Wednesday 7 December 2022

No cheers


It isn’t easy being an industrial spy. Only five minutes on the job and already I had been collared by a determined young assistant with a steely smile. "We would rather you didn’t write anything down, ma’am," she murmured as she took me discreetly by the elbow and drew me away from the evening gowns.

"But I’m a travel writer," I said, waving my dog-eared notebook at her. "I’m just recording a few observations. Surely you don’t think I’m a fashion spy?" And I pointed at the food stains down the front of my Ezibuy cardigan.

"You’d be surprised," she said grimly, letting me go.

That was how - way back in 2004 - I started a story about a visit to LA, doing something other than the usual Disneyland/Walk of Fame/Hollywood sign. I was reminded of it by reading about poor Kirstie Alley, whose death was reported yesterday. That was because, as I was taking my notes, as above, in the super-expensive Fred Segal shop, I saw Kirstie with her daughter - as I rudely described it in the story - "comfortably blocking an aisle in the children's department".

Accompanied by our own daughters, we did of course actually do all of the above clichés, but added on things like Universal Studios, the Melrose Trading Post, a farmer's market, the Queen Mary, the Page Museum, and many challengingly huge servings of food. We were there at around this time of year, so there was lots of Christmas fun added to it all - it was really good.

And the stall-holders themselves were just as colourful: not only multi-cultural, but laid-back and alternative, there as much for the vibes as the chance to sell some stuff. One dread-locked black guy drawled to a shiny-headed man in leathers he’d almost walked past, "Hey, man, you looked like you, but I didn’t know if you were still you ’cos, you know, you change all the time…" Perhaps that wasn’t just incense in the air.

Cheers also added an essential element to our first visit to Boston a couple of years later, when of course we went to take the obligatory photo of the exterior that was so familiar to us from the series. There were some unusual extras on that trip, too - like getting there by train from NYC, staying in a private terraced guesthouse with a composting toilet and an indoor cat, and following the Freedom Trail round the city. We did that again, properly, a few years later, with a red-uniformed guide who looked like Liam Neeson, slumming it.

Anyway, RIP, Kirstie. Thanks for all the laughs.

Monday 5 December 2022

Fire and ice

In an ideal world, this title would introduce an entry about viewing Fagradalsfjall, that spectacular volcano in Iceland, which is still erupting, since August. I would love to be there, seeing it in person, as it adds extra drama to Iceland's already spectacular scenery.

But no, it's Mauna Loa on Hawaii's Big Island that has been - despite competition from Tonga and Java - most dominant in recent news. Though it too has so far been more of an attraction than an inconvenience, it's now beginning to threaten the main road that rings the island. That would mean a long and tedious detour all the way around the other side, so no doubt the locals are crossing their fingers right now. Which is, of course, all you can do, with volcanoes.

When we were there, on an Uncruise er, cruise, in 2016, the mountain was actually covered in snow - in December! (Yes, I know Hawaii's north of the equator, but it's still a Pacific island and, well, December is summer in the Pacific...) Otherwise, though, it was an unremarkable hump on the horizon. All the big action was taking place further along at Kilauea, where we went on a lava-viewing outing on a boat that still astonishes me we were allowed to do - that skipper was incredibly laid-back, given all the fire and steam we were so close to.

We do do volcanoes here in Enzed, of course. A series of eruptions created Lake Taupo 300,000 years ago, the Oruanui eruption 70,000 years ago still the biggest the world has known - so it does make us a little nervous, when there are earthquakes there, as there have been recently, even causing a small tsunami along the shore.

It's not as if we needed reminding of that sort of thing. Netflix is about to release a documentary about the Whakaari/White Island eruption disaster which is going to bring that awful event back into the limelight again. Thanks, Leo.

Saturday 3 December 2022

No need to pike on Viking

My last overseas trip, way, way back in early 2020, was to LA for a big announcement by Viking about their expansion into exploration ships, to offer cruises in both the Arctic and Antarctic. It was a very professional and generous presentation, chairman Tor Hagen was personable and likeable, and I doubt there was even one spoilt and fussy travel journalist there who wasn’t won over, and itching for a freebie on the Polaris or Octantis. Now, though? Maybe less so.

