Monday, April 8, 2013

Discovering a New World in New Zealand (Part 1)

The streets were deserted, except for the scraps of paper that blew across the cracked cement sidewalks. Trash piled up next to vacant, vandalized buildings, and battered fences hinged down close to the ground, failing to keep out the trespassers they were designed to keep from entering. Structures were crumbling along every road, creating a dismal environment. Then, out of the dusty, grey haze, there appeared a patch of green next to a shimmering rush of water. An old, historic stone bridge transcended the river, reminding visitors of the glory that once was Christchurch, a wonderous city that is just starting to get its spirit back.

My parents and I arrived in Christchurch on a chilly, cloudy Tuesday afternoon. After picking up our rental car, we drove the short distance into the city center to a quaint bed and breakfast. Once checked in, we ventured out to explore the area. For those of you who do not know or may have forgotten, Christchurch was hit by a massive earthquake in February 2011, severely damaging the city and killing 185 people. Two years later, Christchurch is still recovering from the devastation, and the severity of the disaster can be seen throughout the streets. The cathedral sits in shambles, awaiting necessary funds to rebuild and restore it to its previous glory; while many of the buildings are crumbled and abandoned, creating an ethereal atmosphere that is truly saddening. It made me wonder what Christchurch used to be like; a once vibrant and lively city left in ruin.

Even though the city has a long way to go, there are definitely signs of improvement; even innovation and growth. Just a couple blocks away from the cathedral is what residents call the container mall. It is an outdoor shopping area made completely out of storage containers. Each shop is a separate container, and some are even stacked on top of one another to create rooftop patios outside coffee shops and cafes. There are a number of local artists and business owners with stores there, and locals and tourists alike flock to the modern strip, giving it an energy unseen in the rest of the city. And it is impeccably clean, a starck contrast to other areas of downtown. Just across the river from the container mall is another area that appears to have recently been remodeled, and includes museums and restaurants. Since it was nearing dinner time, we settled ourselves into one of these establishments, a nice little restaurant called Fiddlesticks. We enjoyed a nice dinner and then walked back to the hotel.

As we were packing up to leave in the morning, my dad realized he had left his iPad on the plane over from Sydney, sitting discreetly in the front pocket of his seat. So began a long night of calls to customer service offices, baggage claim desks, and airport and airline personel. Some people tried their best to help, while others shrugged it off, and some places were unreachable. It was certainly aggravating not having decent customer service, especially with a situation like this when a valuable, personal item is lost. Airline websites should have information about who to contact in these situations, and employees should know exactly what to tell passengers instead of redirecting them to ten different phone numbers--some that are not even active. (Rather than continue this rant, I will just tell you the good news: The next morning, someone from the airline did contact my dad to let him know his iPad was at the Christchurch airport--what a relief.)

We had a nice breakfast at the hotel, and I am officially obsessed with the coffee in New Zealand--so good. While my dad ran to the airport, my mom and I explored the botanic gardens, as Christchurch is known as the garden city. The flowers were a little out of season, but still gorgeous. I never knew there were so many species of dahlias. My dad joined us on our walk through the gardens, and then we decided to hit the road, since we had a long drive ahead of us to get to Mount Cook, the next stop on our adventure through New Zealand.

Driving is one of the best ways to see the incredible scenery of the country, although, I will admit, the first hour or so was relatively boring. Lots of flat, farmland and dull attractions, nothing worth taking a picture of, surprisingly. It was not until we turned off the main highway that the landscape began to transform, with rolling hills, green pastures and sweeping valleys. The road curved and dipped, making for some much more entertaining driving for my dad--if only he had a manual transmission.

About mid-day, we stopped for a bite to eat on the banks of Lake Tekapo, a pristine, bright blue lake situated in the Mackenzie Basin. We enjoyed a nice meal on a patio overlooking the water, as well as the Church of the Good Shepherd. We got back on the road and continued south without stopping until we reached Mount Cook. Also called Aoraki, Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand, and is located in the Southern Alps. Driving through the valley, I looked on in amazement at the sheer size and beauty of the mountains, while my parents displayed their geological expertise, pointing out unique features in the rocks, hills and glaciers. (Don't ask me to repeat the terms or explanations, please.)

We quickly checked into our room at The Hermitage Hotel, changed our clothes, and went for a speedy hike along one of the walking trails up to the nearest glacier. It was actually warm enough to wear shorts and a t-shirt, and I certainly welcomed the sun beating down on my pale skin as we trekked up to our destination. Once there, we took a few essential photos, and then headed back to the hotel, as we had dinner reservations to make.

We went down to the dining room, where we enjoyed a nice cocktail in front of floor to ceiling windows that gave us a wonderful view of the sun setting over the mountain range. There were a number of tour groups in the restuarant--most of them from Asia--so the buffet was extremely crowded. We had to wait it out for a little while before finally grabbing some food.  Fair warning though, this is the only restaurant at the hotel, and all they have is a buffet, and it is pretty pricey--way too much considering the amount of food we each had. So unless it is included in your room cost, I recommend walking down the road to the village and finding something a little cheaper.

After dinner, we took part in a star gazing excursion, one of the many activities the hotel offers guests. Our guide led us into the planetarium to give us a (not quite) brief overview of the formation of the universe, our galaxy and the solar system. He also gave us an idea of the constellations we would see outside. While this should have been a 20-minute talk, it turned into close to an hour, and I was struggling to keep my eyes open. I appreciated our guide's knowledge, but he certainly liked hearing himself talk. Once outside, though, my attitude changed somewhat. Even though it was chilly, and I was ready to pass out, the immense sky laid out before me made it difficult to focus on the negative. Living in the city, I see very few stars, if any. But out in the valley of Mount Cook, there were literally billions dotting the sky, it didn't look real. We looked through two different telescopes that gave us a closer look at the clusters of stars, with Saturn being the grand finale of the night. I could actually see the rings through the telescope!

I went to bed that night content with my first few days in New Zealand and my lovely night spent among the stars.

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