Thursday, March 7, 2013

Auckland - The beginning of the end

Well, to be honest, I didn't really plan for the last destination of our trip - Auckland.  I guess I figured we would have plenty of time on the vacation to do that.  I was wrong, but I did have an enjoyable time in Auckland.

We originally received our disembarking time, and as I am not really a morning person, it was way too early in my opinion (just after 7 a.m.).  I was able to change this to the latest disembarkation time available for people with independent transfers.  Unfortunately, I didn't realize that we had to be out of our staterooms at 8 a.m. regardless of our disembarkation time.  If I would have realized this, I would have probably tried to get a time soon after 8 rather than 9:40!  It wasn't too bad waiting, though, as I had a book I was reading on the kindle.
Goodbye, Diamond Princess.  I will miss you.
Once we did finally disembark the ship, our first task was to figure out what to do with our luggage.  We ran into a nice man who gave us some information, and we headed to the local iSite which does store a limited amount of luggage in their back room.  We arrived there just in time, as there was just enough room for our bags.  I believe he also said that luggage could be stored at the Auckland subway.  We stored three large bags, and were allowed to place personal items/smaller bags on top of the large bags and still only count them as one bag.  The charge was $10/bag.  The caveat was that the isite closed at 5 p.m. so we had to pick our bags up by then.

Airport transfer tip:  The cruise ship offered an airport transfer of $40/person.  We were able to arrange for an airport transfer that was less than half that price ($16 nz/person?) and that shuttle ran every 15 minutes from the harbour.  It was probably also cheaper than a taxi, as the airport is quite a ways from the Harbor/Downtown Auckland.

After storing our bags, we wandered around searching for a McDonalds or some other location that offered wifi access.  We ran across a mall that had a McDonalds, unfortuately it did not have wifi access, but another restaurant in the food court had wifi access and we were able to use it (after a small purchase).  We had also picked up some brochures of things to do around Auckland and perused them.  At this point is was probably approaching 11 a.m. and I really wasn't feeling like a field trip out of town (especially since we had to pick up our bags by 5), and not much in town was striking my fancy.  Eventually, we decided on the Auckland Museum (even though earlier I said I was kind of sick of museums in general - not from this vacation but just from life in general).  After seeing the museum, I was glad I changed my mind.  As a side note, I recognized several cruise ship staff at the Mall's food court.
The streets of Auckland
To get to our destination, we decided to utilize the public bus system.  This worked out pretty well, as we looked up which buses went to the museum online.  Finding where to catch the bus was a different matter, but we ran into the man who had helped us earlier, and he helped us again.  We found the bus station, asked the bus driver to tell us when we were at our stop, since the stop was not right at the museum and required a bit of walking.  It turns out this was unnecessary, as they do announce the stop as the Auckland museum.  After disembarking from the bus, we took a short hike (maps do not show hills) to the museum.  We secured tickets to the Maori cultural performance, and looked around a bit until the cultural performance was to begin.
A map from the bus stop to the museum (if we would have taken this bus - we took the INN instead, which had a different bus stop, but this illustrates how helpful the Auckland transport website is.

The first exhibit we visited was something like "wearable art" or something like that.  It included clothes, mostly dresses made from a number of different materials.  The clothes had an artistic component to them, thus the title of the exhibit.  Below are a few examples:
This is made from the metal of some sort of car part (was it a carburetor?)
This dress was made from wood

The "armor" was made from suitcase leather

After that exhibit, we went to an exhibit on childhood.  It included items that showed what childhood was like through different decades.  It also included a full-sized elephant that had been preserved by a taxidermist, and a tree house.  It was getting close to time for the performance, so we returned to the meeting place.  After a couple of minutes waiting, I decided to ask the information desk if we were in the right place.  They said that they had already been out to pick up those with tickets to the exhibit, and were very helpful in getting us into the performance before it began.
The elephant in the museum
I actually quite enjoyed the performance.  I've actually never been to any other cultural performances to compare it to.  I have seen the haka, and I was glad that the performance was more than just dances and songs, there were live narratives, and it included information about different instruments and recreation activities performed by the Maori culture.  The performance was only 20-30 minutes total, but I found it very informative and fun to watch.
The only real negative I found with the performance was that it took place inside a museum building
After that, we made it through the rest of the exhibits on the floor (including some on the Maori culture) and on the next floor of the museum.  Due to worries about time, however, we didn't make it to the top floor of the museum which primarily dealt with war-related exhibits.  It would have been nice to make it to those exhibits, but we also wanted our luggage back.

