A Layover in Reykjavik

This entry is about my quick layover in Reykjavik back in July 2017. When I booked my return flight from the UK to the USA, I had to make a three day pit stop in NYC for a family wedding. It happened that the cheapest flight from London to NYC, with a difference of several hundred dollars, was with Icelandair. The catch was a 17-hour layover. It was an awkwardly timed layover, too. I arrived in Reykjavik at 3pm and wouldn’t depart again until the next morning. I knew I didn’t have much time to do anything but I tried to make the most of my time there. The Keflavik airport is about 45 minutes away from the city itself, so rather than try to see parts of the city during limited business hours, I opted to do the most touristy thing I have ever done in my life: I went to the Blue Lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon is a man-made hot water spa located just 20 minutes from the airport. This means that many tourists either go here when they first arrive, or just before they depart. Iceland’s tourist industry is a well-oiled machine and there are regular shuttle buses between the airport and the lagoon which you can book with your lagoon admission ticket. Find out more about how to get to the Lagoon here.

When I arrived at the airport I found that the Reykjavik airport is extremely clean and modern and most people are helpful and speak English. Customs was almost a pleasant experience there. Once I had my bags I headed down to the public transportation information desk and found out where to go for my Lagoon bus. At the same time I asked them what they thought about people sleeping in the airport overnight. I had read conflicting accounts online. Some blogs said it was a friendly airport and that people slept on the floors all the time because so many flights have long layovers. Other blogs said security people go around waking people up and telling them to sit up rather than lay down on the floor. Near the information desk there was one such camped-out group, with sleeping bags and everything. I realized that the pre-security terminal space available to sleep was limited and decided to book a hostel room for the night for one reason: because my layover was so long, I had to claim my checked bag and was advised not to re-check it until 2 hours before my flight to ensure it didn’t get lost.

About an hour later I boarded my bus to the lagoon. One thing I will say about Reykjavik is that it is very windy! My suitcase was nearly ripped out of my hand by a crosswind coming out of the terminal. And I happened to arrive on an overcast and drizzly day so it was quite cold. The bus ride was quick. There isn’t much to see between the airport and the lagoon. You can see Reykjavik across the bay to your left as you go, but the landscape itself is very desolate. I had never seen anything like it before. It’s a tundra with a lot of strange rock formations covered in lichens, and very few trees.

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On the bus ride between Keflavik Airport and the Blue Lagoon.

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It was an overcast day but still strangely beautiful!

I had my luggage (suit case and backpack) with me but it wasn’t as cumbersome as I expected. The bus drops you off right in front of the luggage storage at the Lagoon entrance. Luggage storage works out to roughly $5 after currency conversion.

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That small building behind the black van is the luggage storage.

From the luggage drop-off you’ll walk several hundred feet through rocky landscape to get to the lagoon entrance. There is a path that winds through the landscape that you can take without having to pay admission. These photos were taken from the path:

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Everything in Iceland will seem expensive. First off, the currency is in larger units, so what we see as $10 they see as 1000 Icelandic krona. But even once you get used to moving the decimal point over two places, you’ll find things are quite pricey. My ticketed entry time for the Lagoon wasn’t until 6pm and I arrived an hour early so I spent my time in the Blue Cafe next to the gift shop. While I appreciated the free wifi, I also spent $25 on “dinner” which was essentially a chicken salad and a skyr yogurt drink. I had already spent $15 on a few snacks at the airport before I boarded the bus, but knew I needed to eat because very little would be open and accessible for me after I was done at the lagoon.

Once my entry time rolled around I entered by the admission desk and found my way to the women’s locker room. At first, the set up was confusing. I had been given a wrist band that apparently was to be used for everything from locking the locker to purchasing drinks from the pool-side bar. I eventually worked my way to the back of the locker room where there were fewer people and figured out the locking system. If you are not familiar with these types of communal locker room/changing areas, you may be taken aback by your neighbor suddenly getting completely naked next to you, so fair warning. You will also be asked to shower before you enter the pools. You can do this with or without your swim suit. There are stalls with doors for those less comfortable showering naked with strangers.

The water at the lagoon gets its unique color from all the minerals in the water, particularly the silica. While it is great for your skin, it can make your hair dry and crunchy for a few days. You’ll find conditioner dispensers throughout the shower area and are encouraged to put some in your hair before you get in the water. From there, you’re ready to go!

It was cold on the day I visited so I was glad that I took my towel and flip flops with me from the locker room outside. You can enter the water from inside the building and swim out through a door, or get in at various points outside. I opted for the inside entry. The water is wonderfully warm and the temperature changes depending on which of the main connected pools you find yourself in. It also varies in depth, so don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself in only a foot of water. The floor is relatively smooth so bare feet will be fine.

Yesterday during my layover here in Iceland I did the most touristy thing I could possible do… I went to the Blue Lagoon. 😂 It was great to swim around in the hot water and the face masks and drink were included in my ticket price, but overall it was way too touristy for my taste. There's a reason locals don't go there. Haha. But, it's something to check off the list. If Mike and I come back to Iceland together in the future, I look forward to exploring the many, many other geothermal pools the country has to offer! The Blue Lagoon is actually man-made, which takes some of the authenticity away. I definitely enjoyed the geothermal pools in New Zealand far better! 😊 #travel #travelgram #keflavik #icelandlayover #bluelagoon #touristtrap #silica #thermalpool #geothermal #gopro

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You will encounter Lagoon employees bobbing around the various pools and they will offer you a free silica face mask or body scrub. They’re included in your admission and you should definitely take advantage of them. See me with mine in one of the several Instragram photos above. Every employee I encountered was extremely friendly. Sometimes too friendly. I knew they knew I was alone and some were too chatty for my taste. Hah.

