After arriving back from our Abel Tasman tour, I throw a few loads of laundry into the machines at the Grand Mercure in Nelson—the same one we stayed at on the night before our tour. We order room service and hunker down in our spacious two-bedroom, two-floor apartment (we got upgraded) for a restful evening.
The next morning, we are up bright and early for the drive from Nelson to Picton. Garrick, our guide, had advised us to take the scenic route along Queen Charlotte Sound but after checking out the map and seeing a road that defies twisty wisty to become corkscrew, I wimp out and decide to go the longer, faster, and more boring route. Fortunately, this being New Zealand, even the relatively flat route has its fair share of twists and turns and the view across vineyards to blue mountains is still spectacular. Some of the many wines I’ve been sampling on this trip come from the area we travel through. I am hooked on New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and have made it my mission to sample as many varieties as I can during the course of the trip. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously.
We arrive in plenty of time for lunch and a walkabout in Picton before the ferry for Wellington leaves at 2:15. We have to drop off our trusty Toyota rental car at the ferry terminal in Picton and will pick up another car on the other side. The process goes very smoothly, much to my relief. We park the car, walk up to the Budget counter adjacent to the ferry terminal, drop the keys, walk across to the terminal and drop our bags, and are free to stroll into pretty little Picton while we wait for the ferry. Nestled at the head of an inlet with boats and flowers everywhere, Picton reminds me a little bit of Snug Cove on Bowen Island, only bigger.
The ferry arrives—a huge one that dwarfs our big island ferries—and we join the throngs of foot passengers. Julia’s company has secured us access to the Premium Lounge (for free) so we go there and get seats by the window. The journey takes three and a half hours, most of which we spend in the plush lounge where unlimited free soft drinks and admittedly mediocre food are on top. There’s also a bar, but I demur since I will be driving when we dock in Wellington. The premium lounge—which costs regular people an extra $40 on top of the ticket price—is certainly stylish. However, I discover when I go walkabout to see how the other half manages on the rest of the boat that the food “out there” is actually better. Instead of tasteless beef curry (have they not heard of salt, never mind spice?), I could have had a nice plate of fish and chips or a burger. However, “out there” is admittedly much more crowded and lacks the comfy couches.
During my walkabout, I run into the English couple who was in the Abel Tasman tour with us. They had taken the scenic route which apparently was, well, scenic, and not as challenging to drive as it looked on the map.
Back in the premium lounge (which Julia never leaves), I stretch out on one of the comfy couches and fall asleep to be awakened about an hour later by a very loud American couple pontificating about American politics. They really need to learn about inside voices.
Wellington’s huge harbour embraces us with jutting peninsulas to the right and left. The ferry inches into the dock and we’re soon on our way again. Picking up the second car is a breeze. This time, we get a black Chev Trax. It’s quite a bulbous-looking car that at first I think will be too big, but it handles well and is comfortable to drive. Julia directs me into the traffic streaming alongside the harbor for the short drive to the Museum Hotel across the street from the water and New Zealand’s premier Te Papa Museum.
We’re given a two-bedroom suite with balcony on the fifth floor of the very swanky Museum Hotel (thanks to Julia for a good deal!). The Museum Hotel is awash with interesting artworks in the public areas—sculptures, paintings, and installations.
It’s already 6:30 in the evening by the time we get checked in so we drop all the stuff and walk across the street to a Malaysian restaurant. After two good curries and some garlic naans, we stroll down Wellington’s main drag. Lots of restaurants and young people make for a lively street–our first big city stroll since coming to New Zealand.
Full Day in Wellington
We’re up early and opt for a breakfast of cereal and milk purchased the night before from the large supermarket down the street. Hotel breakfasts, unless we get them included, are a bit of a rip-off we’ve discovered. We are off this morning for a tour of the WETA workshop that Julia booked weeks ago. We think about taking the city bus but then I decide that’s silly when we have a car. The traffic in Wellington is pretty low key compared to Vancouver and Julia is great at providing directions from her i-phone. We set off for the suburb of Miramar where the famous Weta workshop of Lord of the Rings fame is located. The area is a regular neighborhood spread across the hilly Miramar peninsular.
We arrive early and are able to get on the 10 am tour instead of waiting until 11 am. The cheerful American guide—an actress herself—takes us on the tour where we learn how many of the effects and models used in Lord of the Rings and other films are made. Photography is forbidden which is understandable since some of the projects being worked on are new. We get the opportunity to hold various props including the two types of chain mail used in the Rings movies—the heavy version made of steel and the super-light version made of rubber. Apparently, studly Viggo Mortensen wore the heavy stuff a lot of the time. He also lugged around one of the real swords for many of his scenes, although apparently not for the scene where he holds the sword aloft for long periods in Return of the King. We’ve already heard from a few of the guides on other tours about Viggo’s prowess. He’s the actor mentioned most frequently and with the most respect.
