Sunday, April 6, 2008

The End of the Trail

The Sun Setting on Our Adventure

The Tahiti Hibiscus

On our final day in Tahiti we needed to check out of the hotel at 11 a.m. But our flight did not leave until 10:00 p.m. So that we could enjoy another day on this beautiful island we stored all of our luggage at the hotel, kept our swimsuits on, and then spent the day just laying around the pool and enjoying the views of the lagoon. Our visit had lucky weather, as this is the rainy season in Tahiti, but we had no rain except for just a few drops on the final afternoon.

We were concerned about the number of teenagers who seemed to be spending all day practicing their boogie board skills on the beach. It was a relief to learn that the week was spring break in Tahiti and not just a very bad truancy problem. At 6:30 p.m. we collected our bags, retrieved our travel clothes and changed in the hotel restrooms. It worked out just fine. The airport processing went smoothly and we ended up with a plane only half full, so we each had two seats for the overnight flight to Los Angeles. Air Tahiti Nui provided a flawless flight and an early arrival.

In order to work out the jet lag, we stayed overnight in a L.A. airport area hotel, and then flew on to Seattle and Wenatchee the next day. You certainly would not want to return home after an eight week vacation felling tired!. In a couple of weeks I will publish an article on what we considered the best ten things about the trip to New Zealand. Check back in for that.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Around the Island

Papeete from the hill above our lagoon

The Waterfall - Just after the Elvis serenade

Fishing in the river

Every trip needs a really tacky moment!

To get a feel for the whole island, we arranged for a half day tour on the morning of our second full day. Our guide was William who picked us up along with a young French couple and then drove through town and picked up some Japanese newlyweds at the Intercontinental. It was a very hot day so the good news was that the van was air-conditioned. The tour was to go (and did) completely around the island. We did not however go on to Tahiti Iti (little Tahiti), but stuck to Tahiti Nui (Big Tahiti). The whole island is somewhat shaped like a ping-pong paddle and Tahiti Iti (also called the peninsula) would be the handle of the paddle.

There are no paved roads across the island, only on the shoreline around it. The interior has high mountains and is very rugged with dense vegetation. On our drive counter-clockwise we first stopped at the proverbial guide type place called the Lagoonarium. For an extra fee (and I suspect a guide kickback) we had the pleasure of going into the jaws of the shark and proceeded underwater to look at the mid-size sharks and fish. I should have brought a book and opted out. Our next stop was at the Paul Gauguin Museum on the south end of the island. The museum traced the history of Gauguin and was interesting along with copies of many of his paintings and a few artifacts. Why was it located there you ask? Because the land was cheaper than in Papeete, plus the mosquitoes are thrown in for free. Gauguin died in the Marquesas in 1903 at age 53. A very troubled man it seemed.

Our last two stops around the island were at the very spectacular waterfall on the northeast side, followed by an ocean blow hole. During the longest stretch of the trip where there were no interesting stops, William serenaded us with Elvis songs. That was a first on any tour in our experience.

Quirky Living Note: Back at the Radisson for the afternoon, I had the most wonderful French experience. How about escargot? French wine? Non! It was finding topless ladies around the pool. Now I maybe will get to like just lying around and relaxing more.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Life on Tahiti

According to local gossip Bill's little boat

On the black beach

Papeete Market

Radisson pool

We awoke in a real paradise. The Radisson is a wonderful resort nestled into its own lagoon about 6 miles northeast of Papeete. All of the rooms above the first floor overlook the huge infinity pool, or the lagoon. This is a volcanic island, which causes most of the beaches to have black sand. There are a few white and pink beaches around the island, depending on whether there is a coral reef. We started our day with a leisurely walk on the beach followed by a casual breakfast in the open air restaurant overlooking the beach.

We must be in a bit of the off season as there are not a lot of guests around. While lounging and swimming at the pool there did not seem to more than five or six groups at the pool at any one time. On the beach there were always a lot of local kids practicing their surfing. Unlike the Mexican beaches there were no vendors bothering you to purchase jewelry, t-shirts, or blankets. If you like to just lie around the pool or beach, read a book, and gaze at beautiful scenery, this is the place for you.