Overall, I spent an hour in the water. As someone who has often traveled solo, I was used to being alone, but I can definitely say a visit to the lagoon would be best with friends. I was surrounded by other groups of tourists. There were a lot of Americans, but also many from other countries. This is a selfie-Instagram ground zero though…so be prepared for people with their GoPros and waterproof iPhone cases to be doing their best to get that all important shot. I watched one group of girls posing on a rock formation in the cold wind for what seemed like an eternity… but I’m sure they got better photos than I did. If you’re not convinced, just check out any photos tagged with the Blue Lagoon location on Insta: https://www.instagram.com/explore/locations/243297961/blue-lagoon-iceland/

Also included in your admission is one drink from the pool-side bar. I opted for another Skyr smoothie and didn’t regret it. I eventually decided my fingers were wrinkled enough and go out. I showered, got dressed and then headed back toward the front of the property to retrieve my stored luggage. The shuttle bus had a limited number of return times to the airport, so I was glad I chose the one I did. Once I arrived back at the airport I got a taxi to my hostel. This was an unanticipated expense, since I had planned on sleeping in the terminal, but it was money well spent. My taxi driver was such a pleasant man! Honestly, everyone in Iceland is so nice it almost feels unreal.

I checked into the Base Hotel hostel, which happened to be some converted old military barracks near the airport, and happily got into bed to sleep. I had to pull the black-out curtains shut because it never truly got dark over night. The next morning I packed up and took a shuttle bus from the hostel to the airport for 1500 krona. I checked in at the self-check kiosks and dropped off my check bag before heading through security. Security didn’t take long at all and then I sat down at one of the airport restaurants for breakfast.

Inside the main terminal of Keflavik airport. I loved the stained glass depictions of Iceland’s famous sagas in the windows.

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I love public art. 🙂

Overall, I think I made the best use of my layover given the limitations of a budget and not having a rental car. If I had more money, I probably would have rented a car and booked a hotel in  Reykjavik so I could see more of the city. Having the car would have given me more mobility to get to restaurants and things after my visit to the Lagoon. And really, if I had had the car, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the Lagoon. My visit to the Lagoon was based on the convenience of the existing tourist framework that is in place. Given just how many flights now pass through Iceland, I might find myself in Keflavik again soon. If I do, I’ll know what to do! 🙂

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Icelandair connections through Keflavik

 

Sticky Toffee Pudding… How I Love Thee…

I had been to the UK three times before my visit to complete dissertation fieldwork this summer. During those three visits I had explored a lot of the food that the UK had to offer. In Edinburgh in 2006, I braved a taste of haggis, which ended up reminding me a lot of a chunky leberwurst. It’s yummy! In Glastonbury in 2012, I learned more about different types of Indian curries when I became a regular at Elaichi on the High Street for take-away dinners. I love a good dhansak. In London in 2012 and 2014, I relished anything and everything I could get my hands on at the Borough Market and Harrod’s. And yet, in all that time, I had never had a proper sticky toffee pudding. Truth is, I’m not much of a dessert person. Mike and I rarely order dessert when we go out for a meal and if we do, I let him choose, which inevitably results in something chocolate. That changed when I was in the UK this summer. I realized how amazing the traditional but humble sticky toffee pudding could be when it was made well.

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Sticky Toffee Pudding we shared in Edinburgh back in June.

I ate sticky toffee pudding in Edinburgh. I ate it in Croscombe. I ate it in Marizion and in Porthleven. Anywhere I could get it, I ordered it. Mike did too. So, I like to think I’ve become a bit of a sticky toffee connoisseur…  So when it came time to decide what would inspire Mike’s birthday cake this year, I didn’t have to think for very long. I took the flavors and concepts of a sticky toffee pudding and put it in cake form. And I’m pretty proud of the final result.

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For those who are unfamiliar with it, sticky toffee pudding isn’t what Americans think of as a pudding at all. The British like to call lots of things puddings (sweet and savory), so don’t be fooled. This dessert is a dense sponge cake made with dates, topped with a warm, luscious toffee sauce (so much butter and brown sugar and heavy cream…) and then often served with ice cream or custard. I made the sponge and sauce according to a recipe I found online. I then assembled the cake with stiffly whipped cream (unsweetened because this doesn’t need any more sugar) and layered it up to look pretty. We may not be in Cornwall anymore, and boy do we miss it somethin’ fierce… but tonight we had a little taste of our newly adopted home away from home.

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Happy 31st Birthday to Michael. You are my forever travel partner and food explorer. I love you!

#MiviDownUnder – New Zealand Day 7 and 8 – Exploring Glacier Country (Fox Glacier and Lake Matheson)

Day Seven
My original plan for day seven was to drive to our AirBnB in Okarito via Castle Hill near Arthur’s Pass National Park. Castle Hill was used for several scenes in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies. However, looking at the map, it was so much driving and we’d been doing quite a lot of driving, so I came up with a back-up plan based on other things I knew I had wanted to see.

From Punakaiki we drove south on highway 6 toward Glacier Country, one of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand. As we drove further and further south the snow-capped mountains started to take shape. We reached Franz Joseph and Fox Glacier about two and a half hours later. Our first stop was Lake Matheson, which has an easy hour-long hike with some truly stunning views of Mount Cook and the glaciers.

 

We had stopped at a grocery store on the way so when we arrived I made some sandwiches in the trunk of our car before we headed onto the track. Most of the walk is through shaded and woody areas that feel a lot like Lothlorien. Then occasionally there is a break in the trees and you can look out across Lake Matheson and see a nearly perfect reflection of the mountains on the surface of the water. If you want Instagram-worthy shots, Lake Matheson makes it very easy!

 

From the Lake Matheson trail head we drove a bit further into the farm country at the foot of the mountains for a better view of Mount Cook and Fox Glacier, which we were going to be scaling via heli-hike the following day. From there we drove back into Franz Joseph and made a spontaneous reservation for later in the evening at Glacier Hot Pools. We splurged a bit and got the private pool for after dinner. Food options are few and far between, as with most parts of New Zealand. However, the options that do exist are usually all pretty good. We opted for the Snakebite Tavern, an Asian fusion restaurant just a block away from the glacier pools location. I had their house specialty, which was a fall-apart-tender beef dish (Beef Rendang) in a rich brown sauce served with rice.

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After dinner we went back to the glacier pools and checked in. We were escorted along the fern lined boardwalk to the back of the property where they had several small, secluded pools. Each private pool had a little hut with a shower and a changing room, which was very welcomed in the cold night air. It was just what we needed. An hour soak in hot water and then a quick drive back to our AirBnB in Okarito.

