Christmas in New Zealand and Australia comes in the summertime so it was a bit different for us, northerners raised with visions of a “White Christmas.” In Auckland, we stood on the sidewalk waiting for the Santa Parade and took in the crowd around us; it was the usual mix of families, old-timers and teens traveling in packs. One thing was different though for a December activity, almost everyone was wearing t-shirts and shorts under the watchful gaze of palm trees and sunny blue skies.

Christmas in New Zealand Santa in Auckland parade

It’s beginning to look a lot like . . . wait, what?

Due to the balmy weather Christmas Day traditions include firing up some shrimp on the “barbie”, sailing on the turquoise tinged waters of Waitemata harbor or playing a game of cricket in the park. That may not be much different from warm places in America like Miami or San Diego; but we doubt that the highlight of those cities’ Christmas Parades is a giant balloon of a Kiwi bird wearing a Santa Claus hat.

Christmas in New Zealand Kiwi bird Auckland parade

A Christmas tradition in New Zealand, the kiwi bird.

A “White Christmas” even in summer

We joined the crowd in cheering on the floats featuring beach and surfing scenes. But when it came time for the big guy, Santa himself, the palm trees were just a memory. His float was covered in white with “snow” covered trees and a castle. Even Down Under, the dream of a White Christmas lives on.

Many smaller towns host Santa Parades as well. Dunedin on the South Island featured that old Christmas chestnut, Snoopy and longtime nemesis the Red Baron engaged in a blocks long dogfight down the main drag. We’re not sure what it had to do with Christmas but the kids seemed to eat it up.

Run, Santa, Run

Christmas in New Zealand Santa run for charity

Santas and surfers come together in New Zealand.

A new event is the Santa Run to raise money for the KidsCan charity. The race takes place in seven cities throughout New Zealand. For a donation each runner is given a Santa suit to wear. Race veterans often show up in homemade outfits as elves or reindeer. The run in Dunedin takes place on the beach with the starting line just across from the local pub. It’s easy to find affordable hotels in Dunedin close by. There was clearly a party atmosphere but fortunately the race, if it can be called that, was mercifully short so casualties were few.

Dunedin santa run on beach

Cue the “Chariots of Fire” music. 

New Zealanders also include customs of the first settlers of this land, the Maori. Christmas cards and decorations bear Maori motifs while many dig into a Maori treat called a hangi. Similar to a Hawaiian luau, hot stones are placed in a hole in the ground and then lamb, potatoes and whatever else strikes the chef’s fancy are placed on top of the stones to bake. A warm Meri Kirihimete is wished: that’s Maori for Merry Christmas. Not so different from the Hawaiian Mele Kalikimaka.

Maori float Auckland Christmas parade

A tribute to the original island people, the Maori.

Christmas in Australia

Across the Tasman Sea the Aussies have put a unique spin on Santa’s flight path. Apparently it’s too hot in the Outback for reindeer, so Santa is propelled by six white “boomers,” also known as kangaroos. One bush country resident, innkeeper Deb Wright, said, “It’s so hot that we usually have cold meats and salads for the main meal and much beer is also consumed due to the delirious heat.”  Despite the weather, stores are decorated with snow-filled winter scenes.

Queen Victoria building Sydney Christmas tree

The Christmas tree at the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney is the only one we’ve seen that visitors can walk under.

Christchurch recovers

The holiday season was a poignant time in Christchurch last year. The city suffered a devastating earthquake that destroyed the downtown and killed 181 people. There was talk of cancelling the annual Santa Parade due to the traditional downtown parade route being closed off for safety reasons. However, the parade was rerouted and went on.

Over 100,000 people, one-quarter of the town’s population, turned out for the event which provided a much need lift to local spirits. We spoke with one woman, a nurse who was preparing a patient for surgery at St. George’s hospital when the quake struck. “It’s certainly been a challenging year,” she said. “But we’ll survive and rise above it.”

Christchurch Angel Gabriel

In Christchurch a message of hope for the New Year.

The international symbol of the devastation wrought on the city was the heavily damaged Christchurch Cathedral. At Christmastime last year three larger-than-life sculptures of angels were hung from the rafters. However, due to the quake the building was rendered unsafe and will eventually be demolished. This year the angels are being suspended from construction cranes that are assisting in the rebuilding. The angels represent consolation, comfort and hope. What fitting symbols to watch over the residents of Christchurch during this season of birth and renewal.

Santa Ballantynes Christchurch New Zealand

You’re never too old to pose with Santa Claus, here at Ballantynes in Christchurch.

And if you are planning to visit New Zealand, don’t make the same mistake we did and make sure you have a roundtrip ticket. We almost got deported flying to New Zealand on a one-way ticket.

We’ve been traveling around the world as global nomads since 2011. To receive free monthly updates and valuable travel tips from us sign up here.

The Best Men’s Travel Shoes

Larissa has written about the best travel shoes for women, but now it’s my turn to talk about the best mens travel shoes.

