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Week 39: Queensland Islands and Brisbane

02-Dec-08 :: From Coolum, we drove north on the Bruce Highway, covering some of the same ground that we had in August on the way to Yeppoon. We reached Hervey Bay mid-afternoon, where we stopped for some groceries before finding the harbor from which the ferry departs. Unfortunately, the rain from the cyclone was still hanging around and making the weather quite bleak. Our raincoats came in handy on the ferry ride to Fraser Island, which was very wet but only about 40 minutes. It was a relief to reach our villa — a 3-bedroom place with a kitchen, reached by walking up a hill from the main lodge. The facilities at the Kingfisher Bay Resort are very nice — 2 lovely swimming pools, gorgeous beachfront with water toys available, guided activities and several restaurants — but our villa was very basic and so rather disappointing. Without air conditioning the place smelled a bit, and we discovered that the master bathroom flooded with every shower and the dishwasher didn't work.

The rain continued to fall through our first night, but that didn't stop us joining the 6:30am bird walk around the resort! Later that morning we also joined a guided canoe trip into the mangrove creek that empties into the sea. Later in the afternoon we took advantage of a dry spell to get into the swimming pool, after which we joined a fishing clinic. The rain continued through our second night on Fraser Island as well, but we still joined the 6:30am bird walk once again. Surprisingly, the sun was shining on Wednesday and the air was quite steamy at that time of the morning. With the sun out, so were a number of birds that hadn't been visible the previous morning, especially the birds of prey which soar high in the sky. After breakfast Daniel collected our 4-wheel drive Land Rover and we all piled into the car to explore the island.

Fraser Island is over 100 km long from top to bottom, so we weren't expecting to see the whole thing. And unfortunately high tide occurred at 1pm, right in the middle of the day, which limited how far we could drive up the east side of the island. Vehicles drive on the beach along that side of the island, with the exception of the 2 hours on either side of high tide. So that meant we had to leave the beach by 11am, and since the road entrances are few and far between we had just a 30-minute taste of flying along the beach in our Land Rover. We were so happy to see the sun again and enjoyed the warm dry air on the ocean side of the island. After a play in the sand and an early lunch, we returned inland and visited Central Station, the former headquarters of the logging industry on the island. A boardwalk allowed us to walk along a small river with a sandy bottom, and learn about some of the local trees.

Next stop was Lake MacKenzie, the largest freshwater lake with a sandy bottom (Fraser Island is the largest island of sand in the world). The pictures of the lake are beautiful and it didn't disappoint in person. The only surprise was the crowds! A bus of school children arrived at the same time we did and it was amazing how little space there was on the beach. Up until that moment, Fraser Island had felt somehow remote and we'd hardly seen anyone. Suddenly we were in the midst of a huge crowd! The kids still enjoyed a refreshing swim in the lake before returning to the Land Rover and heading back to the resort.

We had been hoping to fit in some canoeing before the end of the day, but unfortunately the sea on the inland side was too rough. That evening we had a family dinner at the restaurant in the main lodge. Although the weather was fine, we skipped the 6:30am bird walk on Thursday morning and packed up to return to Hervey Bay. Our ferry departure was at 10:30am, so again we were hoping for a chance to take a canoe out for a paddle, but the sea was still too choppy. The kids squeezed in a quick swim, enjoying another sunny morning, before catching the ferry.

Upon our arrival in Hervey Bay, we retrieved our car and repacked. After purchasing some items for a picnic lunch, we set off to find the local airport. Having temporarily lightened our luggage to 10kg per person, we stored the remainder in the office of Sea Air. Then we boarded the Cessna Caravan with 4 other passengers and took off for Bundaberg, where we collected 2 additional passengers. Unfortunately, some severe weather was on its way so we had to take off pretty quickly and our pilot accidentally left the luggage compartment open! A member of the ground crew spotted the mistake and ran over to close it — phew!! — but we still had the weather to contend with on a short flight over the ocean, headed for the tiny Lady Elliot Island. The flight was a nail biter, as we watched the beautiful blue sky become engulfed by dark clouds and felt our plane buffeted by wind, and we were all relieved to make a safe landing.

Lady Elliot Island was a pleasant surprise — the accommodation was quite a bit nicer than we'd been expecting, and the food was much better than anticipated! The kids were also excited by how many birds live there, and since it was nesting season many of the birds were sitting on eggs which could easily be seen. Although the wind was strong that first night, it hardly rained at all and the following morning was sunny and clear. Unfortunately, when it comes to diving on Lady Elliot Island we discovered that the wind was coming from the "wrong" direction. All the diving and snorkeling on the island is set up for wind to come from the southeast, which is apparently the normal wind direction. We had the bad luck of a wind coming from the northwest, which made it difficult for the dive masters to load the dive boat and anchor in the usual dive spots. The morning dive was cancelled, but we went out in the afternoon, when the tide was high and the boat could more easily approach the beach. The highlight of the dive was sea turtles — we spotted 5 in all, including a green turtle, hawksbill and loggerhead. However, Lady Elliot Island is known for manta rays and we were disappointed not to see any. After the dive, I went back to the room and took Miranda snorkeling in the lagoon, where we saw a giant bull ray and a small shark just lying on the sand in between the coral! After that I decided to go for a short jog around the island, and I stumbled across a female sea turtle on a deserted part of the beach digging a hole to lay her eggs!

Our hopes for an improvement in the weather on Saturday were dashed when we awoke to clouds and more strong wind. Although the rain never materialized, the diving conditions were not good. In addition, with the clouds and wind there was not much else to do on the island and we ended up playing games in the activity room all morning. By lunchtime the conditions had still not improved enough to go out, but finally at 2:30pm the dive master gave the OK. Daniel and the boys went out, but I decided to skip it and take Miranda snorkeling again. We were rewarded with several turtles swimming around in the lagoon, which was an awesome sight! The boys returned from their dive, but again no manta rays. So they enjoyed snorkeling with us for a bit before we all headed back to the room for showers. The boys decided to walk up to the deserted part of the island and look for turtles laying eggs, and they managed one sighting and lots of good photos. Dinner starts just as darkness descends upon the island, and we were rewarded with one of the most stunning sunsets we have seen so far — possibly better than any we saw from the boat!

Our final morning on Lady Elliot was sunny. Although the wind had shifted to the south, it was still a bit westerly as well and too strong for ideal diving conditions. So we left on a 9:30am plane and returned to Hervey Bay to collect the rest of our luggage and drive back down to Brisbane. Our stay at Lady Elliot was a success because of the lovely staff and the unexpectedly good food and accommodation. But it was a good lesson on how dramatically the weather can affect plans. Our expectations for seeing manta rays seemed realistic, based on what we'd read about the island, but in the end we were disappointed. The drive back to Brisbane was about 3 ? hours, so we returned to the Marriott in the middle of the afternoon, with just enough time for a swim before dinner. We had our hearts set on sushi, but discovered that many of the highly rated restaurants in the center of town are not open on Sunday night. We managed to get a table at a nearby restaurant called Oyama, with a coveted seat at a teppanyaki table. Once again, the chef was throwing eggs and rice at customers, who are meant to catch the items in a bowl! I guess it's a Brisbane-wide phenomenon within Japanese restaurants!

