Port and Shore Excursions
Saturday 29 December - Last night I booked us on the Auckland Jet Boat Adventure ride - http://www.aucklandadventurejet.co.nz leaving from the Auckland equivalent of Circular Quay at 9am, where our ship was also berthed. Luckily we did get there a bit early, as their online booking system doesn't notify them if they get a booking after 5pm, so they weren't aware anyone had booked for 9am. They did rally quickly, rang the skipper and we were suited up and on the water just after 9, only us 5 on the boat. If you booked this as an excursion with HAL you went at 10am. They provide a full length poncho - which made us all look like Sheiks - but turned out to be completely and utterly ineffective at water protection. The ride lasts for 40mins, we spun all round the harbour and went under their harbour bridge. There were plenty of shrieks from the girls as he did spin after spin. By the end we were completely drenched drowned rats, struggling to peel our sheik suits off back at the dock. As it was still early and the ship was right next door the girls and I went back to freshen up, while the boys sought out free wifi and a sunny spot to dry out. Again this was one that was better to book direct as they offered family rates that were much cheaper than HAL's, and priced in NZD not USD.
Today was probably the best weather we'd had in port, glorious blue skies and low 20 degrees. It was the perfect day to catch a ferry and explore some of the outlying islands...but The Hobbit was calling us and we could no longer resist seeing the movie on a big screen in NZ. It was the right decision as we all loved it, and were squeezing each other's hands at many points in the first part where scene after scene was exactly what we'd seen at Hobbiton the day before.
Hubby, 17 & 12yo then headed straight back to the ship, while 15yo and I took a slower wander down the main drag of Auckland. Shops were much the same as we'd already done in Napier, and really much the same as we already have at home -- Factorie, Jay Jay's, Supre, Dotti, Jeans West same old same old.
Monday 24 December - We anchored at 7am and then caught tenders into the port of Akaroa, which was then a 90min drive to Christchurch. Ships used to dock at Lyttleton, which is much closer to Christchurch, but have not been able to do so since the earthquake. As it's a relatively new port, it was hard to organise excursions online before we left, so we winged it and were able to nab a driver to take us into Christchurch for the day. He was another gem, by the name of Grant with a great van (complete with a step that automatically glided out for passengers to alight, we were all impressed by the novelty value of it!) He took us in via the scenic route, with beautiful views looking down on the ship over Akaroa Bay. Grant's contact details are email@example.com with www.toursouth.co.nz
It was very sobering to be so close to the destruction in the Christchurch CBD. So many vacant lots that were buildings now demolished and plenty more still to be removed. The most poignant was a memorial of 160+ white chairs on a corner block -- one for every life lost. Each chair is different to represent the different lives, but it was the white baby capsule that really got me. Our driver Grant was on his way into the CBD when the quake hit, he said the car wobbled so much it felt like someone had shot his tyres out. He ended up being stuck in gridlock in the CBD for hours afterwards. His house at least was on the untouched side of the city though. The damage to both the Catholic & Anglican cathedrals is very dramatic. Both are still partially standings, but bring to mind images of crumpled buildings in London during the Blitz. The main shopping mall has been "rebuilt" in shipping containers, certainly a different shopping environment to what we're used to.
The Botanical Gardens are virtually untouched and so beautiful. 12yo & I had fun finding the most fragrant bushes in the rose garden (Double Delight still the hands down winner). We enjoyed a punt on the River Avon, it was really beautiful gliding along with our "punter" Uni student Felix doing all the hard work. Also visited the Canterbury Museum, which I'd read had an excellent section on the earthquake that turned out to be OK but not as good as expected, still worthwhile visiting though.
On the way back to the ship Grant took us on a detour to Birdlings Flat, an amazing beach area completely covered in flat pebbles instead of sand. Had a freaky start when he drove off the main track and we ended up bogged in pebbles -- but never fear, we 5 muscle bound Aussie's were soon out and actually managed to push him free. A 4WD just down the track was badly bogged and had to be pulled out by another vehicle, it took quite a while and ended up with pebbles all through the brake pads, making the most horrific screech as it finally drove out. The girls tried bumpy sunbathing, but the real highlight was that if you looked carefully at the pebbles many had coloured streaks through them, that when you wet and rubbed brought the colour out even further.