By the afternoon we had enough sun and water, so arranged to take the hotel excursion into Papeete for three hours. They pay for a taxi to drive you in at 2 p.m. and then pick you up at 5 p.m. We did not find Papeete to be a very big town and we were able to walk the 7 or 8 blocks lengthwise and 5 blocks of depth where most of the commerce (meaning shops) was conducted in about 20 minutes. They have a fruit, vegetable, and fish market which we visited although I think most of the action must have been in the morning. For the tourist downtown offers a huge supply of Tahiti black pearls and gorgeous cotton cloth.

We had a late lunch/early dinner on the waterfront harbor street. There was a lot of shipping and a few private yachts in the harbor, including a magnificent large yacht (with a helicopter on the back deck) which we were advised belonged to Bill & Melinda Gates. I don't know, doesn't look big enough to me. I guess they haven’t given away all of their money.

Quirky Living Note: A van driver told me that they do not have a lot of crime on the island, only about two murders a year. However, the French government wants to increase the number of gendarmes. That will obviously increase crime, as there will be more of them looking for it! They do, however, have a serious graffiti problem which is seriously spoiling the built up areas of the island.

French Polynesia

French Polynesia Flag

The flight from Auckland is an easy one, lasting just five hours. Air Tahiti Nui seems to be a very efficiently run airline. They have a lot of nice local touches, such as giving small orchids to all of the passengers, just to get you in the mood of landing in Papeete, Tahiti. We arrived about 9:45 p.m. You can tell it is a rural island as it was pretty dark when landing at the airport. Kind of like landing in Belize, where after you land, you turn around on the runway, and then taxi back to the terminal. No jetways, just down the ramp and into the non air-conditioned open format terminal.

Arriving in a strange place, without any local money, and no one meeting you is always the most stressful part of any trip. Arriving in Papeete was no exception. As French Polynesia is part of France, anyone with a European Union passport went in to the fast lane. Everybody else was an “other” and so as usual we are the last through immigration. After we collected our bags the prudent thing to do was to get some local cash. The Pacific Islands Franc is 78 to the dollar, so you now have to start thinking in thousands. When I went to the ATM a reasonable choice was to get 20,000 francs, about $250. I thought for awhile that the ATM was rejecting our card, but it was just the guy operating it who is a bit green color blind and the button for accepting the options was green. There should be a law against it.

We then grabbed a cab to the Radisson Plaza Resort Tahiti. The Radisson is a bit out of town and I was pretty surprised that the cab was 4500 francs. The cab driver may have been taking a bit of advantage of the rookie visitor. At the hotel we were put in a beautiful two level suite on the fourth and top floor, overlooking the pool and the beach. Arriving at 10 p.m. however can put a few jags in the arrival. The elevator to our floor was not working. Fortunately the bell guys were bringing up the heavy bags, and we thought they might have a coronary. A lot of groaning and wheezing. After checking out our very nice accommodation, I hear a scream. Mary Ann had found a very cute 4 inch lizard on the wall of our bedroom. The bellman took a look at it, said it won’t hurt anything and left. Mary Ann is yelling at me as I write this, that she did not think it was very cute.

To give you a bit of perspective about the French Overseas Territory, it consists of five groups of islands which are The Society Islands (including the Windward Islands and the Leeward islands), The Marquesas, the Austals, the Tuamatus, and the Gambiers. Tahiti is in the Society Islands and is the largest island of French Polynesia. Papeete is the capital city. By the way, I don’t think I have mentioned it before, but anytime I want some good in depth information about a country, I always start with the CIA World Fact Book website about the country, or in this case the French territory. The Fact Book is always organized consistently and provides a lot of good basic data. The site for French Polynesia is:

Quirky Living Note: Once you get into this regular blog publishing routine it is a major crisis when you think your laptop has crashed. One evening we could not get the XZ!*#$ thing to turn on. It was completely blank. It was getting power, so what to do? Well, you hope that it will turn on and work the next day. And voila it did turn on in the morning. We had left it plugged in and Mary Ann, the computer guru, thought it was a battery problem which recharged. Actually it was just a loose electrical cable. But shouldn’t it always work when plugged in to real power? I still don’t understand how electricity works, let alone a computer and the internet.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Do We NOW know What a Kiwi Is?


Or This?

Or Maybe Even this!

When we arrived in New Zealand I raised the question about what a Kiwi is. I hope from reading the blog you now have a much better idea about what New Zealand (and New Zealanders) are all about. I suppose six weeks isn’t really enough time to really figure it out, but we have had a good glimpse.

