Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Top Ten Things To See and Do in New Zealand

I can’t wax on enough about New Zealand. The “Endzone” first struck a cord with me when I was 18 years old. I packed up and headed off to Australia, only to add New Zealand to my itinerary at the last minute.

My half-sister Linda had married a New Zealander, Hamish, years ago and lived in an area called Kati Kati. I figured it would be foolish to travel that far and not drop by and pay her a visit. Besides not seeing them both for a looong time, they had two children, Tor and Bjorn whom I had never met. I’m not, and especially not seven years ago, a big fan of kids but I figured since they were my nephews it would do me good to meet them.

Interestingly enough, when I finally got my trip together, Hamish and Linda had moved down to Paekakariki, on the Kapiti Coast, a 45-minute train ride outside of Wellington. While they still had their place in Kati Kati, they rented a wee (and I do mean wee) house in this wee town in order to be close to Hamish’s work.

Hamish was the key grip for ALL of the Lord of The Rings Movies, which meant he basically worked from 1999-2003 on it. My sister and him are actually good friends with Peter Jackson and have worked as grips on almost all his films from Brain Dead to Heavenly Creatures to The Frighteners. I got to hear a LOT of gossip about the film and eventually got to visit the set itself. But that happened a few years later.

Anyway, to make this story short, I flew down to New Zealand, spent two weeks in Paekakariki and Wellington and two weeks during a Magic Bus tour of the South Island.

The country left such a lasting impact on me that even though I thoroughly enjoyed my five months in Australia afterwards, I still yearned for my time in NZ.

Fortunately, I was able to return to New Zealand three years later, as I arranged to attend the Auckland Institute of Technology and start my brilliant career in Communications. It was a three-year Bachelors but I only stayed for just over one year. Circumstance and fate led me back home to Canada.

What’s the point of all this? Well NZ made such an impression on me after two weeks that I returned years later with all intentions to move. That’s gotta mean it’s pretty special. Also, because I was somewhat of a “local,” for a year at least, I got to see and do some pretty amazing things, things that the average tourist wouldn’t know about.

So without further ado, here is Top Ten List of Things to See and Do in New Zealand:

1. Milford SoundThis goes without saying. No trip to New Zealand is complete without seeing this justifiably famous park. Yes, it might be a bit out of the way and a pain to get to, but it’s worth it. Just prepare for rain. Lots and lots of rain.

2. Lake Wanaka – Wanaka often gets overshadowed by its more famous neighbour, Queenstown, even though its scenery is just as stunning, its activities are just as mind-blowing and it’s less touristy. Its easy to get to and its location makes it a convenient base for exploring Makaroa (the Siberia Experience is highly recommended) and Queenstown.

3. Te Anua Located further south than Milford Sound, Te Anua is just as beautiful, made even more so thanks to its isolation and “off the beaten path” feel. It’s the starting point for exploring the remote Doubtful and Dusky sounds, houses the well-traversed Kepler and Routeburn tracks (known as the Walking Capital of the World) and a gorgeous lake just ripe for exploring.

4. The East Cape – The East Cape is the tiny eastern section of the South Island. It has the highest Maori influence of any place in the country and is dotted with down-to-earth and traditional towns. The surf-friendly city of Gisborne and the Art-Deco influenced structure of Napier provide a cosmopolitan twist among the capes verdant forest and fern-covered gullies.

5. The Otago Peninsula – This peninsula is conveniently located near the scenic and Scottish town of Dunedin (which literally means “little Edinburgh”). For all your wildlife needs, the Otago Peninsula is your one stop shop. Where else can you see sea lions up close, little blue penguins at your feet, big Hoiho penguins frolicking in green meadows with sheep and the mighty albatross? I highly recommend this tour company.

6. Punakaiki – A small settlement on the West Coast of the South Island, its mainly known as a quick bus stop to see the famous “Pancake Rocks.”
But aside from these Dali-esque, sea-scuplted formation, Punakaiki has lush rainforests, best seen by kayaking or walking up the Pororari River, and a wild, desolate wind-swept coast dotted with New Zealand’s only native palm tree, the Nikau Palm.

