Monday, December 1, 2014

New Zealand trip diary - day 13

In contrast to the first night, we spent our second night in the lodge among maybe seven other couples, so dinner was more of a group affair. We most enjoyed talking to a Scottish couple, of whom the woman in particular was refreshingly feisty and happy to say whatever entered her head. And at one point on our table of eight people, there were maybe three separate conversations about Christchurch going on all at once; it constantly seems like a wound that’s nowhere near to healing. Another couple on the table live there, and were just here for the night, for their wedding anniversary; they hadn’t been downtown in three years, and it almost sounded like they might never go again. Anyway, it was fine, but as soon as dinner was over we left (perhaps not with the greatest finesse, in hindsight). We sat up in our room for a while longer, and ended the night looking at the stars, which were clear as we’ve seldom seen them – we could have been drawing textbook-quality constellations and formations. It was windy though, which presumably accounted for the wireless Internet going down for a second night in a row – I guess it must be a big recurring problem there. Anyway, early on Sunday morning I spent an hour or so sitting in the library area, where it still worked. Strangely, since the previous day someone had moved all the ancient volumes of Colliers’ encyclopedia from one bookshelf to another. However, Coz’s Fatherhood was still in the same spot.

After breakfast we walked around for a couple of hours. We’d saved a little bit of bread and pastry from our walk the previous day, to feed to Marcus the sheep (yeah, I know how that sounds). We walked the entire length of the driveway where he’d followed us the other day (which takeslonger than you could imagine) but although we saw the other sheep, Marcus wasn’t there. Then we did the nature walk we did on our first evening here, except in reverse this time, and not in the rain; then we went into the gift shop and bought a few things – gloves, a sweater. We were talking about how we wouldn’t be seeing Marcus again (and hoping that didn’t mean he was the night’s dinner) and then suddenly there he was, all by himself in a fenced off area, even with his own little kennel. It turns out he doesn’t like bread and pastry, but he's ridiculously fond of company, putting up his front paws (I know that’s not the term, but it seems like it should be) and lapping up all the petting he can get. Later on, a woman who works at the lodge, and lives on the premises (as they all do) said he’d escaped from the other area and come to her door around 7 am, crying to get in and sending her dog into a frenzy. He’s a wonderful little character, but you have to be worried for his future (apparently though they did have another similar sheep in the past, who after a couple of years gave in and just accepted his role in life).

We were driven to Christchurch, which took about an hour and a half – the driver was incredibly well-informed on everything we saw or passed and delivered a more or less seamless commentary, but I slept through most of it. In the past he’s driven Bill Clinton, Bono and Shania Twain (who likes the region so much she bought a farm). The flight to Auckland was uneventful, then we had four hours or so there, which passed by well enough. Still, it’s a shame our last outdoor walk in New Zealand couldn’t have been something better than the ten minutes along the green line from the domestic to the international terminal. The flight back to Vancouver was about as easy as it could have been – we both slept for a satisfactory chunk of it. I watched the recent crime thriller The Drop; Ally watched the New Zealand classic Once were Warriors…I assume New Zealand Air would be the only airline on which that’s a standing choice.
We were originally supposed to fly out of Vancouver at 2 pm; which would have given us a couple of hours there, but Air New Zealand called a few months ago to say that flight was cancelled and we had to wait until 4 pm. Not only was the 2 pm flight not cancelled, we didn’t even get seats together on the 4 pm flight (both having to occupy lousy middle seats). Something smells rotten about that whole thing. And we had a brief period of anxiety when it seemed that even the 4 pm flight might be delayed due to a water main burst in the air traffic control room (or some such catastrophe). But in the end we got off on time.

It was a great trip – we planned it fairly immaculately if we say so ourselves, seeing a good cross-section of the country while minimizing the amount of time lost to travel and other logistics, and luck was with us throughout in matters such as the weather. People keep asking if we’d go back, and of course it’s one of those things – in terms of the pleasure of being there, we certainly would, but it’s on the other side of the world and there are many nearer places we’d also like to revisit, or haven’t seen at all, so I suppose the odds are that we won’t...
Many times when we said we were from Canada, it was clear from the responses that the New Zealand image of Canada is formed much more by the western Rocky mountains, and by towns like Jasper and Banff, than by Toronto; many people told us they’d been to Vancouver and on from there, but I’m not sure anyone ever mentioned our own city. At the end of the day, I suppose Toronto is another arbitrary creation of glass and concrete, in what would otherwise be an innocuous spot on the map. But despite its limitations, we never seriously think about wanting to live anywhere else. We arrived home around midnight, but of course things weren’t truly back to normal until Ozu arrived home the following afternoon. And so here’s the end of the story.

Friday, November 28, 2014

New Zealand trip diary - day 12

Grasmere Lodge has a rather more formal approach to things than your regular shack in that you congregate for a drink around 7 and then have dinner in 8, most likely eating in groups. We were a bit unsure about this because we’re lousy in such situations, but it ended up as yet another fine evening. We went first for a stroll on a nature trail that surrounds the lodge, taking forty-five minutes or so; it was a very nice walk, but it soon started to rain and we ended up drenched. On the way back we walked through a field of horses, some of which started following us, so we have the new marker of being stalked by cows, sheep and horses all within the same day. Anyway, we soon dried off. On Friday night, as I mentioned, we were the only guests, and the only other people around for dinner were the former operators and continuing part owners, Olly and Vicky Newbegin, up here for the special Cass weekend I described before. They mostly live in Christchurch, so we had yet another extended conversation on that topic, among many other things (not least, Olly’s memories of his first visit to the US in his 20s, seeing Miles Davis and John Coltrane perform on the same night, and other musical wonders; subsequent Internet searching suggests he could also have talked at length about his amazing Porsche collection, but we never got there). Several hours went by most easily. Then we returned to our wonderful room and drank more wine. I stood outside by myself for a while in the darkness, enjoying the sense of total exclusivity and uniqueness, which our home city can’t really provide for all its own marvels.

