The “Other” Land Down Under – New Zealand (part 1)

Our 5 hour flight from Rarotonga to Auckland was very smooth with superb service and food from Air New Zealand as we crossed the international dateline somewhere in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. After checking into our hotel downtown, we explored the busy waterfront and discovered “Kelly Tarlton’s Undersea World”, a privately owned aquarium with a unique attraction – a refrigerated enclosure for several species of Penguins. A motorized ride took us inside the enclosure for a face to face encounter with the birds and included a glass tunnel underwater for a fantastic view as they “flew” through the water with the greatest of ease. During the entire ride we had a very interesting narration by an Antarctic explorer. Later on we visited an amazing reconstruction of Admiral Scott’s cabin, exactly as it was found after his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912. The exhibit had actual films and photos of the expedition, showing the tremendous hardships they endured, including photos of the destruction of their wooden sailing ship caught in the ice. It was both a fascinating and yet eerie exhibit – so real! As we were leaving the aquarium, we walked through another glass tunnel with huge sharks and stingrays swimming just inches above us.

Downtown Auckland - View from the ferry
Downtown Auckland – View from the ferry

On the way back to the hotel we came upon Albert Park, a huge open space in the center of Auckland. A stroll through the “winter houses” (greenhouses) revealed an incredible display of lush ferns, tropical flowers, and gorgeous orchids.

As we were leaving the park we passed many lovely old colonial buildings, including an old Jewish synagogue that had been converted into a branch of the Westminster Bank. Finally we came to the busy Queen’s Street, the main shopping district in the city. Then suddenly there was a deafening “roar”, announcing the passing of 30 Harleys, each carrying their black leather cargo! Later in the afternoon I headed to Prince’s Pier and found a neat old bar called “The Wharf”.

Auckland Bay from The Wharf
Auckland Bay from The Wharf

As I sat outside on the deck overlooking the harbor, cold beer in hand, I spied a beautifully restored 1902 wooden 3 masted sloop with gorgeous teak decks, brilliant varnished wood, and shiny brass everywhere. It was truly a magnificent sight, and moored right in front of our hotel. Ironically, the rusting old hull of a Russian trawler named “Komtek II” was moored nearby – what a dramatic contrast!

The next morning, following a very traditional English breakfast that included fried tomato, baked beans, “rashes” of bacon and blood sausage, we walked across the street to visit the National Maritime Museum. Here we discovered some very interesting exhibits and films depicting the heritage of the Maori people and their incredible ability for sailing the open ocean. In another display was the “Jules Verne Award” for the film documenting the fastest circumnavigation of the world in a sailing vessel, which was won by “Black Magic”, a huge catamaran from New Zealand that completed the epic journey in 74 ½ days – against some incredibly bad weather! In another section of the museum was an elaborate exhibit about the early days of European and Asian immigration to Australia, and it very realistically portrayed the feeling of being in the steerage section aboard an old sailing ship. In fact, the whole exhibit actually swayed with the motion of the ship. The next day I took a local ferry for a short ride across the bay to the tiny Victorian village of Devonport. Strolling through the old town I passed many beautiful old storefronts that had been converted into small shops, boutiques, cafes and bars. It was all very interesting and historical. At the end of the main street was a path leading up to the top of Mount Victoria, an extinct volcano and the site of a WWII battery of huge 8 inch coastal defence guns that were to protect the harbour. Though I don’t believe they were ever fired, the view from the gun battery was absolutely spectacular – the entire harbor, countless small islands, and many boats plying the dark blue water under clear skies.

Auckland - view from Mount Victoria
Auckland – view from Mount Victoria

That evening I joined Leslie for dinner at a place on the waterfront with an extraordinary reputation among the locals. “Cin Cin on the Quay” was located in the old turn of the century ferry building. As we sat outside overlooking the harbour I ordered a delicious “Tandoori oven roasted salmon” served over coconut milk rice with tomato lentil sauce, along with fresh baked garlic naan. Leslie chose a wonderful spiced chicken curry dish and we shared a bottle of chilled, crisp New Zealand chardonnay from Marlborough Sound on the South Island.

The next morning we boarded the “Overlander Express” train bound for Wellington on the southern tip of the North Island. As we were shown to our seats in the Observation car at the rear of the train, we were served a chilled glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, along with the traditional morning tea, complete with fresh baked scones, Devonshire clotted cream, and strawberry jam! As the train made its way south we passed deep green hills dotted with thousands of small white specks – sheep! (sheep outnumber people in New Zealand 8 to 1) Meanwhile, the on board guides, Bob and Rick, provided us with a running commentary about the landscape and the history of the towns we were passing through.