If we really want to have a definition of the word, there seem to be at least three. First, judging by all of the souvenir stores in New Zealand, they think it is a nocturnal flightless bird of New Zealand having a long neck and stout legs; only surviving representative of the order Apterygiformes. Second, you are probably most familiar with a kiwi’s form as a fuzzy brown egg-shaped fruit with slightly tart green flesh. I have to admit that I have not eaten a kiwi, fruit or bird since we have been in New Zealand. Finally it is defined as a native or inhabitant of New Zealand, which is how you hear it used most.

Our emersion in New Zealand was a great experience and I would certainly encourage you to give it a try. A final heads up, there is a $25 NZ per person departure tax payable when you go through departing immigration.

Quirky Living Note: When ever “New Zealand” is written you invariably see the word Aotearoa close by. The country is very careful to write Maori definitions wherever possible. Aotearoa is the word for New Zealand with a precise definition of “Land of the Long White Cloud.”

Mary Ann's South Island Web Album

My favorite photographer has grouped 87 of her hundreds of photos taken during the time we spent on the South Island. You can access them on the web at the following address:

The Final Leg

As the seven weeks (my, has it been that long and gone that fast) have passed it seems impossible that we are flying to Tahiti in less than 24 hours. In the evening in Wanganui we explored a very pleasant and non-tourist community. Beautiful parks, boys’ colleges, river walks and exceptional public buildings such as the Serjeant Gallery, museums and memorials. Victoria Street, the main shopping venue has 150 year old buildings which are full of shops and restaurants. The street is shaded with huge trees and flower baskets everywhere.

This region of the island does not seem to be overwhelmed by tourists (like Queenstown) and the drive on to New Plymouth was with little traffic, going along the surfing areas of the Tasman Sea, and in the shadow of Mount Taranaki. The mountain is quite stunning in the same way that Mount Rainer is. Everything around it on the western promontory of the island is sea level, while the mountain rises nearly straight up from the plain. We fortunately took a photo early on as the mountain soon became covered by clouds and we had a rare occasion of rain.

New Plymouth, although apparently growing a lot, seems to be a pretty much ordinary city and has not had the advantages of old buildings, harbor (although it faces the sea), or historical significance. A very workman like place which is aspiring to be the stepping off place for mountain climbs. Our final drive after the night in New Plymouth was to the Auckland airport.

We knew it was time to end the vacation as our luck was running out. At dinner I was reading a local tourist magazine and realized that today, just an hour north of New Plymouth was the “running of the sheep” as a part of The Great New Zealand Muster in Te Kuiti. The Running of the Sheep is described as thousands of wooly sheep scurrying and making their way through a crowd of 6,000 on the main street of Te Kuiti. It is their version of “the running of the bulls.” To top it off there is a large cash prize for a correct number of the total sheep in the run (1733 last year). How could we have missed this icon of the festival in the self proclaimed “Sheep Capital of the World?” And we were only an hour away on the day of the run!

We were glad that the mm made it all the way to Auckland Airport, struggling up the hills as she did. When we turned her in to Ace Rentals I was a bit concerned because on about the second day of the trip I had lost a hubcap. How much was that going to cost? The girl at the car rental said it happens all the time and I was charged only $10 NZ for the replacement. Whew! All in all we put 5900 kilometers (3540 miles) on the car.

Quirky Living Note: With the recent death of Sir Edmund Hillary, the conqueror of Mt. Everest, and New Zealand’s favorite son, the Hillary Foundation for Youth is using this time as an opportunity to raise money for the foundation, focus on exercise, and honor Sir Edmund. On March 25 a nationwide tour of summits for ed started at the bottom of the South Island and will visit 30 cities throughout the country, ending at the northern tip of the North Island on April 19 with an event attended by Lady Hillary and members of the family. For a lot of interesting information about the project and its goals you should pay a visit to Now, go climb a summit in your local area.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

South Island Marathon

Wanganui Downtown Flowers

Wanganui Serjeants Gallery

Picton Harbor
Our exit from Queenstown seemingly was like a marathon. We scheduled ourselves to drive from Queenstown all the way to Picton, where we were to catch the ferry for the North Island the next morning. This is 822 kilometers (493 miles) of two lane road, lots of traffic, and much of it on twisting roads. The maps say is should take over 12 hours of driving. So we could get into Picton at a decent hour we decided to leave at 6 a.m.

