Location: Colchester, England
Home to grey, wet England but nevertheless home! Air New Zealand landed on time after a 10 hour flight, Heathrow baggage handlers tarried a while - we knew we were back!
When we have recovered (maybe late Jan) we will reflect on this fantastic holiday and maybe share our reflections and insights!
In the meantime, thanks for all the messages sent while we were away - we really hope you have enjoyed our travels vicariously. The discipline to 'blog' has meant that we now have a record of our travels and many happy memories. We hope that you will consider doing the same when you go travelling!
Location: Auckland, New Zealand
Still consumed with guilt at Bs error (planning to meet Jenny Hs sisters in Christchurch when in fact they live in Auckland oops!) we were determined to see Sheila and Frances in the gap between returning from Raratonga and leaving for LA.
Boarded at 03.40 in Rara & arrived 4 hours later (7.30am the next day very confusing!). Cleaned up and called Frances; arrived at Frances and Jacks house at around 10.30. Sheila was there and on excellent form. We were made hugely welcome and treated to a sumptuous lunch after which Frances and Jack took us on a ticky-tack tour.
In the space of a few hours we saw Auckland from different perspectives, each brought to life with a rich fund of local history from Jack. Visited the old and new cathedrals the old having been moved intact from an adjoining site in the early 1980s. We saw botanic gardens and hothouses, relics of the 1923 Exhibition and a highlight was standing on the edge of an extinct volcano. B tried to estimate the diameter by imagining a golf drive; it was generally agreed that even he could claim a hole in one with a target 500m wide. A great day.
Off to the airport at 9 for the 12 hour flight to LA.
Location: Raratonga, Cook Islands
Back in Raratonga from Aitutaki which must be the most beautiful place on earth. It is so unspoilt and has a huge natural lagoon around it which is varying shades of turquoise, especially spectacular in the sun which shone for us today.
We fly to Auckland in the early hours of the morning so we know we are on our long trek back home now. Unfortunately the camera connections, chargers and computer cables have not yet arrived in the Cook Islands so sorry we cannot yet give a pictorial flavour of where we have been.
Location: Aitutaki, Cook Islands
How to describe Aitutaki? Its a tiny island, pop 2000 but it seems much less, with a huge, turquoise lagoon. Its subtropical and everywhere you look there are exotic trees, flowers and fruits. There is a rudimentary road encircling the island but 10 minutes can pass without traffic.
It appears in lifestyle books and has the reputation of being one of the most beautiful and unspoilt islands on earth and who are we to disagree? In the lagoon are a number of small islands (motu) which are uninhabited (apart from a couple of years ago when some were taken over for series of Survivor and Shipwrecked). Surprisingly, some of the detritus from these ghastly programmes remains.
We arrived at our hotel Etu Moana, (meaning blue starfish) a cluster of studio villas on the beach. What a contrast with Muri Beach. Under the gimlet gaze of Jo-anne, a diminutive and hyperactive Canadian, the staff, plants and animals all know their roles in life and perform them impeccably. Unfortunately she has not yet persuaded the ocean to deposit seaweed in neat piles outside her borders but shes working on it.
On the beach there are strange and unusual birds for example black seagulls and a huge flock of black heron presumably theyve evolved that colour to blend with the black volcanic rocks; can anyone with more than our rudimentary knowledge of birds elucidate please?
Next door to Etu Moana is an organic fruit and veg garden with pineapples, papaya, plantains and soursop (custard apple), fresh turmeric and lots of herbs. The owners (Cook Island man Tauono - & Austrian woman Sonja) run a lunch only restaurant there. Its pretty chaotic the food on offer bears no relation to the menu and Tauono struggles to remember complex orders so he takes them in bits, running back to the kitchen with each item. The food, when it finally emerges, is historic perfectly cooked and strong local flavours.
Our first couple of days were overcast (one day it rained continuously) but the third more than made up for it, We went on a cruise of the lagoon run by Poona, ably assisted by his wife Tutu (in charge of the food a fruit snack on an uninhabited sandy bank and a complicated and delicious barbecue for lunch) and their son who drove the second boat. The colours were breathtaking and constantly changing. Its a cliché but nonetheless true that photos cant possibly do it justice. But we did our best.
