Archive for February, 2009

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New Zealand Travel Tip #2: Read Signs of All Kinds

February 28, 2009

If I hadn’t stopped to read this flyer, I never¬†would have learned about Auckland’s domestic unicorn population.

lost-unicorn

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New Zealand Travel Guide: Welcome to the Magic Bus!

February 28, 2009

Day Three

“New Zealand begins where Auckland finishes.”
– Kiwis who don’t live in Auckland

The problem with most big cities is that they’re all about the same. They have different art in their museums and different skylines, but mostly they all offer shopping, dining, cafes, more shopping, some statues, a park or two, several Starbucks and more shopping.

Some cities still stand out. I would never tell anyone to skip Paris, or New York City. But most of the time, I think one full day in a city is enough. After that, head out of town and start to see the rest of the country, which is exactly what I was ready to do.

There’s nothing like starting the day with a bus ride and stroll through town with 50 pounds of luggage strapped to your body. Well, maybe 20 pounds, but at 6:30 in the morning, everything is heavier.

Hop aboard the Magic Bus

Hop aboard the Magic Bus

I was on my way to the Magic Bus office on Albert Street, ready to get out of Auckland and see more of the North Island. My Magic driver, Greg (pronounced “Grig”, just like Bret is pronounced “Brit” – I freaking love those Conchords),¬†picked people up at several hostels, then drove us up to the top of Mt. Eden, an old volcano, for a full panorama of the city.

Once you’re on the Magic Bus, the driver passes around lists of activities for the day and accommodation for that night. Prices for everything are listed, and the Magic price for most activities is $5-10 cheaper, sometimes more. You sign up for whatever interests you and your driver makes the booking. Want to catch a cultural Maori show? Do some whitewater rafting or bungee jumping? The driver can help you decide what you can fit into your schedule and budget.

Just sit back and relax.

Just sit back and relax.

In the busy summer season it’s not a bad idea to book your own accommodation ahead of time, especially if you and a friend really want a room to yourselves, but if you just need a dorm bed, you should be ok waiting to book until that day. Your driver will let you know if you should book in advance for a town a couple of days down the road.

After a quick snack stop in Hamilton (birthplace of the Rocky Horror Picture Show – I’ll bet you didn’t know that) it was on to Waitomo for black water rafting and glow worms.

Next: Tell me about the glow worms!

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New Zealand Travel Guide: Sky City, Auckland

February 28, 2009

Day Two, Part Two

The Sky Tower, from Ponsonby Road

The Sky Tower, from Ponsonby Road

For my last afternoon in Auckland I consulted one of those free guidebooks they hand out everywhere and went through a list of Things to See.

So, for my last afternoon in Auckland I took a quick peek in the temporary Art Gallery (the real one is under construction) and walked Ponsonby Road with all its cafes, bookshops, pubs and chocolate stores. (That’s two so far. I’ll keep count as I go.)

In the evening I decided to check out Sky City, the hotel/casino complex under the Sky Tower, the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere.

I was in Vegas less than a month ago and wanted to compare this place to its American counterparts. As you might guess, there really is no comparison.

Sky City is nice, kind of chic, with a few fancy resturants. Not huge though, no dancing water or light shows or men in sequins with tigers. Similar to Vegas though, only about half of the gambling tables were staffed and none of them looked too busy. I lost $2 in a slot machine, decided not to lose any more, and left the casino floor.

It looks even taller when you're right under it.

It looks even taller when you're right under it.

Next, I went to the ticket booth to see about going to the top of the tower, but at just under $30, I couldn’t really get excited about it. It’s not exactly the Eiffel Tower, and the sky was so overcast I wasn’t sure how much of Auckland I would be able to see. Instead, I hopped a bus back to my hostel and took myself out to dinner at one of the trendy Indian cafes in the area.

Then there was packing to do. Oh,so much packing. It’s amazing what a mess you can make in two days, but it all had to go back in my backpack. The next morning I was getting on the Magic Bus and heading south, to Rotorua.

Keep going: On to Waitomo and Rotorua

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New Zealand Travel Guide: Rangitoto Island

February 28, 2009

Day Two

I love ferry rides. Cities always look prettier from the water.

I love ferry rides. Cities always look prettier from the water.

After a good night’s rest I was ready to see something outside of Auckland’s city center. I hopped the Link Bus down to the wharf again, just in time to get on the Fuller’s boat to Rangitoto Island. Rangitoto was formed by a volcanic explosion 600-ish years ago and is still covered in crunchy black rock. There’s no soil or grass on the island, although trees and some bushes and ferns seem to thrive there.

I opted to take Fuller’s Volcanic Explorer tour, which drives you around the island and up almost to the summit. The drive is bouncy – you’re in a tram driven by a tractor sort of thing – but I like rides of any kind, and I enjoyed the driver’s commentary about the history of the island.

One of the last bachelors on Rangitoto.

One of the last bachelors on Rangitoto.

