Monday, February 11, 2008

Sail Away and Tauranga

The Mercury is a nice little ship. In addition to our stateroom (with its own window, woo hoo!), we enjoyed the main dining room (Manhattan), the forward observation bar (Navigator), and the Celebrity Theatre, which was large and well-appointed.

Sailing away from Auckland was very pleasant, great weather plus we quickly spied a couple of other guys we figured were probably fellow members of our Pied Piper group and within half an hour there were close to a dozen of us occupying the prime real estate (overlooking the pool with a good view of the front, too) that I dubbed “The Boys’ Nest.” This was only my second Pied Piper cruise (Naoyuki’s third, I think) and with just 65-70 guys much smaller than the last one we’d been on (with nearly 400 of us on our post-Thanksgiving 2005 Caribbean cruise.)

After the sail away we gathered in Mercury’s Pavillion Night Club to meet our Pied Piper hosts, Michael and Paul, two brothers who are gay and from Sydney and now living overseas (Boston and London, respectively.) They turned out to be great hosts!

The next morning we woke to find ourselves in Tauranga, about 100 miles SE of Auckland on the Bay of Plenty. A former dairy / manufacturing town, Tauranga these days earns its living mostly from tourism, both as a beach town and more recently a cruise ship port. It’s just a hop and a skip from NZ’s main kiwifruit growing country (last year’s output was a staggering 3 billion pieces of kiwifruit!) and about an hour away from Rotorua, a center of Maori culture.

We did a bus tour of the port / beach area (Mount Maunganui) and the town, plus a trek out to Kiwi Fruit Country (or Kiwi 360, I’m not sure which) and then a visit to the Elms, the original missionary station (dating back to the 1840s) in the Tauranga area. Our guide on the Kiwi Fruit tour is one of the biggest owner / producers in the area and he was VERY knowledgeable. I told him afterwards that his was far and away the best agricultural tour I’ve ever been on (and over the years I’ve been on several, thanks to one junket or another.)

The Elms was a nice little place. Our tour guide was wearing the sort of dress that a woman her age would have worn at the time the place was founded. Otherwise, not terrifically memorable, although the collection of Norfolk pines (many of them 150 years old or more) was impressive.

The tour took us back to the ship and then we had to decide what we wanted to do, hang out OR go back into the town (which we hadn’t seen that much of.) Celebrity was running shuttle buses but the price was US $8 one way per person! We went to the Mount (as Mount Maunganui is known locally) and visited the local i-Site (New Zealand Visitor Information Center) to find out that the local bus company runs on the half hour from the Mount to the CBD for NZ$2.50 (about US$2) per person each way.

Too good a deal to pass up, in other words, and plenty of local color along the way. Turns out we could have taken an express bus but we went the long route going and coming, which meant we went through all the local neighborhoods, saw all the little old ladies and little old men and teenage boys and girls (January is their summer break) back and forth to the mall and other shopping areas, and so forth.

In the CBD we checked out the shops (and found a really cute papier-mâché girl fairy to add to my collection) and visited the Tauranga Art Gallery (Toi Tauranga), which was probably more interesting architecturally than as an art collection per se.

Touring Tauranga added to the sense we’d gotten in Auckland (and that stayed with us throughout our time in New Zealand), that we were in a very safe, very comfortable, very middle-class country, with great public infrastructure (public transportation, parks, civic amenities), very well-educated and extremely comfortable. That assessment would be borne out during each of our successive ports of call.

Labels: ,

Monday, February 04, 2008

Nadi and Auckland

My impressions of Fiji are entirely limited to the International Arrivals concourse of the airport in Nadi (pronounced “Nahn dee”), which has two gates, a bunch of duty free stores, and an inadequate a/c system. We spent about two hours there on the way to New Zealand. If we’d had more time, or if Nadi were more centrally located (from what we can tell, it’s a bit removed from everything!) we’d have gone looking around. As it was, we recuperated from our 10-hour flight and counted our lucky stars that the next one was only three hours!

