Thursday, January 29, 2009

Part 2 of Long Weekend: The South Island

(Annoying blogger thing - or just me being stupid - photos show up in the opposite order added so they go with the narrative from bottom to top more or less...and i can't figure out if there's any way to get them to be within text. I think not. FYI - the van with the slightly offensive but yes, funny saying is a type of rental van you see everywhere around the South Island...this was one of the least offensive.) Ferrying down to the South Island through the Cook Straits is breathtaking and our photos cannot do it justice. We stopped in Havelock, known for its mussels, for a late lunch on the water where the highlight was a light but rich mussel chowder. (Mussels themselves were big but not remarkable otherwise.) Swung through Nelson - a fun tourist town where a family we know through Washington State friends will be for six months doing the same thing as us (but they hadn't arrived yet) - and arrived at our lodge right next to Abel Tasman National Park in time for a beautiful walk right before sunset. It was marred only by some rather aggressive seagulls demonstrating behavior similar to Hitchcock’s Birds. We figure they must have been defending their nesting area, but we were in open beach so not quite sure. The beach just went on forever and ever, but we had to get home and to bed to wake up for our kayaking trip the next day.

We kayaked with the help of Hiro, our friendly Japanese guide who has been in NZ for two years. Just us and a couple from Israel in our group. I didn’t ask them about the current situation over there; big news in the Wellington paper had been a cafe owner refusing service to a pair of Israeli tourists. Super-calm on the way out to Split Apple Rock and then quite wavy as the wind came up on the way back, but Nikko and I pulled together and survived. (He only yelled at me for slacking a few times.) The second part of the day was low labor on our part – sea taxi up/down? coast of Abel Tasman to see lots of seals, including new pups. Then a 90-minute walk through drizzle to where the boat picked us up, at this point in driving rain. We walked through a campground and I was feeling bad for the dampness the campers would endure and being relieved that we would return to our cozy cabin where we enjoyed a couple scoops of really good chips (fries) wrapped in the customary white paper, a Greek lamb burger, a mussel burger (yes, the shellfish all glued together somehow – very good), and beef burgers -- a bit different in that it wasn’t one patty but lots of different little crumbles of meat. These all came from a funky take-out stand by the entrance to the park called The Fat Tui – tuis being a classic NZ bird (also name of popular beer) that make some amazing and varied calls, from warbles to grunts. Apparently they're great mimics and your neighborhood tuis can start sounding like your cell phone ring!

Day next, we headed in a circle (Mark’s favorite; he hates backtracking) through the countryside to the east coast of the South Island, passing through acres and acres (actually, hectares and hectares) of cows, sheep, farmed deer, and fruit orchards – mostly pears we think, although some kiwis and berries – and then grape vines as we approached Blenheim. More on less in the center, we stopped to take a drizzly walk at Nelson Lakes National Park where I discovered that the sweet scent I’ve been smelling in every forested walk so far – mysterious in that flowers are not usually present – is the scent of honeydew produced by a scale insect that burrows into the bark of certain trees and creates drops of “honeydew.” At Nelson Lakes, this is also food for a black sludgey mold that then grows on the trees, not too attractive but usually not detrimental to the tree, a ranger informed me. It does attract wasps, however, one of the many invasive pest species within the NZ environment. At the lake, we also saw traps for other introduced animals that have become major pests – stoats (ermine in the US), weasels, and rats. (The only native mammals in NZ are a couple varieties of bat – all else has been brought in.) All of these animals eat eggs of threatened native birds, including kiwi, and so are under attack by the DOC (dept of conservation) everywhere with traps and poison. (And big signs warning you to keep your dogs on a leash so they don’t accidentally consume the cyanide. yikes.) The original problem was rabbits – brought over for food (rats, too) – which, naturally, bred like rabbits and their burrowing made mincemeat of sheep pastures, so the stoats and weasels were brought in to take care of them, but since NZ has no coyotes or foxes (which explains why there are not sheep barns at all – they stay out all the time), the stoats etc. have few predators and therein lies the problem.

So on to Bleinheim, home of the famed NZ sauvignon blanc, unfortunately my least favorite style of wine (I have been known to call it essence of lawn clippings in a bottle, but Mark rightly pointed out that it’s really the pithiness – as in grapefruit pith ­– that I’m reacting to). We managed to pop into three vineyards for tastings before they closed on Sunday evening, which did not change my opinion of NZ sauvignon blancs but did open my eyes (palate?) to other decent wines from the area including a nice pinot gris from Wairu River, one of the original wineries, and a good merlot from River Farm, a vineyard with new owners and a new name as of this year. We did not venture to one of the highly regarded winery estate restaurants with the kids, but went to a good restaurant in town named Bacchus where highlights of the meal were a lovely rack of lamb (if they can’t do that right here, there’s a problem), wild goat ragu over pasta (goats are also sort of a pest, although they are farmed too), and Nikko said not to forget his steak (a cut they call Scotch filet) wrapped in bacon. There were two bowls of fresh veggies (they call them veges here) for the table, which must have each been swimming in a stick of melted butter. Now I like butter, but that was even a bit much for me.

