Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Beginning of the End


Days 35 & 36:  Auckland, NZ.  Though Auckland offers all the cultural, dining and shopping amenities one would expect from New Zealand's largest city, it manages to retain a friendly and relaxed, small-town atmosphere.  Before diving into the city proper, we decided on Tuesday to explore its surroundings.  We set out on the scenic drive through the Waitakere Ranges, a chain of hills along the coast northwest of Auckland.  Formed by ancient volcanic activity, the ranges are covered in lush native forests and crisscrossed by hundreds of miles of walking trails.

Lion Rock (use your imagination!) in Piha
Like many locals, we stopped in the seaside town of Piha, a favorite beach destination for Aucklanders, where even the neighborhood dogs are friendly.  While walking on the beach, Ken was approached by a canine beach bum, who pulled a stick out of the sand and tried to persuade Ken to toss it for him.  Long, tall waves offered up by the Tasman Sea invited surf school participants to try out their new skills.

At a scenic overlook, where we paused for lunch, we chatted with six young twenty-somethings on vacation from China.  When we expressed an interest in visiting their country, they were quick to warn us about China's severe problems with pollution, though one patriotic young man asserted that air quality there was improving.

Pedestrian bridge over SH-1 offers great view of Auckland skyline and Westhaven Marina.
After checking out some of the other beach towns, we returned to Auckland in late afternoon, stopping at Point Erin Park at the southern end of the Auckland Harbour Bridge.  We still had not planted a letterbox in New Zealand, and Auckland was our last opportunity.  From the park, we took advantage of the pedestrian lane and crossed the bridge over the SH-1 freeway to Westhaven Marina, searching for possible letterbox locations along the way.  Finding nothing but a great view of the city, we returned to our apartment, hoping for better luck on the following day.

By Wednesday morning, we had dreamed up the perfect spot for our letterbox, on a path near the SH-1 overpass, just across the street from Point Erin Park.  Like Victoria Park across the street from our apartment, Point Erin was active with numerous groups engaged in various forms of exercise, from yoga to rugby and cricket, basketball, skating and even juggling.  Aucklanders clearly like to stay fit.

Auckland Art Gallery
Our boxing business behind us, we set off for the stunning Auckland Art Gallery, home of New Zealand's largest art collection with more than 15,000 works ranging from classical to contemporary.  The gallery reopened in 2011, after a comprehensive renovation of the original 1887 structure and construction of a modern addition which blends smartly with the old. Graced with a lofty ceiling inlaid with native kauri timber, the extension provides a grand entranceway to the country's oldest art museum.

Tiny patrons of the arts at AAG
With both exhibits and activities designed to appeal to all types of people, the gallery was teeming with patrons on this Wednesday morning.  We were quite amused by a group of adorable preschoolers craning their necks to examine works in the Mackelvie Gallery.  On the museum's entrance floor, a 40-ft table held an interactive exhibit composed of three tons of white Lego bricks, which visitors were invited to use in creating their vision of a future city.

Creative AAG signage
Throughout the museum, signage, brochures, notecards and posters in the giftshop, and most every other written communication emphasized that this was a place for ART. Creators of these notices were quite clever in their choice of wording to allow incorporating the not so subliminal ART message. Even the menu at the Gallery Cafe, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch of charred broccolini with smashed avocado in a beautiful setting, was ARTful.

Adjacent to the gallery is Albert Park, occupying an area which once housed Albert Barracks, an early European military fortification.  Converted to a park in the 1880s, the space is home to some enormous specimen trees, including several Moreton Bay figs and an ombu tree.

Some of Albert Park's stately Moreton Bay fig trees
From the gallery, we headed southeast to Auckland Domain, the city's oldest public park and home to the Auckland War Memorial Museum, an imposing neo-classical landmark overlooking the park.  So much more than a repository for military artifacts, the museum boasts a wide-ranging collection of works featuring Maori culture, human history, and natural science.  Military exhibits commemorate New Zealand's involvement in two world wars and other more recent conflicts.  

Auckland War Memorial Museum
Unlike the Auckland Art Gallery, admission to the museum was not free.  After paying $9.00 to park, we paid the foreigner admission fee of $25 each.  (New Zealanders are admitted at no charge.)  Orientation from the helpful ticket agent informed us that military exhibits were on the upper floor, natural history (where you'll find hundreds of kids, she advised) was on the middle floor, and an extensive collection of artifacts from Maori and other Polynesian cultures was on the ground floor.  We spent a couple of hours checking out the fascinating exhibits.

Leaving the museum in late afternoon, we got a taste of Auckland's rush hour traffic, as we drove five miles out Broadway, through a very busy retail and commercial district, to the aiport.  We were checking in at an airport hotel in preparation for our early flight to Honolulu tomorrow morning, planning to return our rental car this evening and find transportation back to the hotel and catch the shuttle to the airport.  