The great thing about a place like Grasmere is that you express a wish and then everyone applies themselves to making it happen. We said that for our last day we’d like to take a good scenic walk, maybe five hours or so, and then everyone launched themselves into figuring out what would be the best route, the appropriate accompanying logistics and so on. In this particular case it became almost a family project – the current and former operators, Tom and Olly, both drove us out to the starting point; five hours later, Tom brought his partner and baby daughter along when he picked us up (after dropping in on the Cass bash). They’d selected a track which wouldn’t be too affected by the previous evening’s rain nor by the predicted westerly winds, called the Hog’s Back Trail, leading to a tiny village called Castle Hill (which Olly apparently had a hand in founding – the more we hear about him, the more he sounds like a benign local Godfather). It was a perfect choice, not just for the reasons stated, but also because it complemented the other fine walks we’ve taken – somewhat drier terrain, with a feeling of clay and gorse, but also with plenty of woodland stretches; a somewhat softer grandeur to the landscapes, but again with mesmerizingly designed skies (just look at the photos). We only saw a handful of other walkers, but there were plenty of mountain bikers, especially as the day went on. It wasn’t a particularly tough walk in terms of ups and downs, but still tired us out well enough.

The lodge chef, Jean-Pierre (they have an actual French chef called Jean-Pierre) made us a lunch which even included little quiche-type things that he’d cooked that morning; I’m telling you, they were really on top of everything. The only trouble was that by the time we were ready to eat it, the wind was picking up despite their best planning efforts, so we had to wait a while to find the right spot. The New Zealand climate is a bit of a puzzler. You often go through huge temperature swings; on today’s walk for example we eventually found a sheltered spot to eat our lunch, and ten minutes later my fingers were white and twisted as if on the verge of frostbite. But almost as soon as we started walking again, I felt overheated and had to take my jacket off (there’s a lot of putting on outer layers, then taking them off, then putting them on again, etc.) I mentioned before the ease of sunburning – apparently New Zealand has the highest skin cancer rate in the world. On at least five days during the trip we’ve felt moisture in the air in a density which at home would be a certain sign of rain in the immediate future, but here it's always receded without coming to that (our luck with the weather continued to the end; apparently things got much worse in Christchurch on the day we left). But it’s hard to make sweeping statements about a country based on two weeks, no matter how engaged you think you are. Someone at work had said to Alison that one of her prevailing impressions of New Zealand is of all the people walking barefoot in the street. We haven’t seen that at all.

By the way, the Chronicles of Narnia films were apparently shot close by, and so was a British production of The Lost World, at which time Bob Hoskins and James Fox stayed in the lodge for a month or so (haven’t asked if that’s the extent of the celebrity guest list). The only issue today was that the Internet wasn’t working this morning, with the serious consequence that I couldn’t take a look at Ozu in our room. However, while waiting for it to be fixed, I found that I could get online by sitting in one of the library areas (I think the place has three such areas, where people might play pool, chess or board games; watch TV (the rooms don’t have them); or read such books as the Coz’s Fatherhood (to take an example which, by divine providence, I found in my eyeline). Anyway, I monitored Ozu on and off for half an hour or so, and he never moved from the same droopy position on the bed in the little dog space. I haven’t seen him in the big dog space for days, which I take to mean that he’s given up on trying to keep up with them, and that he’s just grimly sticking it out before he gets to go home. Which won't be too long a wait as a percentage of his entire stay, but unfortunately still isn't particularly close if he's counting the hours…

Thursday, November 27, 2014

New Zealand trip diary - day 11

Last night we took a cab back to the Court Theatre, which is a great facility despite being located in a warehouse, and we saw the play One Man, Two Guvnors. This was big in London and New York a few years ago, and even won a Tony for best actor, but as far as I know has yet to be produced in Toronto. It’s a flat-out farce, driven by sheer silliness and dexterity, and works very well as such, although if I were the director, I would have been pushing the cast to work even faster. There’s a certain amount of picking on the audience, and at one point the lead actor targeted me in the audience (we were in the second row) and asked me where he should take the object of his desire on a first date. Despite being new in town, I shot back Tequila Mockingbird, which seemed to be a fine answer and earned a smattering of audience applause (of course the character rejects that suggestion, over his object of desire’s objections, and the play grinds on). This was an especially high stakes moment for me as the previous audience participant ended up covered in fire extinguisher foam (it’s confirmed later, for anyone who wasn’t sure, that she was actually a plant).

Pure and Deep in Auckland was a tight, minimalist, contemporary show, and this was basically the opposite, making for a fine counterpoint. We took a cab to the St. Asaph Street Kitchen (I was born in St. Asaph, a different one obviously) where despite the “…till late” thing, the guy had to check that the restaurant staff were still able to make us a meal; fortunately, they were. Then we walked back maybe eight blocks to the hotel, and although I’ve made this point several times by now, it’s still eerily remarkable that you can walk that far through a world-famous city (one of the year’s top travel destinations per several sources) and see no one else walking, not on the other side of the street, not anywhere (we did see one cat), and virtually no traffic. We kept registering new sights – a row of storefronts where a hairdresser seems to be open for business, just a few doors down from another that’s still a wreck, still with an almost four-year-old notice on the door inviting applicants for positions. This is something we’ll truly never forget.

“Climb aboard one of the world’s most famous train journeys,” says the blurb for the KiwiRail TranzApline railway, “between Christchurch and Greymouth. Cross the fertile farmlands of the Canterbury Plains, and enjoy thrilling vistas over deep gorges as you travel alongside the ice-fed Waimakariri River. Traverse the mighty Southern Alps, where spectacular views of the chiselled alpine landscape will take your breath away at every turn. Descend through thick stands of native beech forest to your destination, Greymouth – a great base for exploring this unspoiled region with its mighty glaciers, wild rivers and famous Punakaiki pancake.” We didn’t do the last couple of sentences – we caught the train at 8.15 am and got off a couple of hours later, not quite halfway through the journey, at the tiny station of Cass – the only passengers to do so (to the apparent bemusement of some of the others). The journey is indeed spectacular at times, but the train was packed and noisy (unfortunately we were sitting right behind a group of American seniors, and you know what that means) and the carriage which is open for better viewing was full of people with selfie sticks.