We began our trek back to the bus stop, where we met other Princess cruise ship passengers.  These passengers were on the either the Dawn Princess or the Sun Princess, (whichever one was also in port).  They had just started their cruise a couple of days earlier in Brisbane.  We had a nice little chat with them as we waited for the bus to arrive.  On our bus trip back to the Port, we were able to observe an interesting verbal exchange between the bus driver and another bus passenger regarding the timeliness of buses.  Poor bus driver.  We departed the bus a few stops early (my fault) but we were still in the same general vicinity we wanted to be in.

These are the roots from a couple of trees we passed on our walk to and from the Auckland Museum

We then found our way back to the iSite to pick up our baggage and get tickets for the airport shuttle.  We then visited a subway restaurant for nourishment (and to spend the rest of our New Zealand money).  It was located inside a store that had a breathalyzer machine, so of course we took a picture.  We found the airport shuttle, and I was glad we had chosen to take it, instead of a regular public bus (if that was even a possibility) to the airport, especially during rush-hour.

Now, our flight was not that night, but the next morning, but our hotel was near the airport.  So, we took the shuttle to the airport, and then took the hotel shuttle from the airport to the hotel.  It did take us a bit of time in the airport, and a visit to the airport iSite, to learn that the hotel had a contract with the Park 'n Ride shuttle.  We were able to find where the shuttle picked people up, and we made it to our hotel.

The long trip home (sorry, no pictures).

We arrive at our hotel near the airport the night of February 22nd.  We had booked a family room, but the hotel was originally going to give us a room with one double bed.  Then they asked if we had wanted one double or two singles.  Not knowing we had booked a family room, I said two singles and my dad told them about having booked the family room.  They switched which room we were in, and it had...two singles.  Also, the hotel did offer internet access in rooms, but not FREE internet access in rooms (although the kiosk downstairs may have offered free internet).

The hotel was near a grocery store, so we decided to go and pick up a few snacks to eat for dinner/breakfast/plane ride.  At the store, the cashier was asking us if grocery stores in the United States were similar.  I told her they were.   The big difference is that I think, in general, our stores are bigger, and also our food is cheaper (I didn't tell her that).  When we returned to our room, I showered while I had the chance (since I was going to be on such a long plane trip home).  One redeeming factor about the hotel was that the shower did have nice water pressure.  The rooms themselves were tiny.  Two single beds (one against the wall) with about 6 inches between them, and probably 12" to the side of the other bed.  But, when you just need to sleep, it works.

We awoke early the next morning for our 6 or 6:30 a.m. flight (after only a few hours of sleep), to start our extended February 23rd.  In the end, we awoke/left too early, as the check-in desk was not yet open.  Then, after checking in, the customs/security portion of the airport was not yet open, so we had to sit and wait even longer for it to open.  So, that whole show up to the airport at least 2 hours early...well, if you are flying out of the Auckland airport at 6 a.m., you are going to be doing a lot of sitting around and waiting if you show up that early.

We made it to the Sydney airport, and guess what? we had to wait in line again. Of all of the stupid things, if you are just transferring flights in Sydney, you have to go through another security screening.  I guess they don't trust other airports in something. We passed the second security check (although some other passengers had items taken away (and I think they were less than 3 oz, so I'm not sure what that was all about).  They were not happy about it.  We did have quite a long layover in Sydney, so it's not like the security screening wait made us worry about catching our next was just annoying.

