Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Islands Far Away: New Zealand

What’s there to see in New Zealand? I asked my kiwi friend.

He answered without pausing for a second, “Stunning Landscape”.

Never really a fan of nature or landscape, I quietly thought, “How many mountains, lakes, lagoons and fields of green can I really see? Give me any city of Europe any day!” 

New Zealand, contrary to my expectation and much to my delight, is a country where one sees nature’s colors in clarity and abundance. They seem sharper, more saturated and shining than anywhere else. But in truth, New Zealand is much more than the beauty of its land and cityscape. It is also about the clean, natural and well-preserved environment that impacts on how positively one feels. 

And then some…

Ms Oosterdam, our cruise ship of Holland American line, set off from Sydney’s Darling Harbour. After two days at the choppy Tasman Sea, which seemed forever, we came closer to the South Island of New Zealand on the third morning. The vista I saw from my balcony at the 7th deck assured me that what I had been seeing for the last two days, nothing else but the very vast sky and the deep blue sea, was radically going to change. As our ship started approaching Milford Sound, according to Rudyard Kipling, “The eighth wonder of the world”, a range of mountains in the near distance, illuminated by the fiery red and orange hues of the rising sun appeared. It was time to get out of my bathrobe and race down to the viewing deck at level 4… in my more appropriate winter gear of course. 

The strong icy wind that greeted me was enough to break bones and tear skin of the weak. Within minutes, I felt ready to get defrosted. The ship was slowly creeping in to the world-famous fiord. Some higher mountains with pure white snow down to their necks were sticking out in the back like tall awkward students in a school photo. Certain ones were still covered in the haze that their tops were hardly visible. A robust ray of morning sun seeped through the mist and gently fell onto the calm water at the foot of bluish mountains like a spotlight in search of a winner at an award show. We shivering passengers were clearly jealous of some lucky mountaintops highlighted by the generosity of the warm sun.

Silence ruled the area. Many of us on the viewing deck including the usual unruly children were spellbound by the sight of nature; nothing but the infrequent whispers shared among passengers and the sound of gentle waves caused by the mammoth Oosterdam, making a slow precise move through the calm sea deliberately trying not to disturb the peace of its environs. A small cascade flowed out of a tall rocky cliff dramatically into the sea just like a slow-motion scene from a movie. At this stage, my ears had gone numb and my fingers turned into popsicles. I stood there frozen and awestruck but without failing to click occasionally on my Canon. Still not fully awake as usual but I was thankful that I dragged myself out of bed this early to experience the magic of nature unfold.

There was this eerily peaceful silence the next morning, so different from the constant sound of shuddering sea waves heard throughout the night that it woke me up. The ship was elegantly entering Port Chalmers. “Is this really happening?” I thought to myself disbelievingly looking at the surreal panorama from my window. A true picture-book-for-children scenery, white clouds contrasting with the piercing blue sky, small colorful houses on the hill slopes and countless number of sheep grazing in the green moors, scattered like butter beans. Plants and trees of varying colors occupied the hills and some from afar looked like giant broccolis, deeply green and corpulent. There were boats serenely parked near the pier with their reflection flickered in the morning light. How fortunate was I that this was not a dream?  

Frankly, after being trapped on the boat for three full days – I was ready for some action on land. I could not wait to touch down and gallop like wild horses unbridled. Once the ship was docked at Otago harbour, our group of eight wasted no time and headed off to Dunedin (pronounced Da-nee-den), a nearby Scottish heritage city which was once the biggest in New Zealand. Dunedin, though it maybe relatively small in size, has a great deal of interesting sights to see. A wander around town enabled us to visit First Church designed by Scottish-born architect Robert Lawson who was also responsible for a number of other historic buildings in the area, and to hear a short organ concert at St Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of Dunedin.  

We played tourists by hopping onto the scenic train at the historical Dunedin Railway Station, the Flemish Renaissance-style stone structure, complete with Mosaic floors and stained-glass windows. Within fifteen minutes, the landscape quickly changed from urban to coastal with white sandy beaches where people were enjoying seaside activities such as surfing, kayaking and parasailing. What struck me most about the region is the geographical uniqueness of it. The lush green hills are in contrast not only with the two immense blue, above and under, but also with a long stretch of white pristine beaches, providing an alluring ambience for holidaymakers.

