Thursday, June 30, 2011

Air NZ Premium Economy: review

Ok, so we arrive at Heathrow at 10.15am tomorrow and hit the ground (perhaps not my best choice of phrase in the circs) running so I need to sleep. Time to break out the half-tab of Zopiclone (I'm such a lightweight druggie) but before that: review of Air NZ's brand-new 777-300 Premium Economy class.

Looks good: angled pods, cream leather seats, USB ports and other techno-features, big feather pillows, bean bags for the feet, business class food (though minus the cocktails) - all good, even excellent. (Mmm, juicy curried prawns and green rice.)

But in preventing the dreaded personal space-invasion caused by the traditional reclining seat, the design means that in-pod reclining is severely limited - just a few centimetres, which feels like almost nothing. So spending an entire night in this cabin is a bit of a trial, with lots of shifting about and hip-relieving. It's disappointing.

The only thing that makes me feel better about the extra expense (or airpoints) involved here is looking back down into the economy cabin, where everyone's jammed in with their elbows tucked into their sides, looking distinctly strait-laced and Victorian. If that's the alternative (ignoring here the impossible expense of personally-paid-for Business, with its - spit - LIE-FLAT beds) then Premium Economy is the only way to go. But don't expect to be wafted off to the Land of Nod without pharmacological assistance. Or alcohol. Probably both.

Mind you, as compensation for the recline fail, there's the size of the loo, which in airplane terms is enormous, with space for oooh, whatever you might fancy. There's even a wall mocked-up as a bookshelf, complete with fictitious titles. Or possibly inspirational? Because one of them is 'The Mile-High Club.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Welcome to the USA. No, really.

So now I have to eat my words. Here I am in transit at LAX and it's not hateful at all. We've got nearly two hours of kicking our heels in what is pretty much a sensory deprivation tank (although with free WiFi, coffee and snacks so really not very deprived at all) - but everyone has been friendly and relaxed.
There was that usual "Let's photograph and fingerprint everyone in the world! Twice! Or as often as we can!" project going on of course, but we were able to take our own time about going to get it done. And though Rodriguez was thrown by a previous Press visa, that caused great anxiety at the border last time on the way to Seattle, I didn't get growled at this time. Which is always nice.
So it's sunny and warm and smoggy outside, and the girls were squeaking with excitement as we came in to land, but we're cut off from it all in this no-man's land until we set off again on the next leg to London. Yay!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

No more sleeps

Now while some of us, in the run-up to our family expedition to the Other Hemisphere, have been flat-out toothbrushing mould out of the inner recesses of the shower cabinet, hacking a rotted tree stump out of the hen-run and terrifying the dog by taking her for a public bath and pedicure, others have had the leisure to be playing with the labelling machine.* You might have thought that see-through plastic containers obviated the need for labels, but clearly (ha) not.

There's rather more pre-trip pressure involved in engaging a house-sitter brought up by a fiercely finicky mother than I would have liked; but I'm hopeful that we'll come home to a house that's neater by far than when my own, markedly less fastidiously-raised, daughters have been left in charge.

The weather is being difficult: lots of rain here making the last-minute laundry a challenge; plus it's turned very cold, so it's hard to make the leap of imagination necessary when packing for destination temperatures that are currently ranging, equally unhelpfully, from 16 all the way up to 34.

And then there are niggling worries about unfinished stories here at home when we head off today: what's going to happen with Happy Feet the 3000-kilometre stray Emperor penguin, currently languishing in Wellington Zoo with a stomach full of sand? How many more shakes will Christchurch cop? Will they finally get to the Pike River bodies? Will my poor, dear, skinny old cat cark it while I'm gone? And will the OH be able to find his flight socks in his bag?
* Also, it must be said, booking, organising and paying for just about everything...

Friday, June 24, 2011

Fish on Friday

It's been raining all day today - so, pretty much like the other weekend up in Northland where, as the lady at the Kaitaia Visitor Centre said, "We're all about beaches and fishing up here," casting about for inspiration amongst the racks of horse-riding, quad bike, sand-dune surfing and boat hire brochures. It was a bit of a mission finding things to do, once we'd been to Gumdiggers Park and looked at holes in the ground and had a coffee and mooched about in the villa at Carrington Resort gazing out at a golfcourse empty of everything but a pair of pukeko.

