North Island New Zealand: Jetboats and Great Wines

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By Max Hartshorne

Mere Shows Us Her Playground, the Mount

Mere Mollard-Wharepapa
Mere Mollard-Wharepapa

In the busiest day of our seven-day trip here to the North Island, we met Mere Mollard-Wharepapa, who guided us up her favorite playground, the legendary Mount Maunganui. This bulb-shaped mountain is located at the end of the sweeping Bay of Plenty, and is green all the way ’round. Sheep graze on gentle terraces, keeping the grass short and there are runners and hikers going up and down a network of many trails, called tracks.

Mere is a Maori…she certainly looks the part, with a ceremonial tattoo on her beefy forearm, short hair, wrap-around shades and a bit of gold in her front tooth. Her high cheekbones, dark complexion and manner of speech befits her tribal roots. She is proud of her traditions, and spoke to us in her native tongue, introducing herself as she would to another Maori by naming the mountain where she resides. She had already been up the mountain twice today, and as we huffed and puffed and had to stop, she was barely winded.

She told us about how the Maori are still fighting battles over land, especially outraged that sometimes the government sells off their land to foreigners. She showed us where a landslide had uncovered a massive pile of shells, and how she was one of the people called in to check for ancestral burial grounds. It is important that they perform ceremonies if ancient relatives are disturbed.

The Bay of Plenty
The Bay of Plenty

We circled higher and higher and finally reached the summit, and Mere, having made this trip thousands of times, shook our hands and smiled broadly. “When I was a kid, this was my playground,” she said. “We plucked oysters out of these waters, and we used to live right over there.” She pointed toward two high-rise apartments, obviously added more recently.

We clambored over to the other side of the Mount and gazed down upon boats making their way over to Tauranga harbor. An uninhabited island called Matakana stretched as far as we could see, this is where her two sons often surf, either swimming across the channel or hitching a ride with a pleasure boat. It was breaktaking and clear, and as we looked out a hang glider slowly drifted down and around and almost skimmed the waves. He managed to catch another updrift that carried him gracefully right down to the grass beside the beach.

The Jetboat Was Fun but the Silence was Best

Boating on the Kiatuna River
Boating on the Kiatuna River

We joined Geoff Brown, Managing Director of the Longridge Fun Park for a spin on a jetboat up the Kiatuna river this morning. These 385 horsepower machines spin on a dime, and draw only about six inches of water. Both sides of this spring fed river were lined with prolific ferns and greenery, ‘This is what all of New Zealand looked like when we got here,” said Geoff. Way up high, moss covered cliffs bordered the engorged green river.

We shot up the river and waited for Geoff to signal that he was about to go into a 360 degree spin. Cindy and I clung to the red railing as the boat spun from a fast speed all the way around, and then the engine roared again and we felt like James Bond speeding up the green river dodging the branches and nearly clipping the moss-covered rocks.

But the most fantastic part of this adreneline filled seven-mile trip was when we reached rapids and rocks too steep for the throaty boat to negotiate. Then Geoff turned off the rumbling, bubbling motor. Silence engulfed us as we drifted downstream….a glorious, heavenly silence and the only sound was the gurgling clear water, and the cicadas that chirped unseen in the green above us.

Nobody spoke, nobody wanted to wreck this delicious quiet, nobody interrupted the cicadas and the rushing water except a few birds. We drifted down a bit further, Geoff gave us a little more of the silence as we drank in the lush tropical beauty of this rainforest that bordered this clean free-flowing river. Then he turned the motor back on and we roared back down the curvy path that we had come up.

Taking a Tour of Papamoa Beach with Rebecca

Rebecca Crosby
Rebecca Crosby

Rebecca Crosby showed us around her family’s business today, and at age 24, she’s got a full plate. Rebecca runs the Papamoa Beach Top 10 Holiday Resort, here on the beach on the east coast of the North Island. We talked with Rebecca and her grandmum Thelma, a charming woman with white hair and an easy laugh.

The land under this beachfront caravan and camping resort is owned by the local government. Like much of New Zealand, oceanfront property is leased, not owned, and that’s one of the reasons this is still a low-priced camping area instead of a swanky Hilton resort.

