Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Sydney and Auckland Trip Report 2014

I've already written a short review, mainly of the cruise portion of our trip in my previous post.  This report will focus more on the land part of our trip.

So, to start at the beginning: we flew from Michigan to LA and spent the night at the airport Hilton before our long flight across the Pacific.  That evening we treated ourselves and ate dinner at the iconic space-age Encounter Restaurant at the airport. It has a unique look you would recognize if you saw a photo of it anywhere. I was surprised that the food was pretty good and nicely presented, because the clientele didn't appear to be the type looking for expensive fine dining. There were a couple of kids playing at a table. Some people had luggage near them and everyone was dressed casually. It was not very full. The waiter told us the restaurant had been bought and would be revamped in the next weeks. It will be interesting to see what they do with it.

Because our flight to Auckland wasn't to depart until 9pm we had purchased a late check-out from the Hilton and had a leisurely breakfast and lunch.  Late in the afternoon our traveling companions, who drove in from San Diego met us at the hotel and together we took the hotel shuttle to the Air New Zealand terminal. Our flight had been included in the cruise price, but we paid a bit extra to upgrade to premium economy.

Premium economy was SO worth it! Two seats occupied the space of what normally be three seats in coach. The seats were leather and wrapped around you. You could choose two seats slightly facing each other with a little armrest/table in the middle (for couples) or seats facing away from each other on the side configuration. All seats were totally private - I could not see another person. We had all the amenities of first class except that our seats didn't recline completely. Our entertainment package, service, food were all the same as first class, starting with champagne, then appetisers, entrée, dessert. There was a huge entertainment menu, with TV shows, movies, music. It certainly made the 12 hour flight to Auckland much more bearable.

Once in Auckland, we transferred to another 3-1/2 hour flight to Sydney. Our cruiseline (Regent Seven Seas) had us at The Four Seasons in Sydney and we were happy to finally arrive in our room to find a lovely tray with wine, cheese, crackers, nuts and fruit, along with a welcome letter from the hotel manager. We had a perfect view of the Opera House from our hotel window.  The breakfast buffet was included in our package and was just lovely. There is a great place right across the street from the hotel called Jacksons on George that has amazing Irish pub food and we ended up eating there numerous times. Try the lamb shanks or the steak and kidney pie with yummy mashed potatoes and a nice glass of ale!  We kept finding Georg's name on everything (a throwback to when Australia was settled by the English.)

I always walk for hours on the first morning to get my bearings and do my photography and this was no exception.  I was up at sunrise to take photos of the Opera House before it got too crowded. It was great walking around the harbor watching the food workers set up their stalls and workmen wash the sidewalks. Everything was pristine. Soon people were piling on the ferries, going to work or to the beaches. There are tons of restaurants in the area to choose from. Later the four of us returned to eat at the Opera Bar. They had it set up like an Australian barbeque and had clean white underwear hung from all the umbrellas to simulate washlines. The atmosphere was cordial and festive. There was lots of different food to choose from. I chose sushi.

From the Opera House we walked through the Botanical Gardens, admiring the water views and the enormous ficus trees. The hotel was near The Rocks, a good place to seek out souvenirs that are a little out of the ordinary. I purchased a boomerang for my grandson with an Aboriginal design burned onto it and also a black and white shoulder bag with a similar design.

 We had purchased tickets in advance online to have Breakfast With the Koalas at the Wildlife Sydney Zoo in Darling Harbor. I wasn't expecting to enjoy myself as much as I did. We were admitted early so as to enjoy the place before it was open to the public. The breakfast was decent, the staff were extremely friendly and helpful and, although we were not able to actually hold a Koala, we were at least able to get really close to them and I took some great photos. The price includes a photo that they take of you with the Koalas.

Included in our pre-cruise package was a bus excursion to the Blue Mountains. I was glad to get out of the city and see the countryside in the comfort of a tourbus, rather than having to rent a car and get used to driving on the left. We rode on the cable car, as well as on the "world's steepest railway", a rather quick ride reminiscent of a roller coaster going straight down. That area was the one time on our trip we were plagued by annoying flies, which later helped me to understand the hat one of our ship waiters was wearing as a joke, which had corks on strings attached all around the brim.

 Everyone envied me my scarf which I waved steadily to keep the flies off my face. Nevertheless, it didn't spoil the beauty of the mountains, the Three Sisters and the water views.

We also took a cruise in the harbor, where we were served a nice lunch and were brought to Manly Beach for a few hours, where we walked around, had an ice cream, watched the surfers and took in the local color. The next day, we were to board the ship and proceed to the next leg of our journey

Our ship was delayed in Sydney because of high seas on the open water, so we departed in the morning, instead of the evening before.  Because of that, we were unable to make our first stop, Milford Sound.  We were all pretty disappointed about that, but everything about the ship was so perfect it made us feel a bit better.  After three days at sea, it was exciting to spot land as we approached Dunedin.  Our first glimpse was a lighthouse and then the misty hills emerged, covered with cormorants or albatross, I don't know which, they from a distance looked like dots, until I got the binoculars.

