Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Adventures in New Zealand Part One

So one place my father-in-law has always wanted to visit is New Zealand. While visiting us in Fiji, relatively speaking New Zealand was super close by (a mere three hour flight away) for them to also go to. Since New Zealand is also on our "local travel" bucket list of places to go while posted in Oceania, we planned a trip for the six of us to go together at the end of their visit. We got the best deal flying out of Nadi on New Year's Day. We had a mid-morning flight, but when you factor in the three hour drive to Nadi, the two hours early for International Flight Check-In.....that would be leaving REALLY early in the morning. So we opted to leave late morning on New Year's Eve and stop for lunch at Mason's favorite pizza place by the sea....EcoCafe.....you can never tire of the view and the food is good too!

We then checked in at the Tokatoka, which is right across from the airport. It is walkable, but they offer a shuttle to the airport. That way we could get up at reasonable time and not worry about missing our flight due to a cow in the road causing a traffic back up. The kids loved the pool/waterslide they have....Mason hung out in the little grotto and I lost track of how many times Clarissa went down the slide.

After dinner, we headed over to the playground and saw a double rainbow, which faded and then turned into a complete rainbow as the sunset.....what a way to beautiful way to end 2016.

The next morning, just as planned we headed over to the airport with ease, hoped on the plane, and headed for NZ....this trip Mason was all about listening to his music/podcasts....I guess we have entered tween/teendom where he will have the earbuds as another appendage now....

When we arrived in Auckland, we picked up our rental. We ended up getting a Toyota 'People Mover'. This model is not sold in the US, so the name is a bit amusing to us. Essentially it is a big, comfy van. It had enough seats to sit 8 people (we only had 6...so plenty of don't touch me space) and hold all our luggage (5 big suitcases plus backpacks, camera bag, and a little collapsible cooler with snacks). We grabbed some lunch and then headed down towards the Cambridge area (about 2 hour drive) to the Bed & Breakfast we were staying for our first night. We had rented a GPS, but it was failing us and not finding the address, so we put in the city center and hoped for the best. When we got to the city, given it was New Year's Day it was a ghost town. We did find a couple walking, so we rolled the window down and asked for directions. They didn't know the place but pointed us in the general direction. After going the way the random couple sent us for a while and starting to head out of town into nowhere I see an open gas station and stop for directions. The first guy working there had no clue, but told me to ask the cook at the food counter saying she knows everyone here. She was taking a lady's order when I walked up. So while waiting the lady who had just order asked where I was looking for. I showed her the address, as luck would have it, she knew the place! She described the turn (on a sharp bend about 3 minutes up the road). Sure enough.....there it was, Gully Retreat B&B. There was a bit of confusion about the booking, but our hosts were wonderful and the property was beautiful. In chatting, they asked our plans for the next day. We said Hobbiton, they asked if we already had tickets (we did not...see lessons learned), but luckily we were able to log on to Hobbiton Tours and get tickets last minute...trip saved! Jim and Richard wandered around the property while Ann and I ran to a grocery store to get some dinner supplies. We had arrived in the "Land of the Long White Cloud".

So the next morning, we got up bright and early to head onto Hobbiton. Richard and Mason's destination of choice (there is a two week long 'Lord of the Rings New Zealand' Tour....but that is a little pricey....so we might have to settle for this). In preparation for this we attempted to watch the movies while Ann & Jim were in Fiji. It is hard with them being so long and them being a bit to scary/violent for Clarissa. So when we can't start watching till she is in bed + jet lag....we got the first one knocked out.

Piece of advice, you have to book your tickets online and all tours are guided (they don't want any rogue Nazgul roaming around) and the tour lasts about 2 hours from start to finish. Try to get an early tour if you want to avoid the crowds. They still get hundreds and hundreds of visitors daily and as the day goes on, the crowds get bigger. Also, come prepared for weather. The saying we heard was New Zealand has all 4 seasons in one day. It can go from sunny to cold and rainy very quick. Also, a plus of the early tour is you have a better chance of getting photos without people in them (photo with no tourist by the map fail # 1 below).

