Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I won! I lost! I won! I lost!

A few weeks ago, I challenged Blobby to an Oscar contest: which one of us could most accurately predict who would bring home the gold at this past Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood. “Winner gets to gloat,” I told him, “and the loser must admit defeat.”

I had warned Blobby that for several years running, until my colleagues grew bored of me, I was the reigning champion in the office Oscar pool. (Don’t even get me started on how some of my officemates never made good on their wagers – it’s a shameful tale!) So I felt pretty confident going into this year’s challenge.

And now that the results are in, I’m happy/sad/relieved that I neither have to gloat or admit defeat – it was a tie! Blobby graciously sums it all up here.

And so with the Oscars behind us, I congratulate/make fun of Blobby on his win/loss and wish him the best of luck/the most dire misfortune next year. But hey – why wait another whole 12 months? There’s all sorts of things we could bet on: the Michigan Republican primary, how long the Dow will remain over 13,000, when Rick Santorum will wear a sweater that has long sleeves, the Kentucky Derby…the possibilities are endless! Game on, Blobby – pick your poison!

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Many thanks to our dear friends Ian and his mom MaryLynne for taking such good care of Otis while we were gone. They also treated us to a homemade breakfast this morning. Before we packed up the dog's gear and headed home, Ian slipped on his New Zealand "All Blacks" rugby jersey.

Next port of call: Boston

It’s an almost 12 hour flight back to Los Angeles, but thankfully, we’ve upgraded to business class, so we’re all able to stretch out and be comfortable. They also feed us very well and have a great selection of movies to pass the time. Peter and Mark watch “The Iron Lady” and both loved it. I go a little less high-brow and watch “Crazy Stupid Love” with Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosing, Emma Stone, a really great performance by Marisa Tomei. It’s actually a really funny movie and I enjoyed it much more than I thought I might.

I doze a little bit and the flight goes by remarkably quickly. As soon as we land in Los Angeles, we head to a hotel on Redondo Beach where we spend the day getting our sea legs back: resting, napping, biking, walking along the city piers, and finally eating a great and very filling dinner at Samba, a Brazilian restaurant where they offer a huge salad bar (with all sorts of salads, vegetables, soups, rices, etc) as well as an all-you-can eat selection of grilled meats that servers bring to your table on long spears and slide to order.

We return to the hotel and say our farewells to Mark; his flight back to Chicago leaves at about 9:00 am, so he’ll be up earlier than we are. As I mentioned in one of my first posts about this trip, Mark was the one who first brought up the idea that we make this journey to New Zealand together. He also made all of the travel and lodging arrangements, and was very generous in helping make this wonderful adventure a reality for us. Thanks so much for everything, Mark – we had an unforgettable visit to the other side of the world, and absolutely treasure spending the last two weeks with you!

Our flight back to Boston doesn't leave until 1:00pm, so Peter and I have time to walk over to the city pier and have a good old fashioned American (read: too big) breakfast at Polly's on the Pier. The portions are huge, the coffee is hot, and the local crowd is fun to watch. 

We pack up and grab a cab to LAX. Once we board, it's just under six hours to get back home and I pass the time reading and watching a few episodes of the Mary Tyler Moore show on my iPad. 

My giant hand holds a tiny glass of wine.

It's cold (just above freezing) and very windy back in Boston, but the fresh air feels good and it's great to be home. 

The last leg of our adventure in New Zealand

After a quick breakfast in the dining room at The Chateau, we gather our luggage, load up the car, and head out into the rain. A half hour later, we’re at a much lower elevation, on the road towards Tapeau, and suddenly the sun is shining. We stop for photos at a scenic overlook, and when we get out of the car, the sound of the humming cicadas in the trees that surround us is nearly deafening.

We head north for a few hours and drive into Rotorua, which claims to be the heartland of Maori culture. We visit Whakarewarewa, "the living thermal village". It’s an actual thriving Maori community, but a tourist destination by day, as it is an active geothermal site (think steaming, bubbling pools of water and mud).
We take a guided tour and see how they use the earth’s natural heating systems for cooking and bathing (community members congregate at the local natural pools early in the morning and then again after the tourists go home to soak). 

No one, not even community residents, are allowed into this fenced area, where the earth's crust is very thin and brittle.

Our guide says community residents use these containers, which cover a natural steam vent, to cook their food. 

This is the communal bathing area. Hot water runs down the grooves in the pavement from a natural spring into several deep tubs.

It is a great tour, but it’s pouring rain and we finally take refuge in a small cabin where see a demonstration of how generations of this community have used local reeds to make baskets and other materials. We’re then treated to traditional song and dance by a troupe of eight village residents. 

Our guide shows us a traditional skirt made from twisting, drying, and dying the long green leaves of a local plant.

After the tour, we get back into the car and drive northwest for almost five hours more, the last hour in rush hour traffic on the highway into Auckland. 