I have only two pairs of shoes with me, both by Ecco. I’ve worn Eccos almost exclusively for about 20 years. They are cut slightly wider in the toe box so they accommodate my size E foot (somewhere between wide and regular).

The pair that I wear almost daily is the Track 5 plain toe low. It’s a brown nubuck style that’s generic enough to go with anything. They were already several years old before the trip started so I thought about getting a new pair. But I figured they’d just get beat up anyway so I decided to wear them as long as they’d hold up. So far they’ve held up great.

best mens travel shoes

The Eccos were great for a steep hike up to the Tasman Glacier on the South Island of New Zealand.

They started their journey in August, 2011 at the top of the Rocky Steps in our hometown of Philadelphia. Some of their adventures so far have included: hiking along the Great Wall of China, climbing to the top of the ancient ruins at Angkor Wat, spending the night in a cave at a Bedouin camp and yet still looking stylish enough to wear on the streets of Paris.  They even survived being left outside during a torrential downpour in Bali where the next morning they were as full as bathtubs. They dried out by evening and were ready to wear to dinner.

For warmer weather I wear their Cerro yak leather sandals. I bought them at The Walking Company store in Philadelphia. The salesman explained that yak leather is soft but highly durable. The Ecco web site sounds like it is describing the latest in fighter plane gizmos with these shoes: full length Receptor Technology and side stabilizer frames. I wondered where the ripcord was. Ecco does not recommend them for water use but they’ve gotten soaked and lived to talk about it.

If you’re looking for durable, comfortable shoes that aren’t so bulky they look like you forgot to take them out of the box, I highly recommend Ecco shoes.

Please note: These shoes were my own purchases and I am not paid to endorse Ecco. (Oh how I wish.)

UPDATE: February, 2017. After a decade I am still wearing the Ecco Track 5 Plain Toe but I’ve been wearing them so long the model is now called Track 6.  The pair I’ve been wearing were made in Europe. I notice that some Ecco shoes are now made in China, so check first on the model you’re interested in. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t pay a premium price for Chinese made shoes.

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28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Guest Post from Kathryn

I grew up in New Zealand and was always looking for free things to do in Auckland. From nature hikes to museums to contemporary art, here are a few of my favorites.

1)  Stroll the boardwalk between Mission Bay and St Heliers Bay

Auckland boardwalk

Auckland has one of the most beautiful harbours in the world so make the most of it and spend some time on the waterfront. There are gorgeous views of Rangitoto Island from many vantage points on the Auckland and North Shore waterfronts. I love to stroll along the boardwalk between Mission Bay and St Heliers’ Bay. In December New Zealand’s official “Christmas tree”, the Pohutukawa, is in bloom and the waterfront is glorious.

Catch the 750 or 769 bus from the Britomart Transport Hub along the waterfront (Tamaki Drive) to Mission Bay or further on to St Heliers. Cost to St Heliers NZ$4.50. If you get off the bus at Mission Bay you can walk up to the Michael Joseph Savage Memorial Park for breathtaking views of the Rangitoto Island and the Harbour.

2) Head for the Waitakere Ranges

waitakere ranged park entrance frame

For those who have a rental car, 35 minutes west of downtown Auckland you will find a beautiful New Zealand native forest with mature Kauri trees. There are many bush walks that vary from 10 mins to several hours and it is all free. I recommend the Auckland City (loop) Walk which takes about an hour. It lies at the end of Falls Rd, past the golf course. To get to the Waitakere Ranges from downtown Auckland, take the North-Western Motorway and get off at Swanson Rd and continue onto Scenic Drive. If you want to do the Auckland City Walk, turn right from Scenic Drive into Te Henga Rd and then left onto Falls Rd.

Pick up a free brochure, which include maps, about the Waitakares at the airport when you arrive.

3) The West Coast Beaches

muriwai beach new zealand

A little further north of the Waitakere Ranges are the West Coast beaches Muriwai, Bethells and Piha. Popular with surfers and those that love to stroll along long stretches beach between the thundering surf and the sand dunes. West Coast beaches are famous for their black sand.  At the south end of Muriwai beach is the Gannet (bird) Colony; the best time to visit is between October and February. Adult pairs return to this spot each year to nest. The chicks hatch in November and fly off to Australia 15 weeks later.

There are brilliant views of the main colony from the view platform and I love to watch the adult Gannets soaring on the on-shore winds. It takes 40 minutes to drive the 45 km from downtown Auckland to Muriwai Regional Park. Follow State Highway 16 until you get to Waimauku and then turn left into Muriwai Rd and continue to the park.

4) Auckland War Memorial Museum

free things to do in Auckland war memorial museum (575x432)

One of the most impressive buildings in New Zealand is the Auckland War Memorial Museum which sits atop a small hill in the Auckland Domain (that’s a park for you non-Kiwis) and offers impressive views of the city and harbour. Despite the name, most of the the museum is not war related. Admission is by voluntary donation.

