Tuesday, January 29, 2008
We've been back home in Calgary for a bit over a month now - enough time to get the entire trip documented on a blog and to put it all in perspective. Part of the perspective is that today in Calgary it reached a high of -28 C (-48 C if you consider the wind chill factor). Pretty darn cold! I don't think it ever gets that cold anywhere in New Zealand! So for that alone, it's a great place to be.
What did we really think? New Zealand is very much like the west coast - BC squished into an island. We like BC, we liked New Zealand.
What did we like about it?
It has beautiful and varied scenery. If you take a look at our pix, you should, I hope, notice that there is quite a variety of geography - mountain ranges, volcanic features, rural pastoral settings, urban landscapes, ocean and inland.
The people were friendly and it was easy to navigate, notwithstanding having to drive on the "wrong" side of the road. There is no language barrier - aside from a few "Kiwi-isms" communication is not a challenge. The biggest centre is Auckland - 1.4 million - but somehow it didn't seem that big. So it's not intimidating in terms of trying to find your way around a huge city.
New Zealand gets a lot of rain. We had our share, but we were prepared with umbrellas and raincoats and managed to find activities that pleased us in spite of the rain. The upside is that the place is green and the drinking water is excellent! No bottled water needed here!
We agree with Craig's assessment that the South Island is where you go for natural beauty and the North Island is more for cultural activity. That's not to say that you can't have both on each Island - that's just the dominant impression. We liked it all, but Dunedin, Fiordland and Wellington were outstanding.
There are many activites that one can indulge in with enough time and cash. For example, I would have liked to go kayaking and "swim with the dolphins" - but it wasn't warm enough for me and we didn't have the time to spare. Also, we would have liked to spend more time in lots of places. So for these reasons, it would be nice to go back sometime.
What's not so great?
New Zealand is not about the food. We found the restaurant food to be rather uninspired and expensive. Come to that, we felt the place was expensive in general. However, that is relative. One fellow we encountered was from Germany and he felt New Zealand is cheap - he'd love Canada - I'm not sure we'd like Germany!
I know part of the price issue was "sticker shock" - NZ$1.00 = C$0.80 - so things would be more expensive right off the bat. But, as an example, gas was NZ$1.70/litre pretty well everywhere, which works out to about C$1.36 and gas around Calgary at that time was about C$1.00/litre. New Zealand has a small population base of only about 4 million, so it's hard to get economies of scale going. In addition, most consumer goods are imported and the significant value added that is produced in NZ is exported. That adds up to more costly goods.
Another thing we learned is that while the price you pay is the sticker price, that price includes a 12.5% goods and services tax - on everything. Apparently New Zealanders are heavily taxed in general.
But if you're going to play, you've got to pay. So if you go, be prepared to pay a bit more for most things and in some cases a lot more.
If you go take a minimum of three weeks. We had about 22 days and it really wasn't enough time. But we did see a lot of things and came away feeling that we have a good idea of what the place is like. To really do the country justice and to be able to see ALL of it, probably a minimum of six weeks would be required.
I'm not a planner - no agenda for me. The only advance planning we did was to arrange for a car and the beginning and end accommodations. Other than that we just made it up as we went. We didn't have any problem securing accommodation and I think we would have been able to find a place in Auckland without a reservation - I just didn't know that for sure and I didn't want to end up sleeping in the car! We weren't there during peak tourist season, so it may be a bit different in January, which is on or about peak summer.
There were three of us, so we tried to get "family suites" at motels. This worked out really well as they all had little kitchens where we could make our own meals. Given that we weren't terribly inspired by the restaurants, we usually would stop in at a grocery store and get what we needed for breakfast and often for lunch and/or dinner as well. In spite of my comments about New Zealand being more expensive than Canada, we found the motel accomodation was quite comparable in terms of price - a good thing.
One other recommendation that we have is to take advantage of bus tours. We've done this in a number of cities and have never been disappointed. They are priced reasonably and are a very efficient way to see the "must see" attractions of a city. Many are "hop on, hop off" meaning that if one place interests you, you can get off the bus, take some time to look around, then catch another bus as it comes by.
Mary's Travel Tips
Take a raincoat! That's probably the best thing I took.
Take old stuff. I took old T-shirts and towels. They are still there! I left them behind so I could bring back some of Craig's things and the few items that we bought and still fit into one suitcase.
I also picked up a few used books at the library - $4 for a few books and I left them behind as I read them.
I bought an inflatable "neck pillow" - I used it all the time! On the plane, in the car. It was great! Highly recommended for traveling.
Now that you ask...
New Zealand capitalizes on its environmental attractions, "adventure" sports (kayaking, hiking, etc.), and "extreme" sports (bungee jumping, speed boats, etc.) and on the North Island the Kiwis cash in on their Maori history.
The bottom line is the bottom line. We were tourists - we paid for the privilege of going on a number of "cruises" to see some beautiful scenery, and were willing to pay to go whale watching. We also paid to see some birds (penguins and albatross) and we paid to attended an evening of Maori entertainment.