Monday was dry and sunny, and the kids were campaigning for a visit to the mini-golf course in Victoria Park. Since I wasn't playing I became the official score recorder, and I must admit it was quite an well maintained mini-golf course (although not the kind with themed holes). That kept us busy for a little over an hour, after which we found a lovely café for lunch at the entrance to Park. After lunch, the kids wanted to visit the playground, so we started off on the long uphill walk. Unfortunately the playground ended up being fenced off for repairs — a large tree had fallen during the previous week's storm and caused quite a bit of damage. So we returned to the flat, grassy area lower down and kicked around the football for awhile but found it too hot to continue. A taxi driver happened to pull up just as we decided to return to the hotel. I didn't catch his name, but we learned that he was a medical doctor from Sudan, driving a taxi while attempting to earn the qualifications to practice medicine in Australia. He seemed a very determined fellow.

Week 38: Sunshine Coast and Islands

27-Nov-08 :: After leaving New Zealand, we were all looking forward to some warmer weather, especially after that snow in Arthur's Pass! Upon our arrival in Brisbane, we certainly got what we wished for. The weather was hot and humid, and we all became a little concerned that summer weather could prove intolerable. As we had arrived early and our hotel rooms were not yet ready, we set off for the pedestrian mall area on Queen Street in search of some lunch. The kids were complaining about the short walk because they were hot and Daniel and I were finding them a bit frustrating. But we all felt better with some food in our stomachs!

That afternoon we got settled into the Marriott Hotel and Daniel collected the rest of our luggage from the storage facility. For dinner we made an outing to Kabuki, a local Japanese restaurant, for some sushi. The kids were disappointed that we hadn't been able to get a spot around one of the teppanyaki tables, but they changed their minds once we sat down. The people at the teppanyaki tables were having eggs and rice thrown at them and making a huge mess!

Sunday was devoted to sorting out our belongings, so the rooms were a complete mess. But unpacking everything was the only way to sort it all out. In the end, there was a large pile of items to donate to charity, as well as a fair amount of rubbish. But we still had several boxes to ship back to the house in Vermont. Later that day the kids were rewarded with an outing to the bowling alley. What a popular place to be on a Sunday! Fortunately, it had rained the previous night and the temperature had cooled down and dried up quite a bit, so the kids were no longer complaining about the heat.

Monday we packed up again and drove north to Coolum, for our week-long return visit to the Hyatt resort we had enjoyed so much in August. The boys were looking forward to golf and we were all anticipating some cycling! Our villa was very spacious, with a kitchen, and we picked up our bicycles soon after checking in. We all really enjoyed the week of being active, getting around the resort on bicycles and swimming. By the end of the week the boys and Daniel had played 45 holes of golf in all, and would have done more had the weather cooperated! The girls had enjoyed 3 visits to camp Hyatt, which enabled me to visit the spa and gymnasium, where I enjoyed a massage and a body wrap, and participated in my first pilates class in years!

We all cycled to the resort beach one afternoon, though it was too rough for swimming, so Daniel and the kids played cricket. And we enjoyed the variety of birdlife at the resort. One afternoon was devoted to driving up to Noosa for a look around, and another was spent wandering the boardwalk at the Maroochy River Wetlands nature reserve near Bli Bli, admiring the mangrove swamp. Daniel and I dragged the kids to a Thai restaurant in Noosa one evening, which was enjoyed by all in the end. Having arranged a babysitter through the hotel, Daniel and I also managed to have dinner on our own at a restaurant in Noosa called Berrados, which was excellent.

Basically, we all needed a week to relax and stay in one spot, after all our moving around in New Zealand where we had wrapped up with numerous short stays. The kids were pretty productive with school work while staying in Coolum as well, rising early to finish off their work in order to get out on their bicycles. Daniel and I spent some time making plans to fill in the gaps in our plans before Christmas. And our last evening in Coolum ended with a spectacular thunder storm — apparently part of a cyclone that hit Brisbane and caused flooding and power failures.

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from the Sunshine Coast and Islands.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 37: Farewell New Zealand!

17-Nov-08 :: Arthur's Pass was a welcome sight after our long drive though the rain! The Wilderness Lodge at Arthur's Pass is located about 15 minutes beyond the town, on the way toward Christchurch. We settled into our interconnecting rooms and took the kids to the dining room, where a special meal was prepared for them (to leave the dining room free later for adults!). After settling them in to watch a DVD, Daniel and I set off next door for a meal with other grown-ups for a change! We enjoyed a lovely meal with 2 other American couples — Jim and Marilyn from the mountains in Utah, and David and Sandra from South Carolina. Not surprisingly, the food and wine were fantastic and we stuffed ourselves with cheese cake until the kids phoned to ask where we were.

After a chilly night where we snuggled up with our electric mattress warmers, the boys and I awoke early to join in the 7:30am bird watching activity. Jerry, the lodge owner and guide, met us in the reception and suggested that we all have a look at some baby pigs which he had picked up from Christchurch the previous day. As we drove over toward the farm area where the animals are kept, the wind was blowing and the clouds were low in the sky. We met the piglets, as well as a couple of young lambs, and before long snow flurries started to blow around in the air. Given that it was November, the equivalent of May in the northern hemisphere, this wasn't the spring weather we had been anticipating (but fortunately we still had our ski jackets and gloves). The flurries fell from the sky sporadically, with an occasional burst of sunshine coming through, giving us hope for improvement in the weather throughout the day. Jerry showed us where some of the local birds hang out, including hawks and falcons, and then we headed back to the lodge for breakfast.

During breakfast we gave up on the weather improving, since the snow flurries became bigger and more consistent, until we found ourselves watching a virtual white out! Jerry had to cancel the scheduled canoe trip, but instead offered to take guests out to see the lambs and the calf. By the time we reached the shed, the snow was really coming down and showed no signs of letting up. The girls got their chance to hold a lamb and feed the calf a bottle of milk, which was very sweet. The wind was really blowing, but Jerry still insisted that we all see the piglets, and we watched him move a large group of sheep to a pen in which they would be protected from the wind. By the time we returned to the lodge, the snow was thick enough that the kids managed to put together a small snowman! When the snow slowed down a little bit, later in the afternoon, we headed up to the town in search of Keas to photograph. Although there were none around in town, which I gather is pretty unusual, two were waiting for us alongside the road on the way back to the lodge. The snow picked up again and made photographs pretty difficult, but the kids enjoyed being up close to the amazing birds.

Another blissful dinner brought an end to Wednesday, and Thursday morning the boys and I once again joined Jerry for the early morning outing. This time is was a hike up to the arboretum on Cora Lynn Farm — an uphill climb with lots of bird life and a series of trees from different parts of the world, including the Douglas Fir (which will make up a large part of our new house in Vermont!). The sun was shining and the sky was blue, so the morning walk was quite exhilarating. We returned to the lodge for a quick breakfast and got ready for our long-awaited canoe outing on Lake Pearson! Although the sun was shining, the temperature was still unseasonably cold and the wind was occasionally gusting. So Jerry prepared our canoes to launch from the far end of the lake and we set off in search of wetland birds. The paddling was sometimes quite challenging, more so than ocean kayaking! By the time we reached the near end of the lake and paddled back, we were all feeling tired and relieved to return for our picnic lunch.

