Friday, March 4, 2011

Day 38-39-38: Sydney to E-ville

Day 38-39-38: Sydney to E-ville

Pics: The last utility box, fitness center, last bird, and home cooking and sleeping

When we left Sydney the first time, we had about $150 on us, figuring that would be enough to tide us over for a day, particularly since Jane was having us over for dinner upon arrival and the hotel was prepaid (Vibe, $155 for a small room and $10 for internet).. HAH! $41 cab ride to Jane’s house (and she’s closer than downtown to the airport) and a $40 breakfast have us thinking we need to find an ATM!

Breakfast at Bill’s is a revelation. DB found it through Time Out magazine, it’s only about 10-15 feisty minutes walk from the Vibe. Since it is already 8am that means it is starting to steam. DB has banana ricotta pancakes and a flat white, THB goes for the best scrambled eggs around (DB breaks his bubble and explains that they have cream whipped in), avocado salsa and dry Acme-style sourdough toast. Yes, this is an exceptional breakfast….$40.

We attempt to walk around Rushcutters Bay and decide that going back to the a/c hotel room makes more sense. It hits near 90 today, and the humidity that the Sydney-ites claim doesn’t exist is back. After recovering, THB decides to go to the gym and workout. There’s nothing quite like 30 minutes on the elliptical in sauna-like conditions while facing a sign that says: Please leave the doors closed, the room is air-conditioned. NO, IT IS NOT AIR-CONDITIONED….it might be air-blown, it is not a/c’d.

Bill’s was so good, we head there for lunch and some art gallery visits. Burger for DB and chicken schnitzel and ginger cordial for THB, $50. It ain’t cheap here in the big city (how big? In front of our hotel, slightly off the beaten path, are two one-way four lane roads). See some very good art in a couple of galleries nearby (sweating all the way) including some work that is exceptional (and exceptionally priced at $45-60k).

Cabbie to the airport complains about how the shuttles are stealing his business and proceeds to crawl through the slowest route to a $47 fare and is irritated that there is no tipping here. Plus, hey, he’s a Kiwi!!! Another example of someone leaving behind NZ for better work. Because we charged lunch, this means that we’ve managed to spend all the remaining cash

United unfortunately has sold out business class, so no upgrade. We’re in premium economy seats, with lots of leg room and because THB switches seats due to a faulty light, we have a seat between us. Reading is at peril, along with no lights on the first seat, THB’s kindle goes baflooey part way through the flight, so DB is very generous and lends him her kindle and THB then starts a Jack Reacher.

Ahhhhhhhhhh, home at last, another great travel partnership, DB now only has to worry about navigation, THB can go back to driving down the middle of the road again, no worries, mate.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Day 37: Oamaru to Sydney, aka heat and humidity

Day 37: Oamaru to Sydney

Pics: The last NZ sunrise, giant chicken just after dawn, our prop plane to Wellington, banks now offering frequent flyer miles if you switch your credit card debt over to them, and our room at the Vibe hotel has to put the chair somewhere

Breakfast same-same, a few items to add to the last minute packing and a 7am departure to the Dunedin airport, arriving shortly after 9am for our 11am flight to Wellington. Another “no worries, mate” car dropoff. Arrive in Wellington on time, lunch on decent stir fry plus a manga lassi, using up $27 of remaining $32 NZ dollars. Then notice that our Air NZ flight to Sydney is not on the board…it has been delayed for 1.5 hours (awaiting the arrival of the plane from Sydney). DB gives a call to Jane in Sydney to let her know we’ll be late for dinner. Hey, our NZ phone makes international calls! And, we have enough pre-paid to cover it.

We make it to Sydney in time to have dinner at Jane’s, a very nice affair with her friends from Ireland who left Christchurch just before the earthquake on their tour of NZ. Jane shuttles us to the Vibe Hotel, where we collapse for 8 hours trying to avoid changing time zones too much. Oh, and Sydney is same-same: hot and humid…