Tongariro National Park
Tongariro National Park
Tongariro National Park
Tongariro National Park

As the train neared Tongariro National Park we were served a delicious lunch of chicken curry and parsley rice, which I accompanied with an ice cold pint of local DB Draught beer. Soon after finishing lunch, we came to an engineering wonder known as “The Spiral”, a circuitous turn of two 180 degree curves cut into the very steep mountainside, designed to enable the train to ascend over 250 meters (800 feet) in elevation. Further on, in addition to countless numbers of sheep, we began to see large enclosures of Elk being raised to supply venison to European markets, primarily Germany. Most of the towns we passed through had almost unpronounceable Maori names, so I got out my “New Zealand Handbook” and read up on the history of the Maori people. Unlike the Aborigines who have been in Australia for thousands of years, the Maori were Pacific Island people who recently migrated to New Zealand several hundred years ago. While I read about the Maori, Leslie struck up a conversation with a man from Wellington who had driven a car from Los Angeles to Chicago for its owner, and unfortunately had broken down at a truck stop near our home town of Redlands, California. By the time he arrived in Chicago, the owner owed him more than $1,000 for repairs! So the man dropped off the car and bought a 30 day RailPass on Amtrak.

Soon we arrived in Wellington, checked into the lovely Park Royal Hotel facing the waterfront downtown, and joined my friends David and Beryl for a drink in the lobby bar. Then we all headed for dinner at a place David had arranged in the Hotel Raffeole Restaurant overlooking the harbour. As we entered the hotel lobby we immediately became aware that it looked very much like we had entered a mortuary – dried flowers on faded pink pedestals and long, dark purple velvet drapes. (weird) In addition to the dark, depressing décor of the place, the maitre d’ was quite strange as well! He had a very pale, sad face and a sour disposition – hardly inviting, but neither is a mortuary. Despite the dismal introduction to the restaurant, the dinner of herb roasted loin of lamb in filo pastry was superb, as was the Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough Sound. After a lovely evening of conversation and great food, we bid farewell to David and Beryl to retire for the night.

The next morning, I was able to connect with my friend Kate, one of my travel mates on the 1974 overland expedition across Africa. She took us on a day of sightseeing around Wellington, which involved driving up and down the steep hills surrounding the city. Among the places we visited was Victoria Hill with its incredible 180 degree vistas of the entire city and harbour, as well as the Northeast Coast where we had gorgeous views of Cook Strait and the snow-capped Kaikoura Mountains across the water on the South Island.

Wellington - view from Victoria Hill
Wellington – view from Victoria Hill

Later we shared afternoon tea in the tiny village of Eastbourne on the far side of the harbour, among lots of old homes with a curious mixture of Victorian elegance and bush practicality. On our way back to the city Kate stopped at a “farm center” on the Kapiti Coast, where they made their own butter, cheese, and ice cream, so of course we had to sample them. Among the samples was an excellent 6 year old hard cheddar and a lovely ginger-passionfruit ice cream. In another shop we found a fascinating working bee hive enclosed in glass and sitting in the middle of the shop. The honey was very tasty as well. We ended up buying several different kinds of cheese, along with a couple bottles of New Zealand wine, before driving back to the city.

Kapiti Coast
Kapiti Coast

We broke out the wine and cheese at Kate’s house, being joined by her son and two young cats. As evening approached, the four of us went out for dinner at a very nice little restaurant named “Marbles” in an old Victorian house in the historic village of Kilburn. It had beautiful, eclectic décor – a lovely combination of old and trendy. Dinner began with a bowl of chilled pumpkin soup, followed by fresh scallops sautéed in white wine, cilantro, and fresh ground black peppercorns. Both the service and the food were excellent and provided a fitting celebration of the reunion with Kate.

The next morning, under clear skies, we boarded the “Avarlihua” Inter-Island Ferry for the journey across Cook Strait that separates the North Island from the South Island. The ship was a combination rail/car/passenger ship, very much like those of the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Inter-Islander Ferry leaving Wellington
Inter-Islander Ferry leaving Wellington

I sat outside on the rear deck taking in the spectacular scenery of the beautiful Marlborough Sound as we sailed through numerous emerald green islands that studded the deep blue water. It looked a lot like sailing the Inside Passage to Alaska. As we neared the port of Picton on the South Island, there were incredible views of the snow covered peaks of the Kaikoura Range.

Kaikoura Range
Kaikoura Range
Picton on the South Island
Picton on the South Island

Once the ship had docked at the ferry landing, we decided to have a bite of lunch before the departure of the train to Christchurch. I spotted a small, local place called the “Toot-n-Whistle” where I ordered the classic fish and chips, along with a cold pint of local Speights beer. Also on the blackboard menu was something called “toot feast”, described as a large steak smothered in a rich seafood sauce. Too bad that we didn’t have time to try it, but our train was due to leave soon. Then we boarded the “Coastal Express” for a beautiful 4 hour journey along the rugged and wild Kaikoura coast on our way to Christchurch. Stay tuned!

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