall of fame featuring celebs like Giovanni Ribisi) of the Shotover Jet experience was balanced out by the incomparable beauty of the river.

The other adventure sport we tried which actually required muscle was sea kayaking. Mickey was quite brave to give kayaking a second go after our first experience in Hawaii five years ago in which I tipped the thing over. This time we had our own kayaks to manage so we couldn't blame each other for falling out. Our guide from the cruise ship took us out for about an hour and a half in a very calm corner of Milford Sound. Propelling myself forward was a serious workout and I couldn't seem to reposition my oar without getting wet, but the scenery and peaceful sounds of the oar gliding through the water made it all worthwhile.

2. our first cruise!

Yes, you could call our experience 'cruising lite.' We'd never been on a cruise before and were eager to start small. Thus, the chance to spend one night on a boat in the beautiful Milford Sound sounded like a gentle introduction to the world of cruising. Mickey was afraid he'd suffer seasickness, but he was pleasantly surprised by the whole cruising experience.

We boarded the boat in the afternoon and were treated to muffins (one was made gluten free especially for me!), coffee and tea while we listened to the crew introduce themselves and describe the safety features of the boat, etc. We then cruised through the sound almost all the way to the entrance to the Tasman Sea before turning around to spend the night in the calm area where we kayaked. Milford Sound gets up to six meters of rain a year so it was lucky that we enjoyed views of waterfalls, seals, glaciers and steep cliffs unobstructed by rain clouds.

I think we were two of the only passengers under 65, but we powered through the buffet with the best of them. The food wasn't amazing, but it wasn't bad either and I was thrilled that they could accommodate my glutard needs. We anchored for the night and devoured a very hasty breakfast before venturing into the enormous swells of the Tasman Sea. The captain turned us around and headed for port before anyone lost their breakfast thankfully.

1. lucky duckies

Mickey and I tried to remind each other at every stunning vista how lucky we were to be on such a trip. Economic downturn or not, we know that relatively few can afford luxurious vacations in New Zealand. Thus, I try to live these experiences for the generations who've come before me in an era when international travel was impossible for all but the uber wealthy. I imagine what my grandma Onie would say if she could have seen the dahlias in the gardens of Christchurch or how my great grandmother would have compared the sheep ranches in New Zealand to those she knew in Scotland.

Likewise, I think about the generations that will come after me and how the landscape may look to them if they ever travel to New Zealand. Perhaps my great, great, great granddaughter will honeymoon on the moon and think abstractly about me and my comparatively minuscule earthly adventures. Even if my memories fade and my photos get lost, today I am lucky and for every day that I have Mickey and the others I love in my life I am truly grateful.