Monday, February 8, 2016

Napier: Packard, prison, priests

There’s something pretty special about being picked up from the door by a shiny green and black 1926 Packard complete with running boards and hat-friendly headroom. Cherrie, our Art Deco Trust guide, resplendent in a 1930s frock and shoes, was friendly and full of information about Napier before and after the massive 1931 earthquake (and subsequent fire) that destroyed the city, in one stroke snatching away the past, along with 286 lives, and delivering a bright new future on the land that rose from the sea.
It turns out Art Deco, the style of the day, is perfect earthquake-proof architecture: reinforced concrete boxes with no overhanging bits, but plenty of embossed decoration to raise the spirits both then and now. Napier is the world’s most complete Art Deco city (sorry, Miami) and it’s really worth a visit for a good poke around its streets. There’s even a Glasgow connection in the form of Charles Rennie Macintosh stained glass roses in the bronze lamps outside the National Tobacco Company’s beautiful building.
It’s not all colourful elegance, though: the prison up on the hill is a grim and depressing place, full of dark poky cells and equally dark stories. New Zealand’s oldest, it’s small, but there’s plenty of information packed into the audio tour and on the walls, much of it chirpily presented. Even so, there’s no getting past that it was a ghastly place to be incarcerated in, that it penned people up from 1862 right up to 1993, and that four people were hanged in its yard.
How nice to be able to let ourselves out through the big heavy gate and balance all that horror with the classy elegance of the Mission Estate vineyard nearby, again the country’s oldest, founded in 1851 by French missionaries. It’s in a beautiful old villa, the gardens neat and colourful, with a view over the vines. The food is excellent: perfect seafood chowder, and I recommend the Black Doris mille feuille, even if it’s nothing like the French version. Oh, and the wine’s pretty good, too.
Today’s last extreme were the heights of Te Mata Peak: steep, rocky and brown, where paragliders circled effortlessly overhead and joggers and cyclists sweated with rather more effort up the winding road and trails. Their reward was extensive views from the top of sea, beach, plains, hills, river – and the road, which will take us south tomorrow.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Taupo: Power and water

The Aratiatia Rapids not far from the town of Taupo are all about power. Not just hydro-electric, with the dam above the 28m drop being the first built on the mighty Waikato River, back in 1960; but also people power. The rapids were a popular tourist attraction, and the dam killed them stone dead, to the public's vocal dismay. Happily, the power company then agreed to open the gates three times a day for half an hour or so, in order that everyone could thrill again to the surge of water through the narrow, one kilometre-long spillway. It's an impressive display as the black rocks are gradually drowned by surging, foaming clear turquoise water - and, naturally, it was a gratefully exploited location for The Hobbit movie.
There's more turquoise water at Wairakei Terraces down the road, made milky this time by a silica suspension which includes lots of other reputedly therapeutic minerals. It's certainly a civilised place, restricted to age 14 and over (mostly well over), tastefully landscaped and planted with native bush. Scalding hot water streams over stalagmited terraces into four pools of different temperatures, warm to sweatily hot, and there can be few things more relaxing than lolling on a shelf, turning into a human prune while the steam rises above the manuka and tree ferns. Retreating under the hump-backed bridge to play troll when a passing shower plinks into the pools is as lively as it gets.
Out on a cruise on the lake, on the dinky little pretend-steamer the Ernest Kemp with its moderately crabby captain, you can see the much more elegant Barbary in action, taking guests on the standard tour of the town end of this vast lake (biggest crater lake in the world, they saw evidence of the eruption that caused it in ancient Rome and Greece, back in AD180). The Barbary was involved with power of a different sort, when she was one of the Greenpeace fleet to sail to Mururoa in 1973 to protest against French nuclear testing on the atoll. Now she takes it easy on the lake, cruising to the modern Maori rock carvings a couple of bays around.
They make a useful focus for the cruises, and a turning point, but the main joy of the outing is simply being on the water, looking (in vain, today, alas) for the mountains - Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu - at the end of the lake, and feeling mild envy for the owners of the flash holiday homes tucked into the bush; but, really, even on a cloudy afternoon, most jealous of the carefree boys having such fun plunging off a little island into the lake's clear, drinkable water.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Oh yes, also, people died...