Julia and I both make purchases in the gift shop. I buy a very nice black bag with the slogan “Be Creative and Make Cool Stuff” and Julia buys a black t-shirt with the same slogan. I promise not to carry the bag at the same time she wears the t-shirt.
Next stop is Victoria Park which spreads like a thick green blanket over a mountaintop close by. We wind up the flanks of the mountain and park where Julia’s i-phone tells us is the beginning of a track leading to a key location in the Fellowship of the Ring. Even I remember the scene where the four hobbits cower under the roots of a huge tree while the scary Ringwraiths snort and stamp just above. Small signs pointing to the location are thoughtfully provided. We walk back and forth along the track, taking pictures and trying to imagine the scene. Meanwhile, mountain bikers speed pass, one narrowly missing me. I don’t think he noticed. The forest bristles with black, twisting trees. Pictures can’t quite capture the deliciously menacing atmosphere.
We drive up to the top of the hill to enjoy a panoramic view of Wellington. It really is a very good-looking city. It reminds me a little bit of Vancouver, but windier and more Pacific feeling. I can see why lots of young people choose to live there.
In the afternoon we tour Te Papa, billed as New Zealand’s top museum. It’s large, free, and a bit overwhelming. The two special exhibitions are both wonderful. We start with the Gallipoli exhibition mounted to commemorate New Zealand’s participation in World War I. The WETA workshop we visited in the morning made the massive models of eight people involved in the conflict—seven men and one woman. The models defy description. They are 14 times larger than humans and created with such incredible skill that every pore and hair and sweat drop is visible. The figures anchor a wrenching exhibit about the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. At the end of the exhibition is a stack of paper poppies. People are invited to write on one and drop it in a giant vat. I write “In Memory of my great-grandfather who was killed at the Somme.” It is comforting to realize that 100 years after his death, Corporal Seaton is still remembered and mourned by a great-granddaughter he never knew.
On the top floor of the museum is another special exhibition that is the direct opposite of the sobering Gallipoli exhibit. This one costs $15 but is well worth it. The subject is Dreamworks animation and through a variety of multimedia exhibits explains the animation process and all the work that goes into making animated features such as Shrek, How To Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, and several other movies that I haven’t seen. Huge screens loop footage to explain the various processes—from story boarding to drawing to background painting to character development to music scoring (not necessarily in that order).
We have a bit of time left for the rest of the museum but not enough time to do it justice. Another trip to Wellington will be required to see it all. I did however, spend a few minutes in the earthquake simulator. I am uncomfortably reminded that same Ring of Fire that runs through New Zealand passes under Vancouver. Earthquakes are pretty much a daily occurrence in New Zealand, although most are too small, thankfully, to be felt.
We stroll through the very attractive harbourside park next to the museum before grabbing a takeaway (not take out I’ve discovered) pizza and retiring to our lovely room for a quiet evening.
Wellington to Tongariro
The next morning, Wellington lives up to its “Windy Welly” nickname. It is apparently the windiest city in the southern Hemisphere. I don’t know what its northern counterpart is! The wind gusts us along the street to the giant supermarket where we pick up supplies for a picnic lunch. Along the way, we enjoy a massive shark-infested wall.
We set off for a leisurely drive north to Tongariro National Park—an area dotted with volcanoes, a few of which are still active. The drive takes us through the lovely little town of Bulls where we stop for lunch and to enjoy the plethora of bull puns. Social-a-bull is the town hall, Relieve-a-bull is the town toilets, Read-a-bull is the town library, Delect-a-bull is the café where we eat lunch, and on it goes. Julia takes a picture of the town signpost.
Back on the road again, we make it to the Tongariro Chateau around 4 pm where I accompany Julia on a quick tour of the premises with Brad, the friendly general manager. Julia’s company has secured us yet another good deal on the Chateau and so although Julia is technically not on a “fam” tour, she will be selling many of the properties we’ve stayed at. We check out several of the room types and get a thorough overview of the hotel which was built in 1926 and is reminiscent of one of the Rocky Mountain hotels like Lake Louise or the Banff Springs, although not quite so posh. Brad treats us to a lovely high tea in the spacious old world lounge. We sit at a table overlooking Mt. Ngauhoe—the Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. This mountain will play a major role in our activities over the next two days.
Tongariro and the thermal sites of Rotorua are the subject of my next blog.