Friday, 17 September 2021

When life gives you lemons...

...make Guinness. Or at least sea glass Guinness to display in yesterday's sadly dishwasher-cracked glass that I've been drinking from for years since I was given it at a Tourism Ireland event. 

Back when tourism was giving agriculture a proper run for its money as NZ's biggest industry, events like that were fairly frequent and sociable treats for us solitary WFH travel writers. We'd gather happily at whatever venue had been selected - pub, restaurant, fancy hotel - and chat with our hosts and each other, enjoying the drinks and the snacks. We'd listen to the presentation with often genuine interest, pretend not to be disappointed when we didn't score the giveaway prize, chat again afterwards and eat and drink some more, before eventually trailing away home again. Not before, though, we had claimed our goodie bag containing pamphlets and flash-drives, yes, but also a selection of pens, notebooks, caps, chocolates, toiletries, scented candles, and, in TI's case, the glass we'd drunk our welcome Guinness from.

Not that, to be blunt, Guinness is actually welcomed by me as a drink - I much prefer a lighter brew, ideally (as regular 😀 readers are by now all too well aware) Montana-made Blue Moon. I still mourn its disappearance from bottle stores here, remembering the joy that accompanied its discovery just round the block from home, after being introduced to it in the exotic setting of Popeye's restaurant in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. But Guinness? Not a fan, despite having toured through the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, full of earnest and eager information, culminating on the top floor at the bar with the complimentary pint. I'm not alone, to judge by the sipped-and-discarded glasses left on tables by other visitors, which were then shamelessly claimed and emptied by proper enthusiasts.

No, what I enjoyed much more was the evening I spent in 2009 at Matt Molloy's pub in Westport (er, the Irish Westport) - not just because I was drinking cider, but because of the music and general vibe. Matt himself was there, but didn't sing, which would have been more disappointing if there hadn't been other people doing so well at generating such a mighty craic. There was an old man doing funny songs, a younger man full of enthusiasm on the eve of departing for New York to seek his fortune, a drunken Declan dancing, and in the main bar a casual gathering of session musicians: two fiddlers, a man on bodhrán (drum), someone on another sort of stringed instrument... they came and went, playing long medleys, everyone familiar with all the tunes. It was great.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Yes, I'm sorry about the Ida floods in Louisiana and New York, but this is LOCAL!

This photo in the NZ Herald this morning shows a different view of Te Henga/Bethells Beach from how I (eventually) saw it back in February. The big storm that swept through West Auckland, dropping 6 weeks' worth of rain in a single day, has caused a lot of misery for people already beleaguered by two weeks of Level 4 lockdown - with at least another fortnight of restrictions to come. I can only imagine how it is for them, poor things, trying to sort out and live in their flooded houses in the current chilly weather, under lockdown restrictions. No fun at all.
Back in February, though, it was lovely, and I could quite understand why people choose to live there, at the very end of a long and winding road. If it feels remote now, that's nothing to how it was way back in the day, and it still has a strong community vibe - especially, apparently, on Friday nights at the summertime café truck in the beach carpark, when people play games and music. Naturally, I was there on a Wednesday.
Still, it was lovely to be tucked up in my quirky little cottage up on the hill looking down over the long surf beach, the dunes and the headland. I had a teddy bear on the bed to keep me company, and lots of local history to read, supplied by the friendly 5th generation Bethell lady who owns the accommodation. I especially liked the toilet cistern, which is a sentence few people have written, I'm betting.

A section of the road got washed away by the torrents rushing down the Waitakere River to the sea, so the locals are stuck at home. Just like the rest of us in Auckland - but (the ones up on the high ground anyway) I bet they mind the least.

Monday, 30 August 2021

To be sure, to be sure?

I got a notification today from the Tourism Northern Ireland media library that authorisation to publish images they'd supplied had expired. Naturally, I had no recollection of having had an Irish story published, and it took a bit of ferreting to discover that it was this one, about visiting Londonderry during my Silversea loop cruise from London, in August 2019.

