Oh, Canada

I’m coming home! Eventually.

I have good news and bad news, and more good news, and even more good news.

The good news is that, due to spending an unfathomable amount of time gawping at mountains and/or having afternoon naps, you guys are in for a multi-episodic blogging bonanza as I catch up sharing my musings on what is officially the most beautiful part of the world (that’s an actual fact).

The bad news comes as a result of some careful consideration and calendar coordination. To summarise, I’m not going to Canada this year.

When considering how to traverse from LA to NY, I had two main options. Either head up the West Coast, across Canada, and hurtle down the East Coast to the finish line, or skip the land of big farms and jolly hockey sticks entirely by travelling right through the middle of the US of A.

Both options have their perks. Going across Canada would give me the opportunity to explore a country that I’ve only scratched the surface of thus far, whilst popping in and saying hello to a branch of my family that I only found out the existence of last year thanks to this very blog. However, a road trip across the US has been on my bucket list since I figured out that bucket lists weren’t actually lists of buckets, and there are plenty of people and places that I want to see/see again along the way.

On balance, and taking my time frame into account, I’ve decided to fulfill my boyhood dream of cruising along great American highways in a ’50s convertible with a girl I picked up in Vegas for company*

*in a ’90s Ford Fiesta or similar with an extended overdraft I picked up in Vegas for necessity.

I’m the kind of guy that never says never (except when it comes to brussel sprouts), so this doesn’t mean I won’t have another opportunity to sample maple leaves and moose in the future, but for this year at least, the highest North I’ll be venturing is Chicago.

The more good news is that I’ve just spent a handsome sum of money in order to satisfy a man in a uniform. Yes, that’s right, I’ve just booked my flight home, so that US Customs are happy to let me in on the basis that I will be buggering off again at some point. Touch-down is due to take place at 11am on the 3rd of July, with the reality shock and itchiness to get back on the road again occurring at approximately 11:06.

So get the sausage rolls and party hats ready, because I’m coming home, eventually.

The even more good news is that I have a much better idea of what I want my life to look like once this mid-life crisis is done and dusted. However, since the word count in the bottom corner of this page is fast approaching my average across the site, I think I’ll leave it at that. I don’t want to bore you all with extra-long posts now, do I.

38. Queenstown, New Zealand

Here comes the new view, same as the old view

In my last entry I talked about how I like to spend a wee bit more money than your typical traveller, with the view that in most cases it’s worth it. In keeping with this mantra, I booked a hotel room in Queenstown that was big enough for a ferry to do a nine-point turn in, and which boasted one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen.

Yes, I know I’m going on about excellent scenery again. But this is New Zealand, this is what it does best, and does better than just about anywhere else that I’ve been to. It’s why I’ve wanted to visit this faraway land for longer than I can remember, and trust me, if you ever come here, you’ll see what I mean.

Queenstown was pointed out to me by more than one source as the city to visit in NZ. Its promise of quirky eateries and stunning backdrops was enough to convince me to stick a virtual pin in it. It didn’t disappoint.

Eating a bowl of cucumber, peanuts and anchovies (amongst other things) to a landscape that takes your breath and refuses to give it back is certainly an experience to remember. As is the drive along Lake Wakatipu towards the village of Glenorchy. Driving back was fun, too, primarily because of the hitchhiker I picked up along the way – the poor girl had to endure my chatting all the way back to town as I spoke more words in the space of an hour than I have in the previous two months.

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But the standout moment of this standout location has to be the view from the hotel restaurant (featured pic). The fish and chips may have left a trifle to be desired, but being able to look out the window at that view, more than made up for it (and the price tag). Throw in a log fire, some calming music, and the complete absence of any other diners, and I may as well catch the next flight home because there’s no way it can get any better than this.

Having said that, finishing my meal and heading up to my obnoxiously large room with its obnoxiously large bed was a similarly joyous experience, on the back of several cheap, busy, bunk-bed-infused hostels and motel rooms. Having to decide whether to have a bath or a shower is certainly a step up from having to choose the shower cubicle with the least amount of mould in it.