We learned that our flight back to LA was full, meaning that there would be someone sitting between us on the flight.  Luckily, the man sitting between us was the last person on the plane, so we did have a bit of room during the boarding process.  Actually, the full flight wasn't too bad either, although I did notice that the bathrooms were occupied a lot more of the time.  A part of this was also probably due to the fasten seatbelts sign being on for a larger portion of the flight due to turbulence.

Needless to say, it was still a long flight, and I didn't sleep too much, but I was able to sleep for longer than I did on the flight to Australia.  I also talked for a couple of hours to the man sitting between us.  He was from Australia, and was going to some sort of conference on water pumps, or something similar.  It made time pass more quickly.  We flew Delta Airlines, and the flight was better than expected (based on previous Delta overseas flights).  No, they don't offer eye masks or earplugs like some other airlines, but they had quite an extensive FREE entertainment selection. There food was not as good as the food on my other flight, however.

We arrived in LA, quickly made it through customs,  and because we were not on a connecting flight, we reclaimed our bags.  I went to check my large bag in right away, so I wouldn't have to lug it around.  Then we found a place to sit, and I had some time to transfer pictures from my dad's iPad and camera to my computer.  Then, my dad watched my bags while I (kinda) slept on a row of seats with no armrests for a bit.  We then parted ways, and I headed towards my terminal to catch my flight.  I really don't remember much about the next two flights.  I do remember my meal at the Denver airport.  It was a burrito, from Que Bueno.  It does not even hold a candle to Chipotle or Cafe Rio.  If I remember this, I don't think I'll ever eat there again.  I also remember that I was having a very difficult time staying awake in Denver for about an hour before the flight.

When I arrived in Billings, I called the hotel where my car was at to get the shuttle back.  On the ride I asked the driver about the weather and how it was supposed to be, and he encouraged me to drive home that night, instead of waiting.  I wasn't sure if I would be able to stay awake for the drive, but I made it home safely, stopping a few times along the way to check in with family.  I was so exhausted the next day, however, that I only made it through sacrament meeting at church.  Then, I went home and slept for a good 6-8 hours more.  I did feel refreshed after that.  And then, it was back to work :(.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Vacation 2013 - Tauranga/Rotorua - and a visit to Hobbiton

After 3 Port Days (Dunedin, Akaroa, Picton, and Wellington) we had a day at sea to recover.  Our next Port after that was Tauranga.  Our boat actually docked in Mt. Maunganui.  On this shore day, we decided to head out on our own again in a rental car.  I was more used to being a passenger in a car driving on the wrong side of the road at this point.  It also helped that there weren't a lot of mountainous, curvy roads.

Our first task was actually to pick-up our rental car.  On our way to find get a taxi, we also found some information about public buses that ran to and from Tauranga, which were cheaper than the offered shuttle.  Granted, buses don't necessarily run on schedule, and they do require local currency, which we hadn't really obtained at this point.  Since we were going to the airport to pick-up the car, though, and didn't know of any buses that headed there, we obtained a taxi to get to our destination.

When we reached the airport and picked up the phone for the rental agency, they said they had sent us an e-mail asking if we could pick the car up in Tauranga itself.  This would have actually been much more convenient for us, but we hadn't received the e-mail.  It didn't matter, though.  They said they were going to be at the airport in about 1/2 an hour, so we waited there.  Everything went great with renting the car, and the agent was very helpful giving us maps and advice on which roads to take.  I navigated as my dad drove.
One of the many John Deere Dealerships in New Zealand

We wanted to see the geothermal areas with geysers and mudpots and also some Maori cultural sites/performances, so I chose Te Puia, home of the Pohutu Geyser.  It also has several mudpots, a Maori Carving School, a Maori Weaving School, and some replicas of a Maori village.  We did not watch the cultural performance at the village, as the performance during the time we were planning on being there was sold out.
A mud pot at Te Puia

Carving School
Weaving School
Some Maori Craftsmanship
The Pohutu Geyser usually erupts 1-2 times per hour.  I think while we were there waiting for it to erupt was probably the only time it took more than an hour to erupt.  Our patience did pay off and were were able to see it erupt.  The time aspect really makes you appreciate Old Faithful.  About 20 minutes later I looked towards where the geyser was at, and it was erupting again.
Pohutu Geyser