We were picked up and driven to the Grasmere Lodge, a couple of miles from Cass, where we’re spending our last two nights. Since we couldn’t check in, we embarked pretty soon on a two and a half hour walk down to the nearby Grasmere lake, where we followed the trails for a while before sitting on a hillside and surveying the astonishing landscape. At one point I counted at least seven layers to the landscape – the sky, two mountain ranges (one with snow, one without), a row of trees, the lake with a grass frame on either side, and the yellow brush flowers in the foreground. Even the world’s most beautiful landscapes might ordinarily be content to constitute, say, four stunning layers.
During the walk, we attracted the attention of a herd of cows on the other side of the wire, and they all followed us for a vast distance, bunching together so that you’d seriously fear for your safety if you were caught in the middle (see for yourself!) When we came back though, many of the cows had entirely disappeared from view, reminding us of the African safari where animals might roam vast distances. In the beef-rearing run of things, those are some pretty lucky cows. We also attracted the attention of a lamb who very loudly tracked us for as far as he could, and then did the same on the way back. We later learned that his name is Marcus (doesn’t it seem like every damn sheep nowadays is called Marcus though?) and that he’s spent too much time around humans; they’re trying to reintegrate him with the other sheep, but it’s not really working. We thought of offering to take Marcus home as a nice friend for Ozu, but I guess Ozu might not be entirely sympathetic to the idea.

We had lunch, and then the owner took us and another couple (from Christchurch, so that was an inevitable conversation topic) on a drive of the property and the surrounding area, which I’ll summarize basically as saying that three or four local landowners appear to own the equivalent of Toronto (but of course with a miniscule fraction of the population). Although Cass apparently has only one resident, it has a mini-golf range, and an annual cricket tournament/booze-up for which a few hundred people show up and camp – it’s happening tomorrow, so the formation of the camp is fairly well advanced. Our room, which has little in common with the Cass campsite, is enormous (we got an upgrade!), with a gas fireplace and terrific chairs (and a mini bar we can empty out for no extra charge, if so inclined) and for Friday night we’re the only guests in the whole place (the Christchurch couple were on the way home), by ourselves at the far end of a very long lodge, separate from the main building. So we just have to hope one of us doesn’t go nuts in the manner of The Shining.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

New Zealand trip diary - day 10

Last night we walked about ten or fifteen minutes to Victoria Street, an area where lots of new bars and restaurants have been opening, and went into Mockingbird, which follows a Mexican tapas kind of concept. It was very enjoyable food and people-watching, and we stayed a pretty long time (whereas at home restaurants usually have a defined closing time, most places here seem to advertise their closing time only as “..till late”: in our experience though “late” often ends up being relatively early, and we’ve frequently seen people turned away as the wheels of closing time start to grind, but maybe that speaks to the places we're drawn to). We walked back afterwards, struck again by the vast barren spaces, by the almost total absence of people and cars. Within a block of the hotel there used to be a Starbucks and a book store – you can still see the signs behind the boards; don’t know what else was there, but presumably it would have been a street in fairly constant motion. Not now...
A poster announces that Kenny Rogers will soon be here performing his “Last ever New Zealand concerts” – so to repurpose the remark I made earlier about Onehunga, is that a promise or a threat? Actually, Auckland seems like a very long time ago – we’re at the point of the trip, especially after yesterday, where our memories are happily full, and to add any more might carry the risk of being counter-productive. This is not in any way to suggest we’re not excited about what’s left. We left the hotel this morning at around 9.30 am and had breakfast nearby (I had mushrooms on toast, which it seems to me would be a wildly popular breakfast item if it occurred to more people). Then we continued exploring Christchurch, taking in some different angles on the core, different street art installations, artists using flags or weaves or sculpture to express an element of what was lost. We wanted to know the location of the Court theatre, which used to be downtown but has for now had to move to a warehouse about forty minutes’ walk from where we are. Of course, the forty minutes is only if you know the way – we had to double back twice, eventually finding it semi-hidden behind unprepossessing chain restaurants and the like.

From there we strolled through a couple of neighborhoods, first Riccarton and then Merrivale, going through Hagley Park in between – I would have been ready to wager that Hagley Park might be the biggest in the world, but it’s a mere 164 hectares; New York’s Central Park for comparison is 341 hectares. Hagley Park might seem bigger because it’s acre after acre of basically the same thing (wonderful flat green grass). This coming Saturday by the way sees the Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park event, which the website says is “one of the happiest and most magical, musical extravaganzas on the Kiwi Christmas calendar!” (my initial web searches for this event kept taking me back to the blurb for 2010, another apparent Internet ghost). Anyway, these neighborhoods are all somewhat different in theory – this one’s a bit funkier, that one a bit more high-end, and so forth – but they all seemed much the same to us. It didn’t really matter – we enjoyed the walk. I wore my shorts for the first time on the trip today, although I could have worn them several times before if I’d had more foresight, or if we’d spent our days in more stable conditions (it often gets rapidly colder on the top of mountains, or on the decks of boats).

The earthquake isn’t as evident beyond the core (and of course you can’t always distinguish between what’s disaster clean-up and what’s just a construction zone, or a particularly poorly maintained residence) but it seems that churches in particular continue to be affected. I guess that’s not surprising given their age, and the economic difficulty of raising the money to repair them, particularly to the standards of the new building code (we passed a construction site promising condominiums built to 180% of the new building code, which to someone with no knowledge of the issue sounds like something that shouldn’t really be possible). As I wrote yesterday, Christchurch continues to be a challenge to our sense of normalcy. In the photo below for instance, the historic building may look pretty much like any other, until you notice there are no faces on the clocks. Time and time again, it feels as if it ought to be possible to revive such buildings virtually at will, by applying the construction equivalent of deeply exhaling into their lungs and pounding on their hearts, which of course only tells you again how little I know about the building code. And, in contrast to Hagley Park, downtown must surely have had more trees and other vegetation before the disaster; now it has entire blocks with little or none, which I suspect you register subliminally even if, overshadowed by everything else, you don’t notice explicitly.

