Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Rest of FurFright

So, normally, the Bear Squad is not a breakfast crowd, so we passed on breakfast, our plans for a lunch at Singo Sushi, which we had enjoyed immensely the year before.

Alas, the best laid plans of bears and mice...

We ended up gathering quite a large crowd to go for food. This is a somewhat natural thing, as furry cons tend to involve people you haven't seen for a while. So, our friends from New York wanted to get lunch, and a friend from New Jersey wanted to get lunch, and everyone invited friends, and...

Well, Singo Sushi wasn't able to accomodate our group of 11 immediately when we called them, but they promised us a spot about an hour later, at 2 PM. So we sort of dithered, then got there, slowly accumulated into a group, and...

And nothing. At 2 PM, Singo admitted that it would be another hour. Since none of us had eaten, we decided to forgo their sushi for the day, though we vowed to try and make it back later.

Instead, we ended up at the Manor Inn. This is a nice, somewhat divey little pub with a menu largely devoted to Italian food. The food was decent, not spectacular. A literal "nothing to write home about" sort of place, although I'll admit that the veal dish I had was pretty enjoyable. Even the odd little politcal conversation we had with our server was kind of interesting. Maybe I'm giving Manor Inn a bum rap...but, y'know, it was no Singo Sushi in terms of food quality.

After that, we cruised back to the hotel, butn ot before stopping at Rogers' Orchard. This place is really charming...they have cider served on a honro system...which I honorably paid to drink, while watching their huge rabbits cavort in their cage. They also had homemade fudge, awesome produce, and some of the tastiest cider donuts I've had in a long time. The Other Half was not impressed with their caramel apples, however, and this evolved into a coversation about the goodness, or lack thereof, of jimmies/sprinkles. Oh, well. Can't win 'em all.

Back at theh otel, we quickly changed and headed to the CoCoKey Water Park. The price for this attraction is a little steep...our con had whittled the price to $25.00 per person, and even that was pushing it. They do have 2 totally enclosed tube slides in the dark and a body slide...but that's about it for adult fare. There's also a large water playground for the kids, and there's a lazy river tube area. We ended up spending a large amount of time racing each other around this river. The other attraction we really wanted to indoor/outdoor hot tub, was closed. We were promised it would be open later, so, after we had our fill, we decided to check back later as our tickets were for all day.

After drying off, we sort of flopped around the hotel room, eating the food we'd brought back from the Orchard. This more or less led to none of us wanting dinner, but it did ultimately make us want to swim more. We also snuck some Rock Band II in there, somewhere. Great game. I love wailing out some vocals while the others play the instruments, and I got several compliments on my singing, which was kind. Thank you, whoever you were.

We swam in the hotel pool, because we found out the hot tub was still closed, but I avoided the hotel hot tub, especially after several of our friends who didn't avoid it quickly ran off to take showers to wash off the protein foam that the previous guests had left in it. Very nasty. At the end of the day, we played a bit more Rock Band, then settled in to play a boardgame...the old Dungeon boardgame from the 80s.

The next morning, there was more Rock Band, and we introduced our New York friends to it. We soon realized that a lack of food the previous night had made us hungry. We decided to go out for an earlyish lunch, and the Other Half suggested we try to seek out the Turkish restaurant we had spotted from the highway on the way to the hotel on Friday. There ended up being only 7 of us, and the restaurant in question, Anatolia, was mostly empty.

Let me tell you friends, this was an excellent choice. Easily the best meal of the weekend, and maybe the best food I'd eaten in months.

For appetizers, we had hummus, baba ganoush, red lentil soup, and a host of other little salads and nibbles. We also had some hot appetizers, and we split them all up between the seven of us, so it wasn't *too* much food. Our main courses were various kebabs, from tradition lamb and chicken to swordfish! All of the meat I had was well-seasoned and tender, and it sat on a bed of well-seasoned rice pilaf.

For dessets, we said, what the heck, bring us one of each and plenty of Turkish coffee. The two standout desserts were definitely the baklava and the milk pudding. Both spectacular desserts.

Back at the con, we tried a board game with our friends called Touch of Evil. I highly recommend the game. We played the cooperative mode, which really helped us feel like we were banding together to fight a vampire. We were constantly aiding each other with cards and sort of "role playing" our way through the story. When we finally launched our climactic battle against the Vampire, it was gruelling, but we were victorious.

Finally, it was time to say goodbye. I left some business cards for the Happy Bear's Guide in a public spot, and the Bear Squad headed home, already looking forward to the following year.

