Wednesday, 6 April 2011

16 Arriving in Auckland – Twice!

Hotel Grand Chancellor apartment

Mount Eden crater

Water lilies in the Auckland Wintergardens

Britomart station

A scaled-down version of New Zealand's next America's Cup yacht

Night view from the Grand Chancellor Hotel

Hamilton Gardens


Vincent Chen and his Zealong tea

On the Waikato in Hamilton

Floating crane at the Voyager Maritime Museum

Taiwanese built burger!
It seems odd to be returning to Auckland after a splendid week on Norfolk Island. They say that if a place leaves you wanting more, you should go back. I do. And I will. While I think I would find the politics of small island life rather too insular, pun intended, for a long term stay, Norfolk Island is an idyllic place to visit. Leaving the keys in the car ignition and the house unlocked with no fear of anything untoward just sums up the place perfectly.
My 60th birthday is in 17 months and I can think of no better place to mark the event.
I am slightly emotional on departure, but I am cheered up when I see Air New Zealand’s excellent, if rather quirky, safety demonstration. On three flights, I have seen three variations of the briefing, one with the All-Blacks, one with a furry animal and this one, ultra camp. It’s very funny and very effective.
I also enjoy the Kiwi cabin crew’s pronunciations. They use a variation of English where the letter ‘e’ always becomes ‘i’. Thus the aircraft has emergency ‘ixits’ and you have to return your ‘hidsits’.
On my first whistle-stop visit to Auckland, I used the Super Shuttle (www.supershuttle.co.nz) to get to my overnight accommodation. Luckily I was the first stop inbound and the final stop outbound, so there was no hanging about picking up and delivering other folk. But, at $55 return, it’s not a cheap option. (All prices are in NZ $ which are about 2 to the pound.
Trip Advisor had nothing good to say about the hotels near the airport, so I stayed at the Bavaria Bed and Breakfast Hotel in Mount Eden. (www.bavariabandbhotel.co.nz). At $150 for one night, it was overpriced for what, from the many stairs both outside and inside, to the parsimonious wifi voucher, was a fairly unwelcoming institution, much in need of refurbishment. I supposedly had the ‘best room in the house’ with a tiny bathroom and an advertised queen-sized bed which turned out to be two singles pushed together. I was also not impressed that no staff member was on site overnight.
On my return from Norfolk Island, I took the Airbus Express, which runs every 15 minutes and is the perfect option if staying downtown. At $23NZ return, it’s good value too.
My choice of accommodation this time is much better. I am booked into the Hotel Grand Chancellor (www.ghihotels.com), which is within a few minutes walk of the harbour front, the transport centre and the central business district. Because of busy surrounding streets, Trip Advisor comments recommend a room higher up and I have booked a one bedroom apartment on the eighth floor. It’s very well equipped with everything I could possibly need, including a dishwasher, washing machine and tumble drier. It’s spacious, has a swimming pool and gym, it’s very well maintained and I think its excellent value for $159 a night. Although I am washing up my dishes every day, they are always dried and put away for me. It’s a nice touch. There’s even a little packet of ground coffee each day, as well as dishwasher and washing powder.
The only downside for guests is a $30 a day broadband charge, surprising as you can get free wireless access at any number of locations nearby.
I am booked on a morning tour of the city with Great Sights (www.greatsights.co.nz)
which, at $49, gives me a great introduction to Auckland.
About one third of New Zealand’s total population of 4.3 million lives here. With one in four people owning a boat, more than anywhere else on the planet, it’s marketed as the ‘City of Sails’.
The tour takes in the splendid views from Mount Eden, one of 48 dormant volcanoes in the area (or maybe 49, another one was found during my visit!), the botanic gardens at the Auckland Domain, the harbour front, bridge and much more besides. When city authorities realised that the original Auckland Bridge couldn’t meet the demand, Japanese engineers came up with the idea of bolting two extra lanes each side, now known locally as the ‘Nippon clip-ons’ Driver Pete says ‘no worries’ all the time, including when I request to be dropped off on the waterfront.
Explore New Zealand (www.explorenz.co.nz) offer a whole host of activities, including many water-based. I am booked on the Pride of Auckland lunch cruise. The lunch of a sandwich, slice of cake and an apple is pretty disappointing, but the views of the harbour front are stunning.
A large group makes up most of the full complement and they amuse themselves having their photographs taken while steering as Kelvin the skipper sends texts and emails from his iPhone.
We get into trouble from the harbour authorities for not answering our radio when coming back into port, but as the crewmember had earlier been told to switch it off, our silence perhaps isn’t surprising.
The trip might be a nice thing to do as a group, but if you just want to have a view of the harbour, then a trip on the passenger ferry to Devonport would cost rather less than the $85 per person price tag.
I spend $12 on a day rover pass for the trains and amuse myself travelling to the suburbs on the southern and eastern lines. As I return in autumnal showers, I am surprised to see that Kiwi schoolboys are still in their summer uniform of shorts and sandals. I am told later that many schools won’t allow them to put on the regulation shoes and socks until after Easter.
Auckland also offers a free inner-city bus, the city circuit, which covers most of the main sights and there’s a really useful $1.80 LINK bus for outer areas. Information on all Auckland public transport can be found at www.maxx.co.nz.
The following morning, I am up with the lark to catch an InterCity (www.intercity.co.nz) bus to Hamilton, New Zealand’s largest inland city. It’s a pleasant two hour journey following the Waikato River, which, thanks to hydro-electric power stations, provides much of the country’s energy.