1. THB is a true cell phone novice: the phone has apparently been in silent mode for a month and when someone called us we wouldn’t know
2. The airports are small and well appointed, easy to get through security (what little there is of it…none on domestic flights) and of course relatively few people
3. It has been very pleasant traveling when few teenagers are out and about, we’ve seen very few except during US ski week
4. THB is convinced that if they spoke primarily Spanish or Italian here, the place would be totally abandoned by the Brits (“it’s a long way to come”) and Aussies who most likely would have few relatives here and no ease of communication
5. Most every complementary serving of coffee and tea comes with biscuits (cookies)
6. It is hard to imagine where the working people dislocated by the Christchurch earthquake are going to end up. For example, most of the SI distribution of bread is through Christchurch, and for a few days bread was being rationed on the rest of the island. Will that be changed?
7. We didn’t see a lot of dogs being walked, not sure if they are only let out in the backyards or if there is a sense that dogs are pests or workers and not widely kept as pets
8. This is a very casual country: only in the big cities did we see guys in ties, rarely in jackets or suits; after work hours, we only saw guys in suits a few times, and only once where it didn’t seem to be a work dinner event
9. There may be only two four-lane motorways in the entire country: between the Auckland airport and downtown and just south of Dunedin.
10. Without the earthquake, the front section (front page!) of the newspapers carried stories of little consequence: Pet gone missing; B’day party goes awry; Couple refuses to pay overdue parking tickets…strong personal interest stories!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Meditations, Part 3

Meditations, Part 3

Are there any native NZ’ers?
Very, very hard to tell. We meet very few that are working for a living (i.e., they work for others). We meet some that own the places we stay in. We’ve heard a stat that 4 million live in NZ and 1-2 million live elsewhere because of the low wage scales here and the nature of the seasonality of many service sector jobs. They move away to find work and a better standard of living. Most of this is just the nature of what a tourist runs into, and much of it is pretty damn unusual. It is hard to imagine foreigners (though English speakers) in many of the tourist level jobs we have run into in our US travels (or India, or Japan, other than guides to help translate). On top of that, this is basically a white country, very few people of color: numerous Maori in some spots like Rotorua, then non-existent many other places as best we could tell; Asians near universities in Auckland and Dunedin, then almost none anywhere else. Almost no blacks.

Is NZ pretty?
Sort of challenging the obvious, no? It is green, that’s for sure, even nearing the end of their summer. NZ gets plenty of rain, there aren’t a lot of people gumming up the vistas, the vistas are long, the air is pristine (even in Auckland, the only real city by US standards, with a bit over a million people), there is a ton of beautiful water everywhere, the sky at night (when clear) gives great to over the top star viewing. Several of the long drives were nothing short of spectacular, from near the beginning right up to near the end. And, we took our time and did a lot of looking.

Sounds pretty special…yet somehow THB feels stuck in the 50s a portion of the time. The architecture is pretty tame to downright drab and shabby (and semi-legislated that way with the overhangs required on top of the sidewalks, thus breaking up the view of the buildings and along the streets). The country is pretty much green farmlands (not bad, just same same). On the hikes you can mostly hear the birds and not see them. We’re late in the season and the wildflowers we see are very similar to much of what we’d see in the US growing as weeds on the side of the road, nothing too exotic. Glowworms are pretty nifty, and if you’ve seen 100 glowworms you’ve seen them all (and there are a number of tourist attractions built around them). It is semi-tropical without the benefits of places like Hawaii with huge diversity of plant life. The rows in the vineyards are covered in mesh as the grapes near maturity to protect from the birds, which creates sort of a dumbed down grey mush as you look at the vineyards up close or from a distance.

And, there is such a range of natural beauty, from pristine beaches with clear aquamarine water and white crashing waves to tall alp and granite mountains dusted in snow, tons of gorgeous lakes, gorges, rivers, places that remind THB of Tilden Park, Sonoma in spring, Pacific Coast Highway from Carmel to Cambria, Patagonia (not the glaciers, the glaciers in Patagonia, if still there, are still tops), and that leaves out the unique formations we haven’t seen elsewhere.

Finally, maybe it is the expensive tourism that seems to undercut what you can do on your own. Walk to the front of the glaciers: free. Walk on the glaciers, $125 for a half day. See it up close and personal: take a helicopter for $320 for 2 hours worth. And at almost every attractive spot, that’s what’s on offer. Pay, pay, pay and get to see it up close or really close. Do it from your car, just the cost of the rental and the gas. It made for quite a contrast to the national parks visits. Not sure, it probably is not apples and apples.