It's a hot and humid morning, the sea beyond my window is sparkling blue dotted with white boats, mirrored by a blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds, the cicadas are buzzing down in the bush, the kakas are swooping along the valley which echoes with their harsh pterodactyl-like cry (you can't prove that comparison wrong) and I'm sitting here looking at a list of unpublished stories from last year, cursing terrorists. And the weather.
There are a couple about beleagured Paris, one about the sweet and unique little Pet Cemetery out in the suburbs, and another about exploring the 13th arrondissement with boundlessly enthusiastic local man Quan. There's another set in Turkey, a country of rich history, magnificent architecture, striking scenery, delicious food and friendly people but horrendously hostile neighbours, and one specifically about Istanbul where I stayed in a cute little hotel a minute up the hill from the Hippodrome with its - it was then, anyway - remarkably new-looking Egyptian Obelisk of Theodosius where ten unsuspecting tourists were recently killed in a suicide explosion. Yet another tells about cruising the Greek Islands, in the waters where desperate refugees keep drowning trying to escape their ruined homeland.
There are others about the north of England - Yorkshire, Cumbria - which are currently due for another onslaught of wild weather, still sodden and crumbling as they are after the torrential rain and flooding that made Christmas a misery for those unfortunate enough to live by a river or on a floodplain. I've got one story set in Western Australia, where raging fires have consumed huge areas of bush, plus the homes built in it, almost as bad as the terrible conflagrations on the opposite side of the continent.
In all these locations I met nice people who depend on tourism for their livelihood, who are proud and enthusiastic about their bits of the planet and want to share them with visitors. I'm also pretty keen for my stories to be published, to repay my hosts with publicity, and also to reap a few pence (no exaggeration, sadly) for my work. But that's not going to happen while these places are, for one reason or another, in turmoil - editors, unfortunately, tend to play it safe rather than take a stand.
So maybe it's just as well that, South Africa in August apart, my horizons for this year are currently relentlessly domestic. There's a Grand Tour coming up, hitting all the visitor must-sees for New Zealand. Hopefully there will be nothing more dramatic en route than the mountains, lakes and fiords - but who knows, in these turbulent times? Watch this space.

Friday, January 15, 2016

(Some) ups for Downton

Driven more by a sense of obligation rather than pleasurable anticipation, I watched the Downton Abbey Christmas special finale. I lapped up the first series (season, for Americans) and was keen for the second, but my enthusiasm dwindled rapidly thereafter. Catching up right at the end, having missed the next four series entirely, I found nothing to regret: the same insultingly short scenes (my concentration lasts longer than that, Julian Fellowes), the same clich├ęd characters and scenarios, the same self-indulgence, the same insouciance with regard to authentic dialogue. But, as ever, the costumes and the settings sucked me in - particularly as I'd been to both the main locations for the special.

Downton Abbey is, of course, Highclere Castle near Newbury, where I interviewed the lady of the manor, the rather intimidating Lady Fiona Carnarvon, back in 2011. It seems so ideal for the location that it's surprising it wasn't the obvious choice - there were competitors for the honour, despite its being so familiar to Fellowes, series creator and Carnarvon family friend. Happily for the (invisible) areas of the building that were then in desperate need of expensive renovation - the second storey was quite uninhabitable - the redoubtable Fiona won the day, and ever since has welcomed streams of visitors with their even more welcome wallets and purses. 

Besides the iconic exterior shots, most of the 'upstairs' filming took place on site, and the rooms that were featured are certainly worth seeing. The 'downstairs' scenes were shot on a set, as the real areas at Highclere weren't suitable - partly because of the unexpected Tutankhamen exhibition down there referencing the 5th Earl who funded Howard Carter and took part in the discovery of the tomb in 1922. That's worth seeing, too.