The area also boasts a wonderful backpackers.

7. Nelson – This happens to be my favourite city in the whole country. Aside from its small-town charm, huge array of quality hostels and encompassing scenery, its biggest draw is its location. It’s a great base for exploring the transcendent Nelson Lakes National Park and the lush Abel Tasman National Park. While Abel Tasman is a lot more visited and well-known than Nelson Lakes, they are both a hiker, kayaker and photographer’s paradise and crucial to any trip to the country.

8. The Alpine Tranzscenic Train Ride – Proclaimed the “Most Scenic Train Journey in the World” this four-hour train ride from Christchurch on the South Island’s East Coast to Greymouth on the West Coast passes through towering, tussocked peaks, isolated ranches and sub-tropical rainforest. Arthur’s Pass is the stop in the middle of the journey and well-worth spending a couple of days, no matter what the season. Staying at these cottages will make your stay extra memorable.

9. A weekend in the Marlborough Sounds – The Marlborough Sounds are what many people see upon their visit to the South Island…the Interislander ferry passes through them on route to terminal town of Picton. While most people pick up and go from there, my advice would be to plan for a couple of days in the sounds. Most of the accommodations in the sounds are wonderfully isolated, some accessible only by water taxi. This is an excellent place to recharge in the luxurious landscape whether it be kayaking among whales and seals or walking through the verdant hills.

10. Kaikoura – This South Island town is justifiably popular for its Whale Watching excursions, but it has other activities such as dolphin and seal swimming, shark diving, hiking and skiing that make it so much more than the best place to spot a Sperm Whale. A variety of good backpackers, wild shores and mild climate make this a great place to visit, rain or shine….but plan for rain ;)

As you can see, the majority of these places are in the South Island. This is just because the South Island is a lot more geographically diverse than the North Island. Where else can you go from palm-fringed beaches to glaciers in the course of a few hours?

If planning a trip to New Zealand, it is possible to see everything in a few weeks. But believe me, if you really want to get the best of it, plan for at least a month, get the BBH guide (rates the backpackers and hostels in NZ so you know when you are staying at an awesome place) and rent a car. The Kiwi Experience and Magic Bus tours are a great intro (Magic is a tad more respectable as the Kiwi Experience is generally full of drunk, shagging Brits...if you've come to NZ to do that I suggest you save your money and stay at home...or go to Amsterdam) but it can’t compare with the freedom of the open road.

For my own photo essays on New Zealand, please check out the links on the right.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Five More Things

I was recently tagged (I think) by Karina XOXO (yes, I am mentioning her again...can't help it, I just love her name so much!) to do a five things about myself. Now it might have been for another Karina and I already did a five things, which you can read on my other blog here, but I decided, hey, why not do a Travel-Oriented Five Random Things About Me anyway?

Voila, C'est Moi:

1. I've lived in Canada all my life but have never seen any of it aside from a "small portion" of my own province (BC). This is because A) I think BC is the best, the most beautiful etc, so why would I go elsewhere ?(aside from maybe Alberta) B) The rest of Canada is boring to me and C) the "small portion" consists of a 5 hour drive north and a 5 hour drive south...My province, and Canada, are big motherfuckers! Why travel for that long or far when I can go somewhere else, like California or Hawaii or Mexico, for the same amount of time? Besides, I'll always be Canadian...and the country will wait for me.

2. I took my first backpacking journey alone to Australia when I was 18 (the start of my wanderlust) but for the love of God I can't remember what my reasons were for doing it.

3. I was supposed to go see Milford Sound when I was in New Zealand but the bus never picked me up in the morning. I was gutted as it was my last chance and cried for awhile (it was 6 AM and I was tired). Instead, I went horse-back riding in nearby Glenorchy which was so beautiful it almost made up for it.

4. I got lost in the Frankfurt Airport when I was 8. Ok, I wasn't lost...I knew where I was but my parents did not. I was missing for several hours, during this time I was holed up in a toy store and happily playing with Playmobil toys. You can see where my independence stems from...