Even with standard time now in effect in New Zealand, the sun really doesn’t get rolling until about 8 a.m. Thus we spent two hours of driving north to Omarama in the black of the late night-early morning. There are some good things and some bad things about this experience. The good thing is that none of the blankety blank slow moving campers are not on the road. The bad thing is that those who are on the road are mostly natives who are driving much faster than you because of familiarity with the road. I just hate it when those bright lights are bearing down impatiently in your rear view mirror. From Omarama we took a new route to the Pacific Coast which turned out to be a very good highway with little traffic and few curves.

Highway 83 and 82 took us to Timaru on the coast where we joined Highway 1 for the run all the way to Picton. Along the coast we were in rolling plains with immaculate farms. We were able to skirt around Christchurch with little delay and then on up the coast to Blenheim and Picton, the Marlborough wine region of the South Island. We stayede overnight in Picton which has a very picturesque harbor and small downtown.

After a good nights sleep (my fingers were finally uncurling from gripping the steering wheel) we got in the queue for the Interislander ferry. This ferry had a train deck on the bottom. For some reason we were one of the lucky selected cars to fill in between the train cars. This required us backing on to the ferry. More fun! It was a quiet sunny trip to Wellington. We then headed out of Wellington and on to Highway 1 up the west coast of the North Island to Wanganui. The city is a regional province center and has been around since the 1840’s. They have done a good job maintaining their historical downtown, large parks, and public buildings, all along the Wanganui River. A very pleasant day after the marathon!

Quirky Living Note: As you travel around the South Island, you see signs warning about DIDYMO. I couldn’t pass up this one, particularly when a DIDYMO inspector visited us when we were waiting for the Interislander ferry. You have always wanted to know that DIDYMO is more commonly known here as rock snot. Didymosphenia geminata, commonly known as didymo or rock snot, is a species of diatom that grows in warm and shallow water. If it overgrows, it can form large mats on the bottom of lakes, rivers and streams. It is not considered a significant human health risk, but it can affect stream habitats and sources of food for fish and make recreational activities unpleasant. It is considered a nuisance organism or invasive species. The microscopic algae can be spread in a single drop of water. This looks like a problem similar to milfoil in Washington State.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Te Anau

Breathtaking Scenery

The Southern Alps in all their glory

Lake Te Anau

We were spending only two days in Queenstown so we decided to do a driving trip on our second day to maximize what we could see of the Southern Alps. This forfeited the chance to visit the Milford Sound (I know, what a bad travel agent I was) but, that is something we will just save for some future trip to New Zealand. A whole itinerary doing the west coast of the South Island would not be a bad idea. You could fly into Queenstown, and then visit Doubtful Sound, Milford Sound, Fox Glacier, Franz Josef, and possibly Mt. Cook. It would be a heck of a trip if you had good weather.

Te Anau is 170 kilometers south and west of Queenstown. The road goes next to Lake Wakapitu, which is the very large lake upon which Queenstown sits, providing wonderful vistas of the mountains. Upon leaving the lake it goes through several wonderful valleys that have immaculate farms raising cattle, tens of thousands of sheep and deer. The road fishhooks to the west and comes back north to Te Anau.

The community is at the foot of the lake of the same name which then goes north for probably 60 kilometers. North of Te Anau the road is the only highway into Milford Sound. We went as far as Te Anau Downs which is about half way up the lake. All the views along the lake are to the towering east side of the Southern Alps. At any location to or from Te Anau you have great vistas of high rocky mountains.

South of Te Anau we did a little loop on one of the designated scenic highways through Manapouri. It provides scenes across Lake Manapouri to the very high peaks surrounding Doubtful Sound and the Fiordlands National Park. If we had continued on the scenic highway, rather than cutting back to Queenstown, it would eventually have taken us to Invercargill at the very southern tip of the South Island.

To finish off the day on returning to Queenstown, we drove up to the small gold mining town of Arrowtown. When the gold ran out it has been converted into a crafts village somewhat similar to Winthrop, Washington.

Quirky Living Note: Anywhere you travel in New Zealand you see thousands of sheep, sometimes literally thousands in a single pasture. Mary Ann and I were talking during the drive today about how you would think with all this wool, that wool products would be inexpensive. In Ireland they are, so shouldn’t New Zealand also have bargains? They do have beautiful products, many of very high quality merino wool. But the prices are also very high. We have not seen a full wool sweater under $200 NZ.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Heading Further South

Downtown Queenstown

Sally & Tony Fodie with Mary Ann

On the River into Queenstown

In Queenstown - View from our hotel

With our navigator being very efficient we made a fast getaway from Christchurch today. Through the flat lands of the Canterbury Plain and then headed up into the South Southern Alps. When we got to the lakes at the foothills of Mt. Cook, it was unfortunately overcast and as we say when in Seattle, the mountain was not out.