To use the bus to get to the museum, take the bright green “Inner Link” bus which does a circuit (both clockwise and anticlockwise) around inner city Auckland and costs a maximum $1.9 per ride. Hop off at the bus at 470 Parnell Rd. Take the first right turn and walk down Domain Drive and you will see the Auckland Museum on your left.

If you remain on the green bus you will travel through the popular New Market shopping area, back around past the Domain, up Karangahape Rd to Ponsonby (which is famous for its cafes) and down past Victoria Park to Customs St in the central business district. The buses run every 10-15 mins.

5)    The Auckland Art Gallery

free things to do in auckland art gallery

New Zealand has produced some very talented artists. Many examples of their work are contained within The Auckland Art Gallery. One of my favourite artists is Charles F. Goldie who painted amazing portraits of the Maori, NZ’s indigenous people. The museum is housed in a traditional Edwardian building but just added the recent Maori inspired wing seen above. Admission to the gallery is free but charges apply for special exhibitions.

How to get there? From the bottom of Queen St you could walk or catch the bus up Queens St until you get to Wellesley St East. Walk 1 minute up Wellesley St East and you will come to the Auckland Art Gallery on the corner of Wellesley and Kitchener Streets.

 6) Climb to the top of One Tree Hill for the best view of Auckland

One Tree Hill Auckland New Zealand u2

The site made famous in a U2 song, One Tree Hill offers the best panoramic view of the Auckland area. Try to count the 48 (hopefully) extinct volcanoes in this volatile region. One Tree Hill has a history of its own related to conflicts between the Maori and later settlers. You can read more about that at: Why there is no tree on One Tree Hill.

Guest writer Kathryn grew up in Auckland. She embarked on an open-ended global journey in May 2013 and blogs at RTW Travel Guide. 

Sandwiches are one of the universal foods, they’re cheap and convenient. We ate way too many of them on our trip and offer up the 11 best sandwiches in the world.

1) Shawarma in Jerusalem

Shawarma Jerusalem

A shawarma is a Middle Eastern sandwich made from meats (often lamb or chicken) that are cooked while rotating on a vertical spit. While it may look like a human leg spinning around, the spiced meat is delicious. It is shaved off and placed in a pita bread with a choice of toppings; usually hummus, tahini, tabbouleh, cucumbers and pickled vegetables. The flavors meld together into an incredibly tasty combination. The shawarmas pictured above come from side by side stands in Jerusalem.

2) Ham sandwich in Auckland, New Zealand

Auckland French Market ham sandwich

At the Saturday-only French Market in Auckland, you can try one of the great Kiwi bargains; $4.25 USD gets you a freshly carved ham sandwich on a crispy French baguette with lettuce and dressing. 

Auckland French Market Ham sandwich

3) Chopped rib on weck in Saratoga Springs, New York

BBQsa Saratoga rib sandwich weck

PJ’s BAR-B-QSA is one of our favorite barbecue joints. It’s a road trip of American barbecue offering regional specialties from all over the country. The rib sandwich is served on a weck roll, a western upstate New York specialty that is topped with kosher salt and caraway seeds. 

4) Kapana in Namibia

men eating kapana in Namibia

Part of the fun of kapana, the popular street food of Namibia, is how it’s eaten. You tell the vendor how much you want to spend and he pushes that amount over on the grill with his knife. You then grab it with your fingers and dip it into a communal box full of salt and spices. Tasty yes but not a sandwich. To make it a sandwich do what we did. Walk over to one the vendors selling fresh Portugeuse rolls, split it open and stuff the bread with the kapana. Now that’s a sandwich. It might have been donkey meat, we’re still not quite sure, but it sure tasted good.

5) Pastrami sandwich in New York

Katzs deli pastrami best sandwiches in the world

We both grew up in New York where the love of pastrami was drilled into us at an early age. Our favorite is still the classic with pickles and an egg cream at Katz’s Deli in Lower Manhattan. It’s where Meg Ryan loved the food in a famous scene from “When Harry Met Sally,” or maybe she was just faking it.

6) Pulled pork sandwich in Cincinnati, Ohio

Findlay market best sandwiches in the world

The award-winning barbecue team from Velvet Smoke plies its trade at the historic Findlay Market in Cincinnati. The pulled pork offers the right combination of tenderness, flavor and bite.

7) Bahn Mi in Hue, Vietnam (Winner: Best value)

Banh Mi sandwich

The sandwich is called banh mi but that is just Vietnamese for bread, in this case, a delicious crusty French baguette. The stuffing is typically grilled pork, perhaps compressed pig ears, liver pate, cucumber, cilantro, pickled carrots and a spread such as mayonnaise or spicy chili sauce. These bahn mi were 35 cents each, feeding us a delicious lunch for two for only 70 cents. The baguettes alone were worth more than that.