Our next stop was another film location near Castle Hill Village — this time from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — the rocks where the final battle scene was fought! Jerry knows the area quite intimately, and showed the kids and Daniel all the right places to climb. They all had a ball and were exhausted by the time we finished exploring and returned to the van. Our final dinner at the Wilderness Lodge was again delicious and we enjoyed another meal with the kids peacefully tucked up watching a DVD next door! Friday morning was another sunny one, but we skipped the early morning activity. The lodge had filled up with guests and was feeling quite crowded by this time. After breakfast, the boys and I followed the Rainbow Valley Nature Walk, reaching a couple of lookout points and being rewarded with views of Mount Rolleston and the Waimakariri River. Unfortunately, we had to pack up and depart that day, in order to drive to Christchurch for our final night in New Zealand.

As we drove back toward Christchurch, we thought about how sad we were to leave New Zealand, but how we all look forward to return visits in years to come! In leaving, we began to discuss what were the highlights for each of us. Although it was a tough choice, Daniel and I agreed that our favorite place to stay was the Hapuku Lodge in Kaikoura. It was just so great to be there with Nina, Gregg and Gunnar! The kids' favorite walk also took place in Kaikoura, an unforgettable stroll along the cliffs on a gorgeous day! Daniel and I enjoyed some of the more remote walks we did near Queenstown, particularly near Glenorchy (Lord of the Rings territory!). There were also votes for the lovely Kaimata Lodge on the Otago Peninsula outside of Dunedin — the setting was amazing and the wildlife plentiful. Favorite activities included whale watching in Kaikoura, scuba diving in the Poor Knights Islands (Daniel and the boys), and horseback riding in Paihia (Miranda), as well as kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park (Benjamin and me). Daniel and I also tried as many New Zealand wines as possible! The Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir were definitely the most enticing, and I've chosen a favorite of each. Swiftburn by Chard Farm was my favorite Sauvignon Blanc, produced on the south island near Queenstown. Pegasus Bay is also on the south island, but north of Christchurch, as produces our favorite Pinot Noir.

With that, we bid New Zealand farewell and caught an early morning flight on Virgin Pacific from Christchurch to Brisbane!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from our Farewell to New Zealand.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 36: Back on the South Island

10-Nov-08 :: Upon arrival in Picton, we headed back onto the water with the Cougar Line water taxi service. It took about 40 minutes to reach the Bay of Many Coves, a remote resort managed by Lisa and Mark. The sun was shining and the air temperature was quite warm, so once we settled into our 3-bedroom lodge we decided to give the pool a try! The water was actually pretty cold, so the hot tub beckoned. Meanwhile, Ben and Miranda decided to join Lisa on a walk with Poppy, her 2-year-old black Labrador. I'm sure Lisa got to hear all about Lola and Coco! The kids came back with tales of a walk to a waterfall, where they drank the water, and a helicopter landing pad. We all enjoyed dressing up for dinner and watching the sky change with the sunset. The food was some of the best we've had on the trip, which is saying quite a lot!

Unfortunately, the warm weather we experienced on Tuesday disappeared and Wednesday was much colder and rainy. The kids put a little time into some school work (our agreement seems to be that on wet days they grudgingly study), and we laid low during the worst of the weather. Later in the afternoon Ben talked me into trying a walk — he showed me the waterfall he'd visited the previous day and then we decided to walk up to a scenic lookout. The sign said it would be a 45-minute walk, but it must have taken us over an hour! When we reached the top, the clouds were so low that the scenic view was not even visible. Still, we felt a sense of achievement for completing the long, steep, uphill walk. That night I slept very well.

Thursday the weather improved a lot, which enabled us to spend some time on the water! The kids scoffed down some cereal before Gordon picked us up in his classic cruiser at 8am, and we headed out to see Queen Charlotte Sound. He knew all the good fishing spots, which enabled us to catch a total of 20 fish. The Department of Conservation had just instituted a ban on keeping blue cod about a month previous, so we operated on a catch and release basis. However, the shags don't have to follow the regulations, so they were waiting patiently for us to release some cod — straight into their mouths! Still, the kids were thrilled with their achievements — we even reeled in a couple of barracudas. Gordon also had a couple of kayaks on top of his boat, so when we reached a protected cove Ben and I had a turn paddling around. There are some beautiful holiday homes along the water there, and all of them are accessible only by water taxi, since there are no roads.

Gordon had us back to the resort for lunch, after which we were picked up by the Dolphin Watch tour. The agenda was to drive around in search of dolphins, then to visit an island bird sanctuary called Motuara. Although the sun was shining, it had grown pretty cold on the water! Still, it was thrilling to see some more dusky dolphins out playing in the sound, and the kids were happily snapping pictures. Arriving at the island was quite exciting, since only this boat is allowed to bring people there. Once again, the walk was up a pretty steep hill — fortunately it was much shorter! When we reached the top, there were steps leading to a lookout tower with the most amazing views toward the north island. The clear skies allowed us to see for miles! The best part of that trip was the company — we were very lucky to meet the Reynolds, another family of 6, traveling around New Zealand and playing hooky from school in the UK! Since we spend so much time on our own, it was a real treat to spend time with another family. We shared stories of cameras left behind, laundry and excess luggage!

Friday was Daniel's birthday, so he awoke to a fresh cup of tea next to his bed and hugs from everyone. He had requested some episodes of Top Gear on DVD as a gift (which I had fortunately found in a book store in Wellington!), so he was happy. After that we reluctantly packed up our bags and waited for the Cougar Line water taxi service back to Picton. The girls spent our final half an hour playing with Poppy, since it was a lovely, sunny morning. As we sped toward Picton on the boat, Ben found something worth photographing, only to discover that his camera was not in his backpack. After searching all our bags, we had to conclude that he had left it behind at the Bay of Many Coves. We couldn't believe it! By the time the staff at the resort found it, the next water taxi had already gone past and it was too late for us to retrieve it the same day. The kids had gone to play on the playground while Daniel and I made phone calls about the camera and Daniel sorted out the rental car — it was a pleasant surprise to run into the Reynolds there. It turns out that their plan was also to drive west, but the following day, so they kindly offered to pick the camera up from the water taxi office and carry it with them. We exchanged phone numbers and planned to talk about where to meet up and make the exchange. Ben was upset to be without his camera for our visit to Abel Tasman park, but relieved that he wouldn't have to wait until Christchurch to get it back (which would have been the logical place to have DHL deliver it, if the Reynolds had not offered to bring it).