It’s truly horrible, to imagine what it was like to be that poor woman, hunkered down in her comfortable cabin on the Viking Polaris, grimly enduring the notorious Drake Passage crossing. Perhaps she was trying to distract herself by remembering all the glories of Antarctica she had just seen, or by thinking of all the skite-points she was currently accumulating - and then a wave crashed through her window, showering her in jagged glass shards, and that was that. Awful.

Regular 😃 readers will recall that I have done that Antarctica cruise, with Silversea. Whenever I'm asked what my best trip has been as a travel writer, I always nominate that one, despite enviably strong competition. There's simply no beating Antarctica's spectacular and super-special scenery and wildlife, the cruise itself (sorry, Viking) was Silversea-gorgeous - and, topping off 18 days of fabulousness, on our crossing back to Ushaia, after universally increasing nervousness amongst all the passengers guests, we were blessed with the wonderful gift of Drake Lake. 

Incidentally, this is my third post, I think, about Viking line disasters - one per cruise type. There was the collision of a river cruiser with a sight-seeing boat on the Danube, an engine failure in the North Sea, and now this. It's just maths, though - it's one of the bigger cruise lines in the world, with two explorer vessels, ten ocean cruisers and around 80 river cruisers. Don't be put off.

Sunday 11 September 2022


On this rather cold, damp morning I visited Shamarra Alpacas, across the harbour near Wainui. They've got about 170 on the farm, which doesn't sound a lot, but boy! They are multiple-prize-winning and eye-wateringly valuable animals, especially the studs. Some of the alpacas I met will be on their way soon to Italy, France, Germany and other far-flung destinations, sought-after from here because their breeding is so good.  

I wouldn't know about that, but can certainly confirm that they are very cute, pretty, amenable and sweet. Also convenient: the females - hembras - come into season on command, and give birth only during daytime. They also spit at any males they encounter after being impregnated, which is endearing. They are shorn once a year, and have toe-nails that need trimming at least twice annually.

They haven't been shorn yet this season, so were very fluffy and soft to the touch. I did enjoy meeting them, and fondling both them and the jerseys, blankets and so on in the shop, made from their super-fine fleeces.

And that was that for my animal-focused trip. It made a nice change from the usual sort of famil, and it was fun. I stopped at the nearby Barry's Bay Traditional Cheese factory, and again at Little River to marvel at the unusual 4-star motel there made out of shiny corrugated iron grain silos, and admire the art in the gallery next door, and then, after a short detour to Birdlings Flat to look for jasper and agates, it was off to the airport and goodbye to Christchurch again. Till next time.

Saturday 10 September 2022

Aw, Hec (tors)

No need to worry about not having a long lens when you go Hector-hunting with Akaroa Dolphins. Out on a two-hour cruise on their fancy new catamaran, the first cute little Hector’s dolphin we encountered was very happy to ride the bow wave right below us, as were several others we found. They’re the smallest dolphin, have a Mickey Mouse ear-shaped dorsal fin, and are found in only a couple of places here in Enzed, so it was a delight to spot them - especially since, last time I did this cruise, in 2016, they were a no-show.

It was still an enjoyable outing then, as today, helped by the onboard dolphin-spotting dog (Albie today), dramatic scenery in this drowned volcanic crater, and lots of interesting commentary scattered with an impressive number of Dad jokes, considering captain George’s relative youth. There were also fur seals, shags and a salmon farm - plus loose chat about not only several species of whale, but also orcas, spit. Regular 😀readers will recall my in-vain life’s mission to spot an orca. And, look, these ones actually hung out with the dolphins!

Despite that, it was a good outing, and an excellent, environmental and conservation-oriented family company. Recommended.

The animal theme continued with a walk up the Children’s Bay track past a crocodile, four penguins, four giraffes and a pig, to a rhino at the top - all sculptures, natch, but there were also real bees, bellbirds and cattle beasts. Plus a view, if somewhat cloudy. And that’s Akaroa, done - for this time. It’s such a lovely place, it’s hard to believe the population is shrinking, down to just 623 permanent residents currently. Tch.

