Wednesday, July 23, 2014

My Homes Away From Home

Nomads Fat Camel (note the camel graphic in the window on the left)

People have been asking me where I stayed during my epic Middle Earth trip. In Auckland, I stayed at a placed called Nomads Fat Camel at 38 Fort Street. I picked it because the price is cheap. I booked a double room with no window (although it actually had a window) at $60 per night. I stayed there for 5 nights. The front desk staff is friendly, and every night they offer free snack size meal to guests. The problem with this place is its next door establishment called "Lipstix" Massage Parlor. I don't really think it's a massge parlor but more like a night club that opens all night. They would have the doors wide open every evening and blast music until sunrise. Will I stay there again? No.  There are a lot of hostels in the area, so there is no shortage of budget accommodations.

The Setup Accommodation is in between Subway and Wishbone

In Wellington I stayed at The Setup Accommodation, which is also a budget hotel, located at 15 Dixon Street. Downtown Wellington is very walkable. I could walk to the train station on the other side of the town in 20 minutes. I had a single ensuite room, which is a single room with private shower for $70 per night. Unlike the bare room at The Fat Camel, The Setup room has flat screen tv in each room, free WiFi, mini fridge, coffee/tea maker, and assorted tea bags/instant coffee packs in each room. I was pretty happy with the unlimited WiFi.  Will I stay here again? Yes!

Sitting area of Hotel 115

Wellington was going to be my last stop, and I picked a real hotel to stay with. Hotel 115 at 115 Worcester Street is a new hotel that opened up after the earthquake. The cost is $115 (New Zealand Dollar) per night. I guess they like to stick to the number 115.  I was immediately impressed with its decor. After I entered my room, I stepped out and took a video clip of it. I stayed there two nights then headed to Lake Tekapo. I stayed at YHA Lake Tekapo for 2 nights. The hostel is right next to the lake, so the view is fantastic, but the price was almost as much as Hotel 115. I had a double private room with shared bath, and it was $90 (NZD) per night.  The room was bare just like the one at Fat Camel. My room also happened to be right next to the men's bathroom and the kitchen, so it was noisy most of the time until quiet hours. Will I stay here again?  Probably not.

YHA Lake Tekapo

Luckily I had one more night at Hotel 115 before I headed back home. I got a different room with a different layout. It turned out that every room is a little different at Hotel 115 due to the shape of the building.  Will I stay here again?  Yes!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Rebuilding Christchurch

Side view of ChristChurch Cathedral

I had plenty of warnings from New Zealanders about the state of Christchurch before arriving its city center on Monday, July 14th. The city is covered in orange cones and construction fences. Many buildings and businesses are boarded up and clearly unoccupied. It feels more or less like a ghost town. The Cathedral used to be a gathering place for the local people, and now it's a broken empty shell. Many streets are closed off due to constructions.

Front View of ChristChurch Cathedral

Down the street from the cathedral is Canterbury Museum, which appears to be undamaged from the earthquake, is open to the public free of admission. One of its exhibitions is Quake City, which is a "multi-media attraction designed to inform, engage and educate locals and visitors to Canterbury about the seismic events that have occured since 4 September 2010." I spent most of my time in the museum looking at the videos and photographs of the damages the quakes had done to the city. Having experienced 1989 San Francisco earthquake myself, I felt very emotional looking at the photographs. It made me upset when some young children running around in the exhibition as if it was a lighthearted playground. 185 people were killed during the quake, I think the parents should either take this opportunity to educate their children or not taking them to this part of the exhibition.

Quake City Exhibition at Canterbury Museum

While I was at Lake Tekapo a couple days ago, I chatted with a older man at Tekapo Springs counter. I asked him how long he's been living in that area. He told me that he moved there a couple years ago after losing everything in Christchurch during the earthquakes. He said that he can't possible stay in Christchurch because it simply upset him too much. People who have experienced earthquakes in such multitude simply will never forget it. I still remember 1989 earthquake vividly.  I hope when I come back to Christchurch next time, it will be much different.

Birds of New Zealand

New Zealand Kea

New Zealand is famous for its birds. Everyone knows Kiwi birds, and New Zealanders call themselves Kiwis. Kiwi birds are critically endangered and nocturnal. Even though I got to see a couple of them at the Kiwi House of Te Puia, I couldn't take pictures.  I had a much closer encounter with Kea at Auckland Zoo. The Kea is very curious and intelligent. It came really close to me in the zoo.  I had to remind myself not to pet it. They are considered vulnerable because more than 150,000 were killed by hunters before 1970. 

