Archive for the ‘New Zealand’ Category

New Zealand: First Stop, Auckland

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

Auckland, New Zealand: A Welcome Start to a Two-Week Vacation!

New Zealand was never a dream destination for us, but the Travel Zoo price was too irresistible, so we booked.

And here we are, somewhere above the Pacific Ocean, with no idea what time of day it is,  just that we’ve lost an entire day (our travel agent promises we’ll get it back when we fly west), and we are exhausted from a LONG flight from Los Angeles.

We are flying Air New Zealand, in economy class.  So, my larger-size husband sits cramped for most of the ride while the passenger in front of him domineers the seat space with his reclined chair, his noise-cancelling headphones keeping him from being pestered by any of our complaints.  Thank goodness forWinter Garden Conservatory - Auckland, NZ by Sheree Zielke the mini TV sets in the headrest; they offer recent TV shows and movies to help pass the time. 

My watch says 6:52 AM and we are about to go into our descent.  But what time is it really?  I have no idea, but I don’t care.  Right now bright morning sunshine is streaming in through the airplane windows, almost blinding in it intensity as passengers emerge from their mole-like state.

I am about to land in Auckland, New Zealand.  I barely knew where the city was a few months ago.  Now I know that it is on New Zealand’s north island (there is a south island, too) and that the correct Maori greeting to newcomers is, “Kia Ora.”

We are part of a large group of Canadians headed for the Mercury (Celebrity) cruise ship.  None of us have any idea what’s in store for us, so we are pleasantly surprised by all the attention we receive at the airport.

TIP:  New Zealand is hot and muggy.  Carry a quick change of clothes (shorts, Capri pants, sandals) in your carry-on, or wear the zip-off leg cargo pants, or you will be overcome by heat.  Change in a washroom on the plane, if you can, or in an airport washroom; things move very fast outside the airport as baggage and passengers are sorted and assigned to their respective coaches.

It is now 9:05 AM Auckland time, and I am already entranced by the organizational abilities of the cruise ship company.  Many greeters help us get from the baggage carousel, to the baggage truck, to our waiting buses.  No muss, no fuss.  It seems like we were on a plane one moment, and packed into a comfortable coach the next.

Now comes our next surprise — we are taken to a park area in Auckland, home to the Winter Garden Conservatory.  We pull up outside the Winter Garden Pavilion, a place of quiet enchantment where geese wander free on the lawns, and fat sparrows beg for morsels.  The chirping and twittering of birds fills the air; it’s a wonderful contrast to the sounds motor travel. 

We are invited to view the conservatory: Fernz Finery, Tropical House, and Cool House.  Celebrity has even provided a classical quartet for our entertainment.  The music entwined with the lovely flower gardens are the perfect transition from crowded airplane to vacation mindset.  And there is still tea-time.

Winter Garden Pavilion - Auckland, NZ by Sheree ZielkeAn elegant woman reminds us that we should go to tea.  Tea?  Okay.  What’s at tea?  Oh my…tiny cucumber sandwiches, tiny lobster pastries and mushroom quiches, lemon-drop cookies, and moist chocolate squares, oh, and yes, tea.  Spoiled fat sparrows eye our tasty repast (we are seated outside on a patio overlooking a garden).  Their fat bellies suggest they have dined on tea sandwiches before, and so I oblige and share a crumb of my sandwich.

I feel my anxiety and my fatigue drain away.  Is this a sign of things to come, I wonder?  Another sparrow shows up.  I acquiesce and part with a bit of my lemon-drop cookie.  I can afford to share; I have 14 days of cruise ship buffets and fine dining to look forward to.

Stay tuned for more of my adventures during my 14-day tour of New Zealand and Australia (Jan 2008) while a passenger on the Celebrity Mercury.  Watch for hi-lights of Napier, Tauranga, Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington, and in Austalia — Melbourne, Newcastle, and Sydney.  If you are a fan of the late Princess Diana, I will be covering a Sydney exhibit celebrating her, too.