8 ) Hog roast and haggis sandwich in Edinburgh, Scotland

Hog roast haggis sandwich Edinburgh

Nothing like slapping on some haggis before the roasted hog. Haggis, the national food of Scotland and something they are oddly proud of, is sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, oatmeal, onion, oatmeal, suet and spices wrapped in a sheep’s stomach. Seriously. When combined with roasted hog it is pretty intense.

Pork and haggis sandwich castle terrace market edinburgh

Hard to beat the setting just below Edinburgh Castle. For a video of our haggis taste test check out “A Fistful of Haggis.”

9) Porchetta in  Assisi, Italy

Assisi porchetta best sandwiches in the world

You know your sandwich is going to be fresh when the head is staring at you. We have to admit though, it did make us feel a bit guilty.

10) Philly cheesesteak in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Philly cheesesteak Cambodia

Yo, we’re from Philly so we had to include at least one cheesesteak. After a tiring day touring Angkor Wat, Little Rocky approved of this one at the Warehouse in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Gotta love that French baguette.

11) Kokorec in Istanbul (Winner: The best sandwich in the world)

Kokorec best sandwich turkey

And the winner is, the kokorec sandwich in Turkey. It’s so delicious it even earned its own blog post: Damn, that’s good sheep intestine The title sort of gives away one of the main ingredients.

The world’s worst sandwich: Vegemite sandwich in Australia

Vegemite sandwich

Men At Work made it famous, but the world’s worst sandwich is the Vegemite sandwich. For those who haven’t tried it, Vegemite tastes like salty, fermented toe snarf. Straight from Australia’s Bush country, here’s a video of our official vegemite taste test. Watch it at your own peril.

What is your favorite sandwich?

Here’s our review of pizza on 6 continents: The best pizza in the world, it’s not in Italy

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There’s a reason Peter Jackson selected the South Island of New Zealand to film his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. The landscape with its snow-capped mountains, glaciers, rainforests and sweeping vistas lives up to the dreamland created by author J.R.R. Tolkien. The countryside is so jaw-dropping that the tourism board created an official Southern Scenic Route (SSR). The road lopes along for almost 500 miles, beginning in Queenstown then skirting the southern half of the island before ending in Christchurch.

Our New Zealand road trip began after a flight into Queenstown. The South Island was a culture shock after two weeks in the urban setting of Auckland. From the air we saw snow-capped rocky peaks, known as the Southern Alps, spreading to the horizon, punctuated by the occasional lake of vivid turquoise and a fleeting glimpse of the Franz Joseph glacier. As the plane descended, alpine meadows blanketed with yellow wildflowers appeared. We half expected to see Julie Andrews twirling around singing The Sound of Music.

New Zealand Milford Sound road

The ride to Milford Sound provides stunning scenery.

We headed south for the town of Te Anau, headquarters of the Fiordland National park and a convenient base for exploring Milford Sound. A two-hour drive takes visitors to the Sound, the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent of the fjords in Norway. (That’s no typo, New Zealand and Norway do spell the word “fjord” differently.) Milford Sound is the only one of New Zealand’s fiords that can be accessed by car, making it a popular destination. Even Rudyard Kipling described its rugged grandeur as “the 8th wonder of the world.”

The route to Milford is one of the world’s great driving destinations. The steep and winding road passes through a remarkable series of microclimates, including farmland, alpine meadow, dense forest, desert, rainforest, snow-capped mountain ranges and waterfalls. It’s a journey best taken in summer as the winter brings a severe avalanche risk. After barreling through the one-lane Homer Tunnel, the descent back to sea level is negotiated through a series of hairpin turns slickened by mist spraying off nearby waterfalls. Although it was summer, snow drifts still caressed the side of the road.

Milford Sound boat ride

Even on a foggy, rain-soaked day, Milford Sound was impressive.

The popular boat ride on Milford Sound requires some strategic planning. Four tour companies operate from the single pier; boats chock full of day-trippers depart about every 15 minutes for the 90-minute ride through the narrow fiord. However, by afternoon the crowds have departed, the boats are almost empty and fares are lower. Just after we boarded, the overcast sky let loose a gentle rain that eventually turned into a downpour. After getting drenched we headed indoors but much of the scenery was no longer visible through the foggy windows. Fortunately, near the end of the trip the sun reappeared to cast a warm glow on the sound, revealing double-arched rainbows created from the mist of the waterfalls dashing against the rocks. At that point, we finally got the spectacular view that had excited Kipling so much. The lesson here is to time your trip with at least some dry weather

From the fiordlands and mountains the SSR heads due south, passing the almost tropical looking beach at Florence Hill. Along the coast the trees are angled sharply away from the water, their roots struggling to retain a firm footing against the unrelenting onslaught of the gusts whipping off the ocean.

New Zealand Florence Hill Point lookout

The scenic overlook at Florence Hill, near the southernmost point of New Zealand.

