…And the rest of Rotorua was pretty great, too.

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rotorua

Ian and I spent two days in Rotorua, which is famous for its geothermal springs and for its shameless exploitation of natural beauty – the city’s nickname within New Zealand is ‘RotoVegas’ I think because it has loads of crappy attractions designed to part tourists from money.

However, it also has incredible geysers and geothermal parks, a big spa full of Chinese people (some of whom conveniently didn’t speak English when it was time to get out of the water, which was pretty hilarious to watch), a historic spa-bath centre that’s now a museum, and a lot of Maori culture.

It was also a case study of the frenetic pace we maintained on this trip – we arrived at about 3:30, went road luging (see below) until 5, checked into our hotel, went to a nice dinner, and then went to the Polynesian Spa, where I spent a lot of time peering into the darkness trying to figure out what birds were cawing, and Ian (who doesn’t even like hot showers, much less giant complexes of hot water pools) did his best not to look visibly unhappy. He’s a keeper, that one.

The next day, we got up bright and early to drive to a nearby geyser/hot springs park. They induce a geyser at 10:30 every day, which is not romantic, but it did help us plan our day. The park guide told us that the land had been ‘barren wilderness’ before the arrival of Europeans, which I still havent forgiven him for, but the geyser was cool, and the rest of the park was even better.)

After that, we went zorbing (like, five times each). Zorbing is ridiculous; you get in a giant plastic hamster ball filled with a few inches of water, and they shove you down a big hill. That’s it. thats the whole gimmick. I loved it. I think we did it five times each. Then we went to AgroVentures, which was another ridiculous tourist schlock park – you could go jetboating or simulated skydiving or get dropped from a high place in a sack. We went for the shweeb, which is a recumbent cycling track. there will be another post all about the shweeb (Stay tuned!)

We ate lunch and watched some sheep-shearing, walked around the botanic gardens (with Maori decor, above), went to the history of Rotorua museum, where we got a tour from a patient but somewhat bumbling docent, and then went to a hangi, or Maori cultural night (where my camera battery died). The hangi was kind of like a really bad wedding – tons of food, awkward conversation, and some rigamarole and ceremony before and after dinner. That said, the information about Maori culture was really amazing, and the obliging men in traditional dress (ranging from smokin’ hot to…not so much) did a haka, or war dance.  You could tell some were really going for it, too, because their chest and legs turned red where they slapped them.  After dinner, they herded idiot tourists (i.e. me) on a little nature walk to explain Maori housing and plants, and look at glowworms. And the food was okay.

The dinner was awkward because we were sat at a table with an English/Canadian couple in their late forties with four-year-old twins. they were super friendly, but the French people on the other side of us sat in stony silence the whole time, declining to make eye contact or even converse with each other.

The next morning, we took an early flight to Nelson, stopping at the Blue Lake (which was exactly what it sounds like) en route. There was free wifi and no security at the airport. I was in traveler heaven.

Amazingly, there’s a ton of stuff I didn’t get to do in Rotorua – the area is known for mountain biking; I wanted to go stand-up paddle boarding on the Blue and Green Lakes; you can go hiking in a redwood forest…I mean, seriously.

Rotorua is amazing.

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skyline rotorua

As I wrote in my last post, Dundle Hill was a hike that I would not recommend you do unless you have more or less infinite amounts of time to spend in New Zealand. And even then, I think I would probably recommend doing some others twice instead. So even though it was beautiful and I saw a lot of birds, I was cranky by the time we got back to Waitomo.  We had expected the walk to take most of the day, and thought we’d arrive in Rotorua in the early evening, but were now on track to arrive mid-afternoon.

While shoving a hamburger into my pie-hole, I found a mention of the Skyline Gondola in the guidebook.  Since it was on the outskirts of town and en route to the hostel, we figured we might as well.

It was amazing.

I think, largely because the whole thing was so unexpected, the Skyline Gondola may have the highlight of the trip for me. The ride up was a pretty standard gondola experience – but the Road Luge, which we took back down, was incredible. We got on these dopey little scooters (see above) and got giant helmets. I have a teeny tiny head so I had to wear a child-size one (seriously. my husband loves to make fun of me. My bike helmet is an adult small and its enormous on me – I have to add extra padding. When I was a teenager I was self-conscious about it; I have broad shoulders, so I was convinced my head looked disproportionately small. I have since learned that it IS disproportionately small, but only I can tell.)

