Why-heke

Waiheke Island sits just a few miles off the coast, but for complicated microclimate and zoning reasons has turned into a significant wine production and tourism destination. You take a 40-minute ferry ride, then bike or bus or scooter around from beach to winery to shoppe all day and come back in the evening. Or, you rent a house and do the same thing for longer.

I can see the appeal… it’s beautiful. But we went on New Year’s Weekend, one of the absolute busiest days of the year. It was hot, and crowded, and it turns out wineries and shoppes on Waiheke (none of which are more than 20 or 30 years old) look an awful lot like their counterparts in other places.

Next time we go, it will be for the company we are in, or for a longer stay at a non-peak time.

Interislander to Picton

“Placid coastline from a boat” (or “boats bobbing in still harbor”) must be the title of most of the world’s least interesting photos. But in this case, the picture doesn’t replace the 1,000 words. The last time I took this trip, just over a year ago, I was jetlagged. The seas were rough beneath the wind and rain. There was a tight timetable. Exciting day, but sort of weird and disconnected.

So this time, the very placidness was a delicious change. The water was all shades of blue and green, the clouds obligingly fluffy. The boat, a different one than last year, was unexpectedly nice.

We planned to spend about six hours in Picton, and honestly knew that might be too much, but the ferry schedule offered too little or too much, so there you are.

First stop, the Edwin Fox museum. Despite the overlong video about the ship’s history and associated preservation (not restoration!) efforts, that was a 45-minute visit. Interesting and all, but hard to get truly immersed without the company of an expert boatbuilder. Or maybe a group of school kids.

Then across the lovely foreshore park into town for lunch.

Then shopping up and down both blocks of Picton’s CBD. I did get a paperback John Carter of Mars, notable in that the British cover art actually shows the Princess’s lovely breasts, whereas the US editions from that time period always cover her up with ornate bikinis. The other most interesting thing about the shopping district was the community noticeboard outside the grocery store. I’ve never seen so many clubs advertised in one place: bridge, cribbage, lawn bowling, watercolor, poetry, book and cinema lovers, and even a community accordion ensemble. It’s as if every retiree must start a hobby club as a condition of residence.

We had a beer to recover from all the excitement and planned our next move. The aquarium, obviously.

We’ve been to some world class aquatic exhibits… Chicago, Monaco, Monterey… If I were on the Picton Chamber of Commerce I would be excitedly pitching the extraordinary amount of as-yet-unrealized aquarium-attraction opportunity in front of this plucky seaside community… there’s literally nowhere to go but up! Nowhere.

Next we wandered over to the pleasure port and had the same conversation we always have in that situation.

A) look at all the yachts for sale. Some of them we could even afford if we really wanted to.

B) but what a lot of work and expense even after you pay for it. Let’s rent or charter one sometime instead.

C) agreed. But if we did buy one, which ones do we like? That one, that one, not that one, ooh, look!

D) who owns all these boats anyway? It’s such a shame they all just seem to sit here, seldom if ever used.

Then it was back to the foreshore for some rock-skipping and birdwatching, and back on the boat. We booked into the Premium Lounge on the way back, so dinner and an open bar, well worth it. We got into a brief discussion with some drunken fellow passengers, including a couple Kiwis who were loudly defending their opinion that Canadians are way better than Americans. Not really an argument we want to have, but we did end up agreeing that Vermont is basically Canada, so it’s all good.

Farewell, Picton, until we meet again. You seem like a great jumping off point for South Island adventures, probably a nice place to retire or live in the marina on a boat with a scruffy little dog and a bottle of Jim Beam. We wish you a nice quiet summer, but we hope all the tourists visit your attractions.

Hobbiton Tour

Short version: OMG great.

Long version:


Once upon a time a location scout was flying around in a helicopter and saw a really great tree. 


There was a good little pond…


so they started to imagine how it would look as Hobbiton, the Shire. 


