Saturday, January 12, 2013

Day 7 - Wellington and Middle Earth

We were originally booked on a morning tour called "Wellington City Sites," but when we boarded the ship we discovered a new tour had been added called "In the Footsteps of the Lord of the Rings."  Of course, being a J.R.R. Tolkien fan,  I suggested we switch tours. The other was just a filler anyway, since we had gone on a great 4-wheel drive tour of the Seal Coast the last time we were here.  Of course Ray agreed, especially since we had a choice of morning or afternoon for the new tour. 
Lord of the Rings Filming Location

We slept in this morning, relaxing and reading this morning. At 2pm we went down to join the tour.  There was only 1 bus load of 30 people on this tour this afternoon.  We began by going up one of the many hills around Wellington and down a wooded path to the site where the first filming for The Lord of the Rings was done. The guides pointed out specific places along the path where certain scenes were filmed and explained how they disguised the filming by using trucks with false names so no one would know where they were filming. 

Monument Pointing to Antarctica
From there we drove to the top of the hill for a view of the city.  At this overlook, there is a monument which points to Antarctica and the Southern Lights.  In that direction there is nothing between Wellington and Antarctica. 
The tour then continued on to the Roxy Theater, built by Peter Jackson for the Wellington community, to see a short film explaining the Wellington film industry Jackson founded.  The films made here are mostly those requiring special effects, and the company called WETA now specializes in special effects.  In addition to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, movies such as King Kong and Avatar were also made in Wellington.  
Hobbit Feet
The last stop of the tour was at the WETA Cave, where models are created of the various characters to be used in creating the special effects.  A small area of this building is open, displaying models from various completed films. It is also a small souvenir shop.  We saw both small and full size models from the Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and other projects. One of the things they are known for is making a lightweight chain mail that looks like the real thing but is much easier for the actors to wear.  The guide showed us samples of real chain mail and the lighter version to compare.

We rode along the shore on our way back to the ship.  The beach is beautiful and a number of people were out there enjoying the waves.  It has been a very windy day, but the bay we passed seemed protected.  Our guide said that Orca whales have been sighted in this bay recently.

The Lord of the Rings movies are being shown on-demand on the ship, no extra charge.  We are re-watching the first one tonight.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Day 6 - Napier, New Zealand

One of the other perks we were offered on this ship because we are on such a long cruise is our choice of up to 3 daily newspapers.  We expected this to be a couple of pages of the main articles, but, to our surprise, we received a complete copy of the Washington Post last night.  It is printed on 14x18 paper, so the print is a little smaller than the regular paper and it's a lot heavier.   They must have a high speed printer on board and a deal with various newspapers around the world to get these electronically, right down to the ads.

Gannet Colony on Cape Kidnappers
We had another easy morning today.  The ship didn't dock in Napier until 11am and our tour was scheduled for 12:15pm.  Today's tour was called "Cape Kidnappers and Gannet Safari."  This began with a ride in a four-wheel drive bus down a 3 mile narrow winding road along very rugged terrain. The scenery was fantastic.  This road was the access road through a sheep farm, golf course and resort to Cape Kidnappers.  The land is owned by American financier Julian Robertson and it seems he has earned the admiration of most of the people of New Zealand.  He has provided jobs for locals and rid his farm of most of the predators that attack the endangered Kiwi birds.  The farm is now being used as a new protective habitat for the Kiwi birds.

Courting Gannets

The road was narrow and steep.  The sheep grazing on the hills didn't seem to mind.  The ride was worth it however.  At the end was a huge colony of gannets.  Many of them were still sitting on eggs and there were also a few recently hatched gannet chicks.  It was a fascinating sight. We saw some birds protecting and feeding their chicks, while others appeared to be engaged in courting dances.  Our guide said we were only seeing about a third of the colony because the parent birds take turns going out to get fish to feed the chicks.

 On the way back to the ship, the driver took us on a short tour of the town of Napier.  This town was destroyed by fire in the 1930s and then totally rebuilt in the Art Deco style that was popular at the time.  The locals are very proud of the architecture.
Another Gannet colony on a lower promontory

Back at the ship, 5:30pm was block party time. Everyone was invited to bring a glass from their room and go out into the halls to meet their neighbors.  The crew brought around wine and hors d'oeuvres.  Everyone in the staterooms in our section came out.  The captain and officers came through to shake everyone's hand.  We are now on first name basis with all our neighbors.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Day 5 - Tauranga, New Zealand

Today we docked in Tauranga.  This is the largest port in New Zealand.  They export lots of pine timber and kiwi fruit from here.
We had the morning free so we took our time and had breakfast in the restaurant instead of the buffet.  An envelope offering a couple of new tours was on our door this morning. We found a couple that we liked better  than what we originally signed up for, so we when down to the tour desk and switched to the new ones.  Regent includes almost all tours in the base price, so there are no money concerns switching from one tour to another.