We looked in a few stores for souvenirs, since we haven’t bought anything, but nothing grabbed us. We came back to the hotel mid-afternoon.  An example of the Novotel’s lack of classiness – whenever you use 300MB of data (which doesn’t seem to take long – we’ve passed it twice already, just through the usual browsing and maintaining this blog…oh, and periodically watching Ozu on the webcam, which I guess sucks up the megabytes, just like dogs take and take in general) you get disconnected with a warning about how they don’t consider this to be “Fair Play,” but then they let you reconnect regardless, once you enter your room number again. Maybe Internet access is a finite commodity in Christchurch for some reason, but if so they should be up-front about it, or charge a fee or something, rather than subjecting you to a series of vaguely wagging fingers. That aside, the connection actually seems faster than the one we had in Auckland (but not as good as Queenstown). But maybe they’re right, we should just force ourselves to stay off there (Ally is much better at this than I am; she’s making great progress on an actual old-fashioned book, Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies). I mean, Ozu aside, there’s only really the two things to monitor online – the disgrace of the Coz, or that of Canadian radio star Jian Gomeshi. Just like when we left home!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

New Zealand trip diary - day 9

We left the hotel around 9, with the same cab driver who’d picked us up at the garden centre the other day – he once again spent almost the entire journey talking about Fergburgers. Ah well, it’s too late to try one now. Our flight was just slightly delayed, but once it got under way was exceptionally beautiful, flying at low altitude over monumental views, often barely touched by clouds.
Booking the Christchurch hotel had been an interesting exercise in navigating past Internet ghosts; for example, the Crowne Plaza came up in many searches, and at one point I was several steps through the online booking process, before it became evident that the hotel hadn’t reopened after the 2010/2011 earthquakes (I think I saw somewhere subsequently that they’re not currently planning to ever reopen). Several sources, like the New York Times and Lonely Planet, have cited the city as a top global travel destination since then, for the experience of visiting a place engaged in such extensive rebuilding (185 people died). When people in Queenstown asked us though about our next destination, they often seemed underwhelmed that the answer was Christchurch, the cab driver for example merely remarking disdainfully that the city is very flat…
From the sky, it seemed much like any other sprawling town, and the impression on the ride in, mostly through sunny residential neighborhoods, was much the same. But we weren’t at all prepared for what we saw at the centre. We’d both been imagining a city that would look basically “normal,” but with some pieces missing, as if with an unusually energetic construction sector. In fact though, over 70% of the buildings that were in the core before the earthquake are now gone; entire city blocks have literally nothing going on within them. Large patches have now been cleared, awaiting future redevelopment (and there’s an extensive plan in that regard); in other places, it’s as if it all happened yesterday - you look into mangled rooms, into abandoned restaurants where the plates fell onto the floor and were never picked up again. A few stretches are back to (one imagines) more or less what they used to be, but because they’re not linked to much of anything else, they feel almost lonelier than the devastated patches around them. The city has a fleet of restored trams that per the (pre-earthquake) guidebook takes passengers “on a 3-km route past many significant city centre sights” – now it has almost nothing to show those passengers, circling the same few blocks like an anxious zoo animal.

The cathedral is right by the hotel, one end of it looking fairly intact, the other entirely broken (its future is apparently under debate). A few blocks down the street is the temporary or “cardboard” cathedral, indeed built substantially of cardboard, but much more durable and beautiful than that implies. You come across little art exhibits everywhere, such as the “185 Empty Chairs”, each white chair representing someone who died, or (in a lighter vein, obviously) painted giraffes, part of a current “Christchurch Stand Tall” drive (Toronto did a similar thing with moose some years ago). There’s a Re:Start Mall, fifty or so businesses operating out of shipping containers (although again, you’d never know that's what they are); in such places, you might imagine you’re experiencing things ten years or so after a happy ending to The Walking Dead, as humans get things moving again. This feeling might have been all the greater today because it was hot and tiring to walk around, intensifying the sense of surveying the rubble at the end of a long desert war; the streets were largely deserted (most of the usual downtown commerce has necessarily moved elsewhere – Ally mentioned that you’ll never see a city where parking is less of a problem).

In one spot, there’s a wall filled with pictures of heritage buildings that are now gone, and you wonder if the city now being slowly rebuilt around state-of-the-art new development (a convention centre and so on) will necessarily have to survive without a part of its soul. Not that you sense anything other than optimism in the air though. It seemed to us at times rather unjust that back home we hear so little ongoing news about Christchurch, when (for example) it seems we’ll spend the rest of our lives marking 9/11 anniversaries. But Christchurch is surely better off that way, free of swaggering wars on real or imagined perpetrators; it can't take revenge on the ground below it, and it doesn't want to run away, so things move on. You walk past a row where (say) the first two buildings have reopened and the other two still sit empty for now (for now), and you feel the tenacious incrementalism we claim to honour in veterans.
Anyway, that was a major change from Queenstown obviously (and yes, it's true. much flatter), and entirely the right thing to do (up to now the trip has been entirely pleasant and wonderful, but today necessarily made us engage in a way we haven’t had to so far). We also walked through the enormous Hagley Park with its fine botanical gardens, and as is our style, covered most of the downtown city map (which must be revised frequently). Among other things, we came across a lonely arts cinema (currently showing Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall) and (not to seem preoccupied with this topic) a sturdy-looking strip club called Calendar Girls (with a big painted logo beaming at those who exit the cardboard cathedral) – perhaps rather poignantly, although CG is one of the few surviving businesses on the block, it’s being demolished by the city soon as part of its redevelopment plan, so it has to move. We didn’t find as many restaurants and bars as you’d expect in a city this size, but duh, as you might say.

