Saturday, December 30, 2017

Country #106: New Zealand. The Auckland Bookends

My plans for this year's vacation went through some changes. Initially, I devised an itinerary that would take me to Cyprus, Lebanon and Iraq. Yes, that Iraq.All my research pointed to the Northern Kurdish portion being quite safe, welcoming to visitors and easy to get to. I could just fly into Erbil, no visa required. And then the push for Kurdish independence starting gaining steam and the Iraqi government shut down the Erbil airport, meaning I would have to enter via the more treacherous land crossing through Turkey.

Time for a plan B. This consisted of randomly plugging in multiple countries into search engines and trying to see where airlines miles could take me. After plenty of false starts, I hit upon one that would work. I had just enough miles to get me to New Zealand if I went from Dec 6- Dec 25. Taking into account the day you lose going over, this would only leave me with 18 days in a country with over 1000 days worth of things to see. It wasn't ideal but it was better than making headlines as that idiot tourist who was captured taking selfies in Baghdad.

I needed a plan to maximize my time so I looked into all the bus services that cover both the north and south islands- Kiwi Experience, Naked Bus and Intercity- and compared the prices and services offered.

This brings me to the first of many tips I'll be including in these posts for traveling NZ on a budget.  Tip #1: You're screwed. This is not a cheap country. Decent hostels start around $25/ night, most of the activities worth doing begin at $50 and can go for much more, food and drink are get the idea... so you have to save wherever you can. I saved a bunch by buying the Intercity bus flexipass.  Intercity is the national bus line (think Greyhound but with free wifi, power outlets, clean buses, friendly drivers- in other words, nothing like Greyhound) so hostel travel desks will try to discourage people from booking with them, claiming that they are not tourist-friendly and lack narration. This is a big stinking lie. Intercity also owns Great Sights and Awesome NZ, which are sightseeing bus companies. When you buy a set number of hours on their network, you can apply those hours to purchasing tours but at a massive discount.

For example, I landed in Auckland early in the morning. Instead of paying $17 to take the Skybus into town, I used my pass to book the Intercity bus ($3.50 or 30 minutes off my pass which worked out to about $7/hr).  Right on schedule a bus pulled up, the driver asked "Are you Berti?" and I was soon on my way into town.

My hostel was right in the center of the city with a view to a giant drunk-looking Santa. I'm not sure if that is a good sign or not but I was also right by the Skytower, which is an excellent navigational landmark, so I could not complain.

Prior to arriving, I also used the pass to book a highlights tour of Auckland for my first day ($64 regular price- $21 with the pass).  The reason for this was two-fold. First, I wanted to get a quick orientation and secondly, sleep was the enemy. I didn't have the time to waste a day and wanted to get on the right sleep schedule from the get-go. Going on this tour would force me to stay awake.

For three hours, we drove around the City of Sails looking at dormant volcanos, waterfront panoramas and funky neighborhoods.

It was all very nice, but if I'm being honest, I was initially underwhelmed. I went in with the quintessential idea of New Zealand- wide open expanses, lots of sheep, awe-inspiring scenery- and I was being led around a very pretty but otherwise unremarkable city.

Maybe I had to view it from a different angle. I waited until an hour before sunset and went up to the top of the Sky Tower. This only confirmed my initial assessment. Great scenery. Zero sheep.

Now flash forward to Dec 24th. I've already traveled all over the country and realized that my idealized vision of this astounding landscape was a mere pittance compared to the actual beauty therein.  At one point during my time there, I wondered if humans are each allotted a set number of "wows" in their lifetime and if I am burning through them too quickly on this trip. New Zealand is the reason phrases like "breathtaking beauty" were invented.

I was back in Auckland because I had a flight home the following day, so this is where I'd be spending Xmas eve. In order to change the scenery a bit, I based myself out of the hip Ponsonby neighborhood. Maybe it's because I was no longer sleep deprived or maybe I was just still on a geographical high from all I'd seen, but the city no longer appeared so blah to me.

There were waves of shoppers milling around the trendy stores, the weather was perfect (sunny and mid-70's) and everyone was in a good mood.

I took advantage of the perfect day and walked up to Mt. Eden,  a volcanic peak that is the highest point in the city. While there, I sat on a bench for almost an hour, enjoying the breeze and the city that lay below. This may not be what I had initially pictured as "New Zealand" but there is no denying that it is stunning city.

That evening, after hanging out with some fellow hostelers in the back yard of the lovely Verandah's Backpackers, I headed down to Franklin Road. This residential street has a well-deserved reputation for their Xmas decorations. On this last night for their displays, the streets were backed with families and tourists alike.

Honorable mention has to to go to this family for recognizing that they were not going to outdo their neighbors so why even try.

Kiwi Santa
Some houses had live music in their front yard, ranging from the expected Xmas carols to Scottish bagpipers and plenty in between.

It was no Iraq but it was a festive and fitting way to end my vacation in a country that has so thoroughly and completely enchanted me.

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