That feels like another world now, doesn't it? Wandering the busy and storied streets of London, Fowey in Cornwall, Cork, Bantry, Belfast, Dublin and Holyhead. Eating in the ship's restaurants, crowding round tables in the bar for Trivial Pursuit, standing elbow-to-elbow at the railings above the bow as we made that magnificent entry up the Thames and under through Tower Bridge. (Although, it was on this cruise that we were both struck down by an epic bout of flu that almost had one of us in hospital, and just might have been pre-Covid?)

The story was published finally on 10 February 2020, just days before everything changed, it feels, forever. After our long spell of almost-normal freedom here in NZ, we're back in Level 4 lockdown nationally, our original single Delta case - which the rest of the world mocked us for panicking at - now, less than two weeks later, up to 562. Here in Auckland, the main location for cases, we've got another fortnight of L4 ahead of us, possibly longer, while everyone sensible scurries to get vaccinated - though it won't help that someone has just died from a rare reaction to the Pfizer vaccine.

So it's maybe good to be reminded of Londonderry, where they've certainly had their share of troubles, capital T and lower-case both. They've come through it all and manage to be pretty cheerful these days, though the tough times will always be there in the background, literally and figuratively. 

(In deference to Tourism NI, this is my own photo of the Four o'clock Knock mural.)

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Above it all

Gee, thanks, phone - nice lockdown timing. Today's photo memory is from six years ago, when I visited Machu Picchu and came across the Google maps man with his fancy camera. I'm not in the real view of the site that's online now, so maybe it's been updated - though that seems a bit unnecessary, for something built in the middle of the fifteenth century, and celebrated for its historic good looks.

I felt I'd cheated, getting there by bus from Aguas Calientes (though, my goodness, there are 14 very sharp zigzags on that road) and felt it necessary to share with everyone in my tour group that it was actually my second visit, the first being done properly in (pre-blog) 2008, via the Inca Trail. I did also properly cheat, by borrowing the US passport of a busty Hispanic woman (thank you, Colleen) in order to use her unwanted booking for climbing up next-door Huayna Picchu. That's it in the photo behind camera-man. Obviously, the men at the gate didn't check, so my passport fraud went unmarked - and unpunished.

The summit is only 290m above Machu Picchu, which doesn't sound that much - but boy! it was steep, with lots of steps and rocks to scramble over, a tunnel to crawl through, plus it was hot, and there was altitude (2,720m) to consider too. There was sweating, and fogging-up of glasses. I was proud to have done it, though, and the view of course was terrific, over Machu Picchu itself so far below, and the surrounding mountains.

I did the return trip - despite the after-effects of a bout of Montezuma's revenge - in two hours, which was a bit rushed really (three is the standard recommendation) but I didn't want to miss another chance to wander round Machu Picchu on my own, after our morning tour. It's so amazing. The rocks are so neatly fitted together (the ashlar technique) and, incredibly, were pushed up to the mountain top to build the temple, observatory, baths, houses etc. That would have involved proper sweating, for sure. I did get distracted by the animals, though - not just llamas grazing on the neat lawns, but fat chinchillas squatting on the walls watching us. Very cute.

So actually, thanks, phone. I did enjoy being reminded of all that. Even if it now seems like another world. 

Tuesday, 17 August 2021

Ho hum

Here we go again. Back to Level 4, the whole country, from midnight tonight, and definitely for at least a week for those of us in Auckland and on the Coromandel. It was announced this evening at 6pm and took up the entire news hour, followed shortly by the well-chosen, always alarming, national alert squawking on everyone's phones.

It's our first community case for six months, probably also our first Delta, and since the poor guy has no obvious connections with MIQ or border staff, it's likely there'll be more like him, sigh. He lives in Devonport, just across the harbour, and recently visited Coromandel town, to watch the rugby at the pub there, so there'll be a lot of nervous people tonight checking their QR codes - or, more likely, wishing they'd remembered to scan them.

And what was I writing about today? Whitianga, on the Coromandel.

