w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
New Zealand is breathtaking. Sprawled over two islands and riddled with volcanoes, geothermal hot springs, bubbling mud pits, golden beaches, emerald coves, world-class wineries and snow-capped mountains. If you can stomach the long flight, it’s definitely worth a visit!
We started in the North Island, where we spent six fantastic days exploring Auckland. The Airbnb gods were on our side and we lucked out with a luxurious cottage in the very cool Grey Lynn/Ponsonby area. We brunched, gallery hopped, hiked Mt. Eden and One Tree Hill, biked Tamaki Drive and took the ferry to Waiheke Island for wine tasting and beach romping. Auckland may very well be the laid-back California of my dreams; a diverse, urban environment surrounded by mountains and water, perfect weather, emphasis on clean, outdoor living and some of the nicest, most laid-back people we’ve met thus far. In fact, it's impossible to stay lost for very long because if you linger even one beat at an intersection, a Kiwi will sense your hesitation, sidle up and ask, “Hey mate, need some help?” It was, perhaps, the only place other than Rome that I could imagine myself living.
Hanging out at the Ponsonby Central Art Show.
Just a 40-minute ferry ride from Auckland, Waiheke Island is a haven of secluded beaches nestled among quaint towns and lovely vineyards.
We “wasted” a perfectly good morning swimming and wave jumping.
And then hit up Stonyridge Vineyard for a fantastic lunch.
Auckland rests on 55 volcanic cones; among it’s most famous is Mt. Eden. The great views are worth the hike.
We also made it to One Tree Hill with its grassy terraces and dramatic, wavy landscape.
The kids hate museums, but loved the Auckland Museum where you can experience a simulated eruption in the Volcano Room, repellent with an explosive blast and jerking furniture. And of course we had to pry Isoo from the stuffed kiwis.
Auckland Art Gallery is located next to Auckland University and shares its outdoor space with the pretty Albert Park. The great location and accessibility (free admission!) make the mostly “meh” collection forgivable. My favorite piece was Seung Yul Oh’s giant plastic bubbles entitled Soom (which for the non-Korean speakers translates to Breath).
On our sixth day, we picked up our RV and headed north to Coromandel to dip our toes in the famed Hot Water Beach. We had wanted to kayak Cathedral Cove, but as novices to the RV pump and dump (it’s as fun as it sounds), we got a late start and had to race straightaway to Rotorua for our scheduled Hobbiton Tour and dinner at the Mitai Maori Village. I can’t decide which felt more like Disneyland as both were expensive, crowded, commercial and gimmicky, but despite its “culture lite” approach, we ended up having a blast and managed to learn a lot.
Near Tongariro (a National Park in which much of the Lord Of The Rings movies are filmed) we hiked to thermal spas and waterfalls, and trekked the Northern Circuit of the Alpine Crossing, which was pretty much like hiking Maui, Southern Utah and the West Coast of Ireland all condensed into a stunning four mile mile stretch. Oona really wanted to do the 12 mile hike and climb to the top of Mt. Ngauruhoe to drop a ring into the fires of Mordor, but we were short on the time, stamina and the $150 needed to buy the reproduction “ring to rule all rings” sold at the Hobbiton gift shop.
The RV was pretty nice as far as RV’s go, but NZ roads are notoriously windy. Here we are in the few rare, smiley moments. Truth is that we spent most of the drive car sick and picking up stuff that slid off the counters, tables, etc.
Getting into hot water at Hot Water Beach. The day we hit the beach was a cold and rainy one. Good thing a geothermal spring bubbled beneath the shore. Arrive two hours on either side of low tide and wiggle your feet in the sand for a blistering hot foot bath.
Beach girl in Hot Water.
The campsites in NZ were not what we expected – more pavement than grass, not a scrap of privacy and a strict “no fire” ban that left the kids hungry for s’mores. But we lucked out with our beachside campsite in Coromandel where we woke up to crashing waves, sandy feet and morning coffee with a view.
I’m not a Hobbit nerd, but even I found this tour interesting. It took Peter Jackson two years to build the Shire for what turned out to be 15 minutes of movie footage. It was dismantled and then rebuilt for each installment until the owners of the farmland suggested leaving it up as permanent attraction. Jackson agreed and while the houses themselves are empty, in accordance with NZ laws, each Hobbit hole is built to code and officially deemed livable. Just wipe your hairy feet on the doormat before entering.