So I can't tell you much (I was dealing with Princess 'I don't want to be here'), but will try my best from what I remember/heard. The original set from the Lord of the Rings trilogy was rebuilt for the Hobbit movies to look exactly the same. The owner of the farm asked for the set to rebuilt with more durable materials so that he could offer tours like we went on ($$...smart man!). So anything you see could have been "seen" in either series of movies. Each little Hobbit house (is that what you call them....I was playing games on my iPad and not really paying attention during the movie) has a different job....so there was a baker, bee keeper, fisher, etc...so props outside the house would indicate who lived there. It's really pretty scenery and lots of photos were taken...I tried to only add some of the prettiest/most iconic ones....but there were so many to choose from......

Each morning crews come out and light a small, smoldering fire to make the smoke. They told us what type of wood it was. It takes just a tiny piece to put off lots of smoke to make it appear someone has a fire going inside.

Selfie with the turtle by the window sill. Most of the hobbit homes are just facades with nothing behind the door/window (anything that took place inside in the movies was shot on a sound stage).

Rare smile in the garden with set map....

View from the garden and a house near the garden. The garden is real, producing vegetables. Crews work the garden as well, just as Hobbits would.

Note our height by the door. Different doors within Hobbiton are different heights. Helps with the filming. To make the hobbits look short they were shot in front of big doors and to make regular elves/wizards look tall they were shot in front of tiny doors.

Important pond in the movies....I forget why :)

Road to somewhere....

Samwise Gamgee's house

Sir Peter Jackson (director) before filming began, he had a crew member take pieces of laundry from the house to the clothes line over and over for several weeks, to give a natural 100+ year old foot worn path look.

This was a fisherman hobbit who was filleting a fish outside.

Big tree (but not the special tree from the movies).....

Note how much bigger this door is compared to the other one we were standing in front of. This is only house you could go into. Not many people peeked inside....

But Clarissa and I did. It had dirt walls and was just storing some stuff. Nothing exciting!

Home of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, the Bag End had a door that was ajar, so they had to make sure anything that could be visible in that opening was also properly 'decorated'.

My personal favorite house...but notice how tiny this door is.

Here is another small door....or Clarissa could pass as a grown hobbit!!

Heading on a journey now to the Green Dragon....

We emerged from the woods and saw the Green Dragon in front of us...

An ale cart....

Being tourists....because we were....

View of Hobbiton from the Green Dragon

Jim who had been in the front of the group, welcoming us into the Green Dragon for a frosty beverage. They serve free drinks, ginger beer for the kids and 2 specialty beers and a hard cider only on tap here in Hobbiton! The kids were hungry, so we also order a snack. When looking at the menu, I order a muffin and biscuit....I forgot that to former British colonies a biscuit is a cookie....Mason loved having a giant chocolate chip cookie in the morning!

Walking back. Nice reflective view. Note in the top you can see Bag End along with the oak that lives above it. The tree is not real. Sir Peter Jackson needed a real oak and one wasn't available on the property. So he and his crew found one, cut it down (though I believe it may have already have fallen), cut it in to pieces and numbered them, and transported it to Hobbiton and rebuilt it. The leaves are plastic, and when you are close to it you can see they have faded and weathered. You will also notice how the tree is small. During the "Lord of the Rings" filming the tree was sized to be bigger. When the "Hobbit" was filmed, since it took place 60 years before the "Lord of the Rings" (in Tolkien time) the tree was sized down since it was supposed to be "younger".

Mason at a fishing spot.