PS There seems to be astonishment overseas that we're locked down for one case. Well, actually, overnight it's become seven cases - that's how Delta Covid works, people. Hard and fast is how we choose to handle it, having learned from other countries' experiences.

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

The bard has nothing on me

If any actors own an apartment in this block on Shakespeare Rd in Auckland, I expect they say that they live in the Scottish place. [Backs away, bowing]

Monday, 2 August 2021

Liver, living, lived

Well, I used the last of my Tabasco sauce last night (liver and bacon casserole, since you ask. When did you last eat lamb’s liver? Thought so. Explains your iron deficit). I have no idea when I bought that bottle - only 60mls, too, which tells you a lot about how exotic a cook I am not (as if the mere mention of liver hadn’t established that immediately). The expiry date though was 2020 and, since Tabasco has only three ingredients, two of them highly preservative, I’m guessing it was, let’s say, heritage.

I didn’t have to check about the ingredients. When you go - as I did in 2016 - to Avery Island, down on the Louisiana coast a 40-minute nail-biting wrong-side drive from Lafayette, and visit the factory, they drum that in right from the start. Red chilli peppers, salt, vinegar, time. That’s it.  My sort of recipe, actually - which is kind of ironic, since the Tabasco motto is 'Defending the world against bland food'.

It was a very pleasant place to wander, read the history, watch the bottles being filled, browse the shop (where I didn't buy any sauce, since I had that bottle in the pantry already and knew it still had years of use in it). Then there were jungly gardens with herons but no alligators, a gorgeous heritage plantation house, a creepy rice mill, and then a triumphantly accident-free drive back to Lafayette. 

Lunch, nice cool museum with a freshly-moulted golden knee spider, another wander around Lafayette's pleasing streets, and then to the railway station for a long wait with Rosa Parks for the inevitably behind-time Amtrak to New Orleans where I eventually arrived at 10.30pm, ahead of the huge annual IPW tourism conference that was my main focus for the trip.

It was a long day, but full of colour, interest and novelty. The drive aside, I enjoyed myself the whole time. It feels like another world, now, doing that sort of thing. Buying a fresh bottle of Tabasco at Countdown really isn't going to be any sort of compensation for not travelling any more. It is, though, a reminder to crack open the Creole seasoning I bought in Lafayette. The Best Before for that one is 2018...

Wednesday, 28 July 2021



Does it count as two degrees when it's a place, not a person? Probably not. I've already scored a proper 2° connection with our PM, and to be honest I really couldn't care less about Australia's. That was just an angle to introduce the fact that when I saw this photo in the NZ Herald today, which was taken in late June when they had a meeting in Queenstown, I instantly recognised where they were standing - because I stood there too, only a couple of days later.

That's the big deck out the front of Kamana Lakehouse, which is the highest hotel in Qtn and has magnificent views. That section of balcony in the upper left of the photo? That's the corner room along from ours, one of the Lakeview rooms that have a grandstand view of mountains, town and lake, including sunrise and sunset (both of which, since it's winter, came at very convenient times).

Down below Jacinda and Scott you can see the roof of the three hot tub rooms, where we wallowed for an hour one night, steam rising into the darkening sky, sipping our drinks as we watched the sunset fade and the lights of the town and the stars above brighten. It's a very nice hotel with a Scandi feel to the décor - lots of blond wood, even birch trees in the lobby, and stone, and space. Very comfortable bed, Alexa in charge of operations in the room, and nice food. Bit of a hike into town, though - ok going, because it's downhill, but it would have taken more effort returning. Recommended all the same - though not for scungy ScoMo, who has since pushed off back to Oz, and should have taken all his 501 'trash' with him.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Roll on December

I don't know if it was wise, to site a dazzlingly colourful and architecturally crazy building right next to a big intersection with traffic lights and all - the distraction element will be immense - but still, I can't wait to see the Hundertwasser Art Centre in Whangārei completed.

