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!

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