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February 3, 2016 / cmfletcher


23HobbitonToday was Hobbiton, and it was amazing. Apparently the set for Hobbiton for the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) was pretty much taken down- they did actually set fire to the Green Dragon for that scene (Frodo’s vision). Then, years later, it’s time to make the Hobbit films. The family who own the land are very canny and made the movie company agree to build more permanent sets on site, so they could have this tourist attraction. Go them!

The oak tree at the top of the picture above was cut down, reassembled on site for LOTR, and 250,000 artificial leaves wired on and painted. Then for the Hobbit, it had to be a younger tree, so they took it down, made a replica only smaller, and repainted all the leaves for 3 seconds in the movie. Sir Peter Jackson really sweats the details.

It was fascinating to see how some of the hobbit holes were one size to make the hobbit actors look normal, and some were small, to make Gandalf look huge. Bag End has 1 meter of interior finished inside the door, all those inside scenes were shot in studio, which makes sense when you think about it, but I just go with the magic of movies.

The tour takes you all around, lots of photo ops, and finishes with a free drink at the Green Dragon – the family’s own recipe stout, pale ale, sweet cider (all alcoholic) or gingerale.

At the visitor center, before you are driven to Hobbiton, they had stuff from the wool trade, including a wool press — fans of Ngaio Marsh’s Died in the Wool rejoice! We, of course, stood there debated how to secrete a body into the thing, and decided the victim needed to be small.

23Wool Press

Wool Press

On the way home we stopped at the local Catholic Cathedral, the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is very unassuming from the street, we completely missed it our first attempt, but eventually found it and found it really beautiful, a good combination of old and new.



February 2, 2016 / cmfletcher

Perils of Freedom

22waitomo gloworm caveboat

Boat used in the glowworm caves (at the exit – she’s going back for the others in the tour)

Not being on an organized tour has its pluses and minuses. Plus side, your schedule can be easily readjusted; minus side, you will have to because you are arranging things without local knowledge.

We arrived at Hobbiton this morning bright and early (to us) at 11 am. Sadly, no tours until 1:30. So we asked if we could book for tomorrow by phone or internet, (yes), and took off for “tomorrow’s” site, Waitmoto Glowworm caves.

We saw a lot of NZ countryside, some of it plain, lots of it amazingly beautiful. We got to the caves and booked a double tour, first the Glowworm cave, then a tour of Aranui cave.

You can’t take pictures in the Glowworm cave, and it is very dark. I seriously thought I was going to break my leg or worse, because the lighting was minimal, there were few handrails, and strict instructions not to touch the rock. The second half of the tour, though, is magical. You are riding in a boat, and they ask for silence because the glowworms don’t shine as brightly if they are disturbed by noise. It was dark except for the spots of blue light from the glowworms, and silent. Apparently the first explorers of the cave came in via the river and then exited through the upper cave.

22Aranui Santa Clause

Aranui Santa Claus

We decided to do Aranui cave as well. This meant going to the Ruakuri Scenic Reserve, for the tour, so we got a walk through a rain forest and a cave tour. There we could take pictures and we enjoyed it very much.

Tonight we found a brew pub near our motel, great beers and good food. Fletcher had goat curry. I stuck with the chicken burger which was recommended to go with my beer.

Tomorrow, we try for Hobbiton!

February 1, 2016 / cmfletcher


Here we are in Auckland, in the Hilton, which is built on a wharf. You can see the pool in the photo above, in the bridge between the two parts. Behind it is the Sky Tower, our first tourist sight. It has glass floors!! Wonderful, face those fears of heights!

We walked around the city and saw an amazing vertical garden around pillars.21Vertical Gardens

We came back to the harbor for a harbor tour. Love being out on open water.

The tour covered most major sights, including Rangitoto Island, the result of a volcanic eruption 600 years ago.

We came back under the harbor bridge so we could see the bridge walkers and also the platform to bungee jump from — sadly (HA!) it wasn’t offering jumps today, so we missed our chance. The bridge was flying the current NZ flag (with the Union Jack) and the proposed new flag (with the fern leaf).

One of the people on the harbor cruise told me she was on the big Princess cruise ship that was docked on the wharf next to us, and that they were leaving at 5 pm. So we made sure to be on the dock to watch that. No tugs! Just back it out, after giving 3 big hoots, and steam off. Speaking of steam, we saw a real steamboat, one of the heritage ships that sail from the Maritime Museum.

Watching the cruise ship back out and take off for the two day voyage to Australia was really a neat end to our day as tourists.


January 31, 2016 / cmfletcher

Sydney to Auckland

Saturday was our last day in Sydney. The weather was iffy, but luckily it cleared up around 10 and we made it on the ferry to see Sydney Harbor and Manley beach. Joseph Santamaria told us to avoid the tourist “harbor cruises” and take the public transport ferry to Manley. Great advice. it cost us $15.70 Australian  for a round trip ticket and we saw everything!

