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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Leaving Wellington in the wind, I began my northern climb toward Auckland, where I’d fly out on March 1st to Fiji. Dependent on buses, opting not to further push my automotive luck, it felt good to be at the transit center on schedule, throw my bag under a Greyhound for storage, climb aboard, grab a window seat and not worry about the roads, the map, my timing or what highway fed into what other one. It was nice to be on someone else’s clock, for a change. First stop, Napier. On the east coast of the North Island, Napier lies on Hawke’s Bay, and the claim to fame is its Art Deco architecture and surrounding vineyards. Off the wine trail, I was tempted to skip past Napier, knowing that my penchant for architecture doesn’t err on the Art Deco side of things, and being a Miami aficionado, I was sure Napier wasn’t going truly “wow” me. I should cater to instinct a bit more. In an attempt to miss nothing by stopping in Napier, I saw nothing but an unremarkable town with some fading art deco facades along the main strip. Salad for lunch, grilled chicken for dinner, sleep, move on…

Next stop: Lake Taupo. The city nestles itself on the largest lake in the country of New Zealand where I decided to go white water rafting. An activity I missed in Queenstown because the rivers were too low for a proper expedition, Taupo’s Rangantiaki River was supposed to be the best. Met at the bus stop by the rafting company at 10:30 AM, my luggage and I were shuttled down to the river’s start point. Excited for an adrenaline filled afternoon, I was paired with two Belgian couples that couldn’t decipher right from left and jabbered endlessly in foreign tongue. I knew the day would be trying. Constant confusion on the paddle instructions led to lots of back paddling out of bushes and coasting down Grade 3 (at best) rapids became tiresome quite fast. Dropped back at my hotel around 5 PM, Taupo sharing Napier’s lack of charm, I ate dinner (Thai this time), against a wonderful sunset (the ONE perk) and hit the sack early.

Onto Rotorua: the capital of odor. Rotorua sits in the center of a highly geothermal region of New Zealand. Geysers, mud lakes, sulphur holes, boiling carbon slicks, steaming fissures of earth, active volcanoes and hot springs pepper the area. In the middle of public spaces, ropes fence off danger zones. Every part of the city has the potential to be an active hot bed of geothermal ooze. Why anyone would choose to live there for that reason alone is beyond me. Maybe it’s a geologist’s wet dream, but for the layman, I don’t see the allure. Tourist-wise, it’s a big spa town: lots of public pools of naturally enhanced waters, mud baths, natural steam rooms and health facilities abound. Me, detesting anything resembling public bathing and not a real fan of anything sauna, hot tub or spa related besides a massage, this was NOT my kind of town to begin with. Then, add the air. The entire city smells like rotten egg. The sulphur in the water, in the mud, in the region emits a foul -- and I mean, throw up in your mouth FOUL -- stench. It’s egg and fart and vomit and dead mouse all rolled into one gently blowing westerly wind. Disgusting. And, it’s inescapable. The sheets of my hotel smelled, the elevator shafts smelled, the shower water smelled, my hair smelled. I don’t know what possessed me to come here in the first place except EVERYONE, and I mean EVERYONE said it’s un-missable.

So, I went. BUT I DO NOT and WILL NOT EVER recommend going there to anyone, ever. It’s mean. Even for your enemies. (Bob-Carol, why did you send me there? I’m sad about this…I think I’ve lost travel trust!) I did what I was supposed to do; I went to all the thermal crater parks; I went to see the mud lakes, to watch the geyser spout. I did not publicly bathe and I did not enjoy myself. Not for a second. And, to add insult to injury, within 5 hours of being in Rotorua, guess what…yep, bronchitis. It happened so fast. Before I could even say “nasal drip,” I was ill. Hello, Z-pack! I mean – with a smell this atrocious, I can’t imagine it being healthy, though that’s the schtick they’re peddling in this crap, shit, nauseatingly god-awful town.

So, I was thrilled when Rob Smith’s parents came to get me and whisk me away to Tauranga, north on the Bay of Plenty. Rob, a Kiwi who lives in Oz, is a friend of Sarah and Leigh’s. We met in New York this summer when he was looking for work. Now, in his parts, he offered up Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I was apprehensive to take him up on his offer. Parents could be great (Hanfts, hi!) or not great (I won’t name names…). Do I commit to the parental New Zealand visit? A gamble. But, I went for it. I almost felt I had to and figured it was a day, right? What’s the harm in a little Kiwi TLC from Mr. and Mrs. Smith? I guess part of my apprehension is that I can’t help but flash to my own parents, should I ever offer them up for a friendly spin with a foreigner. I love my parents to death (I love you guys!); my friends love my parents. They’re so easy, so down-to-earth but (maybe it’s an American thing), I just wouldn’t offer them up. Like, my mom would sleep with a knife under her pillow thinking my “international friend” was going to “rob” her, tying her up (in her own home!) with garage pilfered twine and make off with her Lladros. My dad wouldn’t know what to do, period. I can’t imagine what my dad would talk about with a strange friend of mine from abroad. (Admit it, you’d kill me if I did that, no?)