After getting a salad for lunch at the pool grill, we gathered our cameras and went our on the pier to meet our 12:15 tour group.   The tour bus first took us along the shore road so we could see the miles and miles of beautiful beach.  Our guide said this is the most popular beach in New Zealand.  From there we drove up to the Mills Reef Winery for a wine tasting.   This winery is sort of like the one in Leonardtown, MD.  It doesn't have it's own vineyards, instead it takes in grapes from Hawkes Bay and other vineyards on North Island for processing.  The big difference is that, in addition to the winery, it is also a restaurant on some beautiful rolling acres.  There is a lovely arbored lawn outside the restaurant were they hold weddings.  There was a garden of beautiful purple flowers surrounding the arbor.  These same flowers can be seen everywhere along the roads in this area.

From the winery, we continued up to the top of a hill for a panoramic  view  of the town and surrounding fields. New Zealand was formed from volcanos, so there isn't much in the way of flat land.   Everywhere you see a farm house built in a valley with sheep or cattle grazing on the steep hills around it. It is beautiful, but it's easy to understand when these farms raise livestock and not crops. 

Our last stop was at a historic mission called The Elms.  Guides in period costume took us around the various restored buildings, telling us about the history of the missionaries and the Maori tribes in the area.  It was a really interesting tour.

I think Ray & I were the last passengers to board. Our bus was a few minutes late getting back to the ship and we were the last in line going up the gangway.  The ship pulled away from dock a few minutes after we got to our room.

The captain's welcome was scheduled for 6PM in the theater, but we skipped that and went for dinner.  On the first night we tried the more casual Italian restaurant on the upper deck and the food was excellent.  This time we tried the main restaurant.  Ray had prime rib and I had a lobster tail prepared in an unusual, delicious brown sauce.  I had a no-sugar added chocolate cake for dessert that was fantastic.

Tomorrow the ship doesn't get into port until 11AM, so we'll have another easy morning.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Day 4 - Embarkation

I am writing this from our stateroom on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager.  It's about 4pm, and we don't leave port until 9pm.  The last 24 hours have been full, so I'll start by writing about where I left off yesterday.
After lunch yesterday we went out of the hotel with the good intention of going for a walk.  We were warned that Auckland is a hilly city, but we didn't realize how much until we got to the end of the block.  Auckland can easily match San Francisco for steeply inclined streets.  The first one we attempted to walk down was tilted both forward and sideways, making it very difficult to walk.  After 1 block down we decided this was beyond our physical abilities and decided to turn up the next street to just go around the block.  The 4th side of this block to get back to the hotel was the worst, a very steep uphill climb.  We were very glad to get back to the hotel.  The Pullman hotel is across the street from the University of Auckland, so we saw many very healthy college students during our walk.   This is definitely the college to attend if you want to get in shape!
At 6pm we went down to the lobby to join our group for a bus trip to dinner at the Sails restaurant.  The buses were a little late, but once they arrived it was a short ride to this restaurant on one of the many marinas.  The evening began with a Maori welcome/challenge at the entrance to the restaurant.  (video will be posted after we get home from this trip.)  Once inside, a couple serenaded us with music throughout a wonderful 3 course dinner.   After dinner the Maori performers came in to dance and sing traditional music. As we left the restaurant, another group of drummers, fire dancers and hula dancers performed in the parking lot.  It was a very enjoyable evening.
To make it even more enjoyable, we sat with 2 other couples, Donna and Elliot from Massachusetts and Lynne and Ron from California.  The table conversation was lively and very enjoyable.  I feel like we have made some new friends.   As it turned out, all the people who Regent booked into the Pullman are people who have booked the cruise all the way to Beijing or, in a few cases, even further. Guests booked on shorter segments were booked into two other hotels.  So we have an opportunity to really get to know some of the people we met at the Pullman, as we will be on this ship together for the next 60+ days.
This morning we got to talk to a number of other of our fellow travelers.  Our bags had to be in the hall by 8am and check-out was by 10am.  After that we had to wait in the lobby until 11:45am before the buses would take us to the ship, so we had almost 2 hours to socialize.  We met and talked to Laurie, Martin, Barbara, Ernest and Lena. (I'm recording names in the hope I will have a better chance of remembering them.)  Once the ship was ready for embarkation, 3 buses were filled with people and luggage and we took the short ride to the pier.  Check-in was divided into 4 steps - checking our passports against the passenger list, carry-on bag scanning, customs check, and finally, check-in.  It was pretty quick.  The Voyager is a relatively small ship, holding only about 700 passengers, and the fact that they provide hotel accommodations the night before allows them to bring passengers to the pier one bus at a time. We arrived at noon and were having lunch at the poolside cafe by 12:30pm.
Now our bags are all unpacked and we are settled in, waiting for the lifeboat drill.  After that we'll go to dinner and come back to our room to share a bottle of champagne for bon voyage.   One of the perks of taking a cruise this long is that it has qualified us for free Internet for the cruise, so I should be able to provide regular updates on this blog, as long as we are in satellite range.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Day 3 - Auckland