So after Hobbiton, we had a little over an hour drive to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. We found some lunch along the way. We found parking and walked up to the ticket counter. As we got to the staircase that led to the ticket counter, there were paper signs that stated they were sold out for the day. I was quite sad. This was the one thing I was most excited about (being the science geek and all). We headed up the stairs anyway. We saw people still in line, so that was promising, so we went ahead and got in line. We were able to get tickets for about an hour later....not sure if it was an all day package deal that was sold out...but we made it into the caves!

So we went ahead and hit the gift shop before we went in the caves. We got a great photo of Mason, Ann & Jim!

So the glowworms are not actually "worms" in the scientific classification system (neither Annelida nor Platyhelminthes or even Nematoda), they are actually insect larva! Arachnocampa luminosa, is actually a fungus gnat. The larva hatch and will suspend down from a silken thread. They glow in an attempt to attract bugs into their silken thread to catch and eat them. Once they become adults, they don't even have a mouth to feed. They just mate, lay eggs, and die (sometimes by being caught in larva silken threads...so they are cannibals). Unfortunately, since light disturbs the glowworms no cameras/phones were allowed while in the cave....so no pictures....but it was amazing. It was like looking up in the sky on a super starry night but it was so close you could almost touch it. Here's a link of where we went....so you can see what it looked like. It was almost supernatural looking. Our guide did say that at night on the riverbank outside the caves you can also see glowworms.

After we exited the cave, we got some drinks and then headed back to the People Mover. We had a two hour drive to our hotel that night in Rotorua. We splurged at our motel and got a room with a spa...aka mini hot tub. The kids quickly tested the waters out.

Stayed tuned for the fun we have in Rotorua......

Lessons learned so far:

1 - January is the high season (school is out...summer break), so book rooms really early for the best selection of places to stay. Booking things a month or so out, I had a really hard time just finding a place that could accommodate 6 people (typically two rooms) and that had availability for the day(s) I was looking it. Needless to say, I appeared outwardly calm when asked how planning was going but I had some internal panicking going on!

2- Pre-book all your tours! I was hesitant to book things since I was unsure of drive times/worried traffic delays would mess things up. Google maps was pretty realistic with drive times, traffic wasn't really an issue (unlike our most recent trip to Hawaii), but hot tourist spots (i.e. Hobbiton, Glowworm Caves) can sell out early in the day, if not days before....we lucked out!

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Rest of Nana & Bajoo's Visit

Kids are now back in school after a nearly two month summer break (so odd to say summer during the Christmas holiday season), which means I actually get access to the computer (and for longer than 5 minutes....in Clarissa's mind, one is "playing" when using the computer, so if mommy has time to "play" on the computer, then she has time to play with Clarissa and I can't get much of anything done).

So, as I mentioned back when I described our adventure on the Yasawa Island cruise, my in-laws arrived just after Thanksgiving. The kids had a week left of school which was full of short school days and long (and I mean LOOONNGG) award ceremony night craziness. The next week they got to enjoy the adventure of grocery shopping (typically at least a half day excursion since you have to make so many stops if you want to have fresh veggies and bread and meat), we drove up the hour to Pacific Harbor one day so they could get another taste of the Fiji beaches (you saw Bajoo and the kids snorkeling here), we went to some of our favorite restaurants around Suva...

and we went bananas eating all the bananas that had ripened all at once....

I combined a few recipes I found online/tweaked based on what I had available for a yummy dessert which I call

Yummy-Rummy Grilled Bananas 
Serves 8

2 tablespoons (30ml) rum (I used Fiji Rum Co....cuz that's what I have on hand)
1 tablespoon (15 ml) brown sugar
1 teaspoon (5 ml) ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla
8 medium firm unpeeled bananas
vanilla ice cream

Combine rum, vanilla, sugar, and cinnamon in small bowl. Set aside.
Cut bananas length wise (leave on peel).
Place bananas on grill, cut side down. Cover and cook ~ 3 minutes.
Flip bananas, brush on glaze, and grill 5-6 minutes longer or until tender.
Peel bananas and serve immediately with ice cream.

