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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Fat Joan's House and Further...

In my beaten vehicle, I pushed forward from Blenheim, moving from East Coast to West. My destination was Collingwood, New Zealand, a small town in the area of Golden Bay described as being “at the edge of the world” by the more comprehensive guides. I was headed that way to experience a horse trek run by a company that made trips along the Farewell Spit, a sliver of beachfront land that sat at the base of amassed mountains and reached far out into the ocean beyond. Everyone raved about the Cape Farewell riding adventure. Galloping atop the mountains, the views were stellar. Down on the beaches, the backdrop breathtaking. A sucker for a good romp on horseback to begin with, I made it my business to get myself to Collingwood.

After numerous unsuccessful attempts to secure a room, I exchanged emails with a woman named Joan who owned a “B&B” called Skara Brae. It wasn’t my ideal choice of lodging if the website photos proved telling, but it was one night’s accommodation and I would have to make due. While New Zealand offers plenty of range in terms of accommodation, it’s the ubiquitous B&B that often can trip up even the most discerning traveler. Due to the upsurge of the tourist industry, many homeowners with extra bedrooms will apply for a permit to declare their home a viable Bed and Breakfast facility. The process is simple and, at the end of the day, it brings in an extra income. The high-season tourist, hard-pressed to secure last-minute bookings, is the B&B scam’s easiest prey.

Arriving at the Skara Brae, I realized I was (almost) their next B&B victim. As I stood in the open arched doorway of what was quite obviously someone’s home and called out, I was greeted to the sight of an obese, thin-haired woman in a mu-mu type nightgown elbowing the heft of her body off of a twin bed in an outward facing room. Getting her balance, she poured out into the hallway in which I now stood. “Can I help you?” she asked, clutching a gossip magazine at her bosom. Looking around the “B&B” I almost didn’t want to respond. I was standing in someone’s living room, full of clutter and personal affects, none of which were a necessary visual inclusion in my tourist dollar rate. Stacks of magazines and old newspapers outlined the perimeter of the room. Laundry racks displayed a recent load of laundry. The shaggy carpets were coated with dust and dog hair, the kitchen sink was piled with dirty plates. A stale odor hung in the air. I swallowed. Hard. “I’m here for my room. I’m Marie. One person, one night. We emailed yesterday.” Without as much as a blink, my slobby hostess met my gaze, “I’m sorry, I think you’re mistaken. We’re full for the night.”

Both panic and relief hit me at the same time. Panic, for where else would I stay!? I had queried all the other establishments in the town of 200 residents. Relief in the happy glee of NOT having to put roots down in this shithole for more than this particular moment, here at the kitchen table. But, ever the New Yorker, I reacted. Poorly. “Um, excuse me? I have your email right here,” I spit back, part because of the mix-up, part because the filth seemingly justified a harsher reply. I flipped through my Treo (which has since died) to pull up her email. My proof of HER error. She wasn’t apologetic, barely responsive, when she said, “Oh, I think I remember. Well, heavens, I’ve made a mistake. I’ll call around and see if anyone can take you in. But, you know,” she admonished, “it’s high season now.” I was furious even though I was loath to stay within a five-mile radius of her little establishment. “Yes, Joan. I’m aware it’s high season, that’s part of my anger. I wonder how you’ll be able to rectify this situation. As you do know, you will have to rectify it. I’ve driven over 350 kilometers today, because of your room confirmation in my inbox, not to mention on my credit card. I do hope you’re planning to fix this.” Bad Marie was boring holes in Fat Joan’s nightgown with her eyes, as she clumsily dialed proprietor after proprietress in a forced effort to find me a place to stay. No dice.

Fighting back tears -- accident yesterday, homeless today -- I sat down at her stained kitchenette, tired and exasperated. Then, lightning struck! “Oh, wait,” said Fat Joan. “The Lewis House. It’s around the corner. They’re not technically open yet, but they’re opening next week. Maybe they can take you in. It’s REALLY nice. Much nicer than here.” Right, a horse stable would be nice than here. Unable to do more than agree, I asked her to point my in the direction of The Lewis House. I’m completely aware of the fact that I didn’t thank Fat Joan on my way out.

