Though Robert had gone to Australia once briefly for work, the rest of us had never been even vaguely close to New Zealand before. But, between Hobbits and penguins and summer in our winter and a long-time online friend of mine, New Zealand seemed to have so much going for it that we planned a trip. With Christmas and New Year's falling mid-week, there were two full weeks of school vacation, which meant we didn't even have to have the kids miss a day of school in order to get a nice stretch of vacation time. We flew out of Boston around 4:30 on Friday afternoon December 20th; I had gone to Marcus's school's potluck lunch, bringing trays of spanekopita and cake truffles, and helped serve and ate with him in his classroom before signing him out early and picking up Samantha. We swung through Chinatown, grabbing pork floss buns and hot dog buns and coconut tarts, and stopped briefly (or not...) at Robert's office, forcibly detaching him from work in order to finally make it to the airport. We flew American Airlines to Los Angeles and then flew out straight for Auckland (leaving LAX 11 p.m. Friday and arriving in Auckland 8 a.m. Sunday morning).
The kids were fascinated by the time changes and the International Date Line and the way we essentially missed all of Saturday, and the flights--6 hours, then 12 hours--weren't bad. Marcus slept only about five hours on the second leg, but the girls and I (sitting behind him, in the very back center row of the plane, which wasn't really a terrible spot to be as it was quiet and near the bathrooms, easy for even Samantha to get up by herself when need be) got basically full nights' rests. Robert--sitting 20 or so rows ahead of all of us, by himself--didn't sleep at all, of course, but he was able to plow through various movies and emerge relatively un-zombie-like when we finally landed.
So far Auckland wins the prize for the easiest ever SIM card acquisition on an international trip: we bought it in the duty free shop just as we landed, with no line no wait and no hassle, and then quickly picked up our luggage and cleared customs. The fruit-sniffing dog went nuts on our bag since it had had fruit in it until we ate it just before landing, and that was pretty cute; New Zealand has some fairly restrictive import bans on fruit and animal products to protect their ecosystems, and we read all about that on the various airport signs. We bought a few hand rolls at a sushi place on our way out the door of the airport and went out into the blinding sun, quite a shock from aiports and December in Boston, and retrieved our rental car. It was a basic SUV from Budget, nothing fancy, but it had a good-sized trunk and we all managed to fit in it. Robert, of course, was driving, telling himself "leftleftleftleftleft" periodically to remind himself of the counter-intuitive ways of the road. This was his first experience driving on the left, and my first experience being a front-seat passenger on the left. It's hard to say who was more disconcerted by it all, really. He did wonderfully, though, with only about two dozen or so times of turning on the windshield wipers when he wanted to signal a turn.
We went to Mount Eden, a great little Chinatown area, and, since it was just about 11:30 when we emerged, had a really delicious shrimpy dim sum at Dim Sum and Dumpling House.
From there we went to the Auckland Zoo, concentrating on the New Zealand and Australian animals, since it was a large zoo and we were all working on a bit of jetlag. I figured if we could power through the zoo, get dinner in us, and make it through to an early-but-still-in-the-realm-of-normal bedtime, we'd be okay, but there were some touch-or-go moments in the zoo when Robert would get a second wind and suggest seeing more (bad idea) or when Marcus would get a big overly sleepy and suggest taking a nap (also a bad idea).
The kiwi were fantastic, though Robert's lack of nightvision made it harder for him to see. Poor little kiwi--everywhere they're in captivity, their night and day gets reversed for the sake of tourists. (Also you call the birds just plain "kiwi." The fruit are always "kiwifruit," so as not to get confusing.)
Samantha and Robert got really into helping a man from Singapore and his children (and other random folk who joined in) build an extra-tall tower in the block area part of the kids' playground. It was both cooperative and competitive--Robert's favorite combination.
Birds, above, and more playground fun, below.