By the time we sorted all that out and set off from Picton, the time was nearly 2pm! With a 3 1/2 hour drive ahead of us, we resigned ourselves to only a short stop en route. As we approached Golden Bay, on the north side of Abel Tasman National Park, we encountered the Takaka Hill. After all the mountains we have visited, it doesn't sound too impressive, but the windy drive over this hill made us all feel very sick! Our rental place was a pleasant surprise — the photos on the website do not do it justice, as it is a beautiful house in a pristine location. Not only is it situated just behind the dunes of Pohara Beach, with mountain views all around, but it sits on the 11th hole of the local golf course! Heaven, obviously.

Saturday couldn't have been more different to Friday — wind, torrential rain and low clouds which blocked out all views of the mountains. The boys aspirations to get out onto the golf course had to wait, and I convinced everyone to make it a productive day of school work. However, the TV received more channels than most anywhere else we've stayed, and the house had a great selection of games (including Monopoly, which got a lot of use!), so there was plenty to do on a rainy day. Like it or not, we all needed the downtime. Fortunately, Sunday was dry (although still cloudy) and the wind had died down. So Ben and I headed off for a morning of sea kayaking with Nigel from Golden Bay Kayaks. It was our first experience with a proper ocean kayak, spray skirt and all, which was so much more comfortable than the ones we'd been using previously! Nigel was a great guide and we paddled around the Tata Islands, which mark the north end of Abel Tasman National Park. The highlight was probably when we had a fur seal swimming and playing alongside us for awhile — he was so close I could see his whiskers! At the end of the morning, we both felt a sense of achievement for having paddled the whole time and enjoyed some amazing scenery.

That afternoon, we all drove north to see Pupu Springs, the clearest fresh water spring in New Zealand. The kids enjoyed walking around, reading about the history of the place. There is also a hydroelectric power plant nearby, which involved a really nice looking walk of about 2 hours. The kids just had a look at the entrance, since Francesca wouldn't have managed the walk. Daniel took the boys for a round of golf when we returned to the house, and they were very excited when they reached the 11th hole where we could watch them.

Monday morning was absolutely glorious, and we headed off to Totaranui, the northern-most beach in the park, which has road access. As scheduled, the water taxi picked us up at 10:45am and took us for a ride to see the fur seal colony at Tonga Island. There were lots of people out kayaking there, and I really envied them! After disembarking at Tonga beach on the mainland, we walked for about an hour on part of the Abel Tasman Track — one of the great walks of New Zealand! The weather was just perfect and we ended up at the famous Awaroa Lodge for lunch. Although the service was a bit slow, we enjoyed sitting in the sun while we waited. After that, the water taxi picked us up and returned us to Totaranui to our car. The drive back to Pohara was about 40 minutes, after which the boys headed straight back onto the golf course. The wind had picked up a lot, otherwise I was thinking about more kayaking. The sun doesn't go down until nearly 8pm in New Zealand, which meant that the boys were out on the golf course for quite awhile.

Tuesday morning we packed up and headed off down the west coast. This was meant to be our longest drive since leaving Yeppoon back in August to drive down to the Sunshine Coast! We stopped off in Motueka at the local tourist information center and met up with the Reynolds, who ceremoniously returned Ben's camera. Thank you!!! They were also moving on, and we all managed to depart just before the rain started. Unfortunately, it rained during our entire drive down to Arthur's Pass. We had planned on driving along the coast, but since the visibility was nearly zero we chose an inland route instead. We briefly glimpsed the ocean on the west coast as we drove through Greymouth. I am amazed by how well the kids have adjusted to long drives since we arrived in this part of the world — I think I even heard Felix say, "That was a nice drive" on one occasion!!!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Back on the South Island.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 34/35: More North Island

01-Nov-08 :: We continued our stay at the Koura Lodge in Rotorua for another 2 nights. Sunday we visited a nature park called Rainbow Springs, where the main attraction is trout. The fish were imported from California many years ago, but they thrive in the abundant fresh water here and attract fisherman from all over. This was another very well-maintained park where we were pleased to see that the admission fees really are spent on the facilities. The main attraction for us was the Kiwi Encounter, where we spent an hour touring the Kiwi rescue facility. Because Kiwis cannot fly and have poor eyesight, they are vulnerable to introduced predators such as ferrets and stoats. So the Rainbow Springs staff endeavor to collect the Kiwi eggs when they are close to hatching and keep the birds until they are about 6 months old and more able to defend themselves. We were shown the rooms in which the eggs are incubated, another where the chicks are kept warm and a third where they are fed and nurtured until they are ready to be released into the wild. Finally, we were taken to a dark room which imitates a Kiwi habitat and allowed to watch 3 Kiwis behavior! It was so exciting, as the chances of us seeing them in the wild is pretty small. We were also pleased to learn that when the chicks are released back into the wild, the carers put them in the same place where their nest was located.

After that the kids felt like a round of mini golf with Dad and we returned to the lodge for some relaxation. Felix discovered that his camera was missing and when we retraced our steps he decided that he'd left it in the lobby of the Westin. So I phoned immediately and Felix was relieved to learn that it had been safely tucked into the manager's desk (along with his Breckenridge jumper, which he hadn't realized was missing). I then spent some time on the phone with DHL to arrange for the camera to be picked up and shipped to meet us at the hotel in Wellington.

I was keen to try out the kayaks, as we finally had a sunny day without too much wind. The boys started out in the single kayaks, but while they waited for me and their sister to get out in the double kayak, they managed to have a splashing fight and became too wet and cold to continue. So I switched to one of the individual kayaks and went off on my own, while the others stayed behind and threw baseballs in the yard. It was pretty cold out on the water and not very nice to be wet, but I persevered for about 30 minutes before returning to the shore. Then we all jumped into the hot tub and relaxed for a bit until dinner! We returned to the local Tandoori Palace that evening for another tasty curry meal, which made everyone happy.

Tuesday we packed up the car and headed out to another wildlife park called Paradise Valley. The attractions were very similar there, with abundant trout as well as farm animals. The main difference was that they also keep lions! The girls were very excited to observe the lion enclosure for awhile and could have stayed there all morning. Again, it was obvious that the entrance fees were used to keep the park maintained and we were very impressed. After a couple of hours walking around and photographing local flora and fauna, everyone was hungry. So we grabbed a quick lunch and hit the road.

The drive took us southwest to beautiful Lake Taupo and then around it on the southeast side. From there we entered the mountains, but the fog became so thick that we could barely see them! It was like Mount Cook all over again. After leaving Turangi, there were very few towns until we reached our hotel, the Bayview Chateau Tongariro. By this time it had started to rain, so we were pleased to get settled into our rooms and the kids spent a bit of time on school. There was just enough time for a quick swim and sauna before dinner — the pool was quite unique in that it had a very low ceiling and was filled with hot water. We dined in the chateau's nice restaurant that evening, and the kids all behaved very well.

Wednesday morning the weather hadn't improved much, so the kids attended to some more school work in the morning, and we decided to head out close to lunch time. We drove up to the nearby ski area, which was surprisingly much bigger than the areas we had experienced around Queenstown. There was even accommodation right next to the lifts! Although the lifts were no longer running, a group of people were there with rubber rings sliding on the snow, so the café was serving food. The kids all chose pies for their lunch, and after a brief walk around we returned to the hotel. Since the rain had stopped, the boys were keen to have a try on the resident 9-hole golf course. I went back to the room and didn't see them all for several hours! Their timing was impeccable, since shortly after they came indoors, the rain returned. However, we dodged the drops and ran across the road to the local pub for dinner. There was a pub quiz going on, so we did our best to stay out of the way by taking over a pool table in the corner while waiting for our fish and chips.