But the Matthews Vintage Collection was fun, in that appealing personal-passion way: 40 years of collecting and restoring old tractors, then cars, then farm machinery, then pretty much anything really. It was all very neatly displayed and labelled in a big shed, and the retired farming couple there were lovely. Lyn played the Pianola while we poked through the displays - moa bones, mobile phones, foreign coins, flour-bag knickers - and afterwards gave us a bag of chokos to take away (still in the fridge - must get around to googling what to do with them). And Winston showed us his latest project, a classic car just back from the spray shop: just a skeleton, months of happy tinkering ahead of him putting it all back together. So that's what you do in winter in Northland.

And eat - the Mangawai Fish Shop is World Famous in New Zealand, and rightly so for its position over the water in a lovely bay, and serves great fish beautifully battered. The seagulls are pretty disgusted about the 'Please do not feed the birds' signs though, and kept up a chorus of complaint down on the rocks beneath.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Counting down

Also, gearing up: for the big family expedition to England next week, where I will be the only one of us in the aliens queue at immigration, all the others smugly flashing their British passports.

There will be Paris, London, Harry Potter, 'Downton Abbey', Oxford college accommodation, old friends, older aunts, Ireland and Hong Kong. Air NZ will be wafting us there in Premium Economy (as long as Chile's volcano allows us to get off the ground) and returning us in Business. The only fly in the ointment is having to pass through LAX, where even posters everywhere encouraging passengers to expect friendly treatment from staff (and where to report it if not) aren't enough to compensate for the stupidly, unreasonably, inefficiently, massively inconveniently, cruelly stringent security measures that make being even (especially) a transit passenger there simply hateful. HATEFUL!

Heathrow isn't a bundle of laughs either, full of officious jobsworths glorying in their power to make innocent, tired, anxious passengers even more miserable; and it's dirty and crowded and uncomfortable and inefficient. But on past experience, the uniformed non-entities at LAX enforcing absurd levels of security on innocent see-aboves take the cake for delivering an unpleasant, tedious, wearying and worrying un-Welcome to the USA.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Not green about the white stuff

Though it's raining and dreary today, it's not cold: last month was the warmest May on record, and June is shaping up to be the same (yesterday it was over 21 degrees). And this is winter, people! The shortest day is on Wednesday, and there are still flowers on the hibiscus bushes and monarch butterflies floating about.

None of the skifields around the country are able to open yet, their beanied employees kicking their heels - or at least, in the case of Mt Hutt, lending a hand with shovelling silt in Christchurch. They're particularly worried down in Queenstown, because their big Winter Festival, beginning next week, is missing that one vital ingredient - though fortunately for the cold-freaks they've already arranged to bring in an ice-rink from America, to be erected on the Village Green. "It's a first for New Zealand!" the festival director said excitedly.

The festival is actually the biggest Winter Party in the southern hemisphere (how many contenders for that rather esoteric title, I wonder?) and certainly sounds pretty lively (if you discount the jazz element, yawn). For many people, Queenstown is a snow town, so it's odd that I've been there lots of times but only ever in the summer or autumn. Though the convention is for Kiwis to sniff at the town for being so touristy, it's still a beautiful, beautiful place, with heaps of things to do to suit all preferences. Even if it does look magnificent with snow everywhere, I think I will always prefer seeing the Remarkables bare, and the hills green, and the lupins in flower. Which they possibly still are, this year.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Downhearted

Sigh. While thousands of people in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch wait, understandably less and less patiently, to find out if their suburb is on the list for clearance as henceforth uninhabitable, the verdict has been pronounced on both of the city's cathedrals. After Monday's double shake, Christ Church Cathedral in the Square, and the Roman Catholic cathedral in Barbados Street are both going to have to be demolished completely. The fancy Baroque Catholic one is beyond saving, but there's still some hope that the neo-Gothic Anglican one will be able to be taken down, the stonework saved - although the pretty Rose Window is now in bits after Monday.

What happens then it's still far too soon to say: reconstructed, or a new design entirely, something modern or reflecting what was lost - that's a decision that no-one is able even to think about right now. There have been 6,800 after-shocks since the September quake, and 15 since February that have been 5-plus, with no end in sight, so for most people their focus has shortened to just getting through each day.

After I went to Frankfurt and Mainz last month, where I was delighted to find that many of the pretty medieval houses I admired there and elsewhere in Germany were actually reconstructions after they were destroyed in bombing during the war, I facilely thought that that could be the way for Christchurch to go: putting back up replicas of all the character buildings that everyone loved, and never mind highfaluting ideals like architectural honesty. But at least the war ended, full stop, in 1945 and the rebuilding could begin with confidence.