We joined the hordes of tour groups and headed to Mitai Maori Village for a show, traditional Hangi feast and glowworm bushwalk.
We stopped in Taupo to visit the Thermal Spa and hike to Huka Falls. Along the way Isoo and Chris couldn’t resist jumping into the super deep, emerald green river, but despite much urging, Oona insisted that she was too scared. Isoo was thrilled when she surprised them by taking the plunge.
Hiking the Alpine Crossing at Tongariro National Park. Next time we sleep in a hut and do a three day hike like the real trampers.
Isoo got a floppy hat. It’s official: He’s a birder.
In Wellington we camped in a parking lot downtown overlooking the harbor. I won’t even call it a “gloried parking lot” because it didn’t even try to be anything other than an expensive city car park with a couple of stanky public toilets. It was noisy, dirty and incredibly crowded. When we told the kids we were staying two nights, they threatened to call the NZ equivalent of DCFS (cue eye roll). Despite our location, it was great to be in a city again and we managed to fit in a couple of delicious meals, museum visits and strolls by the water. If ever you’re in Wellington, you must visit the Te Papa Museum – its Maori exhibits are a fantastic way to learn about the culture and history of the indigenous New Zealanders.
While we were in Wellington we met a 60 year-old Cambodian refugee who had escaped Phnom Penh during Pol Pot’s reign. His father, a member of the old Parliament, had been murdered, and he himself only survived by hiding in the jungle for 6 months. He finally made his way to Thailand where he was reunited with 10 surviving family members. After several months at a relocation camp he and his family were granted asylum. They had to submit paperwork to enter a placement lottery. Each form had room for only 4 names so between the 11 of them they filled out 3 sets. They did not realize they could staple the forms together, which is how he and 3 of his family member ended up in Wellington, and the other 7 family members in the U.S. We told him that we had just visited Cambodia a month prior. As most of the elderly were killed and only the lucky few managed to escape, we were deeply grateful to be able to meet him and hear his story firsthand.
Home sweet home - our Wellington digs. Oh well, at least we had a sweet view of the harbor.
Wellington and its famous cable car.
Outside the excellent Te Papa Museum, thrill seekers take turns diving into the bay off the South Pacific.
Loading the RV onto the ferry to cross the Cook Strait.
Chris and I spent the 3 hour ferry ride pouring over a map, trying to figure out a way to hit all of the South Island’s sights. In the end, we gave up – two weeks is just not enough time to see everything – so we stopped briefly for a wine tasting and some petanque at the Cloudy Bay Winery in Marlborough before heading west (a lucky pick as Cyclone Pam was already on its way to close down all attractions on the east coast).
We ended up at Abel Tasman National Park setting up camp at a great little RV park across from the beach. A speed boat dropped us off on a gorgeous stretch of golden sand for a picnic lunch and from there we hiked through forests, crossed rivers and splashed around emerald green coves. We had a fantastic time at Abel Tasman until the very last second when Chris made a spontaneous turn and hit a post on the way out, pulling off the RV’s side rail.
After a relatively quick and painless repair, we were back on the road, headed to the Pancake Rock of Punakaiki. Everyone we spoke to warned against spending too much time in the north or lingering too long at each spot saying, “There's just too much to see in the south!” In the end, we wish we’d slowed down and spent a couple of days watching the surfers and the seals ride the waves of the west coast.
The NW corner of the South Island has gorgeous stretches of sandy beaches and emerald green coves that empty out into the crystal blue ocean.
NZ takes Customs very, very seriously. To keep their environment pristine Customs officials inspect the soles of shoes to ensure that visitors don’t accidentally import plant or animal pests. Also prohibited? Outside food and drink. We ended up having to dump all the snacks and drinks we’d brought for the long flight. Abel Tasman National Park takes it one step further – in 2007 the island of Adele poisoned all of its stoats and rats and is officially pest free. You know I totally want to move there.
The Rope Bridge at Abel Tasman.
I loved the wild west coast with its gorgeous rock formations, clean beaches and killer waves.