Thursday we set off late in the morning for New Plymouth. There was a slight disagreement with regard to the map-reading amongst the family, so we decided to stop at the nearest i-site for some advice on which route to take. Turns out that I was reading the map correctly and the route Daniel wanted to take had quite a few kilometers of dirt road. The kind woman at the i-site recommended that we avoid the unpaved roads on such a wet day, and instead directed us on a route which appears slightly longer on the map but has paved road the whole way. Once we reached the coast (our first glimpse of the west coast of New Zealand, other than the Milford Sound way down south), the drive was very picturesque.

We checked into the Waterfront Hotel at about 2pm, after the excitement of passing all the big supermarkets along the main drag. I gave Melissa a call and she came straight to the hotel to meet us — she looks just the same as 8 years ago when she looked after Benjamin and Felix in London! After that, she kindly invited us to come see her house and bring along some dirty laundry, which meant we were there when Corrie returned from work. He looks quite different to what we remember, because his hair is all gone, but the kids warmed to him quickly. We finally had the pleasure of meeting Melissa's parents that afternoon — Mark and Mary — who live nearby. I already felt that I knew them, since they had been very kind in giving the boys gifts back when Melissa was looking after the them. I think I gave one of the All Blacks shirts to my nephew a couple of years ago! Mellissa introduced us to a local restaurant, Arborio, where we had dinner with her sister, Toni Anne, who had also lived in London part of the time we knew Melissa. So we had a really nice meal and caught up a bit with each other, after which the kids were exhausted (fortunately the hotel was just next door).

Friday morning we all slept in a bit (wonderful!) and after breakfast Melissa met us and we headed off to the Brookland Park and Zoo. The kids enjoyed the playground and seeing the animals — lots of birds, some otters and ring-tailed lemurs. I spent about an hour on the phone with DHL trying to figure out why the camera hadn't yet arrived in Wellington, in spite of the fact that I'd paid an extra $30 for the 24-hour service. But pregnant women need to be fed regularly, so we made certain Melissa got something to eat. The local mall had a small version of the usual food court, and was also just down the road from our hotel! After everyone had some food, we crossed the road and walked along the boardwalk, watching the waves break on the rocks. Before long Melissa had to take off and drop her mum and sister at the airport, so we all headed back and the kids spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on school work. Melissa arranged for us to meet for dinner at a local Indian place called "Flame", so we arrived there just after 6:30pm. The food was delicious, but for once we didn't over-order and stuff ourselves to the point of illness! Another pleasant evening with Melissa and Corrie.

Saturday the weather was pretty atrocious, so we took Corrie up on his invitation to come over to the house and play X-box 360. The boys were in their element, and Miranda did well finding activities on the internet to occupy her. Meanwhile, Melissa and I caught up on the events of the past 8 years in each others' lives, which was pretty time-consuming. When the weather cleared slightly, in the late afternoon, we decided to drive up to the visitors' centre at Mount Taranaki. The clouds were blowing across the mountain pretty quickly, as the wind was blowing quite fiercely. But the sun stayed out long enough for us to do a short walk, read some of the displays at the visitors' centre and have a cup of coffee (or for some of us, hot chocolate). We also had a look around the shop, which sold quite a lot of merino wool clothing and some possum fur items. Then we drove back to the house and finished the laundry before heading back to the hotel with the intention of having dinner.

While Daniel parked the car, the kids and I rode the elevator up to our room. The restaurant menu was on the wall, and Felix proceeded to read it out loud, mentioning baby possum as one of the main courses, much to our horror (I was carrying Francesca and could not see the menu). Well, that did it for us — there was no way we were eating at a restaurant that served baby possum! When Daniel returned, we told him the astonishing truth about the hotel's restaurant, and insisted that we find a restaurant somewhere else in town to eat, in spite of the fact that it was already 7:30pm. (Upon later inspection, it turned out that the menu item had actually been a poussin, which is another name for a Cornish game hen — Felix will kill me for including this information in the blog, but it's just too good!). Anyway, the end result was that we had dinner at Sushi Ninja, which was a completely pleasant surprise! The chef is Japanese, and his wife is a Kiwi lady who lived in Tokyo until the age of 15, but then proceeded to meet her husband in Auckland. The restaurant is small, but the food was just amazing. We have nothing but high praise for Ken and Sophie's place — personal service, delicious food, beautiful presentation ... We had a really lovely evening there.

Sunday morning we packed up to leave and met Melissa and Corrie for breakfast. I guess the next big news from them will be to let us know whether the baby is a boy or a girl, and what name they've chosen! We took a brief walk to the playground with the kids and took some photos before saying good-bye and heading for the airport. New Plymouth airport is about the smallest one we've been to — checking in took no time at all and our flight departed pretty much on time. Unfortunately the wind meant that we experienced a lot of turbulence on the way up, had a short flight above the clouds which was very smooth, and then found more turbulence on our descent. Let's just say that we were very grateful to find ourselves safely on the ground in Wellington.

The taxi took us directly to the City Life Hotel in Wellington, but our room was not quite ready. So we headed off for a walk around the local area and a snack. The city is very pretty, with houses perched on hilltops overlooking windswept bays — and we were happy to see the sun! Once we made it into the room, nobody wanted to leave so the room service menu beckoned (although I sneaked out to Borders to pick up a birthday gift for Daniel — a few DVDs of Top Gear the BBC motorhead TV programme). The next day was Monday the 27th of October, the New Zealand Labour Day. Fortunately, quite a few businesses remained open in spite of the holiday, so we dragged the kids to the local natural history museum, known as Te Papa Tongarewa. In spite of their protests, the kids just couldn't help but love this place. The displays of native animals were amazing in their detail, and Francesca enjoyed pushing the buttons to hear the description of each of the creatures. Signs directed us to an outdoor exhibit of native plants as well, which was really enjoyable to experience, especially on such a gorgeous day. The kids also convinced us to take then on a couple of simulation rides — Daniel went with them for the "low" ride (simulated submarine) and I accompanied them for the "high" ride (you can guess this one). Although I love roller coasters, this simulation was just a bit too much for me ...

Daniel had found an art gallery for us to visit afterwards, again with protests from the kids. Once again, they enjoyed the 20 minutes we spent there, in spite of themselves. Daniel and I are keen to find an artistic memento of our visit to New Zealand, perhaps a painting to grace the walls of the new house in Vermont, or maybe some wooden Maori masks — we haven't yet decided. That evening we had chosen a restaurant with Indian and Thai food for dinner, only to discover that they had closed for the holiday. But we made a quick recovery and benefited from a cancelled booking at "Chow" — another Asian restaurant which was described as a place where it was often "difficult to get a table" in one of the restaurant guides. At first Felix refused to believe that he would like anything on the menu, but once the food arrived (a fantastic combination of Chinese, Indonesian and Vietnamese, I guess), he became the most enthusiastic eater! Miranda surprised me by consuming most of the soup I ordered, and Francesca did well with satay chicken and jasmine rice. Benjamin ate enthusiastically, as usual. Another delicious meal!

