Saturday, February 28, 2015

the shire

While on New Zealand's north island, we decided to drive two hours down winding country roads to the unassuming Alexander family sheep farm. Honestly, it was kind of like a lot of the sheep farms we passed while on our three week road trip. However, one pretty significant thing sets apart this particular sheep farm from all the others.

Hobbiton hides in its hills.
Hobbiton was created in 1999 for New Line Cinema's Lord of the Rings film trilogy.  Peter Jackson did an aerial search of Matamata for the perfect location for Hobbiton and found it in the green, rolling hills of the Alexander's farm. After negotiations with the family, Jackson was permitted to build 39 hobbit holes and The Green Dragon.  With those hobbit holes, Jackson brought to life one of my favorite stories about some of my favorite literary characters.
Getting to wander around the Shire and see first hand all of the small details that brought Hobbiton to life on film was a profoundly cool experience.  Stories have always played an important role in my life-- I am a middle and high school language arts teacher, after all -- and the Lord of the Rings is my second favorite story of all time, so it was a lot of fun to learn all of the tricks of filming!

As we wandered around Hobbiton, our guide explained to us how Jackson filmed to make Frodo and the other hobbits look so small in comparison to Gandalf and the humans and elves. We even learned that the dwarf Gimli was the tallest cast member on set! I found out that I could have been a hobbit; when casting, they were looking for women under 5'2" who were "round" with a big, cheerful smile. If that's not me, then I don't know what is! How I feel like I missed my calling in life!
Our tour ended with a trip to The Green Dragon, the bar where hobbits drink and sing and be merry in the film and books. The Green Dragon makes four unique drinks that can only be found in Hobbiton. I had the ginger beer while Sean tried one of the hardier ales.
Hobbiton was a very special experience for me because, if I am going to be honest, New Zealand and the Lord of the Rings are synonymous.  The first time I ever had any concept of this beautiful country was the first time I watched the Lord of the Rings when I was in junior high school, so for me and any Lord of the Rings fan, a trip to Hobbiton was a no brainer and a beautiful memory to make. 

  • Hobbiton tours cost $79 NZD per person; discounts are available for youth and children
  • Advanced online booking is a must because tours sell out quickly
  • Visitors must stay with their tour guide; visitors are not allowed to freely wander the film set
  • One drink from The Green Dragon comes free with the price of admission; other food is available for a fee
  • Tours are 2 hours in duration
  • Find more information about Hobbiton and its tours here

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

the story of the beer girl

She came to New Zealand with me.
What is she, you may be asking yourself.
She is a beer girl.
Actually, she is a can holder.
But I think it's clear she's an adult beverage can holder.
I mean, just look at her in all of her feminine glory.
So why on earth did she come to New Zealand with me?
Why did I allow her to take up precious space in my backpack?
Quite simply put: she traveled to New Zealand in place of someone who used her often but never got the chance to make his dream of visiting and living in New Zealand come true.
And that would be my father.
My dad grew up in Minnesota.
He and my mom drove their run down old car to the Pacific Northwest and stayed put.
My dad was a nature man.
He was at home among the mountains and water and trees.
And, for some reason unknown to me, he actually wanted to move our family to New Zealand at one point in time.
Obviously, that did not happen.
I am a Pacific Northwesterner through and through and glad to be.
But my dad talked about seeing New Zealand in a wistful way.
Now, even if my dad did not pass away, I am pretty sure he never would have made it there.
He was a funny flier and hated the cramped quarters of airplanes.
The flight from Seattle to Auckland probably would have done him in.

Regardless, I was going on an adventure and I wanted a piece of my dad to come with me.
So I tucked away the beer girl, which was a memento of my dad's life I took with me to Taiwan, in my backpack and off we went.
I think she had a lovely time seeing New Zealand's rugged natural beauty.
Plus, she was quite an attention getter!
She made quite an impression at Mt. Cook.
When we pulled over on the side of the road to marvel at everything that is Mt. Cook, she wanted out of the car too.
She is very photogenic so she definitely wanted to get her picture taken.
She definitely made some other travelers gawk and laugh as she posed on the rock.

The beer girl traveled all over the south island with us but then a real mystery unfolded when she disappeared.
We don't know where she went off to but we suspect she loved New Zealand's south island so much she decided to stay put.
Or as we hastily packed up our stuff in the middle of the gale force windstorm that collapsed our tents at Mt. Cook, she was left behind.
Either way, I think my dad would love it that his beer girl is a resident of New Zealand now.

Monday, February 23, 2015

a penguin's place

Fact: I am an animal lover fanatic.
And when I found out that there were penguins in New Zealand, I almost wept for joy.

About once a year, my guy and I go to visit a zoo.
My favorite, favorite, favorite exhibit is always the penguin exhibit.

So the chance to see penguins in the wild was too good to pass up.

I did my research and found out that New Zealand has three kinds of penguins: the little blue penguin, the yellow eyed penguin and the crested penguin.

While we were in Dunedin, we had the opportunity to see the little blue penguins and the yellow eyed penguins. I was sad to learn that the crested penguins lived in a part of New Zealand we were not going to visit.