I’ve come to believe that things happen for a reason, as The Lewis House was a small blessing. A brand-new, 3-bedroom house with separate studio-unit out back, this true B&B would open next week to a more formal level of accommodation. For now, Sarah the owner was happy to hone her hosting skills on me. A lovely Hamptons-esque split-level facing the beach, Sarah gave me the studio unit for the same price that fat Joan was charging me. She stocked the kitchen with food for breakfast, supplied bath products, and offered me a wholly flexible check-out time AFTER my trek. Further, she seemed genuinely elated to have me stay there. Her home was up the hill, so I basically had a house to myself in Collingwood for the bargain basement price of $100NZD (about $70 US). A beautiful place, I can guarantee The Lewis House, on opening, will forever be packed. As it should be.

As I settled into the ONE establishment in the town for dinner, The Courthouse Café, I was joined by an Irish "bloke" and his girlfriend who were curious about my damaged car. Shocker. Jonathan and Kasey followed me from the Skara Brae to The Lewis House, settling in one of the upper rooms. My B&B roomies for the night, if you will. Of course, as travel would have it, they were from Queens. Both bartenders in New York City, we had dinner together, ultimately sharing too many bottles of vineyard wine and closing down both the Courthouse Café and the town of Collingwood. I shared with them my driving woes, they shared with me their own – picking up a hitchhiker, which became two when they actually stopped for the first one. Hitchhiking is commonplace in New Zealand, Kasey and Jonathan thought they’d do a karmic duty by helping one out. The stench of the guys they picked up taught them a fragrant lesson…

I barely dragged myself out of bed the next morning for my horseback ride along the Farewell Spit. It rained the whole time I galloped with Bridgette, the guide, along the ridges of the mountains, through meadows of sheep and cattle, and down seaside inclines. The views were non-existent, the air chilly and the tides too high to ride down onto the beach, but that morning ride was one of the high points of my trip. Of course, as I dismounted none of it mattered. For all the downsides of Collingwood, the upsides -- the triumph of getting there in one piece, the randomness of the night, the new friends I made, all while being at “the edge of the world,” -- were quietly liberating. I’m not sure when I’ll get back to Golden Bay, but if I do, I doubt the ultimate experience will top this one.

Of course, the sun shone brightly as I made my way away from Collingwood back the way that I came, through the towns of Kaiteriteri Beach (easily the most beautiful beach I’ve seen yet) boasting the famous Split Apple Rock and Motueka. The day’s end brought me through Rabbit Island (another beautiful beach) and into the quiet town of Nelson for one last night in the South Island. In the morning, I’d headed to Picton, the South’s northern port, giving my poor little Mazda back to the Europcar attendants (“Well, good on ya! That’s the worst we’ve seen in a while, love.”) and ferried across the Marlborough Sounds, passing schools of frolicking dolphins and surfacing whales (finally, my whale sighting!), to the North Island’s capital city, Wellington.

Wellington, a bland, windy city, was the base for the North Island’s first two nights. There I devised a game plan, a loose itinerary for the next 10 days. With the help of an old Harper colleague’s Kiwi friend Lisa, I decided my route and was given the grand tour of the city, from the highs of Mount Victoria by moonlight to the sea level swishes of the surrounding bays. On the second day, I sampled the city’s many coffee houses on Cuba Street, wandered the pretty botanical gardens, discovered some talented modern Kiwi artist named Judy Millar at the City Gallery and played flirty hide and seek games with a handsome Spaniard named Eddie through the exhibits of the Te Papa National Museum. Bored with Kiwi history, we retired to an afternoon of getting-to-know-you on the wharf that led to dinner in the center and promises of tapas crawls in Barcelona and lounge hopping in Manhattan one day in the question mark of a future that travelers talk about.

Now I’m firmly ensconced in the quite different feel of New Zealand’s North Island. It, so far, doesn’t compare to the South Island’s natural beauty, but I still have hope. After all, luck doesn’t seem to be on my side in New Zealand, but nevertheless, it’s been non-stop enjoyment. So, I have confidence I’ll be back on this page, extolling the North’s splendors soon.



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