Friday, September 19, 2008

New Zealand: The Arrival

Kia Ora! from New Zealand! After over 24 hours of solid traveling, we touched down in Auckland at 4:30 AM local time (about 12:30 PM the previous day back home in Boston.) We met our guide, who gave us a couple of hours to freshen up and then whisked us off for an orientation walk of the area around our hotel. I feel a bit conspicuous; these folks have obviously not seen many bears around their city.

Our hotel is quite interesting. It's called the Mercure Windsor, and it's in what seems to be the city's main downtown area. It's only been a hotel for about 3 years. Previously, it was a bank. So the room shapes are a bit...shall we say quirky? It's a nice hotel, though, with posh bath facilities and a large spa pool (think big, tiled jacuzzi.)

We enjoyed a late breakfast/early lunch at a place called the Vulcan Street Cafe, in the nearby Vulcan St. area. I had a "Hash Brown Tower", which was a delicious pile of fried egg, bacon (closer to Canadian bacon than the strips back home), hash browns (imagine McDonalds hash browns...but good.), baked beans (they make theirs in a tomato-based sauce, mushrooms, and a savory gravy. There was so much food that I split it with my other half. The Otter had corn fritters with smoked salmon. All in all, tasty food and friendly service.

We then headed to the Auckland Museum. Should you find yourself in Auckland, you *must* go here. The Museum is amazing, with the world's largest collection of Polynesian artifacts, including Maori houses and a Maori war canoe. It also has an excellent exhibit about the New Zealand Wars and the participation of New Zealanders in the wars outside, like World War I & II and the Vietnam War. I was even willing to forgive them a stuffed black bear in one exhibit.

Dinner was at a harbor-side restaurant called Neptune. It was okay...the Other Half and I had Surf and Turf - a steak and two prawns. The prawns were small and okay in flavor, but nothing special. The steak was tasty, with a nice sauce and caramelized onions. The side was kumara potatoes, which are a sort of sweet potato that're actually fairly savory. The Otter had grilled snapper in an orange sauce served on steamed vegetables and kumara. Dessert was vanilla ice cream with bits of "hokey pokey" - a sort of crunchy honeycomb candy. The Otter and I liked it (bear and honey...go figure. ;)) The Other Half was not convinced. ;)

This morning, we had breakfast at our hotel. I created a sort of de-constructed version of my Hash Brown Tower, as well as having a bowl of granola cereal. Very nice and largely filling.

We set out by cab for the top of Maunga Fo, also known as Mt. Eden. This beautiful volcanic mountain is one of nearly 50 volcanoes around Auckland. The sides are terraced, because the Maori people would excavate terraces to live on, defending them as mountain fortresses. Our guide was Prince Davis, a Maori who can actually trace his lineage back to the last Maori King of the region. He was a warm, friendly guy, who, along with his two sons, showed us around the mountainside. He told us all about the Maori experience, racism, history, local flora, his own travels in the U.S. and more. At the end of the tour, Prince introduced us to his wife, Katherine, who served us tea (or coffee), camembert, brie, peppery crackers, and ginger kisses (spongy ginger cakes with a sort of icing center.) Then Prince and his sons performed the Haka, a Maori war-dance. That, along with the singing in the Maori language, was very moving and intense.

After that, we broke away from our main group, heading to the Sky Tower, a huge 600+ ft. "space needle" sort of tower. We headed up for spectacular views of the city, including Rangitoa, the 800 year old volcanic island which is the newest addition to Auckland's geography. We had some drinks in a cafe overlooking the city, before heading down and spending a few coins in the local casino.

One last food stop before returning to our hotel...we paused in a local McDonalds. Now, forgive me, but we had to try the Kiwiburger. Basically, think of a large McDonalds add beets and a fried egg. Very interesting!

We're heading out for pub grub tonight, and tomorrow is our departure to Rotorua. I'll sign on again before too long. Be good, y'all.

- The Happy Bear

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