If we had more time we would have taken the public ferry to Palmetto – the western suburbs of Sydney.

How cool it would  be to live in a place where public transportation takes you to an outstanding beach for a day or an afternoon!  Lots of surfers.130Manley Beach

We went back to the hotel, and started washing — we had a laundry unit in our apartment– and catching up on work. Around 5:30 the heavens darkened, thunder rolled, and the skies opened with pouring rain. This continued for several hours. Meanwhile in Melbourne, Serena Williams was having a really bad night.

Sunday morning and we were on the road bright and early to get to our flight to Auckland, New Zealand. We had a bit of trouble, because the GPS couldn’t find the satellites, and we didn’t have a clear idea of where we needed to go, NOT a good combination. However, we made it and had plenty of time in the airport — all flights were delayed because of fog. So we woke up at 6 am and got to Auckland airport around 6:30 pm.

The highlight of the day was the Air New Zealand safety video. They had hired world-class surfers to do the thing — at one point three of them are sitting on the beach in typical beach chairs when the air masks drop from who knows where. Lots of footage of great surfing while the safety info is being spoken. My favorite was the surfer dude who actually pulled the red cords and inflated the life vest – I always wanted to see that.

Tomorrow is Auckland day — and tonight there were fireworks over the harbor — I feel special, I wish I could say I knew about these holidays and planned it, but no! Just luck.


January 29, 2016 / cmfletcher

Architecture and relics

The weather forecast was horrible, so we prioritized seeing the Sydney Opera House. It was so worth while. Circular Quay is beautiful, and the tour was very informative. The tour guide was very dramatic, half-way through Fletcher whispers to me “the costume designer from The Incredibles” and he was exactly right.

The Harbour Bridge had people walking over it! We found out it required safety harnesses and decided against it. You might be able to see them near the flags in the photo.

The guide showed us a reflection of the Harbour Bridge in the glass of the Opera House. Also we saw the tiles which are white reflective and cream matte so that in the bright summer sunshine, people aren’t blinded by the building.

After that we walked through the gardens and up through town to the Anzac memorial to the soldiers of Australia and New Zealand who died in World War I then on to St Mary’s Cathedral.

There we found two amazing relics: one of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, and one from St Francis Xavier. It was such a gift.

We attended Mass and then had lunch with Father Brendan Purcell, now serving at the Cathedral. He taught philosophy at University College Dublin for many years. He was such fun, and so knowledgeable, even if he almost got us killed crossing an intersection.

After lunch we went to the New South Wales Art Museum and saw a show called The Greats: the best paintings from the Scottish museums. Really interesting and enjoyable.

Dinner at the Darling Harbor again. Tomorrow if the weather cooperates, we are going to take the ferry from Circular Quay to Manley.


January 28, 2016 / cmfletcher

A wine adventure

Today we were on a full day Hunter Valley wine tour. We had to meet the bus at 7:10, so you know it was important to us, and the drive up to Hunter Valley took over 2 hours in the rain. It was a very interesting group of people, a Danish girl traveling alone who writes a nutrition blog, a young English couple, and some Australians. We visited 5 wineries.

Two of the wineries poured their own wines from grapes grown in the Valley; the others used grapes from all over Australia. I asked who is the big name wine buyer for grapes, and they mentioned Jacob’s Creek and Kendall Jackson. The driver had gone to get petrol for the bus and spotted wild kangaroos, so he loaded us up and off we went for a photo op. It was so cool to see them in  the wild; I especially like the sentry on the hill.

It was an interesting day, there are so many different styles of wine it was fun to try things we normally wouldn’t have or buy.

When we got back it had turned into a beautiful evening so we walked down to Darling Harbour and had dinner. Peter was looking at a restaurant named Meat and something, but I made us go to Nick’s a fish and seafood place. It was delicious. We didn’t attempt the feast (neither of us likes oysters), but our dinner was excellent. Notice the boats from Princess Yachts, where John works, they are the two with the blue hulls.128Darling Harbor

No idea what tomorrow will bring, Peter has given up trying to predict the weather here. We have options, so time and the weather will dictate our plans.

BTW, yesterday I forgot to publish the photo of the Tasmanian Devil, so here it is.127Tasmanian Devil

January 27, 2016 / cmfletcher

Benedictines and Aussie animals

On our first day in the Sydney region we wanted to be sure to see the monks at the Benedictine Abbey in Arcadia and the Australian animals at the Featherdale Wildlife Park. Managed to do both, and see a bit of the surroundings of Sydney too.