Rangitoto was used as a summer retreat around the turn of the century, with people paying three or four pounds to purchase a tiny cottege, known as a bachelor. Even now around New Zealand you can find baches for rent. Eventually the government took the island over for use as a public park, but there are still about 30 privately owned baches there, their owners having petitioned the government to give them lifetime leases.

Lava field on Rangitoto. (Could also be the road to Mordor.)

Lava field on Rangitoto. (Could also be the road to Mordor.)

The landscape of the island is wild. I’ve never seen big lava fields before, and the amount of big, black rock everywhere was impressive. Repetitive, but impressive.

Once we got to the summit climb I was ready to stretch my legs. It’s 365 steps to the top, not straight up, but circling around, with places to stop for photos or to take in the view. There were a few senior citizens who made the climb, so you should be able to do it just fine. (Ok, I huffed and puffed a little, but I still beat a couple of little old ladies to the top.)

I’ve never seen the inside of a volcano before. Not up close anyway. It was much greener than I expected. Sure, the volcano hasn’t been active in hundreds of years, but I still thought it would be more black and sooty, or have a hole going deep into the earth. Instead, it looked like a big green leafy bowl.

The big, green volcano's crater.

The big, green volcano's crater.

You could tell it was a volcano, but it was hard to imagine that it was ever dangerous.

From the top of Rangitoto

From the top of Rangitoto

I snapped some photos, like a good little blogger, then made my way back down, stopping a couple more times to admire the view of Auckland. You really can see the Sky Tower from everywhere.

The ride back to the wharf was just as bumpy, but enjoyable. New Zealand is hardly the third world, but it is very Middle Earth, and the rough landscapes you encounter here are a good reminder of what the planet was like before humans started to overrun it.

Next: Gambling at Sky City

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New Zealand Travel Guide: Auckland, Part Two

February 26, 2009

Day 1, Part 2
(This is the second report from my 17-day trip to New Zealand and Australia. Keep coming back for more!)

The Auckland Museum

The Auckland Museum

All of Auckland is chirping. Depending on where you are and how much greenery and trees there are around, it can be a low buzz or a deafening, frenzied sawing in your ear.

At first I thought I was heading a weak motor somewhere, but no matter where I went, it followed me. I finally asked a local who told me it’s cicada season here. There must be thousands, tens of thousands, all over town. But even though I hear them everywhere, I haven’t seen a single one.

Walking through the Domain (a common name for a central park area in Australia and NZ) to get to the Auckland Museum, I started to picture myself in a horror movie:

A girl is walking down a lovely, leafy road. Then the chirping starts, quietly at first, growing louder and louder. She sees something fall in front of her. Ack! Oh, just a leaf. Then something falls in her hair. It’s a cricket! But just one, and she brushes it away. Then another one falls, and another, dozens of them begin jumping on her from nearby perches, then hundreds, covering her face and arms and she can’t get away!

But that didn’t happen to me. I made it to the museum completely unharmed, although with a small blister on my toe.

You would have to wear a suit like this to get near an active volcano. Or to take over an alien planet.

You would have to wear a suit like this to get near an active volcano. Or to take over an alien planet.

The Auckland Museum is a really nice place to spend some time getting to know the history and culture of New Zealand. There are exhibits dedicated to Maori culture and heritage, the story of that group and its relationship to the land and sea. There are rooms that show you what life was like in Auckland before, during and after WWII, as well as a large area dedicated to the ANZACs – Australian and New Zealand armed forces who fought at Gallipoli and other battles around the world.

If you’re more interested in animal life, there are heaps of fossils, stuffed animals (the kind that used to be alive) and some real, live animals too. You can also learn more about volcanic activity around Auckland and some of the geological activity that created New Zealand.

And what else are museums good for? Clean restrooms and lots of benches in air conditioned rooms where you can take a load off for a while. The longer you’ve been on the road, the more you appreciate the basics.

WWII Airplane

WWII Airplane

The Auckland Museum is free, but a $5 donation is suggested. You can see it all in two hours if you don’t stop to look at too much, but if you want to play with the exhibits and watch some of the films, allow 3-4 hours.

I was quickly running out of steam by the time I finished the museum, so I did some grocery shopping and called it a night.

Next up: Volcano Hike on Rangitoto Island!

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New Zealand Travel Tip #1: How to Ride the Bus

February 26, 2009

Even within the U.S., every city does bus travel a little differently. Traveling in New Zealand, the important thing to remember is that people are very nice and happy to help if you smile and ask nicely, but it doesn’t hurt to have an idea of what to expect.

In Auckland, I’ve stuck to riding the Link Bus, because it goes everywhere I need to be. It’s a flat fee of NZ$1.60 a ride (about US$1 right now, so very cheap), and if you just want to sit and ride the loop around and around, go for it.

Here’s how you ride the bus.

1. Identify a bus stop either by the big bus shelter, or a sign post on the sidewalk. Even in the more residential areas here, many of them have electronic signs that tell you when the next bus is coming.