“We would have sold this off long ago and made millions,” she joked. But Rebecca loves making her guests, who come back year after year, generation after generation, happy as they settle into to their spaces with views of the ferocious surf on the Papamoa beach. We toured the villas, with bedrooms that face huge sliding glass doors, practically on top of the roiling surf just outside. Here surfers coast on six-foot swells and the town supplies lifeguards, who during busy times patrol not only on the beach but in boats offshore.

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Rebecca, a slim, attractive brunette with chiseled features and high cheekbones, said she takes the job of host very seriously. “We’re the ones who they are spending their holiday with, it’s important to make them feel welcome even sometimes when you don’t feel like it.”

The resort has undertaken a big plan to get greener in the years ahead. A group here in NZ made up of tour operators and hospitality businesses have organized a plan that presented 89 “opportunities” to save energy, water, and reduce waste. Rebecca has been hard at work at the resort’s action plan, starting with replacing worn out bulbs with high efficiency models and educating guests about recycling and saving water.

The growth rate here is exploding, the highest in NZ, and there are not enough skilled workers for many positions. But before you pack your bags, check it out–they need nurses, teachers and very skilled jobs the most.

The Conversation Flowed like the Kiwi Wines

Last night in Auckland we joined Gerry and Sally our hosts for a dinner in their home with some of their friends. John, a local painter, was there, along with another couple, Alan and Eileen. Alan works at the big Sky One tower, in finance, and Eileen is a therapist and works in a medical clinic.

We were eager to hear about life in Auckland and as usual, it was some of the differences that were the most interesting to us. They told us that if they wanted to prune or cut down the trees in their yard, they’d have to obtain the permission of the city council. And that if they tried to do it themselves, with a handsaw, a neighbor would rat them out. You can’t just go around trimming or god forbid, cutting down any native tree species here, they told us.

We also learned that there is no property tax here, but there is a European-style general tax like the VAT. House prices, from what everyone told us, are astronomical here, so it is very hard to buy one if you’re young. One couple could only buy if they joined forces with two single men. So now they are moving in to what might feel like a frat house instead of a newlywed’s nest.

Sailing in Auckland Harbor
Sailing in Auckland Harbor

The conversation flowed, as the wine was poured, and everything was ducky until the subject of Clint Rickards came up. This is too complex to explain, but it polarizes men against woman, who each view this topic differently. Our hosts almost came to blows discussing the Police Commissioner and his sexual dalliances (or gang rape, depending who you ask)and it almost caused a commotion because people feel so very angry over what they percieve is injustice against an official who did something terrible 25 years ago, and yet was acquitted by two juries.

Like the OJ Simpson trial in the 90s, there are some topics that guarantee flared tempers and discord. If you want to find out more just google this guy and you can read all about the seamy story that is turning dinner conversations into wars across the city.

Scenes from NZ40, America’s Cup Racer Auckland harbor was the perfect place to set sail yesterday, with a stiff wind and sunshine all over. At home it’s about 5 degrees, so we are not missing much. Off to Papamoa today, a three-hour drive to the coast.

OK Guys, Grinding Forward!

A competitor in the America's Cup in Auckland
A competitor in the America’s Cup in Auckland

On the ferry over to Devonport, a peninsula about 15 minutes from downtown Auckland, the wind was whipping even though the sun was shining brightly. I knew that would bode well on my next excursion….sailing on an America’s Cup boat out in Auckland harbor with Sail New Zealand.
I didn’t know we’d be asked to do so much of the work…but it turns out it takes about 12 people to operate one of these racing vessels. We ended up winning the race, pivoting around the green buoys and with our red spinnaker bulging in the stiff wind we beat them by about 12 meters.

The masts of this boat tower at 119 feet, and there are four stations where sailors have to crank the handles to tighten the lines. Furiously cranking away, we were instructed by the crew “guys, grinding forward,” hold. “Grinding backward, slowly now.” It was exhilarating and exhausting, and we took turns manning the cranks.

As we passed under the big Auckland bridge, a bungee jumper was making his plunge toward the water. On his rebound recoil, he gave us the big thumbs up. I later repaired to Cowboy’s Pizza Kitchen, right on the harbor, for a Radler Monteiths brew, that has a taste of lime with the lager. The waitresses with their low-cut yellow tees and cowboy hats said tips here are no problem. “But since we don’t expect them from Kiwis, it’s almost nicer when you get one. I slurped down six Bluff oysters served on lemon slices, and made my way to the Link bus back up to Ponsonby Road.