All this was very familiar stuff as I sat and watched the soap-opera unfold, all the ends being super-neatly tied up, each character paired up, their futures sorted. But it was fun to spot the other main location, 'Brancaster Castle'. Big, solid, ancient, impressive, it's actually Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, which I visited in 2014. The Percy family is still in residence after 700 years, amazingly, and the staterooms are both, well, stately, and very much lived-in, which is nice to see.

It's also very well maintained, thanks to unabashed commercialisation - there were wedding photos in progress, the party sporting kilts and medals for the men and trembling fascinators and very unsuitable heels for the women teetering over the lawns; plus it was used for a Harry Potter location and you can play an organised game of quidditch in the grounds - and rewards visitors not just with opulent furnishings and paintings by Van Dyck and Canaletto, but novelties like Oliver Cromwell's night cap and Elizabeth I's gloves. Go and see.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

There's no beating buckwheat

Who needs to go to Rouen? When you can get an equally good galette at the Little Frog Cafe in Oneroa, here on Waiheke Island, at the other end of the world? Today's was so good, in fact, that I ate most of it before I thought of taking the photo (sorry). In Rouen last year, I was much more focused (again, sorry) on taking photos, since I was working, so here you have my fried egg galette from there in all its untouched glory:
The chips and salad were there because it was lunchtime, not breakfast - but you knew that, by the cider, I hope. Both hot and crisp and nutty, tasting so much healthier than their pale and flabby crepe cousin. Not that I would turn one of them down, either...

On the other hand, although there is a surprisingly good sprinkling of French people on the island (as well as more Argentinians than you could shake a stick at), and a couple of genuinely French cafes, I must admit that Waiheke is a bit light on the colourful half-timbered houses that run riot in Rouen. You can't move for them in Normandy. The city's got a pretty fancy cathedral too; and I loved their clock.
And though the Ostend market on a Saturday here has got some good stuff (including yet another Frenchman, making crepes) they don't sell all those lovely Camemberts, and great slabs of yellow butter to ask for a chunk of, like they've got at their daily market. The history's pretty interesting, too, starring Joan of Arc but with plenty more besides.
No, galettes notwithstanding, I'm afraid there's no getting round it: travel is an essential part of the well-rounded life.

Friday, January 1, 2016

In the final third, the answer is 3.14

As New Year's Days go, it could have gone better. Hot sunshine is the norm, but nothing the weather does these days, wherever you go in the world, follows the norm. Which is a worrying thought, but not one to dwell on on the single day of the year when everyone is urged to be positive. So I'm focusing instead on being glad that I'm in a comfortable house rather than a wind-shredded tent by a rising river, and have distracting devices close at hand.

One of them is the TV and, watching 'Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian' I was pleasantly diverted by the locations, having been to many of them in 2014 on my first visit to DC. My second trip to Chicago that year provided me with a smug moment of superiority, when I glimpsed in the background of one scene Edward Hopper's Nighthawks painting, which I saw at the Art Institute there, where it has always hung, ie not in a branch of the Smithsonian museum. I have to say, I also felt a little less warm towards Teddy Roosevelt this time, Robin Williams's death notwithstanding, having also seen in DC the white rhino that he shot; but I enjoyed the movie, which is a cheerful romp.
It did, however, make me feel guilty all over again that, under pressure, as always, of time, I skimmed through just a few of the museums, when there is so much to see there, and all so well presented. Realistically, though, while it's fascinating to browse through the exhibitions, looking and reading and marvelling, there's actually not a lot of learning going on these days, for me. Like Ben Stiller's character, trying to remember pi to eight places for the tablet code (and failing - though Amelia Earhart did it, yay) that's about five items too many for my brain. In fact, 3.14 what? There's a 5 somewhere, and a 9...
I'm reminded of my grandmother, who had a stack of Agatha Christies by her bed, which she read through endlessly, each story fresh to her the next time she got round to it. So, why do anything new, when as soon as you stop, you forget it? Why, more appositely, travel anywhere new, when you could save a pile of money by just going back to the same places in your own country, each of them a new delight?