Okarito is a small hamlet of just a few houses on the coast. We arrived well after dark so it felt even more remote as we pulled up. The cottage itself was cute and cozy, but what I remember most about our stay there was the night sky. After lugging our things in I made Mike come back outside with me and just spend a few minutes looking at the stars. I didn’t have a tripod so taking photos of it wasn’t an option, nor would it have done it any justice. It was humbling to be under such a clear, dark sky with the Milky Way Galaxy right in front of me, clearer than I had ever seen it before. There is a reason New Zealand’s tourism department dedicates a whole web-page to Stargazing. The area around Mount Cook is considered a particularly great dark sky for stargazing. I wish we hadn’t been so tired every evening or we’d have spent more time looking up at the stars. We are all stardust…right? 🙂

Day Eight
This day of our trip was one of the most exhilarating and memorable. After a good night’s sleep we drove back into Fox Glacier and had brekkie at Café Neve. We ate a hearty full English style meal before heading across the street to check in for our helicopter hike on the glacier. There are two main glaciers: Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph Glacier. We opted to do Fox Glacier with Fox Glacier Guiding. I was definitely nervous and was convinced I had had too much hot chocolate with breakfast and would need to pee up on the glacier, which isn’t an option, so I nervous-peed about three times before we actually got our safety briefing… Haha.

They took our group into a separate room and gave us our safety briefing before asking us to pick up some equipment and get on the bus that would take us to the helipad. At the helipad we went inside a small hut where we stored our belongings, put on thick socks and heavy duty hiking boots, all provided by the tour company. Then they weighed us to determine the seating arrangement for the three helicopters that would be taking us up the glacier. This was pretty amusing for me since I was one of the only Americans surrounded by many petite Japanese women who probably weighed half as much as me.

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Once we got our seating arrangements we filed out to the helipad and waited to board the helicopters. The flight itself was breathtaking. You lift off, which feels totally different from any other kind of flight and then seemingly float closer and closer to the mountain. The size of the glacier becomes more and more apparent and I just sat there in awe. On the glacier our guides greeted us. Once all three groups had arrived we were divided up and our guided hike began. It was just under two and a half hours long but it flew by. We walked across the glacier and through large and narrow passageways. A few were definitely not for the claustrophobic! Our guide, Ross, was a great balance of entertaining and educational. The spiky crampons we had to wear on our boots were awkward at first…I felt like I was walking like a newborn giraffe, but after a while I got used to them.

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I tend to be a bit of a klutz so I was happy that I made it through the majority of the hike without slipping or falling. Unfortunately, my streak came to an end when our group was stopped at the last photo op in front of an ice cave. I somehow managed to completely twist my ankle while standing on a flat piece of glacier. Standard. It hurt like hell and was sore for several days but I sucked it up.

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At the end of our hike we said goodbye to our guides, removed our crampons and got back in the helicopter. Back on the ground we returned our boots and socks and took the bus back to the main office just down the road. It was an incredible experience from beginning to end and I would absolutely do it again. It was money well spent! And you might as well see the glaciers while they’re still around… One of the saddest parts of our tour was when Ross showed up how far up the mountainside the glacier used to sit only a few years ago.

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Our guide, Ross!

After our hike we decided to go back to the Glacier Hot Pools but this time opted for the bigger public pools. There are three pools at different temperatures so we circulated through all three twice before showering off and heading to dinner. For our second dinner in Glacier Country we ate at the King Tiger where we fulfilled cravings for Asian food. True story, I’m always craving Asian food. Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, whatever… I’ll eat it all day every day! Back at the AirBnB I added to an existing “art wall” of pieces created by other people who had stayed there. The hosts left a box of paper and art supplies so, fresh off our heli-hike, I made a quick watercolor painting of our experience.

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Our two days in Glacier Country were fantastic and if we ever get to go back to New Zealand we would absolutely spend a few more days here. Check out this short video with GoPro footage from our Glacier hike:

PS: I realize that it has now been over a year since we took this trip and memories are fading quickly so I’m going to try and knock out the rest of these blogs ASAP…because next up is this summer’s trip to the UK with family! 🙂

#MiviDownUnder – New Zealand Days 5 & 6 – Ferry from Wellington to Picton and Exploring Punakaiki and Hokitika

On day five of our trip I discovered that I am susceptible to motion sickness. I had trouble with airplane travel when I was younger but hadn’t experienced any real motion sickness for quite a while.

We woke up early, drove down that wretched Lower Hutt hill in our big Toyota Highlander one last time (see previous entry for explanation of wretched hill), dropped the car at the ferry terminal and then after an hour wait or so, boarded the Interislander Ferry which took us from Wellington on the North Island to Picton on the South Island.

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We boarded and found ourselves a small table by a window at the back of the boat. About half an hour into the three hour journey I realized that I was feeling nauseous. I tried eating which helped for a bit but then I found myself in the bathroom not too long afterwards. Heh. With about an hour left, we decided to go outside on the deck and get some fresh air. It was cold and windy, but as we closed in on the small barrier islands of the south island, it wasn’t so rough anymore. The ferry proceeded down a channel-like waterway and the scenery was beautiful. We even saw dolphins!

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The first parts of the south island coming off the Cook Straight

The three-hour trip went by quite quickly but when we arrived there was a delay in getting the bags off the boat. So we sat in baggage claim for a good 45 minutes before we could leave. While we waited, we struck up conversation with a man who knew the area. He asked us where we were headed and we told him Punakaiki. He suggested we take the scenic route to Highway 6, via Queen Charlotte Drive, but warned us that it was quite a windy and twisty road. The car we got on the other side was another Toyota Highlander, just a different color. Michael took over his copiloting duties and set the GPS for our destination in Punakaiki. The drive was stunning, but it was already afternoon and we were in a race against the winter sunlight hours. The roads were as winding as promised. Note to self, if a Kiwi tells you the road is winding and twisty, that’s saying something!

We pulled through a town call Havelock and the sign entering the village said it was the “Greenlip Mussel Capital of the World.” We were hungry and it was lunch time. We obviously stopped. We parked on the side of the road and walked over to a local tavern that had mussels on the menu.