From the outside, it's already looking close, though the official opening isn't till the end of the year. The mosaiced walls seem complete, there's planting been done, the cupola has been installed, and the men working on the curving and hilly swirling brick paths look nearly there. It is, and it's a rare thing to say about a building, exciting - and that must surely apply as much to the workers as us observers. How much fun they must be having, breaking all the rules, with scarcely a right angle to be seen anywhere! And they're allowed to exercise their own creativity within the overall design, which must be a delightful novelty.

I actually shouldn't be writing any of this - the whole thing is meant to be a great secret, apparently. The outside is screened all the way around (though people have poked holes) and the workmen aren't allowed to take any photos. That's because the building is considered, by the Hundertwasser Foundation in Vienna, an as yet unfinished work of art. (Friedensreich Hundertwasser, architect, moved to NZ in 1975 and died in 2000. This is his last project.) The installation of the golden cupola was naturally on national TV news, however. If I were a local, I might be a bit offended by the notice on the outside of the screen making it quite clear how well protected the gold leaf is, and that any attempt to remove it would render it worthless.

In the meantime, though, there's still a lot to enjoy along Whangārei's Town Basin. Water and boats are always a good start, but now there's an appealing Canopy Walk to view them from, as well as lots of inviting places to eat and drink, galleries, a place to watch glass blowing, a Clock Museum, shops and a playground that looks like good fun.

There's also, I discovered only afterwards, a Sculpture Trail along the river. Drat. That will have to wait till next time - which there certainly will be, and not just because of the Hundertwasser.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Otterly different - or is it?


Another day of protest at Kennedy Point starts quietly. Kayaks and a swimmer are the only movement to see. The workers are invisible inside, the security guards chat on the path behind me, other protesters take their place at a table covered in pizza boxes, and look at their phones. It’s Day Something of the standoff with no end in sight: marina v little blue penguin colony plus an overlay of Māori territory angst. 

I support the protest, always on the side of penguins and not sympathetic to rich people with boats wanting a floating car park too. Go somewhere else! But, looking at the rocks around the edge of the bay where the penguins nest, it did remind me of somewhere and something similar that I took great pride in pinning down almost immediately.

It was Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in Puget Sound, back in 2010, and I was standing by another stretch of calm water. This one had a jetty and lots of boats, though, and was quite a busy little place. So I was surprised and delighted to see a creature emerge from the water and trot along the jetty to its nest in the rocks at its base. 

Except, now that I’ve looked it up, of course it wasn’t a penguin, so far north. It was an otter. So, not many points, memory - and also, no thanks for now sending me down a rabbit hole of species comparison and evaluation. 

Monday, 5 July 2021

Two extremes

 With thanks to Destination Queenstown for this famil

Last day in Queenstown, alas, but it began splendidly, with a real show-stopper sunrise that just got better and better. Today was all about frightening ourselves fifty years too late. Way back in 1980, on our grand top-to-bottom tour of Newzild, we drove our Cortina along the Skippers Canyon road, marvelling at such features en route as the Blue Slip, which is exactly as it sounds - the unsealed road cutting across a hillside of unstable schist. We breezed through (apart from cracking the sump on a rock, that is).

Today, going with Nomad Safaris in a 4WD Land Cruiser driven by Peter who's done the trip about a hundred times, we looked at that still-unsealed narrow road with its deep ruts, the drop-offs and overhangs, the tight bends, and shook our heads at how badly it could have turned out for us back then.

With Peter, though, it was comfortable, educational and spectacular. There were movie-worthy stories (like the boys rescuing their dog at Maori Point scoring a big find of gold and heading home off-road to avoid discovery; and about the struggle to build the road itself), and lots of stops to marvel at the scenery and peer down cliffs at the river so far below. I really enjoyed the icicle encounters - huge, they were, whole swathes of them hanging beside the road.

At the end, at Skippers where there's just a reconstructed school house and a little hut remaining of the settlement (there used to be three towns along the canyon, one of them the first in the country to have mains electricity), we had drinks and bikkies in the snow. Inside the classroom, which is, and was then, unheated, we gasped at the conditions that they lived in back in those 1860s gold rush days. In the old photos on the walls, though, they were all dressed so neatly.