Tuesday morning we had tickets on the 10:30am Interislander ferry across to Picton. We checked in our bags and let the kids loose in the playground, where they entertained themselves until it was time to board. Once on board, the kids discovered that the cinema was showing Wall-e, which was great. Daniel and I were happy to skip it and let them go on their own — fortunately, with the size of the ferry that was a feasible option! So we watched Francesca play in the little kids' area and read magazines until the ferry pulled into Picton before we knew it! Some of the reviews of the ferry had been pretty frightening, from people who'd made the trip in less than ideal weather, so we felt very lucky to have a sunny day without scary winds. Although the ferry wasn't nearly as big as those crossing the English Channel, our overall experience was very pleasant. Upon arrival, Miranda started to wonder where her camera was — and we decided that she must have left it in the hotel in Wellington. DHL, here we come again.

The next installment will pick up from when we arrived in Picton. We are also nearing the end of our 10-week stay in New Zealand, so I've been asking the kids to put together some thoughts on the visit as a whole. I will try to include my list of favorite New Zealand wines!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from North Island.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 33: Bay of Islands

19-Oct-08 :: On Wednesday morning we awoke in Auckland to a cloudy day. After a lovely breakfast at the Westin Hotel, we decided to wander over to the Maritime Museum. The area around the hotel and the museum is very pretty — similar to the Docklands district in east London, in a way — with lots of condos overlooking small marinas and wide walkways along the waterfront. At the Maritime Museum we discovered that much of the land has been reclaimed with landfill. We also saw examples of various types of boats, from Maori fishing boats to European-style whaling boats. The exhibits were really interesting, covering the local history from the viewpoint of boating. That afternoon, we headed to Sylvia Park — the large, suburban, shopping mall, to take in a film — Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which was great for the whole family. That evening we walked to a local Japanese restaurant called the Sushi Train. Surprisingly, the place was full to Japanese people — the kids really enjoyed the conveyor belt delivery system, so everyone ate well.

Thursday, after another fantastic breakfast, the kids had a swim while I spent 20 minutes watching them from the gymnasium and Daniel went to collect our rental car. After a return visit to the Sylvia Park Shopping Mall for some rain jackets, we hit the road going north. The drive to Russell was a little over 3 hours along winding roads, through forests, sometimes overlooking the coast. Just before arriving, we boarded a small car ferry to cross a little bay which separated the Russell peninsula from the mainland. When we arrived in the little town, we called the agent in charge of the house we had arranged to rent, but were unable to reach her. Before panicking, we explored both streets of Russell and then drove around the residential area, hoping to stumble across the house (called Cloud 9, but for which we had no address!). Finally we managed to reach Lesley, the agent, and arranged to meet her colleague in town to drive us to the house. Crisis averted!

Once we entered the house and experienced the view, we were more than just pleased. The house is absolutely beautiful, with breathtaking views over the famous Bay of Islands in the front, as well as a great view over Russell, and across the bay to Paihia, in the back! The living room and the master bedroom both open onto balconies taking in the view, and the open-plan house was laid out perfectly for our family. In the back was an extra apartment which we designated as the "classroom" for the week, which worked out very well. Our plan for those 6 days was to relax, enjoy the view, and make sure the kids completed a reasonable amount of schoolwork.

In keeping with that goal, we spent all day Friday in the house! Saturday the kids did some school work in the morning, after which we drove down to Russell and took the pedestrian ferry across to Paihia for a walk. It's just another sleepy waterfront town, not quite as quaint as Russell (which strangely, was the first capital city of New Zealand!). The following day was Sunday, which again started with school work for the kids, but ended with a 3-hour cruise aimed at seeing dolphins. Having already seen a lot of dolphins on our boat trip, as well as on our whale watching cruise in Kaikoura, we didn't really mind if we saw any or not. The opportunity was there to swim with them on this particular cruise, but none of us was tempted given the water and air temperature. So we were happy to cruise through the rock arch and return to Russell without seeing any dolphins, especially since we were offered a chance to retake the cruise at no charge.

Monday we again started the day with school work and headed out in the afternoon. The boys wanted to play a round of golf and the horse riding was nearby — perfect. I took the girls to the local playground while the boys golfed with Daniel, and during the horseback riding the boys and I took a scenic walk toward Huku Falls, where we saw a lot of birds. Tuesday morning brought torrential rain, so we decided not to use our credit for the dolphin cruise. Instead, the kids accomplished a lot in the "classroom", and when it cleared up later we walked along the beach below our house. The sand was brown and the water temperature was not tempting, but the stroll was very pleasant. The beach had a lot of rocks and shells in certain parts, which made a colourful mosaic and kept the walk interesting.

Wednesday morning was beautiful so we decided to try the cruise again — this time was successful, in that we saw dolphins as well as having another chance to cruise through the rock arch again. We also saw a slightly different view of the 130 islands in the bay. Because there were babies among the dolphins we saw, swimming with them was prohibited. Daniel and I were pretty relieved to not have to decide whether we would get in the water or not ... We returned to Cloud 9 to make some lunch and pack up the car for the drive. Our plan was to detour for one night in Tutukaka on the way back to Auckland, because of its proximity to the Poor Knights Islands (in the top 10 of Jacques Cousteau's favorite dive sites in the world). We took the scenic, coastal route there, arriving at about 6pm. The accommodation was basic, but the location of the hotel was pretty spectacular — over-looking the marina at Tutukaka and the route out into the open ocean! We awoke to rain on Thursday morning, and the boys were feeling a bit discouraged since they had planned a dive for the day. But we dropped them off at the Dive Tutukaka shop and watched with amusement as they were kitted out in multiple wet-suits. The water temperature was 16 degrees Celsius, which was a tad warmer than they were expecting, so good news. The girls and I left them and returned to the hotel to pack up and load the car.

After a day at various local playgrounds and beaches, the girls and I returned to collect them at about 4pm. Fortunately, the boys were not too cold, and they couldn't have described the diving in more glowing terms. Anticipating that they would all be exhausted after a day at sea, I insisted on driving back to Auckland for another 2 nights at the Westin Hotel. Once again we arrived at dinner time, so the vote was for room service. We ended the day by watching Get Smart on pay-per-view, which was enjoyed by all. Friday morning we got down to breakfast pretty late, so by the time the kids attended to some school work and I went to a salon for some desperately needed attention to my hair, it was after 2pm! Still, we decided it was worth the time to visit Kelly Tarlton's aquarium, where we found enough to entertain ourselves for about 2 hours. The highlight was a snow cat ride through the penguin exhibit, where we saw females sitting on their eggs! We also enjoyed the gigantic rays and sharks, most of which live in a tank surrounding the viewing area and allowing visitors to view them as they swim overhead. Injured sea turtles are also looked after, allowing a close up view of them.