Two views of $$:
plan ahead and stop complaining, don’t plan and complain. Did THB really bring this up? This was a trip of reasonable costs in a large sense: cheap flights and relatively inexpensive upgrades if available, reasonably cheap rental cars, ten of the 35 (or was it 36? 37?) nights in home exchange or home stays. Many nights in touristy areas in above average accommodations at decent prices (e.g., 4 nights in a one bedroom apartment in The Rocks in Sydney for $240/night, inclusive of taxes and fees…a bargain for that much space!). Most breakfasts included in the room rates or purchased to eat in (weet-bixies anyone?). Many places with free wifi…another aside: THB watched almost no TV outside of the Aussie Open at the very start of the trip, and bought zero newspapers and magazines. Paying for wifi or internet usage seems like the olden days when at some hotels you had to pay for cable TV, and every place just includes the TV/cable in the room rates now…hopefully we are not that far from when wi-fi is also considered a price of entry. So at the places that didn’t provide free wifi, THB found himself resenting it.

And, then two nights at Blanket Bay Lodge and one night on the Doubtful Sound. Big (really big!) ticket items and, while pricey and maybe too pricey, very special events in spectacular settings.

And, except for the Doubtful Sound (unplanned when we left oh those many weeks ago) a great tip over Milford Sound), what is THB complaining about. Well, THB does have a trait of always trying to see if something is worth the cost and, if the cost hasn’t been spent yet, mulling over whether to spend the money or not. And, here in NZ, it seemed like there were plenty of opportunities to spend extra dollars. That led to a few moments where DB tried to get THB past the cost to see the value of the experience. DB’s advice: budget the trip ahead of time and use that as a guide and measure against the guide as you go or don’t complain. Hmmmmmmm…..don’t complain?

DB has the final word: hey, this isn’t an expensive trip, we didn’t buy a big piece of art!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Meditations, Part 2

Meditations, Part 2

Ratio of visitors by nationality (or language): Aussies and Brits make up what seems like 80% of the visitors, Dutch and Americans probably another 17%, a few Kiwis, Germans, Japanese, and very few French, Indians, and Malaysians the rest. Most of the Brits complain how far it is to come, yet come they do. Clearly, speaking the language (or nearly so), makes it more comfortable for them, plus there are the fixings of tea in every hotel, motel, homestay, farmstay, home, cottage, overnight room with the exception of the boat in Doubtful Sound.

Rental cars in NZ: THB thought he was saving money by renting from the low cost provider, Apex, on both the North and South Islands. And, this turned out to be true until the earthquake happened and, with restructuring the itinerary, the (third) Apex car went back early and THB should’ve read the fine print: the policy is no refunds, pay up front. Ah, one way to be the low cost provider! Another learning with Apex: the local pick-up spots appear to be franchises and have some control over their inventory as does the national office. Oops, the national office turns out to be in central Christchurch, so after the earthquake you got referred to the Christchurch airport location. Needless to say, they weren’t the proficient folks that THB talked to before the earthquake, nor were they, understandably, in much shape to provide cheerful customer service.

When we picked up the rental car (our fourth) from Europcar, the Aussie (all service people are apparently not allowed to be Kiwis) guy very cheerfully offered us two levels of insurance: $25/day to limit your liability from $3500 to $2000, and for $35/day you could get the no worries, no liability at all coverage. THB hears a loud voice going off in his head: THIRTY FIVE DOLLARS A DAY, YOU CAN RENT A CAR PER DAY FOR THAT! As another ex-pat said, it almost made you want to take the $35/day and have a royal smash-up right quick. A big smash-up…

Country driving: courtesy, one lane bridges, stop and give way, GPS, winter and road repair: How many kilometers did THB and DB drive? It’s not like you turn in the car and they give you the before and after numbers on a contract. Apex doesn’t really do contracts, nor do they really do final reckonings, they barely collect the keys (and sometimes not even that). Sorry, got sidetracked….THB guesses something like 2000 -2500 miles. High? Low? Damn…probably low…lots of mini-trips that boosted the miles up there.

Overall, staying on the wrong side of the road was pretty easy because every time THB wandered to the right DB would remind him that he was not where he should be and more importantly the car was really not where it should be. The few times THB drove without DB, it was actually a lot more nerve wracking, since now THB could be both on the wrong side of the road AND going the wrong way (yes, this happened). DB, as always, did a great job of getting us to the right spot. The GPS helped, mostly (as we had been warned) in the towns (K&E: THANKS!!!). Once you are on a road from one famous spot to another, there is pretty much only one way to get there (same-same for US in the Southwest).