On towards the south to Omarana where we had a special reason to stop. Several years ago Barb and Jerry Gibbons had been visiting New Zealand and became acquainted with a lady ferry boat captain on the Auckland – Devonport run. Sally and her husband Tony became good friends resulting in the Gibbons visiting their home and eventually their new friends visited Wenatchee. Upon retirement they moved to Omarana and opening a gift store. We stopped and passed on greetings from Barb and Jerry and had a wonderful conversation before continuing to Queenstown. Sally has published a wonderful book of the great stories of being a Ferry Boat Captain (the first woman in the fleet) titled Waitemata Ferry Tales. She generously gave us a copy and I am already enjoying her humor and her history on the boats.

By that time the sun was out and the remaining drive through the gorges and over the rivers to Queenstown was great. When you see and visit Queenstown it just takes your breath away. Some of the great cities by the water, Cape Town, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Hong Kong, and Wellington all have their beauty and charms, but Mary Ann and I think that Queenstown may top the list. As you see the photos published with the blog it will make you want to visit without delay.

In the evening my timing was good, and I was able to visit the Queenstown Rotary Club. It is a club of about 80 members. They were informed of the Australian-New Zealand Rotary Pacific area child surgery project and the plans for a 2009 Winter Olympics pre-event contest to be held in the Queenstown (Otago) region in August about 6 months prior to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Quirky Driving Note: The roadway billboard advice today was "Arrive Alive - Drive to Survive.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Easter at the Cathedral

Great Pipes!

As our Christchurch apartment is about three blocks from the Anglican Cathedral, the dramatic icon of Cathedral Square, it is only appropriate that we celebrated Easter by attending their Festival Easter Day Eucharist. We arrived about 20 minutes early, expecting a large Easter attendance and we were not disappointed. The sanctuary is huge, as cathedrals are wont to be, and it was packed from front to back and side to side. This was not only an Easter service, but we found much more was going on with the future of the Cathedral.

We learned that the Bishop, Dr. David Coles, was preaching his final sermon on his last day as Bishop. To top that it was his 65th birthday landing on the conclusion of his 18 years as Bishop of Christchurch. He will be going to Queenstown as pastor of a local church. This week his replacement (by a very convoluted election in the Anglican denomination) was announced, and will be the Rt. Rev. Victoria Mathews, who is presently the bishop-in-residence in Wycliffe College in Toronto, Canada, and who until last year had been the Bishop of Edmonton.

To make the day even more dramatic, the Dean (the pastor in charge of the Cathedral congregation), Peter Beck, was serving his last Sunday before leaving for a 3 month sabbatical where he and his wife will be walking the ancient pilgrimage of Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. If the church was not going to have enough of a transition, the Associate Dean Diana Rattray, will be leaving in June for her installation as pastor in Ponsonby (a neighborhood in Auckland).

As often can be viewed in high church Anglican worship, this service was magnificent. The Cathedral Choir, composed of high pitched young boys, and older men singing tenor and bass was wonderful. The Bishop’s sermon was excellent and the entire pageantry with probably 50 people participating in putting on the service with candles, banners, readers, and colorful robes was inspiring. The conclusion was emotional with gifts being exchanged from and to the Bishop, along with his final words of thanks and farewell. The entire production was flawless, which included communion for the hundreds of worshipers in the Cathedral.

To top off the day we decided to attend the Festal Evensong at the Cathedral. This is an Anglican service that dates back to the 16th century where the choir and minister sing the whole service, except for the Apostles’ Creed, Confession, and sermon. With the beautiful acoustics of the Cathedral, it was another wonderful service. To enhance the singing the church has a magnificent organ used to great effect. A very inspiring Easter Day.