Oh, yeah...and we stopped for McDonalds sweet teas on the way home. ;)

- The Happy Bear

Saturday, October 18, 2008

By the Way...

I tend to write about whatever's on my mind or wherever I'm at. If anyone reading this ever wants to know my opinion on something, or if you have a question for the old bear, just let me know. Also, if you'd like me to review something, or want to post a review of your own, I'd be amenable to that. You can always email me at

- The Happy Bear

Friday, October 17, 2008

FurFright, Friday Evening

Well, we set out later than expected, the door ajar light of the Bearmobile had issues, and the food from Burger King wasn't the best...but we arrived at FurFright without any major problems. We checked into our hotels at the Holiday Inn Waterbury, and we immediately started meeting old friends.

The Holiday Inn Waterbury is a very clean, comfortable hotel. The rooms have been recently renovated, and they have free wireless internet (hence all this blogging tonight). they've also recently added the CoCo Key Indoor Waterpark. We intend to avail ourselves of some wet and wild fun, no puns intended.

We have, of course, been chatting about New Zealand with a number of folks already, and we sat in the hotel restaurant. We had some buffalo chicken wings, which were very nice and a very reasonable price for the amount. They serve Diet Pepsi instead of Diet Coke (A victory for me). Some folks at our table had their Carrot Cake and Chocolate Cake and pronounced them both excellent.

Oh...a quick but important note. If you're still coming, make sure you bring some cash. The ATM at the hotel has a bad habit of running out of money at inopportune times, and the con's registration may only be accepting cash if their machines are down.

I'm sure I'll be at The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Saturday night, but, otherwise, I'll be catching up with friends, exploring the con features, and, of course, having some of the local cuisine. I remember two restaurants in the area being excellent, and we'll test these ideas over the Con.

Goodnight for now, good readers.

- The Happy Bear

New Zealand: More British Than Great Britain

Well, I'm getting as tired in writing this blog as I was traveling for 16 days, so I'm gonna make this quickish.

We traveled over the mountains from Greymouth to Christchurch. It was a lovely drive, with sightseeing, of course. We had an interesting stop at a High Range Sheep Station. Here, we got to see the dogs working the sheep, and they were awfully nice and friendly dogs. We learned about the wool industry, and it was great to know that this was a real working station. We had lunch there, which was excellent. Lamb curry, soup, bread, chicken, and a traditionally prepared pavlova...a sort of meringue cake with cream and Kiwi fruit slices. Very tasty.

We then finished the drive to Christchurch, checked into our hotel, and had a little time to get oriented. Christchurch was the first big city we'd seen since Auckland, and it's definitely the "more British than Great Britain" city of New Zealand. The whole place, which is named for the Anglican cathedral built there, just radiated Britishness, right down to the Avon River and the red phone booths. We ate dinner at a pub called The Bog. Excellent food! I had a steak on garlic toast that was absolutely delicious. We also tried the local cider. Good, good stuff. We tried to enter a trivia contest, but we were handicapped by being unfamiliar with a lot of New Zealand things. We eventually went off to bed.

The next day, we headed to Akaroa Harbor. We visited a place called The Giant's House. This mosaic garden has got to be seen to be believed. The artist, Josie, is fascinating and eccentric. We would've stayed all day, but we had to move on. We had lunch at the Akaroa Fish Market (delicious fried things!) and then on to our harbor cruise. I wasn't in much of a swimming mood, so I took the normal cruise. The Other Half and the Otter tried to swim with dolphins. Sadly, the closest they came was seeing dolphins, but, when they got in the water, the dolphins fled the scene. I saw the dolphins too, as well as white-flippered penguins.

We were going to go out for Thai food with the group the next day, but we decided to bail on them. Instead, we got delivery from...Hell Pizza! I got to try some, and it was excellent, excellent pizza. If you like pizza and end up in New Zealand, make sure you try it!

The next day, we were largely on our own, so we explored Christchurch, including major souvenir shopping. Ironically, we ended up eating lunch at Anna's Thai, the same Thai place our group had eaten at the night before. Excellent curries!

That night, we visited the fascinating Antarctic Center, the place that many Antarctic groups depart from. We learned much about the southern most continent, including seeing incredible photos. We also got to know the Little Blue Penguin, the smallest and rarest penguin species. We got to hang out in the snow room, which allegedly simulates an Antarctic storm. The Bear Squad shrugged. We'd had much, much worse back in Boston.