The city of Invercargill is home to possibly the world’s quirkiest hardware store, or perhaps the world’s quirkiest auto museum. At Hayes Hardware, vintage cars (including a few mint Thunderbirds) and motorcycles nestle among the aisles of generators, hammers and paint. The big draw at Hayes is the customized 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle raced by local Burt Munro to set several world speed records at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats in the 1960s. It was the subject of the film The World’s Fastest Indian, starring Anthony Hopkins.

New Zealand road trip Worlds fastest indian motorcycle

Maybe it’s because New Zealand is so remote, but they really like planting those multi-directional signposts that indicate the distance to faraway destinations. On the SSR one is placed just beyond Invercargill, in the small town of Bluff, to mark the southernmost point on the South Island. The marker displays the mileage counts to places like Sydney, London and even the South Pole. Despite feeling like we’re almost at the bottom of the world, the southern tip of New Zealand is only about halfway between the equator and Antarctica.

The northeasterly portion of the SSR winds through hilly pastureland with occasional glimpses of the bluffs over the ocean. Hillsides and meadows are covered by so many grazing sheep it appears that a giant dandelion sprayed its wispy white tendrils everywhere. The pace is leisurely; sheep-related traffic jams are common as farmers herd their flocks down the main road.

New Zealand South Island toad trip sheep

Drive carefully, farmers and their sheep have the right-of-way.

Dunedin on the southeast coast is a university town, reflected in its superb used bookstores and cafes. The flamboyant Edwardian-era railway station, where no surface is left undecorated, is also the home of the nation’s sports hall-of-fame. Railroad buffs can admire the architecture and trains while sports fans reminisce about Olympic athletes and the All-Blacks, New Zealand’s 2011 world champion rugby team. True devotees can push a button on a wooden box near the entrance which emits the aromas of a rugby match. For those who prefer to sniff something sweeter, Cadbury’s offers tours of its chocolate factory a few blocks away.

Driving northward the SSR hugs the coast before gradually climbing back into the mountains. There are many interesting side trips: we followed a small sign leading us to a remote ocean bluff where a family of seals frolicked on the nearby rocks. The hills and roadsides are covered with a kaleidoscope of colors from wild lupine that sprouts with abandon. The bottle-brush shaped flowers grow in a dazzling array of purples, pinks, yellows and whites. The lupine and bright mustard-colored gorse bushes combine to put on a daytime fireworks display.

New Zealand road trip Twizel lupine

Colorful lupine sprout up almost everywhere.

The sleepy town of Twizel serves as a prime base for viewing Aoraki Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak. Soaring over 12,000 feet, it was the “training ground” for Edmund Hillary as he prepped for his legendary conquest of Mount Everest. The greatest Kiwi ever is showcased in the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, a free museum located in the Hermitage Hotel in Mount Cook Village.

The nearby Tasman Glacier is accessible via a steep 20-minute hike up a rock-strewn path. We sweated and grunted our way to the top to look out over…not much. There was a beautiful blue river with a few ice floes, but the glacier itself looked like the contents of a gravel quarry. A nearby sign echoed our thoughts as it stated, “Where’s the glacier?” The sign explained that glaciers are covered with rocky stubble called “surface moraine.” The ice, which we expected to see, hides beneath it.

New Zealand Road trip man overlooking glacier

The view over the Tasman Glacier.

Massive sights such as glaciers are best viewed from the air. So we went for a barnstorming ride in an open-cockpit biplane, outfitted in leather flight jackets and goggles for the full Snoopy fighting the Red Baron effect. Pilot Chris flew by the Ben Ohau mountains and nearby glacier before swooping low over the meadow used by Peter Jackson to film the Pelennor Fields battle scene in The Return of the King.

Larissa Michael Milne Changes In Longitude biplane cockpit

Even Little rocky pumped his fists over the biplane flight.

Flying out of Christchurch a few days later we were rewarded with a last glimpse of the vistas we had seen from the ground. Our road trip revealed that there was even more than the “greatest hits” of mountains and glaciers and fiords. Seeing the South Island at our own pace enabled us to experience not just the majesty of the Lord of the Rings scenery, but also the natural beauty that exists around every bend in the road. New Zealand is a perfect destination for an independent road trip.

If you go

Here’s the link to the official website for the Southern Scenic Route. It offers maps and trip planning tips. Plus a link to the official New Zealand tourism website.

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

U2 fans will recognize One Tree Hill as the name of a song off The Joshua Tree album. It refers to One Tree Hill in Auckland, New Zealand also known by its Maori name of Maungakiekie. The song was dedicated to Greg Carroll, a Maori roadie for the band who died in a car crash while running an errand for Bono. The hill is a volcanic cone that, before the arrival of European settlers, was the strongest fort in the area due to its commanding presence and 360-degree view.

What you won’t find on One Tree Hill is a tree. In 1852, the authorities knocked down a Totara tree that was sacred to the Maori and eventually replaced it with a Monterey Pine. About fifteen years ago a Maori took a chain saw to the pine and cut it down. The land is disputed which is why there has been a holdup in replacing the tree. Today even planting a tree has become political.