Lunch at Bay House Cafe overlooking surfers. After our tasty meal, we walked to Foulwind Seal Colony and watched hundreds of wild seals swim and play in the water.
The stacked rock formations at Punakaiki’s Pancake Rocks. Go at high tide and watch the blow holes spout water high into the air.
Oona watching nature’s TV.
Hands down the best thing we did in New Zealand was visit the Franz Josef Glacier. We hiked over volcanic rocks and past waterfalls to the base, but to get up close and personal, you have to board a helicopter. We donned crampons and snow gear and even managed a three hour heli-hike. Our guide Ollie led us over the blue tinged terrain through ice tunnels and past ever changing ice formations. Talk about bucket list!
Ironically, despite our heavy snow gear, the weather on the glacier was warm and sunny, a sharp contrast to the temperature in Queenstown. We rolled into our urban campsite/parking lot just in time for lots of freezing rain. Queenstown may be the NZ’s adrenaline capital, but all we wanted to do was cuddle up under some blankets and watch a movie. We ran to the supermarket for snacks and DVDs and spent most of the Queenstown segment in the RV. But we did manage to get in come luging before the rain washed away our plans to bungy jump.
Hiking over the volcanic rock to Franz Josef.
Getting ready for take off. All systems go!
Ollie gave Isoo an ice pick and let him lead the hike. Thankfully, Isoo did not trip!
Emerging from ice tunnels and scaling hills.
The really cool thing about glaciers is that they melt, move and re-freeze. Ollie says no two hikes are alike. This ice formation was only expected to last a couple of days till the next rain.
I’m not much of a skier because I absolutely loathe the chair lift. Unfortunately, it was the only way to get to the top of the luge course. Here I am holding on to Isoo for dear life. Why do my kids insist on doing things that require scaling tall heights?
Isoo speeding down the hill with Queenstown looming in the background.
Isoo really wanted to see the critically endangered, highly elusive, Black Stilt. We drove to Mt. Cook/Lake Pukaki prepared for disappointment, but instead, eagle-eye Isoo found several in the first five minutes. To my right loomed the majestic Mt. Cook, to my left the sparkling turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki. Black birds chirped, rabbits hopped and all I could think was that in two blessed days we would be in Christchurch, in a hotel with internet, heated pool, marble bath and a proper bar. When a school bus pulled into the campsite and unloaded 85 screaming kids, we considered Mission Black Stilt complete, unplugged the camper and cut out early for Christchurch.
Driving to Christchurch Isoo pointed out, “Mom, I don’t think we are RV people; I think we are luxury hotel people.” Oona put it more bluntly: "All I want is to shower without wearing shoes, sit on a real toilet seat, and get some space from you people!” I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know what I was thinking suggesting a motorhome. It’s not like we needed any more together time, least of all in a tightly packed space without doors to separate us. But New Zealand is expensive and sprawling with gorgeous scenic drives, low fuel costs and well maintained roads. At the time it sounded like a no brainer. Now I know!
Lake Pukaki's amazing turquoise waters.
Hiking Mt. Cook.
One perk to RVing? A table with a view.
Isoo applauds as we pull into the RV return center.
Last but not least, we had low expectations for Christchurch. Since the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes the city is still in a state of rebuild. Yes, cranes line the city streets and most of the major sites are still cordoned off, but the city’s love of art and spirit of innovation are evident. Re:Start, a mall of temporary shops housed in metal shipping containers is helping to revitalize the commercial district.
The biggest of the earthquakes hit 7.1 on the Richter scale, and in just 24 seconds, resulted in 181 deaths, leveling a quarter of buildings in the city’s center. From the looks of it, the 20 year plan to rebuild the city is very slow going.
Yet another great NZ museum – the Antarctic Centre, is compact, informative and hands-on. A concierge greets you at the front desk and then helps to plan out your itinerary so you don’t miss any of the good stuff. We got to experience a simulated Artic Storm, brave the chill of freezing cold water, learn about life in modern day Antarctica, watch Little Blue Penguins dive for fish, watch it snow…indoors! And enjoy a rollercoaster Hagglund Ride. Not to mention I finally understand that whole global warming thing. Every museum should take a page out of this one!