Sheree Zielke

Napier: The Perfect New Zealand Port-of-Call!

Friday, January 25th, 2008

  TEN Good Things about Cruising into the Port of Napier, New Zealand

  1. No tender boats necessary.  Walk down the cruise ship gangplank to awaiting shuttle buses and taxi cabs.  (You can’t walk out of this port though; have New Zealand money handy.)
  2. Trip into Napier is very affordable.  And very quick.  $4/person via cruise shuttle bus or $10NZ for a cab.  Trip is about 5 minutes.
  3. Napier, New Zealand by Sheree ZielkeNapier town has something for everyone.  Miniature golf, great shopping, restaurants, an ocean spa, a museum, botanical gardens, a skate park, and great architectural scenery (Napier’s downtown was destroyed in a fire in 1931, so rebuilding was done in Art Deco style.)
  4. Easy affordable access to the Internet via email cafes in the city centre area.  $2/15 minutes.
  5. Golf course nearby.  Just grab a cab and you’ll be there in less than 15 minutes.
  6. Taxi drivers and tour operators actually like their guests, and aren’t just in it for the tips.  (Our driver, Splinter, was surprised by our tip – he told us he rarely got one.  That’s too bad, because it certainly wasn’t due to any lack on his part.)
  7. Marine Parade – This is Napier’s great main street.  Spend your entire day just walking this stretch of land which hugs the coast.  Beautiful views and great exercise.
  8. Olive Branch Bread Company – If you like freshly baked bread, this is a MUST-visit bakery.  It’s located on Hastings Street just down from the Visitor’s Centre.  My mouth is watering at the memory of this bakery’s crescent-shaped, black olive and rosemary bedecked, candied fried onions-stuffed, loaf of bread.  You must visit early in the day – breads are sold out by mid-afternoon.
  9. Sail away is a blast.  Set sail to the sounds of a Dixie band, and a show and shine of a ½ dozen vintage cars, complete with drivers in period dress (local volunteers). It’s fun to watch the maneuverings of the tug boat as it nudges the giant cruise ship into position to make its way safely out of its very narrow slip and back into the harbor.
  10. WINE!  If you are a wine lover, grab a cab; there are over 50 wineries in the area, like the Mission Estate Winery, New Zealand’s oldest winery shown below. 

    Mission Estate Winery by Sheree Zielke

Napier, New Zealand might be considered the perfect cruise ship port-of-call.  But don’t take my word for it – go visit for yourself.

Sheree Zielke

Wine Lovers — Go Down Under for some of the best wines!

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Wine Lovers Must Go “Down Under”
(no not under the table)!

Well, not exactly “Down Under,” — that’s the term more reserved for Australia.  Actually go to Aotearoa, that’s the native peoples (the Maoris’) name for New Zealand.

If you are a wine lover, and you haven’t yet become a fan of New Zealand wine, you might want to try a bottle.  Soon.  As soon as possible, in fact.  Because this Southern Hemisphere’s fruit of the vine is as fine as any fine wine can be.

My husband and I love a good wine, a wine with a hearty smooth flavour, great on the nose, and with a pleasing aftertaste.  We recently visited New Zealand and Australia, but as we are very familiar with Australian wines (Peter Lehman’s Barossa Shiraz is one of our regular favorites) we decided to concentrate on New Zealand wineries.  We are very glad we did.

New Zealand is the youngest country in the world, so it would naturally follow that it is also has the youngest vineyards.  And the newest wines.  But only a real snob would turn up his or her nose at the remarkable flavours this infant country has produced.

We visited wineries along the eastern coast of New Zealand (both the north and the south islands), in the area of Tauranga, Rotorua, Napier, Wellington, and Dunedin, to be exact.  We had every intention of bringing wine back in our suitcases, but there are baggage weight restrictions, so we wanted to be very selective.  Tasting was a must!