Anyway. To make the road luge scooters go, you pulled back on the handle bars. There were three tracks, and the place reminded me a lot of the old-school tube slides at Noah’s Ark (Rotorua and Wisconsin Dells is an apt comparison, too, actually).

The only problem Ian and I had with the road luge is that we were absolute maniacs.  We kept overtaking the other customers, who were never expected anyone behind them and therefore were swerving all over the little concrete track like the asshats we all were. We also routinely almost crashed on a hairpin turn – but that’s what the helmets were for.

We took a chairlift back up to the top until we’d exhausted our pass, and then we went to New Zealand’s only Jelly Belly concept store (for some reason, we thought that was hilarious. I got lychee and passion fruit jelly beans, though, and they were amazing). And then we got some ice cream, looked at Lake Rotorua and sat in the sun, before heading to the Funky Green Voyager, one of the sillier hostels we stayed in during our trip, and going out to a fancy dinner that we earned by walking all over the Waitomo countryside.

Woot!

life goes on.

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I know I’m an ocean and a day removed from the tragedy in Boston, but it has really spooked me, as I’m sure it has many people. I couldn’t really get enthused about writing about New Zealand under the circumstances (though I’ve only reported on the first four days of the trip…). So I’m sharing a few (very disparate) videos that I’ve watched the last few days while I should have been being productive.

You should spend ~10 minutes this week and watch them, too. the first one I got from DesignBoom (via LikeCool.com, which is a rabbit warren fo sho); the second one is THE RETURN OF KATNISS EVERDEEN; and the third I got from Lena Dunham’s Twitter feed. Just when I start to lose faith in celebrity twitter feeds, the world sends me this.

Maybe Dundle Hill wasn’t so bad after all

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Ian and I somehow managed to go to New Zealand and not do the Tongariro Crossing.  this probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, but it seemed like a very big deal to me in February, when I realised that Ian and I had gone literally halfway around the world and were going to miss out on the most famous hike in New Zealand and possibly the world.  We didn’t seriously consider doing any of the ‘Great Walks’ because they’re all multi-day, and the challenges of getting all our crap there – food and a stove and sleeping bags – was just too much, even if we could stay in huts.

dundle hill

Of course, we didn’t realise that the there is one day hike on the list of Great Walks, and it is the place where they filmed Mordor in Lord of the Rings. And we didn’t see it.

We saw plenty of famous geothermal stuff later in the trip, which helped me calm down a little.  But on the day we should have been doing the Tongariro Crossing, we were doing the Dundle Hill walk, an overnight with huts in Waitomo.  We chose it because it looked easy – we were going to be in Waitomo anyway, we knew where we could get food, etc.

The Dundle Hill walk had some stuff going for it, but the best parts were included in an easy two-mile walk that we could have done in an hour or two. The rest looked a lot like England or the US – the very best parts, to be fair, and if I’d been in the Peak District I would have been ecstatic with the whole thing.  But even though it was beautiful and I’m looking back fondly at the photos, this is possibly the only thing I did in New Zealand the was a disappointment.

The best part was a cave (pictured above) that we explored a little.  Without sandals, though, we could only walk into the mouth – the rest of it (400 m long) had between 4 in and 2 m of water, and Ian kiboshed the idea of going barefoot.  though I know going barefoot would have been unadvisable, I would have explored a little at least. I mean, it’s not like I’ll ever be there again.

Bottom line: just do Tongariro Crossing.

Waitomo

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waitomo

After we went to Auckland in February, we went to Waitomo to go caving and look at glowworms.  We had the most beautiful man-boy I’d ever seen as a guide; that made up for the fact that the ‘adventure’ part of the adventure glowworm tour was a little tame – though there was, as promised, a 50 m abseil, a zipline, and some easy climbing in some very unsexy gumboots. the glowworms were really cool, though we did see them a few other places.

The bonus in Waitomo was Huhu, an absolutely amazing restaurant that was one of only three on offer. In the two days we were there, we ate in absolutely every establishment there and nearly had to resort to going places twice (though going back to Huhu would not made me feel sheepish but happy, because the food was crazy good).

Glowworm adventure caving is one of the must-do activities on the North Island, but they weren’t as bright as they usually are because (as we heard once or twice), New Zealand was experiencing the worst drought in several decades (I just googled it – they’re now experiencing near-normal rainfall so it looks like the crisis has more or less passed).