If I could do it all over again, I would have added another night in Coromandel to kayak Cathedral Cove, an extra day lazing on the west coast and booked a whale watching trip in Kaikoura (minus Cyclone Pam). Despite everyone’s claim, we actually preferred the North Island to the South Island. Queenstown/Mt. Cook/Lake Pukaki felt very much like the Inter-mountain region of America and while beautiful, it lacked the culture and diversity of the north. And next time I suggest an RV trip, remind me that I am a “luxury hotel person”. But whatever you favor, however way you see it, NZ has something for everyone.
A city with a plan.
Learning about the seasons in Antarctica's. Boarding the exciting Hagglund.
Art abounds! Prettying up a city in transition.
Yup, NZ in a nutshell!
Bali was not on the original list, but when we decided at the last minute to add New Zealand and Australia to the docket, Bali seemed like the perfect place to break up an otherwise super long flight, catch up on some writing and flesh out details for the next leg of our trip. Unfortunately, by the time we got around to locating housing, our options were limited, which is how we ended up in the very sleepy village of Lovina in north Bali. I won’t bore you with details of our Lovina stay because frankly, we didn’t do much except overeat, homeschool, curse the crappy internet connection and take turns swimming with the insatiable mermaid/attention monger, Oona. Lovina was not terrible, but a little dull, and therefore requiring the full patience and enrollment of Camp Mom and Dad. I most definitely did not have time to plan our trip or write, but it did give me some time to reflect on how much the kids have grown and evolved during this trip, the characteristics that have come into sharp focus, and what I hope they will take away from this experience.
Those crazy homeschool moms with the vegan shoes and hemp tunics totally called it: “You might have grand plans for sticking to the standard curriculum now, but just you wait!” I threw out half their textbooks months ago, whittling it down to just a couple of math books. Their blogs replaced their writing books, reading up on native birds became Isoo’s research paper, Oona flooded her Kindle with Wimpy Kid titles (which thankfully was later replaced by the C.S. Lewis series). I did exactly what I promised would never happen: I let them lead their own learning.
In Ireland, we would wake to find “out birding” scrawled on a square of toilet paper. Breakfast in Spain meant a bowl of cereal and vulture sightings on the terrace. By HCMC, Isoo would grab my cellphone and his binocs, walk down to the store with some dong, buy himself a banana muffin, and bird until his scrambled eggs were ready. This is what I wanted to give my kids (and frankly, what I wish I could give to myself) the chance to selfishly, greedily indulge in their passions.
It is interesting to see what happens when your kids are stripped of the white noise of traditional school expectations, peer pressure, cultural norms, and especially in Isoo’s case, comparisons in physical growth. Their true self rises to the surface and it’s fascinating to see who has emerged. This is Isoo: obsessed with birding, solitary, filled with worry. He does not miss his friends or soccer or piano or the over scheduled structure of his old life. The other day he lowered his bincos and said “Mom, you remember in the school yearbook I wrote that I want to be a soccer player when I grow up? I really regret that. I just felt like that was what I was supposed to say because no one my age knows what an ornithologist is. But you know that’s what I’m going to be when I grow up, right?” I look at him, still so small, and slack from 6 months without sports. I nod, “of course,” I say. Inside I pray this kid, this tiny, nerdy, passionate, super cool kid will not be undone by middle school. Re-entry for him will be toughest of all.
Who could not love a kid who after months and months is still haunted by a momentary lapse of authenticity? Isoo is the most truthful person I know. He is also the kindest. He walks into the bathroom to find me chasing a spider and whispers, "Go spider, go, please escape down the drain!" And at 11 years old, he exhibits an envious amount of focus and discipline for his passion. And yet it’s been a real challenge to be around him. His anxiety runs on a frantic never-ending loop: Is that cooked enough? Are you sure this ice is machine made? Is this water clean? Do I have to do math? Ugh, why do I have to do math???? Are you coughing? Why are you coughing? Am I reading too slow? Do I have to take away minutes if I’m distracted? Are your hands clean? Am I eating too much? Am I eating too little? Do I have a fever? Are my cheeks red? Am I brushing my teeth too long? What happens if I skip a day of flossing? Will this food make me throw up? Can you feel my forehead again? Does this look like a rash? Is that cooked enough? Is it? Is it?