The menu offered an assortment of steamed mussel pots, each with a different flavor profile in the broth. Mike went with an Asian garlic and ginger flavored broth and I went for the dill and white wine pot. Sopping up the delicious broth with crusty bread and eating those gigantic mussels was exactly what I needed after my bought of motion/sea sickness earlier in the day. If you are driving around the Marlborough Sounds on the northern tip of the south island, we can recommend a pit stop here.

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One of the many types of views we saw on our drive from Picton to Punakaiki.

From Havelock we had another 4+ hours to drive and the roads were no less twisty. Driving in New Zealand requires alertness and focus and it can be incredibly exhausting. We were headed to the Punakaiki Resort where we would be staying for two nights before heading further down the west coast. The drive seemed endless. The landscapes changed extremely quickly, from open fields to rain forest and back again. The sun was setting and we were in the middle of nowhere. We eventually hit the coast and turned south, driving in the darkness along extremely curvy and narrow roads. We could hear and smell the ocean. We knew it was there. But it was dark by 5:30 and it felt like we might never reach Punakaiki. We were on the outskirts of Paparoa National Park and it was absolutely isolated. I could probably count the number of other cars we encountered on two hands. More than once I just blurted out, “Where the hell are we?!”

Finally, we reached Punakaki. It is a small village on the coast, along no more than a 2 mile stretch of Highway 6 from one end to the other. We ended up having to stop at the local tavern to ask for directions when we couldn’t seem to find the hotel using the directions we’d gotten in our confirmation email. When we eventually found the Punakaiki Beach Resort and it was well worth the long drive! What a phenomenal location! We checked in and booked ourselves in for dinner (mind you it was pitch black but only 7pm) at the hotel restaurant. We changed in our room and then had a delicious, gourmet meal before turning in for the night.

Day six was a jam-packed day! We woke up at a reasonable hour and had breakfast in the hotel restaurant again. This time, we could see out the floor to ceiling windows out across the pebble beach and onto the ocean. While eating the hearty English-inspired breakfast, we chatted briefly with the man at the table next to us. He was a Kiwi and on a multi-week motorcycle tour of the south island. What a life, eh?

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After breakfast we put on our hiking boots and set out for the day. First stop, the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. This place was on my list of must-see items in New Zealand. It is a geological wonder and a heaven for photographers and Instagramers alike. The main car park is along Highway 6 and the walk from the car to the rocks and back is roughly a 30-minute loop. If you’re lucky, you might spy a Kiwi bird in the lush brush along the way.

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The path/track is well maintained and there are various nooks and crannies to explore along the route. As we were walking around I decided we needed to come back at sunset. The track was just a 3-minute car ride from the hotel and I knew this place was going to be glowing in the hour before sunset. Mike agreed that if we weren’t too tired at the end of the day, we would come back.

Our second stop was just a bit further down the road: the Pororari River Track, which follows the river from the mouth at the coast deep into Paparoa National Park. There are several different routes and loops that you can follow here. We opted to hike an hour to the bridge and then double back the same way we came. It was a wonderful walk. It started out flat as we moved from the mouth of the river into the ravine-like portion surrounded by high walls of rock. The flora was beautiful, full of the lush ferns I had grown to appreciate about New Zealand. Paparoa National Park is essentially a rain forest. There was even a small mini cavern we had to climb through which Mike especially liked. We munched on granola bars and enjoyed the scenery.

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On the suspension bridge before we turned around and walked back to the car.

When we got back to the car just over two hours later we set the GPS for our final stop of the day: Hokitika Gorge. It was a two hour drive from Punakaiki, but that day was our only chance to see it and I had read too many blogs and seen too many Instagram photos of it to pass up the opportunity. We headed south on Highway Six, stopped in Greymouth for gas and then continued on. Highway 6, which was our road for the majority of our time on the south island, runs the stretch of the west coast and affords everyone some of the most stunning views. After about an hour and a half, we turned inland toward the mountains. We were cruising along past acres and acres of farmland on dirt roads and eventually arrived at the Hokitika Gorge car park. It was, not surprisingly, fairly busy. Just search #Hokitika on Instagram and you’ll understand what I mean. It’s a popular place to visit!

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Dirt road leading to Hokitika Gorge

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We parked the car, grabbed our cameras and headed out. The walk down to the gorge is only about 15 minutes. We were there in June, so early Winter, but the sand flies were still very pesky! The walk takes you down from the car park and across a bridge where you’ll see the most brilliantly blue water. On the other side of the bridge you can walk further down and eventually climb down onto the rocks themselves. In the summer, people go swimming here. Even in the chilly weather, the water looks so inviting! I hope one day we can visit New Zealand again in but in their summer months, to take advantage of all their amazing swimming locations.

We climbed down on the rocks, took a lot of photos and then headed back when the flies got too annoying. It’s a fairly small outlook area, so be prepared to wait a few minutes for your photo op. Even though it took two hours to get there, it was worth the drive. I’ve never seen water that blue before. No photo Mike or I took does it justice. You just have to see it in person.

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From there we headed back to Punakaiki to make it back to the Pancake Rocks by sunset. We did and the second visit was a great decision! The place had a completely different feel, bathed in the beginnings of golden hour light.

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We stayed for about another half hour, got some great photos and then headed back to the hotel. We dropped our things in our room and headed out onto the pebble beach to watch the sun set. This video I posted on my Instagram is not filtered in anyway. The sky really was filled with those amazing shades of pink, peach and orange. Set against the black, white and gray of the rocks and pebbles of the beach, it was a breathtakingly beautiful sight.

Once the sun was completely gone we changed for dinner. The restaurant at the hotel was remarkably good, both at dinner and for breakfast. Our stay in Punakaiki was one of our splurges on the trip, so we spent a little extra on dinner. Here are some photos of the food. As you can see, it was high end, gourmet food, served quite literally in the middle of nowhere on the west coast of the south island. But that’s New Zealand for you. You find amazing things, especially when it comes to food, where you least expect it. I explain our meal in more detail here in my review on Yelp.

The rest of our trip would be spent working our way down the west coast, through Glacier Country and eventually into Queenstown and Fjordland. Our first two days on the south island were filled with beautiful places… but we were just scratching the surface.

