Monday, January 11, 2010

Two Weeks in New Zealand

Having just returned to Tokyo from two spectacular weeks in New Zealand, I realized that I have learned a lot of interesting facts and figures. Not to be boring, but in comparison, the two countries are about the same size with Japan being slightly larger. Bother are island countries, with Japan being more of an archipelago. However, their populations could be more different. Japan's population is 127 million, while New Zealand's is around 4.3 million. This is crucial fact from which to start a description of our visit because for most of our vacation, we felt like we had stepped out of the city, down a rabbit hole, and emerged into one of nature's most glorious natural paradises still known to man. Made up of two major islands, Auckland is on the north island and is the largest city in NZ, (though Wellington, at the southern part of the North island, is the capital) while Christchurch is the major city of the south island.

We chose New Zealand because it is the home of the Quin family, close friends who we met in Japan. Since being in Tokyo, they have since moved back to New Zealand and they opened their hearts and their homes to us. Their kids are at or near our kids' ages and it was the perfect way to spend the holiday.

We arrived in Auckland on Christmas Day and went directly to the Quin's beach house - commonly called a "Bach" in New Zealand - in Mangawhai - ninety minutes north of Auckland. It is summer there now, and we took full advantage of the sun and surf. Let's be clear though: it's not like we Americans think of summer. The air temps ranged from 65 to 80 and the water temps did not rise above 60-ish. Note the wet suits in the photos - it's impossible to swim otherwise.

After four relaxing days, we drove to Auckland to poke around a little. We went to the sky tower, the Auckland museum and to the harbor for dinner. It's a small city, but quite a beautiful one. It's surrounded by water, and not surprisingly called the "city of sails" for the myriad of sailboats docked there.

From Auckland, we flew to Christchurch where the Quins actually live. We spent one night there, before going north to a natural spring, Hamner for the day and then further north to Kaikoura for one night. We got on a whale watch boat the morning of the 31st of December. The day before had been stormy and the entire month had been chilly - following one of the coldest winters on record. You can see that there is still snow on the tops of the mountains. The issue was that they never should have let us out on the ocean - and in fact, the next few trips were cancelled. Ours was at 7:30am! Out of the 40 or so people on that boat, 3/4 or so threw up. Marc was one of the ones who did not throw up but all the rest of our combined family did. To add insult to injury, we didn't see any whales either. But all was not lost: we viewed it as an experience. For the rest of the trip, we referred to it as the YAK boat - and laughed. We were not laughing that day, but afterward we sure did!

We spent New Year's eve pretty quietly at the Quin's house. After a relaxing day on the 1st, we drove to Hokatika, another beach town on the West side of the South Island and had dinner. We drove another bit south and then spent the night by the Fox Glacier.

Climbing the Glacier the next day was an incredible life experience. All nine of us (Weinsteins and Quins) climbed over two hours up to the glacier, donned the necessary Crampons, and spent 45 minutes traversing the glacier before reversing the process. Five hours of hiking and not a peep of complaint from any child.

We had to climb through a lush rain forest to get there and on the way, we were able to drink from a natural spring. The weather, after some serious rain the night before and that morning, was clear and beautiful. We didn't even wear our big coats on the ice. The ice was slippery, but with the crampons on we stuck in pretty well. We felt like we were on top of the world.

We drove five hours south to Queenstown from Fox Glacier. One of the most beautiful places I've seen so far, Queenstown is where much of the principal photography for several movies such as "The Lord of the Rings" and the "Chronicles of Narnia" were shot. We took a whole tour based on the "Lord of the Rings" scenery. We were able to see several of the spots where the Hobbits lived or hid or something of that nature. We went off-roading into a little area literally called Paradise. The colors stunned us - the greens of the forests were like blankets of emeralds. The lakes and rivers were ice blue set against the indigo of the sky, which fascinated us.

We had a great fish dinner that night - the kids love seafood! Queenstown itself is a picturesque little place with a beautiful town square. We were able to browse around a few shops and walk up and down the streets. New Zealanders love the outdoors and outdoor sports. There were options for canoeing, bungee jumping, rafting, golfing, hiking, biking and any other outdoor sport one could think of. One could go camping or trekking in a myriad of areas. We didn't get to Milford Sound, purportedly one of the most beautiful places of the island nation where there is a popular trek on a path to take, but one has to be at least 10 years old. We'll go back again when Sydney is old enough.

In the morning we went jet-boating. Fifteen people in a boat traveling 80 km per hour. We were on a river in a canyon and the driver of the boat did 360 degree turns at that high speed. Because of the rain and snow-melt, the river was very high with rapids and everything. The kids squealed in delight!!

We had one last day in Christchurch where we went punting on the river Avon through the Botanical Gardens. Relaxing and beautiful.

We spent the night in Auckland again before flying out early to Hong Kong, spending a night with friends and my cousin there and then on again to Tokyo. It was a trip of a lifetime. Enjoy the photos and I hope you get there sometime.

Happy and Healthy 2010 to everyone. May the adventures continue!!

PS: Thank you to August for help with demographics...