Unless I win an obscene amount of money in Las Vegas (which I am planning on doing), then I can’t continue this life of evening luxuries for long, so I’m making the most of it. Luckily for me, I have the surroundings to do just that, and then some.

37. Akaroa, New Zealand

Ooh la la.

When you think about people who travel, you’ve probably got a picture of a friendly person hitchhiking their way around the world with a sociable demeanour and questionable levels of personal hygiene. In a lot of cases, you wouldn’t be far off the mark, but that’s not me. I prefer to spend a bit more money going my own way using my own method of transport, and even though it costs more, in my opinion, it’s more than worth it.

There are few examples that demonstrate the value of freedom and independence as comprehensively as my decision to explore a weird-shaped area of land jutting off to the East of Christchurch.

It was never in my plans to do this, indeed I didn’t even know this beautiful little corner of the world existed until I woke up in the morning and decided what to do with my day. The objective was to drive from Christchurch to Timaru, a journey that would take a few hours as the llama walks, but which looked like it wouldn’t necessarily explore the most picturesque parts of this incredible country.

A detour then, to Akaroa. I didn’t know what I’d find there, or if it would be worth the couple-of-hour-detour, but looking at the lumps, bumps, greens and blues on Google maps, I was confident I would at least be treated to a nice spot for some lunch and a semi-decent picture or three.

What transpired was a leg-twitchingly beautiful drive that compared to Tasmania in terms of underestimated, undiscovered stunning scenery.

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As is often the way in these cases, it was the journey itself, rather than the destination, that was the highlight of the experience. That doesn’t mean to say that Akaroa isn’t a town worth visiting. It is. Furthermore, failure to do any research on the matter will allow you the same surprising experience I got when I arrived there – the French.

According to the typically-Kiwi-friendly shop assistant who sold me my lunchtime baguette (obviously), the French settled here around 150 years ago, and the town has been dining off it ever since. French flags, french road names, french shops and accommodation, heck even some of the road signs were in French, and only in French.

One might argue that “Le Mini Golf” is taking this notion a tad too far, but hey, it’s their thing, and who am I to judge.

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Aside from the unusually continental feel to the place, Akaroa sits on a bay, and thus treats you to views of tranquil waters amongst a backdrop of dramatic mountain ranges. Perhaps the best part though – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – is when you’re done there and realise that you have to drive back through this selfishly glorious corner of the world in order to rejoin more traditional civilisations.

Here’s a hint though, don’t take the main road, take the Tourist Drive. Trust me, it’s even better, which is quite the impressive feat.

I love hiring a car to go travelling. Yes it’s more expensive, and I don’t get the exhilarating, seat-of-your-pants, no idea where you’ll end up rush of hitching, but it allows me to look at a map and say “that looks nice, maybe I’ll go there”, and do it. It doesn’t always work out the way I want it to, but sometimes (quite often, actually, in New Zealand) it throws up experiences that you’ll be hard pressed to forget. Ever.

36. Cape Palliser, New Zealand

Road to nowhere

So far, in my short time here in New Zealand, the scenery has not disappointed. I’ve seen lakes, beaches, mountains and forests that are already showing why this country has a reputation as being one of the most beautiful in the world. In this regard, Cape Palliser has to top the lot – so far.

There aren’t many reasons one would intentionally drive over 40km down a dead-end road, only to have to turn around and come all the way back again. One could argue that the promise of a lighthouse that boasts impressive scenic views, and the likely spotting of wild seals chilling out on the beach are two such reasons – and one would be absolutely correct.

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Let’s start things off by talking about the drawbacks. The road, whilst mostly paved and child-bottom smooth, does have a habit of suddenly turning into a pothole-infested gravel track that my ten-year-old Nissan Tiida (yes it’s as bad as it sounds) wasn’t best pleased with having to traverse. Persevere with these pockets of nonconsensual offroading, and you’ll eventually arrive at the lighthouse at the very end, at which point you’ll say exactly the same thing everyone else* says when they see it – “well roger me sideways that’s a lot of steps”.