#MiviDownUnder – New Zealand Day 4 – Exploring Wellington including Weta Workshop and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

On day four of our adventure in New Zealand, we woke up to an overcast day. There was some rain in the forecast but not too much. After a quick breakfast we got in the car and drove into Wellington. Our first stop: Weta Workshop.

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If you don’t know what Weta Workshop is, you probably don’t own the extended edition of any of the Lord of the Rings or Hobbit movies. 🙂 Weta Workshop, named after New Zealand’s native Weta insect (which I hope never to encounter) is responsible for all the props, costumes and make-up for many of Sir Peter Jackson’s movies. In fact, they’ve done work on many of the movies you may have recently seen in the cinemas like: Ghost in the Shell, Power Rangers, Warcraft and Mad Max: Fury Road.

However, their most famous work remains the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. I was first introduced to them on the extended edition DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring in 2002. 14-year-old me watched all that extra footage about the making of the movies and the making of costumes and props and make-up fascinated me. The films played no small role in my decision to take theater/drama classes in high school. I wish I had done more with that craft when I had the chance, but I was always too focused on academics. So, when we planned our trip to New Zealand, Weta Workshop in Wellington was as important for me as the tour of Hobbiton in Matamata. Weta Workshop first began offering tours in 2012, so it’s a fairly recent addition.

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The Weta Cave and workshop warehouses take up the better part of an entire block in a residential area just outside Wellington. Parking isn’t the easiest. You may have to park a block or two over and walk. Just make sure you read the signs that regulate parking permissions. You don’t want to get towed! Outside the Weta Cave Shop, where the tours begin, you’ll be greeted by Bilbo’s Trolls! Inside, there is a fantastic souvenir shop and a small mini exhibit on display in the back to explore while you wait.

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Our tour guide, whose name I sadly don’t remember, was amazing! He was a big, strong man of Maori decent and had a thick Kiwi accent that was so much fun to listen to. The tour is only about 45 minutes long and doesn’t cover a large space, but what you do see is pretty amazing. Since it is an active workshop, they limit what visitors can see because of copyright issues, especially if they’re working on something that is still in production. For the same reason, there is no photography allowed on the tour. However, we got to handle props and hear stories about different projects that our guide and his team had worked on. We learned about the different materials they used to make props, like weapons, which need to be light enough for actors and stunt doubles to handle, but still need to look real. We also learned about some basic sound effects, like the unsheathing of a sword.

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Me and Smeagol…or is that Gollum?

At the end, we met another team member whose sole responsibility is making chain-mail. Seriously, that’s his specialty. He’s a real craftsman who went through an apprenticeship and everything. He told us that the normal career length of a person in his position is only 7-10 years because of the damage the craft does to a person’s hands. We got to handle chain-mail made from different materials and then had a quick question and answer session before the tour ended. If you’re visiting Wellington and are at all interested in “movie magic” I highly recommend a tour of Weta Workshop. It’s well worth the money!

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In the shop, I bought a print titled “Disturber of the Peace” that I eventually had professionally framed and now hangs in our living room back in Tampa. This photo on my Instagram shows me unwrapping the final framed version.

13495249_10103104404485376_6879329751312213222_nAfter we finished at Weta, we drove downtown and parked at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, our next stop. I was particularly interested in visiting this museum because it had come up in so many of the readings I had done during my masters program in museum studies. It is often cited as a success story for collaboration between indigenous populations and post-colonial governments in terms of the presentation of history and cultural heritage. We didn’t spend a lot of time at the museum, but from what I did see, I understood why it had been used as a case study so often. For example, in the large hall that leads into some of the exhibits of Maori cultural heritage, the curators placed a massive copy of the Treaty of Waitangi, which was signed in 1840 between representatives of the Maori and the British colonial government. This imposing display, presented in both English and Maori, means that the country’s colonial history is front and center.

I found one label in the exhibition that explained that the Maori had been consulted in the display of these materials and have approved it. This may seem like a small thing, but in the museum world and also anthropologically speaking, this represents a huge stride forward that began in the early 1990s.

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The museum’s website is also presented bilingually and makes information about repatriation and relations with indigenous populations easily accessible. To quote the website in describing the museum:

Te Papa is New Zealand’s national museum, renowned for being bicultural, scholarly, innovative, and fun. Our success is built on our relationships with and our ability to represent our community.

If you’re interested, go here to read Ten things you might not know about Te Papa.

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Entrance into the special exhibit. Admission was free, just like for the rest of the museum.

In addition to the museum’s permanent exhibitions, we visited the temporary exhibit “Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War” which was a visually stunning and emotionally charged experience. It weaves the personal stories of eight New Zealanders into the history of the larger Gallipoli story. The eight individuals are represented by eight scale models made by none other than Weta Workshop. The models are 2.4 times life size but incredibly realistic and detailed (think beads of sweat and individual arm hairs). In one room, you stare into the face of a weeping nurse while listening to a voice read a letter she had written. It is a fascinating sensory experience and masterfully done. Read more about how the behind-the-scenes and how the exhibit was made here.

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The nurse I mentioned above.

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Map of the exhibit space.

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One of the models made by Weta Workshop for the exhibit.

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Soldier surrounded by poppies.

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An example of the detail that went into these models.

Even at the end of this exhibit there was a subtle nod to Maori culture, with a sink where visitors could wash their hands to symbolically cleanse their spirit of the weight and sorrow the exhibit may have caused them.

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From the museum we walked around town a bit and finally settled on a pub where we caught the last minutes of a Euro Cup match over fish and chips. When we finished, it had started drizzling again and we weren’t sure what to do with the rest of our time. We found some free wifi at a café and had some hot chocolate while I wrote a few postcards to send back to the States. We eventually decided it was ok to just relax for the rest of the day and we headed back home. On the way, we stopped back in the town where the previous night’s flat tire fiasco happened and ordered some Indian takeaway. The man who owned the place chatted with us. Like nearly every other Kiwi we met on our trip, he was kind and friendly and seemed genuinely interested in why we had come such a long way to visit New Zealand.