Akaroa, founded by French settlers in 1840, is a charming little coastal town that boasts many French-influenced buildings, small bistros, boutiques and boulangeries in its narrow streets. Akaroa is also the gateway to Christchurch, a prominent city, also the largest on the South Island that was devastated by the massive 2011 earthquake and its many other aftershocks. The disaster has since caused a widespread damage and claimed the once beautiful “Garden City”. It was truly heartbreaking to be walking among the rubbles and having to imagine how certain impressive historical buildings once stood in full glory. Among them is the city’s most iconic landmark, Christchurch Cathedral, built between 1864 and 1904 in Gothic Revival style, now with its spire resting in pieces on the ground. But for those who survived, life certainly goes on. It has to for they have no choice. We visited a temporary area assigned for shops, restaurants and services in the city near Cathedral Square. Busy Christmas shoppers, curious tourists and silly street performers mob this place and I hope that these ongoing actions and interactions do lift up the spirit of locals and take their minds off the tragedy, even for a while.


Our beloved Oosterdam was docked between the two islands of New Zealand the next day. We could see both islands on the left and right. The nearby area is the famous Marlborough region celebrated for its sunny climate, stunning coastline and superb wines. It would have been great to visit the wineries such as the famous Cloudy Bay but for some reason, it was declared a sea day and we were to remain on board. It was nevertheless a relaxing day that we all needed.

Just like many who believe Sydney is the capital of Australia, I only learned upon my arrival that not Auckland but Wellington is the political hub of New Zealand. This vivacious capital of the North Island, houses the head offices of all government ministries and departments, the foreign diplomatic missions and the Parliament buildings, one of them most remarkably known as the Beehive, as the structure resembles the shape of a beehive. We kicked off our journey in Wellington with a visit to Te Papa museum. The hands-on and interactive exhibitions with focus on New Zealand’s history, Maori culture and various artworks are on display at free of charge. However temporary showings and exhibits may require admission fees. Wellington was hectic with tourists and bargain-hunters on the Boxing Day when shops in some commonwealth countries like Australia and New Zealand, have sales with dramatic price reductions.

Because it was a tourist’s must-do, we climbed up the hills via the legendary Kelburn cable car. The 800 m ride on the red funicular took us to the Carter Observatory at the top of Botanic Gardens. The view from the top was priceless; a lively capital bounded in protection by hills in a distance, purified by the ocean blue and prettified by its natural foliage.  

We had been lucky with the weather until we disembarked at the port of Napier where a morning drizzle swung by and said “Hi”. Napier, touted as the Art Deco capital of the world, sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and is preserved and promoted by The Art Deco Trust. The city, destroyed by 1931 earthquake and fire, was systematically rebuilt in the 30’s with the then fashionable Art Deco style, quite similar to buildings at Miami Beach, though many over there are in Streamline Modern style, a later type of Art Deco. 

A promenade through the small city for me was more like being at a grand art fair. Under the overcast sky, in a place which seemed frozen in time, these masterfully conserved town structures and villas, with their colors, cheerful but muted and their motifs, elegant yet uniquely minimal, set a romantic and nostalgic atmosphere. I simply cannot think of a better retreat for those who love all things retro. Proud and gracious locals, many can be seen in period costumes or posing next to vintage cars, help make Napier a major tourist destination, not to mention, an ideal place to Instagram for smart-phone photography enthusiasts.  

Fortunately, an hour or so drive out of Napier takes you to vineyards; one of many things New Zealand is famous for. At Mission Estate Winery, established in 1851 by French Catholic missionaries, I had a ball tasting diverse mix of wines, from Riesling, Sparkling and Sauvignon Blanc to their award-winning Syrah in an elegantly refurbished building that used to be a monastery. 

Yet another grey day awaited in Tauranga, the most populous city in the Bay of Plenty. Stepping out into my balcony, I saw Mount Maunganui standing mightily above calm water. This area is popular with tourists for water activities, from fishing to windsurfing but most importantly for hot and steamy thermal activity especially in nearby town Rotorua. People come to Rotorua, also the heartland of Maori culture, to experience natural geothermal mud pools and mineral waters for spa and healing purposes. Rotorua, “Roto” means lake and “Rua” is two in Maori language thus meaning “Second Lake”, also has a nickname “Rotten-rua” due to the hydrogen sulphide emissions from thermal activities which smells like foul rotten eggs.
Orakei Korako which kind of sounds like a Japanese girl’s name but means “The Hidden Valley” in English, lies at the southern end of Lake Ohakuri. A short boat ride across the emerald lake is necessary to get access to a geyser, bubbling mud pools, hot springs and a cave. A 60-minute hike around the valley while witnessing the angry earth’s fury; boiling stream and fuming steam coming out of places left and right, gave me a chance to unwrap the gift of nature and a much-needed leg exercise. I came out of it feeling thermalized and smelling thermalicious, which probably can’t be good.