Friday 9 September 2022

Pellets to pillows

This morning I filled in an odd gap in my personal history - I visited Willowbank Nature Reserve, which opened three years before I left Christchurch on my OE, never to return to live. I can't think why I never went there, but am very glad I have now. It's a gorgeous place, really pretty and well laid-out through woodland threaded with ponds and streams, and dotted with old farm buildings and equipment. It's full of interest. It's also, after yesterday's solid hike around the Ashley Estuary, much less demanding to explore, so it was busy with mothers pushing delighted infants along the paths and boardwalks.

It started out as a zoo, but soon transitioned into conservation, though its appealing difference is that it's not rigidly exclusionary of all exotic animals - there's a range of unusual farm animals from the pioneer days, there are geese and parrots, wallabies and deer, all of them long-established in NZ, and lovely to see. Even rabbits from Enderby Island, and pigs from the Auckland Islands! It's nice, to see them recognised as part of our history, and not discriminated against as non-native.

Of course there's a wide range of endemic and native species, including a handful of kea, or alpine parrots, which fully lived up to their reputation as nuisances. Having happily photographed one mugging a schoolgirl, I then got attacked myself and had to fight really hard to snatch back the glasses case it stole out of my backpack. I had fun feeding the eels - I had pellets for the birds and farm animals too, and that was really good for up-close interaction. Alpacas are very delicate and polite nibblers, I can report.

I loved seeing capybaras sunbathing, horses being bolshy, ducklings everywhere, otters splashing about, lemurs canoodling... it's a really lovely place to spend time.

Then I headed away out of the city, onto Banks Peninsula to visit Akaroa in its collapsed and drowned volcanic crater. I was delighted to discover that, for the next two nights, I'll be staying at French Bay House, which is so pretty that I had already taken photos of it on a previous visit. The house was built in 1874 as the doctor's residence (also surgery, but they're not emphasising that part) and is decorative outside and elegant inside. And my pillows are SOFT! The front door is left unlocked 24/7, which tells you a lot about Akaroa.

The town was first settled by the French, who arrived in 1840 (ten years ahead of Christchurch, spit) so it was appropriate, if entirely coincidental, that my guide for the afternoon's outing was Kevin, who is as French as his name isn't. He drove us, chattering informatively all the way, over to the outside of the crater, to Flea Bay for a Pohatu Penguins tour. We passed new-born lambs on the way - literally two hours old - and met some more, super-cute Valais breed with their black eyes, noses and knees, at the farm in the bay, where we were given bottles of milk to feed them. Always fun!

Then we visited three of the over 200 wooden nesting boxes on the farm where white-flippered little penguins lay their eggs, as well as down burrows. They are only found here, and were seriously endangered before the Helps lived up to their name and worked hard on their conservation. Now their numbers are good, and we heard all about them as we went to a hide to watch a raft of them floating out in the bay, socialising, and waiting for dusk to come ashore. It would have been nice to see that, but we had at least got close-up views of the nesters.

Then we drove back as the moon rose, and I wandered in total safety around town in the dark for a tasty meal at Aihe, and then back home again to luxuriate in those comfy pillows.

La reine est morte. Vive le roi!


Since I’m in Akaroa, famously (and, touristically-speaking, helpfully) French-founded, it’s the Tricouleur at half-mast today, to mark the death of the Queen. Had to happen of course, but still a bit sad, even from this distance. ClichĂ© unavoidable: it truly is the end of an era. 

I had a couple of near-encounters with the Queen while I lived in England, both described elsewhere on this blog: at the Badminton Horse Trials, where I tried to get nearer for a photo of her, up on a wagon in her headscarf, watching the cross-country. “Not so close, sonny!” growled one of her (less sharp-sighted) bodyguards. 

And, invited via lucky draw to a Buckingham Palace garden party, we signally failed the audition we didn’t realise was happening as we chatted to a courtier while waiting for the Queen to walk past along a marked-off route to her afternoon tea tent. We were clearly judged too boring to bother with, so it was another nearby couple who were selected to duck under the rope to wait for Liz to stroll along and pause for a quick chat. Shame. I bet my answer to the standard “Have you come far?” would have trounced theirs.

So, RIP, Your Royal Highness. And hello King Charles spaniel.

