Tuesday, February 19, 2013

WHILE THE WHOLE OF NEW ZEALAND IS A BIT OF A BLUR - a sensory overload of weaving two-lane highways cutting through ever-more-beautiful scenery - there are parts that cannot be confused. Rocky coastlines that vibrate under a colony of seals, lush rain forests cropping up suddenly, or pebbly beaches so far and wide you cannot see their end. 

Jeff did some truly exemplary driving on this trip. With the traffic and cars flip-flopped, he adjusted quickly, only hopping in the wrong side of the car and meandering onto the wrong side of the road a handful of times. When I barked at him to Stop! when passing something gorgeous, he did, even on treacherous curves or inexplicably guardrailless mountain roads. We covered a lot of territory.

You might be wondering why certain places. All along the way we've had friendly/proud/excited recommendations from all over this beautiful country, though our plans were already in motion. But I use the term loosely.

A secret: We basically threw a dart at the map. We knew how much time we'd have and where our trip would start and finish. From there we just plotted out a route that would divide driving time in a civilized manner, leaving us in cute places along the way. We based most of our stops on the AirBnb's we'd fallen in love with and worked backwards to see how much time we could spend in each. That's it. Nothing more than that. We had no specific things to see, no "excursions" booked or planned - You see, whale watching is great, but we can't throw hundreds of dollars at stuff like that. As I've said before, the adventure for us is being here, discovering places and things on our own. There's something special about driving blindly through a new place, hopping off the main drag to find a perfect place to picnic. And, after all is said and done, I'm so happy we did it this way. Nobody has seen New Zealand exactly as we did, and I like that.

Just four of the varying landscapes between Picton and Kaikoura on the first leg of our South Island drive.

Some highlights of the trip, particularly Castle Hill, an outcropping of natural limestone formations in the middle of the country.  Remarkable. 

Arthur's Pass is one of only three roads cutting through the Southern Alps between the West Coast and Canterbury. Snow-capped mountains in the distance and beautiful plains, rain forests, and ranges. The landscape changed every 15 minutes. Truly incredible.

On the South Island we zigzagged from Picton (where the ferry dropped us) through Marlborough wine country, a quick 90 minutes to Kaikoura. Then we trekked west, inland, to the quaintest mountain town you can conjure to laze at the Hanmer Hot Springs. Then further west, across the Lewis Pass, to Hokitika, a town which appeared a bit downtrodden, like everything I've ever seen about Canada's maritime towns. Plucky, but worn out. We wandered out to Sunset Point where we crossed a few inches of icy-cold water to a notorious sand bar. During the gold rush, Hokitika was a popular port and many ships were wrecked there. Now this pebbly peninsula is the go-to for fishermen; in just a few minutes we watched half a dozen people pull 10 fifteen pound quinnat salmon from the water, oisy poizy. They gutted and cleaned them right there, before tossing their innards back to sea.

Sunset Point, the mouth of Hokitika River, where it meets the Tasman Sea. Above we chat with a gentleman who said the 6 quinnet salmon he'd caught was nothing. A slow hour.

For me, a favourite stop on the South Island was Kaikoura. On New Zealand's east coast, it's a charming town on a peninsula surrounded by mountains and water. Like towns on the North Island, it has that Truman Show aesthetic, well-manicured and lovely, safe and old-timey. From stumbling upon a colony of Southern Fur Seals to feeding horses in a field, we had a quiet couple of days in this lovely place. With a full-size house and a fridge full of great wine, we made this town our home, if only for a day or two.

A view of town from the top of the Kaikoura Peninsula. The Kaikoura Ranges beyond, which divide the Canterbury Region from the Marlborough.

Again, please follow me on Instagram for daily tidbits. I'm treating it like a mini-blog, so more stories and specifics can be read there. Stay tuned for (almost) a month in beautiful Australia.

LOCATION: Surfer's Paradise, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia
DATE AND TIME: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 9:30AM Australian Eastern Standard Time/Tuesday, February 19, 2013 6:30PM EST

Some of you might be wondering what happened to the campervan idea. While planning, we discovered renting one would be quite expensive. It seemed we'd be able to rent a car and sleep in proper beds, have a kitchen, and enjoy not camping for the same price as a van. So that idea went out the window. And every time we saw a haggard couple climbing out of the back of a camper, schlepping a bucket of water, we knew we'd dodged a bullet. Because we would. have. killed each other.