It was delicious!!!!!!!! I can't put enough explanation points to show how good it was (if I could make this a scratch and taste post I would) and I think I made it at least three or four times in the week we had to eat up all those bananas before we left for our cruise.

So while on the last day of the cruise, when the weather was extra horrible, I mentioned to Richard maybe the kids and I should take his parents out to Leleuvia Island before Christmas. It would give us another chance for some good snorkeling in Fiji (and though Ann had seen a blue sea star on the glass bottom boat, she still hadn't held one and Jim still hadn't even seen one). It was relatively close to Suva, so it would be easy to get to. Richard agreed that it was a good idea. Next I looked at the forecast. That TD04 that never quite could get itself together as a cyclone also was taking it's sweet time getting out of Fiji. So we booked it as close to Christmas as we could and kept our fingers crossed the weather would finally clear. The next hurdle....my dear mother-in-law. While she is in no way high maintenance....she's also not a camper....so taking her out to a tiny island in the middle of the South Pacific with cold water showers, community bathrooms, no AC (well actually no electricity after midnight since that is when the generators are turned off) in the middle of summer. She agreed to go, but I could see if things went bad....I might lose my in-law status and become an out-law.....Jim on the other hand....he was good to go....he had trained for this in Vietnam (which he reminded us of a couple times)...As luck would have it, the evening before we left the sun peaked out after dinner and gave us a complete rainbow!

The boat ride over to Leleuvia Island, was rougher than usual and due to TD04 we actually ended up disembarking on the side of the island as the dock was out of order due some lines/chains getting snapped during the storm (I was taking a photo of the coconut tree, but you can see the dock here looking a little worse for wear, it was repaired the next morning after the wind/chop died down and they could reattach the chains/lines).

So Leleuvia did deliver the pretty sand beaches, palm trees, and multiple shades of blue water! (couple points for staying an in-law).

So we had some lunch, attempted some snorkeling (the current was super strong and visibility was pretty horrible)....Clarissa did deliver Nana a blue sea star, so at least one box was checked off (will call that a wash for the in-law/out-law score keeping). I didn't take any photos when snorkeling as the current was so strong both kids held my hand so as not to get pulled out to sea. Here is Clarissa doing her game show model pose showing off the typical glass-like waters replaced with loads of chop and breaking waves.

Bajoo and the kids opted to hang out on a new hanging bed they have on the island....that is until it started to pour down rain. So we took (cold) showers and got into some dry clothes. Then waited for the rain to pass (I was contemplating what modern day out-laws wear).

So we found one of Clarissa's friends from school and her family were on the island (out of about 3-4 occupied bures we knew someone). We hung out at the island bar using the wifi and having some cold drinks till after the rain passed (I seemed really worried about my out-law future...lol Clarissa snapped this shot with the camera).

The weather finally cleared a bit and the tide had gone out. So we started circumnavigating the island to look for the sea kraits Bajoo yearned to see, check out all the critters exposed by the low tide, and look for some neat sea shells.

Assessing the treasures to be found and on a mission to somewhere....

This is the same species of bird! Quoting wikipedia here "The Pacific reef heron (Egretta sacra), also known as the eastern reef heron or eastern reef egret, is a kind of heron." No wonder I kept waffling between heron and egret when trying to identify them/wondering why they were hanging out together. The wiki also told me that reason for the color difference is unknown and has nothing to do with sexual dimorphism.

A perfectly intact scallop shell!

Hanging on the awesome sideways palm tree. Mason was disgruntled about the mandatory fun (and hence hadn't been very photogenic that afternoon).

Looking for sea snakes....no luck yet....

Queen of the world.....or so she thinks...