Thursday 8 September 2022

Bit of a twitch

Now, if I were properly professional, or even could just be bothered, this is the sort of photo I might have got this morning, on my 4 hour birding expedition with Steve Attwood. But I can’t handle, literally, hauling that gear around, so this is Steve’s photo of some bar-tailed godwits, taken on his Canon with a lens so big that it stopped three separate passers-by in astonishment. My photos are much less impressive, see:

No contest.  But I did enjoy my outing this morning around the Ashley Rakahuri estuary, even if it did involve four hours of solid walking and two wadings through the river, which is, this being early spring, still rather chilly. But there was so much chat and information going on, it really didn’t matter. Apparently we saw 24 bird species, plus some foreign interlopers like mute swans and Canada geese, spit. Excellent morning. Give Steve a whirl: Auldwood Birds.

Then it was back to Christchurch, to look pretty much in vain for places from my past, mostly eliminated by the earthquakes. But there’s a lot of new stuff to enjoy, plus some still recognisable features. Like the Arts Centre, once the University of Canterbury’s Townsite campus - and where I would have been staying tonight, at the Observatory, if blasted Covid hadn’t got in the way. Shame.

Wednesday 7 September 2022

Ready for a close-up?

After snowing yesterday morning, it was -4.7 degrees overnight last night here in Christchurch, so I really can’t blame all the animals at Orana Wildlife Park for mostly just lying around in the sun today. The otters were busy, and the lemurs, and the African wild dog was restless, but virtually all the others - especially all the big cats (no surprise) - were just blissed out in the sunshine. 
So it’s just as well Orana has a full programme of animal presentations right throughout the day, all the ones I saw involving, of course, food. The park is big, and the animal numbers are mostly modest, but the programme means that visitors can get up really close to the creatures - and I mean really close. Like, a metre from three massive white rhinos, six inches (through glass) from a silverback gorilla, an arm’s length from a hungry lion - and actually feed a giraffe.
I did all that, and much more, and was utterly delighted. SO CLOSE! It was a marvel, and a treat. I spent six hours trailing around the park, listening to the enthusiastic keepers, looking at everything from an axolotl to a bison, sharing tips with other visitors, and as happy to watch a large family of mallard ducklings crossing the road as I was to see a trio of Tasmanian Devils sprawled out in the sun, for once all with their mouths closed. Good day. Thanks, Orana. (And sorry, host Khloe, for continually harping on about having seen so many of these animals in the wild. I know I’m lucky. But Orana is next best, honest.)

Tuesday 6 September 2022

Left is right

OK, it worked this time: sat on the left, flying down to Christchurch, and there was Mt Taranaki in all its symmetrical, snow-capped glory, right below me. Score! What a brilliant sight.

I know it’s been officially spring for a whole week now, but I was expecting more snow on the Kaikouras. It was also, though, officially our warmest winter for quite some time, and I guess this is the proof. When I fly home again on Sunday, also sitting on the left, I shall inspect the Southern Alps with interest, to see if they’re similarly only dusted. 

Before then, though, there will be animals - lots and lots of animals, most of them exotic. Watch this space! 


Sunday 28 August 2022

End of an era… well, of a contract, anyway

Today, after 4 and a half years, my last World Famous entry in the Sunday Star-Times/Stuff has been published. The initially occasional column was started back in 2016, written by a variety of contributors. I was so reliably regular that I was given sole charge in 2018. Since then, I’ve written nearly 250 entries about a wide range of features around the country - natural and man-made, places to visit, activities to do. I could have kept going, easily - but times are tough, pagination is limited, WF isn't the only victim.
It's been fun, using the column as a way to get freebies, and also harking back to visits I've made to places sometimes many years previously. Only a relative few were done from research only, mostly because I had to fit in with a destination focus for that issue. The Lavender Farm is one of the latter, which I'm sorry about because I'm a sucker for lavender. It's crazy, then, that I've only ever visited one lavender plantation. That one was at Bridestowe in northern Tasmania, and it is a classic - curves of purple leading the eye to mauve mountains, glorious scent in the air, everything neat as. There was just the one drawback, though...