While the caving was the thing that brought us to Waitomo, the unexpected highlight was in Otorohanga, a crummy little middle-of-nowhere town a few miles away, with a kiwi sanctuary.  We thought it would be a few birds scrabbling around in a sad little cage. We were very wrong. It was a full-fledged aviary.  there was a kiwi room when you went in, kept in a state of perpetual dusk, so that the birds are always active. After you passed through the kiwi house, there was a full park of other birds – ducks and falcons and parakeets.  When the Maori arrived a thousand years ago, the only mammal on the island was bats, and there were some absolutely crazy birds, including the moa, this giant (like 10 ft tall), hairy-looking bird that was hunted to extinction with dispatch.  Because there were no predators, kiwis are just the most famous of a whole bunch of weird-looking ground birds.

I didn’t realise how big kiwis are, and when I saw them, I freaked out. They’re bent-over things with shaggy hair for feathers, leathery skin, whiskers, and a perpetually hunched posture. They’re amazing. And the rest of the aviary was a cherry on top. I love birds. It amazes me all the time that I spent 25 years not appreciating them.

Media Review: Stornoway, ‘Tales from Terra Firma’

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Stornoway is a remote part of Scotland.  It is also a hipster band from Oxford who released an upbeat, indie, vaguely Vampire Weekend-ish album called Beachcomber’s Windowsill in 2010.  I had kind of forgotten about them, but in early March they released a sophomore album, ‘Tales from Terra Firma.’  At first I was disappointed. It had many of the same things I liked about the first album; the lead singer has a quirky voice and the band still has their string-based pop sound, but it seemed to lack the clarity and brightness of the first album, which had melancholy songs that were still uplifting, like ‘We are the Battery Human.’

The sophomore album is a little more driving and a little muddier, although like the first album, its a record that is worth getting to know.  Highlights include ‘You Take Me As I Am,’ which is a little shmaltzy but an absolute delight to listen to.  ‘The Great Procrastinator’ captures the deceptive simplicity of their first album, and I found myself singing ‘The Bigger Picture’ the other day without knowing what album it came from, which is both a compliment to the second album and an indictment of it.  The best stuff is just like the old stuff, and some of it isn’t as good.

On balance, I like ‘Tales from Terra Firma,’ and I remain a pretty devoted Stornoway fan.  I’m very disappointed I won’t be able to see them at Wilton’s Music Hall in London this Friday (Wilton’s is on my to-do list) but they are touring some of my favourite venues in the US (Schubas in Chicago, TT the Bear’s in Cambridge, and Horseshoe Tavern (where I think I went once) in Toronto. Plus some other places, of course. You should check them out and report back.

The Sapphires: A Movie Review

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The Sapphires came out ages ago in Australia, and ages ago in the UK, and is just now arriving in the US.  I saw it on the plane from Vancouver to Auckland and have been mainlining the soundtrack for a couple weeks, as well as becoming an unironic Jessica Mauboy fan (she won Australian Idol and then starred in The Sapphires, which has led reviewers to call it an Aussie Dreamgirls…and that’s pretty on the nose).

The movie is based on the true story of a girl group made of Aboriginal (Yorta Yorta, to be specific) sisters and cousins who toured Vietnam entertaining soldiers in 1968.  It focuses on the self-identity of the members of the group, who find parallels between their lives and that of the African American soldiers they meet in Vietnam. The story is about the triumph of the individual women in the group, who are thrust into a world they could not possibly have been prepared for and who gain, over the course of the movie, a new perspective on their identity. Plus they learn fairly conventional things about love and friendship.

The movie is delightful.  While predictable in places, and understandably reminiscent of Dreamgirls, the film is prevented from total saccharine-ness by the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the very real persecution that these women faced well into the 1970s.  And the fact that its a true(ish) story makes the whole thing pretty easy to get behind.

And since the movie is set in the 1960s, the whole thing is thread through with Jessica Mauboy singing the lead on 60s classics, like the Jackson 5’s ‘Who’s Loving You’ and ‘What a Man.’  I was sold from the first lines, when three of the sisters sing Merle Haggard’s ‘Today I Started Loving You Again.’ Afterward, the man who subsequently becomes their manager, played by Chris O’Dowd upbraids them for singing country and not soul.  O’Dowd is as adorable, and maybe even more so, than in Bridesmaids and would be reason enough to see the movie.  But the rest of it is great too.

As I said, I saw it on a plane.  But I would happily pay $10 to see it in theatres and I encourage you to do the same. I’m sure the period costumes will look fantastic on the big screen.

Bumper Bars at Home (+ breakfast miscellany)

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Ian and I went to New Zealand for two weeks in February, and one of the most delicious discoveries was Bumper Bars, a quasi-granola bar/candy bar thing that we pretended was healthy because we were On Holiday.