We had our final dinner at the Center, and we were sorry to leave New Zealand. All in all, it was the most adventurous, exhausting, fantastic trip I've ever taken. I came back wanting to go again, right away. That's a good sign for a vacation destination. I believe we will return, look up our old tour guides, and go have a great time all over again, because there were so many more things we could've done with just a few more days. Next time, we'll come back as "experts", possibly leading friends around to show them the beauty and awesomeness of the place. Suffice to say, I can't wait to say Kia ora to New Zealand again.

- The Happy Bear

New Zealand: Glaciers, Rainforests, and Beaches

The next day, it was off into the mountains, following a different road than the one to Milford Sound. This one led, eventually, to a winery, where we had a wine tasting. Now, I'm not a wine drinker, but I enjoyed the multi-media presentation, which included footage of helicopter flight over local vinyards and interviews with the vintners who'd created the wine we were about to taste.

We made various sight-seeing stops along the way, including a lunch stop as we crossed over the mountains, but, in the end we arrived in Franz Josef Township. We checked into the local hotel, relaxed a bit, then headed to dinner at the hotel restaurant. I had some excellent lamb, as I recall, but nothing that leaps out as something that must be mentioned.

That night, we had a walk into the local bush. There, we saw many, many glow worms. These are the larva of a type of fly. They spin a sticky thread and then glow bluish to attract prey. They are eerie and beautiful, with a blue glow that's easier seen from the corner of your eye than when you just look at them. We also spotted and photographed an Australian possum. These little guys are cute, but they're also a huge nuisance in New Zealand, as they eat and kill the local trees. We saw many possum fur products, and their pelts are a tourist industry.

The next morning was drizzling, but we set forth, undaunted, to Franz Josef Glacier. This glacier is one of only two in the world that descends into a rainforest. We trekked over dry river bedding and many small streams to the glacier itself, eventually touching it. It was a beautiful thing, with an ice cave, blue ice, and a bunch of loonies hiking on it. Not for me, thank you. It rained harder on the way out, but we were treated to some of the most incredible waterfalls I've ever seen.

We made various stops, including one to a beach where we saw New Zealand fur seals (actually a type of sea lion) and the weka, a less endangered cousin of the kiwi. Ultimately, we ended up in the little town of Greymouth. For dinner, I had some of the best venison I've ever tasted in the hotel's restaurant. Absolutely crushingly good.

The next day was a rather bizarre one. We stopped in a small town called Reefton, where we learned about its gold rush history. Tea was served to us by a group called the Bearded Miners Association who made "billy tea" in a cast iron billy over a coal fire. We also got gridle scones and manuka honey. Yum.

After tea, we were off to the local museum, which is incredibly stuffed to the rafters (literally) with the bric-a-brac of the town. Papers, clothing, rocks, shells, was a glorious mess! Finally, we came back to town center for lunch at the local tea room. A really good tomato soup and pizza...which was...nothing like pizza I've ever had. The pizza had no tomato sauce and was made with cream cheese (marscapone, I think), bell pepper strips, and chicken. Very, very tasty...but very, very odd.

After many, many stops to sightsee, including a beach on the Tasman Sea, we were back at the hotel. Dinner was fish and chips from the hotel restaurant...incredibly good fish and chips at that...and a side-order of gentle mockery when we told our waitress we'd been in Reefton that day. Apparently the place is well-known for being a bit wacky.

the next day began the final leg of our journey. More on that shortly.

New Zealand: The Weather Started Getting Rough

It started well enough. We flew from Rotorua to Christchurch, with just a bit of turbulence. Once we got there, though, the news was not good. The weather in Queenstown was terrible. They weren't going to be able to fly us in. So we boarded large buses to make the nine hour drive. We didn't arrive at our hotel until about 1 AM.

Our hotel, the Millbrook is beautiful, but somewhat insane. It's a world-class golf course, visited by tourists and golfers from all over the world. To make things slightly more out-of-whack, we were upgraded to huge villa rooms. These two room hotel rooms had luxuries that were not to be believed. Sure, the laundry machines were nice. But do we really need heated bathroom floors? Hmm...on the other hand, they do feel rather nice o n the paws.

Breakfast here was the first real variance we ran across. In addition to what we now recognized as the traditional Kiwi breakfast fare (the same four cereals, scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, baked beans, triangular hash browns...), there was also a cold board of meats and cheeses (we assumed for Scandinavian guests), poached eggs and Hollandaise sauce (the Other Half LOVES his eggs benedict, thank you), miso soup and rice (for Japanese guests, we guess?), and more.