Location: Kaikoura, Canterbury, New Zealand 
Accommodation: The Blue Heron Bungalows +
Incredible. Lovely, bright, with views of the ocean. A 45-second walk to the shore, where there's also a heated public pool facility on the water's edge. Suzy, a terrific lady from Oregon, runs it beautifully and was a pleasant surprise - It's not so often you stumble upon North Americans in these parts. A quick wander or a drive to the town's centre, to the seal colonies or the hills where you can view the town (and feed horses) See photos above.
Food: We ate each and every meal in the well-appointed kitchen. It was nicer than our own. Another exercise in making ourselves at home in a strange place. A large grocery store in town.

Location: Hanmer Springs, Canterbury, New Zealand
Accommodation: The Chalets 
A super-cute stand-alone one-bedroom cabin on beautiful grounds. Pat and Jock are sweet and very hands-off - There if you need them for anything at all, but very committed to giving you privacy. Extremely clean with everything we needed for our two-night stay.
Food: Again, we prepared all meals at "home" in the great little kitchen. This trip is making me reevaluate the plethora of kitchen tools I have in Toronto - When given only a few options, you make them work, carving into a can or hacking up a chicken with whatever is on-hand. Grocery store nearby in the town's centre with everything you'll need. Wine, too.

Location: Hokitika, West Coast Region, New Zealand 
Accommodation: The Beachfront Hotel 
One of the very few traditional hotels we'll stay at on this trip. A really nice room which wouldn't be out of place in Toronto or New York. Incredible views of the Tasman Sea. Disappointed by cold water and grey skies, but a great hotel. Wifi limited and expensive.
Food: Because this was a more-traditional hotel, we ate our meals out and about. Surprisingly tasty Indian food at Priya on the main street. Great, polite service, cheap wine and really good food.

While we would've liked to get further south (particularly Queenstown) we ended our trip in Christchurch, where we spent less than 24 hours. I was surprised by how devastated the city still was, after the massive earthquake two years ago. With progress delayed by aftershocks (and insurance claims) much of the central business district remains cordoned off and in shambles. The hotel there was serviceable, but not worth mentioning. 

Thank you for reading!


New Zealand: The North Island
On Departures

Monday, February 18, 2013

G'DAY, MATE! (I regret that.)

It goes without saying that two weeks in New Zealand barely scratches its beautiful surface, but we're off to Australia. Paul's wonderful map to the right illustrates the highlights of our itinerary, and if you've got a kindergarten geography education, you can see we're scratching even less of it.

Here are the facts: New Zealand and Australia are two of the most expensive places in the world and while we could spend months in each, we wouldn't have a thin dime to spend anywhere else. And so we will dip a toe, get a taste of these places and perhaps make a return trip someday. We can't blow the budget in the first month - We are, after all, on the Great All-You-Can-Eat Buffet Trip of a Lifetime. (Hashtag that.)

So I'm writing from another airplane, heading west, from Christchurch to Australia's Gold Coast. Not only will we move closer to yesterday (time zones!), we'll gain a few degrees of warmth and sun. At an average of 20°C on New Zealand's South Island, we were starting to worry we'd need a sweater!

And much to Jeff's relief, after driving almost 2000 kilometres between two glorious islands in 14 days, we're done with the road trip portion of the adventure, this time using airplanes to get between each of three cities: Gold Coast (beaches, surfing, hot dudes) Melbourne (food, culture, hot dudes) and Sydney (apparently the greatest city in the world, and hot dudes). We'll also make a stop in Newcastle where my Dad's cousin lives with her husband. It's not often family makes it all the way Down Under, so we wouldn't miss a chance to visit. And when Brenda suggested they take us sailing, Jeff nearly lost his pure-bred Anglo mind, so it's officially on the itinerary, weather permitting.

But trust me, it was tough to pare a place like Australia down, to nix places like Uluru. Aside from reenacting every scene in Priscilla, it's got a reputation for changing your entire life. But it would cost us more than a month in Bali to fly out there, stay and tramp around for a just couple of days, so it wasn't in the cards.

Australia will get 27 days, which translates to approximately 250 Instagram posts. (Oh god.) It also means over 400 glorious, daylight hours and more than 40 000 hot dude sightings. We'll make every second count. I'm quite sure I'll keep you posted.