There is an obelisk at the top that marks the grave of John Logan Campbell but it’s not another example of a colonizer usurping the indigenous people. He asked that the obelisk be placed there to represent the Maori. In front of the obelisk there used to be a stump of the last tree on One Tree Hill but even that’s now gone.

One Tree Hill in Auckland view

Approaching the summit of One Tree Hill.

It’s a pretty steep 600 feet to the summit. I had already taken a bus to the wrong stop and gotten off two miles beyond the park so I wasn’t enjoying the climb as much as I might, ah who am I kidding?, I’d probably never enjoy the climb. For the last part it got practically vertical, at least it felt like it, so I did something I hadn’t done since high school: I stuck my thumb out and hitched a ride.

I figured New Zealand is a nation of hikers, which they call tramping, so it must also be a nation of hitchhikers. And where there are hitchhikers, there are hitchhiker picker uppers. The country seemed so idyllic I figured “stranger danger” hadn’t yet washed to these shores, so maybe someone would take pity on me.

The first few cars passed me by. Maybe my thumb was pointing in the wrong direction. I tried again with a smile, which if you’ve read about my grotty passport photo might not be a good idea, but within three seconds an old station wagon came to a rolling stop. Either my smile worked or they thought I was somebody who shouldn’t be walking around on my own.

Walden and Zoe were twenty-somethings who likely saved me from a bout with CPR. I asked where they were from and Walden proudly proclaimed, “We’re Kiwis!” Zoe’s dad was originally from Wisconsin and, in a story I heard repeatedly, had fallen in love with a Kiwi and moved to New Zealand.

Zoe and Windon One Tree Hill in Auckland

My saviors, Zoe and Windon.

We made it to the top of One Tree Hill and joined  a few other intrepid trampers taking photos of the spot where the tree would be, if in fact there was a tree so the hill could live up to its name. The sweeping view is stupendous, even better than from atop the famed Sky Tower in the center of Auckland.

One Tree Hill in Auckland

It's difficult to capture the 360-degree view. This is just part of it with volcanic cones in the distance.

Geographically, New Zealand is an unsettled land. From the summit we counted the cones of volcanoes but stopped at about a dozen. All that molten lava churning just beneath the surface is reflected above ground where a simple act of replacing a tree has become a seismic event. I hope the next time I visit One Tree Hill in Auckland the view also includes a recently planted tree.

“The moon is up over One Tree Hill

We see the stars go down in your eyes

I’ll see you again when the stars fall from the sky

And the moon has turned red over One Tree Hill”

— by U2

Click the link for our New Zealand road trip.

I’m usually not much of a nature boy, saving the passion of the outdoors for my forester brother. But in the Southern Hemisphere I couldn’t help take pictures of trees that are really different from the ones at home.

The tree picture above is planted near One Tree Hill in Auckland, New Zealand, the site made famous in the U2 song. Ironically, the actual One Tree Hill is treeless due to a dispute between the native Maori and the later arriving Kiwis about what type of tree should be planted there, a native one or a colonizing intruder.

Here are a few photos of some other unusual trees we’ve seen along the way:

Pictures of trees

Alongside the road in the Australian Outback people place bottles on this tree, probably to relieve boredom.

tree pictures

These trees at Angkor Wat reminded us of heart-shaped lollipops.

Pictures of trees

We try to make like Lara Croft and climb this tree at the Ta Prohm temple.

Pictures of trees at Ta Prohm Angkor Wat Lara Croft (444x525)

At the Ta Prohm temple at Angkor Wat the trees have sort of taken over.

Pictures of trees at Ta Prohm hidden statue (422x525)

The only remaining Buddha statue face at Ta Prohm barely peeks through an overgrown trunk.

The Buddha statue pictured above is the only one at the Ta Prohm temple of Angkor Wat that still has its head.  Through decades of political turmoil and strife, including most recently the Khmer Rouge regime, the tree has protected the little Buddha.

Tree pictures Ta Prohm Angkor Wat

Imagine planting this tree next to your house?

My Lai tree

This tangled tree at My Lai reflects the area's tortured history.

Tree picutres

Wispy branches reach for the sky in Australia.

Pictures of trees

The trees in Auckland are huge and gnarly. Larissa makes like a Keebler elf in this one.

Pictures of trees

Thailand suffered from huge floods last year. This tree soaking in the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok shows the waters have not fully receded.

Picutres of trees

A 750-year old Boab in Perth, Australia.

Pictures of trees Clare Valley sunset (439x525)

Sunset filtering through branches in the Clare Valley of Australia.

This is our very first black-and-white photo essay. We’re curious, what do you think about it? 

 

Normally we’re not much for folk dance performances. But when we were in New Zealand the All Blacks rugby team had just won the  World Cup. Part of their pre-game warm up is to perform the haka, an indigenous Maori dance. After the championship match the haka was everywhere, the words and steps were even available on t-shirts, a sure sign of reaching a peak in pop culture.