Our next stop was a farm called Nature's Wonders, a family-run business that supports its conservation efforts of the many beautiful acres through tours on 8 person Argo vehicles.  It is an area reputed to have the world's rarest penguins, fur seals, a breeding colony of cormorants, a ride up 620 feet and then a beachfront ride where we "might" see the penguins.  They supplied us with rainjackets to protect us from the dust and mud and we climbed (or were hoisted, in my case) into the vehicles which took us on a wild ride through mud puddles and up and down rutted paths.  We stopped at a hilltop vista to take photos and ended up at a lookout where we could see the seals sunning themselves.  The next stop, to see penguins, was a very steep walkway down into a grotto where we had to remain absolutely silent and not take photos, in order to glimpse a couple of nests of baby penguins through holes in the rocks.

 The only grown penguin we saw emerged out of the ocean just in time for us to take a few photos.  The Otago Peninsula, as witnessed there and back on our tour bus was absolutely breathtaking, the beginning of my extreme admiration of the New Zealand countryside in general.

The next day we set out for Christchurch, driving through the picturesque beachside village of Akaroa.  While Dunedin was founded by the Scots, Akaroa was a French and English settlement. New Zealand dates back to the 700's when it was discovered by the Polynesians with a Maori culture until 1840 when it was brought into the British empire with a treaty giving the Maoris equal rights with British citizens. As we were driving through Christchurch we saw evidence of the devastating earthquake of 2011, from which the city is still recovering.

We were brought to the Avon River, which flows through the center of the city.  The banks are lined with gardens, trees, flowers, families and couples picnicking or just relaxing on the grass.  People smiled and waved as we floated by, even small chidren.

From their website:  "“Welcome aboard,” says your punter, dressed in striped blazer, braces, and wearing the straw hat known as a boater. Punting on the Avon is one of the iconic tourist attractions in Christchurch. Like punting at Oxford and Cambridge in England, our punting experience uses flat-bottomed boats with no keel, pushed by a pole. The punter stands on a platform at the end."

Afterward we boarded an open train which took us through the city's botanical garden.  Back on the bus, our next stop was for lunch at Melton Estate , the first, but not last, winery on our trip.  Another day took us via yet another boat to Queen Charlotte Sound, a pleasant but rather uneventful tour, which might be just as well, since the next two days were jam packed with adventures.

While I was wildly taking photos through the window, my husband had taken to falling asleep on the daily bus rides.  Poor dear, he's not used to that much activity all at once!

Our ship docked in Wellington and off we went on a bus tour of the Wellington storm coast and up to Pencarrow Lodge where we were treated to a lovely tea and then a sheep herding demonstration. They have a beautifully furnished lodge where they do weddings and cater festive occasions.
The food was delicious and the view from their vantage point high on a hill overlooking the water with the city off in the distance was outstanding.  The sheep were happily munching on grass, until the whistle blew and the dogs rounded them up in a tight little circle.  It was a lot of fun watching the dogs respond to their owner's every command with his little whistle hanging from his neck.

As we returned to the ship, a longtime friend picked us up at the port.  We had not seen each other since the 80's.  He was a young man at the time, now he is 50.  Since that time he has become a well known opera singer, not just in New Zealand but around the world. He also works in Parliament, so he was able to take us on a personal tour of the building, since they were on holiday break. He knows Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) and were from the same area in New Zealand, so we got to see the outside of some of the sound stages and studios where the films were worked on.  We had several delightful hours with him before he dropped us back off.

Our final day at sea, we came into port at Tauranga (Bay of Plenty, so named by Captain James Cook).  A scenic drive took us through the many kiwifruit orchards, protected by rows and rows of tall hedges.  Our driver told us that the hedges kept the fruit was being bruised by the winds.  The are three types of kiwi in New Zealand.

First, the fruit, second the bird and the people are also nicknamed "Kiwis".  We arrived at Wai-O-Tapu ("Sacred Waters") Thermal Wonderland and what a wonderland it was!  The odor of sulphur crept into our bus before the door was opened.  The otherworldly landscape soon made me forget the smell as I was trying to capture the brilliantly colored pools and bubbling mud baths on film.  A red-ringed pond, The Champagne Pool, so-called because it had tiny bubbles on the surface;  a brilliant chartreuse green pond;  steam rising from the surface of the water, obscuring our views temporarily until a puff of wind gave us a clear view again.  This was hands down my favorite tour of the trip.  I love seeing the natural wonders of God's beautiful earth and this was totally His creation.  It was so spectacular I would have been happy to end the day on that note.