LOCATION: Somewhere over the Tasman Sea between Christchurch and Australia's Gold Coast
DATE AND TIME: February 19, 2013 4:00PM Norfolk Islands Standard Time/February 18, 2013 10:00PM EST

Thursday, February 14, 2013

THIS TRIP COMES AT A TIME IN THE CALENDAR RIFE WITH REFLECTION. A new year. That solemn period in winter when you hunker down and ruminate. And although we've set sail on a circuit chasing the sun, my brain is hardwired to associate February with anxious consideration. Sporadically, my mind races, wondering what I might've left loose in Toronto. What life will look like this year, and what it might look like when the trip is over, when we go home.

But, technically speaking, we're homeless. House-less, I should say, because somehow we've managed to make a home in several places so far. Since we left Toronto, I've confirmed what I always suspected to be true (and what truck commercials set in Arizona want us to believe) - That where we are, home is. 

Formative experiences tend to remind us of previous ones. Growth of any kind can dredge previous discomforts and present them in a new light.

The last few years have been kind of major, in that way. I turned 30 and all the things they say about that seem to be true. The shift into adulthood or, more rightly, growing the F up. For me it's been an exercise in taking responsibility, owning my shit, and being more accountable and compassionate. 

Did I mention we've been seeing a psychotherapist for 2 years? 

I've never figured out how I want to discuss that here, but not because we're cagey about it. We find ourselves talking about it all the time. I'm super proud of the work we've done and the process in general; I recommend it to any couple. Culturally we think we're fully-equipped to deal with adult relationships - how they develop, what each person brings to them, how individual turmoil affects things - But, well, that's just not true. We do not come into this world prepared to productively process all of it. The things we've learned about each other and the tips and tricks acquired will most certainly move us forward, into our 10th year together, and beyond.

Aside from big picture shit, a trip like this brings to light all of our individual quirks and how they collide, if allowed. It's a daily exercise in patience. A microscope on the foibles that might've wrecked us before, but can be navigated with a deep breath and a moment of quiet. These are things we've worked hard on. We pause to avoid upset. We're careful not to pull triggers, and increasingly less likely to bear the brunt of a misguided bullet. It's a master class in marriage, this kind of intensive togetherness. And we're doing it. 

The adventure here is not in what we do in each place, but rather in the immersion of ourselves into a life somewhere else. Playing house in 50 different places. Where we are, home is, and the details are just pretty to look at.

True Valentine (February 14, 2011)
Boys to Men (July 12, 2010)

Monday, February 11, 2013

I'm writing from the charmingly-dated lounge of a 30 year old boat crossing the fairly-rough waters of the Cook Strait. I'm watching waves crash against the starboard side, audibly pounding its belly, splashing mist up onto this 8th deck window. We're sailing from New Zealand's North Island to its South, three hours across open sea unlike any body of water I've ever crossed. 

New Zealand is a weird and wonderful place. Looking around, depending on the region, it could be the Caribbean or America's arid southwest. Other times, perhaps Montana or Ireland or the jagged coast of Wales. It seems that no matter which direction you look, the landscape shifts and changes to reveal yet another personality. Today I could be in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico or the icy cold waters of the North Atlantic. If the sun comes out from behind the clouds, it's more likely the former. Now, under a hazy grey, it feels the latter, spooky and uncharted.

We started our New Zealand leg in Auckland, its most-populated city. It lays across giant hills dotted with 1960s brutalist architecture as well as more-colonial buildings; it reminded me something of Montreal. A university town, there's no shortage of adorable dudes in inexplicably short shorts and cute girls in high-waisted skirts; New Zealand is a place where bathing suits seem to be the default and shoelessness is encouraged. (And well-defined calves are a national treasure.)

So Auckland would be our landing pad, a place to get our lost bearings, figure out the date, sleep a little and get acquainted. We had no big plans, only adjustment. After two quick days we would rent a car and meander south, eventually to Wellington (the capital) where we'd meet this boat. 

I don't know quite how to explain the feeling I get here. It's something like scepticism, or maybe just awe. You see, in each town and city there's an almost Edward Scissorhands-cleanliness, an idyllic quality that is startling to this North American. It's so tidy and liveable. People move about as if given stage directions; The Truman Show comes to mind. 

