Fish Out of Water

Musings and observations about life from an East Coast native now living on the Left Coast in the California State Capitol since 2004. This fish has made her home in Madison, WI (7 years); Portland, OR (2 years); Las Vegas, NV (7 months); Middlebury, VT (3 summers); Marne-la-Vallee, a small town east of Paris, France (6 months); Middletown, CT (3 years); and Marshfield, MA, the fish's coastal hometown 40 miles south of Boston (17 years).

Location: Sacramento, California, United States


Travel Journal: Christchurch (and home to Sac)

Jan. 7:  Picton > Christchurch
My run this morning was a 10K from Picton to Waikawa Bay, and I think I saw a ray in the Waikawa Bay shallows as I ran by!  It was gone by the time I was returning, so I couldn’t verify the sighting, but I like to think it was a ray and not just a shadow on the water.

We repeated our egg and salmon in-room breakfast and went out for coffee before checking out of the motel.  Since we still had several hours before our train departure, we left our bags at the motel office and headed down towards the waterfront to explore another part of the Victoria Domain.  We chose the Harbor View trail this time around, which led us up and up to a great overlook by a big water tank at the top.  The trail was quite hilly and much sunnier than we had expected, so we got a bit toasty and sweaty during our hike, but it was a great way to get a final look at Picton, and Mr. E got a chance to stack rocks on the beach near the city.

Scenes from Picton Domain Harbor View Trail

On the way back to the motel, we did a little more souvenir browsing.  I had acquired a wombat in Australia, so I wanted to get a kiwi in New Zealand, since this flightless bird is a national symbol of the country.  I had found a great dark mauve t-shirt with a stylized kiwi design during our brief stop at the Agrodome several days earlier, but I still wanted a little figure of the bird as well, and I  finally found a lovely small brown and orange glass kiwi that joined the other gifts and souvenirs in my carry-on bag.

After fetching our bags, we walked to the railway station and joined the long line at the depot Subway to get some takeaway lunch for the journey.  Although our assigned seats on the Coastal Pacific train from Picton to Christchurch were facing towards the caboose of the train, the seats across from us weren’t filled during the first couple of stops, so we were able to swap around and face forward, which gave us a much better view of the landscape over the course of the 5-hour journey.  We began with fields and sheep and cows but then transitioned to ocean and dunes, with several tunnels through the mountains along the coast as well.

Views from the Coastal Pacific Train Between Picton & Christchurch 

We took a taxi from the Christchurch train station to our motel, Centrepoint on Colombo, where we were warmly welcomed by our host, Jeff, who gave us lots of great recommendations for nearby restaurants, marked up a local map with sights to highlight and to avoid (including the Red Zone in the city center that is still off-limits due to damage from the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes), and even helped bring our bags up to our second-floor room.  We ended up at Spags on Victoria Street for dinner, with yummy single-serve fresh pizzas and a piece of perfect chocolate fudge cake for Mr. E.

The whole notion of a “motel” is quite distinctive in New Zealand, based on our experiences in Picton and Christchurch, not to mention what I had found during our initial planning and search for lodging prior to our trip.  Motels are very common throughout the country and tend to be a very hands-on operation, typically run by a family that lives on-site in a private section of the building.  This results in very personal attention and treatment, and the only similar experience I’ve had in the US has been in some small motor inns in New England, particularly Vermont.  The big difference, however, is that the motels we enjoyed in New Zealand included well-stocked kitchenette facilities, which was a welcome amenity.

Jan. 8:  Christchurch
Since we hadn’t procured breakfast items the evening before, I made coffee with the in-room supplies after my morning run around part of the extensive Hagley Park, and then we walked back to Victoria Street to have breakfast at Vic’s, just across from Spags.  Our plan for the day was to explore some of the city in the morning and then catch a 3-hour double-decker bus tour in the afternoon.  I don’t think either of us truly knew what to expect in terms of what we’d see in a city that’s still recovering from the devastating February 2011 earthquake…

Horrible.  Humbling.  Hopeful.  At any moment, any or all of these can be the emotions when facing the destruction, deconstruction, and construction that are widespread throughout the central city. 