Our first stop was Mills Reef Winery, a father and son operation (the Prestons) located in Bethlehem, Tauranga, on the Bay of Plenty.  It was fairly early in the day so we had the sommelier all to ourselves; the barrage of cruise ship passengers who had paid for the winery shore excursion was yet to arrive.  So, we took advantage of this two-time winner of the title of New Zealand Winemaker of the Year.

Begun in 1989, Mills Reef (named for the owner’s sea captain great grandfather) specializes in Bordeaux Red and Syrah wines, but the winery produces many other varietals, too.  The winemaking team has won over 500 awards for the wine produced here. Mills Reef vineyards are actually farther south down the coast at Hawke’s Bay, but the grapes are shipped up to Tauranga for processing. 

We sampled a number of whites and reds.  And we tasted some of the most delicious ice wine and fortified wine here, too.  Since taste is a very personal issue, I won’t describe any of the wines, but suffice it to say we eagerly bought a few bottles.  We settled on a 2004 Riesling Ice Wine (Reserve), a 2002 Vintage Port (it’s suggested that you let this one age, but in my opinion, it’s too delicious to leave sitting on a shelf), a 2005 Malbec (this one has been given the thumbs-up by Winestate Magazine), a 2005 Merlot Malbec, and a 2006 Chardonnay (Reserve).

A day later, following a day at sea, we nabbed a cab in the Napier area; it’s a little further south than Tauranga, but still on Hawke’s Bay. The area is a favorite among cyclists and backpackers who make their way along pretty country back roads, sampling fine wines as they go.  Our cabbie quipped, “Yea, by the afternoon, they forget where they left their bikes.”

These wineries were no disappointment either, except for one of the largest, Craggy Range Winery, which struck us as too cold, too institutional, and far too commercial. At least for our tastes.  We visit wineries, not only to sample their wine, but to enjoy their atmospheres; Craggy Range was like visiting a big box store.  We were asked to pony up a $5 sampling fee here, but as soon as we did, the sommelier decided we weren’t riffraff and refused the money.  Do check out this winery’s web site – it is very nice.

Our cabbie (Splinter is his nickname) then took us to Mission Estate Winery, a large vineyard with a picture-perfect estate, and charming old seminary building, dated back to the mid 1800s.  As New Zealand’s oldest winery, Mission Estate is not to be missed. 

Many weddings are held in its huge backyard overlooking the vineyards below which stretch away into the horizon.  This is where we found one of the finest ice wines we have ever tasted — unbelievably smooth, fresh, exotically sweet, and oh, so drinkable.  I made a joke of not getting enough of a taste just so the sommelier would pour me another sample.  He knew I was kidding, but he kindly obliged. 

A trio of very reasonably priced bottles left with us: a 2005 Noble Semillon (Reserve), a bottle of the outstanding 2007 Estate Ice Wine, and an expensive 2005 Jewelstone Chardonnay (unfortunately, we never got to drink this wine.  Our bags were opened for a security inspection in San Francisco, and this bottle went mysteriously missing.)

Brookfields Winery New Zealand by Sheree ZielkeFrom here we moved on down the road to a smaller winery, Brookfields Vineyards.  There was nothing small about the wine we tasted here, however.  Rich and satisfying, we chose a 2006 Burnfoot Merlot, and an unfamiliar 2007 Viognier.  Brookfields, begun in 1937, has a Tuscany feel about it, very pleasant and homey.  We loved our very personal visit here.

We picked up a final bottle from a farmer’s market in Dunedin, from Black Ridge Vineyard, the southernmost vineyard/winery in the world.  It’s located on the outskirts of Alexandra. We chose a 2006 Gewurztraminer (the winery’s “flagship for many years”) on the say-so of the booth attendant.  Since there was no opportunity to taste this wine, we are looking forward to the adventure.  I doubt we will be disappointed as the winery’s Pinot Noir won a gold medal in both 1997 and 1998.