Encouraged by Tolkeinsian omens such as preternaturally wise birds, and a contract with the local sheep farmer,


they started building hobbit holes. It was just temporary at first, enough to get the LOTR movies out the door, but then…


people started to show up. Hobbits, after all. People love hobbits. 


A lot of people, willing to pay. Mostly hobbit-like in their demeanor, although there were some orc’ish moments with umbrellas and selfie sticks. 


So they hired tour guides, leased a fleet of buses, built everything to a more permanent standard, and created an empire dressed up as a village. 


Now there’s a complete infrastructure if you know where and how to look. 


They added the Green Dragon pub (where yes you can rent it out and get married), so you leave even happier than you arrived. In addition to the good beer, you could buy a scone. Like this guy from our group, who I caught here rubbing the crumbs off his hands in a kind My Precioussss moment. He had gotten every LOTR trivia question right without breaking a sweat. It was very validating when he took his jacket off to reveal his Star Wars shirt. A poly-geek. 

Please come visit so we have an excuse to go back. 

Wai-O-Tapu 

After my conference in Rotorua ended on Friday, Lee came down for the weekend!!! We booked tours on Saturday, here’s our morning activity, the amazing geothermal area of Wai-O-Tapu…


First stop, 5 minutes at the bubbling mud pits. Actually quite mesmerizing… If it hadn’t been raining so hard. 

Then on to the Lady Knox Geyser. 


Despite the big crowd with their over large umbrellas, the guy gave an interesting history of the site. This geyser is interesting in that it doesn’t normally erupt. There are a couple different layers of water, and normally the super-heated water is kept safely under ground by a layer of cooler water on top. But if you add soap to break the surface tension, as a group of prisoners washing clothes in the spring did about 100 years ago, 


And wait a few minutes…


Wow!

Then on to the main attraction, the big geothermal park at Wai-O-Tapu. 


The tour brochure promised us one of the 20 most surreal places on earth. I don’t really know what surreal means, other than through examples from Kafka, Dali, and so on. Does finding yourself in a cafeteria and gift shop waiting for the rain to die down instead of oohing and aahing at hot springs count as surreal? Quite possibly yes. 


Luckily, they had rain ponchos for sale. Fortified with coffee and danish, off we went. 


Altogether we walked about 2 miles on nice trails. There were lots of craters and bubbling mud and steam. Some were especially bright colored, some not so much. The rain lessened and the sun peeked out. 


The very last pool on the loop was the most amazing green color… smart to put that one at the end! 

Most surreal? Maybe, maybe not, but still pretty cool. 

A three hour tour

Bangkok has an extensive canal system, and the long tail boats or a real attraction. I would guess they are roughly 50 feet in length, and only about 4 feet across the beam. Many of them, the entire (large) diesel engine is mounted on the tiller and swings back-and-forth. There’s no rudder at all, but instead it is the propeller itself that moves in the water at an angle to the boat for steering.


The boat ride was fun, although somewhat noisy and smoky from the old engine. We saw some interesting buildings, although nothing spectacular.


After we finished the tour, it was lunch in the mall and then grab your suitcase for the flight to Nay Pyi Taw. 

Bangkok Grand Palace tour

A few more pictures from our tour of the grand Palace, which was the residence for a bunch of Thai kings, but is now mostly a tourist attraction and used for certain Royal ceremonies. The old King, who was much loved, died in December of last year. If I understand the tour guide correctly, his body is still lying in state and being visited by many thousands of people lined up all day for the chance to file by and pay their respects.

You have to take your shoes off before you are allowed to enter the chapel with the Emerald Buddha inside.

This campaign to be more respectful with the Buddha is all over the place, on billboards and bus stops and so on. 

The whole complex is a riot of color and decoration, and must be one of the most photographed spots in Thailand. It was wall-to-wall people (cheap admission on Sunday) but the etiquette and culture around giving people a clear picture was very well-developed. 

That entire dome is made up of 1 in. square tiles, applied by hand over a period of many years.