Walking out on a sand bar that been exposed due to the low tide. Note the looming clouds about to bring some more rain....after dinner, it got nice and dark. I was able to point out a few stars but there was a good bit of cloud cover hiding most of the them. The island staff attempted to start a bonfire on the beach. As we waited for it to get going we started to feel rain drops, we headed back to brush our teeth and then to our bure. We had been our bure for about 5 minutes when it started pouring rain and blowing in (into the open windows to keep us cool...do we stay cool or dry)....I'm really not winning this out-law lifestyle evasion.

Around midnight or so, the generators turned off and room started getting stuffy since the ceiling fan stopped moving the air around. Clarissa fussed a bit around 1am. I looked outside, rain was gone, sky had cleared, wind had stopped blowing, and the moon was rising. The moon rise was beautiful, it was low on the horizon, reflecting on the water....had I not been so tired I would have gotten the camera/tripod out to take a picture, instead I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep in the stagnate, warm bure. Around 6am, the ceiling fan kicked back on and the sun was rising. I peeked and thought how pretty and went back to sleep. I lucked out and Ann took a picture.

After the sun finished rising, Clarissa woke me up to go find Nana & Bajoo (Mason opted to keep snoozing some more). We figured they were circumnavigating the island again and headed the opposite direction to find them. We were right and much to Ann's relief, Jim still struck out on operation 'sea krait'.

After breakfast, the lack of breeze had helped the seas calmed so we went snorkeling again. Visibility was better than previous day (still not like our last visit, but we found lots of fishes for Nana and Bajoo to see). The current was non-existent so Clarissa even took off her floaty vest some and did some free diving. We also spotted a moray eel! I think it's a grey eel, Siderea grisea, the only thing that makes me hesitate is it does not have the distinctive dark spots on it's head.

We hung out on the floating trampoline some (you can see it up above in the choppy water picture...there is no graceful way to get on that thing). Clarissa and I offered to take Bajoo around the island again to look for the elusive sea krait. We opted to go "backwards" around the island (just opposite direction we've gone the previous times). That was the trick! Up towards the tree line, I saw a sea krait! Triple points for the marine biologist! That made the trip the for Jim! We didn't have any recording devices so he came back after we made it around the island. We aren't sure if it's the same one or different one (close to the same area, but seems bigger than the one we saw) but he recorded it doing what sea kraits do.

We had lunch and showered, before getting packed up. Thankfully the weather cooperated and delivered a perfect day on Leleuvia.....at least enough to tip the scales in my favor and I am able to keep my in-law status!

A couple days after we got back in Suva, we hit a fun dinner locale for Friday night happy hour. Holiday Inn has a wood-fired oven. So we went for some yummy pizza, the kids went for a swim in the pool (before it closed at sunset), and Fiji really delivered with a beautiful sunset!

It was now Christmas Eve and we had to quit playing and get down to business. Santa would be arriving in a few hours....Suva is in one of the first time zones he hits and he would be hungry....so we got to into the Christmas spirit and decorated some cookies (and then went for a swim to cool off)!

We made the cut off.....(though sadly nobody decorated a star shaped cookie with blue icing...blue sea star people....come on...next year!). Clarissa surprisingly slept in until 7am...possibly the latest she slept all break! As soon as she woke, she put on her new sparkly dress (her doll was already dressed...a gift from Grandma and Grandpa she opened early one bored day). It is quite sunny and bright at 7 am, 4 days after the longest day of the year in the southern hemisphere....

That evening, we played with sparklers and shot off some fireworks we'd picked up when they were on sale during Dawali (it was dark by the time we shot off the big fireworks).

For Nana & Bajoo's last few days in Fiji, we played with new Christmas toys and hung out at the pool. We also went and saw quite a few movies while they were here. Rogue One was seen a couple times by some people, Trolls, Moana, SING, Moana (again). I do have to say, living where the movie Moana could of hypothetically taken place makes it so much better and I think it will be a special movie to always remind us of our time in Fiji. Clarissa somehow picked up a cold, so we laid low so she could get over it before we all headed to New Zealand (instead she opted to share it with Daddy and later Bajoo).