We left the zoo around 4:00 and went back to Mount Eden for Xian Food hand-pulled noodles in beef brisket soup, stretched noodles with cumin spicy lamb, and handmade boiled pork and leek dumplings. I am a sucker for hand-pulled noodles, and these were beautiful and toothsome, with perfectly boiled dumplings as well. We made a quick stop at Duck Island Ice Cream where Robert (a sucker for giant ice cream good-deal combos) sprung for the $13 8 scoop bowl: of course, the mixture of flavors managed to please no one, but between the exchange rate (about $1 US for $1.50 NZ) and the feelings of satisfaction that come from optimizing, Robert was thrilled. We sampled fairy bread (clearly Helen's favor of choice--it had sprinkles, after all), reindeer poop (peppermint cookie dough--Marcus's flavor through-and-through, from the name to the cookie dough, but in my opinion, the minty source of corruption in our shared cup), gooey butter cake and blueberries, great mango sorbet, white choocolate and caramel popcorn, and a few other flavors that didn't assert themselves nearly as much. We checked into our motel, the Boulevard Motel on Alpers, where we had a two-bedroom apartment for the night, and everyone took baths; the kids were in bed and asleep at 7:30, and Robert and I followed a few minutes later.
I woke up at 5:00 in the morning, and everyone else between 5:30 and 6:00, which was a bit on the early side, but I'll take it! We checked out of the hotel and went to Fox Trot Parlor Cafe for breakfast just as they opened at 7:00, where we dined on adorable rickety benches with mismatched tableware, enjoing our first New Zealand meat pie of the trip (mostly me--a fancy one! Thai chicken), sardines on toast (Marcus), chicken livers on toast (Robert), inject your own chocolate donuts (Samantha), and a coconut slice, gingerbread cookie, and latte to share.
We appreciated the cute little indoor-outdoor minimall/market the cafe was located in, and also the billboards outside classic Kiwi products, and then we all piled in our rental car and I turned on the Anne of Green Gables audiobook I had gotten specifically for the drive. Between Anne (everyone loved it--I was the only one who had read the book before, so even Robert was captivated and wondering what happened next) and plenty of car snacks (Helen: "I'm hun-ga-wy....") we made it through the hour and a half drive to Hamilton gardens, a great playground, secret garden, and other themed gardens. While it was a nice stop, it was also very hot and buggy.
From Hamilton we drove forty-five minutes to Hobbiton, where it was still hot and sunny, but thankfully not at all buggy. We had the buffet lunch at the "inn" and then did the tour, which ended with a warm beverage at the Green Dragon.
Helen tried to eat as much as Marcus at lunch, and then she slept through the first three-quarters of the tour, but I got to wear her in my special Lord of the Rings sling I had had dyed in Hobbiton-inspired colors specifically for this trip, so that was all right by me. Walking around the Hobbit village was really surprisingly lovely: the guide filled us in on all sorts of trivia about real and fake trees, the path to the washing on the line, the secret to the smoke coming out of the chimneys, and the two different Hobbitons they had built at different times, but really it was just very neat walking around and feeling like we were completely there, right outside the different houses, just as in the movies. Marcus had read The Hobbit years ago, but Samantha had just read it over the summer in preparation for this trip, and then we all saw the movies (actually, more accurately, the four-hour fan edit that condensed the eight hours of movies in half and cut out things not in the actual book). Helen decided she was a Hobbit, really, and talked on and on about the mean dragon who tried to eat the little boy (Bilbo). Whenever someone read an actual children's book about a dragon--for example, the popular Dragons Love Tacos, she would have to interject that these dragons weren't like the dragon in The Hobbit. So, while she was possibly scarred by Smaug, I think it paid off, since even she really appreciated feeling that she knew the Hobbit village.
From Hobbiton we drove an hour to Rotorua, which seems a lot like a thermal inland Cape Cod, in many ways, where we checked into our campground--the Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park--and immediately went swimming, both in the normal and the hot/thermal pools, then to a Countdown supermarket for provisions for the next few days, and then to dinner.
Dinner was at Oppies, a fish-and-chip shop which was Chinese-run, with a full Chinese menu plus fried fish and similar delights. All of this, plus extremely grumpy service (no plates, no free ketchup, no tartar sauce, no cocktail sauce, no napkins) but excellent greaseless fried goods! And you could order by the piece, for nearly everything on the menu, rather than by the plate or basket--Robert adored this, so we ordered a single piece of fried fish, both the fancy snapper and then the cheaper one as well, a sausage roll, a mussel fritter, an oyster, a mussel, six shrimp (Samantha's vote), and one shrimp in an egg roll wrapper.
I made everyone go to the bathroom before we left the restaurant, which was good, because all three kids fell asleep in the car on the five-minute trip back to the campground. We transferred them to their bunks--big kids woke up and tumbled into pjs, but Helen snored on--and everyone was soundly asleep at 8:30 at night.
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Created: 1/6/2020. Last Modified: 2/21/2020.