We check into the Rendezvous, a beautiful modern hotel in the heart of the city. The rooms and bathrooms are large; we see several flight crews so assume that this is where a lot of airlines put their staff up during Auckland layovers. We quickly clean up and change clothes before heading to Satya, a restaurant specializing in Southern India cuisine. Delicious and perfect after a long day in the car. We cross the street to a local pub for a final beer before heading back to the hotel to sleep. 

On Friday morning, we’re up by 8:00 am. I head a few streets over for a cup of Starbucks and to peruse some local shops, while Peter and Mark walk a few blocks to the Sky Tower, the tallest man-made structure (1,076 feet) in all of New Zealand for some birds-eye views of Auckland. 

At 11:00 am, we all rendezvous at The Rendezvous, pack up the car,and head to the airport.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Our evening at the Chateau

After our walk, we’re refreshed but soggy. We return to the room (actually small suite with a sitting area with a leather sofa and armchair) and turn on the gas fireplace to ward off our chills and to start drying our wet clothes. Peter hops into the huge whirlpool tub to soak; I grab a quick hot shower and sit down at the desk to try and catch up with my blog posts. I write a bit, but will wait to post; the in-room internet service costs 40 cents per minute.

Mark, whose room is right door, pops over at 6:30 pm to share a bottle of white wine we’ve brought with us from Napier. Although we’ve been in the car together all day, it’s a nice chance to relax and catch up before dinner. At 7:30, we head downstairs to the dining room, where we treat ourselves to an A+ meal, including a rib-eye steak, lamb chops, and pork medallions wrapped in bacon, all topped off with a decadent bottle of red. (Yes, we’ve imbibed in more than our fair share of wine on this trip.)

After dinner, we move out into the lounge, where a few folks are playing billiards, a group of German tourists have camped out in front of the fireplace, and a young man is playing piano and singing. After listening for about 45 minutes, Peter and I introduce ourselves to the musician, whose name is Jeremy. We learn that he’s a “duty manager” at the hotel and plays in the lobby “just as a hobby”. Most amazingly, he can’t read a note of music; he plays entirely “by ear”. Having studied piano for ten years myself, I am especially taken by Jeremy’s talent, his arrangements, and his wonderful soulful voice.

We crash at about 11:00 pm and before getting into bed, we open two windows. The wind is howling and the rain comes down hard, and it’s perfect for sleeping. The next thing we know, Mark is knocking on our door; it’s already 9:00 am and it’s time to check out and continue heading north. Next stop: Auckland via Rotorua.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Heading north to Taupo and the Tongariro National Park

After another of Gerard’s big breakfasts, we pack up the car and hear north, towards Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand. It’s actually a water-filled crater, and serves as our entrance to Tongariro National Park, which according to our Lonely Planet travel guide, played the role of “Mordor” in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. 

Like we’ve found throughout our travels in New Zealand, there’s no such thing as a straight road here. It’s up and down through winding mountain passes, and today, it’s raining a bit and quite misty, so the views of the peaks right in front of us are often obscured. 

The view from a scenic outlook along the highway towards Lake Taupo 

We miss the turn to our destination and travel a half-hour further until we realize our mistake. It’s not a big deal; we just backtrack and finally end up at the Bayview Chateau Tongariro, a grand old hotel that opened in 1929, and sits in the shadow of three active volcanos, including the towering Mount Ruapehu. 

The Chateau is vast and “old-worldly” – the huge lobby is filled with dozens of upholstered sofas and easy chairs, a grand piano, large maroon drapes, and a giant billiards table. It reminds me a cross between the stately mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, the Mount Washington Inn in New Hampshire, and the hotel featured in the movie “The Shining”. 

A quick visit to the “old” portion of the hotel, deep in the basement, leads us to the whirlpool and sauna facilities – low-ceilinged, dark, shadowy, and more than a little bit creepy. I was about to make some crack about how dank it was until I saw a gentleman sitting in the whirlpool. I wouldn’t get into that pool on a bet.

The Chateau sits in the middle of Tongariro National Park and there are lots of outdoor activities to keep guests busy. But today, it’s raining quite heavily, so the atmosphere is quite subdued. Mark, who’s been doing all the driving, decides to lay low, read his book, and catch a few winks before dinner (the dining room, just off the lobby, looks very fancy – “reservations are essential” a sign warns us). But Peter and I need to stretch our legs so we put on our slickers and go for a walk.

Just up the hill from the Chateau is the entrance to one of the area’s main hiking trails. We’re not on it long before the vistas open up and we get a sense of the park’s natural beauty.

Exploring wine country in Hawke's Bay

We wake up Tuesday morning, refreshed after a long night’s sleep with fresh ocean air and very comfortable beds. Gerard serves us a large breakfast, including big bowls of tropical fruits, yogurt, ham and cheese omelets, and lots of dark, thick coffee. We’re exploring some local wineries today, based on recommendations from Ivan at the wine bar last night.