But this parental experience, the Kiwi kind, was great. And the Smiths single-handedly (well, four-handedly…) changed my opinion of the North Island. An affable, comfortable couple, the Smiths picked me up at my hotel and suggested we go for coffee at a little place called The Lime in Rotorua. (Rotorua, really? Can’t we LEAVE yet?) Sure, sure. I was still on guard, obviously. I had just met them. But, within minutes, it became clear that this was going to be a leisurely visit. Rob’s dad, Bob, was a spitting image of Rob, with more crinkle in his eyes when he laughed this funny chuckle of a laugh. He was so curious and knowledgeable about most everything, a treat to chat with. Shirley was any of our mom’s. Ready to gossip about people we had in common, happy to sit back and listen, fussing over the placement of the magazines on my bedstand, making sure I was comfortable (and fed) at all times. We went through the northern reaches of a pleasant smelling (and lovely!) Rotorua -- the Blue and Green Lakes and Lake Tawarewa, the surrounding village of which was once buried by volcanic eruption giving it a mini-Pompeii feel. From there, we went to visit Rob’s younger brother Warrick, and his girlfriend Jess, at their temporary beach house (awaiting move-in to their starter house) near Tauranga. We crashed their dinner, dining on venison their friend Dave caught (well…another story…) and chatted with Pat and Yolande, a Kiwi guy and his South African girlfriend who were Mark Madden and Nikki LaMotta clones.

Hearing that I planned to leave the next day, attempting to crank out two trips over 4 days to both the Coromandel Peninsula and the Bay of Islands, everyone said I was being way too ambitious and wouldn’t do right by either location to crunch them into such a short time frame. The bus trips would take more than two days of the four. Bad plan. Bob and Shirley to the rescue. “Stay with us the extra night, we’ll road trip the Coromandel Peninsula tomorrow, then you can go to the Bay of Islands for 3 full days. We insist.” Um….ok.

I woke at the Smith’s beautiful house the next morning to a waiting breakfast of thin pancakes “with real Canadian maple syrup,” (Shirley was proud) and a banana, apple and blueberry fruit salad while I took in a sunrise that took my breath away. The way the colors burst into the dawn sky in Taraunga was like no other sunrise I’ve ever seen (and this was the Smith family’s everymorning…!) Then we set off to cruise the Coromandel -- roadtripping with the Smiths. Shirley in her straw hat brought three pairs of shoes (walking shoes, sandals, and flip flops) as well as a change of shorts (she utilized it all). Bob, in his cargo pants and baseball cap, brought whatever Shirley told him to bring. We started in Whangamata, continued to Tairua, then onto the pearl of the Coromandel, Hahei Beach. There, we picnicked. Shirley made a bacon and egg pie (I took the recipe, some of you WILL be picnicking with me come springtime, be prepared…) and brought some chilled sauvignon blanc. We looked out on the most stunning ocean and ate. From Hahei, we crossed the peninsula to Coromandel township, a quaint town of about 1200 that still feels authentic, where we stopped for fish and chips that were wrapped in newspaper to-go bags, and absolutely worth the calories. We dropped in on Bob and Shirley’s friends that they hadn’t seen in over 5 years, asking a pick-up truck in a dead end if they knew where “the Bulls lived,” to which the pick-up driver replied, “Sure, follow me! I’ll point you the right turnoff to their land.” Amazed at the small-town-ness of this small town (…imagine asking a passing car in the States if they knew, let’s say, “the Cohens”), we spent the sunset high above Coromandel with Fran and Gib Bull (and their son Mark), a farming couple that couldn’t have been more excited to entertain their unannounced guests (and strange New York tagalong), all but begging us to spend the night. Phenomenal Kiwi hospitality. Again.

Waving a heartfelt goodbye to the Smiths at the bus station the next morning after another sunrise breakfast combo, I headed off to the Bay of Islands, Northland’s jewel and my last stop in New Zealand. Waters filled with 144 mostly uninhabited islands, The Bay of Islands was renowned for the fishing, especially big game beasts like marlins and sharks. Once upon a time ago, I used to fish every summer with the Pellegrino’s and I remember loving it. Blue fishing at night, casting lines off the beaches of Montauk during the day, but I haven’t picked up a fishing rod since, likely, 1986 or so when I hooked Christine in the neck, dragging her about 50 feet down the surf. Time to dust off some skills…

I settled in Russell, the original capital of New Zealand way back in the day, now an authentic, well-preserved hamlet in the Bay. The last ferry to Russell from mainland Paihia departed every night at 10:30 PM, so I found myself continuously Cinderella’d, running the length of the dark dock to secure passage home. But I didn’t mind, as the early wakes kept me plenty busy. And, yes…fish I did. I spent two days on the water, both exploring the outlying islands and hunting for dinner. I caught many a snapper and a few trevallys (a delicious, meaty white fish) on my excursions. I would squeal and struggle with the unseen fishes, to the amusement of my fellow fisherman, reeling in and out on my rod, before the fish (usually) would succumb to my strength. Then, I apologized to the little guy hanging off my line, before taking a requisite photo, disengaging him and chucking him into the bloody dinner bucket. After bringing the boat back to harbor, our skipper would filet the fish at the docks, gulls circling overhead, and we’d carry our trophies across the street to the Swordfish Club, a local restaurant that would prepare each catch according to specification, for $12 NZD! I cannot tell you how accomplished I felt with every bite!

Overall, the North Island was a very different adventure than the South, but ultimately terrific. The Bay of Islands, the Coromandel and Tauranga being my favorite parts, I ended on a genuine high and owe a huge thank you to the Smiths for helping me get there. Now, I’m off to Fiji, which I can’t imagine will be anything but sheer bliss…

More soon from the South Pacific.


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