Cathedral Facts: The Christchurch Cathedral is over 125 years old and is the most visited church building in New Zealand. Over 660,000 people visit the Cathedral each year. For a lot of information visit:

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happenings Over a Couple of Days

Sumner Rock and beach

The Tram Through a Pedestrian Alley

Punting in the park

The customs of a country are always interesting to experience. This weekend is Easter and New Zealand takes this as a four day weekend. Good Friday and Easter Monday are official holidays. As it is the fall here and March is the equivalent of September in the Northern Hemisphere, this weekend could be considered the last hurrah of summer, somewhat like our Labor Day holiday. But when they declare a holiday like Good Friday, it is a real holiday and nearly everything shuts down, like Christmas or New Years. No big box store or mall sales. Everything except a few restaurants were closed. A couple of years ago we experienced this four day Easter holiday when we were in South Africa. Now on Saturday, that is not the official holiday, so many of the stores are open again, and the downtown has come back to life.

The weather on Good Friday was another warm sunny day. We went on another of the three hour Mary Ann forced marches. We hiked out of the downtown up toward where the Avon River was starting towards the ocean. The hike then proceeded on the river paths back into and through the downtown to the Botanic Gardens on the west side of the central business district. The trees, lawns, river and views, as the Avon wanders through the city, were remarkable. When we reached the Botanic Gardens we explored it much more thoroughly, along with hundreds of the Christchurchians. Hmmm, maybe that is not a word.

We found that the Christchurch Art Gallery was open and it was a pleasant surprise. They have an extensive historical art section showing off the works of Christchurch, Canterbury, and New Zealand artists. Some of them, although not household names like the Dutch or French, are very good. It is a very new building in the Culture Precinct and architecturally striking.

Saturday started out pretty cloudy and raining a bit, but that did not stop us exploring the Pacific beach areas of Christchurch. We drove the mm to Sumner and then up to New Brighton. Good sandy beaches which we are sure would be packed if a sunny day. Even with the cool weather there were a lot of crazies trying to learn how to surf.

Quirky Living Note: I was reading a sign in a store window promoting a child care music program. The mothers, or stay at home dads, were being tempted with the closing line of “followed by a cuppa and a time to chat.” How can you stay away from the Tippy Toes Preschool Music with a come-on like that!

How is the Blog Doing?

Tom beside the mm

I have never been someone who “journals” or who kept a diary. Writing for the blog is, however, somewhat like that. I admit I really do enjoy it, and knowing I will be writing, makes me much more observant about our travels. The Tom Off The Bench blog also has married me daily to the laptop. The subject matter of the postings also have become the subject matter of other articles that I have, and will be writing, for those publications that are kind enough to print my observations and opinions.

What does amaze me is how many people read it on a daily or weekly basis. At the bottom of the blog, if you scroll all the way down there, you will see a sitemeter logo. Click on the logo and you will be sent to another page where there are all sorts of categories describing the visitors. It is fun for me to see who visited on a weekly basis, and then go to the location pages to see where they are from. You can also bring up the maps and see the visitors graphically around the U.S., or the world.

Last year, while living in Mexico, I posted 52 articles over the approximate 12 weeks we were in San Miguel de Allende, or traveling to or from. From the start of the blog until I wrote this posting there have been 1082 visits. Of that number, 379 have visited during the time we have been in New Zealand. I know there are a lot of hits that come from people who are just interested in other people’s blogs, and enter by searching This became apparent when reviewing the locations of where the visitors were from. I certainly do not know people in all of those locations! A sample of the countries over the past 100 hits has included:

Austria, Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Panama, Turkey, New Zealand,
Indonesia, Netherlands, United States, Spain, Japan, Italy, Brunei, Canada,
India, Australia, Portugal United Kingdom, Israel, Romania, France, Ukraine,
Chile, Poland, Hong Kong, Myanmar (Burma)

On the “by Location” section it also gives you the city of where in the country the visitor was from. It is fun to see, so check it out. See you on the blog!

Another Missed Opportunity

Hanmer Springs

Hanmer River just out of Hanmer Springs

When we were in Baden Baden, Germany, we had the chance to bask in grand splendor in the thermal baths originally used by European royalty. We passed up the decadent soaking. When we were in Pamukele, Turkey we could have wallowed in the steaming mud and purged all the bad things from our bodies. Nope. Today we drove about 125 kilometers to Hanmer Springs, located Northwest of Christchurch on the Lewis Pass highway to the Tasman Sea West coast. It is famous for its mineral springs, skiing, and lots of adventure chances.

I dutifully told Mary Ann about the spa opportunity. Her reply was “the swim suits are packed in the bottom suitcase with the stuff we are not using.” As a man who can read between the lines I interpreted this as “No way Mate!” Three chances and three missed opportunities can only be interpreted as “it is not in the cards”. As we do not use the hot tub at Riverwalk this should be a sign that we are not going spa-ing.