The dance is supposed to psyche out opponents. Tough to say if it works but they are the current world champions. We got to see the haka performed at the Auckland Museum. Note that unlike on the rugby pitch, the haka is performed by both men and women. You can decide if it strikes fear into your heart.

After the show the lead performer, Taniora Maihi, was kind enough to pose with Little Rocky and is pictured above. It was the first time on our trip that Little Rocky was maybe a bit nervous.

What they are saying in English is:

It is death, it is death
It is life, it is life
This is the hairy man
Who caused the sun to shine again for me
Up the ladder, up the ladder
Up to the top
The sun shines.

We’ve generally rented apartments with some hotels thrown in. A few of them have had incredible views of either city scenes or country landscapes. The picture above is the view from our flat of the Sky Tower in Auckland. This being New Zealand, naturally they allow people to bungee jump off it. Throughout the day we’d hear the screams of people taking the plunge.

Ryugyong Hotel Pyongyang North Korea

Pyongyang, North Korea: View from our room of the unfinished Ryugyong Hotel. The world’s tallest hotel, construction stopped 20 years ago when benefactors the Soviet Union collapsed.

Shanghai skyline Rocky

Little Rocky admiring the view from the balcony of our flat in Shanghai.

Singapore skyline

The Singapore skyline from our room. The low building with the orange roof is the British colonial-era post office.

Hong Kong skyline at night

The Hong Kong skyline at night. Discerning readers will notice that this is the skyline in the banner for our web site.

New Zealand Twizel view

It’s not all buildings and skylines though, this is the stunning scenery from the back of our cottage in Twizel, New Zealand.

Bali neighborhood near Kuta Beach

We’ve also stayed in local neighborhoods. These kids were our friendly neighbors for two weeks in Bali.

Munduk Moding Plantation Bali

Sometimes it’s a jungle out there, like at this coffee plantation on the north coast of Bali.

Click on the link for advice and resources on a vacation rental for your next holiday.

When Peter Jackson chose New Zealand to film his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy it wasn’t just because he’s a Kiwi. The scenery is truly spectacular. It’s the best of America’s national parks all crammed into a relatively compact area. Picture if Colorado had not only the Rocky Mountains but also Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Teton national parks; the glaciers of Alaska; a few Norwegian fjords; sixty-five volcanoes, rain forests, deserts plus almost 10,000 miles of coastline. And a lot of sheep.

We had the opportunity to ride in an open-cockpit biplane over some of the natural wonders along with the Pelennor battlefield from LOTR:The Return of the King. We were driving back from a glacier hike near Mt. Cook when we saw a gorgeous flame red biplane sitting there gleaming by the side of the road. It was more effective than any billboard in promoting the business of Red Cat Scenic Flights run by pilot Chris Rudge. We’re both airplane geeks (which helps explain the vintage DC-3 at the top of our web site) but neither of us had ever been in a biplane.

The Red Cat

The experience flying in the plane is like a trip back to the barnstorming days of the 1920s. We were outfitted in leather flight jackets and goggles for the full Snoopy fighting the Red Baron effect. One of the unique features of Chris’ biplane, which he has named Red Cat,  is that he can fit two passengers upfront, a rarity among biplanes. Michael hopped in (we use the term loosely) first and was quite comfortable until he realized Larissa would be squeezed into the confined space as well.

Pilot Chris explained that the captain of the New Zealand rugby team had recently taken a flight with his dad and if they could fit in so could we, Larissa’s hips be damned. We buckled ourselves in but, quite frankly, we were jammed in so tight that even if Chris threw in a few barrel rolls I doubt we could have fallen out anyway.

We took off using barely any runway and were airborne before we knew it. Red Cat circled the Takitumu Mountains and nearby glaciers before flying over the Pelennor Fields.  Now Michael hasn’t seen any of the films but Larissa’s seen all three so she’s the expert on this. The battle scene in the movie required over 1,200 cast and crew, the largest shoot of all three films. We had driven by the site the day before but nothing matched the thrill of seeing it from the air with the wind in our face.

The Pelennor battlefield from above with the Takitumu Mountains in the distance

Afterwards we wanted to keep the thrill going even longer but Chris made us give back the helmet and goggles. The experience helped us capture the thrill that the early aviators had in their flying machines. A few days later we were flying from Christchurch to Sydney inside a pressurized cabin eating salted peanuts. As we flew over the New Zealand mountains we looked out the window and wondered where Red Cat was flying today.

For fellow plane geeks here’s a view from the cockpit as we landed:

If you’re ever in New Zealand, we highly recommend Red Cat Scenic Flights.

Chris the pilot with Little Rocky

Click the link for more on our visit to New Zealand.