Our first destination was Victoria Square, which was only recently partially re-opened to pedestrians.  This trek took us past the amazing Pallet Pavilion, one of several urban design projects completed by Gap Filler, a non-profit that was founded after the December 2010 earthquake and expanded into a Charitable Trust after February 2011 in order to implement additional small reuse projects to fill in the gaps caused  by the destruction of the earthquakes.  The Pallet Pavilion is a temporary summer entertainment venue built by community volunteers out of blue pallets and other reclaimed typical construction materials.  We actually chatted briefly with one of the two primary Gap Filler staff who organizes and implements these projects.  This project, along with a few others we discovered in our walks around Christchurch (informally known as CHCH), was quite an impressive undertaking, and this spirit of persistence, resilience, and creativity permeated much of the city and the inhabitants we saw and met.  Although many people left, many also stayed to rebuild.

Pallet Pavilion

We then walked along the Avon River towards the Anglican Cathedral, which is in the cordoned-off part of the downtown area known as the Red Zone.  Coincidentally, we bumped into Blue and Jake from our Marlborough Wine Tour when we were viewing the Cathedral and reading the plaques posted nearby that show redevelopment and reconstruction plans for the different areas of the downtown.  We encountered them again briefly a bit later at Re:START, a shopping mall made of brightly-coloured containers that has become an extremely popular commercial area and destination.  I had read about Re:START in the Jetstar in-flight magazine, and it was certainly a very lively place, with  lots of shops, restaurants, and craft kiosks.  In theory, it’s a temporary structure, but it’s hard to imagine that it would be replaced by a typical mall, given how successful it’s been and how it adds such a unique aspect to the city.  We paused at Hummingbird Coffee for a “long black”, sort of a small Americano, which had become our standard coffee drink of choice during our trip.  I also bought a bag of espresso to bring home, and part of the proceeds from the sale of the coffee helps to support Re:START.

Anglican Cathedral

 Re:START Mall Exterior & Interior

Taking advantage of the beautiful sunny day, which had started out cool and rainy (during my run – a bit sprinkly!), we explored some of the Botanic Gardens and had lunch in the café of the Canterbury Museum.  I scored again with another kids meal – a chicken, mushroom, and cheese “toastie;” chips (aka French fries); and 2 small chocolate fish!  The toastie is very popular in both Australia and New Zealand and is basically a grilled cheese sandwich on crusty bread of some kind and often loaded with other ingredients.  Very tasty!

 Christchurch Botanic Gardens

Our afternoon bus tour of Christchurch began with a 1-hour tour around the central city, which allowed us to learn more about the earthquake consequences and current/future plans for reconstruction, and provided both a revisit to certain places we’d seen in the morning along with sights that we probably wouldn’t access on foot.  One of the brief stops along the tour was at the AMI Stadium, which doesn’t look terribly damaged but which sits on a site that has been deemed unsafe for construction.  The Stadium had been expanded for some rugby championships but the earthquake occurred before the event, so the new part of the facility has never been used, and now the entire site is off-limits.  This sort of situation is not uncommon, as much of the land is unstable so the options for development are going to be limited.  In a way, this provides a unique opportunity for Christchurch to be creative and proactive during the redevelopment process, and Mr. E and I would both love to return in 5-10 years to see the progress that’s been made.

The next 2 hours of the tour took us farther afield, to Mona Vale, Riccarton Bush, and Sumner Beach.  Even these areas have suffered some damage from the 2 recent quakes, especially the homes perched on the cliffs out by the water.  We finished up the day with dinner a Pomeroy’s, a local brewpub that specializes in craft beers.  The thick-cut chips were pretty darn good, too, and my smoked salmon salad was fabulous.

Sumner Beach View & Surfers

One other feature of note in Christchurch, aside from the obvious quake damage, is the strong and blustery wind.  Apparently, this is a well-known feature of the city, and something neither Mr. E nor I find particularly appealing.  Regardless, Christchurch is definitely on our “revisit” list in addition to Wellington – maybe to celebrate our 15th anniversary???

Jan. 9:  Christchurch > Sydney
We left our bags at the motel since our flight to Sydney was in the late afternoon, and we had breakfast at The Coffee Corner, a “displaced” business on Worcester St, just 1 block from the Canterbury Museum.  Lots of businesses have set up temporary or interim operational arrangements in non-traditional venues as they work to repair damage and re-open after the quakes.  This results in a fascinating assortment of retail and restaurant options and is such a creative response to the tragic events.