In any case, the drive was beautiful, through rolling hills, into the canyons winding up to the Southern Alps. Hanmer Springs is dedicated to only one pursuit – outdoor pleasure. The thermal springs are open to the public, with a lot of pools to enjoy. Hotels and lodges all over the village and adventure merchants are everywhere. If you did nothing and just lay around it would be a great day.

To get another culture fix we went to an improv play at the Court Forge Theatre in the evening. The title was Pulp William. Three guys combine Shakespeare with music, fun, and a bit of slapstick. The thread is that they ask the audience for help with a script by asking for an occupation (marine biologist), a Shakespeare play (Taming of the Shrew), something philosophical (if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there…), and something small to put in a briefcase (ipod). They then improv the play by making it work with all of the selected subjects. It was a lot of fun and for a modest $15 NZ per person.

Quirky Living Note: In a lot of stores I have seen a sign that said EFTPOS. I was pretty sure this was not some political commentary the effete dead possum. I finally had to ask and learned it is a New Zealand debit card system. What had also been confusing me was sometimes the signs said NO EFTPOS, and sometimes it just said EFTPOS. And the definition is? Drum roll please. Electronic Funds Transfer at Point Of Sale.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Back to the Culture Precinct

In the Botanical Gardens

The iSite in Cathedral Square

Canterbury Museum

The Christchurch downtown core, between Cathedral Square and the Botanical Garden, is referred to as the Culture Precinct. I assume this is a local term for a neighborhood. I needed to get back to the Court Theatre in the Arts Centre to pick up some theatre tickets. This may have been a mistake as it let Mary Ann back into all the arts and crafts shops in the buildings of the former Canterbury College.

After our cappuccino break it was like an explosion when the lightning struck her. Wham, kazam, we were the owners of another major piece of art work by a local Christchurch artist. I do confess I may have aided and abetted the purchase. She handled me like a car salesman: which do you like best, object A or object B. I don’t recall being asked the yes or no question. While the artist saleslady (it was a co-op where all the participating artists have a day of work) was kindly wrapping object B, we went on to the Botanical Gardens.

The Botanical Gardens are a part of the larger huge Hagley Park System and it is impressive. We walked a portion of it and were amazed of the condition of the flowers in the middle of the local fall. The Avon River flows through the park and with the great weather we had today there was a lot of action on and around the river. The natives were enjoying sitting on the grass, having lunch, punting and paddling on the river and generally making a great day of it.

At the edge of the garden is the Canterbury Museum. It was a good museum showing the history of the area and some great artifacts. It also is the repository for a lot of the materials retrieved from the various expeditions to the Antarctic. By this time I was shopped, walked, and museumed out, so it was time for a nice lunch at the Gardeners Cottage restaurant on a corner of the Botanical Garden. I needed a nap after all this culture and shopping trauma.

Quirky Living Note: Being formerly trained as a tank unit commander, when in the U.S Army, a tank driving adventure really appeals to me. Should I sign up? The ultimate off-road driving experience. Bad day at the office? Let off some steam with the ultimate tank driving adventure ‘tanks for everything’- the only place in New Zealand where you actually get to drive a 52 ton battle tank! They’ve got a range of other wild and wonderful military vehicles you can take for a spin on their custom off-road track.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Adventure Touring Update

I know, I know, I have been having a little fun with the adventure-eco tour options. However a lot of people do enjoy this and there seemingly are some great adventure companies and the programs they offer. When on the TranzAlpine train I met Chris, a very nice guy from a suburb of Toronto who was on a four week jaunt around both islands. He seemed to be in his late 30’s and was experiencing his first trip out of North America. He had previously been a forester in Revelstoke, British Columbia and obviously had a lot of outdoor experience. He was also visiting some acquaintances (including a New Zealand Olympic sculler) in New Zealand, so had people to stay with to break up the trip.

Chris’ formula was to book with an adventure tour company who took you from camping, climbing, or eco event by van or bus dropping you off for the event and then you can hop on a similar bus a few days later. He said the groups he was in varied from 10 to 26. He now works in commercial refrigeration (maybe not as active as when he was foresting) and he was wondering when dirty, sore, and blistered exactly why he was doing this. He did hike, climb, crawl on rocks, sleep in tents, river raft, sand surf and generally have a good time.