Canterbury's seismic activity is such an unknown, possibly continuing for no-one knows how long, that thinking about any sort of future for Christchurch is getting harder and harder.
And just to destroy entirely anyone's faith in the benevolence of Mother Nature, people trying to leave Christchurch by air have been trapped at the airport by ash from the volcano currently erupting in Chile. I think we've all got it by now, Earth: you're in charge.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Slough of Despond

And so it continues: two big new aftershocks in Christchurch yesterday, a 5.5 and then a 6.3, that rumbled and shook and took down the last of the old Timeball Station on the hill above Lyttelton as well as shattering the nerves of Cantabrians. Again.

Somebody died as a result of injuries sustained, around 100 more buildings in the still cordoned-off CBD will have to be demolished, both cathedrals have suffered further damage, 50 thousand people spent a freezing night without electricity, plenty more had no water or sewage, and once again the grey cancer of liquefaction bubbled up from below. Before September, no-one had heard of it: now we all know what it looks like, how quickly it appears when the subsoil is shaken on a flood plain, how deep it gets, how smelly it is, and how much simple physical effort it takes to get rid of it, with spades and endless wheelbarrow trips. It's hideous - and some people are having to shovel it out of their houses and gardens for the fourth time. (Picture above by 3news.co.nz.)

I am so, so sorry for the people of Christchurch.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Spot the Dalmatian

Northland is in the papers today, featured as a part of NZ that's suffering more than most from recession-caused unemployment, especially amongst the young; and certainly on a dull day like this, the abandoned and derelict cottages, closed businesses, graffiti and the aimlessly loitering hoodie-d young men were more noticeable than the green and pleasant scenery and the long long beach (though not quite Ninety Miles).

It's a shame that things have changed so much: less than 100 years ago, it was all happening up here. Russell, or Korororeka, was briefly the national capital, heaving with industry, commerce and people, the missionaries were working hard spiritually, practically and academically, timber was being cut and hauled across the country, and all around this area, men from Dalmatia were living horrendously hard lives out in the bush in sacking huts, spending their days digging deep holes in swamps to extract the kauri gum left from forests felled by an unidentified cataclysm (tsunami? hurricane? eruption? comet?) 100,000 years ago.There's a saying "mad as a gum-digger's dog" - and it must have been a tough life for a small return. And all for varnishing coaches and coffins on the other side of the world...

But once the gum was gone and the land cleared, they had the right to buy it for farming, so there was a long reward - and some of the Dallies got into wine-making, and we all know how that ended. There's a winery attached to the Carrington Resort here and we were meant to have a wine-tasting today; but we'd much rather go back to the restaurant for another excellent meal tonight and taste the wine there in action, so to speak. Maybe we'll have some of the Angus beef that they raise here too. Mmmm.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Struggling

Peninsulas can be confusing for the geographically-challenged. Here I am tonight on the Karikari Peninsula up on the east coast of Northland, in a very pleasant villa at Carrington Resort looking out over the golf course to the sand dunes and sea - and what's just happened? This. Sunset. And not in a "not by westward windows only, when light fades, fades out the light" sort of way (to wreck poor old Clough's lovely poem) - no, actual sun dropping down. So we're looking west, not east, which is completely back-to-front and just like at Exmouth, WA, recently, and Town of 1770 in Queensland last year. Does my head in, it does.

Anyway, red sky at night, in a modest sort of way - let's hope it's true, because today it's rained and rained and rained, and all the lovely landscape was wasted. At Kerikeri I went (again) to the Stone Store, NZ's oldest stone building dated 1836, which I've made fun of before because our cottage in England pre-dated 1725 - and today I discovered another reason to mock it: it's built from Australian limestone and roofed with Australian shingles (currently being renewed from the same source). But it's still ours, and rather sweet in a four-square, stolid sort of way - and inside there's a very classy presentation of the local history that really impressed me and kept me quiet for well over an hour. It's been a busy place and there's a lot of interest crammed into its (short) life. Good place to buy pitchforks, by the way, and musket flints.

I was just sorry I couldn't look over the last of my Mission house set, Kemp House next door (which is actually the oldest wooden house in both NZ and Australia, so there) because it too is being repaired. I guess I shall just have to come here again. Tch.

Oh, and here's something of ours that the Aussies do claim is theirs - completely erroneously:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

On a Mission

Today had a theme: missions. I started before dawn driving literally across the country to Mangugnu to a little wooden Wesleyan missionary’s house (the house little and wooden, not the John Hobbs the missionary, who was rather good-looking in a remarkably modern way, and very clever with his hands) on the Hokianga Harbour. Small and sleepy, but it’s seen some excitement in its day: NZ’s first honey bees, first Post Office, first execution, first pub…

Then to Waimate North, which was the only bit of NZ that Charles Darwin liked – and who wouldn’t, the church and mission house there are so very pretty, and the surrounding countryside just like England, even with hedges.