Location: Raratonga, Cook Islands
Well - things are definitely looking up.
Wednesday brought more driving rain. We were told at first that it was a cyclone but the Met Office downgraded it to a Tropical Storm. Gave us a taste of what a real cyclone would be like anyhow - very scary (and wet!)
The hotel is one of contrasts: it is beautifully located in an idyllic setting - but the staff seem to have zero initiative. There doesn't seem to be any management in evidence and they loaf around responding (usually) to requests but otherwise moving napkins, bottles, glasses around (but not cleaning), snoozing or eating. Reception staff (of whom two were aleep on a sofa yesterday) seem particularly sluggish. Food quality can be quite good but there's no atmosphere in the restaurant.
Anyway, on Wednesday they evidently decided to arrange a 'rainy day' activity for us and proudly told us that there was goung to be a flower-garland making class in the lounge! B rushed off to heat up the needles to stick into his eyes but we compromised and decided to hire a car. Good decision. Went into town - first stop Information Centre 'What do you recommend we do now that it's raining?' 'Nothing really - whatever you like' - then museum, library etc and the day was good. Evening was good too, with an entertainer called Kura - a young, edgy singer guitarist who sang mainly Jack Johnson - type numbers brilliantly.
Entertainment on Thursday was not quite so good but still OK - Rangi Henry (to be taken seriously as an artist male singers must evidently weigh more than 300 pounds and this chap was clearly at the top of his craft) serenaded us. There was the added floor show of staff wafting the air to try to rid it of the invevitable mosquitoes after two days of rain and temperatures in high 20s and eventually resorting to breaking up a mosquito coil into about ten pieces and putting them into small glasses around the floor. By this time, all the diners had been back to their rooms to apply more repellent!
We topped off two days of sun with 'Island Nite' in town at one of the locations renowned for a 'good show'. We were 2 of 9 waiting patiently (!) but got alarmed when a man switched on the disco ball, took the microphone and started drifting around the room trying to make eye contact and crooning love songs. Then, as the performers had still not arrived, he took a stool onto the stage and sang some Engelbert Humpeldinck numbers. Just as we got up to leave, the 'warriors' and 'hula-hula' girls made a grand entrance onto the stage and the evening was redeemed!
Today we fly to Aitutaki, another island in the group and will update the blog if we can, although we may just unwind completely before we start the long journey home.
Location: Raratonga, Cook Islands
Crossing the international date line we arrived in Raratonga 23 hours before we left New Zealand but our body clocks are fine and we'd only just worked out what day it was anyway!
We had a rather frenetic journey as the flight from Christchurch to Auckland was delayed by 30 mins which meant we had to get from the domestic to international terminal and deposit our excess luggage (lower baggage allowance to Cook Islands) and catch the flight all in 50 mins. With a great turn of speed (picture it!) we made it with 10 mins to spare, which could have been spent snatching a flat white! Stress was added when we realised that we had left all the electrical cables, chargers etc plus B's mobile in a bag in the campervan. Each assumed the other had checked but in an atmosphere of no blame, we will learn from the experience, move on and allocate specific individual responsibilities in future! So the running was accompanied by breathless phone calls to Roger, the hirer, to arrange sending them to us here.
Our first day here was great, very relaxed and enjoying the sometimes cloudy sunshine and warm water. Our room is almost on the beach and the view over the turquoise waters of the lagoon to a small island is amazing (in the sun). The atmosphere is very laid back and the islanders are very friendly. We caught up with sleep, walked a bit, did some reading, some swimming and snorkelling and of course experienced South Seas cuisine.
Today, however has been slightly different as it has rained continuously, accompanied by wind, and intermittent thunder and lightning - described as a cyclone here I think. We did venture out in shorts, flip flops, umbrellas to catch the bus to town but got quite wet getting to the road, then got splashed by a passing car and as B was complaining about the driver's stupidity (and J had moved back from the road) another car did the same thing! Of course J found it hysterically funny. The bus then arrived on the other side of the road - there are clockwise and anti-clockwise buses. As B was now completely soaked we retreated to the hotel.