5. I've never flown first or business class. I think this is very sad indeed.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

How To Look Great While Flying

I was inspired by fellow blogger Karina(XOXO), to dig up an old article of mine which dealt with how to look good while flying. Though I was going to blog about the Top Ten Things to See and Do in New Zealand (thanks to Memphis Steve's request), I'll have to leave that till later.

For now, it's all about being beautiful. You can buy most of the products from Sephora or any beauty boutique.....

I've done a lot of long flights whether it is from LA to Korea to New Zealand, or from Vancouver to Helsinki. With all that time spent in the air, getting no sleep, having my skin dehydrated and make-up smudged, I've somehow managed to create a few tricks that keeps me looking fresh and rested when I land.

Be prepared! With security restrictions this is more difficult these days but as long as you keep the items small (under 3 oz) and in a ziplock bag, you should be all right. You will need the following to look your best:

In order for these products to be safe, take the products and distribute some into 1 oz containers (you can find at any drug storm).

That's just the skincare, you need a tiny makeup bag with you as well (in a seperate ziplock bag):

Sounds like a lot but if you are anything like me and are used to lugging around a crap load of makeup, it's nothing. Besides, would you rather land in your country of choice looking pretty and awake or like you've been in cargo hold the whole time? However, if you mean to cut down on bulk, try a makeup palette that has several things in one sleek compartment.

Now, when you first get on the flight, try not to wear too much makeup. Get in your seat and make sure all your pampering items are in easy reach. Be sure to stay well hydrated by avoiding coffee, tea and alcohol and drinking plenty of water (hopefully you have an aisle seat and wont mind the frequent trips to the bathroom!). If you wanna try something different, try Borba waters, which fix skin problems from the inside and may be worth a shot (if anything it will make you feel extra glamorous). Keep spritzing your face with mist water and keep your lips moist with balm every 1/2 hour.

Hopefully you have figured out that, depending where you are flying, you can sleep or not without interfering with your sleep patterns. Regardless, midway during the flight, remove your makeup with the wipes provided and apply a thick, generous layer of Clarins Balm to your face, concentrating on the eye area (the Witch Hazel in the balm is great at de-puffing eyes).
Leave the mask on your face until an hour before landing. Tissue off the mask and apply the radiant moisturizer* Rub it in well and then follow with a light coat of reflective foundation*
Apply concealer under the eyes, only on the half moon shape of the undereye circles and on the arch below the brows and inside corner of the eye* Swipe on the shimmery shadow and then line eyes with brown pencil, then with same pencil, define your brows* Brow definition is the one thing that will give structure to your face and have you appear "done."* Follow up with the eyelash curler and two coats of mascara* Rub cream blush on the apples of your cheeks and over your balmed lips* Then after a quick toothbrushing and hair-fixing session in the bathroom, you should be ready to land looking better than when you got on!
Of course, to some this may seem like a lot of work. But when you look good, you feel good and isn't that the best way to start your trip?

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Off to an island somewhere...

Sorry for my lack of attention to this particular blog as of late.

Aside from the New Zealand narrative which I just chucked in on Thursday night because I felt I needed to put something in here, even though I wrote the piece for a travel compilation book ages ago, it's a sad fact that I have been neglecting my Travel Tales.

Well, I'm sorry. Writing about Scottish Castles took the wind out of me...three informative posts at once, what else do you want?

Nonetheless, I feel I must inform you that I am going away tomorrow to an island (Galiano Island in the Gulf Islands, to be more specific) for some much needed R and R. That's right, no internet, no cell phones, nothing but the will to write, walk, write and read. And write!

When I return on Friday though, you can expect one of the following posts: A Quick Retreat on Galiano Island; Shopping for Toiletries in Europe (best shampoo...s...ever!); A Photo Journey Through Lyon; Exploring Norway's Forgotten Fjord; How to Travel With Your SO; or Discovering Edinburgh.

Why not let me know which post you would like to see next?

I promises I'll return refreshed and raring to go!