The apricot-chocolate one was the best, and I’ve been wanting to recreate it since.  So I scoured the internet, found a Real Simple recipe, and made some improvements – i.e. added more chocolate and more apricots.

I made them with the idea that I would take them to work for breakfast, but Ian and I scarfed a third of the pan before they were even cool.  We’re calmed down, sliced them up and put the rest away, but its clear that my vision of a healthy granola breakfast bar hasn’t panned out – they are a victim of their own success.

I’ve been using Smitten Kitchen’s breakfast crumble recipe for a few months now – so much so that the guy at the Turkish International Supermerkert has commented on my plum consumption (he also asked me if I’d been swimming yesterday.  I hadn’t, I was just that sweaty after zumba class). I keep upping the size of the recipe and we keep eating it, and its a really easy way to prepare a week’s worth of breakfasts in one go.

Finally, I got into cacao nibs a few months ago, when I made cacao-banana-coffee muffins, which are delicious.  But the enduring success from the cacao experiment was refrigerator oatmeal, which I have been making several times a week since November – you soak oats overnight with milk, sugar, cacao and fruit.  Since I am less of a dirty hippie than I used to be, I use milk and processed sugar.  I eat it on the train while glaring at people doing their make-up (I mean seriously. I wish women would stop wearing makeup in general, but barring that, I wish they would stop putting it on while sitting next to me on the train).  I’m really sensitive to the smell of it, which makes me sneeze, and watching a woman with an eyelash curler in a public place just grosses me out).

Breakfast!

Big Night in the Big City

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On Friday, I went to see Paper Tiger Poetry in Vauxhall, a neighbourhood of London I’d never been to before. It was an open mic night with two anchor poets, Donall Dempsey and Hollie McNish.  You may have heard of Hollie; I’ve written about her before on this blog and was even present at the genesis of her most recent hit, a commentary on Flo Rida’s ‘Blow My Whistle.’ I’m taking credit for having inspired the bit about zumba, as well as the last line that I don’t want to spoil.

Anyway. I invited My Friend Kamilla to Hollie’s gig.  The two anchor poets were great, and there were some notable successes who gave open mike presentations, and the whole night finished with a group singalong in honour of St. Patrick that I thought was absolutely fantastic. Also, the venue was the Tea House Theatre, which was a delightful spot.

However, there were some notable failures – enough that, when we adjourned to The Black Dog hipster pub down the road, Kamilla and Hollie and I kicked off a round of ‘which open mic poet would be your secret boyfriend?’ (it was almost all dudes) that lasted more or less until the bar closed.

February’s Grand Adventure, Part I

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In February, Ian and I took a belated honeymoon/joint birthday trip to New Zealand.  Most of the posts recounting the adventures I had while I was there will be of interest to absolutely no one but myself and my partner, but as we have long referred to this blog as ‘Vanity Project #1,’ I think I’m okay with that.  I stopped trying to be internet-famous when I got a job, and now this is just a narcissistic public scrap book. Hurray!

(Vanity projects #2 and 3 are learning guitar and learning French).

auckland

Anyway. We flew into Auckland, which is a remarkable un-scenic place, though we stayed in absolutely the cutest damn neighbourhood you’ve ever seen – Ponsonby, a place with low-rise gingerbread-encrusted bungalows built into hillsides; a place of rampant gentrification and immaculately tended B&Bs (we stayed at one. it was amazing).  We spent two days there (we arrived early in the morning and gave ourselves a day to adjust to the time difference), which – just FYI – I wouldn’t recommend.  There were not that many things to do in Auckland, although we did eat delicious Jewish, Japanese, American and Thai food.  Eating was kind of a theme of the trip.

The city, like much of the rest of the country, was originally built in the mid-19th century; a lot of the country’s prosperity and white population originally came to the country in a series of gold rushes in the 1850s, 60s and 70s.  I loved picturing remote corners of New Zealand turning into cities and settlements at the same time that, thousands of miles away, San Francisco was turning into a metropolis.  San Francisco is the most apt comparison city – Auckland felt like a provincial version. I don’t say that to be demeaning; it wasn’t much to write home about from a planning perspective but it was a very livable city – it was just low-rise and spread out, and the CBD was small.

The photos above include a few photos from Ponsonby, the absolute highlight of the city, at least for me (we were there on the day of the Gay Pride Parade, which was a special bonus). The big Neoclassical building is the Auckland Museum, a lovely place set inside a giant and equally lovely park; I didn’t take that photo.