There is a truism about driving anywhere: there are two seasons, winter and road repair. It’s true here, we saw lots of patching going on, and in general the roads are in very good shape. And, drivers respect the work being done and slow down as appropriate. In general, drivers here are pretty courteous. Ah, the reason for that: most of the drivers outside of main areas are tourists who don’t want to damage their cars since they have waived the insurance! The locals drive like maniacs!!! They have something here called Give Way. That means that as you come up to a turn you can ease out and gun the engine if you think it is clear. HA! For the Kiwis, that means you go way out there assuming the road is always clear. Sort of like exaggeratedly fast California stops. Very intimidating if you see some car coming up to you on the perpendicular, because now doubt has set in: are they gunning it or stopping? Needless to say, the idea of a stop sign them becomes ridiculous; THB suspects that Kiwis dig them out and replace them with Give Way signs whenever the three traffic control people (the entire country’s allotment) are looking the other way. And, there are plenty of rotaries, and THB loves them. As long as you remember to always go left to get on, they work really well. Combined with the Give Way mentality, sometimes it looked like a start to a race: gentlemen, rev your engines when approaching a rotary.

There are also a number (many….1000s) of places where the traffic narrows to one lane. Not one lane in each direction, that’s pretty much everywhere; one lane for both directions. One direction has the right of way (solid line with arrow) and the other doesn’t (smaller line, usually red). Only a few times did DB have to point out to THB that he did NOT have the right of way (what sign? THB did not see a sign…what sign?). And, along with Give Way, the Kiwis pretty much assume they have the right of way unless proven otherwise while the tourists (THB not the only one) assumed it was always better to stop and look before moving on (remember, most drivers have waived the insurance…and the few that haven’t have taken out the No Worries version that means they can gladly total their car).

Finally, THB has decided that (along with old age), these drives are a lot more pleasant if there are no cars in front or behind, so he has become the ultimate nice guy: the one that pulls over when being tailgated or slowing down to leave 20 car lengths between him and the car in front. Now, that is actually not a huge concession because in the Southwest and NZ in the mildly off-season there aren’t that many cars on the road. In any case, these two driving trips have been very rewarding, whole days with massively beautiful vistas.

Finally, it does appear that gas costs here are just like everywhere but the good ol’ USA: high. A fill-up on our dinky little 4 seater Tiida (say, what?) was close to $60. Must mean either the tank is 40% of the available space in the car or the price of a liter is pretty steep (bet on the latter).

Meditations, Part 1

Meditations, Part 1

Light switches:
What can THB say about light switches? Damn, they are everywhere here, including a switch over ever socket (so if it is a plug where you can plug in two separate devices, there are two controls right over the sockets). So, often, THB would plug in something (computer, chargers) and forget to flip the socket control. Or forget that maybe there was a control switch on the wall. How many ways can you protect yourself from actually getting something to turn on? We rarely (never) stayed anywhere that in one room didn’t have more controls for the plugs than we have light switches in the loft (there are 8 light controls for the entire loft). That is one room in NZ greater than entire living environment in E-ville. Why? THB is perplexed…how can it be saving energy, doesn’t the usage start when a device is turned on AFTER it is put in the socket?

Wines: THB thinks that the reds in this area are basically priced at about double (or more) what we would pay for a comparable wine at home, so his cheapness is keeping him from drinking the good stuff: a $90 syrah or pinot noir here is the equivalent of a $35-45 bottle of Californian wine, and the $40 and under bottle here is not all that drinkable (ie, probably not sold) in California (or not bought by THB to be drunk). THB did not have the time to search out the best buys, so this is strictly one blogger’s opinion based on very limited experience. We did much better with white wines, in the $15 to $35 range.