All the staff have been rather circumspect about the forecast so we have just looked it up - more of the same for the next 10 days! B is feeling rather smug that he accumulated so much sunshine on his head and chest yesterday!
Location: Christchurch, New Zealand
With a great e effort of will we got up, packed etc in time to go to a Choral Eucharist at the Cathedral. B loves them; J is not so keen but nevertheless keen to attend a service there.
The choir was stupendous - hauntngly beautiful and the service friendly and very accessible. B also found it very touching and emotional - kept getting handkerchief out and blowing nose loudly. The service was led by the newly-inducted Theologian-in-Residence (Dawn French look-alike) who spoke compellingly - so much so that we decided to go to the evening Advent carol service - equally good but B managed without the hanky most of the time.
The really surreal moment was at the beginning when we glimpsed our old friends from Oregon, Kathy and Dave, but unfortunately (despite handwaving from J) they didn't see us and left before we could catch them up.
Christchurch City is pretty compact and not hugely attractive: saw the museum, botanic gardens with a riverside walk reminiscent of Cambrige, including punts, the hospital (not as patients) and an arts centre full of stalls selling tourist tat (in B's opinion). Went on the tram (restored 1920s) which seemed good value at first but we later discovered coves a circular route as easily accessed on foot. The commentary was interesting though. Ah well.
All this rush probably contributed to not devoting enough time to making sure everything was out of the van and packed - hence the electrical incident - see 2 December blog! As all of our chargers and download cables were among them there will be a short intermission in posting photos - mercifully, some may say!
Location: Christchurch, New Zealand
Arrived safely here & returned the van so are now holed up in the hotel waiting for the flight to Raratonga via Auckland tomorrow morning. We were completely blown away by 2 choral Advent services at the Cathedral. More later.
The next bulletin may be some time!
Location: Akaroa, New Zealand
Arrived in Christchurch on Friday evening & decided to see the city on Sunday leaving Saturday to visit the Akaroa peninsula.
Akaroa should have been fantastic a circle of extinct volcanoes and a town with a French feel. It was further than it appeared about 100km and the road was pretty tedious. Nevertheless we persevered, past a lake thick with black swans, to the town itself which was disappointing. It seemed to be a pastiche of a Provencal town with a few token signs in French but with no real character or interest.
Went on a couple of walks advertised as 45 minutes each but which we completed easily in 20. Gave up and flogged back to Christchurch. On the way J demanded an ice cream and we stopped at a random roadside café. It was organic (the 2 women running it were strangers to deodorant) but despite the hygiene lapses extending also to the food the flavour and texture were the best weve tasted.
Location: Dunedin, New Zealand
Wed decided to go there to see the Royal Albatross colony the only one in the world on a mainland site. Approached via a precarious clifftop road, aptly named Highcliff road, we travelled along the Otago peninsula and, when we could bear to look down, thought Dunedin looks an interesting and attractive place.
Learned a lot about the albatross, and the Royal Southern in particular, and saw 3 nesting. Awesome. Of particular interest to us was the fact that after 6 or 7 years of flying around South America, they return to have a teenage year where they hang out with friends, flirt and eventually find a mate (it appears to take longer for albatross than for humans!) They then take a year out before setting down. Hmmm.
In order to kill an hour before our obligatory guided tour, after the necessary coffee of course, we sauntered along the beach and came across a snoring log which turned out to be one of two resident sea lions of which we had been warned to be careful! Apparently the bull had already gone to sea and the cow was not to be disturbed.
Then did the 400km drive to Christchurch, where we are now resting and hopefully internet connecting! En route passed the 45th parallel. Apparently only 3 wine producing areas sit on this Central Otago, Burgundy and yes Oregon! And all produce especially good Pinot Noir grapes (we can testify to the first 2 but not yet the third although we now have contacts in the area).