After Pohutu, we considered a couple of options.  One option was heading over to Hamilton, where the temple is located.  As we calculated the amount of time it would take, we felt like it might not give us enough time to get back to the ship in time.  So we decided to head towards Hobbiton movie site.  This is one movie site that did not have to be deconstructed after shooting was finished.  Unfortunately, when we arrived at the isite in Matamata, they informed us that the next tour left at 2:45 and the tour took 3 hours.  We were due back at the ship at 5:30.  The math just didn't add up.  I did enquire about whether there were any other tour options or whether we could go to the site on our own without taking a tour.  Unfortunately, these were not options.  So, we walked around town a bit, stopped off at a grocery store for hydration, and then headed back towards Tauranga. 
Hobbiton - AKA Matamata - New Zealand

The Matamata isite
 We took a small detour to Mclaren Falls on our way back.
Mclaren Falls through the car window - can you see them?  Many of the rivers we saw in New Zealand were primarily expansive beds of rock with a stream or two of water running through them.  I think there rainfall this year was lower than normal.

We returned our car, and then I checked out some places for a necklace my cousin, Bee, had asked me to obtain for her.  I did not know which necklace to choose, but I burned maybe a bit too much time in the store (Don't worry Bee - I have your necklace.  I picked it up somewhere else).  We headed to the isite so we could learn where to pick up the bus.  Many of the past isites we had been to had offered money changing services, so I thought this one would as well.  It turns out they didn't.  There was a bank across the street, however, so we just went there to change our money, and went back to the bus stop location they had pointed out to us (We had been told we wanted the #1 or #2 bus that morning).

As I was looking at the time schedule, something didn't seem right.  It didn't look as if either of the buses was going to Mt. Maunganui.  I went to talk to the isite people again and maybe be more specific about the direction we wanted to go on the bus.  As I was waiting in line, my dad rushed over and told me the bus was there.  I said I didn't think it was the right bus, and he told me to just ask the bus driver.  I asked the bus driver that apparently just got off his shift, and he told me that the bus we wanted was on the other side of the street.  By this time, we were stressing a bit about time.

We didn't know how long it would take the bus to get to the bus stop we needed to get off at.  According to the schedule, the #2 bus would be the next bus coming, but about a minute later the #1 bus showed up.  It was late, luckily!  We hopped on the bus, asked a few questions, and hoped we would get back to the ship on time.  As we arrived near the port entrance, I saw a long line of people.  I thought they were all waiting to get passed the security to get on the dock.  It turns out many of them were there to see the Queen Elizabeth ship which was also in day.

That reminds me of a funny story from that morning.  The cruise ship photographers from the Queen Elizabeth had thought we were from their boat and they tried to stop us for a picture.  I don't really like getting those pictures taken, but I was tempted to say yes only because I wasn't a passenger on their boat.

Oh, we did make it back to the ship on time - we had about 4 minutes to spare (they probably didn't really stop allowing people on at 5:30, so we probably would have been okay otherwise, but you never do know).

I will post about Auckland, Sea Days/the Cruise ship experience, and possibly other general trip comments in the next few days.  I'm all blogged out for now.

Vacation 2013 - Wellington, New Zealand - more LOTR sites: not quite the same without the movie sets

This is a day where we learned a lot about the deceptiveness of movies.  We learned that many movie scenes were actually a combination of CGI, filming in the studio, on-site sets on the North Island, and backgrounds of the scenes from the South Island, usually somewhere near Queenstown.  Some of the filming of scenes themselves were also completed in Queenstown.  Other examples are where a person may have been filmed in a river in one place, but where they were filmed "washed ashore" was the bank of a completely different river.

