Saturday, May 19, 2012

Reliving a few NZ highlights in Rotorua

After three months in the country, we leave New Zealand in a couple of days. We're spending the last ten days with our dear friends in Auckland, but they need to carry on with their every day lives during the week, and as we all know, visitors, like fish, have usually gone off by the four day mark, so we decided that a little side trip was in order to avoid the risk of that being the case.

We had a think over some of our favourite places and activities in New Zealand. One of the highlights for us all, which I have still to write much about, was Queenstown - we had the most amazing time there with so many great things to do and so many stunning and beautiful places around it, I could easily have stayed for a month, if not longer. We looked into flights, but the cost was extortionate, so we had another think and decided to head back down to Rotorua. It's approximately a three hour drive from Auckland and has some of our favourite activities on offer, not to mention the geothermal heating being most welcome now that the first sight of winter is sweeping it's way across the country. It's a big tourist destination so there are a plethora of hotels, which means some great offers at this time of year too.

We kicked off our 48 hours with a return trip to Polynesian Spa - we didn't even pause to check in at our hotel before heading there. New Zealand is a veritable playground of hot bubbly pools and Polynesian is undoubtedly the top of the crop (more on that another day...). After we'd soaked ourselves sufficiently we headed to our hotel, which, like many in Rotorua also has it's own spa and geothermally heated swimming pool. With the huge playground a mere hop, skip and a jump away it would have been rude not to partake in a little swinging and climbing while we watched the sun set over the lake. The shivering temperatures that the dark brought made the final decision (and of course the most healthy decision too) not to schlep all the way across town for a third dip (ever, not in one day!) at the most delicious Holiday Inn buffet an easy one.

On Thursday morning I awoke to discover that the sore throat I had been trying to beat off the last few days had taken hold, so instead of the action packed day we had planned, I rested in the room while Mr T took the Littlest Hobo for a swim and a play in the park then I wandered into town and replaced her lost coat so that we could brave the icy temperatures and experience the other good reason for being in this particular spot this evening: The Rotorua Night Market.

Every Thursday evening a section of the street in the centre of town is closed off to traffic and a selection of stalls take over the area. I'd heard about it a couple of times and was disappointed that we'd managed to miss it by one day when we were here last time. We rugged up and headed down there just after the sun dipped beyond the horizon and enjoyed the vibrant atmosphere and live music while we feasted on a variety of yummy offerings. There's something I love about being out in the dark, with the lights twinkling, rugged up against the cold air and being warmed from the inside with tasty treats accompanied by the soundtrack of live music and general hustle and bustle. I can't help but smile.

Friday morning brought a healthier day, so before heading back up to Auckland we headed for a final dip in the Polynesian Spa then off to the Skyline Gondola and Luge. Queenstown boasts the same attraction, and when we were there, after riding the Gondola up a remarkably steep mountain and admiring the breathtaking views we'd spent about 15 minutes or so debating whether or not it was a good idea to take a two year old on the luge. In the end the inner child in each of us won, and we bit the bullet and went for it - we were not to be disappointed. The luge is the ultimate adrenalin fix for wimps like me as you can control the speed at which you travel. Mr T took the Littlest Hobo on his cart and I flew solo, surprising myself by whipping ahead, yelling with delight around each corner and emerging at the end with a grin on my face surpassed only marginally by the one that adorned my daughters face when she followed me a few seconds later. So you see, we needed to do it again! While the view from the top of the Skyline is less impressive in Rotorua (it's still lovely though), the luge is far superior, lasting much longer and the track seemed more hair raising too. My poor daughter had me squealing in her ear all the way from the top to the bottom!

Although we still have a few days left, Rotorua was the perfect choice to occupy a portion of our last week in New Zealand. There's plenty to do, while at the same time being relaxing, Rotorua offers a little bit of luxury, while at the same time being child friendly, and there's plenty of natures wonders to marvel at, from the bubbling mud and the huge geysers to serene lake against a backdrop of mountains.

Lake Rotorua, just before sunset

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Beautiful souls

It’s so easy to take friends for granted when they’re just around the corner and you can see them whenever you want. Moving countries for the first time, when we moved to Washington DC a few years ago, really brought home how important my friends were. I also learnt the value of putting the effort in to make new friends in our new home. Then we repeated the exercise when we moved to Sydney, only this time I had two sets of long distance buddies to keep up with, while at the same time finding a new set of friends.
When we left Sydney for the UK last year, we were going back to old friends, slipping back into a comfortable familiarity with a warming ease. I love the way with old friends, we are always there for each other when we need to be, no matter how much time has passed since we last saw each other, or even spoke.

But then we hit the road, and it was suddenly just us. I’m so grateful for the opportunity that we have at the moment to spend so much time as a family, and all the benefits that that brings, but I miss my friends. Some days I have a hankering to go for a coffee, to roll my eyes and dramatically sigh ’Men!’ or to compare with my mummy friends the Littlest Hobos latest habit and feel reassured that it’s completely normal at that age and won’t automatically be qualifying her as a teen delinquent or something worse.

When we left the UK in January, the same friends who had left us in charge of their home while they were away on holiday six months previously, offered to sell our car for us, giving us the opportunity to use it right up until the last day. It was such a kind gesture and I was touched that they gave up their valuable weekends to do it.

A couple of weeks ago a close friend in Sydney, whose daughter is the same age as the Littlest Hobo gave birth to her second daughter. I was delighted to hear the news, but I know I would have felt the pain of distance if it hadn’t been for a constant flow of texts and emails in the couple of days following, I’m still sad that I’m missing out on those newborn snuggles, but I’m sure that being able to ‘chat’ was the next best thing to actually being there.