He needs to know the exact temperature, the population, the average income; statistics that can help him quantify and prepare for any given place. He bombards me with requests for probability: What are the chances we will miss our flight? What are the chances there will be a tsunami? What are the chances I’ll get sick? What are the chances we’ll be back by 9 p.m.? 8 p.m.? 7:30? None of this is new; he has always struggled with anxiety, but it comes in big gulping waves with every new location, sometimes blanketing and shading the entire experience so that no one else can breathe. Lately Isoo is convinced that water will make him vomit. In the 90 degree heat it’s a challenge to keep him hydrated, Chris and I take turns being the heavy, resulting in tiny sips parsed over hours of urging. Most days we fall into bed, exhausted from exercising either too little or too much patience. But I get Isoo. We are in many ways alike, his worries an echo of what I hear inside my own head and work so desperately to tamp down.
And then just when you think you can’t do it anymore, just when you are convinced that this neurotic, obsessive, uncompromising little individual has spoiled the entire trip, Isoo closes his magazine, turns his liquid hazel eyes on you and says something like, “Well, Mom and Dad, I think I’m going to go upstairs now and work on my novel.”
Oona continues to miss her old life. In the last few months I've see her growing away from the brother she once worshipped. She finds Isoo’s mania annoying and is resentful when he fills the room with worry. They pass each other like strangers. If Isoo is like me, Oona is definitely...not like me. Think Sigourney Weaver when she gives birth to the alien that rips out of her abdomen. Except my alien came out with jazz hands and doing cartwheels. Oona's life, if left to her own making, would be filled with gelato, sports, monkey bars and friends. She is wonderful and exhausting in her own way. She talks nonstop, skips everywhere, snacks constantly and needs chronic attention. She wants to eat and try everything. Each child is allowed to select one excursion in each country. Isoo without hesitation opts for birding. Oona’s picks are annoyingly exciting, comprised of waterparks and ziplining. In Lovina we take her to the Bali Treetop Adventure Park, a series of open-air treetop climbing circuits. I complete 3 out of the 7 courses before deciding that a fear of heights does not define me as a failure. Isoo betters me by completing an additional circuit, but as he steps onto the wobbly criss-cross sky bridge suspended over a ravine, he curses his sister saying, “God! Why does she have to be so good at this stuff?” Chris, not wanting to let her go it alone and refusing to be bettered by an 8 year-old, persevered with stoic determination, his misery and fear only betrayed when he looked my way and mouthed “You owe me!” But Oona didn’t need any of us. She raced ahead, clipping and unclipping the carabineers, adjusting her own harness and climbing her way through the jungle.
Oona has the cheerfulness of someone who is aware of her charmed life. I see her in a crowd of tourists with her high swingy ponytail, Converse sneakers, strong, tanned legs, her big eyes and pretty face and she just reeks of privileged America. When strangers approach her and ask to take her picture, she obliges, always smiling for the camera. At the Vietnam War Museum a man with no hands, a victim of Agent Orange approaches and then smiling, extends a mangled arm. Oona takes his squishy stump and without missing a beat, shakes it saying, “Hi, my name is Oona. It’s very nice to meet you.” I hope she never changes. I hope she never loses this confidence or becomes boy crazy or a mean girl or spoiled brat or a vidiot. I hope she never becomes trampled by the mundanity and uncertainty of life, the acceptance of everyday tedium that so often defines maturity. Because right now her brother may fear the world, but she knows that it, and everyone in it, is her friend.
And yet, the thing she wants most is to go home. Of all the places she’s been, Evanston is still the place where she feels most herself. She meets some girls in the pool. As we walk back to our room, I ask her if she had fun playing with her new friends. She shrugs her towel clad shoulders and says, “It was OK,” code for “She’s not Mia or Eden” because nothing can beat her old friends, her old neighborhood, the sold house she still calls home. Re-entry will be hard on her, too.
When this trip is over, I hope the kids understand what a privilege and joy it’s been to see and experience the world. I hope they LIVE WITH APPRECIATION of the big and little things we take for granted in our lives back home. And when we’re back home, eating dinner in the car as we shuttle from swim team to soccer practice, Oona struggling to pull on her swim cap and Isoo grumbling about the shower and the homework and the piano practice that still lie ahead, I hope they will recognize what a gift it was to have this freedom and time to grow into ones’ self. When it’s all said and done, isn’t that the real journey?