That evening we walked to a nearby Chinese restaurant, where we all enjoyed the usual favorites, including crispy duck with pancakes and sweet and sour chicken. The kids behaved very well, and we all had a nice time. That evening we started to get the luggage organized for another departure, this time headed south to Rotorua. Saturday morning we enjoyed another delicious breakfast at the Westin, followed by a swim. Then we packed up the car and hit the road for about 2 1/2 hours, broken up with a nice lunch in a Cambridge café, and arriving at 3:30pm. The kids are most happy with the cottage where we are staying, as there is a pool table right in the center of the open-plan living room/kitchen!

Sunday morning was devoted to feeling out the table for both pool and snooker. We finally managed to get out just before noon, and headed to see some of the local highlights. The area is known for its thermal activity, so our first stop was a park devoted to a well-known geyser and various boiling mud pools and streams. We probably walked about 2 kilometers, and refueled with some lunch at the café. The park was reminiscent of the Journey to the Centre of the Earth and we were pleased to note that the high entrance fees they charge go directly toward maintaining the exhibits. After lunch we continued on to the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, which was absolutely fantastic. First of all, the kids walked a total of 4 kilometers without complaining, which is a first! Along the way we witnessed the results of a volcanic eruption back in 1886 — a valley of tremendous geothermal activity, with steam pouring out of cracks in the rocks as well as off the surface of lakes. The scenery was amazing and varied, as well as being suitable to push the stroller! Fortunately, the walk culminates at a large lake and a shuttle bus returns visitors to the starting point.

After a very full day of activity, we were all happy to return to the Koura Lodge, where we found our laundry done. The boys got out their baseball gloves to play catch on the lawn, observed by the black swans hovering just off shore in Lake Rotorua. Some fresh New Zealand lamb for dinner with a bottle of Mission Estate cabernet sauvignon (from Hawkes Bay) made the perfect end to the day!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Bay of Islands.

Or some pics from our Night Dive.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 32: Visit with Nina, Gregg and Gunnar

13-Oct-08 :: We met Nina, Gregg and Gunnar at the airport in Christchurch on a sunny Thursday morning. Fortunately their incredibly long journey had gone smoothly and they were in good spirits. We had arranged for Lindsay (from a limo service) to drive us all up to Kaikoura in his brand new, 12-seater Volkswagen van. What a comfortable journey! We arrived at about 3pm and get settled into our rooms at the Hapuku Lodge. When I booked the rooms, I'd been informed by the manager, Mark, that they generally didn't allow children to stay at the lodge, but he felt that since it was the low season he could make an exception. So he kindly arranged for us to stay in 2 of their amazing tree houses, which were just gorgeous, and we immediately felt at home. After sitting in the van for several hours, everyone was keen for a walk. Stanley, who gave us a warm welcome to the lodge, directed us toward the coast for a leisurely walk with beautiful views. Once at the pebbly beach, we were rewarded by discovering a fur seal taking a nap nearby! Everyone took loads of photos, and then we watched him waddle down to the shoreline and prepare to go for a swim.

Dinner was very special, served to us at a long table in the lodge. Nina, Gregg and Gunnar did very well to stay awake long enough to eat an early meal, and we were all in bed by 9pm that first night. Friday morning we had hoped to go whale watching on a local boat, so we were thrilled with another sunny morning. Unfortunately the boat was fully booked and we were forced to postpone until the following day. Instead, it was decided that we would get dropped off at a seal colony and take a long hike along the coast. I just couldn't find enough accolades for that walk — the weather was perfect, the kids were excited, we saw numerous fur seals and sea lions basking on the rocks and playing in the surf, and the coastline and scenery were just spectacular! I am certainly not doing the experience justice with my description. By the end of the walk, we were all hungry and exhausted. So we headed into town for lunch at a local pub and made it back to the lodge just in time for naps.

Again, dinner was a unique experience. We decided to feed the kids early and get them settled watching a movie so we could eat later. Coincidentally, another family with 4 children came to stay at the lodge that night, so all the kids ate together. Our kids don't get to see other kids very much, so they were just thrilled to have some friends. The other family was really lovely and the kids all seemed to hit it off quite well. Later, Daniel and I managed to have a civilized dinner with Nina and Gregg, which was very exciting!

Saturday morning was cloudy and the weather forecast was not great, but we were determined to cheerfully go ahead with our whale watching plans. First we gathered for breakfast, where the kids had another chance to socialize with their new friends. Stanley had also arranged for a lamb to visit the lodge, so all the kids were thrilled to meet and play with it. The whale watching excursion ended up being a huge success — the weather held out and we managed to spot 4 sperm whales during our 3 hours at sea (the average for a an excursion is 1-2 whales). We saw a pod of at least 100 dusky dolphins, all frolicking in the bay, which was just beautiful. With the addition of the odd albatross sitting on the surf, and the occasional fur seal poking its head out of the water, the trip was absolutely perfect from a wildlife point of view. We managed to get back into town for lunch and make it back to the lodge for naps again before the rain started pounding down!

After the previous night's success, we again decided to feed the kids early. Rich, the chef, made them feel very special by preparing hamburgers and hot dogs especially for them. As for the grown-ups, our final meal at the lodge was again delicious and we enjoyed the perfect ambiance one last time! Sunday morning was again sunny and beautiful. By the time we packed up and checked out, we had just enough time to wander around the grounds and try to find Annie, one of the local deer. Although the kids carried around a bag of cut up fruit to feed her, she never appeared.

At mid-day, we hopped into a taxi bound for the local airstrip. We had arranged for Hank, from Air Milford, to pick us up and fly us down to Queenstown in his 12-seater Cessna Carravan, via scenic Mt. Cook. The plane was very comfortable and, due to another perfect day, we enjoyed breathtaking views of the mountains all down the center of the south island. After a little more than 2 hours, we landed in Queenstown. We stopped at New World for supplies, we headed off to our rental house, Shambala. What a lovely place. First of all, it's walking distance to town (albeit via a steep hill to return home), which was great. It also is very spacious and well laid-out for a family. Plus it has great views of the Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountains. We could not have been more happy.

Monday morning was quite nice, but by the time we got out of the house it was after 11am. We headed for the gondola and at the top the kids made a bee-line for the luge — we came down in various combinations and solo, down the scenic track and the advanced, and had a grand time. Just as we were heading into the café for some lunch, the rain came. What perfect timing! After lunch it was still pouring and the older kids wanted to play some miniature golf, while the little ones needed naps. So Gregg bravely agreed to supervise the mini golf, while the rest of us returned to the house. After the rain let up Nina, Gregg and I set out to climb up to the top of the hill behind our house. After 45 minutes we had to turn back to avoid missing dinner, so we didn't make it to the top. Still, the view from our highest point was pretty impressive. After dinner Nina got me to play cribbage for the first time in years — we even taught Gregg!