Because of the moments you do remember, that's why. The 3.14 effect. The space ship, the dinosaur, the donut, the big shiny bean, the friendly Frenchman, the turtle encounter, the philtrum triumph at Trivial Pursuit, the perfect chips, the volcano erupting, the ice wine, the lightning... Moments of delight that would actually be valid simply as fleeting experiences - but each of them trailing behind them other moments, which add up to rewarding memories that make the whole thing worthwhile. Happy New Year. May you, and I, enjoy our travels, both during and for ever after.


Thursday, December 31, 2015

Wai the heke not?

I've swapped green for blue: it's been a distinctly watery year. Mostly, it's been the sea, as I've trailed back and forth across the Hauraki Gulf here to Waiheke Island, and cruised various coasts in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean and Timor Seas; but I've also pootled along the Seine, various headwaters of the Amazon, and the Grand Union Canal. It's a bit of a puzzle how I've done so much cruising this year, since it's not something I've sought out; but as it's such a huge part of the tourism industry these days, I suppose it's not to be wondered at - or complained about, certainly. It's hardly a penance.

First this year there was the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition in Perth, where the warm blue Indian Ocean was the backdrop for some spectacular works of art, and hissed up onto the sandy beaches of Rottnest Island, notable for its cute and grinning quokkas.
Two weeks later, I was back in Western Australia again for a Kimberley cruise along the north-west tip: blue sea, green bush, orange rocks. There were Aboriginal paintings, waterfalls (two of them Horizontal), a swimming hole, reefs, fishing and a 6-hour lightning spectacular, all of it underpinned by comfort and excellent food on the Kimberley Quest. And not one crocodile!

Next came Turkey, and the Anzac Day centenary commemorations at Gallipoli, where the literally dark Aegean lapped onto the pebbled beach of Anzac Cove, a sound amplified during quiet moments throughout the night before the Dawn Service, and forever after inescapably evocative. There was Istanbul too, many trips up and down Istiklal Caddesi, muezzin calling, a forest of fishing rods on Galata Bridge, cheerful touts in the Grand Bazaar... And the ruins of Troy, cats draped over the marble at Ephesus, a hundred hot-air balloons at dawn and sunset over the outcrops of Cappadocia, twirling Dervishes, Ataturk everywhere, and Barcin throughout, telling the stories.
Then there was an elegant and eminently civilised cruise along the Seine into Normandy, notable for cheese, cream and cider, another 6-hour effort (a rice pudding this time), comfort and luxury aboard Avalon's Tapestry II, and good company throughout. Also the inexhaustible Quan, and the Pet Cemetery which was, in its way, more memorable even than Versailles, which I finally got to visit just the 37 years after first trying.

After that I learned how to steer a 16m narrowboat through a single lock gate and hold it steady as the water rushed in, and how to shrug off bumps and scrapes as part of the canal-boater's lot. England was green and gold and lovely, fringed with poppies and full of birds. And pubs. With old friends, it was a rare holiday rather than work.

That came next, busily hopping through Peru and Ecuador, revisiting landmarks like Machu Picchu and Galapagos but with the diversions (heaven forbid these places should become ho-hum) of passport fraud at Huayna Picchu, catching piranhas, spotting pink dolphins and patting manatees in the Amazon, Cotopaxi spitting clouds of grey ash, and seeing water-walking seabirds and military-style gannet diving displays in Galapagos.
Then there was Istanbul again, departure port for a Silversea cruise that started dull but got good (ports, that is - onboard was just lovely, as always) especially at Rhodes and Mykonos - but even they were trounced by Santorini's blue domes. Even so, the most memorable meal was in unpretentious Piraeus: a Greek salad and prawns at a back-street family restaurant - a reminder that, despite all the imaginatively-presented, visually stunning and delicious feasts I was served everywhere, simplicity is hard to beat.

Finally, the shortest and most momentous journey of them all: 35 minutes across Auckland harbour to a new home, where the sea is always present, always different, always a plus. I could have stayed at the old place, home for 21 years - but when Conde Nast's world's fourth-best island and Lonely Planet's global fifth-best destination is so close, well, Wai the heke not move there?


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