I mean, even the ugly people are hot

The smallest of small towns seem sophisticated and set-dressed. Mainstreets thrive in every place, each sustaining a butcher, a baker and a woollen-clothes maker. If there's crime or poverty, we certainly haven't seen it. And out in the limitless countryside, lambs chase cows playfully under the warm breeze of the South Pacific while a pony tells jokes to a herd of llamas. Or something. Like I said, it's hard to explain. It's overwhelming. 

But I'm the kind of person who thinks, "Well, I'm sure Canada is this to a visitor." But it can't be. Between the vast grassy mountains and the aquamarine coastlines, it certainly must be the most-beautiful place on the planet. 

Our road trip began with a meandering drive from Auckland to Tauranga. After spending 5 weeks in Florida, I found surprising comfort in a return to the metric system, kilometres clipping along faster than those dastardly American miles.  Known as "Surfer's Paradise" (though we were only interested in the second part) Tauranga is on the north island's east coast. We'd spend just one night in a charming apartment on the beach where we'd swim for the first time in the Pacific Ocean, eat local summer corn in February, and hike to the top of our first mountain

Mount Maunganui - an extinct volcanic cone overlooking the Bay of Plenty - is only 232m tall, but considering our level of expertise and abysmal fitness, it was plenty. And luckily breaks are encouraged, with lots to see. (There were more DILFs than you could shake a stick at up there! Oh, and scenery.) 

On the road again, it would be another few hours across majestic mountain roadways to Napier, a charming seaside town in the Hawkes Bay Region. In 1931 it was devastated by an earthquake, levelling most of it and dredging 4000 hectares up out out the sea, where much of Napier lies today. Pretty cool

We stayed in a cabin just outside of town, apartment-style on the beach. Oh, the beach. The first thing we do whenever we're spitting distance to a body of water is hurry to the shore. At first we were disappointed when we stepped into black rocks the size of kiwis; it felt more like a riverbed than a beach. But as we got closer the crashing waves, the rocks shrunk. And shrunk. Smaller still until they ranged from bits no bigger than tiny ball bearings. Underfoot it felt like a spa treatment, hot and aggressive on the soles. Before long we'd find ourselves stretched out, inches deep in the stones. The best part? No sand in your gitch

Our final leg of the North Island was a rather big trek: 4 hours cross-country, through mountains and curvy roads, past about 700 000 sheep and as many cows. As if location scouting for Jurassic Park we turned off onto empty backroads, driving until we agreed it was far enough. We had a budget-friendly picnic of homemade sandwiches and a cheap bottle of wine in a meadow near a river. When you ask if I'm an adventurer, I'll tell you that I am.

The black shingle beaches of Napier.

Some highlights form the North Island.  Our hike up Mount Maunganui will be remembered for a long time.

The Manawatu Gorge is the only "water gap" in the Southern Hemisphere. This occurs when flowing water carves a path through existing rock.

LOCATION: Written on the ferry, posted from Kairkoura, Canterbury, New Zealand
DATE AND TIME: Tuesday, February 11, 2013 8:30AM NZST/Monday, February 10, 2013 2:30PM EST


I know people are interested in the how's and what's of a trip like this. Briefly, I'll say that we are staying in a lot of AirBnB's and using Hotels.com -- We want to keep things cheap, cheerful, safe and reputable. We likely won't go the hostel route, unless we spend much more time in places like New Zealand: Expensive! We're aiming to balance our travels between places like this, and much more affordable locations like Thailand and India. Splurge + save.

Because we're renting a lot of furnished/apartment-style dwellings, we're taking advantage of the fittings: fully-equipped kitchens, etc. Where possible, we will eat at least 2 of 3 meals at "home". So far so good. While it might be a grocery store roast chicken and a quick salad, we will surely save a ton of money if we aren't at restaurants every day. Breakfast, coffee, grab-and-go sandwiches: That stuff adds up! Besides, it's fun to feel like a local for the day, popping into a shop for bread and provisions. And wine. All while affecting an accent you think is super convincing.

If you follow me on Instagram, you've seen many of these photos. I hate to say it (and might come to regret it some day) but I haven't pulled out my "proper" camera more than twice since starting our trip. And I can't say I care. I might get into the groove as time goes on, but for now, my iPhone is capturing images the way our parents might've in the 70s - with the ease and portability of a Polaroid. And I love it. Please join me on Instagram for up-to-the-minute mini-blogs from whoknowswhere.