Tuesday we decided to take a steam boat to Walter Peaks High Country Farm, which is accessed by a half an hour cruise across Lake Wakatipu on the T.S.S. Earnslaw, a steamboat leaving from Queenstown. It turned out to be a lovely sunny day, pretty warm, and the outing was perfect for kids. We got to feed deer and sheep, and meet some very hairy cows. The kids also got a chance to bottle-feed and hold some lambs! After a cup of tea and some snacks, the kids had a chance to feed ducks on the lakefront. Then it was off to a demonstration of the dog rounding up the sheep and to watch shearing. That was the most fascinating — our guide donned a jumpsuit and wrestled the ewe onto her back, at which point she became very docile and just let him shave her completely! I bought a couple of stuffed lambs for the girls from the gift shop and we boarded the steamboat to head back to Queenstown. That was a memorable day.

Wednesday morning was rainy, so we decided to take the kids to the indoor swimming pool. It's a brand new and very nice complex, with various pools of different depths and a couple of water slides. Passing an hour there was no challenge! Unfortunately, it was only after that we discovered that towels are not available. Fortunately they sell towels for $10 each, so we all managed to dry off. But we would have appreciated some kind of warning that we should bring our own towels ... After heading back to the house to regroup, we decided that the weather had improved sufficiently for a visit to neighboring Arrowtown. The former mining town is very cute but tiny, so we headed off on a scenic walk along the Arrow River. By the time we finished that, dinner was coming up fast so we returned to the house with some groceries. Nina and Gregg insisted that Daniel and I go out to dinner while they stay with the kids, so we decided to try a place called Wai on the Waterfront. We sat at a table overlooking the lake and had a very pleasant meal.

Thursday we decided to drive along Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy. The drive is rated one of the most scenic in the world, apparently, and some scenes from the Lord of the Rings trilogy were filmed nearby. It took us about 45 minutes to reach the town, where we immediately set out on a walk from the town jetty through the wetlands. The scenery is impossible to describe accurately — the mountains rising up around the lake were just so beautiful! That walk took about an hour, after which we had sandwiches and soup in a local café, and decided to drive a bit further into Mount Inspiring National Park and up one of the rivers that feed the lake. For those of you who remember the Lord of the Rings, we ended up in the location where they filmed "Isengard", the lair of Gandalf's mentor-turned-badguy. The landscape was just gorgeous and that forest contained some very old trees! After wandering around for a while we returned to Queenstown. Nina and I went off to have a massage at the spa and grab a glass of red wine at the pub on the way back. Then we went out to dinner at Gantley's historic restaurant in Arthur's Point, for a special meal. The perfect end to a perfect day!

Friday was our big day — the drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound for a cruise. It's a long drive, so we were aiming to be out the door by 7am. Once we filled up the tanks with gas, we were on the road by 7:30am, so not too bad. The drive to Te Anau (sort of the half way point) was pretty flat and straight, so we made good time. After refilling the tank, we grabbed a quick breakfast at the neighboring Subway (didn't even know they served breakfast before!) and continued our driving journey. Fortunately, Daniel and Gregg both enjoy driving, especially on winding roads with beautiful scenery — this is another one that is rated in the top drives of the world! There are lots of scenic lookout points along the drive from Te Anau to Milford, and we stopped at about half of them for photos. Driving through the Homer Tunnel was an experience — the rock inside was very rough, almost as though the tunnel had just been finished. We reached Milford (not much there, except a jetty and a large building housing the desks for all the cruise companies) with enough time to grab lunch before our boat's departure. Because it had been raining during much of our drive (Milford receives 6 meters of rain a year!), and because there was some snow on the mountains that was melting, we were treated to an unusual number of waterfalls during our cruise of Milford Sound, in addition to the breathtaking scenery of the mountains rising up out of the sound. The boat took us right to the entrance from the ocean and back again to Milford, with a sighting of a crested penguin hopping along the rocks and a couple of dolphins along the way.

The drive back to Queenstown was a bit faster, since we didn't need to stop at the scenic lookouts. We reached Te Anau quickly, where we stopped for an Italian dinner. After dinner we tried to fill up with gas, only to discover that we'd missed the closing time of ALL the local gas stations by 10 minutes! We still had a half tank, so I wasn't concerned, but Nina and Gregg somehow had quite a bit less than we did. As we drove through various small towns between Te Anau and Queenstown, hoping for an open gas station, we were disappointed each time. Finally, Gregg noticed a station with lights on. Although inside the shop was empty, there was an automatic pump which allowed payment with a debit card! So we were saved — Nina and Gregg were down to empty at that point. Reaching the house at about 10pm was a relief, and getting the kids into bed was no problem.

Saturday dawned with pouring rain, so we felt lucky to have had good weather the previous day. On Nina and Gregg's last day we caught up on laundry and relaxed while they packed. By lunch time the rain had stopped and Nina and Gregg were able to go out and shop for souvenirs. We planned to take them to the airport at 3:30pm for their 5pm flight, but as they were double checking whether flights were on time and so on, we discovered a glitch. Apparently, I had booked their flight such that they only had 35 minutes to change flights in Auckland! A quick conversation with Air New Zealand confirmed that they would not make their international flight with such a short amount of time. Oops. Amazingly, with another half an hour on the phone to Air New Zealand, I was able to change their international flight to a later time and get them on a new domestic flight such that they only arrived back in Chicago about 3 hours later than they were originally scheduled! I can't overstate how impressed I was with the staff member from Air New Zealand who helped me sort things out.

After saying good-bye we were expecting to feel a bit down. Saturday evening was very low key — we watched a kids' DVD called Nim's Island, which was very good. The only slight surprise was the portrayal of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Having been there in July, we expected to recognize the place when Jodie Foster's character arrived there, but it was totally different! In the movie, it looked like somewhere in the third world, when in reality Rarotonga is quite modern.

Sunday morning was glorious and sunny, so it was decided that the boys would do their skydiving. As a mother, I wondered if I was crazy to let my 2 sons go off skydiving with their dad. I can't say it was a comfortable feeling as I paced alongside the airstrip with the camera, waiting for them to land! But they all had an awesome time and were rewarded with amazing DVDs of their experience. Daniel will have to add an extra blog with his thoughts and feelings on taking the boys up to jump out of a plane.

Our last day in Queenstown was another beautiful one, but we kept it low key by taking the kids to the playground and letting them rent bicycles to ride around the area. After that, it was time to make sure the laundry was all done, clean up the house and pack. Tuesday was another nasty day, with snow in the morning and rain later on, not to mention heavy fog. We watched the airport arrivals and departures all morning to see if our flight would manage to take off that afternoon. Additionally, the weather in Auckland (our destination) was worrying, with extremely high winds. But when we reached the airport our flight was scheduled to depart on time, so we checked in and made our way to the gate. In the end, it left about an hour late — not bad, considering the number of flights that were cancelled that day. We arrived in Auckland in rainy weather, but all was forgotten once we got settled into our lovely rooms at the Westin Hotel! Then we started planning our next adventure on the north island of New Zealand.

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from our visit with Nina, Gregg and Gunnar.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 30 / 31: Skydiving

06-Oct-08 :: Felix woke up this morning and decided it was a good day to jump out of a plane at 15,000 ft ...

The Brave:




Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from our skydiving adventure.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

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