I am the only one getting off the coach which will continue on for another ten hours or so to Wellington, at the southern tip of North Island.
Michelle Wilby, manager of the Hamilton Convention Bureau (www.visithamilton.co.nz), has coordinated a splendid programme for my short visit.
First port of call is to the City’s Hamilton Gardens where Geoff Doube helps us dodge the showers and demonstrates why this is, by far, the city’s most visited attraction. (www.hamiltongardens.co.nz). In 54 hectares, you can visit collections from an English Flower Garden to lovingly created displays from China, Japan, India, Italy and the USA. It’s quite unlike any garden I have ever seen. The Te Parapara Maori display and the Italian Renaissance Garden impress me greatly, but they are all splendidly done.
Around one and a half million folk come here every year and not one of them has to pay a penny to get in. Amazing.
Michelle moves me along to what has to be one of the biggest surprises of my Antipodean travels. Zealong (www.zealong.co.nz) is the only tea plantation in the whole of New Zealand.
Taiwanese property developer Vincent Chen has planted a million tea plants in what used to be an old dairy farm. His father first had the idea and, after six years of trial and error (including most of the plants dying in quarantine) is now producing the finest quality Oolong tea.
I quiz Vincent about his motivation and have to be persistent because almost every time I ask him a question, his PR man answers.
The bottom line is they have spent an absolute fortune creating not just the product but expensive videos, glitzy packaging, international exhibitions, splendid tasting and tea rooms and much else besides. Not very profitable for Vincent, perhaps more used to making quick bucks from property deals.
But journalistic perseverance pays off and Vincent’s passion for producing a quality natural product, unsullied by chemicals, shines through.
When he is allowed to speak for himself, which he does rather well.
But the best quote of the day comes from Fiona from Shanghai, one of a United Nations of 14 countries represented on the estate.
She’s listened inscrutably to all the discussion, without saying a word, as she performs an exquisite ceremonial piece of tea-pouring.
‘Tea changes personality,’ she says.
It’s a very clever slogan that Vincent could perhaps adopt without spending a further cent of the family fortune.
All day, we have been ducking and diving in between showers and, if you check out my photographs, you will see that I was actually quite clever choosing my pictorial moments .
Except from when it came to the final evolution of the day, canoeing on the mighty Waikato, the country’s longest river.
Luckily, just before the heavens opened, I had changed into another pair of shorts and removed my jumper, because I got wet, steamed a little and then got even wetter.
My guide for the paddle downstream a fast-flowing river, much swollen by recent rain, is Darren Wise (www.wisewayadventures.com).
He’s passionate about the river and, like me, wonders why so few people use it. All along the banks are splendid houses with moorings and landing stages with hardly a boat in sight. There’s a bit of canoeing and rowing, but that’s about it. It’s as if, for some reason, Hamilton’s founders turned their back on the 16kms of river that flows through the city. But the authorities have plans to change all that and there’s already a splendid walkway in place.
I would have enjoyed the trip far more if Darren had kept his commentary to the positives the river has to offer. But he got a bit carried away telling me of the injustices of the European settlers towards the Maoris and it began to grate. I have no doubts that much of what he said was fair, but unburdening the chips on your shoulders at visitors is not what most folk want to hear.
After a quick opportunity to squelch my soaked sandals into Michelle’s car and use the seat upholstery as a sponge for my sodden shorts, there’s just time to see the street circuit for the forthcoming V8 street race before returning to the coach station where I use the loos to change out of my wet clothing before catching the coach home. My undies are wet through, not through age, but by precipitation!
I’m most impressed that the City provides free wifi in the central area, so I catch up on my mail while I wait. Hooray for Hamilton.
It’s been a most pleasant, varied and interesting day.
On my final full day in Auckland, I’m double booked, so I forsake a trip on an America’s Cup yacht to learn about New Zealand’s maritime heritage.
Normally, I avoid museums like the plague but ‘Voyager’, the New Zealand maritime museum is a splendid example of how to create interest at all levels.
Admittedly, it’s a bit higgledy-piggledy and lacks cohesion, but perhaps that’s part of its charm. Things pop up when they are least expected and there’s an interesting mix of high-tech wizardry and olde-worlde charm.
Highlights for me include models of ships from Glasgow, my home city and an enormous floating steam crane built in 1925 by Sir Wm. Arrol of Parkhead on a barge built by Fleming and Ferguson in nearby Paisley. This mammoth vessel actually propelled herself all the way to New Zealand from Scotland in 109 days before spending most of her 62 years working life at Lytteleton Harbour before being retired in 1988.
But, I guess, for most Kiwis, the story of national yachting hero Sir Peter Blake, murdered by pirates in the Amazon, is perhaps the most moving exhibit of all. You can even buy a replica pair of his ‘lucky’ red socks that he wore when he led the Kiwis to their memorable America’s Cup win.
I could easily spend another week in Auckland. It offers so much and I have seen so little.
But, tomorrow, there’s a plane to catch to South Island and a camper van to collect.
And the sad results of Christchurch’s terrible earthquake to see.
My New Zealand photographs are at
https://picasaweb.google.com/MDSouter/AroundTheWorldIn60DaysNewZealand#
A selection of images from all the destinations visited in ‘Around the World in 60 days’ is at
https://picasaweb.google.com/MDSouter/TheBestOfAroundTheWorldIn60Days#