New Zealand Fantail

While I was hiking in Kaitoke Regional Park in my attempt to reach Rivendell, a bird with a tail resembling a white fan kept circling around me. I had never seen a bird like it, so I took a few pictures of it. It only showed the fantail while it was flying, so the photo above was the best one I got. Sure enough I saw its pictures in souvenir stores. They are called New Zealand Fantail and of course unique to New Zealand as well. 

 While in Lake Tepako, I came upon countless birds and other animals like the bunny above with its bird friend! It was during sunset, so I couldn't get a clearer photo of the dual. The bird was just hanging out with the bunny.  There are also many Paradise Sheldducks among other ducks living around the lake. The one with white head is female and the all dark one is male.  They are unique to New Zealand as well. I feel so fortunate to see all these native New Zealand birds during my travel.

The Paradise Shelduck

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Lord of the Rings Filming Locations

Scenes from Fellowship of the Ring were filed on Mt. Victoria. This is the only sign.

I am having a lot of fun reliving the Lord of the Rings craze from 13 years ago. I don't know why I didn't come to Middle Earth sooner, but I know I want to come back here soon. Now that I have visited many of the locations on several express tours, I will be able to come straight here next time and only spend time at these locations. During Wellington Rover's Lord of the Rings tour, the guide took us to the top of Mt. Victoria in Wellington. Many scenes from Fellowship of the Rings were filmed here but the only indication is the little sign shown above. The guide showed us photographs of the exact spots and the scenes. It was a little embarrassing for me to admit that I have only seen Fellowship of the Rings once, but I remember those scenes vividly. That's how powerful that movie was.

on the way to Rivendell

The weather forecast for Wellington was rain almost everyday while I was there. Little did I know the rain was what we call sprinkle in the Bay Area. It was hardly anything. If I had known better, I would have booked an all day Lord of the Rings tour with Wellington Rover instead of a half day tour. I took a train and then a bus in the morning trying to get to Rivendell. The bus only goes as far as this sign shown above. I wasn't sure exactly how far 6km was. I was hiking uphills on State Highway 2 next to the cars trying to get to Rivendell. Eventually I found a fence and climbed over it into Kaitoke Regional Park trail so I didn't have to hike right next to the cars. Rivendell was all the way on the other end.  I will have to save it for my next Middle Earth trip.

down the hill from Edoras, capital of Rohan

On my first day in Wellington, I found a flyer for Hassle-free Tours' Lord of the Rings tour in Christchurch. I immediately made a reservation online to ensure a spot for the all day tour. We actually climbed all the way to the top of Mt. Sunday (the mountain shown in photo below), where Edora was filmed. A castle was built for the filming, and it was taken down after the filming was over. As I climbed up the hill with ease, I knew all the hiking I had been doing had paid off. A month prior to my trip, I hiked everywhere with a weighted down backpack so I could train myself for endurance. My purple UGG Adirondack Snow Boots have proven to be worthy. They are both skid resistant and waterproof. I was able to climb up and down the muddy hill  with confidence and then walk across the shallow creek to clean the boots without getting my feet wet. It felt amazing to be on top of Mt. Sunday.

Edoras was filmed on top of this mountain, Mt. Sunday

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hey Ramen

Street View

I have a thing for ramen. Here I came all the way to New Zealand, and I have been looking for ramen just so I can compare it with ramen back home, ramen in Tokyo, ramen in Toranto, etc. I passed by a ramen shop on my last day in Auckland while going to the airport. I just wasn't hungry at the time, so I had to let it go. On my first day in Wellington, I passed by Hey Sushi  on the way to my hotel. I noticed its sign says "ramen." The place is mostly for take out (take away as they say in NZ). It has 5 stools and 2 small bars against the windows for people who want to dine in. I just wasn't sure, so I took a quick look and moved on. For the next 2 days, I walked all over town looking for ramen and all I found was udon. Udon just isn't the same, and I have no special feelings for it.

Shoyu ramen with chashu (sliced bbq pork)

Finally I went back to Hey Sushi and ordered a spicy beef ramen. I was pleasantly surprised. It's not tonkotsu ramen, but it was good.It came with many slices of beef, half a stewed egg, spinach, and a bunch of other toppings. I was so happy and couldn't believe I didn't go there earlier.

Spicy Beef Ramen

Today, it started to rain like a real winter day, which gave me the perfect excuse to have ramen again! I went back there after coming back from a long hike (tramp, they call it here). I ordered shoyu ramen with chashu (bbq pork) this time. It looked great! It came with so many slices of chashu not just 2 or 3. I also picked a combination of sushi as appetizers (not that I needed anything to make me hungrier). They were good, too! The prices are also very reasonable. If you go there after 4:30, you can get boxed combination sushi for $7 a box (closing sale). These pieces are much bigger and better than the ones St Pierre's Sushi. Before I left, I picked a $7 pre-boxed sushi so I can eat later as snack.