Our final stop in Christchurch was the Canterbury Museum, where we learned more about the Maori culture, the Moriori people (a group descended from the Maori that settled in the Chatham Islands off the east coast of New Zealand and were much maligned/disparaged even through the twentieth century), Antarctic exploration, historical Christchurch, and the characteristics of and threats to the natural environment of this country.  We were amused to notice little Santa Claus figures that had been placed in several of the dioramas, and the kids in the Museum loved finding these “interlopers” in the displays!

While watching TV last night, we had learned about the heat wave in Sydney and the terrible bush fires in other parts of New South Wales, but luckily the temperatures were back to normal by the time we arrived back in Sydney for a final night before the end of our trip.  Our flight on Air New Zealand was delayed about 1 hour while we waited for some folks whose connecting flight was late, but we both enjoyed the personal entertainment systems for movie viewing again.  I watched a great Japanese film, “Until the Dawn Breaks,” and Mr. E watched “The Avengers.”

Since our arrival in Sydney was a bit later than we had expected, we decided to cancel our planned stroll across the Harbour Bridge and instead took advantage of the free drinks and upscale munchies in the Sydney Hilton’s Executive Lounge (thanks to Mr. E’s gold status).  We also managed to complete our 2 errands to procure the set of espresso cups from Starbucks with Sydney and Australia designs on them along with a couple of bags of the chewy fruit candy that I had discovered during our initial stay in the city at the beginning of the trip.  The evening wrapped with wine in the beautiful Marble Bar, a historic restored gathering place in the basement of the Hilton (pricey drinks!).

Throughout our travels, we noticed several linguistic differences between US English and Aussie/Kiwi English, some of which have already been mentioned earlier in this narrative:  different “to” instead of different “from;” “takeaway;” “section” for “parcel/lot of land;” “cellar door;” “toastie;” “compendium” for “hotel guide;” “capsicum” for “bell pepper;” “rocket” as a type of arugula-ish green.  Also, during monetary transactions, people tended to say “that will be $$$, thank you” instead of “that will be $$$, please” – sort of like showing appreciation for the payment even before you’d actually paid!

Jan. 10:  Sydney > SFO > Sac
The Sydney Hilton has a full-fledged Health Club available to hotel guests, and I got to take a morning Pilates mat class – a bit different in format and style from what I’m used to here in the US, but still a great opportunity and amenity!  Thanks again to Mr. E’s gold status, we enjoyed the full buffet breakfast and then headed off to tour the iconic Opera House, the top priority for our brief revisit to Sydney at the end of the trip.  We had a wonderful tour guide and learned all about the history of the site (opened in my birth year of 1973), the design elements, and the incredibly ambitious programming, with at least one event happening every single day.  Some good job security for the tech staff!!!

Opera House Interior 

We then both headed to the hotel Health Club for a pre-departure workout – I enjoyed a short swim in the 20-meter lap pool and Mr. E used the elliptical.  Then we were off to the airport, this time in a taxi rather than the train, and psyching ourselves up for the loooong flight home.  Oddly enough, the return flight was only 12.5 hours instead of 14.5 hours.  I don’t quite understand how that can be possible, but I certainly wasn’t complaining about the lesser time in the plane!  Mr. E was able to get some sleep during the flight and also during our 3-hour layover at SFO, but I was awake for most of the trip home.  Thank goodness for some decent in-flight movies!

Next time, our itinerary will include return visits to Wellington and Christchurch along with a trip to Melbourne, which we didn’t get a chance to explore this time around.

Happy 10-Year Anniversary to Us!


Travel Journal: Picton

Jan. 5:  Wellington > Picton
I had a lovely morning run along the waterfront, all the way to Evan’s Bay – how fitting!  During our stroll the previous afternoon, we had located a relatively nearby Starbucks, so we headed there for coffee and hit up Subway for breakfast.  Although we both tend to avoid the typical fast food outlets here in the US, some of those options were actually quite useful while traveling, as they provided some low-cost meals that were also relatively healthy and quick.  We had numerous stops at various Subway locations, along with a few visits to Burger King (Hungry Jack in Australia) and McDonald’s.

We then visited the Te Papa Museum, right on the waterfront, and with free entry!  The Museum has 5 levels of expositions, ranging from decorative arts to painting to cultural and historical displays and modern multimedia installations.  Our time was somewhat limited, and we could easily have spent another hour or so exploring all that the Museum had to offer.