First up is Church Road, which dates back to 1897 and is one of the oldest wineries in the country. For an admission fee of $15, we get a tour of the facility and a tasting. We’re a little early for the tour, which starts at 11:00 am, but since we’ve got a lunch reservation at another winery at noon, we negotiate with our hostess, Daphne, to do the tasting first. This may be the first time I’ve tipped back glasses of wine at 10:30 in the morning!

Our tour guide, Ann, then takes us and two British couples for a walk around the expansive Church Road property. 

Our tour guide tells us that each of these oak barrels holds enough wine that you could enjoy a bottle each day for 65 years. 

A large barn-like structure on the property hosts up to three wedding parties a week.

The barn is filled with oak barrels that have been "retired" - they have been used for 4-5 years and no longer impart their "oakiness" to the wine. They are for sale for about $70 each. 

These fine specimens, aged to perfection, are NOT for sale for $70 each. 

An olive tree and me.

The tour included a visit to the old cellars and exhibits about the vineyard's history.

We leave our tour a few minutes early to drive to the next vineyard up the street, Mission Estate. It is a stunning compound and we are guided to the back of the main building and out onto a terrace for our lunch. About two dozen tables are set up for the mid-day meal, all under canopies or large umbrellas to protect diners from the warm early afternoon sun. The tables are set with heavy, starched, and perfectly-ironed linen napkins and fine wine goblets. The yard is perfectly maintained and I can imagine many a wonderful dinner party has been held on these grounds. 

We each start our meal with a glass of white; Chardonnay for Peter, pinot gris for Mark and me. 

A short time later, our food starts coming out of the kitchen: 

Ceasar salad

Corn and pepper chowder

Steak tartare

Fish and chips

Bluenose (deep sea fish) and buttered potatoes

Homemade gnocchi

On our way out of the Mission property, we see workmen constructing large stage platforms and dragging porta-potties into formation, all in preparation for a weekend concert featuring Rod Stewart. We walk around town later in the afternoon, and posters for the event are plastered everywhere and all of the shops are playing his tunes. I’ve never been a fan and it seems I can’t escape the sound of his raspy wailing.

We divert into a local supermarket to pick up two bottles of wine and some salty snacks for our pre-dinner gathering out of the balcony of our second-floor room. Dinner couldn’t be any more convenient: the Indonesian Kitchen is literally next door. We order rijstafal for three and our server brings out bowl after bowl of delicious and aromatic food. We eat like we’ve not been fed for days, and then head back to our inn for a good night’s sleep.

On the road again: driving north to Napier

On Monday morning, we grab a cab from The Museum Hotel back to the Wellington Airport, where we pick up a rental car and start heading north. Our destination is Napier, about 215 miles away, which our guidebooks tell us is about a four hour drive. But due to road construction and a sizeable detour, the journey takes nearly five-and-a-half hours to complete.

We pass through some beautiful farm country and stop in Dannervirka, a little town with a strong Danish heritage, for a quick lunch. We also pass through Palmerston North, where according to our Lonely Planet travel guide, comedian John Cleese once visited and commented, “If you ever do want to kill yourself but lack the courage, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick.” The community soon after named a garbage dump in his honor.

Perhaps spoiled by the jaw-dropping scenery we’ve experienced on the South Island, the drive is decidedly a little ho-hum. It may also have something to do with my motion sickness pill-induced coma in the back seat.

Napier is located on the Pacific (which here in New Zealand is the east coast), almost halfway up the North Island. All guidebooks and tourist literature about this city always begin with mention of its 1931 earthquake (7.8 on the Richter scale), the most powerful quake in the country’s history. The coastline was pushed upwards several feet and nearly every brick building collapsed. Most of the wooden structures that survived the quake were consumed by raging fires.

But the city was determined not to be defined by this catastrophe – within just a few short years, Napier was re-built with an eye toward the Art Deco style, especially within its business district. Driving around, we are reminded of Palm Springs, CA, Geneva, Switzerland, and villages that dot the Mediterranean Sea: lots of palm trees, cute bungalow homes, lush mountainsides, and a sunny climate.

We check into Mon Logis, a lovely four-room, Victorian-style bed and breakfast on Marine Parade, with views out over the sea and Cape Kidnappers. The inn, run by a transplanted Frenchman named Gerard, is quiet and clean, with bright rooms and luxurious bed linens. After grabbing a fistful of brochures and local maps, we head out to explore the community.

Parched from our long drive, we seek out an afternoon cocktail, and end up at the Med Wine Bar & Bistro, a quaint bistro with outside seating. We are interested in trying some of the local wines, so our waiter Ivan brings out eight glasses, each with a generous sampling of whites and reds that are made here in the Hawke’s Bay region. I prefer one of the Chardonnays; Peter and Mark both like the Syrah and the Montepulciano from the Trinity Hill vineyards.

We wander back into town center and end up at Kilim, a local Turkish restaurant for dinner. As we finish our meals, it starts to drizzle. It’s several blocks back to our hotel, and we’re all ready to call it a night, so we decide to walk back in the rain. Peter and I doff our leather sandals and walk back Maori-style (barefoot). 


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