Large selection of sushi for you to choose and pack your own

Oh, I also like that it has a flat screen TV that constantly plays Japanese rock concerts. When I walked in today,  Mika Nakashima was performing Glamorous Sky. I love that song.

prepacked end of day sale - $7 a box

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Top Three Things to Eat in New Zealand

Here are the 3 things any Middle Earth visitor should try. One is kiwi especially the golden ones. Green ones seem to be very common around the world, but I haven't noticed gold ones until recently.  I was able to get a box of 10 from New World Market for $1.99 when they were on sale. It even came with a little "kiwi" spoon, which I am keeping with me as a souvenir. The golden ones are less tart than the green ones. I like them a lot.

New Zealanders are very proud of their coffee. They have a popular coffee drink called "flat white" here. It's not latte, and it's not exactly cappuccino.  I had to look it up on Wikipedia, and it was developed in Australia and New Zealand in the 80's. I can get a small flat white from a 24-hour convenient store for $1, which is fully self service. This machine is amazing. It makes 9 different coffee drinks.

A small flat white and lemon coconut slice with cream on the side

Alternatively, You can go to one of the many independent coffee shops all over town and have someone prepare the coffee for you.  I stopped by The Coffee Club this morning to get a cup of flat white with some pastry on the side. Starbucks isn't too popular here, which is just fine by me.  Although you can definitely add sugar to your flat white, I find it so good that I just drink it straight. I found any dairy product to be excellent in this area, which makes total sense since it is their number one export earner.  I had some amazing New Zealand yogurt yesterday, too. 

Another thing to eat is a hamburger. A burger can cost anywhere from $5 to over $20 here depends on where you go. It might be cheaper at Burger King and McDonald's, but I wouldn't want to go to one of those places. Burger Fuel seems to be a good place to go as it features 100% grass fed New Zealand beef patties.  I went there today and had a Hamburgini (one of their smaller burgers) with kumara (sweet potato) fries.  They were great and cost only $11.80 for both.  I couldn't even finish the fries.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Waitomo & Rotorua Experience

The end of our glowworm boat ride

New Zealand is much more than it being Middle Earth. While I was still in Auckland, I booked an all day tour with Great Sights to see Waitomoto and Rotorua.  Waitomo is famous for its glowworm caves. In addition to the incredible limestone formations, we went on a boat ride through the pitch dark area of the cave so that we could see all the glowworms on top of the cave. It felt like a night sky filled with stars!  It was incredible. Of course, these glowworms, Arachnocampa luminosa, which is unique to New Zealand, live in complete darkness so no photograph is allowed.

After the Waitomo Glowworm tour, I went on a farm tour at Agrodome Farm. You know I couldn't come all the way here without visiting a farm. I actually looked into farm stay as an accommodation option. Unfortunately, it would be difficult for me to get to the farms without renting a car, so I ended up staying in city centers for all 3 stops. At the farm tour, I got to witness the process of shearing a sheep, sheep dog demo, hand feed a bunch of wooly sheep, and visit the baby animal nursery.

The dog was incredible. The training started at 3 months old, and he is now 3 years old with the ability to herd 500 sheep all by himself!  He doesn't bark at them. He just stared them down and ran back and forth to gather them together.  For the demo, only 4 sheep were used. The dog was calm and extremely focused.

Sheep dog working

After the dog demo, we all go on a trolley  that was pulled by a tractor so we could go around the farm to visit various animals. The dog went on the farm tour with us, too. I sat next to him, so I could pet him. The farm animals totally knew what was going on when they saw visitors coming by in trolleys. They all quickly ran up to us because they knew they were going to get treats!  While some guests were turned off by the smell of sheep, I loved it!  You know I am a farm girl at heart. I was so excited at the sight of the fluffy wooly sheep running up to me. They were all over me within seconds to get the pellets in my hands.

After I said goodby to the sheep, the tour took me to Te Puia, a Maori culture institute, in Rotorua. The history of Maori people in New Zealand has a lot of similarities as our indigenous people in the States. We started our tour with a welcome ceremony from Maori people in their traditional attires. After we were invited into their meeting house, they did a performance for us. After the fabulous performance we got to tour the rest of Te Puia. They have a kiwi house on site, and there I finally got to see 2 kiwi birds!  Rotorua is covered with active steam vents! The steam and sometimes water coming out from the vents is extremely hot.  It's an incredible sight. People use the steam to cook, to bath, and to heat up their homes.