Scenes from Ferry Crossing Between Wellington and Picton 

The next leg of our journey was on the Interislander Ferry that transported us across the strait separating the North and South Islands.  The crossing was on very calm seas, with land always in sight, and we arrived safely in Picton after about 3 hours.  We dragged our bags up to the Broadway Motel, which seemed farther than expected from the Ferry Terminal, primarily because it was much warmer in Picton than the forecast we had seen earlier!  We figured out the laundry situation, divided up our clothes, and went for a drink at the Flying Haggis pub while waiting for the machines to be available for use.  Mr. E was able to provide instruction to the bartender on how to make a black & tan – apparently not a common drink order in New Zealand.  Dinner was procured from the Subway back near the railroad station in order to avoid any interruption of the laundry process, but we made reservations at a local restaurant for the next evening for after our Marlborough wine tour. 

We also stocked up on breakfast items (eggs, orange juice, New Zealand smoked salmon, bananas) at the grocery store in the Mariner’s Mall across the street.  Our room was equipped with a full kitchenette, including a mini fridge, dishes and utensils, and microwave egg cups, so we figured that breakfast in the room followed by coffee out would be the best arrangement for the next 2 days.

Jan. 6:  Picton
My morning run turned into a run/walk/climb when I decided to explore the Upper Bob’s Bay path in the Victoria Domain, a wooded area with multiple trails that separates the Wellington harbor from Waikawa Bay to the east.  Today was reserved for our Marlborough wine tour, and we were picked up at our hotel by Colleen at 11am.  We gathered 4 more folks from nearby Blenheim, and the van was then full of Americans.  Our tour buddies included Blue (Houston; Exxon/Mobil); Leah (St. Louis; Emerson); Jake (Walnut Creek, CA [!]; Chevron); and Justin (Singapore but originally Tennessee; Exxon/Mobil).  The overall group dynamic was quite pleasant and amicable – despite the fact that 3 of our 4 compatriots are employed by Big Oil – and the atmosphere remained easy even when we acquired 2 additional folks after lunch (Keith and Sandra from Bath, England, but originally from Scotland).

Marlborough Wine Country Vines

Colleen was a wonderful guide throughout the day, providing lots of information about the history and characteristics of the wine region.  We visited 5 wineries and wrapped up with a visit to the local artisan Makana Confectionary Company.

Our first stop was at Hunter’s, one of the oldest wineries in the region with awards dating back to 1979.  The next stop was Wairau Bay, where we had lunch in addition to a tasting, and Mr. E enjoyed a glass of the pinot with his lunch.  I ordered the kids “Platter,” which was absolutely perfect – pretzels, bread and cheese, pear, and chocolate fish!  The latter is something we had become familiar with thanks to the Chocolate Fish coffee shop here in Sacramento, which was founded by a couple from New Zealand and features New Zealand style coffees.  According to the lore presented in the coffee shop, a chocolate fish is a typical “thank-you” gift for kiwis, but the type we found overseas was always marshmallow enrobed in milk chocolate rather than the solid chocolate sold in the Sac coffee house.  Personally, I prefer the marshmallow version!

The third winery was Bladen, which is named after Blair and Denny, the children of the owners.  Denny was our host at the “cellar door” (kiwi for “tasting room”), and she was a charming hostess who shared funny anecdotes about the family’s foray into the wine world.  Next up was Framingham Cellars, a larger operation whose facility was somewhat reminiscent of a Napa tasting room.  We purchased a bottle of the F Series Pinot Noir to enjoy for later (Mr. E ended up rating the Wairau pinot a bit higher, but it was too late to purchase a bottle there).  At Bladen, we had encountered a trio of friends on bicycles doing a wine tour, and these folks were our shadows at Framingham as well.

Our final wine stop was Drylands, which encompasses multiple brands that are widely distributed internationally, including Kim Crawford.  The options at Drylands were far more varied than what we see of Kim Crawford here in the US, however, and it was interesting to end the day with this type of more “corporate” and larger winery as compared with a boutique winery like Bladen.  Colleen then dropped everyone back at their hotels, and we enjoyed some extra conversation time with her since we were the only folks staying in Picton rather than Blenheim.

We strolled down to Seabreeze Café opposite the harbor for our dinner reservation, and I was finally able to enjoy some yummy local scallops.  No real need for anymore wine after the day’s activities!  Mr. E and I both agreed that New Zealand whites can be quite tasty – Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling – but that we definitely prefer a US-style Pinot Noir. 