Au Revoir


(PS - if craving some armchair travel, check out my previous posts links to the right, organized by country)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Eastern Most Point

It was still dark outside when I felt a tap on my shoulder. The constant bellowing of the cattle that had invaded my dreams became clearer as everything came into focus with my slowly opening eyes.

I rolled over in my sleeping bag, a thin film of dew gathered across it, and looked over at Titus. His eyes were shining white, more awake than I felt, as he silently pointed to the glowing clock on his mobile phone. Sunrise was only 10 minutes away. We didn’t even know where we were.

We quickly slipped on some warm clothes-- no time for modesty in our makeshift bedroom-- and jumped out of his shoddy diesel van. The air outside snapped at us like a wind-blown flag. Summer wasn’t as evident as we had hoped.

We looked around us and realized why our sleep was filled with visions of beef. The night before, we had inadvertently parked in the middle of a vast cow pasture. Hundreds of cattle were spread out in all directions, bound by the green hills to the south and the lighthouse to the north. We looked east, to where the hills parted and the sky was a paler shade of dawn. It was growing lighter by the second and our chances of catching the sunrise were dwindling.

We took off towards the light, carefully creeping under barbed-wire fences and cautiously scampering past meandering cattle. The ground beneath my feet was soggy and dodging the cow pies took some skill that I obviously lacked in the early hours.

Another fence loomed before us. As I scaled it, and then consequently fell to the ground in a heap, I had visions of Jodie Foster mastering the obstacle course in Silence of the Lambs. Titus helped me up and we were up and climbing the terraced hillside that had traded in cows for scatterings of wary horses. Just as the sky grew frighteningly light, we reached the crest and nearly collapsed, out of breath. A lone filly bolted at the sight of us.

Below us lay an empty beach, laid out like a sheet of velvet. Aside from the occasional hoof print, it was undisturbed, like it had been waiting for us. The South Pacific was spread out at the horizon’s feet, a royal blue tinged with saffron edges. We still had time.

Titus coasted down the hill while I slid most of the way, grinding the wet grass into the seat of my jeans, until I felt sand sink beneath my feet. We ran over to the water’s edge just as the sun peaked it glowing crown over the wavering line. He looked over at me and smiled. We were standing on the easternmost point in the easternmost country, New Zealand. We could have been the first people on earth to see that sun rise. Only thousands of miles of rolling water lay between us, the west coast of Chile, and yesterday.

As foreigners studying in New Zealand, Titus (a German) and I (a Canadian) made a point of trying to discover the enigmatic country that we had temporarily called home. This journey started one warm November day. I woke up to the air heavy with water and light and knew that summer was just around the corner.

Titus loaded up his van (which he had paid for by dropping out of school) with surfboards, sleeping bags and a Jack Johnson CD. With a weekend jaunt in mind, we decided to explore the East Cape of New Zealand’s North Island, an eight-hour drive from where we were in the smoggy metropolis of Auckland. I wanted to experience the first sunrise on Earth. Titus wanted to surf in the rolling swells of the Pacific. We both needed to get lost and perhaps find a New Zealand that had passed us by while our heads were buried in textbooks.

It wasn’t until we had been driving for nearly two hours that the vast reaches of Auckland were behind us. The scenery changed from suburban sprawl to meadows of shiny grass, skittish sheep and farmers in Wellies. The further east we went, the landscape morphed into tiny villages hidden in the folds of rolling hillsides to kiwi orchards and whitewashed estates by muddy estuaries. By the time we reached the famed summer and surfing spot of Mount Maunganui, we were flanked by surf and the long, slow curve of the Bay of Plenty.

The air out here was heavier as loaded clouds swarmed in off of the coast. Titus glanced back and forth between his surfboard and the weak, grey waves that lapped at the shore. He would have to wait.

Back in the van, we jetted off down a road that seemed to grow more enclosed by ferns and brush, the more east we went. The clouds grew darker and then opened up for brief periods, dousing us with rain that leaked through the top of the van and into the mattresses in the back.