Advisory:  If you are a cruise ship passenger and you are visiting local wineries on your own, be prepared for officials on your ship to confiscate your wine, returning it to you on your last evening of sailing.  This is common practice. But if you have visited the wineries as part of a ship excursion then management may allow you to keep your wine (this happened on the Mercury). In addition, some ships, like the Grand Princess, tended to turn a blind eye to a bottle or two.  But if you board with boxes in hand, the way we did, expect your wine to be taken away.  We never had any problem getting on with single bottles though. 

As to whether or not you can drink the wine in your cabin, it’s best to review your individual ship’s policies first.  Did we drink any wine in our cabin?  My lips are sealed.

If you are wondering about importing wine for transit, please see my future blog with tips for secure packing of wines destined for the airline conveyor belt and airline luggage wranglers.  But beware, you risk losing a bottle or two to unscrupulous security bag checkers.  Next time, I think I will put a note on a bottle advising them that this was purchased especially for them.  A cheaper bottle, of course.

Sheree Zielke

Ugly Americans Have Nothing on Ugly Cruise Ship Passengers!

Friday, January 25th, 2008

 Ugly Cruise Ship Passengers – Relax, for Heaven’s Sake!

You’ve heard the term, “Ugly American?”  Well, here’s a label you may not have encountered: Ugly Cruise Ship Passenger.  And that’s because I just made it up, following a 14-day cruise around New Zealand and Australia.

While at breakfast, a few days into our cruise, outside of Christchurch, New Zealand, I overheard several disgruntled passengers each with his or her own complaints about the ship’s crew and its amenities, or lack thereof.

A British couple was having a serious discussion with another British couple over the lack of fruit carvings.  Yes, fruit carvings.  The foursome felt ship management was being somewhat amiss at not having fruit carvings.  One chap remarked that it was probably due to some health regulation or other – that a kitchen staffer may cut himself in the process.  One of the white-haired ladies suggested wistfully that fruit carvings were a long-gone tradition, “a thing of the past,” said she. But both couples agreed that fruit carvings were a must on a cruise.  Sheesh!

At another station, a surly gent stormed up to the tall white-hatted waffle chef, and demanded to know why, for TWO mornings in a row, the coffee machine on the back deck had no coffee.  The chef stared at him briefly, and then, as though the information had finally made its way to the cognitive part of his brain, he apologized and went about finding the waiter in charge of making the coffee.  The passenger, unimpressed, whisked away, cup and all, and headed to another coffee station, just 50 feet away.

While seated at our breakfast table, a group of Americans were discussing the view through the sea-grimed windows.  One loudly complained that ship staff should “wash the windows,” because salty scum was clogging his view (a view only a few feet from the back deck with its open air tables, and no windows).  And after all, it was 6 AM! How long did management need to ensure a sparkling view?

Cruise ship passengers are a hard lot to please.  From the moment they step on board, many become mini tyrants of their own tiny kingdoms.  The mentality is that “I have spent my hard-earned money, and I expect perfect service in exchange.”  That’s regardless of how many other passengers (our ship had nearly 2000) are also expecting this unerring attention to their comfort.

Here’s my best advice for enjoying a cruise vacation: RELAX. 

Know that not everything will be perfect.  Yes, a port or two might be missed due to dangerous weather conditions.  Yes, that special food you were hoping for may not be on the menu (but try asking – nicely).  Yes, room service might be a little slow especially if it’s a day at sea and ¾ of the passengers have ordered in-room breakfast.  Yes, going ashore at the Melbourne port may be a tedious ordeal (but Melbourne is so worth the wait).  Yes, your TV reception may be horrible (Northern hemisphere TVs don’t work well in the Southern hemisphere). 

And oh yes, there may be no fruit carving.  Grab an orange, an apple, and a butter knife and do a fruit carving of your own.  The artistic act may help to bring you peace.

Sheree Zielke

New Zealand: The Right Cabbie Will Make Your Shore Day Exceptional!

Thursday, January 24th, 2008

Need a cab driver in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand? Try Lance — A Great Find! A Great Friend!