Sunday 23 December 2012 - Had a lovely day in Dunedin. They'd told us the weather was going to be 16 so we'd dressed in jeans and ended up sweating in 23 sunny degrees. We were due to dock at 8am, so we got down to the gangway early to claim pole position. It took a while for the ship to be officially cleared by customs but by about 8.15am we were the first people off the ship. The maxi taxi I'd booked for 8am (Cit Taxis) wasn't there, but another driver was with a van that would fit us, so the guy who controls taxis at the dock told us to take the one there and he'd hook our original guy up with others.
Turned out to be fabulous as our new driver Rex was so friendly, took us to Baldwin Street (the world's steepest street)for photos at the top and bottom, a quick visit to the Otago University building and then it was onto what they claim is the most photographed building in New Zealand, the Dunedin Railway Station. Total cost was NZ$61. Rex is a driver with Southern Taxis, contact details are firstname.lastname@example.org We caught the Taieri Gorge Railway for a 6 hour return trip to Middlemarch. The scenery was beautiful, we travelled (surprisingly enough) through the Taieri Gorge, much of which was covered in the most spectacular flowers. Turns out the yellow broome bush is a weed here, as is digitalis (foxglove). Many of the hills were completely covered in yellow broome with patches of white and pink foxglove for added measure. So we were the tourists oohing and aaahing over the beautiful colours in much the same way as ignorant tourists admire paddocks of Patterson's Curse at home.
I've never seen such an extreme example of the craziness of ship tour pricing as this trip. If you booked the tour through the ship, the cost was $225 per adult (over 12 years) and $200 for 12 and under, which for us would have been US$1200 for a 6 hour trip. Now their version included transport from the ship to/from the train station (it is cool how the train comes right to the gangway) and included a glass of wine, morning tea and light lunch in a sandwich box. We did the same trip, paid for our own taxi to the train station (which also meant we could detour via Baldwin St/Uni/Cadbury/supermarket), had a fabulous lunch at the pub in Middlemarch for a grand total of NZ$420 (US$340), almost $900 less! You really notice the difference with pricing for kids. On the ship children are 12 and under only, but if you book direct there's usually child rate up to 15 or so, and student rate or even better, family rates. But only a handful of people made their own arrangements like us, everyone else just paid the ship's exorbitant rates.
Hubby, 12 & 17yo amused themselves for much of the journey playing cards. Hubby & I had a seafood basket for lunch at the Middlemarch pub, turns out they crumb absolutely everything in a seafood basket here, so that was different. Were also able to buy some NZ wines and bring onboard too - love that about HAL!
After the train trip Rex picked us up for a quick run through the Cadbury factory. You can't do a full tour on Sunday as the factory doesn't operate, but you can still visit the shop. Turned out the shop sold not much more than your regular supermarket. We did buy 4 family blocks for NZ$10 and some "chocolate fish" (apparently a NZ speciality). When we got back to the ship hubby noted that all 4 blocks were actually "Made in Australia"!
Thursday 27 December - Arrived at 7am into the port of Napier, but we didn't rush off the ship at that hour. Napier is known for its Art Deco buildings. The city was extensively damaged in a earthquake in the 1920's, so the more ornate Victorian style buildings were lost and they rebuilt in the era of the day. We caught the free shuttle into town, then picked up our hired bikes from www.fishbike.co.nz (they give a 10% discount for cruise passengers) and rode along the waterfront, made an even more invigorating activity thanks to the light misty rain and cold breeze. We were a bit exposed on the oceanfront bikeway, so hubby led us back into the town down plenty of random side streets. Rode down some lovely hydrangea filled streets and past a cricket ground. We eventually rode past the ship and saw containers being moved around the port, and the usual piles and piles of radiata pine logs lined up. I actually don't know how NZ has any trees left, every port we've visited has had enormous stockpiles of pine logs laid out on it.
We returned the bikes, some then went off for a game of mini golf (which is right on the beach where the shuttle drops you off) while 15yo & I explored the many shops in the centre of town. There were bagpipes playing in the main part of town, was a nice time of retail therapy. We were wishing we'd bought our swimmers off the ship as there was a big heated sea water pool complex right on the beach (and near shuttle drop off), would have been lovely to relax there for a couple of hours. We were seen off from the port in style, with several 1920's cars accompanied by their owners in costume and a ragtime band to play along.