When in the Queenstown area, he booked parasailing, skydiving, and helicoptering over the Milford Sound and glaciers. Unfortunately, after waiting for the weather, he never got to face these death defying pursuits. Bummer, but I’m sure his mother is happy. He will just have to return sometime for this type of extreme fun. I of course, gave Chris a lot of good advice about world traveling, and I’m pretty sure he is hooked. I don’t know whether any of the following are good or bad (you might check for the Qualmark New Zealand fern symbol which is an endorsement by the New Zealand tourist authority) but it is a sample of the companies for this type of traveling:

Quirky Living Note: Another option for traveling in New Zealand is the RV. Here the self drive traveling hotel room is called a caravan. It is very popular for people who want “some” out of doors, don’t want the hassle of hotels, but still want to drive the country. If I selected this travel alternative I would also be investing in a divorce. My intrepid navigator seems to think RV’s and motor homes were invented by men who think it is really cool for the little woman to cook, clean, and continue waiting on the man of the house, while he sits back and has a beer and enjoys sitting outdoors in a lawn chair. Now the mm (modest Mazda) isn’t much, but it also is not the campervan like shown above. I am still married to the same woman! If you want a similar campervan check out

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Qualmark Tourism Rating

In the tourist industry in New Zealand, the goal seems to be to receive a Qualmark endorsement. This seems to be the stamp of approval of the hotel, activity, or business. The site and logo are promoted as New Zealand’s “official” quality tourism website. In the printed maps, brochures, and tourist free guides, the logo is very visible. You can check out the system at

TranzAlpine Rail Journey

The Engineer Boarding the train

The Southern Alps

Headed to Arthur's Pass

I have to admit that I am a real railroad junkie. Riding the rails is a great way to travel. Obviously, I am waiting for my children to give me one of the great rail journeys of the world. Maybe Vovos Rail in South Africa, the Oriental Express, or its equivalent in Asia. As a frugal traveler I have never quite bit the bullet for the high end rail journey. Besides, I don’t own a tuxedo.

When you visit New Zealand, there isn’t the luxury rail trip alternative, but there are a couple of fantastic scenic options. Even Frommer has described the TranzAlpine trip from Christchurch to Greymouth as one of the top five scenic trips in the world. In the brochure the New Zealand passenger rail company describes the trip as “Meeting the challenge of the mountains.” The trip goes completely across the South Island from the Pacific to the Tasman Sea and crosses a high pass through the Southern Alps.

As usual with our wonderful luck it was a glorious sunny day. I can imagine that it could be a very dreary day if cloudy or raining. The train, which is very nice, but not a luxury offering, is about 10 cars with the front and back split by an open viewing car so you can take unobstructed photos. For those of you who need to take videos and photos, it does become very crowded and the height challenged Mary Ann had some trouble getting to the rail because of the tall blokes.

You are assigned seats, and it appeared we were going to have a nearly empty car, so we would be able to move around from front view to back view and side to side. Au contraire as just before the train was to leave a tour bus of people showed up and took every other seat in the car. The good news was that they left the train at Arthur’s Pass and rejoined their bus. If you are inclined to coach tours take a look at their website: So we did have delightful space for the rest of the 4 ½ hour trip to Greymouth.

The journey first crosses the Canterbury Plain with handsome farming and grazing lands, and then proceeds along the Waimakariri River and through the very deep Waimakariri Gorge. This provides for terrific bridges and tunnels with panoramic views of the mountains. We were somewhat surprised that the mountains were not quite alp like. It was more like going over the U.S. Rocky Mountains without any snow covered peaks. We must be too early in the fall. Along the route are sheep and cattle stations, former mining areas and no development. The ride down the Tasman Sea side goes through the Grey River valley and into Greymouth; hmmm the river must empty into the sea there. Greymouth is the largest town on the west coast with a population of about 12,000.

You spend an hour in Greymouth before the journey back. We had lunch and Mary Ann left her jacket (you remember the one she now loves and which we searched so diligently for in Auckland) in the café. She ran to the café (telling me to not let the train leave) and found that the café lady had taken it to the train. She thankfully retrieved it from the staff when we got back to Arthur’s Pass. We had a pleasant and full train on the way back. I had a great conversation with a young fellow from Toronto, but that will be another story. The whole excursion was about 10 hours and was certainly worth the investment. For this and other trips on the rail system go to

Quirky Living Note: The train has a café counter in one of the cars. It actually has quite modest prices and their menu at each seat touts the offering as Snacks on the Tracks