*probably just me

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252 to be precise, and they only get steeper as the ascent progresses. My general lack of fitness has been well documented on this blog, so it won’t be a surprise to anyone to find out that by the time I reached the top, I was very glad I’d brought my spare bottle of water.

I was also glad I’d brought my camera, because the view that greeted me was more than worth the panting that I was still having to do ten minutes later. To my left, the South Pacific Ocean, lapping semi-calmly against the rocks and sand. To my right, the Aorangi Forest Park, with its dramatic rises and falls that you wouldn’t expect to find so close to the sea. And in the middle, the road I’ve just come down, and will have to go back up again when I’m done here. Only I’m not done here, not just yet.

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If climbing up enough steps to make even Rocky wince isn’t your thing, or you’ve done that and are eager to see what else this magical corner of the world can offer, then keep your eyes peeled on those beaches. Find the right spot, at the right time of day, and you’ll be treated to a bob of seals (that’s the actual phrase, I looked it up and everything) enjoying a well-earned rest, or looking after their young ‘uns.

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These lovable blobs must be used to enthusiastic tourists taking snaps of their tomfoolery, as they seemed fairly unperturbed by my presence, as long as I stayed more than a couple of feet away from them. This allowed me to get a handful of snaps that Attenborough would be proud of (in my head), and spend some time hanging out with seals in the wild, which is novel.

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As if the journey hadn’t thrown up enough weird and wonderful moments, it wasn’t long before I found myself stuck in the middle of some sheep being transported along the road from one field to the other. And when I say some sheep, what I mean is I had enough time to stop, review the photos I’d just taken, write a blog post, watch all three Lord Of The Rings films, have a bath, and invent an entirely new language before they’d all passed me.

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Cape Palliser then, is just like the first spoonful of a tub of ice cream. Surprisingly hard to get to, but utterly wonderful and satisfying, and the best bit is, thanks to the layout, you get to do it all over again.

You’d have thought with all that time I had amongst the sheep that I could have come up with a better simile than that. Sorry.

35. Napier, New Zealand

Wave!

Napier is a town on the East coast that serves as a busy shipping port and a convenient-ish place to layover for adventurous souls such as myself travelling from North to South. Not much of a selling point so far, but it does have one characteristic that makes it worth the detour. Just.

You see, Napier is the self-proclaimed Art Deco capital of the country. I was drawn here by the promise of something a bit different, which as you’ll see from my previous blog, is very much my cup of water. There were even comparisons to Miami, given its funky, artistic style and beachside attractions.

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Did it live up to the hype? Just about. It’s no Ocean Drive, and I didn’t exactly get the impression of stepping back in time by 80-odd years, as despite the artistic roadsigns and gaggle of wartime-era automobiles milling about the town, the intertwining of some thoroughly modern businesses and shops did somewhat spoil the illusion.

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It’s also not the biggest town in the world – even by New Zealand’s modest standards – and the Art Deco-ness is limited to a few streets in the centre/by the beach. In all then, I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to come here, but if you’re anywhere near driving past, then by all means pop in for an afternoon and treat yourself to something a bit different. It also boasts some impressively savage tides, a hill-top view of the port, and enough motels to accommodate the Army of the Dead. So I guess I’m not the only one lured to its uniqueness.

Oh, and one piece of advice – when visiting the local supermarket, before waving your arms about Team America style at the security guard because the front door won’t open, make sure you read the “DOOR NOT WORKING, PLEASE USE OTHER DOOR” sign first, or you’ll look a bit silly.

34. Waiotapu, New Zealand

…and now for something completely different.