I would definitely like to spend more time in Rotorua area when I revisit Middle Earth.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Weta Cave

As soon as I checked into my hotel in Wellington, I went look for LofR tours. Although I normally enjoy exploring on my own, my time in Middle Earth is PRECIOUS!  I borrowed a phone and called up Wellington Rover Tours to reserve the first tour available. Unfortunately the all day tour was all sold out, so I had to settle with a half day tour in the afternoon. The tour guide drove us to Mt. Victoria, where many scenes in The Fellowship of the Ring were shot.

Of course we stopped by Weta Cave, a.k.a. Wellywood.  I personally would compare it to Pixar since this is where all the models, props, weapons, and digital effects were created for LofR, Avatar, District 9, Elysium, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, etc., etc. I think of Hollywood as more of a gather of actors and actresses.  Weta Cave is a gather of visual artists much like Pixar.

It's free to visit Weta Cave. You get to take photos of all the models and watch a film especially created for Weta Cave visitors. They also offer a tour of their actual workshop that requires an admission fee. Photos aren't allowed in the workshop, which is understandable.  Weta is a magical place. I envy the people who get to do what they love for living.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Arriving Middle of Middle Earth

Yesterday I said goodbye to Auckland and headed over Wellington, the capital of New Zealand via Jetstar. The locals have been telling me how windy Wellington is. As I stepped off Jetstar after one hour flight, I was greeted with the sight show in the picture above!  Oh, yea, this IS the middle of Middle Earth.

As I stepped further inside of the airport, I could not take my eyes off the large installations hanging from the ceiling in the food court. The movies created a phenomenon for New Zealand.  After I checked into my hotel, I was able to borrow a phone from the front desk to make a reservation for a half day Lord of the Rings location tour with Wellington Rover for tomorrow afternoon. I really wanted the full day tour, but it's fully booked already. I will have to figure out another way to get to Rivendell.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Hobbiton, Matamata, New Zealand

Ever since I saw The Lord of the Rings in 2001, I knew I wanted to visit Middle Earth, a.k.a. New Zealand. It's hard to believe that was 13 years ago!  Now I made my way to Hobbiton. The excitement had my blood pumping and heart beating fast. The whole time I was in Hobbiton, I was so overheated that I didn't need a jacket. The weather's kind of interesting here. It's almost tropical as it would rain for five minutes and then the sun would come out for a couple hours. It would then start raining again for a few more minutes and repeat.

The vegetable garden in Hobbiton

It took about three hours of driving to get from Auckland to Matamata.  I took InerCity bus to get there and back. The tour lasts for 2 hours. As I stepped off the tour bus, I just couldn't stop smiling. On the way there, I met up with one LoR fanatic from Norway. He had watched the movie in the theater for 87 times when it was released! He was able to answer almost all the questions our tour guide quizzed us. The only one he couldn't answer was answered by me!  I was very impressed with all the vegetable patches in Hobbiton. They are real vegetables. You know I can tell that sort of thing. The tour guide explained that they have several full time gardeners to tend the vegetable patches to make sure they always look nice.

The one question the guide asked that was answered correctly by me was who lives in the hobbit hole with the yellow door pictured below. It's Sam, Frodo's loyal companion. The very last stop of the tour was Green Dragon Inn, which is a real operating tavern in Hobbiton. The tour included one complimentary drink. I had ginger beer which is what kids get since it's non-alcoholic. I felt a little sad as I got back on the tour bus to leave Hobbiton, but I look forward to visit more LoR film locations in Wellington.

Sam's home

Prior to my trip I took some time to upload The Lord of the Rings soundtrack to my phone. As we were walking around The Shire, I had to play Concerning Hobbits at the same time while taking a short video clip. This might be the only opportunity for me to do this ever.

Friday, July 4, 2014

First Day in Auckland

Sky Tower

On Wednesday, I got on BART about 5:30 a.m. to catch my flight at SFO for Auckland, New Zealand. I flew with Hawaiian Airlines. I didn't even know Hawaiian Airlines flies to many different countries, and it's the last American airlines that still serves meal in flight! I was fed well on my way here.That's true Hawaiian hospitality!

On my first full day in Auckland, I went up Sky Tower, took a harbor cruise, and visited Devonport. I also found out that Downtown Shopping Center has free WiFi, so I am able to blog about my trip.

View from Sky Tower

The weather has been quite nice here even though this is supposed to be the peak of winter.  It often rains in the early morning and late at night but sunny sky during the day. On my flight here, I watched The Lego Movie. The song from the movie, "Everything is Awesome" kinda stuck in my head. Now I am walking around downtown singing the song because everything IS AWESOME!

The Ferry Building