View from our hotel room
Little did we know until we arrived that the hotel was literally across the street from the terminal.  Hertz was a hundred yards away, so we were able to accomplish all our goals, ready for a smooth exit in the morning.  After dinner at the hotel restaurant, we packed and weighed our bags, ready to catch our Air New Zealand flight to Hawaii tomorrow on our way home.

Daily Stats:
  • Started & ended in Auckland
  • Mileage -  111   (Trip to date: 15,832)
  • Weather - 41° to 56°, sunny to overcast

More Photos from Auckland

Exquisite kauri timber ceiling at Auckland Art Gallery
Long winding bench on Art Gallery sculpture terrace, commissioned for the gallery's reopening
Massive windows blur the line from interior to exterior at Auckland Art Gallery.
Ground level salons in the historic AAG building
Interactive Lego installation attracted many patrons, young and not so young. (AAG)
Albert Park
Decorative headrest from Papua New Guinea helped protect elaborate hair styles as the owner slept. (AWMM)
Main museum entrance
Bird's eye view of ticket desk (AWMM)
Maori pataka (storehouse) at AWMM
Supermarine Spitfire, a British warplane donated by the RAF in appreciation for New Zealand assistance in WWII (AWMM)
World War II Hall of Memories
A Kiwi postie (mail carrier).  Most ride bicycles, rather than motorbikes as in Australia.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Sky's the Limit


Day 34:  Rotorua, to Auckland NZ.  Back on State Highway 5, we left Rotorua and its clouds of steam and pungent aroma around 9 a.m., aiming northwest for Auckland, New Zealand's most populous city with two million people.  That's almost a third of the national population, 1.4 times the entire South Island, and more than twice the size of Christchurch and Wellington combined.

Around 10, we stopped for relief and refreshments in the quaint village of Tirau (pop. 730).  At the crossroads of SH-1 and SH-5, the town has transformed itself from a rural service center to a tourist stopoff.  Recycled corrugated iron, embraced as a building and unique signage material, has given Tirau a signature look.

Tirau signage
In keeping with the town's singular style, the visitor center is completely covered in corrugated iron in the shape of a giant dog, as is the nearby Big Sheep Wool Gallery, a shop selling woolen items and other New Zealand products.

Fortunately these two seem to peacefully co-exist.  (Photo from Wikipedia)
North of Tirau, we headed west on Totman Road toward the renown Hobbiton movie set, which has become a major tourist draw in New Zealand.  After the initial movies were filmed, the sets that had been built on a local farm were dismantled and removed.  But Tolkien fans flocked to the site where the Shire had been created anyway.  After filming the later movies, producers allowed the Hobbiton set to remain.

Today hobbit hounds can take a two-hour guided tour of the set for the princely sum of $75 each.  By the time we arrived at the ticket office at the farm, the morning's intermittent showers had become a steady downpour, which the gusting wind flung into your face and down your collar.  Thankful we were not diehard Tolkien devotees, we easily made the choice to pass on the Hobbiton tour and press on toward Auckland.  In our drives around the country, we've seen so many mystical, magical landscapes, it's hard to believe we missed more than a few hobbit houses.

Middle Earth wherever you look
Back to SH-27 and north we drove, the steady rain a constant companion.  After turning west on SH-2 we began to feel a coastal influence on the weather as the hovering slate clouds dumped out a deluge, settled back to drizzle and then cleared, as winds shuttled the clouds inland.

Arriving in Auckland, we checked in and unloaded our bags in our apartment at Quest on Belmont before heading over to the Sky Tower, a 1,076-ft observation and communication tower that dominates the Auckland skyline.  A bargain price of $17 bought us tickets to the glass-walled observation decks at 610 ft and 720 ft.

Riding up on the elevator, we chatted with John, a 20-something Brit wearing a bright blue and yellow jumpsuit.  And that is literally what it was—a jump suit.  From John, we learned about the Sky Jump activity offered at the tower.  Between the observation decks is a jump platform at 630 feet.  Harnessed in and guided by steel cables to prevent wind gusts from slamming them into the tower, brave souls step off tower firma into thin air, aiming at a target 53 stories below.

For the entertainment of those who prefer to experience such thrills vicariously, an LED message board on the main observation deck two floors below alerts visitors four minutes prior to a jump, allowing spectators to get into viewing position.  Benches are actually provided.  So we watched John, who had also bungee jumped off the Auckland Harbor Bridge, take the tower tumble.

John takes a dive
Quite a bit of entertainment for the price, and the views of the city were terrific also.  After watching several jumps and failing to persuade ourselves that we wanted to try it, we headed out to dinner and back to our hotel for the evening.  We have two more full days to explore Auckland before heading off to Honolulu and home on Thursday.
Daily Stats:
  • Started in Rotorua, ended in Auckland
  • Mileage -  167   (Trip total: 15,721)
  • Weather - 45° to 57°, damp and drizzly to partly cloudy
  • Sky jumpers we watched - 4

More Photos from Today

More signs of Tirau
One scenic vista after another
The textured hills look so soft and plush.
Scenic drive or what?
Playing with the camera
View of Auckland from the Sky Tower
The small red square at the bottom center has the jump target painted on it.

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