The anticipation to see New Zealand began literally 10 months ago. I was talking to [my wife] Erin, who expressed some interests in celebrating her 50th birthday this December 22, 2018, with a bit of fanfare. At the time, I remember her saying something humorously decisive like, “For my 50th, I want to do something dramatic…. Like… jump out of an airplane! … or, I don’t know… go to New Zealand!!” And there it was. I knew which of the two would rise, as I quickly said to her, “I’m not jumping out of an airplane with you.” And she quickly saying, “Well, I guess we’re going to New Zealand.” I was proud of the fact that we stuck to our plan as three months later, we found ourselves making reservations for all our hotels and for in-country flights. As I write this, I’m on day 2 in Auckland, New Zealand, and we’ve enjoyed a fantastic and very full day. But let’s back up for a moment for the flight, the connection, and the full description of our arrival and our first full day in New Zealand.
Our 22 Hours of Flight
LAX doesn’t seem much of a bother when one is looking forward to an amazing trip. We arrived close to 8:00PM for a 10:30PM night flight to Melbourne, AUS, where we would connect to Auckland. We used our United + Miles to be able to even afford the trip, but we purchased additional miles to enjoy “Economy Plus” space from LAX to Melbourne. This paid off. We were flying a Boeing 787 Dreamliner – my first foray on this (smaller than expected) aircraft – and this investment put us in the first 1/3 of the aircraft, as we enjoyed the 2nd row of Economy Plus. While waiting to be called for boarding, we went to the “Rolling Stone Bar and Grill” inside Terminal 7 and enjoyed some better than expected airport restaurant food while watching the Dodgers folly against the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 6 of the NLCS on the bar/restaurant’s multiple TVs. It was ugly. I remember thinking at the time, “I am missing the entire World Series on the trip. But please, God, let me miss the World Series knowing the Dodgers are at least IN IT against the hated “Red Sux” … win or lose.” They have one more chance with Game 7 to make it to the World Series. I guess we’ll wait and see.
We board our 10:30PM night flight, which doesn’t take off until closer to 11:15, and at first, I dig into my Amazon Kindle Purchase, “A Life in Parts,” by Bryan Cranston. Let me state for the record right now that Bryan Cranston is one of my favorite actors. Few can cross back and forth between comedy and intense drama and master both to the degree that he does. Only Gary Cole comes to mind right away among leading men. Anyway, the book is amazing, and man has Bryan Cranston enjoyed an adverse and amazing life – from lower middle-class question mark to the top of Hollywood. Kudos to him. You have to read it to understand how great his rise was.
Now here’s what’s amazing. Most of you may not know I have trouble sleeping on airplanes, no matter what time of evening or Red Eye. Well, on this 15-hour flight, I think I must have been able to get about 6 hours of shut eye (with some brief wake-ups here and there, only to drift back to some uncomfortable sleep). But it made all the difference. For the last half of the flight, I enjoyed bantering with Erin in-between her shut eye and taking in “Annihilation,” the Natalie Portman horror film that also stars Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Tessa Thompson, and Gina Rodriguez. Without saying more, I’ll just say that this combination of “Arrival” and “Stranger Things” – meets an elusive 3rd element I can’t quite place – is a truly fantastic film. Hey – no reason a film review can’t happen on an International flight.
Once in Melbourne, we were most excited to use our “United Club free passes” to rest in luxury during our long 3.5-hour layover before flying to Auckland. … but there was only one problem. There is no United Airlines “Lounge” in Melbourne! Ok, we thought. But we did, after all, book the flight through collaboration with Air New Zealand, United’s “Star Alliance” partner. So, we make our way to the Air NZ lounge, and meekly approach the hostess. Long story short, we were let into the lounge where we enjoyed free breakfast food and coffee, comfortable chairs and free print media. There, we meet “Tom,” a Kiwi who was in Australia to work with customers on his “Agricultural IT” software. Tom’s company uses models to help agricultural interests with inventory, grazing levels, and nutrition stock purchases. One thing we noticed upon making our way to our flight to Auckland is we never saw Tom again. And it hit us. Tom never boarded the flight when we did… he definitely flew 1st class because Agricultural IT does well in NZ, a predominantly agricultural country. Hey, more power to him.