We’re staying at the Novotel, which is where we ended up after the process I described. It’s not on the level of the previous two hotels, which shows itself in any number of little details, but then it’s not exactly a sleeping bag under a bridge either. We can see a lot from our window, and prominent in the middle of what we see is another hotel with a big Millennium logo on top. It’s currently closed, but apparently has been “assessed as repairable” and may reopen one day. But not in the next couple of years.

New Zealand trip diary - day 8

Even after several trips to this side of the world, the time change still stretches your perceptions a bit. Today on Tuesday morning I’m able to watch Ozu on the webcam, as he (apparently) waits for his lunch on Monday afternoon (hope it’s for his lunch, rather than that he’s waiting to be picked up to go home, which is still a way off). Last night in Pog Mahone’s, a US sports channel ESPN was covering the latest British soccer, and we gave up trying to figure out whether that would possibly be live or else what kind of delay it would be on. In general, ESPN aside, being in there last night felt almost exactly like being in a British pub, much more so than being in a Canadian one; given the immense separation of time and land and water, it’s a bit hard to decide whether this is a wonderful tribute to something elementally binding, or a failure of imagination. I suppose it’s a bit of both.

Actually I find it hard to distinguish here between New Zealand accents and British ones – either the former sounds very much like the latter, or else the place is awash in imports from the old country. Anyway, we again had breakfast in the hotel, which consumed the usual vast expanse of time, and then went back to our plan of visiting Arrowtown, except today we did it by bus, leaving at 10.35, arriving around twenty minutes later (which makes our failed hours of walking yesterday seem especially pathetic, or maybe especially heroic). Much as advertised, it really is a quaint little relic from a previous age, consisting mostly of tiny, freshly-painted stores, many of them with names like “Gold Nugget”; if you took the cars away, it wouldn’t take much work to transform it into a period piece movie set. But if you’re not inclined to examine every single item in every single gift shop, it doesn’t actually provide that much to do.

No problem for us, as we took a two and a half hour walk above the town, along the Sawpit Gully trail; a little steep in parts but certainly easier than our Queenstown walks, and through slightly different terrain, providing a colour scheme of yellows and light greens rather than the dark greens and blues of previous days, at times criss-crossing a little stream or walking above a river. We came down near the site of a settlement occupied by Chinese miners up to the 1920s, apparently a hot spot for the Asian tour groups, and an enterprising small business near there was offering dumplings for lunch, so we had some of those.

Arrowtown, rather remarkably, has its own art cinema, Dorothy Browns, showing maybe eight or ten different movies a day on its two screens (Queenstown has a movie theatre, but it’s currently devoted to The Hunger Games, which I assume is fairly typical of the programming). In a way, going to a movie isn’t a good use of vacation time perhaps, but we thought this would be a memorable experience in itself. The timing dictated that the movie we saw was Israel Horovitz’s My Old Lady, with Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristen Scott-Thomas (who, in a further bit of vacation resonance, we saw on stage in London a few years ago). It’s hardly a major film, but we’ll always remember it long after better films viewed in Toronto have been forgotten, as part of the list which includes Two Days in Paris in Hong Kong, Brothers Bloom in Jerusalem, and most recently Weekend in Copenhagen (we never went on our last trip, in Singapore, because all we could find there was multiplex crap). Dorothy Browns itself is a very appealing spot, with large comfortable seats and lots of spaces between rows; many of the patrons (nearly all of them closer to Maggie Smith’s age than to ours) had beers or wine, and I guess in New Zealand they still follow the (to us) long-expired old custom of arbitrarily stopping the movie halfway through so they can sell even more beer and wine.
We just missed the 4.50 bus back so rather than wait an hour for the next one we called for a cab; by then it was raining, and lots of people looked like they would happily have stolen our ride if they had the chance. We came back to town and spent our customary time in the hotel. The room has an ipod docking point with speakers on all four walls, so as I’m writing this I’m listening to my hero Dave Frishberg, including his anecdote about how around 1970 he met with a producer who was planning a variety show for Bill Cosby and told Frishberg to write something for “Coz” to perform; he had the song on the guy’s desk the next day, and (as of the date of the recording) has been waiting 36 years to hear back. The song (“Gotta Get Me Some ZZZ”) might now be regarded as having a rather macabre undertone, given the Coz stories currently circling. I don’t suppose Dave Frishberg has much profile in New Zealand otherwise. In other music news, we’ve heard Paul Simon in at least three different restaurants, and at one point today the cafĂ© near the Chinese settlement was playing Nena’s 99 Red Balloons, of all things. Most often, the soundtrack in pubs or restaurants seems to be trying to evoke a 70s edition of the British Top of the Pops.
We had trouble deciding on a restaurant, and ended up at Speight’s alehouse, just because they had a couple of non-meat dishes that weren’t salads (before that we must have looked at fifty menus, concluding that 90% of the content never changed from one to the next). The waitress was from Yorkshire, and confirmed that most of her colleagues were also British, excepting "a couple of kiwis in the kitchen." We stopped for a drink on the way back, overlooking the water. Although you can only judge by what you see and hear, Queenstown really seemed dead tonight, although it’s hard to imagine a bit of rain could stop such a party. Anyway, it seems to be time to move on.

Monday, November 24, 2014

New Zealand trip diary - day 7

In addition to what I’ve mentioned so far, Queenstown has several casinos, and across the street from us is “the Club,” which bills itself as the city’s only “gentleman’s club.” I went online to research the place, but couldn’t find much (its own website is mostly “under construction,” even though the establishment seems to have been around for years); however, I did locate a local news clip from a year or two ago in which a junior reporter does a live broadcast from there and gets humiliated. Anyway, I could easily slip across one evening after Ally falls asleep, but then of course I wouldn’t be able to write about it here.