Aukland welcomed us the next morning with warm sunshine and clear blue sky as though Mr. Grey Yesterday did not exist. Our two very good friends, Auckland residents, ushered us into our first stopover, Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium. Named after a prominent marine archeologist of New Zealand, this lovely aquarium at Mission Bay showcases 80 different species in 30 live exhibitions in addition to the world’s largest Antarctic Penguin Colony Exhibit.

As it was on Saturday, during holiday season and most of all, a beautiful sunny day, Aucklanders were out and about enjoying the warm weather, especially on the beaches. Armed with an iced-latte, I sat and watched people in motion for a while. Not much of a sun-seeker, I hid away from the sun under one of Pohutukawa trees also known as “The Christmas Tree of New Zealand”, since the tree flowers from November to January and in full bloom from mid to late December. The tree’s crimson red flowers giving a stark contrast to the big blue sky is the one of the reminders of summer in the southern hemisphere.

Auckland’s city centre reminds me of Sydney’s, though relatively small considering the population of nearly 1.4 million, 32% of the entire country. Auckland lies on a lean isthmus and therefore is sandwiched between two harbours, the Manukau in the southwest, which opens out to Tasman Sea and the Waitemata on the Pacific side where our darling Oosterdam was parked. Popularly known as the “City Of Sails”, one in three Auckland households owns a boat and there are altogether 135,000 yachts and launches. From the harbour bridge, one can see them floating like a flock of seagulls in the water at the foot of the city’s impressive skyline. 

Irish rock band, U2 wrote a song about Auckland’s “One Tree Hill” in their “Joshua Tree” album although it had nothing to do with the actual history of this memorial place, pivotal for both Maori people and New Zealanders. The song by U2 was dedicated to a dear friend and employee of the band, a Maori named Greg Carroll who was killed in a motorcycle accident. There was once a tree that grew on top of this inactive volcano but it was attacked with chainsaw in two different occasions and subsequently killed by Maori activists who tried to highlight the social injustices inflicted upon them by the New Zealand government. Only the obelisk built in commemoration of Maori people stands today and the hill even has a new nickname, “None Tree Hill”.  
We later went down to Takapuna beach for lunch, the happening place in the northern suburb of the city. Without looking at the menu, I ordered my lunch: Fish & Chips and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. The former came but the latter didn’t, as alcohol was not served at this beachfront café. I did not mind because our next and final activity of the day anyway was ‘cocktail hours’ in the city’s hippest quarter, Ponsonby. This inner-city suburb, merely 2 km away from the CBD, has everything I could ever want- cafés, up-scale restaurants, art galleries, nightclubs, services, retail shops and last but definitely not least, the rainbow central, also known as the LGBT scene. The only disappointment for me was not having more time to spend in Auckland as I immediately fell in love with the energetic yet relaxing ambience of this metropolis.

Who would have predicted, after having such bright and blessed summer day, that heavy rain and dark clouds would be the dominant forces on our next day in a place just 240 km away from Auckland?  Not me, certainly! 

Bay of islands, our last stop and supposedly the heaven on earth for its sparkling aquamarine waters, sandy beaches and the year-round sunshine was marred by the horrendous climate. We boarded our boat, a double-decker catamaran despite the downpour and soldiered on through jerky sea, at times being tossed around like wet clothes in a drying machine. Even when the rain stopped, it was absolutely not the ideal way to visit such a place. What becomes of islands and beaches without the presence of the sun? On my way back to the cruise ship, I flipped through my guidebook in order to distract myself from seasickness and I read “The studies say that the Bay of Islands is found to have the second bluest skies in the word after Rio de Janeiro”. I shut the book immediately.

New Zealanders enjoy a true quality of life. The hills here are definitely alive with “50 shades of green”. Breathe in the cleanest air. Stroll around open spaces. Swim and bathe in the fresh water. This is possibly the last place on earth that pollution has not arrived. In addition to natural splendors, bountiful resources, unique species of plants, fungi and animals, the country’s 4.4 million people enjoy stable prosperous economy, transparent corruption-free government and constantly improving infrastructure.

It is no surprise that 2.5 million of us from outside flock to visit this far away land every year.  


Chris Roper said...

As one of the eight on this cruise around New Zealand, all the memories came flooding back reading such an elegant and beautifully written memoir of our trip. I was trying to work out how you could remember all the details, like the names of the two harbours in Auckland, and then I worked out near the end - you had a tourist guide book: so you looked it up! Beautiful photos too - I saw you quickly seeing angles and sights that I did not see.

A great read!

Charlieism said...

Thanks, Chris! I'm glad you like it. And of course, I had to do some research for facts. But when I travel I write down certain things I learn and also thoughts that come across my mind on my iPhone's note pad. Quick and easy! It helps me remember - Cheers!!!