Over Easter, some friends came down from Auckland to meet us for a week, bringing with them a collection of thoughtfully put together toys as a refreshing change for the Littlest Hobo from the small selection that we are carrying with us. A couple of weeks later we spent two days at their house in Auckland, where we’ve stayed several times on previous visits to New Zealand, and I relished in the ‘coming home’ feeling that flooded the car as we drove up their driveway. We’re heading back there at the weekend, and I’m really looking forward to it.

It was great to catch up with old friends a few weeks ago

I got an email today from a friend who was reminded of me when she walked into somewhere we used to go together… it made me a bit misty eyed, and it also made my day. I’ve got a few friends, spread over the three continents we’ve lived on, who make sure we stay in email contact, no matter how long it goes before they get a response, and two friends in particular who, like our families, have stuck with us through the not quite as advertised internet connections that we keep coming up against to check in on skype regularly - I love these chats, there’s something about the beauty of actually being able to see each other, seeing them in familiar surroundings, that is incredibly comforting. I love the normality of pauses to stop the baby eating the computer cable, or to grab a glass of wine, and the chatter of every day life.

What’s the point of this post? I’ve asked myself that several times… I suppose I just wanted to say thank you - to so many gorgeous souls whose everyday gestures, great and small, make our lives a bit easier, or remind us that they’re all still there, and in their own way make this trip a little bit more possible. I always say travel is about the people you meet along the way, but for me, it wouldn't be possible without the people who aren't right there right then too.

I’m so glad that we‘re doing this trip now, and not several years previously; I’m not sure that I would have managed to travel for so long without the tiny modern day wonders which have become part of our every day lives and ultimately, keep us in touch.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The sun always shines on Hobbiton

Nestled amongst the rolling hills of Waikato, near the small town of Matamata, sits the pristine setting that Peter Jackson made famous when he used it as the setting for Hobbiton in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. As we were heading there last Friday, through the heaviest rain that we have experienced since arriving in New Zealand, we questioned our sanity, and had we not already made arrangements to be there, we may well have turned the car around and headed for somewhere indoors and dry. But having spent the last two and a half months coming around corners to announce ‘that is so Lord of the Rings’ and constantly humming the theme tune, we were compelled to achieve a real LOTR experience, so we pressed on, and as we came over the hill and Hobbit Movie Set and Farm Tours base camp came into view, the stair rods parted and the rumbling grey sky looked somehow less threatening.

We booked in for our tour and then headed upstairs to the Shires Rest café for a lamb burger to sate our appetite. The Shires Rest serves tasty food in a somewhat bland environment, so discovering that they are currently developing the Green Dragon Inn from an on-set façade into an all singing, all dancing pub and venue was music to my ears.

Hobbiton is set on a working farm with approximately 14000 sheep and a few hundred black angus cattle; as we waited for the bus to arrive to take us on the short journey over the hills into Hobbiton valley, we watched cows being herded and petted the four tiny lambs who were doing a good job of commanding visitors attention just by looking cute, and scoring top marks from our little hobbit.

All together now 'ahhhhhhhh'

The bus appeared, and Danny, our tour guide, started his spiel as we headed through a couple of gates and into the picture perfect valley. Looking around, it was immediately evident why Peter Jackson had chosen this site as he scoured the countryside from the air. Not only was it hidden from any sign of modern day life, but it held a magical, timeless quality which screamed of everything you would expect of ’The Shire’ of  Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Over the hill and far away - it's hard to believe that Hobbiton is just over the hill

Jumping down the steps of the bus, I noticed that each and every hobbit hole in view was bathed in a sunny glow, and only one or two fluffy white clouds adorned the bright blue above us - a far stretch from the sky that had frowned down menacingly just an hour earlier. As we walked around the set, marvelling at every tiny detail from the miniature tools to the pint sized washing lines, Danny explained the reasoning behind the wide variety of hobbit hole sizes - those which would feature in a shot with Gandalf were smaller, to make him appear bigger, whereas others were bigger, to make the Hobbits appear smaller. I was astounded by each minute detail - the lichen on the fences was man made, as was the tree that sits above Bilbo Baggins house at the top of the hill - the Littlest Hobo took great pleasure in the souvenir fake leaf that Danny handed to her as we headed back down the hill. I suspect that her miniature stature and, curly haired-ness gave her extra kudos in Hobbiton, even without furry flippers.

Mummy, is this our new holiday house?
We worked our away around the set, posing in the miniature doorways for photographs as Danny told stories from filming and explained how everything worked. We were asked not to touch the props, and most of the hobbit hole doors stayed firmly shut, but there were one or two which we were allowed to open - although there wasn’t much to see on the other side (as the inside filming took place down in Wellington), it was good fun to pose as if you were just emerging from your hobbit mansion.

Bilbo Baggins hobbit hole - a veritable mansion at the top of the hill, looking down over the rest of Hobbiton


The coming year has to be the time to visit the Hobbiton movie set - not only has it been permanently rebuilt for the recent filming of The Hobbit trilogy (they were partially deconstructed after the initial trilogy was filmed, save seventeen hobbit holes which were rescued by a big storm which came through and halted deconstruction - this time they’re here for good), but the embargo has also been lifted, so you are free to take photographs too. I’m sure the completion of the Green Dragon will just be the icing on the cake. For now, we just settled for feeding the baby lambs with bottles as we basked in the bright sunshine when we returned to base camp, which wasn’t a half bad ending to our trip to Hobbiton at all.