I felt the prices for these things were not outrageous, although it does get expensive after awhile as each tour and activity adds up. (As an aside, most of the museums were free, although they encourage donations.) But I didn't mind paying because if the local people can make a living by keeping their natural environment intact, they will keep it intact. For example, the penguin colony we visited near Dunedin is on a private farm. If the farmers were not making a good living from the penguin colony, they would not be reforesting their land and would continue to run sheep where the penguins are now. Essentially, over time, the penguins at that site would disappear.
Same thing goes for Fiordland - there are lots of nice trees there - one option would be to cut 'em down, but keeping this region as a national park and allowing tour companies to run their operations there is the option they've chosen. The forests are preserved and people can still make a living.
The downside of ecotourism is that a steady stream of tourists into an area may not be a good thing either. Price has a way of controlling that - charge a little more and fewer people will want to pay the price.
Excellent vacation. We'd go again and recommend it to others.
Enjoy the blog - there is a post for each day we were there - December 4 to 26. First day is at the bottom so you'll have to do a bit of navigating to get there. To get to the beginning, click on the arrow by the "2007" on the bar to the right, then click on the arrow by the (6). The posts will drop down. Select the one you want.
Monday, January 28, 2008
We finished the packing that we'd started the night before, loaded up the little Corolla, and checked out of the motel. We had a few hours to kill before we needed to be at the airport. Our first thought was to go to the local mall (in the three plus weeks, we actually had not spent any quality time doing "mall" shopping so hadn't experienced that part of the local culture), but it was Boxing Day. Well - you know what Boxing Day shopping is like - if you can get a parking spot. Since we weren't that desperate, we gave up on playing parking lot bumper cars and left. We basically just started driving around. We found this place...
This is "Pou Kapua Taonga" - it's like a totem pole. It has some Easter Island type statues at its base. The sun was at the wrong angle to get a decent pix - check out the website.
TelstraClear Pacific - the facility.
Not sure where this was - somewhere on our drive.
Then we found a park... more birds, folks! Craig took most of the following pix. Actually - probably all of them.
Pukeko! Two adults and baby. We don't know if they were related, or just hanging out together. There were quite a few of them. Craig was very pleased.
Friday, January 25, 2008
True confessions: it didn't seem like Christmas - no snow, not cold, not at home...
The tour bus was still running, albeit with a skeleton staff and only the main loop, but that was good enough for us. We "hopped on" at our motel, and went right downtown. It started off as a rather cool, overcast day and just got worse after that.
Our initial plan was to go to Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World and Antarctic Encounter (as that was one of the very few things opened on Christmas Day), "hop on" the bus again and go down to the harbour front, then "hop off" and wander around the Auckland harbour. However, as the day progressed, the rain simply increased. As I have said before, I'm a fair weather person, and the guys weren't too keen to slog around in the pouring rain either, so we stayed at the aquarium until the last bus back downtown and caught our shuttle back to the motel.
Let's get on with Kelly Tarlton's, shall we?
Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World and Antarctic Encounter
Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World is an aquarium in Auckland, New Zealand. It is all underground and within the walls of Auckland City's sewage holding tanks, unused since 1961. It opened on January 25 1985.Kelly Tarlton, an avid diver, treasure hunter and undersea explorer, was responsible for the Underwater World concept and construction.Construction took 10 months and cost $3 million. Kelly Tarlton died suddenly of a heart attack on March 17, 1985, seven weeks after the Underwater World opened.Large sharks, stingrays and 1500 fish of forty different species may be viewed through a 114 metre-long underwater plexiglass tunnel in a figure-of-eight shape. The plexiglass is 7 centimetres thick.
As the note says, the place was built underground in an unused water treatment plant, which I think is brilliant. Aside from the sign, the parking lot and a door, it cannot be seen from the road. We went through the door, paid our admission and ventured forth.
The complex has six feature areas. The first area is like a museum dedicated Robert Scott's expedition to the South Pole. We whizzed through that - sorry Robert.
The second area is the "Frozen Wonderland," which houses two types of Antarctic penguins: King and Gentoo penguins.
King Penguins are the ones with the yellow and orange colouring, Gentoo are attired in the more traditional black and white only with a touch of red.
A few words about the Penguin Colony. I'm sure when the place was conceived and constructed back in the early to mid-eighties, it was really "cool" (pardon the pun!). But to us, the set-up seemed rather corny - sort of like a low budget Universal Studios ride. To see the penguins, they put you in what is supposed to be a "snow cat." Without going into a 2000 word essay to describe the ride, I'll just say that the thing runs on tracks, circles the penguin enclosure, involves a very unrealistic "white out" (wind blown snow), and a lunging killer whale.
The penguins are fine, but if I were advising the KT folks, I would suggest that they get rid of the lame theatrics, expand the penguin space (which would be easy if they got rid of all that snow cat track and the theatrics) and put a huge picture window across the front where they already have a few very tiny porthole type windows. This would give the penguins more space and visitors would be able to see what's going on a lot better. It really needs to be modernized. So if anyone from KT's is reading this -take this back as a suggestion to the management!