Even as we approach Auckland, we can see how beautiful New Zealand is from about 5,000 feet. It’s crisp, clear, and abundant with what TV viewers will know as, “Simpsons clouds.” We know we’re landing in an urban-meets-rural paradise. It has the feel of a Southern Atmosphere African plain, with it’s high-leaf trees and plush open acreage. Upon landing … I check my phone. Game 7 of the NLCS took place during the entirety of this flight. With heart-wrenching anticipation, I rush to my ESPN app. … Dodgers 5, Brewers 1. The Dodgers are headed to the World Series!!
Auckland Night Life
We use our first night to orient ourselves with the very 4-star Cordis Hotel, part of the Langham Group of hotels. We’ve researched the “Top 30 things to do in Auckland,” and after an affirmation by the hotel staff, we head down to the Harbor off of Quay street and discover “Degrees,” a bit of a “business casual dive bistro” with a mixed menu and plenty of Southern Hemisphere sports (Look at the Rugby Photo!) to view on multiple TVs. We enjoy some tapas-style dining which included a crispy pork belly dish, a Kingfish made crudo style, and a seasoned taco that tasted as if it was from North America but with a stylish New Zealand “zip” to it. We retired to our hotel and didn’t last long before falling to sleep around 10:00PM
On Monday, we slept in to about 8:30, and ventured forth to find a cool breakfast spot. But – we are quickly informed by hotel staff that today is New Zealand’s Labor Day! Well, good for the Kiwis. As they should! But what it means for us is a day scheduled a bit differently than we might have expected. First, venturing to nearby “Bohemian” street known as Karanghape Rd., or “K Rd.,” we discovered “Scullery,” a fantastic breakfast and coffee place that also had the advantage of (I’m torn on this) being open on N.Z. Labor Day. You’ll see in the inset photo that I enjoyed an incredibly flavorful Kimshi with bacon and fried egg and edamame. Filling and healthy! Erin was satisfied with her “Avo-toast” with poached egg and chili jelly. Yeah… hipster food – N.Z. style!! (Disclaimer: I promise I’m not one who normally photographs his food prior to devouring it.)
There’s Only “One Tree Hill.” … or maybe two!
From breakfast, we sought out one of the landmarks that was not shut down by the Labor Day holiday – One Tree Hill. … One Tree Hill, you say?! Yes – New Zealand’s One Tree Hill is a volcanic hill that was once built as a high ground fortress. But now, it is a very public, family-friendly park with dozens of sheep on site (and plenty of sheep shit) where children run after them and where hikers take on the incline all the way up to the Washington-monument-esque One Treel Hill Monument. We had a great time, interacting with Kiwi local children and trying to get close to cud-chewing sheep and their little babies to say hi. It’s clear that the land is so lush in N.Z. that grazing fees can’t possibly be preventative to profit for the sheep herders.
From One Tree Hill, we were encouraged to go visit “Mission Bay.” Well, I’ll be the one the critique Mission Bay as a poor-person’s L.A. County South Bay. And, in Southern Hemisphere terms, a very-very poor person’s Bondi Beach. Sold as a long walkway of shops and restaurants, only dozens of yards from the beach and bay inlet, instead, it’s only 2 city blocks of mostly tourist-friendly indigenous tastes with few – make that none – marquee clothes shopping venues. The beach looks light blue and warm, and shallow out several dozen feet. But it surely isn’t the massive crescent of Bondi Beach by any means. We enjoyed a late lunch at De Fontein Belgian Beer & Burger, which didn’t look much different than your average Irish Pub. Erin enjoyed the fish & chips. I, the very delicious Mussels. MMmmmmm. My first shot at New Zealand seafood!
It was only about 3:30, but having enjoyed a full day, we returned home to the hotel. We lounged sitting on the bed and hydrated with New Zealand’s water, which is clean and clear enough to drink from the tap. We even watched a little of Amazon’s “Man in the High Castle” as we rested and rallied for the evening. The programming was solid, and we’re close to done with an impressive season 3 of the Amazon classic. But we never summoned the energy to leave the room again, calling room service for what was probably the best tomato bisque I’ve had in years. Tomorrow, our rest is sure to pay off with a visit to “Hobbiton,” the preserved sets where Peter Jackson filmed “The Shire” scenes for the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies. We look forward to taking pictures in the Hobbit Shire before driving to New Zealand’s East Coast, landing in Hawk’s Bay’s “Napier, NZ.”