We had no idea where we were going. I had the map out but the lines were fading fast before my eyes. Titus wanted to try and make it as far east as possible and camp in the van by the side of the road somewhere. Apparently, there was a lighthouse at the East Cape where we could hunker down. This was all speculation. I just wanted to find a hotel or charming B&B somewhere and call it a night.

We were still undecided as we pulled over to watch the sun slip behind the stoic silhouette of a lone white church that perched on the side of a cliff. We had been driving all day and were beyond tired. Maybe even a little sick of each other. But something pressed us on. Something I would liken to the call of adventure. The call of the unknown. I told him I would go as far as he would take me. With a grin he led me back to the van and to the fate of the night.

There were no other cars for the next few hours. Just darkness, the occasional dead possum on the side of the road and the shining eyes of roaming cows. At one point, we had to come to a standstill as a herd of them swarmed around us like mild-mannered bees before vanishing into the dark from whence they came. I glanced at Titus, trying to hide the slight case of apprehension on my face. This is what we had come for. This was the New Zealand we didn’t find by hanging out at the student pub.

After an hour of cow-dodging, our van (which Titus had started to call Betsy), pulled into the only recognizable town on the east cape, Te Araroa. Only it wasn’t a town per say, just a few houses resting by a dark and lonely beach. There were only a few streetlights and a gas station with no gas. Titus stayed in the car as I bravely ventured into a rundown restroom by the beach.

I came out quicker than I should have thanks to an inquisitive weta, only to find Titus nowhere in sight. The van glowed underneath the flickering streetlight but it was alone. I looked up and down the street searching for him, staying alert to any kind of life that might creep up behind me. There was nothing.

I slowly ventured towards the van, feeling like eyes were watching me from the dim houses. Was this to be my end? A young foreign couple travel into the wilds of New Zealand, never to be seen again? I remembered all the cases of missing hitchhikers and backpackers I had seen on the news.

I was only a few short breaths away from panicking when Titus suddenly appeared across the street, climbing out of someone’s yard. He walked over to me, looking behind him with every step. He told me to get in the car.

I didn’t ask questions. We drove off just as two Maori men climbed over the same chain-link fence as Titus just had. Dust gathered around the van and he piloted it towards the coast, away from the smoothness of the bitumen road and onto loose silt and gravel.

Turns out that he had gone to the gas station to enquire about filling up the van with diesel, but the store was empty. Then from out of the shadows, two seemingly friendly Maori men appeared and told him that he could go enquire about the gas at the owner’s house, which was across the street. They encouraged him to go around the back way and then proceeded to follow him as he climbed into the yard.

His face was red as he retold the incident with child-like excitement. After a few tentative raps on the door followed by eerie silence, he started to wonder if the two strange men behind him were there to help him at all.

As odd as the incident was, I didn’t want to jump into the stereotype that all Maoris were out to get you. As the indigenous people of New Zealand, they had gotten a bad rap as it was, constantly being the targets of the media’s speculations when it came to anything remotely criminal. All the Maoris I had met, all the Maoris I was friends with, were nothing like the unflattering typecasts they had received. I tried to stay neutral and told Titus that they were probably just trying to help him.

He nodded in response. Then his nods started getting slower. His eyes flitted to the rearview mirror. I looked behind us.

White dust clouds had blown up in the distance behind us, fading into the dark like ghosts, lit from below from two glaring headlights. A red truck that was cloaked beneath this cloud was coming closer and closer into view. Whoever they were, they were coming fast and with purpose.

Titus gunned the van and we shot forward, almost tipping over sideways as we hit a deep patch of gravel. Our deserted road took on the feel of a driving school obstacle course, as cows and sheep roamed freely on one side of us, while angry, inky waves crashed near us on the other. While he struggled to plow the van through the loose ground and the meandering livestock, I never took my eyes off of the approaching truck. As they got closer we saw whom they were: the two men from earlier. My attempt at staying neutral flew out the window and into the dust.