We had a great view of Auckland flying in, looking down on the bays, the mountains (mostly volcanic), the lakes, and the trees, including what we later learned was the pohutukawa, the New Zealand “Christmas” tree (it produces bright red flowers in December…)

The Auckland airport was well-organized and highly efficient, the immigration folks seemed happy to see us, there were free baggage carts at baggage claim, and the taxis were marvelous! Clean as a whistle, completely modern (“credit cards? Of course!”), and please don’t insult the driver by trying to tip him. The most amusing part was that Naoyuki couldn’t figure out where the driver was (on the right, not the left) and there were a few anxious moments before I persuaded him that we really were NOT going down the road the wrong way.

The drive into Auckland was itself very pleasant. It’s always fun to look at other people’s cars. You never see Holdens in the U.S., for example, the Japanese imports are of a slightly different variety, the Fords are mostly from Europe (not the U.S.), but occasionally you’d see a P.T. Cruiser or some other distinctly U.S. car.

Auckland itself is attractive, hilly and green, with nice houses and beautiful gardens anywhere. Maybe it was just the driver but we managed to go the whole way without going by any rundown residential neighborhoods and even the commercial ones seemed uniformly prosperous (not to mention exceptionally well-kept.)

We stayed at the Auckland Hilton on Princes Wharf, immediately adjacent to the cruise ship terminal (really just an extension of the hotel complex), smack dab in the middle of the CBD (Central Business District) and the Viaduct Basin, a trendy eating / shopping area. Naoyuki, as always clever about these things, had cashed in his Hilton Honors points (or something like that) for a free room but they upgraded us to the second nicest level, a big, ultramodern room on the 8th floor with a balcony on two-sides providing a great view of the wharf, the Viaduct, and the CBD.

Our room wasn’t quite ready when we arrived (mid-afternoon) so we wandered the business district, looking at shops, looking for reasonably priced (ha!) All Blacks’ (New Zealand rugby team) apparel, and picking up a few sundries that we hadn’t bothered to bring with us from Buffalo. Later on we had a cocktail (glass of wine? I forget which, now!) in Bellini, the hotel’s elegant bar; checked out White, the hotel restaurant (very expensive!); and decided to pay a visit to the Viaduct in search of food. We wound up at Kermadec, presumably one of the oldest seafood restaurants on the waterfront, and one with an excellent view. Good food although service was a bit iffy and Naoyuki’s experience was spoiled a bit by a large group of Japanese tourists who were yukking it up (in a not very nice way, apparently!) assuming no one else in the restaurant understood Japanese (wrong!) But whatcha gonna do, right?

The next morning we took a tour of Auckland gardens. Naoyuki had found Mike of Mike’s Garden Tours through his website and then had done a bit of e-mail back and forth with him. A former country club groundskeeper and landscaper, Mike is a native Aucklander with a well-developed appreciation of Auckland’s gardens and surrounding countryside (what the Kiwis and Ozzies call “the bush!”) Normally Mike caters to Japanese tourists but they seem to be in short supply in Auckland these days (apparently Japanese tourism is notoriously fickle) so we had him all to ourselves.

Our tour included the rose gardens in Dove-Myer Robinson Park in Parnell (not Albert Park, which is what I had originally; I get confused easily, you know!); the Savage Memorial (honoring NZ’s first Labour prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage; One Tree Hill, now jokingly referred to as “No Tree Hill,” in the middle of a park that doubles as working sheep farm; the Winter Gardens and the Fernery at the Auckland Domain, home to Auckland’s War Memorial Museum; and the private garden of Peter Brady, an Auckland local who has spent the past 20 years landscaping (planting, pathing, sculpturing, benching, you name it) every square inch of his quarter-acre plot, all of which is presided over by his pet parrot, Mr. Rambo.

Auckland has a year-round equable climate, never too hot, never too cold, and the growing season is basically nonstop, with roses flowering all year and with shrubs (rhododendrons, azaleas, etc.) that we try to so hard to grow in Western New York achieving impressive proportions. Pretty much an ideal climate for gardening!

After the tour, we nipped into the Hilton where the ever helpful (and attractive!) staff quickly produced our luggage and rolled it down the sidewalk (no more than 100 feet) to the ship’s baggage handlers. Our check-in process was the smoothest, quickest we’ve ever done. By 1 p.m. we were in our stateroom (5035) and ready to begin our voyage!

Labels: , ,