However, our next stop was Lake Rotorua, where we would have lunch and a Maori presentation on a Mississippi-style paddleboat.  As if that weren't enough, the bus took us to yet another place: Rainbow Springs Park where we should have been able to see live kiwi birds.  The park was beautiful, but the protected "live Kiwi" were in a dark glass walled enclosure and no one was able to see anything.  The only kiwi birds we saw were stuffed and in cases in the museum at the other end of the enclosure. Each person/couple was asked to stand with their hands outstretched to have their photo taken and at the end the photos were revealed to us, photoshopped with a kiwi bird in our hands.  I did buy the hokey photo, mainly to support the conservation efforts of the organization.

As much as we had appreciated all we had seen, by the time we returned to the ship that evening, we resolved not to be on a bus for quite some time to come. We had to be packed and off the ship by 9am the next morning, so it was a late night, having our last wonderful dinner on board and getting organized for departure. Our customs forms had questions about what we were bringing into New Zealand.  No animal products, food, wood.  Wood?  I had bought my grandson a boomerang.  So I declared it on the form.  Customs wanted to see it, so I had to dig through all of our luggage looking for it.  She looked at it, admired it and gave it back to me.  Sheesh!

A quick taxi ride to our hotel, the Hotel DeBrett, a stone's throw from the harbor.  I had done a lot of research on where to stay in Auckland and (patting myself on the back) I must say I found the coolest hotel ever! It's a boutique hotel with only 25 individually designed rooms.


There is personally designed handwoven carpeting from 100% New Zealand wool throughout, with eclectic furniture and artwork collected by the owner over the years.  It had a very arty mid-century modern/Danish modern feel. Our room had a balcony overlooking the common area below us, including a fireplace, conversation pit and breakfast room.  The ceiling was glass, revealing the lights of the city skyscrapers.  It is well situated and we could find many neat little restaurants within a short walk.

Best of all there was a wonderful library where we could wait until our room was ready (we had arrived in the morning.)  There was free Wi-Fi and even an Apple laptop for guest's use.  I took a funny photo of three of us, all on wireless devices, and our fourth companion reading an actual book! There was an honor bar and you could help yourself, just write what you consumed in the book. Later in the library we attended a complimentary wine hour in the library where we had a chance to talk with and compare notes with interesting travelers from around the world.

Lunch that day was at the Occidental, just around the corner, where I had my last chance to eat New Zealand green lip mussels.  They are only available fresh in New Zealand and are easily three times the size of the ones I get back home.  I had discovered them on the ship and was happy to have them one last time in Auckland.

The last day of our amazing adventure was a ferry ride to and a relaxing stroll through the seaside village of Devonport.  We were definitely burned out and were winding down from the excitement of the last two and half weeks. The first thing you see when walking into town is the charming Esplanade Hotel and a Clydesdale - horse drawn carriage.

Shops and restaurants line both sides of the main street.  We sat in the park at the water and watched the sailboats in the harbor with the city in the background.  Auckland is known as the "City of Sails" and I can see why. Our day ended with a light dinner at Mecca in town and a quick ferry ride back to Auckland. 

We collected our luggage from the DeBrett and took a taxi to the airport.  The flight seemed easier than on the way over, probably because we flew directly from Auckland to Los Angeles, which cut 3-1/2 hours off of our time.  I never sleep on airplanes (or anywhere else for that matter) so I passed the time by watching four movies, one after the other, getting up regularly to get the blood flowing again.  Georg and our companions had no trouble with that and fell asleep soon after our meal was served (and a few glasses of wine!)  Upon landing we all went back to the airport Hilton and sadly parted company from our friends, who were driving back home.  After almost three weeks of their companionship, we were really going to miss being with them.

We were spending the night in LA before flying back home to Michigan, so I was looking forward to an afternoon in the sun poolside.  No such luck.  As I opened one of our suitcases, looking for my bathing suit, instead I found a strange laptop computer and a suitbag with a man's suit in it.  It took me a minute to process the fact that we had someone else's luggage and someone had ours.  Numerous panicked phone calls back and forth settled the fact we had to return to the airport and straighten out the mess.  Two hours later we had our suitcase back and I'm sure the owner of the other bag was relieved as well.  By that time, it was too late to hit the pool.  Instead we walked to Carl's Jr. (a familiar hamburger chain out west).  It felt so good to be eating something as ordinary as a hamburger after all the amazing gourmet fare to which we had become accustomed.

Our flight home the next day was uneventful with one exception.  I had almost forgotten about our limousine reservation and when we entered the baggage claim, there he was, with a baggage cart at the ready, sign in hand:  Mr. and Mrs. Georg Wunschl. Our fellow passengers stared at us as we pointed out our bags and he retrieved them and ushered us out the door to our waiting chariot.  The ride home was our last opportunity for luxury for quite some time.  We savored every last minute, even as he brought our bags right into our house.  Ah, what a life!  It was truly a trip of a lifetime with memories that will never be lost, thanks to the 1800 photos I took.