Friday, October 17, 2008

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

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