Yesterday was a nice, relaxing day.  We both needed it to begin acclimating to the time difference.  After Ray woke from his nap we went downstairs to have a light dinner at the hotel restaurant, then took a walk.  Since we were right at the airport, there wasn't any place to walk other than inside the airport, but that was fine.   We followed signs to the "viewing area" and watched planes take off for a while.  One of the Air New Zealand jets was painted different from the rest - black in front, with black and white stripes on the back half.  We guessed (and later confirmed) that this was one of the planes used to transport the All Blacks rugby team.  There were people there waiting to see if the team would board, but we didn't stay to find out.  
Jean Batten, 1909-1982, New Zealand's most famous aviatrix
When we got back to the room it was my turn to "hit the wall," so I took a nap, making sure Ray wouldn't let me sleep more than an hr and a half (1 cycle).  When I woke we went back to the airport for cappuccinos and pastries.  We made an effort to stay awake in our hotel room until 10pm and then fell promptly to sleep again.
The recovery day worked.  We both got up at a reasonable time this morning and decided to go to the McDonald's in the airport for breakfast instead of the hotel's expensive buffet.  Ray has had a thing about visiting any McDonald's we can in foreign countries we visit, so this let him check New Zealand off the McDonald's list.  This McDonald's quest has a long story behind it, related to our work with the U.S. Glider Aerobatic team years ago.  That's a story for a different blog.
After breakfast we walked over to the international arrivals area to see if there was a Regent representative there yet and there was.  We talked to them and found that we wouldn't have to wait until noon as originally planned - they could take us to the hotel Regent had arranged for us along with a group arriving at 8AM.  We hurried back to the Novotel, got our bags together, checked out, and made it back to the Regent representatives before the other guests arrived. 
View from our room at the Auckland Pullman hotel
We are now checked into the Auckland Pullman hotel and were pleasantly surprised when we opened the door to our "room."  They have booked us into a beautiful suite.  It is like an apartment, with a kitchen, dining area, living room, bedroom and bath.  What's more, it is a corner room on the 16th floor overlooking the harbor.  There is a balcony that wraps around the room, with one side facing the harbor and the other looking into the city.  As I write this, I am sitting on the balcony watching the boats in the harbor.   The driver dropped the other 5 guests at 2 different hotels in the area.  I am very glad we got this one.
It is about 11:30AM now.  We have free time here until 6pm tonight, so we will probably take a walk after lunch.   Tonight Regent has arranged a dinner at a local restaurant and we are to be down in the lobby to board the bus by 6pm.  Then tomorrow it's bags out in the hall by 8AM, checkout by 10AM, and bus to the ship at 11:30AM.  I will be glad to get to our room on the ship so we can unpack, but I really am enjoying this room today.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Day 2 - Day Lost

Greetings from Auckland, New Zealand.  We had a very nice flight on Air New Zealand last night.  Our reservations we in Business class, but it sure looked like first class to me.  Unlike the previous flight, Air NZ made the safety announcement fun.  They are capitalizing on the Middle Earth films made in their country by showing a plane full of hobbits, elves, dwarfs, orcs, etc. in the video.  I love the Kiwi sense of humor. The video even has Gollum crawling around the aircraft aisle.

The seats in our section all converted into flat beds, so we even managed to get some sleep.  A few years go, we were on a flight from Sidney to Vancouver on Air Canada and had seats that fully reclined for sleeping, but those were not very comfortable.  This was different.  When I was ready to go to sleep, a flight attendant folded my seat forward to make a flat surface that reached to a foot rest. He then unfolded a hin mattress, pulled out 2 pillows and a blanket, and turned the seat into a nice bed. It was even long enough to stretch out in. For the first time, I was actually able to fall asleep for a few hours on a plane.

We both skipped dinner since it was 10pm L.A. time and we ate something earlier. I indulged in a cheese & cracker plate and a glass of port, along with a movie, before going to sleep. They served a nice breakfast before landing this morning, even if mine was delayed.  I think something went wrong in the galley because one other woman and I didn't get our breakfasts until everyone else was done.  The attendants were very apologetic and did keep refilling my coffee.

Since we crossed the International Date Line early this morning, we lost Sunday. We boarded the flight 10pm Saturday night and got to Auckland 8am Monday morning, even though it was just a 13 hr flight.  We'll get the day back on our flight home.

Regent made all our flight arrangements and got us here a day too early. They will pick us up tomorrow for transfer to a hotel near the port, but for tonight we are on our own. I booked us into the Novotel at the airport because it looked close on the map. We were pleasantly surprised to find we were able to walk out of baggage claim, cross the street on a pedestrian walkway and enter the hotel.  It doesn't get more convenient than this.

Ray didn't sleep as well as I did last night. He remembered the bed/seats on Air Canada and didn't let them make up his bed like I did. He regrets that, but since we have no plans today, he's taking a nap on a real bed in our hotel room now.  When he wakes up we'll go get some dinner in the hotel restaurant.