Back at our AirBnB we devoured the Indian food, watched TV and took it easy for the rest of the evening. I did a load of laundry and double-checked our itinerary for the following day, which included taking the ferry from Wellington on the north island to Picton on the south island.

Wellington is an interesting and diverse city but probably much more enjoyable to visit during their summer months when more of the outdoors, including the harbor, can be enjoyed. Even so, we enjoyed our brief stay!

#MiviDownUnder – New Zealand Day 3 – Hells Gate in Rotorua and the Drive South to Wellington

Our whirlwind trip across the north island continued on day three. We left our AirBnB in Matamata early in the morning and headed out on a foggy drive toward Rotorua. Rotorua is an area of the north island known for both its geothermal activity and its importance to Maori culture. Our brief visit did very little justice to what the area has to offer. One of my bigger regrets about this trip is not spending more time learning about Maori people. Next time, right? And we’re determined there will be a next time.

The funny thing about Rotorua is you’ll smell it before you see it. Oh yes, prepare to be immersed in the smell of sulfur all day long, and possibly a day or two afterwards. As we drove along the winding roads alongside Lake Rotorua we began to see steam rising in the forests. The smell was undeniable. At first it seems unbearable but you eventually get used to it.

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Morning light over Lake Rotorua.

There is so much to do to in Rotorua, like in all of New Zealand, but we chose to focus on the geothermal activity. One of our several splurges on this trip included a visit to Hells Gate Geothermal Park and Spa. We arrived right at their opening time and were the first to enter the park that day. In fact, we had to wait while one of the park managers/rangers walked all the paths and made sure it was safe. This geothermal park is no joke. Everywhere you look there is bubbling mud and steam. Every part of the park is unique. The pools vary in size, depth and temperature. It is truly a wonderland of geothermal activity. A map of the park gives you an idea of just how many different things there are to see. My favorite would be a tie between Kakahi Falls and the Steaming Cliffs. The day we visited was a cloudy one and since it was winter, the air temperature was fairly cold and the whole place seemed to steam in one way or another. At time I felt like I was on another planet.

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Kakahi Falls

We spent about an hour walking the full area of the park before heading back to the front office to get settled in for our spa visit. We changed into our bathing suits, stored our belongings in a big plastic tub they supplied, and were led to our own small, private mud pool. I had never done anything like that before. Standing outside in the cold in just a bathing suit made me eager to get into the hot water. We spent a glorious 30-35 minutes soaking in the mud pool. I felt like a kid again, literally playing in the mud. You’re encouraged to cover yourself in mud, just avoid your eyes and hair. We happily obliged. After your time is up in the mud pool, you shower off before getting into a hot sulfur water pool. The not-so-hot shower that you take when you’ve finished in the pool was perhaps the least enjoyable bit of the whole stay, but I would do it all again in a heartbeat! After our time at the spa wrapped up, we drove along Lake Rotorua into town and found a place for a quick bit to eat before we continued on to our destination: Wellington.

Rotorua to Wellington

It was a six hour drive from Rotorua to Wellington. This seems like a lot of driving to some people, but I’m used to driving long distances and we had planned an itinerary that favored the South Island. If we ever go back, we’ll try to see more of the North Island, including places like Mount Taranaki and Tongariro National Park. The landscape changes so drastically as you drive south along Highway 1. One minute it was thick forests full of ferns and the next it was rolling golden hills that looked a lot like Rohan. That’s the beauty of New Zealand. You’ll see nearly every type of landscape possible on Earth in one small country.

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Our AirBnB for this leg of our journey was located in Lower Hutt, a small town just on the other side of the harbor from Wellington. It was advertised as a tree house of sorts, and indeed it was. The house was located near the top of a quite steep hill and the host sent us directions warning us the driveway was a bit tricky. The directions said we would have to drive past the driveway, to the top of the hill, turn around at the top and swing into their drive on the way down because it was something like a 300 degree turn and the street itself wasn’t wide enough to swing into the drive. This should have been an indication but it wasn’t until we actually turned off the main road onto the street that went up the hill that we realized how insanely narrow the lane actually was. We followed the direction, passed the driveway, turned at the top of the hill and swung into the drive on the way down. The driveway was gravel and it was dark with no street light in site. At one point we went over a small hill that made it impossible to see over the hood of the car and I was convinced we were about to drive over the side of the hill. At this point, Michael had been driving for an hour and I had a migraine, which made me an even worse passenger than usual! I had an absolute meltdown trying to navigate to this house. We finally came to the end of the driveway and saw the parking spot we were supposed to use. It was small and our Toyota Highlander was suddenly problematic. I think it was a 30-point turn that ultimately put the car where it needed to be. We dragged the bags inside, tired and hungry. There was no food in the fridge and the prospect of trying to navigate our way down the hill again seemed tortuous. First world problems, I know. But my head was throbbing and I was terribly emotional.

Michael convinced me to leave again and find a grocery store. I drove us back down that godforsaken hill and two towns over along the bay. Suddenly, as I slowed down to pull into the parking lot of a grocery store the car became extremely difficult to turn. I thought the power steering had failed. I managed to park the car, jumped out and much, much, much to my dismay, I saw the front right tire was completely flat. I just started crying and laughing at the same time. And then it started to rain. Seriously, I can’t make this shit up. It was cold, windy and rainy and we had a flat tire. All I wanted to do was eat and then sleep. I finally went into fix-it mode and called the rental car company and asked them to send roadside service. Normally I would change a tire myself but the spare for the Highlander was under the back of the car and I was happy to pay $65 for them to come out and do it for us in the rain.

While we waited, Michael was the best husband ever and walked, in the rain, down the street to a Domino’s pizza and bought me a cheese pizza. The pizza and the roadside service man arrived at about the same time. Within an hour we were all set to go. We went inside the grocery store, bought a few groceries and then headed home. Back at the tree house we started a fire and then collapsed in bed. The rain storm grew stronger and I thought we might blow off the side of the hill…but we survived. The view the next morning made it all quite worth the stress and tears!

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Morning view across the bay toward Wellington.