Our day started at the Port in Wellington.  One could choose about a 30 minute walk to get downtown, or one had the option of taking a round trip shuttle ticket for $15.  Of course, if you booked a shore excursion from the boat, the transportation left directly from the dock.  We booked an independent tour this time as it was much cheaper, and the hours still worked with the cruise ship's itinerary.  By this day we were awfully exhausted of all the tours, so we chose a half day tour and decided not to stay in New Zealand for more sight seeing after the tour.  As we had booked a tour, we did not have to take a shuttle, but we did have to take a "security transport" vehicle off the dock area, where we waited for our tour bus to arrive.

The tour was pretty good (minus the fact that the movie sets weren't still there - we knew that in advance).  What I liked most is that they showed clips from the movies of the places that we were going to, and also clips from the extras on the DVDs.  Sometimes it was difficult to imagine the scenes had taken place at those places, but they did also bring some still pictures to help us out.  They even brought props so tour members could pose if they chose to.  I also learned a lot of interesting information about Viggo Mortensen.  It sounds like he is a very admirable individual.

Instead of explaining where each of the pictures are taken, we'll play a guessing game. Guess which LOTR movie site or sequence was filmed at each location

1.  A Quarry outside of Wellington. Which 2 Lord of the Rings locations were filmed at this Quarry

2.  A city park in Wellington - several movie scenes were filmed at this park, including the scenes of the Orcs pulling down the trees.  Which scene was filmed in this portion of the park.  Hint:  one of the trees in the scene is no longer there as it did not survive a storm there from a few years ago.  Also, a portion of the section of the park has been planted with a different variety of grass.

3.  At the same city park as the picture above - What scene of the movie was filmed in this part of the park.  HINT:  notice the two individuals in the picture.  They are re-enacting the scene.  Look closely at their props.

4.  The individual in the picture is posing to give you a clue.  Also, there is a hint in the text of the blog post.

5.  This is not an actual scene from the movie, but it is a scene related to the movie.  The girl in the picture is playing the role of Legolas.
6.  I'm giving you a big hint by telling you that this picture was taken at Kaitoke Regional Park in New Zealand.  Which city from Lord of the Rings was recreated here?
Please answer by e-mailing me, or adding a comment with your answers.  Earl, I expect you to get 100% on this quiz.

Vacation 2013 - Akaroa, NZ - French New Zealand; Edoras, Rohan

In Akaroa, we did a "Lord of the Rings" tour, but really we only visited one site from the Lord of the Rings.  While preparing for the trip, we had considered doing the "Eastern Bays Scenic mail run" which has received incredible reviews.  Unfortunately, we were in Akaroa on Sunday, and the mail is not delivered on Sunday.  But, for anyone else considering a visit to Akaroa, you might want to consider the option if you are not in town on a Sunday.

The ride itself was beautiful, but being on the bus for so long was not my favorite thing in the world.  We also did stop at Salmon World (for a bathroom stop), and in another small town (Stavely) for morning tea.  We ate lunch at a little restaurant on the station (Mt. Potts Station) where the Lord of the Rings site is.  We also got out at a few other places for viewpoints of various sites and to stretch our legs.
Salmon World

We stopped for morning tea at Stavely Hall

A view somewhere along our trek
Another scenic view
The Lord of the Rings site was Mount Sunday.  Mt. Sunday is where the Rohan Capital of Edoras was.  Keep in mind, the set's of the movies are no longer there.  Basically, it looked like a small knoll with all of the Mountains in the background dwarfing it in size.  It was interesting to learn what parts of the set were actually built on the site, what parts were added with CGI, and which parts were actually filmed in the studio in Wellington.

Mt. Sunday AKA Edorras, Rohan.  The mountains in the back are much taller, unfortunately you cannot see this as the clouds are occluding the view

Posing with a dwarf axe in front of Mt. Sunday

A View near Mt. Sunday

A creek near Mt. Potts Station

A view near Akaroa, New Zealand
 Our tour guides themselves were quite interesting.  One of them had been the body double (not stunt double) for Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings Films, and one of the Oscar-winning sound editors, Hammond Peek.
Hammond Peek

Vacation 2013 - Picton, NZ - a beautiful drive through mountains and vineyards

This was the 3rd day of 4 port days in a row.  We did not have any plans for Picton before we left, but my dad did reserve a car for us in case we decided that is what we wanted to do.  At this port, our ship actually docked in Shakespeare Bay because it was too large to dock at Akaroa itself.  Unfortunately, with our car, we had paid an extra fee to have the rental car at the port (which we weren't docked at).  The area did provide free shuttles to the town, however, and where they dropped us off wasn't too long of a walk to the other port.