2. Have your money ready. You don’t need exact change, but the driver won’t appreciate being handed a $20 either, so if you have coins, use them.

3. Put your coins in the small tray to the right of the driver’s change machine. If you need change, the driver will set it there for you to take. I imagine using the tray saves a lot of time from people dropping coins as they get handed to them.

4. A ticket will come out of the side of the machine. Take it. It’s your receipt.

5. Find a seat. Don’t take up a whole extra seat with your bag. It’s rude, and people here don’t do rude. There should be a small are behind one of the front seats where bags can be stowed if you need to set something down.

6. When your stop is next, hit one of the red “STOP” buttons located throughout the bus. A sign at the front of the bus will light up, indicating the bus is stopping.

7. When the bus stops, leave using the back door. The front door is for people who are getting on. If the door doesn’t automatically open, you can say, “Back door, please!” and the driver should open it for you.

8. You’ll notice that most people say “thank you” when getting off the bus. I don’t know if the driver can hear them, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still nice to do.

And voila! You’re an expert city traveler.

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New Zealand Travel Guide: Auckland

February 26, 2009

Day 1
(This is the first report from my 17-day trip to New Zealand and Australia. Keep coming back for more!)

The Auckland Skyline

The Auckland Skyline

I’ve just finished my 13-hour Air New Zealand flight and I’m surprised to say that it wasn’t that bad. There were something like 85 movies and 125+ TV shows to choose from, the food was decent, and I had an aisle seat with no one next to me. I wasn’t able to sleep really well, but I did kill about seven hours dozing on and off, shifting position every time my neck started to ache from being all bunched up on one side.

We landed in the dark, so for all I knew the pilot had taken us back to San Francisco. But after getting off the plane, I turned down a hallway towards customs and was presented with this massive wooden, carved archway with masks and birds and intricate design all around it. Even as tired as I was, I had to grin. I was really in New Zealand!

You can learn a lot about a country by the ads on the bus shelters. I had no idea NZ Girl Guides had their own cookie thing. But do they sell Thin Mints?

You can learn a lot about a country by the ads on the bus shelters. I had no idea NZ Girl Guides had their own cookie thing. But do they sell Thin Mints?

Next, I set a very bad example by deciding I was too tired to mess with shuttles and buses and transfers, so I threw my bags into a cab to get to my hostel, Freeman’s Lodge, just outside the city center. It cost at least double what a shuttle would, but I didn’t have to do any walking or thinking, and the exchange rate is really good right now. (That’s a phrase that’s going to get me into a lot of trouble in the next few weeks. “But it’s like half price! I’ll take two!”)

On top of my 13 hour flight, it took me another five hours to get into a room at a hostel, which turned out to be a different hostel from the one I booked (short story: a woman was sick in the room I was supposed to get, so after waiting around a long time, the hostel manager drove me to another place a few blocks away).

After a shower and some clean clothes though, I felt like new and was anxious to get out and see something of Auckland.

I hopped on the Link Bus that circles the city and took it downtown, to Queen Street. I got off once it looked like I was in the middle of everything and walked in the direction of the harbor.

Dunkin' Donuts: No Boston Creme donuts here though.

Dunkin' Donuts: No Boston Creme donuts here though.

Sometimes it was hard to tell that I’d left the States at all. I passed a McDonald’s, a Burger King, A Dunkin Donuts, a Starbucks and even a Wendy’s. In between those though was ANZ bank, Vodaphone, lots of little boutique clothing stores, kebab places and bakeries selling local favorites.

I made it down to the wharf, stopping for a falafel plate on the way, and had a look at the rows and rows of boats – private, commercial and tourist. After looking over a list of trips and cruises available, I booked a trip to Rangitoto Island for the next day. It’s one of 48 voloanic islands around Auckland, the name meaning “bloody sky” in Maori.

Next, I decided to have a walk down Parnell Road, since most guidebooks I’d looked at recommended it. It’s just a little way from the city center and it on the Link Bus route, so I grabbed that again.

When I say I walked “down” Parnell Road, I really mean I hoofed my way up the hill the road is on. Auckland is not a flat city, and it seemed like no matter where I wanted to go, it was uphill.

Chocolate Boutique on Parnell Road

Chocolate Boutique on Parnell Road

My main reason for stopping in Parnell was to visit Chocolate Boutique, a place I’d read about when I was planning this trip. It’s so well known, even Bill Clinton has been there. Some people want to see local birds or cars or breweries, Bill and I like to try the local chocolates.

Chocolate Boutique has dozens of flavors of truffles, chocolate bars from around the world, and a really nice menu of hot and cold drinks and snacks. I tried a hot, dark chocolate Italian mixture that turned out to be more of a light pudding than a drink. In fact, it had to be eaten with a spoon. It was amazingly smooth and the flavor was as richly chocolate as you can get.

Full of warm chocolately happiness, I continued up Parnell Road and into the Domain for a look into the Auckland Museum.

Want more? Go on to Part Two.