Travelling the world is, for the most part, about new experiences. Meeting new people, doing new things, and seeing sights that you’ve never seen before, and will probably never see again. Waiotapu does a spectacular job of doing the latter, and will be one of my starkest memories of this entire trip.

Just outside of the town of the same name, Wai-O-Tapu (I haven’t done enough research into the complexities of Mauri linguistics to tell you the significance of the hyphens) claims to be a “Thermal Wonderland”. Not an everyday choice of phrase, but one that certainly fits the bill here.

Most of the time, when you walk through some rocky countryside and stumble across a body of water, it will probably be mostly clear, with a touch of murkiness courtesy of whatever sediment has been dragged along for the ride. Not here. This thermal wonderland treats the eyes to puddles, craters, lakes, reservoirs, and champagne pools (not actual champagne, sadly) of a whole spectrum of greens, yellows, blues, oranges, and everything in between.

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The reason for this natural palette is thanks to the most volcanically active stretch of land in the Southern hemisphere. Hot water bubbles to the (also hot so for God’s sake keep to the pathways) surface, mixing with various oxides to create this cocktail of colour. Wai-O-Tapu isn’t the only geothermal park in the vicinity, and I can’t speak for the others as this is the only one I visited, but it does leave a remarkable impression on both the eyes, and if you stand down wind of the sulphuric steam, the nose.

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In terms of sheer drama, this isn’t the most spectacular scenery I’ve come across during my adventures. What it is, however is something different, something I won’t get to see back home, a natural feature that further highlights the wonder and diversity all across this beautiful planet.

33. Tauranga, New Zealand

A view of the future

I’ve had an idea for a feature I can do for this website, once all my various escapades have come to a head, and you’re forced to going back to spending your free time watching videos of dogs jumping in snow and friends inexplicably taking photos of food and gym sessions.

I’m thinking of making a “Top Fives” page, where I document the top five of this and that that I’ve experienced whilst on my travels. If I do so, and if I include Top Five Hotel Rooms as one of the categories (which I would), then I may have just found a contender for number one.

To give it some context, the lead up to the evening was the kind of mixture of bizarre and stressful that compares to a John Cleese film. Somehow, despite having a six-hour window between checking out of my hotel room in Auckland and picking my rental car up at the airport – which was only 20km away – I managed to get there 90 minutes late.

Between a badly organised public transport system, and a shuttle bus from the airport terminal to the car rental depot that took an impressive 45 minutes to arrive (longer than the bus from the middle of the city), it’s fair to say that my tardiness wasn’t all my own doing, but nevertheless, it resulted in indulging myself in an experience I’ve missed about as much as asthma – rush hour traffic.

Several wrong turns and expensive phone calls to the “hotel” later, and I eventually rocked up to my destination, ready to collapse in bed and brace myself for the following day when I could finally get my teeth into some Kiwi driving where I can actually see what’s around me.

I say hotel in quotation marks because it was actually a five-bedroom house, which the landlord is renting out, room-by-room, to whatever lucky people happen to stumble across the property on their chosen comparison website. On this particular evening, there were no such other people, meaning I had the run of a massive house all to myself.

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Seriously, it felt like I’d broken in and squatted in someone else’s swanky villa. But that didn’t stop me enjoying a questionably hot bath, and a sleep about as relaxing as having a foot rub whilst Stephen Fry narrates Shakespeare to a backdrop of dolphin sounds.

As for Tauranga itself, the town has one defining feature – Mount Maunganui. I say defining, what I actually mean is a climb up an unquantifiable number of steps, leaving you in a sweaty heap at the top.

Once the sweat has subsided, however, you’re treated to a beautiful view of the town, the beach, and the lake, as well as the realisation that it’s your turn to laugh at all the poor souls making their way to the top as you meet them halfway down.

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As an initial foray into the New Zealand countryside, Mount Maunganui certainly gets things off to a promising start. My testicles are crossed that the rest of this country I’ve been looking forward to visiting for so long provide even more stunning sights.

Speaking of stunning sights, I think I need another bath.