#MiviDownUnder – New Zealand Day 2 – Matamata, Hobbiton and Wairere Falls

Our first full day in New Zealand was an amazing one, despite the weather not cooperating with us one bit! We woke up refreshed from the previous day’s travel woes and had a quaint little breakfast using the groceries our AirBnB hosts had left for us in the fridge. This AirBnB was located on an orchard, so homemade jam from their local feijoa fruit was included. We had toast with cheese and some hot tea to get us started. I had created a packed, and I mean packed, itinerary for the next 13 days and we hit the ground running on this first day full day in New Zealand. First stop, Hobbiton of course!

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The Hobbiton/Shire movie set is located just outside Matamata in the lush green farmland. If you plan on driving in New Zealand, get used to the lack of highways and interstates. The largest roads we encountered were outside Auckland and Wellington – everywhere else we were driving on two-lane roads. I’ll be posting a separate blog entry just on driving tips for New Zealand, so keep an eye out for that if you’re interested.

The Hobbiton set was only ten minutes from our AirBnB, which is one of the main reasons we chose the one we did. We arrived at the visitor center and checked in with our tickets. Tour tickets are timed and we were quite early, so we killed a little time in the café and gift shop before heading outside to wait on the bus. At the café we topped up our breakfast with a slice of cake and some warm beverages to fight the chill in the air. The weather was not ideal. It was cloudy, cold and drizzling. Mike ordered a flat white. This would be his go-to order all trip. I ordered a hot chocolate – my go-to all trip. Aussies and Kiwis definitely appreciate their coffee culture and hot chocolate is a part of it, rather than a stepchild begrudgingly served in place of a mocha.

Perhaps it was the remaining jet-lag, the weather, or the wait at the visitor center, but it didn’t feel like I was really there. I kept looking at my tickets and my program. Yes, I was here, in Hobbiton. I was going to be on the same set as the actors I adored so much. Our tour guide began gathering our group and we boarded the bus. The visitor center is a 5-8 minute drive from the actual movie set, which is situated deep in the middle of the 1,250 acre Alexander farm property.

The tour guide hopped out of the bus, opened the gate and we drove onto the property. The road is narrow and winding. It was never been meant to accommodate a tour bus of this size. There were sheep everywhere. The bus had to stop a few times as sheep crossed the road. As the bus ride continued through the rolling green hills the tour guide told us the brief history of the farm and its role in the films. The original set was built in 1999 and included 39 temporary Hobbit holes. The set was demolished after filming was complete. At the time, no one expected the films to become the center of a worldwide fandom. As the films were released, some sharp-eyed Kiwis were able to identify the location and soon people were showing up at Alexander farm wanting to see the Shire. Unfortunately, there were no Hobbit holes left. So, when Sir Peter Jackson came back to Alexander farm in 2009 to film The Hobbit trilogy, the family negotiated the rights to construct 44 permanent Hobbit hole outdoor sets, which is what visitors now see when they arrive. Learn more here: http://www.hobbitontours.com/our-story/

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#MiviDownUnder – Traveling from Sydney to Auckland

If you read the last few entries about this #MiviDownUnder adventure, you know that our luggage did not make it to Sydney with us on our initial flight from LAX due to all the hiccups along the way (thanks Dallas). Luckily, our luggage arrived on the next trans-Pacific flight and we were able to pick it up at the Sydney airport the same day we were due to fly out for Auckland. We were sad to leave Sydney behind after only two days, but the real adventure was about to begin!

We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to collect our delayed bags and then go through the usual check-in process. Once we finished with security we were notified that our flight was delayed… for two hours minimum. We were already an hour early, so we suddenly had three hours to kill. We ended up spending quite a lot of time at the bar of an airport restaurant that served surprisingly delicious food and wine. I wish I had photos to show you, because the tapas style dishes were served so beautifully, I almost forgot we were dilly-dallying around in an airport terminal. After a long lunch, we explored the duty-free shops and ogled at the insanely priced bottles of liquor and obscenely large bars of chocolate. We even found a unique selection of Australian meat jerkies… including emu, kangaroo and crocodile!

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As the boarding process finally began one of the flight attendants informed us via the intercom that some passengers had been reassigned to different seats and would be given new boarding passes as they came up to board. We didn’t expect to be one of them, but low and behold, we were. We thought perhaps our flight woes were going to haunt us for the entire trip and that we’d lost our exit-row seating, but we actually caught quite the break this time. The flight attendant smiled and handed me our new boarding passes and wished us a good flight. I looked at the row number and then looked at Mike. “It’s row four… you don’t think?”

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Indeed, we’d been bumped to first class for our three and a half hour flight to Auckland. Hallelujah!! Neither of us had ever flown first class before so we felt quite out of place. I hardly knew what to do with all the space I had. The gentleman in front of us had also been bumped up and was relishing his new reality like a kid in a candy store. We probably looked so silly, pressing all the buttons, trying to figure out how far we could recline back and stretch out our feet. We took advantage of everything, especially the free alcohol. The service was amazing. This particular flight was operated by Latam Airlines, which I could, based on that experience, highly recommend to anyone. For those three hours, our travel woes seemed to be behind us.

We landed in Auckland in the early evening but it was already dark. It was, of course, winter in the southern hemisphere and it was dark by 5pm. I may or may not have welled up a little as I peered out the window during our descent.

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I was finally here, finally landing, setting foot in a place on this Earth that I’ve wanted to see since I was 13. We got off the plane and the entrance to Customs and Immigration was framed by a beautiful Maori wooden gate. I can’t explain how or why, but I instantly felt at home. Kia Ora, New Zealand!

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Side note: New Zealand and Australia take Customs and Immigrations very seriously, especially when it comes to the import of outside goods that could threaten their biosecurity in any way. Hiking boots, as well as any other hiking or camping equipment you might have, should be clean upon arrival. See their website for up to date information: https://www.mpi.govt.nz/travel-and-recreation/arriving-in-new-zealand/items-to-declare/

We picked up our bags and then phoned the rental car place, which was off-site, to come pick us up. This is where our third major travel hiccup happened. We had chosen to use a local New Zealand company for two reasons: (1) They had received good reviews and (2) I like to “shop local” if I can. Unfortunately, this did not turn out well for us. The shuttle picked us up and when we arrived at their off-site location, the office was dark. The man who had picked us up mentioned that he didn’t believe there were any cars left to be picked up that day. My stomach began to sink. Long story short, this company has a policy of contacting people 48 hours in advance of their reservation to confirm. If there is no confirmation, the reservation is cancelled or at least put on hold.

