Thursday, December 20, 2012

Suddenly It’s Summer In Auckland

Dec. 21, 2012    (Yes, the day the world as we know it is ending – uh huh, right)

It’s summer.  Finally.  Auckland’s summer is similar to summer in Seattle – the heat of the day peaks in the afternoon, with warm sun beating down and bright golden light and cool shadows and just an edge of chill in the breeze.  The sun sets about 8:30 or so, the light lingers long into the evening as the wind brings in the cooler air of night time, and each day dawns with a chilly morning and grey skies – and then the sun burns off the fog and the wind blows away the clouds and we’re back to a gorgeous, warm, sunny afternoon. Restaurants feature fresh flowers on tables, and fresh produce on the menus.

Flocks of ducks and geese head north in giant Vs, baby birds follow their mothers around, and suddenly there is color in a city that looked only grey just a few short weeks ago.  Trees are in full leaf and full flower, bright greens, even a day-glo green tree that pops in bright chartreuse.  A few late-blooming trees, the most gorgeous being a lovely lavender color, and oh so fragrant!  Flowering bushes and hedges and flower beds, the neighborhood parks all a-blossom and a-flower, full of early morning exercisers and late afternoon sun worshippers.  Our manicured neighborhood park, Albert Park, is straight out of London and just begs to have promenading ladies in long dresses and parasols, and I long to sit at a table for afternoon tea – it just has a very Jane Austen look to it.

I love summer, and I’m thrilled it’s finally here!  We walk through the parks to our friendly café with free wifi, have our tea/coffee/scone breakfast, plan whatever needs planning, and then we wander the city.  There are tall modern glass and steel skyscrapers – not quite New York City tall, but tall enough.  The Skytower, that crazy and incongruous building that looks more like the Space Needle on growth hormones than anything else, towers over the city and some mornings the top is lost in the low clouds.  But there are the occasional old buildings dating back to the 1800s, when the British were building homes and warehouses and stores based on the same designs as back home.  And there’s the occasional Maori marae, or meeting center, also in the traditional Maori design.  

We met up with our friends Dan and Dori yesterday (they head out on a cruise this evening), and hopped on the ferry to Devonport, a quaint (and authentically quaint, not fakey faux-quaint) little town across the harbour, full of Edwardian and Victorian buildings, more manicured flowerbeds, and an incredible chocolate shop. (They make the 
chocolates there – absolutely amazing truffles, with rich strong flavors of espresso, cappuccino, chili pepper, whatever – though the dark chocolate is a bit sweet, not quite as dark as I like – but fabulous chocolates nevertheless.)  Devonport also has Mount Victoria, the extinct volcano, in the center of town – it seems that extinct volcanoes are de rigueur for quaint towns and cities in New Zealand, doesn’t it?  There are also lava flows visible on the beach at low tide, though we seemed to be there at high tide and thus missed seeing this – but the sea wall at the waterfront is built of igneous rocks collected from fields and paddocks around the area, presumably from one of Mount Victoria’s eruptions.    
There’s a second hill that apparently is the old top of Mount Victoria, which slid off in one of the lava flows.  That’s what the literature in Devonport says.  And people wonder why I question whether a volcano is ever extinct.  Auckland is sitting on a huge pool of molten magma, bubbling beneath the surface – who’s to say when or where that magma might next bubble through the mantle and explode or leak out?  Auckland is trying to get the entire volcanic field on which it is built named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and with good reason – this is a unique part of the world, with igneous rock and volcanic leftovers all around – even the sides of the major highway are beds of columnar basalt.  This place is crazy!

 Yes, okay, digression aside – Devonport was lovely and we had a fun time.  Auckland today is gorgeous, and we’re having more fun.  And as the day progresses to evening, the harbour is filling up with sail boats scooting to and fro, proclaiming Auckland once again the city of sails.
So – we’ve made progress with our plans.  (We actually have realized that traveling without a plan means occasional planning as we go.)  We fly to Wellington on Christmas Day (what else would we be doing?), and have about a week there.  Then we’ll catch the InterIsland Ferry across Cook Sound, one of the most gorgeous ferry crossings in the world (so the guide books say).  Then catch a train in Picton, and take the Pacific Coast train ride to Christchurch.  We’ll spend a few days there, trying to help the post-earthquake economy, and at some point take the Trans Alpine train across the South Island Alps, to Greymouth.  Then we’ll most likely get a bus pass, and do a hop-on-hop-off tour of the South Island.  We, as usual, have a vague idea of what we want to see – Richard wants to see the beautiful Abel Tasman park in the north, and Queenstown, the trendy and hopping party town of the south.  I want to see blue penguins in Omara and yellow-eyed penguins in Dunedin, and the incredible Milford Sound, in Fjordland.  And we both want to go to the Cadbury and Whittaker chocolate factories in Dunedin (where there is also a castle we can visit).  No idea what sequence, no idea how long we’ll spend where, and I’m sure we’ll stop in other spots just because they look like a good place to hang out. 

We’ll have until Jan. 31 to wander – our NZ visa expires then, and we can either extend the visas (for a price) or move on – we’ve decided we’ll move on.  We’ve been granted visas to Australia, and will fly to Melbourne on January 31 – Melbourne because it’s on the south side, meaning it will still be warm in January and start cooling off around March or April – and Melbourne because it isn’t far from Tasmania, and we both want to go there.  Tasmania boasts the first – and oldest – synagogue in this part of the world; there’s also a Cadbury chocolate factory in Hobart, the capital; and Richard wants to see a Tasmanian devil.  (We have our priorities.)  So off to Melbourne and then Tasmania we will go.  Then wander around Australia, probably via train so we don’t disappear forever into the Outback.  The visa will be good for 12 months, but we can only stay 3 months at a time, so we’ll have periodic trips either back to NZ or off to some of the Pacific Islands – and of course will keep everyone posted.      

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