We had a go at gold-panning down in the river, but saw only the tiniest speck of colour (I was more successful long ago on the West Coast, straining my hard-won flakes into my handkerchief - and then, later, forgetting, and blowing my nose on it). It was a good outing, and really interesting. Last night, when I crossed the Edith Cavell bridge, I tried to remember who she was and why her name was so familiar - Peter told us today as we went over it that she was a wonderful British nurse in WWI who was executed by the Germans, but is celebrated by memorials all around the world. Including a mountain in Jasper National Park in Alberta. Which I've seen.

The only disappointment about the Nomad Safaris trip was that, because of the snow and the possible need to fit chains, we were in the Land Cruiser and not their amazing Tesla Model X that owner David drove us back to the hotel in. That windscreen! The seats! The doors! The info screen! It would be an incongruously but fabulously glamorous way to explore Skippers. Next time?

Sunday, 4 July 2021

Bed, boat, barbecue, bow-wow, burger, bliss...

 With thanks to Destination Queenstown for this famil

Kamana Lakehouse's beds are so soft that they are very hard to get out of, if you see what I mean. But the view we opened our curtains to was great compensation. This morning I walked about 20 minutes into town - almost enjoying the novelty of frosty, icy, slippery surfaces - to go on a cruise on the 106 year-old TSS Earnslaw, the Lady of the Lake. Sadly, she wasn't up to it today - plumbing is frequently a problem with old ladies - so we went instead on a perfectly serviceable boat with much less (ie no) personality. Never mind - I've sailed on the Earnslaw at least three times before.

Filling in some time beforehand by wandering along the waterfront, I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly everyone was - much more so than in summer. Maybe it's because we were all battling with the cold? Anyway, nice - except for this busker, belting out Neil Diamond songs with his big hairy dog howling along. The dog was called Happy but, going by my brief encounter with him, the guy's name should have been Crabby.

So, we sailed off across the lake, hearing some history about the goldrush days, and marvelling at the crisp, clear and magnificent scenery all around us. We were welcomed at Walter Peak Station and shown inside the lovely heritage homestead for a really yummy and beautifully-presented BBQ lunch. It was all good, but the Silere merino lamb leg was amazing. The individual sticky date pudding went down pretty well, too.

Then we went outside for the sheepdog demonstration by Al, from Wales, and his eyedog Kim, who was fully focused on him and her job. She spent the whole time he was doing his introduction in the little amphitheatre, hurtling up the hillside, leaping over a fence to eye up the sheep, and run back again, over and over. Of course the sheep, though bolshy, did as they were told, coming down into a little pen.

We wandered round the farm then (the original farmhouse roofed with 9 tons of tiles from France) and got friendly with various animals, like Highland cattle, goats and pigs, and then filed back onto the boat for the return trip. Lovely outing.

Graham, aka Twinny (from twin-screw), retiring skipper of the Earnslaw after 30 years, showed me over her when we got back - she sure does have character, and will be back in action again tomorrow. I liked that he said the best stokers (one tonne of coal per trip) were the old guys "bent over like a half-open pocket knife" - because they'd learned the hard way how to be efficient.

Another Queenstown icon, though rather younger, is Fergburger - a burger bar with a permanent queue outside for the last 20 years. Though, as it happened, mid-afternoon we found we could walk straight in. So we did, and I was able to inspect and taste a standard cheeseburger, and testify that it was indeed exceptionally juicy, tasty and well-presented by friendly staff. Tick. (Photo doesn't do it justice.)

My final job for the day - oh, such a hard life I lead - was to head out of town again at 8.30pm for my session at Onsen Hot Pools. These are Japanese-style, down the hillside overlooking the Shotover River in its canyon, and very nicely done. There's all the usual spa stuff there, of course, but I just had an hour-long wallow (with Whittakers chocolate, and wine) in the wooden tub under a partial roof, wondering how it would be in daylight but fully compensated by the Southern Cross and Milky Way overhead, and the snow below lit by candles. Gorgeous. And then it was back to Kamana's lovely bed...


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