Sky City, Downtown Auckland

The Sky City tower dominates Auckland’s skyline, and at night during Cup Week the spire is lit up with green and red spotlights. Wherever we are in Auckland we can see this giant tower.

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Kiwis Aren’t Keen on Tips–Fine with Us!

Sarah Keenan and Melissa Prentice
Sarah Keenan and Melissa Prentice

We joined Sarah Keenan and Melissa Prentice for dinner at the Jervois Steak House on Ponsonby Road last night. These two women are media reps for NZ Tourism and Auckland Tourism, and they told us about their lives here in Auckland, the battle over Marmite versus Vegemite, and what it is like to meet with media from all over the world.

Both of them have lived in different countries, Melissa in Hawaii and Sarah in the Philippines, and we talked about customs such as tipping. As Americans we are used to having to lay out another 20 percent after a good meal, but these two had different opinions. One felt she should tip, and the other said no. We would prefer to have this system where you might put out a small tip but it isn’t mandatory. But of course waitresses here make more per hour than the piddling wage in the US that makes the tips the real income.

This is a big week in Auckland, it’s Cup Week, where major horse races are going on and many of the bars and restaurants are gearing up for big crowds. It’s also a week of a boat show, so the harbor is packed full of boats on display. I’ll be sailing today out into this beautiful harbor, look for some photos coming here soon.

No Junk Mail, Please!

A mailbox in New Zealand
A mailbox in New Zealand

With no scheduled meetings or sites we have to see, we were free to explore Ponsonby Road and the California-like neighborhood where we are staying. There are many small bungalows and stately early 1900s era buildings, and cool cafes and shops along this main thoroughfare. Before we set out, Proprietor Gerry Hill showed us around his 11-room Great Ponsonby B&B, noting the many artists from Polynesia whose work adorns the walls.

We climbed the stairs to see the B&B’s Penthouse, a spacious apartment/room with a deck that looks out over the city, and his leafy lawn below. Gerry is well-known in the area, he was born in Wellington but has been here in Auckland for more than 30 years. He and his wife Sally dispense banana crepes and omelettes and keep their guests happy throughout the year.

A mailbox in New Zealand
A mailbox in New Zealand

One of the little things I like about New Zealand is how the residents can opt out of getting junk mail stuffed in their mailboxes. Once when I asked my post office not to put them in they said no way, they had to. Here you just buy a sign that says no circulars and that’s the end of it. They also have special trucks that drive around to pick up wastepaper, and there is virtually no litter to be seen. From an early age, Kiwis are taught that the environment is a priority, and from the clean public bathrooms to the pristine water in the lakes and rivers, it sure makes a difference.

Air New Zealand: A Luxurious Ride in the Sky

The Great Ponsonby Bed & Breakfast
The Great Ponsonby Bed & Breakfast

We took the long flight last night from LAX to Auckland. Air New Zealand did not disappoint, business class was just as much fun and as comfy as we had hoped for. My friend Johnny Jet told me on the phone before we left that he had one of the best night’s sleeps he can remember in the front of one of these birds, and we agree. The little pods, fluffy pillows, attentive staff and the first-run movies made the night a joy and we awoke with just two hours left in the nearly 13-hour haul.

I had been wanting to see how Daniel Craig would play 007, and there it was, “Casino Royale,” on the little fold out screen. Across the aisle, Cindy enjoyed “Dreamgirls,” and boy was I glad I had my own choice of movies! No chick flicks for me tonight.

We picked up our rental car and I took a few practice laps around the parking lot. I was still a bit nervous as we headed out onto the motorway, Cindy riding shotgun in the unfamiliar left side, me trying to remember to hug the right side, and when we hit our first roundabout, I almost lost it. We followed the directions to the Great Ponsonby B&B, but of course, we got lost and circled around and around Auckland for about 45 minutes. When we drove through a park, the cicadas were out in force, this sound of summer was magic to our ears.

We’ll rest and regroup and we have the day to explore the Ponsonby neighborhood, we’ve already asked our host for his favorite cafes and Gerry Hill was happy to point them all out on our map.