And then over to Russell on the ferry, to Pompallier House to get the Catholic side of the story, and surprised to find not another house with beds and dining tables, but a working factory – a tanner’s and bookbindery, where 65,000 religious texts were printed for free distribution by three hard-working Marist brothers who not only did all the hot sweaty work (it takes some effort to print a page on that literally medieval machine, I found) but also wrote them first - by translating Church Latin into Maori. Impressive stuff.

And of course, being the daughter of a printer and having been so very recently in Mainz looking at Gutenberg’s magnificent work – and so knowing all about dog-skin inkers and upper and lower case (actual cases), I felt I made some great connections today.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Plague of possums

I'm in the land of the (frequently) tacky souvenir: pottery kiwis, pohutukawa-decorated dishes, greenstone pendants and possum fur nipple-warmers. Yes, it's Paihia in the Bay of Islands where, the last time I was here, I photographed, with satisfaction if not actual glee, a dead possum on the bridge across to Waitangi, where I'm staying tonight.

And on the front page of the Wellington paper that I bought today for my Tasmania story about wildlife-spotting was a report about an inquiry into the use of aerial drops of 1080 poison here to kill possums. Use more, was the surprising conclusion.
Unfortunately it's a trade-off because it also kills many of the native creatures that we're wanting to protect, so there are a lot of angry people today, saying the cost is too high.

1080 is a naturally-occurring poison in Australia, so it's used to great effect there to wipe out foxes and feral cats, the natives having developed a tolerance for it. But our possums are Australian, yet they're killed by 1080. I need someone to sort this for me.

I bet the brilliantly entertaining and knowledgeable Gary Muir who presents the WOW cruise in Walpole, WA would know.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Queen's weather - not

Happy Birthday, Your Majesty, and thanks for the day off. Except it's not, for me, despite the unseasonably mild and sunny weather this weekend (it's winter and I have daffodils in my garden! What's going on?) which you wouldn't expect either, Ma'am, since it rains wherever you go.

No, today I have to do my tax return. It's going to be the very next thing that I do. I will be going through my shoebox of fading thermal receipts, the file of household bills, the notebook of expenses that I forgot about keeping by last June, all my travel 3B1s with their final page recording expenditure on trips - when I remembered to write it down. And then, maths not being my thing, I'm going to bundle it all up and pass it on to the accountant who will work his magic and persuade the IRD to give me back some of my money.

It's become a bit of a mission for me to spend as little as possible while away. The (very) nice thing about being a travel writer is that accommodation, transport and activity fees are taken care of, and usually most food too, so with some dedicated chowing down at the breakfast buffet plus carefully-judged sleight of hand with toast and paper serviettes to take care of lunch, there's no need to buy anything during the day (no souvenirs, natch).

My record so far is $19 for 10 days in the Northern Territory in '06 - even better would have been last year's trip there when I spent the grand sum of $5, but then I splurged $65 on a second massage by the fabulous Julienne at the Red Ochre Spa at Alice Springs. She was so good - a proper masseuse, rather than someone delivering little more than a scented moisturising session - and just what I needed, days after having fallen off the roof back home: so it was medical really, and not discretional spending at all.

Even so, it's hard to make much of a living from travel writing: here in NZ we're lucky these days to get even the 40c per word that's been standard for about the last 25 years. More and more editors just pay round-sum amounts for a word and photo package - if they pay anything at all, that is. Totting it all up takes every bit of fun out of preparing the tax return, I can tell you.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

1969 and all that

Another natural mystery to me is why the tide is so rarely in on this little beach that's on my daily walk route. I would have thought, with two high tides a day, and my passing by here at roughly the same time most days, it would be less of a novelty. As it is, I'm resigned to seeing the much less attractive muddy sand with its sprinkling of mangrove roots, and react to actual water with surprised delight like that character in Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist: "Oh look! The tide's in!"

I'm horribly aware that there'll be a formula for it. I was last week thrust in front of a Year 10 maths class (fortunately of low ability) by a harried teacher who pushed a textbook at me saying, "Do this with them. It's just substitutions." I last did maths over 40 years ago, and even then didn't rub up against anything called substitutions - in netball, yes; maths, no - so it was a sweaty and confused lesson, where the girls and I puzzled over the method for working out an algebraic formula to predict sequences. I had nanomoments of clarity when I understood - and then it would be gone again, poof. That was the most welcome bell I've ever hung out for.