While randomly seeing penguins on public beaches is not a rare occurrence in New Zealand, I wanted to visit Penguin Place, which is a penguin sanctuary for the endangered yellow eyed penguins.
Penguin Place became an official safe haven for the yellow eyed penguins more than 20 years ago. The sanctuary is a working sheep farm on the ocean. The farm owner noticed some penguins nesting on shore and wanted to help keep them safe. Part of the farm has been carved out for the yellow eyed penguins, although they are not the only ones to take advantage of the gift. The little blue penguins also live here as do sea lions and other marine life.

It was a truly magical experience to see a penguin emerge from the water and waddle up the beach and grasslands.

This mother came out from the water and walked straight to the pond where her two kiddo penguins were waiting for her. As we hid behind a dug out, we watched her two kids emerge and then start fighting over who got dinner first.

It was pretty funny.
She had to yell at them eventually.
But everything got sorted in the end and both got to have their dinners.

Hands down, seeing these creatures was one of my favorite experiences in New Zealand.

However, I am very glad I researched this widely and chose Penguin Place to make this happen. Why? While there are a few tour opportunities to choose from in Dunedin alone, our guide's words of caution made me feel so relieved that I chose to see the penguins at Penguin Place rather than from a different organization or just randomly on the beach.

Penguin Place is designed to ensure that the penguins have maximum privacy. They were in no way, shape or form bothered by our visit. We were nearly silent the entire time and spent all of our time while near penguins hidden behind dug outs. An expert was with us the entire time to make sure these two rules were followed. This is vitally important for the yellow eyed penguins, which are not social creatures at all. Any disturbances by people will often mean that the penguins remain longer in the water rather than coming on shore, which is where they spend most of their time. The longer they are in the water, the more opportunity there is for predators to get them. This is a huge deal because these penguins are endangered.

Other tours I looked at in Dunedin asked visitors to essentially "hide behind rocks" while on the beach and did not build a system to ensure the penguins would not be disturbed. In my opinion and understanding the consequences of such behavior, it is not worth it to see these rare penguins if by doing so you are putting them in danger.

Plus, Penguin Place is a beautiful farm. Our visit allowed us to walk around the grasslands and seaside and observe all kinds of marine life. Even better, it's a win-win for the visitors and the penguins! The money visitors pay goes right back to the endangered penguins both in habitat renewal and the onsite penguin hospital that rehabilitates starving or injured penguins up and down New Zealand's coastline.

What more could you ask for?!

Check out more fun travel stories at Travel Tuesday!

Friday, February 20, 2015

22 hours in South Korea

After three weeks abroad, we are back in Taiwan!

We started the process of coming home three days ago.

What took so long?

Well, it is a 12 hour flight from New Zealand back to my neck of the woods in Asia, but we also had a 22 hour layover in South Korea.
About three days ago, when all four of us were ready to be back in our own beds after three week of misadventure in New Zealand, the fingers started pointing.

Whose mad idea was this? This South Korea nonsense?

Well, technically speaking, mine.

However, because we flew Korean Air, it was a question between a 10 hour layover in Seoul or a 22 hour layover in Seoul.
And, frankly, I thought the 22 hour layover would be better. 

I once spent 10 hours in Beijing's airport. 

It sucked-- a lot, so 22 hours seemed perfect.

I thought that we could leave the airport, spend the night at a nice hotel, and explore a little bit of South Korea, a country none of us had been to before.
Sometimes our ideas and reality are two very different things, though.

Our flight landed at 6 p.m.

We got to our hotel after the worst taxi ride ever, which included the driver pointing out the most popular bridges from which the locals like to commit suicide, at 7:30 p.m.

It was Lunar New Year, a holiday celebrated in South Korea too, so everything was closed except for TGI Fridays, California Pizza Kitchen, and the Outback Steakhouse.

Plus, we were all really, really jet lagged and exhausted from an epic and hugely busy three week road trip through New Zealand, 
We ate burgers at Fridays, passed out face first into our beds, and then spent the next morning frantically rushing around Seoul trying to see something before hopping on our last flight headed home to Taiwan.

We did manage to see some neighborhoods, palaces, and temples, but it was not quite the experience I thought it would be.

I was super tired and ready to be home, and I was really, really cold.

Sorry South Korea-- you did not win my heart this time, but maybe we'll try again later.

Have you ever done an insanely long layover? 
Was it awesome or awful?

Check out the Sunday Traveler!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

7 pictures from 7 days in New Zealand

We have been in New Zealand for one week now. 
It has been an eventful week full of misadventure. 

It included three airplanes + three countries. 
It included the North Island and the South Island. 
It included Christchurch + Auckland + Queenstown.
It included two rugged campsites at Mount Cook + Lake Tepako.

It also included:
rental cars + break ins + driving on the left side of the road 
brush fires + a gale force wind storm that collapsed our tents while we were still inside of them
mountains + lakes + canals + valleys + vineyards 
hikes + sunburns + a lot more new freckles 
steaks + tacos + pizza + sandwiches

This week has been amazing and I cannot wait for the next two!