The scenery is also breathtaking. Mountains peaked with snow loom in all directions. A truly awesome sight in the early morning light.

Oh...and I do mean early. About 5 AM after having been up til 1 AM the night before.

Why? Well, the plan was to go to Milford Sound, part of New Zealand's Fiordland region. Sadly, the weather interfered again, as an avalanche had wiped out the road to Milford. So our tour leader worked some magic. We tooled around Queenstown for some hours, and the Bear Squad hit Hell Pizza, a chain of pizzas that the Otter had heard about before we departed the U.S. Besides a catchy yet controversial slogan (Hungry? Go to Hell!), and large pizza boxes that fold into coffins to keep your leftovers in, they feature pizzas named for the Seven Deadly Sins, other bad habits, Limbo, Purgatory, Mordor, and more. The Bear Squad enjoyed their pizzas, but the Bear did not. I wasn't feeling too well, so I passed. My time for Hell Pizza would come later...

Well, with Milford Sound out, we instead switched days and did what was planned for the following day. We got suited up in splash jackets and life vests and hopped on the Dart River in a jetboat. This Kiwi-designed vessel can make incredible acrobatic turns, including a near-360 degree spin called the Hamilton Turn. Our boat'spilot, like so many of our local guides was what our overall guide called "a typical Kiwi boy"...rugged, grinning, adventurous, and ready to pull our legs more than a little. How long had he been working there? "This is my first day, actually." When one of our group jokingly asked if he'd seen some of the logs we'd just missed in the river, he blinked. "Logs? There are no logs in that part of the river, are there? I didn't see any."

For three blissful hours, we rode in this quick little vessel past scenery literally right out of Lord of the Rings. We saw where many chunks of the movie were filmed, and with good reason. Some of the most spectacular and beautiful scenery I've ever laid eyes on. We had a little walk through the bush, and we saw many waterfalls, thanks to the bad rains.

Afterward, we opted not to have dinner with the group. We needed a bit of a break, so we headed to the hotel's gourmet restaurant, which had some golf-themed name. The food was excellent. The Otter had a Fritto Mera...basically a super-upscale fisherman's platter. The Other Half finally got some venison, which he loved. I had a nice, fatty piece of pork belly. Ah well. With all the walking around, I was confident I could cheat my eating habits now and then.

The next day, we learned that Milford Sound was going to be a total miss. The avalanche would take days to clear. So our tour guide improvised. She took us onto Deer Park Heights, which has been in countless movies including, you guessed it, The Lord of the Rings. We posed for photos around various very recognizable features of the landscape. We also got to enjoy meeting the local animals, which included domesticated chickens, cluny pigs (rather handsome furry pigs), tahr (very, very shaggy mountain goats), red deer, llamas, Scottish Highland Cattle, and more. After the Park, we rode a gondola to the top of a local mountain to a mountaintop restaurant. Some tasty food, and a ride on a mountaintop luge. Definitely a fun time.

Afterards, we visited Arrowtown, a gold rush town from the 1800s. We got to see more Lord of the Rings scenes, and we ate at a local pub called the New Orleans Hotel. We had some excellent sweet and sticky chicken wings and some roast was so good, I was convinced I'd been right to eat the Jungle Curry in Auckland.

Soon, we were off to someplace very different indeed.

- The Happy Bear

New Zealand: From Auckland to Rotorua

Alright. Since I got me a few free minutes, finally, I'll try to tell y'all about New Zealand.

So, for dinner the last night in Auckland, we stopped in at a pub called the Viaduct St. Grill. Not bad, as pub grub goes. I had to choose between a roasted pork dish and something called Jungle Curry. Well, I've had plenty of pork, so I opted for the curry, a sweetish, sticky combination of sticky rice with curried prawns and chicken. Absolutely delish. I got an appetizer of cheesey garlic bread, too, which I shared with the folks we were traveling with. The Otter got green-lipped mussels, which were already opened, sparing him any embarrassing need to break them open on his chest. The Other Half got scallops wrapped in bacon, a fave of his, but that was just an appetizer. He'd asked for a venison dish, too, but there was a communication issue, and he was denied! No worries, though. We had tons of venison in the days to come.

The next morning, we were up early and off on our bus to Rotorua in the center of the North Island. It's also the center of Maori culture, so we were excited to learn more about the locals. On the way, we stopped at a farmhouse for a home-hosted lunch/afternoon tea. Lots of tasty tea dainties, including pumpkin soup, savory beef sandwiches, scones and clotted know. Just a snack.