Department of Medical Conditions, an update:
THB has essential tremors, which the doc says is way better than having non-essential, unessential, or inconsequential tremors (or Parkinson’s, which also would not be good). When we had dinner at Saffron in Arrowtown, the amuse-bouche (in this case not only not-so-amusing, also not so good to be a jump in the mouth) was a purple egg yolk thing wobbling in a small spoon. When the waiter left them off at the table with a small flourish, DB politely pushed the tray with the spoons of these purplish wobblers towards THB. THB shows his gratitude, skooshes up the wine list in front of him closer to make room for the tray and proceeds to watch his purple wobbler leave the spoon just as he begins to lift the spoon (most likely having essentially tremored the spoon and bumped the wine list simultaneously). Now the wobbler, having miraculously not broken out of the yolk sac, is sitting on the wine menu. THB is not looking at DB, he’s concentrating on the wobbler; something tells THB intuitively to not look up, stress only increases the tremors. Somehow, THB nudges the wobbler back on to the too small spoon, and even more amazing makes it into THB’s mouth, where it explodes into tomato juice. An amuse-catastrophy-bouche avoided…as an aside, sometimes THB finds his fingers jumping all over the keyboard, pounding (or attempting to pound) on the keys outside of his control. This should stand as the explanation for much of what gets written for the blog: essential tremors as literature.

And, dyslexia must be rampant in NZ. There is absolutely no consistency on which was hot or cold works on the faucets. Sometimes the H and C were even reversed on the faucets (not sure why). At least the turn signal on all four rental cars is on the right hand side (away from the gear shift).

Day thirty something

Day 36: Oamaru

Last full day in NZ, so the last NZ fact and quiz, all rolled into one:

New Zealand Facts

The Treaty of Waitangi comes in three versions: the English, Maori and the English translation of the Maori version, which is slightly different to the English version.

Which version is the following, the English version or the English-Maori-English one?

Her Majesty Victoria Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland regarding with Her Royal Favour the Native Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand and anxious to protect their just Rights and Property and to secure to them the enjoyment of Peace and Good Order has deemed it necessary in consequence of the great number of Her Majesty's Subjects who have already settled in New Zealand and the rapid extension of Emigration both from Europe and Australia which is still in progress to constitute and appoint a functionary properly authorized to treat with the Aborigines of New Zealand for the recognition of Her Majesty's Sovereign authority over the whole or any part of those islands.

Pics: DIY bath, sunrise, pics from local hike (appropriately named given the dropoff to rocks below), penguin mania, more Oamaru buildings, steam punk going diesel, Oamaru walking committee

Weather: Unusual, clear with Santa Ana winds (means quite windy with warm to hot temps for those blog followers not familiar with this terminology), more warm than hot

Just to reiterate (like there aren’t enough words already in the blog), the Harbour View Cottage is terrific: a great view, fully functional, close to town without being in town, a nice place to lay up for a couple of days, a very nice final (inadvertent) stop before leaving NZ.

Breakfast of toasted sultana bread and fresh ground coffee, a hike over the hill and through a pine forest to a path that hugged the cliffs down to the pay for view penguin arena and on to the bakery in town. We decide that the pay for view penguin show is not for us (and, we saw them last night on our own): they basically herd the penguins to a path that leads by the viewing area to a gate that opens up into their nesting area. Hard to imagine doing that to too many wild animals under the name of conservation (THB saves $40!).

Second aha moment of the day (it’s only 10am): the best bakery in town puts out yesterday’s (or even earlier?) pastries, and not to the improvement of the pastries. Sad…very sad; two dead pastries and two flat whites, $16.

Third aha moment (it’s now 10:20am): Loan & Merc, Fleur’s second (or is it third, if you count the caravan?) restaurant has a sign up that they are closed for Staff Training. Damn….DB calls when we get back to the cottage and they may open up later in the day. What else can happen?????

By lunchtime, Loan & Merc is not open and Katie has managed a rezzie at Fleur’s Place for 6 of us, so that takes care of dinner plans. We dine at a café in town on grilled ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches and bottled ice teas, $18.

Another shot to see the yellow-eyed penguins from the bluff, no go. Too early, apparently. We agree that it doesn’t matter, even with strong binocs from HVC we won’t see much detail, the distance from the viewing area to the beach is too strong.

Dinner at Fleur’s Place turns out to be very disappointing. We share baked sole (supposedly the whole fish, instead we get very dull fillets with a flat sauce of capers and lemon that turns out to be more of a bordelaise) and seafood chowder with almost no taste. Same for the veggies that came with the sole, overcooked. Dessert was decent, a Crème Brule with poached plums. Katie and Tom had the same as we did, a different dessert, and the boys shared pasta and a dessert. Chard Farm Chardonnay. Total: $180

And, we find out what happened at Loan and Merc today from Fleur herself. A long story, of which THB understands very little, about the three chefs not getting along and Fleur saying there will be no hiring of a maitre d, so they, as Katie put it succinctly, had a “time out” today for the staff to work on getting along.