There he stood, a large man resembling a sea captain with his salt and pepper hair, and weather-worried complexion.  Laugh lines near his eyes complemented the thoughtful pattern of wrinkles that lay horizontally across his brow; he made me think of the actor, Sean Connery.

Photo by Sheree Zielke

His cab, a small four-door white sedan, occupied the last spot in the taxi queue.  We were in the town of Mount Maunganui, in the Port of Tauranga, situated on the Bay of Plenty, on the eastern coast of the North Island of New Zealand.  Since leaving the ship, we had already run the gamut of at least three dozen assorted cabs, shuttles, and tour buses before espying the taxi driver who was to make our day of adventuring very special.

The cabbie’s name: Lance Calder.  He told us later he had chosen not to be part of the vicious back-biting under-cutting group of taxi drivers awaiting the arrival of the cruise ship passengers on the pier.  When we asked his price, he stated simply $60NZ per hour.  “Not per person,” he added quickly, but “for the car.”

Lance Calder - Photo by David Thiel

Photo by David Thiel

He wanted to know what we had in mind; as seasoned travelers and photographers, we told him to drive in the direction of Rotorua, and we would tell him when we wanted to stop.  And that he was to avoid the regular tourist stops.  That gave him pause for a moment, but only a moment.

Lance, also known by the handle, “Olddog13-1,” was very quick to learn our desires, and our sense of humour.  He soon joined in our inside jokes as though he’d known us for years.  As a resident of the area since birth (he was born and raised in Te Puke – not as in vomit) he navigated the roadways well, stopping to give us views of the scenery, and share oodles of insider tips on the lifestyle and cultures of the area.

We spent seven hours with Lance – and in that time we saw stinky bubbling sulphuric mud pools in Rotorua, patted a lamb at the Kiwi Lumberjack Show (farm) (ask for Thomas –a handsome young man with a mischievious nature), tasted exquisite wines at the Mills Reef Winery, paid a quick visit to the art deco style Rotorua Museum, lunched in a small café, just up from the old Whakarewarewa Thermal Village (where young boys would dive for coins thrown into the water by tourists), and we visited the Comvita bee centre in Te Puke.

We also visited the Kiwi360 kiwi farm (Lance was extremely knowledgeable in this – he took us under the kiwi orchard canopy where the fruit was hanging like grapes from vines, he pointed out the male and the female vines and how kiwis are chosen for import, with flat-sided ones being rejected and turned into wine instead.)  Lance took us into the shop where we tasted our first kiwi wine (a little too much fruit flavour for our palate) and he took us to a favorite photography subject of ours, an old Mission cemetery, without ever being asked to do so.

Lance Calder - Photo by Sheree Zielke

We learned, through Lance that the huge tree with the gorgeous purple flowers is a Jacaranda tree, a soft drink is called a “fizzy drink,” a car trunk is called a “boot,” and that cruise ship passengers should never share a cab just to split the cost during shore excursions.

“It’s not a good idea,” says Lance.  “The couples can never agree on anything.”  He says he has never seen a cab shared successfully by people who barely knew one another, and who have gotten together just to split the cost of the taxi fare.  He says the only successful shared cab rides are those where the passengers have previously agreed upon where it is they want to go, and what it is they want to do.

Besides knowing the area so well, and being a charming traveling host, Lance is also specially trained in the art of assisting the handicapped, or the ambulatory-challenged.  He has extensive experience dealing with special needs children, and seniors in wheelchairs.

And if you are a wine lover, Lance has an inside track, having a son-in-law in the business.  Be sure to ask him for a little advice if you are going into the Napier-Hawke’s Bay area on what wineries to see, and the best route to take to see them.

Planning a trip to the Tauranga, New Zealand area via cruise ship?  Contact Lance Calder in advance.  You will feel like family when this burly congenial man welcomes you at the pier.  Tell him Sheree says you’ll need to buy a “Peepsi.”  He’ll know what you are talking about.

Contact Lance via email at

Sheree Zielke