We also stopped at a local grocery store to check out local snacks. I grabbed some lamb and mint flavored potato chips, which were okay, but not spectacular. The Otter got short-rib flavored rice-chip Pringles. Weird. The Other Half became addicted to a funyon-like snack called Burger Rings. They would be something of a standard in the days to come.

We arrived in Rotorua only by passing through the general area of Matamata, where the Lord of the Rings movies had filmed the Hobbiton sequences. Beautiful, rolling hills with tons of sheep and lambs (since it was their Spring.) Rororua is in a huge volcanic caldera, complete with a vast crater lake. It's on the volcanic plateau, so it smells vaguely gunpowdery at all times. After a lovely walk through a Redwood Forest, we arrived at our hotel, the Royal Geyserland Hotel. Good name for it. Maybe fifty yards outside our windows were a bubbling mud pool and the Pohutu Geyser, which erupts nearly constantly, or at least puts out a huge amount of steam. Easily one of the coolest hotels I've ever been in.

Dinner was in the hotel restaurant. Our bus driver grinned at me and told me to sit in a particular seat. I was suspicious, but I did it. Turned out, it was the "lucky seat" and I had won a bottle of Merlot. I chuckled and happily shared it with him and then with everyone else. I suspect he knew I'd do just that.

The next day, we headed off to Mt. Tarawera, an extinct volcano that's part of the Maori lands. We drove to the top in a 4x4 vehicle and then took a look around. We had two options...walk along the crater's edge or descend. So, what the Hell. Down we went, skating along a scree field. Essentially, you had to slowly allow gravity to ski you down over loose rock. A fall would be back, but you also sink in, anchoring you somewhat. It's a very curious way to travel. Once down, however, there's always the problem of going back up. We walked the length of the crater, as our guide told us about the explosions that had destroyed the local area in the late 1800s. When time came to climb out, it was exhausting for me. I'm a big, fat bear, and the scree was not my friend, nor was the thin mountaintop air. I was huffing and gasping, sliding back one step for each two I took. With a lot of support from the Otter and the Other Half, I hauled my fat, bear butt out. I'm super-glad I did it, but it really made me reaffirm my intentions to lose weight.

After checking out Rorotua Center for a while, we grabbed a smallish lunch. We stopped at a place called the Fat Dog (hey, Fat Dog, Happy Bear) for drinks, but I saw kumara fries on the menu. This awesomely tasty variant on the sweet potato was already becoming a favorite. We were trying to figure out what was odd about the cream cheese that was served with it when a familiar note struck my palette...sheep's milk. It was sheep's milk cream cheese. Very good, actually. We split those, then had some dessert in the form of a traditional English style boiled pudding...chocolate and rapsberry to be precise.

How soon we learned our folly...that evening, we visited Te Puia, a Maori center. After learning some cultural information and getting to see a live Kiwi Bird (a creature I instantly fell in love with...more later), we were treated to an afternoon "tea" cooked in a geyser! Besides the beer, wine, tea, coffee, and bread, there were mesh bags of mussels, corn, and prawns that were dropped into the geyser for 5 minutes, which made them perfectly cooked. We were already stuffed, and it wasn't quite dinner time.

Afterward, we were part of a Maori cultural performance. This included a traditional Maori greeting..consisting of a Maori warrior posturing and threatening our "Chief" in this case, you guessed it, the Other Half. After this test was done, there was song, dance, and demonstrations of the poi ball - a leather ball on cords used to keep rhythmic time - and the haka - a Maori war dance full of specific postures and facial expressions with protruding tongue and bulging eyes. Maybe some of the others felt ridiculous, but I felt like I was channeling some Grizzly ancestors.

And then more food! While most folks were off to the buffet, we were served a four course gourmet meal. There was a kumara soup (delicious), shrimp crackers, salmon on toast, pork skewers, lamb...just a delicious meal.

The next day, we stopped at a school that our tour company sponsors and got to interact with a lot of Maori cubs and their teachers. A pretty fascinating stop, I thought. Interesting to see a common thing - education - and how it's handled in different cultures. One thing is sure...these folks do not stint on education.

After that, the plan was to fly from Rotorua to Christchurch and then on to Queenstown to get to our next hotel. Little did we know that no plan for the next few days would survive contact with...the local weather!

More shortly.

- The Happy Bear

My apologies...

Hope no one was worried. The Bear Squad got home fine. Now we're off to FurFright. Expect completeion of th' New Zealand journals as well as our activities in Connecticut. :)

- The Happy Bear