I actually scored better in School Certificate maths than I did in history which, again, I instantly dropped - but ironically now have much more interest in, and find myself learning about all the time. When you travel, you're always having history pushed in your face - whose statue that is, why that castle's a ruin, who wore that crown, why they speak French here, how old that cathedral is - and the more you find out, the more connections you make and the more interesting it all is. People who just lie on foreign beaches have no idea what they're missing.

Mind you, there's so much of it that it can be a bit daunting at times. Having so little basic knowledge, I was scrabbling in Germany to keep up with the references to French invasions of Prussia - and a bit surprised, to tell the truth. France invading Germany: who knew?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Ringing bells

The OH knows he’ll be in big trouble if he ever buys me my favourite perfume. For years now I’ve been training myself to associate the scent of Lancome’s Miracle with setting off on a plane trip; so as soon as I’m airside, I swing by the duty-free shop for a squirt from their tester bottle. Already, if I catch a lingering whiff on my watch-strap when I’m back home, I can instantly visualise the airport, the passport and boarding pass in my hand, the planes outside — and feel the excitement. The idea is that when I’m a shrivelled old lady and stuck in a chair, I can sniff the bottle and get instantly high: say, 30,000 feet.

When we travel, we take photos and buy souvenirs, but all too often ignore the other senses, which can be much more effective in summoning vivid memories. Smell seems to be a particularly direct route back to the past, although it’s not always possible to reproduce once back home. This is certainly a good thing in the case of the stinking durian, even if it does evoke tropical markets with all their colour and buzz. But vanilla will take me back to Reunion Island, where it’s grown and processed; 4711 cologne to the elegant shop in Cologne where a perfumed fountain tinkling in the corner scents the air; frangipani to Tahiti; cloves to Indonesia.

Taste always works well, although foods that are still limited to their places of origin by definition won’t work as memory aids: you’re not going to find roasted guinea pig, casseroled fruit bat or coconut crab on any menu here. But something you taste for the first time on holiday is good, so for me Parmesan cheese means Sydney, parsnips are England, quinoa is Peru, chowder means Vancouver.

Though crowing roosters bring back Bali for me, sirens and whistles evoke New York, and cawing crows epitomise Australia, music is the best audio trigger. I first came across the quirky compositions of the Penguin Café Orchestra thanks to the driver of my car in Mauritius; an M2M hit sweetly sung to us by our guide at the end of a tour always reminds me of China; and Kelly Clarkson got me dancing on Reunion Island (possibly also the rum). Hear the music, and I’m there: so in Tasmania I used repeat plays of my latest favourite song to fix the association. Now just the first few notes take me back to the Bay of Fires, the spinifex seeds tumbling over the hard sand, the sun on the rocks, the turquoise sea.

This value-adding holiday tip is brought to you by P. Wade: that’s P as in Pavlov.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Slash and burn

I hesitate to use the word 'feast', still struggling as I am with the aftermath of all that fine dining aboard Avalon's Panorama a fortnight ago (plus some remarkably good food on Qantas's business class) - but it's promising to be another of those weeks again, after a long spell of what would have been famine if I didn't, fortunately, have other sources of income (thanks, OH and WGHS).

Yesterday the latest Let's Travel magazine published a story I wrote about Thursday Island, which is in the Torres Strait to the north of Cape York, itself the northernmost point of the Australian mainland. It's a sleepy sort of place these days, though it's had some lively history, mostly in the pearl-fishing days - which is to say, mother-of-pearl fishing, since it was the shells they were after, for buttons mainly (an industry that died instantly with the invention of plastic buttons in the 1960s). Though it looks pretty - palms, turquoise sea, bright flowers - everybody apart from tourists seems to live indoors with the aircon on because it's so very hot; it's the kind of place where people go quietly peculiar, or pickled (the clock behind the bar at the Top Pub has no hands).

Then there was meant to be a Tasmania story in the DomPost today, but it hasn't appeared so clearly the editor saw something shinier when he was putting the issue together. I'm beginning to think that's how editors work: not governed by space and advertising at all, but simple whim. They're flighty creatures with the attention span of a gnat - how else to explain the one who bought a story (for once, thank goodness, coughing up payment on acceptance instead of publication) and then sat on it for two years, claiming she just couldn't fit it in? 

Eventually I asked if I could send it elsewhere, and at least she let me, so now it's coming out in the Listener this week - except they like their stories 900 words and their editor grizzled that it was only 800. And then she cut it to 690! So though I'm looking forward to seeing my work in the Listener again (first time for ages) I'm going to be opening the magazine with trepidation, to see how my poor little story about the Amazon jungle has survived: was it a scalpel she used, or a machete?
Update: Scalpel. Phew!

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