Friday 28 December - What a fantastic day, our best yet. We were 30mins late getting into the port of Tauranga, but the rental car shuttle was waiting to drive us to their depot (Pegasus Rental Cars, email@example.com) and we soon collected our hire car and were on our way. We'd bought our navman from home, which made getting about a breeze. First stop was the much anticipated "Hobbiton" where the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies were shot, about a 1 hour drive. The set is much bigger than I imagined. There are over 40 hobbit holes, along with the lake, mill and famous party tree (re-dubbed the money tree by the owners of the property!) and Green Dragon pub. It is so lush and picturesque with a huge variety of flowers, plants and vegies trailing all around. You are bussed into the set, and then walk around with a guide explaining various behind the scenes stories from filming, takes 2 hours all up. As with the Harry Potter sets, the amount of detail that doesn't make it on screen is amazing and great to be able to appreciate in person.
We then drove into Rotorua to inhale those delightful sulphur fumes at the Te Puia geothermal site. There are at least 6 major geothermal spots to visit, it was very hard comparing them beforehand to try to choose what would be best for us. In the end what sealed the deal for Te Puia was that they had an enclosure with a live kiwi bird, which I thought we really should get a glimpse of on this trip. The kiwi was quite a revelation, had a body reminiscent of an echidna, but with bird legs and of course the long curved beak. The enclosure was quite dark, no photos permitted at all, but the kiwi ferreted around with his beak constantly in the dirt right in front of us for ages.
The real highlight of the site (being the geothermal activity) was great too. There were plenty of paths to wander on (the kids kept trying to find the shortest route back to the car), lots of spluttering pools of mud and a geyser that we saw going off with water spouting and masses of steam and sulphur billowing across us. There were also demonstrations of weaving and wood carving, girls were very interested in the wood carving but their mother got bored and moved on. For an additional cost you could watch a cultural dance display, but given 17yo's attitude to any form of cultural dance (scarred from Bali) I didn't contemplate it...so we've now gone the whole trip without seeing a haka.
We then had time to quickly drop in at "Kiwi 360" one of the 2500 kiwi farms in the region -- but this one has the added bonus of a giant kiwi fruit (think the kiwi version of the big banana - irresistible photo opportunity). We were too late for their farm tours, but one of the owners was on the front desk when we came in and said she'd give us a "10min private tour". This turned out to be absolutely perfect (and took 20mins as we were asking so many questions), we drove out into the farm and walked under the kiwi plants, which trail across frames about 1.7 high. The fruit was only 1month old on the vine (her "babies" was how Joy the owner described them), they are picked from April onwards. We sampled some of their kiwi products, buying some juice and wine and left very happy with our impromptu tour.
Wednesday 26 December - We were due to arrive in Wellington at 8am and be picked up at 8.15 for our tour of "Middle Earth" -- ie the Lord of the Rings filming sites in the area with www.wellingtonrover.co.nz. We were a bit nervous as the ship took forever to pull in, but we were finally down the gangplank at 8.20 and straight into our van. Another family from the ship was in our minibus, our guide was a Lord of the Rings tragic -- knew every scene, line and behind the scene story from filming. We saw the huge quarry where they built the sets for Minas Tirith & Helms Deep, the forest setting for Rivendell, the river bank from some boating scenes, the gardens from Gandalf's ride into Eisengard and where he and Saruman walked and where the hobbits fell and hid from the Black Riders in the early part of the movie. The guide showed us photos from the filming and would point out the trees that were still there, and sometimes get us to act out the scenes. The forest where Rivendell was filmed was very beautiful, we spent quite a while wandering across a swinging bridge and around the rainforest areas there.
He dropped us back in the city afterwards at the Embassy Theatre where the world premiere of The Hobbit was held earlier this month. There's a huge statue of Gandalf above the theatre which made for a good photo opportunity. We would have loved a few more hours in port to be able to actually see the movie at that theatre. After a quick and delicious Yum Cha lunch we began the long walk back to the ship, via the Te Papa Museum (home of the preserved body of the world's largest squid), city shops, Cable Car ride and Botanic Gardens. The kids were aghast that we were only catching the cable car one way, and then had to walk back to the ship (about 2km). It was a great plan, until it started raining just as we got on the cable car. We bought ice creams at the top, then came across a band of Morris dancers which we watched for a while. The rain was fairly steady, but we set off on the downward track through the gardens back to the ship. Just as things were getting a little miserable we came across a historic cemetery and after a chorus of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" in the rain, were much happier with our state. We sloshed past the "Beehive" (NZ Parliament building) and headed for the Westpac Stadium which is opposite the cruise terminal. We took what we thought was the most direct route, but of course being a public holiday, all the gates (except the one we came in!) were locked, so we walked through a huge car park, only to be separated from the ship by a massive fence with no escape. We were told by a passing security guard we had to walk most of the way back to get out -- so no need for extra laps of the deck today for me.