Location: Auckland 
Accommodation: The Waldorf St. Martins 
Super clean, great size, perfect location. Awesome customer service. 
Food: We ate in the hotel, which had a well-appointed kitchenette as well as two lunches out. The most-notable was fish and chips at the Auckland Fish Market in the very cool Viaduct Basin. This area has been recently repurposed as a mult-use neighbourhood with apartments, restaurants and community projects. Plenty to see and do with great food, wine bars and plenty of people-watching.

Location: Tauranga
Accommodation: The Budget Crossroads Crib 
No frills, spitting distance to the beach, everything you need. In an amazing neighbourhood. We loved it, but not for the ultra-fussy. Wifi included, worked well. New Zealand is notorious for terrible/expensive/hard-to-come-by wifi, so it being included is important.
Food: We were here for a hot second, so we ate in the apartment. A quick meal in the small kitchen was all I could handle throwing together. But we had local summer corn in the middle of February, so I'm not complaining.

Location: Napier 
Accommodation: Bayview Snapper Holiday Park ½
This is a campground, make no mistake. But the "self-contained units" are quiet, well-appointed and very clean. Beach-front. Comfortable.
Food: The first night we had dinner at The Gintrap in the Port of Napier. We assumed it would be a run-of-the-mill pub, but the food was surprising. Local fish and chips with a great salad and terrific slaw. While expensive, we were pleased that it was legitimately good and thoughtful. Well-prepared. Otherwise we ate in our cabin - More corn on the cob! 

Location: Wellington 
Accommodation: The Ibis Hotel 
Perfect for our purposes - A place to crash before catching the ferry just down the street. It was under $100, super nice, and right in the heart of Wellington. A welcome reunion with a king sized bed. The city of Wellington offers free wifi when you're out and about, which is great.
Food: Because we were staying in a traditional hotel, cooking wasn't an option. We poked around another incredible marina similar to that in Auckland - Parks, art, restaurants and bars. (So far this country puts Toronto to shame with its attention to public space.) We ended up on Cuba Street (a pedestrian-only arcade known for its night life) and had charcuterie, pizza and wine at Scopa. Both were tasty, particularly the housemade sausage and mustard -- Word on the street is they whip dijon into butter, chill it, then serve it in firm rounds alongside the meat and bread. So good.

Thank you for reading.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

A few days ago we started our trip around the world. We packed what wasn't already boxed-up, filled a rolling duffle and got onto a succession of airplanes heading west. It wasn't, really, until we crossed the International Dateline - the magical, invisible place in the middle of the Pacific - that it struck me: We were, and would be, so far from home. In an instant, today became halfway through tomorrow, and I found myself giddy. Jeff slept quietly beside me and I wormholed my way into Tuesday at 900 km an hour. The idea that Monday, February 4th, 2013 was a day we opted out of both terrified and exhilarated me.

And then, almost suddenly, though all those hours later, we were down around the bottom part of a globe. Like, so far down and around that you have to pick it up off the table to get a proper look. It's a place you don't learn about in elementary school, just a wayward eyebrow, cocked cheerfully, down under.

Planning a trip like this is tricky. So many months equal many, many days. Many hours to fill with things that are fun! and exciting! and incredible! There's a certain pressure to do and see everything, to make every second count. But we got quite clear on that right away: We would not do and see everything. Could not. Perhaps don't even want to.

But then, "adventurous" is not a word often used to describe me. When people suggest I get out of my comfort zone, I want to shout: "I was on an airplane in the stratosphere for 16 hours straight! That's crazy!" I don't need to spelunk or skydive; my heart randomly accelerates on its own, thank you very much. Jeff, on the other hand, is up for anything. He'll rewire a light without even shutting down the breaker! But on this we are the same: Sometimes walking on a beach at dusk on that part of a globe you have to pick up to see is adventure enough.

This trip will include many new experiences, big and small. Departures both literal and figurative. But, while there will be many firsts on this adventure, today is the very last time I'll be this person, bound to be something different upon our return.

(New Zealand, as seen from the airplane upon our arrival.)

LOCATION: Tauranga, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand
DATE AND TIME: Friday, February 8, 2013 8:00AM NZST/Thursday, February 7, 2013 2:00PM EST