The hotel serves a great breakfast, but it takes forever to arrive – this must be deliberate, in the belief that if it comes too quickly it won’t seem sufficiently classy. We wanted to get out by 10 am, which should have been easy, but we spent too much time waiting for eggs. Our plan was to walk the “Queenstown trail” to Arrowtown, some 26km away, a historic gold mining town; the route leads partly along the lake and then through the mountains, and seemed to be well within our grasp. After about an hour of walking, along a very easy, pleasant trail, we’d accomplished only about 4 km, and since it seemed likely only to get hotter and steeper, we decided Arrowtown was a long shot for today. At that point we lost our momentum and wandered rather aimlessly by the lake for a while (by no means wasted time, as you probably couldn't contrive an ugly or even a plain spot there if you tried) before rejuvenating a bit and setting out to walk a bit further – as far, we decided, as the Lower Shotover Bridge, which didn’t seem like too daunting an object. However, we just kept going on and on without any bridge ever coming into sight, so that we started to think we might be making good progress toward Arrowtown anyway; later on we determined that we’d taken an indirect route that added something like 4 km onto the trip, and after over three hours of walking weren’t even halfway. At that point we decided we’d had a nice enough walk for one day (especially in the wake of our big climb yesterday) but it still took a while to get off the trails and back to some version of civilization (specifically, an industrial park). Eventually we went into a gardening centre and a woman called a cab for us, so that's how we got back to town. Then of course it took forever to pick the right lunch place (roasted vegetable salad!). Anyway, I think every trip has at least one day when things don’t exactly end up as planned, but it never really matters. Once again, virtually every step was marked by gorgeous natural compositions of size and colour (looking at the photos, I see there’s virtually never any red in them, as if they’re observing a majesty beyond earthly blood and passion).

In January, Queenstown's holding a music festival featuring Heart and Foreigner and Three Dog Night! And Paul Simon and Sting are performing here in January, almost exactly a year after we saw them back home. I guess you never know what global superstars are up to. In the meantime, one might have to settle for the nightly Queenstown Pub Crawl, the perfect way to meet new people and have a great night out while saving $$$, which for $35 gets you a free signature drink at each of five bars as well as other unique drink discounts. The flyer, with little apparent irony, points the reader in the direction of The other big attraction in town is Fergburger, famous for its high-quality and unique burgers (including the Cockadoodle Oink, the Chief Wiggum and the Sweet Bambi). It’s open 21 hours a day and apparently it can take as long as an hour to get served – we’ve walked by several times and it’s always surrounded by a swarm, as if people had just spotted Taylor Swift. Anyway, the cab driver brought this up, and when I said burgers didn’t really excite me much, he entirely agreed. The difference though was that I was saying burgers didn’t really excite me much, whereas he was saying they didn’t excite him as an actual meal, only as a snack.
From the “testimony” section of the Fergburger website: “Favourite fergburger moment was when a police woman turned up to grab some food and a smashed irish bloke was convinced she was a stripper and kept saying she had a nice arse.” Of course, that particular piece of testimony doesn’t tell you that much about the food. The Ferg empire also includes a baker’s next door: we have been in there, but of course it’s nowhere near as popular – maybe the business mostly comes from people grabbing a snack while they wait for the burger. Queenstown also has all kinds of opportunities for adventure sports – bungy jumping, tandem hang gliding, rafting, jet boating jumping, skydiving, canyon swinging, baton hoisting…actually I just added in that last one. Between the natural wonders and the unnatural embellishments, you can see why people might say it's as good as it gets.

We wandered around for a while in the evening, and everything felt content and quietly celebratory – people sitting on the beach or the surrounding low walls, watching the sun descend toward the mountains. We ate in Eichardt’s, a tapas bar attached to a hotel. A woman came in and greeted the barman, taking him by surprise; she sat down and talked as he made her a drink, and we overheard a lot of it – she’s here for the weekend from Melbourne; he’s off soon for six months in Europe. It made Queenstown seem like a town of infinite possibility. Then we had a couple of drinks in Pog Mahone’s Irish pub, where it was hard to imagine the possibility of them ever talking the crowd into accepting closing time.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

New Zealand trip diary - day 6

We were both not quite at our best for much of yesterday. I felt a bit overtired and also had the feeling of not enough downtime: obviously absurd, but a reflection of how much time I spend writing these notes and carrying out other such recurring self-imposed tasks. Ally has had a cold for the last several weeks. Then for the first half of yesterday, with the flight and then the bad weather, we felt deprived of fresh air. And we don’t quite feel we’ve been eating in the ideal way (I know, I know, isn’t that just called “being on vacation”…?) Anyway, I think a solid night’s sleep in our fine room, and a slower start today, dealt with much of that. The forecast suggests we should have two days of fine weather, with perhaps a few showers the day after that; it predicts things will decline immediately after our departure (just as they did in Auckland!)