Back home on the ferry the next day (after the boyz squeezed in a round of mini-golf – critical to all Pasanen warm-season vacations) and, after a stop at Paraparaumu beach for great fish and chips (groper – no “u”and not related to grouper) under the watchful eye of many seagulls (but no attacks), arrived home late Monday night. And even after such a brief time here, it did feel like coming home. (End of travelogue for the moment - next entry will be more day-to-day observations.)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Trip to Wellington and South Island over Wellington Day long weekend (Jan 15-19), Part 1

After a painless 2 ½-hour-drive with just one stop to examine a golf course at Paraparaumu for Nikko, we arrived in Wellington. The city has a gorgeous setting and reminds me of Vancouver, BC quite a bit. The hotel Mark had found through a last-minute bargain website (to which our neighbor Laurie had directed us)was super: The Copthorne, right on the harbour in Oriental Bay, with a balcony overlooking the boardwalk where locals and tourists biked, ran, and strolled by the whole time we were there. (It met with Alex’s approval because David Beckham stayed there recently – and it also had a great indoor pool on the 7th floor. ) Our first stop was the famed BurgerFuel­– which Mark had read about online from the US– where we had a little afternoon snack of their signature “Bastard” burger – beef, bacon, mango, avocado, cheese, lettuce, tomato, aioli, ketchup. It was big and it was good. Just across the street in the center of a major city crossroads was a huge bungee ride and we watched some guys go thwang in that.

We then took the cable car up the hill to the botanical gardens from which you get a great view of the city and many different plants of course – gorgeous rose garden and even trees dressed in lacy underwear (yes kids, that’s art). We stopped at the cool flagship bar/brewery of a hip local brewer called Macs where you can inhale the fine scent of brewing (boys not so fond of that smell) and then they begged for Indian food for dinner so we headed to the main walking street drag to a recommended spot. It was fine although everything was quite a bit sweeter than we’re used to, including naan bread with Christmas-themed dried fruit (even green maraschinos!) baked into it. (Now that's fusion.)

Thursday we spent basically the whole day in the huge national musuem, Te Papa, a few minutes walk from our hotel along the boardwalk. It is really amazing with treasures of natural history, culture, and art along with multimedia attractions (like a simulated earthquake and a deepsea dive) that kept the kids happy. A life-size bull made of corned beef cans was featured in one exhibit, representing the Western introduction of “pisupo,” or canned foods, named for the first product introduced in cans to NZ: pea soup. We ate dinner in a really good Italian restaurant called Zibibbo after finding out that the Maori restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet had closed, sadly. Still waiting to taste authentic Maori food. (Our waiter, incidentally, was Irish and we had good service. There really is no tipping here and the service is quite different than in the States. It’s always initially friendly, but there’s absolutely no guarantee they’ll come back to check on you, see if you want more drinks or water, and you practically have to beg for the bill most places.)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Flashback two weeks...

So just over two weeks ago after a three-day trip (including wonderful family visit in northern Cali and a not-so-wonderful accidental international fruit-smuggling incident in the Auckland airport that cost us NZ$200), we were escorted by four cars (needed to hold all our luggage)and various welcoming folk to this charming 85-year-old house on a hill with lovely view (as shown above) of the city of Wanganui and the Whanganui River (the h is controversial - more on that later). The city is about 40,000 in population and very friendly and navigable -- even from the left side of the road and for the directionally impaired such as myself. It was a major ocean and river port, but is not a tourist magnet although it does boast the river on which people can jetboat (fast and adrenaline-inducing), skull or kayak (the opposite), or take a ride on the only paddle steamer still operating in New Zealand (coal-smoky but fun) and some lovely parks and gardens, as well as a stunning beach with cliffs and black sand (the golden sand beaches elsewhere in the country are regarded more highly by natives). Within the first few days we had discovered the farmers' market, the library, and the soccer (football) fields; checked out both boys' schools (which start their new year at the beginning of February) and the hospital where Mark is working; and Melissa had struck up conversations with just about everybody looking for friends, jazz dance and Maori language classes, volunteer opportunities and other ways to ensure she doesn't get bored while not working here. ("Fat chance," says Mark.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Inaugural Post

(Our first post...a test of this blogging thang, as Mark would say.)
It was nothing compared to the celebration of yesterday, but today we commemorated two weeks of living in New Zealand with a walk down by the river through Kowhai Park after supper -- tea they call it -- of pasta salad with NZ feta, veggies, and chicken sausage made on the George Foreman, my inaugural experience with this fine? invention. The boys threw the already well-worn Nerf football (new at the start of this adventure), which often prompts people to talk to us about the US and we stopped for icecreams (always with an s here), including the classic Kiwi flavor, Hokey Pokey, studded with caramel bits. Then we walked home and up our hill past the neighboring sheep (those white blobs above boyz' heads) and cows grazing on a slope so steep you'd think they'd fall off. As seems to be the case every night, there was a stunning sunset to watch from our living room over the river and ocean in the distance. Up early tomorrow morning for the boyz and me to take a group nature excursion to see a local threatened blue duck population.