Thursday 25 August 2022

Not high about being dry

With classic timing, I've just filed a commissioned story about river cruising in Europe, describing what I've called the Favourite Four - Rhine, RhĂŽne, Danube and Seine - which (such a coincidence!) are the only ones I've experienced. And what is in the news now? Europe's dried-up rivers, exposing all sorts of treasures, and horrors.

Not just Europe, of course - China's drought means even the Yangtze is shrivelling up, and there are similar problems everywhere up top, including North America (while we down here are getting record-breaking rain) - but it's the Rhine and Danube especially that are making news. Mostly, of course, because of the unexploded WW2 bombs being found, and wrecks of German warships. How startling must that be, if you find you've been living right next to stuff like that? Well, startling to consider from here, that is - I guess it's a fact of life for Europeans, and will be too for Ukrainians now, for generations into the future.

But there have been interesting discoveries too - buildings, shrines, ancient stone structures. Perhaps we could take a shred of comfort - because it's clearly happened before - from these carvings on a 'hunger stone' exposed in the Elbe, in the Czech Republic. They read "If you see me, cry."

For sure. They'll certainly be doing that at the HQ of Avalon, Uniworld, Viking et al, as they frantically book coaches to provide outings for their stranded passengers guests.

Thursday 18 August 2022

The only shiny things in the loo were the cockroaches

While the planet either burns up or gets washed away, depending on which bit of it you're living on, it's nice to look back - way back - to gentler times. I'm currently writing about river cruises in Europe, on the Rhone, Rhine, Seine and Danube, and trying to rank them. Impossible, of course. They have lots in common, and each has its particular delights, so you really can't go wrong.

I wrote here a wee while ago that my first cruise was in Fiji - but it wasn't at all, I now remember. Leaving aside, for obvious reasons, my voyages between NZ and the UK back in 1957, the first time I travelled anywhere on a boat - apart from the Interislander ferry here - was in 1980, on the Irrawaddy in Burma/Myanmar. 

It was part of the Big Trip, back to England from NZ in 1980, and we started the cruise at Mandalay. We'd got there from Rangoon/Yangon on a battered old Fokker full of odd seats, and spent the day exploring what was then a quiet, sprawling city full of trishaws, pony carts and freely grazing cattle and sheep. We wandered around the grounds of the palace, encountering a snake and lots of lizards, and climbed, bare-footed as per custom, up the 1729 steps to the top of Mandalay Hill. Tourism was still a novelty then, and so were we, to the locals - only fair, really, though it got a bit tiring having people constantly offering to buy my watch, and asking if I had pens, cosmetics or clothes to sell.

We visited the big and beautiful pagoda, went to a market to buy mosquito coils - not the simple transaction you might expect - and then visited Amarapura, including temples, innumerable Buddhas, various handicraft workshops, and U Bein's picturesque bridge.

The ferry to Pagan/Bagan left that night, and we were really taken aback by what we'd let ourselves in for: lower deck packed with baskets of produce, upper deck like a scene from Exodus - not an inch of free space, people crammed in everywhere. Even our little "first-class" bow cabin had only four bare wooden bunks and a toilet heaving with cockroaches.

We and an Italian couple spent the night easing from one aching hip to another, woken at 4am when two more couples - German and American - came into the cabin, and the boat finally set off with loud shrieking from the hooter above our cabin. The others slept lay on the floor and table. 

The following day was a repeated pattern of gliding slowly down the super-wide, shallow river, periodically easing sideways to the bank to put ashore/take on passengers. Snack sellers came on board too, but we restricted ourselves to bananas and mangoes - oddly, not tempted by the fried grasshoppers wrapped in leaves so popular with the locals. A monk came on board at one stage and was seated in our cabin with great reverence.

The boat eventually stopped for the night well upstream of where we'd expected to go ashore, but with the help of a Burmese teacher on board who spoke English, six of us tourists splashed out on hiring a private boat for the exorbitant sum of $55. We were taken to it through the village on a pony cart, and caused a sensation, hordes of kids rushing up to shake our hands. After a 90 minute cruise further down the river, we came ashore again, got into another cart, drawn by a bad-tempered pony who had thought his working day was over, and crept through Pagan's moonlit temples to, finally, a lodging with a proper bed.

Uniworld, it definitely wasn't. But memorable, for sure... (Read more here.)


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