Well, the prior 48 hours we were in Sydney and I obviously wasn’t receiving any calls at the number I’d given for the reservation. The man was apologetic and explained that our car had been “put back” but if we came back in the morning when the office reopened, we could pick it up. I explained that our plans were to drive from Auckland to Matamata that night and that we couldn’t wait until morning. He told us that we’d have to call in the morning to officially cancel the reservation and get our money back.

13510946_10103098246555916_6724477519730251963_nFrustrated and defeated, we returned to the airport terminal. I was over everything. It didn’t even matter that an epic Lord of the Rings set piece model was standing in the middle of the terminal… I had hit my limit. I had kept my composure through all the flight delays, nasty travelers, baggage delays, buying clothes in Sydney, the jetlag … but this was more than I could handle. Luckily, Mike sat me down with our luggage and took care of the situation. About an hour later, we were leaving the airport with a rental car from Budget. I had gotten my new NZ SIM card to work and had been texting our AirBnB hosts in Matamata explaining our situation. They were very understanding and said they’d left the key for us and would see us in the morning. We left Auckland at 8pm and hoped to arrive in Matamata by 10:30pm. I was exhausted. Mike was exhausted. I drove us while Mike navigated using the GPS. The first half of the drive was on a highway, but the second half was nothing but back roads, which was intimidating in an unfamiliar place, at night. The roads were narrow, there were patches of fog, and I was constantly on the look out for rogue sheep that may have strayed into the road.

The directions we’d received from our AirBnB hosts were thankfully quite detailed. We rented this small guesthouse on an orchard in Matamata. We arrived, found the key, schlepped our things inside and crashed in bed. The king size bed, fitted with a heating blanket, was perfect. And we were happy to find that the small fridge had been filled with everything we could possible need for breakfast the next day. We snuggled up, reminisced briefly about the fact that we’d flown first class, and then fell fast asleep.

Our 14-day New Zealand adventure began full speed ahead the next morning. 🙂

Late night ramblings of an emotional anthropologist dealing with deep-seated daddy issues…

**Apologies that this is not a travel-related post. But it is something I needed to get out and this seemed like the best outlet.**

We have a tendency to surround ourselves with like-minded people. The familiarity is comforting. It reinforces us, gives us confidence. And when genetics bond us with those who might think differently we talk about the nonsensical and simple things, like the weather, to avoid tension. Some of us do anyway. Others are braver than me. So, quite often, the people who should be having conversations, real, civil, conversations, aren’t. We avoid having the tough conversations. I know I do. But something stirred in me tonight. Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe speech hit me right in the gut. I knew the heartbreak she was talking about. I feel it whenever I think about the relationship I could have with my dad if only we could talk about something besides the weather, or traffic, or what I’m making for dinner. It stings and it burns and it festers. I’m 28 years old and I’m scared to tell my dad how I really feel. So, perhaps somewhat selfishly, this is my first step toward maybe working up the courage to actually talk to him one day. This is a completely self-indulgent and nostalgic ramble, but I think that maybe if I write it down, get it all out of my head and my heart, I might have a better chance of eventually verbalizing it to him. So, here goes.

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#MiviDownUnder – Exploring Sydney and the Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk

**I’m six months behind in blogging about this trip…but that is PhD life for you! So finally, now that I’m on winter break, I bring you the first of several blogs about our #MiviDownUnder trip to New Zealand, with a brief pit-stop in Sydney, Australia!**

Day One in Sydney
After we arrived in Sydney (see previous entry about our hellish experience with delays), we took the Airport Link train to Sydney’s Central Station. From there (since we were baggage-less, except for our carry-on) we walked several blocks to a coffee shop where we would meet our AirBnB host. After we got our keys and dropped our things, we headed back out on foot for lunch. nz-2016-iphone-18We had spied a German place on our way over from the train station and stopped in there for a light bite (bread, cold-cuts and mustard, yum!). After that we walked back to our AirBnB and took an hour-long power nap. Refreshed (somewhat) after our nap, we headed back out to explore Sydney. We knew we would be pressed for time, so we started with the most iconic place first. First stop, Sydney’s main harbor.

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We decided to take a cab, so we could see more of the city on our way. The cab driver dropped us off at the corner of Bridge Street and George Street. We walked up George Street the rest of the way to where it dead-ends into the harbor. It was beautiful! We strolled along the harbor’s edge, watching with fascination as the ferries whizzed in and out of the port. To our right, the Sydney Opera House. To our left, the Harbor Bridge. I was having one of those I’ve-seen-these-on-TV-so-often-this-doesn’t-feel-real moments. We took a few photos with the Opera House in the background before looping around to the other side of the harbor.

nz-2016-iphone-28This is no doubt a ritzier part of town, but even so it felt welcoming. There was a buzzing noisiness about it that made it feel less pretentious. Somehow (by way of serendipity if you ask Michael) we came across a Munich Brauhaus one block off the harbor in The Rocks neighborhood. We popped in for a drink (Michael lives for Weißbier) and some free wifi. For dinner we decided to stay along the harbor. I had originally planned on eating at Mr. Wang’s, known for its Asian fusion food according to many foodie blogs, but we decided to be spontaneous. After walking up and down the boardwalk reading every menu, we settled on one. Unfortunately, I can’t for the life of me remember the name of it. After sunset, it had gotten pretty chilly, especially with the breeze coming off the water, but we decided to sit outside anyway. The restaurant we chose had outside heaters, which made it perfectly cozy. I would probably even sit in the cold if it meant I was drinking wine and eating good food while staring at the Sydney Harbor Bridge across the water.

Mike had a kangaroo filet (fitting) and I had a seafood curry. One thing we learned very, very quickly was that Sydney has great food! And not just Australian-inspired food – they have amazing Asian inspired food as well. My curry was so, so good and absolutely loaded with seafood. The good food, the good wine, and the amazing view made for a memorable first dinner Down Under.

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