When we first arrived at the rental office, we weren't sure if we were going to have a car, because the woman told us that they got their cars from Christchurch, and the cars hadn't arrived yet for the day. Fortunately, they must have had some left overs from the day before, because they delivered us a car, which in the end was quite expensive after all of the added fees.

The Marlborough area where Picton is located has developed into quite the wine country.  So we drove South of Picton past Blenheim - I can't remember if we made it to Seddon or not.  Then we turned around and drove towards Nelson, stopping at the McDonalds in Blenheim for internet access and to check out a local grocery store.  We didn't quite make it there due to wanting to get back to the ship on time, and due to the windy roads.  The drive both ways was beautiful.  Here are some pictures.

A view south of Picton

This cow, near one of the vineyards, was posing for one of the pictures.  I don't know if you can tell from this picture, but she was not where she was supposed to be.  She was in a different field than the other cows in the background.

We took a lot of pictures of cattle and sheep on our trip - you would think we had never seen any in our lives!  We also took many pictures of farm machinery.  I think there are more John Deere Dealerships in each of Australia and New Zealand individually than there are in the US.

We thought we had spotted some Kiwi birds in one of the towns on our ride to Picton.  On closer inspection of the picture, this is not a kiwi bird, as it has tail feathers.

Near Picton, NZ

A view to show how long the vineyard rows are - this picture does not do justice to how great the expanses of vineyards are, though!

West of Picton - cattle lined up, walking back to get milked
Also, in New Zealand and Australia, they drive on the opposite side of the road, just like in Britain, so being a passenger was a bit scary for me, and took a little getting used to - especially with all the windy roads on the sides of mountains.  I survived, though!

Vacations 2013 - Dunedin, NZ - A train ride and Men in Kilts

For our day in Dunedin, we had wanted to take the Taieri Gorge Railway. Booking privately was definitely cheaper than booking through the cruise ship.  Unfortunately that was not an option for us based on the times the train departed and the times our ship was there (at least according to the online schedule).  Unfortunately, all of the Taieri Gorge Railway shore excursions were booked as well, so we weren't sure we would get to go on the train at all.  We put ourselves on the waiting list and hadn't heard anything.  About 2 days before we reached Dunedin, they did call and tell us there were some spots available, but only for the train trip and not the shore excursion we had waitlisted ourselves on, which also included a trip to Lanarch Castle.  We wanted to do the train, so we signed up for the excursion.

Cruise ship at the dock near Dunedin, NZ

Some of the scenery and a view of the engines

They raise thoroughbreds in the Dunedin region

I like the picture of the train on one of the trestles

More of the scenery

A view of the inside of our car.  I believe our car was the 1920's.  I don't think the flourescent lights are original to the car.  Of all the cars I peaked into, I liked ours best, and it was quite comfortable.  We were also fed morning tea, beverages, and lunch on the train ride.

Another view of one of the trestles we crossed

You can see the river in this picture.

The train ride picked us up right at the dock and went through some beautiful country.  If you are able to book your own tickets, though, I would recommend the cheaper option.  We did get back to town a bit before we had to be back on the ship (although the ship was docked a little ways from town so we had to take a shuttle bus back from the dock).  In town, the were having some sort of festival or competition.  There were several Pipe and Drum bands around performing at the octagon and practicing around the Octagon.  They also had a free wi-fi tent set up near the ship, but we did not get back in enough time to utilize it much.
The train station
A pipe and drum band performing at the octagon

Another pipe and drum band

A couple more pipe and drum bands practicing
Interesting Fact:  Dunedin is home to the steepest street in the world - Baldwin street.  We did not get a chance to visit it.