The third main area is "Sting Ray Bay." This is a newer feature and is really nice. It's a very large tank that ranges in depth from about 3 feet to maybe ten feet (1 to 3 m). As the name suggests, it is home to a variety of sting rays. These fish are really interesting to watch as they "fly" through the water. The staff periodically feeds them and this is fun to watch as they come in for their snacks.
We found that the lighting conditions (low light) and the continuous movement of the fish made it difficult to get any good still pix, but Joe discovered he could get some decent video using the video feature of our camera. The following pix are single frames from video clips, so they are not as high quality (in terms of resolution, that is!) as our other pix.
The fourth area is the "Underwater World." This was probably our favorite part of KT's. The concept is that the visitors traverse a tunnel under the water. Check the Kelly Tarlton's website for details relating to this - it's really neat. There is a conveyor belt that you can stand on and it moves through the tunnel. There is also a walkway, so you can walk at a speed that suits you if the conveyor belt is not to your liking. The idea is that the fish swim beside and over you.
The tank is divided into a number of sections, the first one holds the sharks! They are local sharks and I think it may be a sort of catch and release system - at least for some of them. None of them are extremely large or particularly scary, although I imagine if I didn't have some Plexiglas between me and them I might feel differently! They have School Shark, Sevengill, Wobbegong and, Bronze Whaler sharks. I'll leave it to you to check the website info on each type.
The other tank sections house a variety of fish and sea turtles. Again, I'll let you check out the details.
Lunch time! Again we were amused by the antics. The turtles, especially, were quite demanding!
The fifth area is the "Sea Creatures" section. This is a series of relatively small tanks to display smaller fish. Most are really interesting. We didn't get pix of all of them, but here's a sample.
Puffer Fish and Lion Fish.
Crayfish - like lobsters but without the big claws.
And the sixth area? That would be the gift shop, of course! No tourist place would be complete without one!
As I mentioned, we spent most of our day at the aquarium. This was not a hardship for me - I've always been a sucker for fish and water. Christmas is a good day to go - it wasn't crowded! I think it would have been a lot less fun on a busy day. Notwithstanding my comments regarding the penguins - the place is worth a visit if you like that sort of thing.
We were disappointed that we didn't get to spend some quality time in downtown Auckland as we had planned, but it was just too wet.
We had dinner at the restaurant in the motel visiting with some other travellers, which was quite nice. I was disappointed that the motel restaurant didn't have a special Christmas dinner - just their regular menu - but aside from that we weren't suffering!
Thursday, January 24, 2008
So much to do, so little time! I had my agenda: see Auckland and finish shopping (which was actually to get gifts for family and friends). Not necessarily in that order. Keep in mind this was Christmas Eve Day and we were leaving Boxing Day.
Strategy is everything in a time crunch. And we had a strategy: bus tour of the city. Specifically the Auckland Explorer Bus. A shuttle bus picked us up at our motel and drove us to the Auckland Museum (Oh my gosh, another museum!). From there we got on the main tour bus, which took us around to the top attractions. The entire tour is two loops of about one hour each. So we did the entire tour, then doubled back to a trendy shopping area. We all had lunch together then Craig got back on the bus and went to the Museum. Joe and I went shopping for an hour or so. Then we walked back to the museum to meet Craig.
From our shuttle bus - our driver (Craig took this pix).
We saw quite a bit from the bus, but due to time constraints (we had to be back to the Museum by 4 pm to catch the shuttle bus back to our motel) we didn't get out much. So the pix are from a distance and show Auckland, not individual buildings and places as we could do in other places.
First - about Auckland - "City of Sails":
The Auckland metropolitan area or Greater Auckland, in the North Island of New Zealand, is the largest urban area of the country. It is also New Zealand's most populous city with approximately 1.3 million residents, over a quarter of the country's population, and demographic trends indicate that it will continue growing faster than the rest of the country. Auckland also has the largest Polynesian population of any city in the world.
So here is Auckland from a bus tour...
Sky Tower - pix by Craig.
At 328 metres Sky Tower is the tallest tower in the Southern Hemisphere, offering breath-taking views for more than 80 kilometres in every direction.
These "hills" are actually volcanoes - the city has grown up around something like 18 of them.
Museum grounds (pix by Craig).
Museum again (pix by Craig).
Joe and I didn't spend much time at the Museum, but Craig did and he liked it. He was also happy that he found an out-of-publication book by a paleontologist that he met at Te Papa. The book, naturally enough, is about New Zealand dinosaurs and other extinct NZ fauna.
A good thing about the bus tours is that they are pretty reasonable, you can "hop on, hop off" as long as the buses run and in this case, for another $NZ15 you can purchase a second day, which is what we did. Our plan was to "save" the things that were only opened on Christmas Day for the next day. So we went back to our motel with the plan to "hop on" the bus again on Christmas Day and resume our tour of Auckland.