Titus swore under his breath as he tried to keep the van running and not careening off of the cliff. A million horrific images flashed through my head. This wasn’t how I was supposed to die. I always imagined I would go down in a blazing airplane. Not run off a lonely road by over-eager locals on the easternmost point of the easternmost country in the world.

Suddenly the truck swerved to our right and appeared beside us. Titus gripped the steering wheel, his eyes locked on the darkness ahead. I peered over him, across the gravel and at the makers of our doom.

Two barking Doberman snapped at us from the truck’s canopy. In the dim of the passenger seat, one of the men turned to face us. He grinned, his teeth glinting. He held up his hand. He extended his thumb towards the ceiling. He was giving us the thumbs up. The driver then leaned over, smiled at us and waved.

Then they were gone as abruptly as they had appeared and we were left in their murky trail. Titus took his foot off of the gas and we came to a crawl. We exchanged a look, the corners of our mouths tinged with embarrassment. Nothing but friendly locals. Nothing but our foreign, stereotypical imaginations.

After the incident, we spoke but a few words. It was 11 p.m. and the excitement was over. We were chagrined and we were tired. Only the desolation of the winding road and the promise of the first sunrise beckoned us on, though we still didn’t know where we would end up. Just somewhere east and somewhere new.

Finally, after what seemed like forever, the road ended in a furtive valley. In the shadows we couldn’t make out anything around us except the lighthouse on the hill, a fence and the continuous moan of unseen cattle. This was as far as the day would take us. If we were lucky, we would wake up in a few hours in time to greet a new one, the first one.

That night we climbed into our sleeping bags, the mattresses still damp from the earlier rain, and shuttered the van’s flimsy windows from the night. A chill settled around us and stroked my hair. It felt like New Zealand was saying goodnight.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Castles of Scotland - Dunottar Castle

The final destination on our castle adventure, took us 15 miles south of Aberdeen, by the town of Stonehaven (left) in the east of Scotland. Here, about 2 miles down the road and perching precariously on a sharp walled peninsula that overlooks the frigid North Sea, is the famous castle of Dunottar.

Dunottar is unique among castles due to its extraordinary location. This flat-topped rock, with its high, steep, green-frosted cliffs and dramatic seaviews would make a fantastic sight (and site!) even without the historically rich castle. This site was chosen in ancient times as place of strength and by Saint Ninian as a place of retreat.

But if you look past the stunning landscape and dramatic setting, you will find a wealth of history and intrigue hiding behind the crumbling walls. William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots and the Marquis of Montrose have all graced the Castle since it was built back in the 13th century.

Mary Queen of Scots?

Most famously though, it was here that a small garrison (about 70 men) bravely held out against the power and might of Cromwell's army - Cromwell being the dasdardly British army - for over half a year and saved the Scottish Crown Jewels from destruction. As you can see, the castles strategic isolation most certainly helped in this matter, as did the passion and courage of the Scots.

Um, did I mention that this was also the filming site of Mel Gibson's "Hamlet"?

Looking for Mel Gibson...so I can kick his ass

Dunottar Castle comprises of 11 different buildings, including barracks, lodgings, stables and storehouses, scattered over the three acre plot of the rock. The architecture here is influenced by the decades in which the buildings were built, from the 13th to 17th century. The most dominant building, seen in the photo below, is the Tower House, built in the 14th century.

Aside from the moody ruins which you can visit (entrance fee is four British Pounds), the scenery of the vibrant cliffs and fields around you is also worth taking in (and it's free).

The more adventurous can meander down a steep path to a stoney beach below the sea cliffs...though I imagine coming back up would be a real pain in the arse.

Dunottar is an atmospheric place that is as rare and precious as the gems it's stoic walls once hid. No trip to Scotland would be complete without feasting your eyes on this historically and aestheticly unique site.

If the photos don't do it justice - and I don't think they do - feel free to watch this short video:

It really helps put things into perspective (thanks to Ross's genious commentary, horribly inept filmmaking and the silly girl in the film ;)....just warning you.

We also made the journey out to see the Famous Royal Castle of Balmoral, where the Queen spends her summers. However, we were turned away at the gate. Boo-urns!