Now that we’ve recovered from our Vegemite taste test in Australia, we are ready to try some authentic New Zealand foods. The country is known around the word for its lamb so we decided to try a local delicacy we came across, peeled lamb tongue. Who knew lamb tongue had to be peeled?

canned lamb tongues

We also tried the Kiwi version of Vegemite that is called Marmite. This one has a bit of sugar in it. Does that improve the taste? Watch the video and you decide. Add to that some lamb flavored potato chips, L&P soda, pineapple lumps, the mysteriously named Afghan cookies and of course, Kiwi fruit, and we had a veritable feast going on.

Click on the video below to watch it:

[youtube]http://youtu.be/graGDLkmysU[/youtube]

Who would have thought that the world’s best gelato was being made in Auckland, New Zealand? But the city, which was recently selected as the 3rd best city in the world to live, takes it in stride. The owner of Giapo’s is Gianpaolo Grazioli, an Italian native and mad scientist; that’s no exaggeration, in his spare time he is pursuing an advanced physics degree.

Giapo’s doesn’t have a secret ingredient that makes it better than all the rest. But they do make almost all the ingredients that go into their 99% organic gelato. When they offer a tiramisu flavor they make both the mascarpone and chocolate from scratch. For his gianduia they don’t buy Nutella but make their own. To most people that’s crazy but that’s how Giapo’s operates.

Antipasto gelato, do you have that before or after dinner?

Gianpaolo approaches his gelato making like the mad scientist he sort of resembles. His molecular research has led him to pair flavors that work based on how their molecules interact. The result is a blend of flavors that is pushing the envelope in the gelato world. He obviously has a passion for bringing his gelato to the people. As he says, “It is a charity this store. I just make enough to cover expenses.”

Thirty-six flavors are offered at any one time with twenty new ones invented each week. That’s over 1,000 flavors a year that he creates. Recent popular flavors include: caramelized almond and sweet peas; New Zealand seaweed and Sauvignon Blanc grapes; white chocolate and cloves; Kiwi breakfast which includes candied bacon, maple, avocado and eggs; and my favorite, a vanilla and blueberry creme brulee.

Giapo gelato Auckland

Two world famous Italians meet up, Rocky Balboa and Giapo.

In the video below Larissa sat down with Giapo to taste test six new flavors including antipasto. For this one he candies olives, eggplant, red pepper, zucchini and capers. It sounds a bit odd but was fantastic.

Note: The sound quality of the video improves after about 30 seconds once a blender is turned off.

Here’s our video taste test of other New Zealand foods

Click the link to see what flavors Giapo’s is offering this week.

We were at the Brisbane, Australia airport checking in for our overseas flight to Auckland when the gate agent stopped us cold.

“You can’t enter New Zealand on a one-way ticket so you can’t check in for this flight,” she said.

This was a new wrinkle. Since we are traveling around the world with no set itinerary, we have no idea when, or from which city, we will be leaving a particular country. So far we’ve been buying a series of one-way tickets and hadn’t encountered this obstacle before. We had read that Australia required an outbound ticket but no one asked us for one so we entered there with no problem.

 The gate agent said that if Customs in New Zealand caught us entering without a ticket we would be deported back to the United States and the airline would have to pay a penalty. That seemed kind of harsh. Traveling 8,000 miles back to the US would definitely put a crimp in our travel plans so we scrambled around at the airport to buy an exit ticket from New Zealand.

Flight Centre saves the day

Fortunately we found the glowing orange sign of Flight Centre in the terminal. Flight Centre is an Aussie-based travel agent that seems to be on every block. In caffeine-crazed Auckland there are more Flight Centres than there are Starbucks; that’s not an exaggeration, we counted them.

At this point we needed to get the ticket quickly or we would miss our flight and be out the money we had spent for it. The cheerful Roxy (pictured above with Little Rocky) at Flight Centre was great to work with. She helped both us and a young American backpacker who also needed to purchase an outbound ticket. (This made us feel a bit better that we weren’t the only ones who didn’t know the rules.) Roxy explained that this happens all the time. We also learned that her husband hails from Downingtown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of our hometown of Philadelphia. Small world.

Since one of the purposes of our journey is to meander around the globe and stay longer at those places that intrigue us, it was difficult to select a flight for some time in the future. We ended up randomly guessing a day. If we find that we love New Zealand we are locked in to leaving earlier than we would like, and New Zealand is out some much-needed tourism dollars. It seems to be a case where those who make the rules are not taking other consequences into account.

We bought the outbound tickets secure in the knowledge that we would withstand rigorous inspection by New Zealand customs and would not be kicked out of the country. The funny thing though, when we went through Customs in Auckland the agent just asked us if we had an outbound ticket, we said “Yes” and that was that. We didn’t have to show the ticket or prove we had it. Oh well.

Earlier, the gate agent in Brisbane had also explained that 99% of the countries in the world, including the United States, require an outbound ticket. So be aware of the specific rules for entering different countries on your travels. We thought we were fairly savvy travelers before this incident happened but you never know what unexpected hurdle may pop up in your path.

UPDATE:

Once we got to New Zealand we had a great time. In Auckland we may have had the world’s best gelato.