We had breakfast in the hotel, took all the time we wanted, and left around noon, returning around seven hours later. We spent most of the intervening time climbing to Ben Lomond’s peak, some 1750m above the town. The official track to the summit starts from the top of the cable car, but we put ourselves at an early disadvantage by walking up from town instead (some of this stretch replicates the walk we did yesterday, and crosses the mountain bike paths at various points – they seemed quite heavily used today). The official route, not including that, lasts between 4 to 6 hours return. It’s fairly steep most of the way (the official material gives this a difficulty grading of “moderate’) and for the last hour becomes rocky and very steep (this section is “hard”). But at the end of that you do indeed reach an actual peak (not some manufactured fake peak with a platform or whatever) from which you can see for miles, above or at eye level with the clouds, and staring at vast expanses of sky, rock, snow and water, all stretching forever as if it had never been imagined that the world would need to contain anything else (for once, I think some of today’s photos may actually have captured the scale and the colours, despite my unsophisticated camera-handling).
Before we entered that final “hard” stretch, Ally was flagging and thinking seriously of turning back – she was saying I should go on alone, which of course I wasn’t going to do. We sat on a bench to eat our lunch (actually it’s the only bench on the entire walk, and just happened to show up as we were having this conversation) and then she felt able to give it another try, which ultimately led to her glorious triumph. So now whenever Ally is unsure of herself, I’m going to tell her to remember the bench. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is common to turn back though. It seems the route is most popular in the morning, because we passed a lot of people returning (maybe over fifty in total); we were at the summit at the same time as I think eight others (we reached it around 3.45). Only a few were still ascending when we returned (including a group of six very slow-moving girls, whom we’d passed hours earlier), which made sense because it wouldn’t be much fun to be there when it gets dark (the temperature drops off very heavily here too at night – that aside though the weather was great today, warm but not crippling, with a cooling breeze here and there, and perfect clarity in the air). Anyway, it was certainly faster coming back, despite the occasional strain on the knees (we were at the low end of the 4 to 6 hour range, given that the initial walk up to the starting point doesn’t count, but there were plenty of people moving faster than us), and we didn’t think it would undermine our achievement too much to take the cable car back down. Unsurprisingly, the “Skyline complex” as it’s called is a tacky place full of undemanding diversions; most of the visitors seemed to belong to Asian tour groups. At least the woman who sold us our tickets was impressed with our achievement. But of course, once the momentum broke, it was hard to get it back, so we were virtually staggering by the time we reached the hotel. Needless to say, we didn’t do much for the few hours after that.

Ally points out an article in which our hotel made the cut for one of the city’s notable attractions, saying it’s “set apart from the chain hotels and lodges that dominate Queenstown” and that it “started as a pet project for the original, design-loving owner-operators” who fitted out every suite with Eames recliners, Philippe Starck lighting and so forth (Ally keeps making fun of me for how much I like the fireplace). It’s certainly a wonderful place to spend time, especially when we can contrast this all-enveloping comfort with the self-imposed hardships of the day. It’s not hard to figure out how the features in the hotel get distributed – if there’s an Eames recliner, you can bet Ally will take that, and I’ll be at whatever desk works best for the laptop.

It occurred to me that I lied yesterday when I said I bought a stamp with a hobbit on it – it was actually Gandalf ($2). But I assume other denominations have hobbits. We ate at nearby Winnie’s, a straightforward beer and pizza joint where we ordered one of the only two meatless pizza options; when we left, the place was transitioning into a “nightclub.” Perhaps this was a sign of greater energy yet to be unleashed, but the town didn’t seem too busy when we were out and about. We drank some wine in the hotel bar and the waiter charged us less for the bottle, in recognition that we hadn’t shown up earlier for our complimentary pre-dinner drink (perhaps a staple of New Zealand hotels given that our Auckland hotel offered the same daily treat – we never showed up for it there either).

Saturday, November 22, 2014

New Zealand trip diary - day 5

We left the hotel at 9 and headed for the airport, where I can truly say we’ve never checked in and gone through security so smoothly (I don’t even think it took five minutes). The flight to Queenstown took off on time, and after a couple of hours we started our descent over deep green mountain ranges, down and down until the little town was close enough to touch….and then suddenly the plane rose up again, the landing aborted because of wind issues. We were informed we’d make one more attempt; if that didn’t work we’d have to divert to Christchurch (not sure what would have happened then). Fortunately it was second time lucky, although I felt a bit queasy for an hour afterwards (Ally was OK). It was a pretty miserable day, especially bad for the town as it had been the morning of the inaugural Queenstown marathon, with entrants from some twenty countries (as we drove in, we passed some drenched back-of-the-packers). We’re staying in a downtown hotel called the Spire, in a large “de luxe King suite.” As we waited to check in, we were wondering whether we got lucky in even finding a room during the marathon weekend (given that we didn’t plan the trip that long ago), but once we saw the room we realized there’s probably no one in the race who would have wanted to pay that much. I guess I must have known the cost at the time I made the reservation, but I subsequently forgot. Anyway, we're glad we did it. The room has a gas fireplace, many gadgets, and better wifi than we had in Auckland (one of the Auckland waiters told us it’s a problem throughout the city there). The name “the Spire” is a bit of a misnomer though as it only has around ten rooms and isn’t very tall – from our room we have a wonderful view in the background, but in the foreground it’s dominated by the roof of the pub across the street.

We had lunch in the lobby bar, and soon after that things started to brighten up; we went out around 3 pm. Queenstown is built around an inlet on Lake Wakatipu, with spectacular views of mountains in all directions; our hotel is right downtown, mere steps from the lake as they say. We walked around the water for a while, the wind and rain steadily dying down (at around 3.30 pm, the presumably very last marathoner passed by, 1 km from the finish line, and long after all spectators had called it a day). I’d had it in my mind that the town would be somewhat refined and rarified, I don’t know why, but this was obviously an unrealistic notion for such a popular destination; actually the waterfront is a series of bars, burger joints and the like, with a standard resort vibe. We left that behind and then spotted the start of a hiking trail, heading up a mountain; the map indicated various possibilities for walks, from 45 minutes to 8 hours. We ended up doing around an hour and a half, along quite steep and often slippery trails, through woodlands and ultimately allowing us fine views of the snow-capped, cloud-rimmed peaks across the lake. The walk intersected often with an extensive network of mountain bike trails, or one can take a cable car up to a big restaurant. We didn’t see anyone else walking for most of the way, but the numbers increased as the day went on (it stays light until 9 pm, so lots of possibilities for evening hikes). We walked around the town a bit, just confirming the impression set out above; perhaps it’s telling that according to TripAdvisor, the top attraction here isn’t any aspect of the natural wonder but rather the “Fear Factory,” some kind of haunted house set-up.

That aside, the most prominent draw is the Milford Sound, a fiord which has sometimes been judged one of the world’s leading attractions, and which Kipling called the eighth wonder of the world. Queenstown is the most common base for traveling there, but it’s still 300 km away, and per the most conventional approach to the trip would involve many hours sitting on a coach. Of course, the few hours at the fiord would probably stick in our memory long after the tedium of the bus journey had faded away, but we’re still finding it hard to commit to such a plan. It’s also possible to be flown in, but that seems overly extravagant, notwithstanding the earlier comments about the room. At this moment it seems more appealing to spend our days walking, but perhaps we’ll change our minds tomorrow.

The Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies constitute no part of our reason for coming to New Zealand or of our trip planning (haven’t seen the recent ones, presumably never will), but apparently parts of them were shot in this vicinity, as was Top of the Lake (did see that). It’s hard to avoid the Peter Jackson stuff though – when I bought a stamp the other day it had a hobbit on it, and the Air New Zealand in-flight video is done in the style of the movies. They are inexplicably proud of this video as we’ve seen it advertised several times on billboards. Anyway, just thought I’d get that content out of the way.
When we arrived, the hotel people did a big routine about needing to make a dinner reservation because everywhere in town would be full, but this was plainly overstating things. Regardless, we were happy to eat at the hotel’s own restaurant because it’s apparently one of Queentown’s best: we had a tasting menu which left us seriously overstuffed (and added very significantly to our excess meat consumption). The restaurant was otherwise empty long before we were finished; a bit more surprisingly, the surrounding streets cleared out too. However, we could hear the boom of late night partying, not too many blocks away. We went back upstairs and hung out for a while in front of our fireplace! Later on I had a bath; however, I didn’t take up the suggestion made to us earlier, of lying in the bathtub with the shutters to the main room open, so as watch a movie….

Friday, November 21, 2014

New Zealand trip diary - day 4

It seems we’re both moving past the phase of being awake for prolonged periods during the night, if only because of stepping up the wine consumption. Either way, we had breakfast at the hotel again this morning, and this time we even ordered eggs. I even had a sausage on the side. I think we’ve eaten more meat this week than we have for a long time, albeit just in a light kind of way – a pie filling here, a pizza topping there. No doubt we could find vegetarian restaurants if we were looking for them, but the average establishment doesn’t seem to offer much choice in that vein. It’s also becoming more evident to us how the city loves its booze – the streets seemed quiet on Tuesday, but I think they’ve grown steadily more raucous every night since then. And I’m writing this paragraph before Friday night hits.

We returned to the ferry terminal, dominated by a cruise ship, just as it was the other day (today was the something Princess, and the other day it was the something else Princess). We’ve never set foot on a cruise ship, and probably aren’t likely to, but they’re interesting in an abstract kind of way, like Las Vegas (we’ve never been there either; aren’t likely to). We caught another ferry at 10 am, this time to Waiheke island, around 35 minutes away. This is a much more popular destination than Ranjitoto was the other day, hence requiring a much bigger boat; on arrival, the hubbub was more typical of an airport than a wharf. Naturally, most of the crowd dispersed into taxis, buses and so on, leaving just a handful of people to start walking (I know our disregard for people who never walk anywhere is probably a bit tedious; maybe we’ll be forced to change our views one day, but our current thought is that if gets to the point that we can only go on vacation by sitting on a bus or an ocean liner, then we’ll spend the rest of our lives at home). We embarked on one of the loveliest walks I can remember, following the western coast of the island, around a point called Church Bay. It’s a beautiful route, not very steep for most of the way; every step at first was like a study in exaggerated greens and blues (the temperature was again about nineteen degrees, as it has been every day of our trip so far, but we’ve learned you can burn up pretty effectively in that), suddenly opening out onto the bay, a landscape you might choose as the last thing you ever see, then descending into woodland on the other side. The countryside was so immaculately varied and graceful from the start that it almost seemed artificial; eventually it largely was artificial, as the trail started to wind past a succession of mega-properties, some of them apparently working vineyards, others presumably holiday homes. At one point we saw a sign advertising patches of undeveloped land for sale at prices of $3 million for 10 acres or something like that – if we correctly grasped a conversation we overheard later, this may be a one-time only fundraising move by the island government, motivated by recent over-spending (the play last night took some caustic shots at how all the construction activity now is for the benefit of foreign millionaires).

That section of the walk took over two hours, coming out on a road where we briefly got lost, just like the group in front of us. Once oriented, we walked to Oneroa, a little town with a beach community kind of vibe, our journey periodically decorated by roadside collections of old furniture and other oversized garbage (later, perusing the island’s “Waiheke Weekender” paper, we learned that it’s the annual occasion when such junk gets picked up – however, most residents seem to have disregarded the instruction to assemble the items neatly). The entrance to Oneroa is through a park called “Alison Park,” which frankly isn’t much to write home about. We had lunch and did some minor browsing, then returned to the ferry terminal along another woodland trail, taking a brief walk along a beach in the other direction before catching the 4 pm boat back. This only covered a tiny percentage of what the island has to offer, and you could certainly spend an entire vacation there, taking a different breathtaking walk every day. However, it seems from observing the return journey (and here I refer back to my earlier remarks) that many visitors may instead spend the time overindulging in the many wine tasting opportunities.

I think I might refine my earlier remarks about it seeming less diverse here than at home – as time goes on, we’re becoming more aware of the Maori culture and presence, indicated in ways both large (monuments, place names) and small (a few words on menus or elsewhere); something over 10% of Auckland’s population is Maori. Anyway, the vacation magic has entirely worked its familiar spell – we feel like we’ve known the place for years, and we’ve achieved our favourite thing, of drawing a pretty good mental map of the heart of yet another notable world city (although Ally’s mental map is always far better than mine). So we can happily move on now to somewhere else.
We ate in yet another restaurant within steps of the hotel, a very nice but sadly all-but-deserted place called Touquet, where I had duck and Ally, bowing to the inevitable, had lamb. The owner gave us some free limoncello, which went a long way to knocking us out for the night. We managed to stay awake for a final drink at the hotel bar. Unlike previous nights, this and other places had a bouncer at the door, and police were circling both in cars and on foot, apparently confirming our expectations about Fridays in New Zealand; the streets were clearly busier and more booze-sodden. By the time we wound down though, the action had mostly moved on elsewhere.