As for Baii, only a fool wouldn't love this paradise. It's an island lush with palm trees, terraced rice fields and overgrown bush. Raging waterfalls, the lapping sea. Incredibly warm, kind people. We were lucky enough to see Lovina, Ubud and Jimbaran Bay, but it's true that our visit would have been made better with more research, patience and fresh eyes. Bali was a little heavier on lux and lighter on culture than we all preferred (especially following Cambodia). Everything was a supreme hassle to get to and when we got there, it was not necessarily worth the trouble (Sekumpul Waterfalls, Banjar Hot Springs, the Rock Bar, etc.), and frankly, it was not our first time experiencing island life, seeing rice terraces or swimming with dolphins (I know this sounds obnoxious, but it's the truth). Alas, I can see why most visitors prefer to just lounge by the pool. As I said, only a fool wouldn't love Bali.
The villa in Lovina was pretty sweet. We had not intended on renting such a big house, but it was the only one we could find with fully enclosed bedrooms (yay! air-conditioning!). The remote location made it a steal - much cheaper than a hotel. It was hands down the fanciest place we stayed.
The outdoor living area. I am now an expert at distinguishing gecko poop from mouse poop.
And it came with a crazy infinity pool and views of the ocean.
Isoo takes his mandatory turn playing with Oona in the pool. A rare moment of togetherness.
Isoo had a nice little set-up going at the villa. Generous breakfasts and a huge upstairs suite for all of his private tween needs.
Our view from the terrace: sunset overlooking the rice fields.
But the best thing about the house? The amazing staff! Komang and Elah were not only the kindest people and most talented cooks, but also became family friends. One night the ladies brought their boys over to play and watched all the kids while Chris and I went out to dinner (our second date in over 6 months!). It was great to come home and hear the kids around the table giggling with their new friends.
We hired a driver to visit the nearby Banjar Hot Springs. It was fine, but in the heat and humidity, we would have preferred a cooling pool.
We hired a driver and made the trip to Sekumpul Waterfall. It was a very long and very expensive ride. When we got there, we were tricked into a hiring a "guide" who turned out to be two 12 year old girls. We had hoped to go swimming in the waterfall, but after a few meters of hiking, we learned that the path down to the falls was closed. Grumble grumble.
The short hike to Sekumpul.
Oh well, it still made for gorgeous views.
We also hired a driver to take us to the Bali Eka Karya Botanical Gardens in Bedugul. Did I mention that Balinese sculptures are very dramatic?
The plantings are beautiful, but because the grounds are so sprawling and the weather so hot, everyone just drives through. Weird to be in nature and sit in a car.
Inside the Botanical Gardens is the Bali Treetop Adventure Park. Note the lack of helmets and guides.
Little missy doing what she does best.
"When is this over?" Isoo on one of the rope bridges.
The drive up to Bedugul was very twisty and slow going, but the views were stunning. This is the real Bali of lush foliage, beautiful lakes and children walking home from school. Yes there are touristy towns with their manicured resorts and pools, but I much, much prefer the wild, green drama of the real Bali.
A departure from the usual brown uniforms and requisite braids. School kids dressed up for the full moon celebration.
After Lovina we drove down and spent a week at the Intercontinental in Jimbaran Bay. I wanted to give the kids a chance to do some watersports not available in the north, which is known primarily for dolphin watching (and polluted black sand beaches). The kids had their own ideas and preferred to hang out in the pool instead.
Shirleys at the swim up bar.
It was not terribly cultural, but it also was not horrible.
I literally had to drag them out of the pool and into surf school. The instructor made them do their own paddling and wave catching. Oona and her little arms were exhausted at the end of the day, but both did great.
The kid is a natural.
We took a field trip to Ayana Resort's famous Rock Bar for drinks. The views were great, but the drinks were terrible, the wait was ridiculous and the scene was 20-somethings trying too hard.
Ubud was really more our style. I loved the rice fields and the laid back vibe. If we had planned better, we would have done less Lovina and Jimbaran Bay, and more Ubud.
We ate at Sari Organic, a little restaurant in the rice fields. Our view (Isoo is somewhere in the field tromping around in the mud).
My guy doing what he loves best.