Picton Harbor

Picton Marina

One different aspect of our tasting experiences was the categorization of certain whites as “aromatic” wines, including Riesling and Viognier.  Neither of us had ever seen that type of grouping in the US, and when I asked about the terminology at Framingham Cellars, the response was less than helpful:  “for wines that have a strong aroma.”  Umm, what?  All wines have a scent or “nose” of some kind.  Not a big deal, really, but I was just curious to know why that type of distinction has evolved in certain wine regions and not in others that produce the same varietals.


Travel Journal: Wellington

Jan. 4:  Auckland > Wellington
When I went down to the pool for my swim this morning, I met a woman from Hamden, CT, who was doing some aqua aerobics.  Small world!

Our stay in Auckland was capped off by a visit to Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium.  We caught the free shuttle down by the harbor and spent a very enjoyable hour or so exploring the exhibits, including the walk-through penguin habitat, which features the largest group of Antarctic penguins on display, and the amazing walk-through glass tunnels with sharks and fish swimming overhead.  These tunnels were the first of their kind and were extremely innovative when they were constructed.  The entire aquarium is an adaptive reuse of old sewage tanks by the waterfront, so everything is actually underground, and there’s a window near the manta rays tank that looks out on the ocean with the water directly at eye level.  We had just enough time to watch a stingray encounter show that consisted of stingray feeding and lots of information about the animals, which are basically “flat sharks.”  The 3 rays in the tank are all female and were loving on their handler throughout the demonstration.  The oldest ray, Phoebe, is likely close to 35 years old, which is a very long lifespan for a ray.  The handler also explained about their anatomy, their sting, and how/why a sting might occur (usually the fault of the person who gets stung, due to inappropriate behavior towards the ray).

Turtles & Fish at Kelly Tarlton's

Penguin Contortionist at Kelly Tarlton's

Walk-Through Tube at Kelly Tarlton's

We caught the public bus back to the Ferry Building and then walked back to our hotel.  Our taxi driver on the way to the airport provided a fascinating conversation.  Originally from South Africa (another part of the British Commonwealth), he has been living in Auckland for about 10 years.  He described the city as a lovely place to “grow” a family but as a challenging place for educated young people (and others) to find a job.  He was very interested in hearing our impressions of the US as a country for potential employment and opportunities.  Mr. E suggested the option of Canada as well, since residents of South Africa can more easily relocate to another part of the British Commonwealth, which includes Canada, as compared to the US.

Our flight to Wellington was on Jetstar, a low-cost, no-frills airline that still provided prompt and friendly service.  We had another lovely taxi experience on the way to our hotel, as we were fortunate enough to have a native Wellingtonian as our driver, so he provided lots of information about the area and pointed out many of the sights around the city.  This is definitely a place we’d like to revisit, as we both immediately felt a strong attraction to the lovely capitol city, ringed by mountains and set right on the water.  We could easily have spent more time here, but we didn’t know in advance how much we’d love the city, so this is a top priority for a return trip.

Golom Sculpture in Wellington Airport 

After we checked into the West Plaza Hotel, right across from the City Hall building complex, we headed out to explore and find the cable car, which took us up to the top of the Botanic Gardens.  The overlook provided an amazing view out over the city and the water, and we had a beautiful stroll down through the Gardens, admiring the all of the different areas and plantings.  One of my favorites was the pohutukawa, also known as the “New Zealand Christmas Tree” thanks to its tufted spiky red blossoms.  We ended up walking along the waterfront, which had some great restaurant offerings along with interesting public art installations, and stopped for dinner at Mac’s Brewpub, which our taxi driver had recommended.  One of the bartenders was a young man from Seattle who has been traveling around to several countries on a “working holiday visa” that allows him to be employed while in a foreign country.  Too bad this option is only available to US citizens under the age of 30 – drat!

Pohutukawa in Botanic Gardens

Wellington Waterfront Promenade
Sphere Sculpture over Civic Plaza
(design is fern leaves of several different types)

We had planned to do laundry back at the hotel, but another guest had taken off with the key to the laundry room, so we were stuck hand-washing some stuff in the sink.  We made the best of the situation by spending the rest of the evening drinking some local wine and watching “Super 8” in the hotel lounge.