The Abbey is out in the countryside, and the abbey church has two glass walls. The stained glass was brought from other churches and abbeys and gives a continuation of Catholic history in Australia. The cross window shows the first 3 Archbishops, and one Vicar General, of the four, 3 were English Benedictines. Father Bernard was on his way to check their bull for ID before he goes to the market and then attend a catechist meeting when we pulled up. A true Benedictine, he guided us through the Abbey with great hospitality.

We especially liked the stations of the cross and the paintings done by a local artist that hung on the back wall of the church.

The area around the Abbey is very rural with farm stands, so we picked up a selection of local fruits – fresh fruit is one of the things I miss when we are eating in hotels.

Then on to the wildlife park. There is a zoo in Sydney in the harbor area, but Featherdale  has only Australian animals, and they promised that you could interact with a koala. No contest which place we would visit. It was a happy place, the keepers and the animals and the visitors were all enjoying themselves.  That blue necked bird, the Cassowary is one of the birds the guides warned us about – it can knock a person down and rip open the chest with its talons.

We loved the emus, kangaroos and wallabies, and also the echidna, and enjoyed seeing a dingo. Many visitors had fed this kangaroo, he wasn’t interested in our offering.

We finished up with dinner at the Greek restaurant across from our hotel. I ordered the Greek Salad and Lamb. Peter was going to order, and the waitress said, no this is enough for you both. It was, and since it is high summer, the tomatoes in the salad were amazing. I learned a new way to cook lamb, which I will be sure to try when I get back.  A good day and no tourist guilt!

January 26, 2016 / cmfletcher

Australia Day in Sydney

126fireworksWhat a great day! Last night in Port Douglas the heavens opened, the thunder rolled and the rain came down. This morning the humidity was still 90+% in 90 degree F temps. We were happy to see the airport shuttle come.

Traveling on Australia Day (Or Invasion Day depending on one’s point of view) meant the roads were clear and we found our apartment hotel in a snap. It is a full apartment with a bedroom, bath with separate laundry closet, living/diner and kitchen, and balcony. We are in the heart of Sydney’s  business district a short walk from Darling Harbour and the Rocks area, and 25 minutes walk from Circular Quay.

After dinner we were sitting quietly, planning our days in Sydney  when we heard the fireworks start. Well, we could see them from our balcony! Terrific show and great way to end the day.

January 25, 2016 / cmfletcher

In the rainforest

Today was an adventure, especially for someone like me who is not all that fond of Mother Nature (I get eaten by bugs and have bad reactions, totally hate snakes, and am not too fond of any reptiles). So why go? Because it is here! Our tour included an driver, Covel, one of the indigenous people, who was extremely knowledgeable and made the day fun and really informative. For example, there are in fact about 70 different tribal languages and cultures among them. He told us that this exquisite rainforest was suffering from tourism — the odor of deisel fuel from the buses for the 1,000,000 visitors a year, for example — and so in 2013, a preserve was set up with good paths, and indigenous guides or a self-guided path that you were warned to stay on.

We started at the Mossman Gorge with a guided walk led by another indigenous tribal member, a young man who made a choice to come back to the tribal lands and learn his culture. He’s been back for 10 years and the elders have just decided he is able to do this job. Bill Bryson is right –Australia wants to kill you. We saw walnuts that will kill you, fruit that will kill you, bushes that will make you wish you were dead (the stinging tree above that shoots thousands of quills with poison into you if you brush against it). The amazing thing is how the tribes have adapted to these harsh environments. Our driver called it learning the land.

Lunch was at a beautiful resort high in the rain forest, no air conditioning, next to the Mossman river — the 2nd cleanest source of water in the world. The plants were gorgeous, and made me wish I had studied more botany. Again, the day showed me wide swathes of my ignorance about ecology, biology, history etc. etc. Travel makes you humble.

After lunch we went on a cruise on the Daintree River, to spot salt water crocodiles. The guide was self taught, and a true naturalist. We found two crocodiles. The guide’s opinion was that if you are eaten by a croc, the gene pool is better off. The rules are simple, stay 10 meters away from croc infested waters; the croc that will get you is the one you can’t see.

Covel finished the day with a couple of photo ops — the island that looks like a large Croc, and the lookout above Port Douglas that shows four mile beach. We are here in what should be the rainy season, and have had dry weather. Tonight there is a chance of rain. Even on a sunny day, though, you can get caught in flash floods around here. I tell you Australia wants to kill you. Got to admire the people who live here.

January 24, 2016 / cmfletcher

On being a conflicted tourist

123on the reef

On the reef  platform

Today we went on an excursion to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the wonders of the natural world. Tomorrow we go to the Daintree Rainforest. So in two days we have been to Uluru and  the Reef, what we intended, the top spots on any tourist’s destinations in Australia, and what I have now is guilt.

These are natural wonders, and so should be preserved. But preserving them requires that people know and care about them. And that, for most people, requires seeing them. So tourism is both harming and protecting these natural sites. The effect on culture can be even more devastating as Benedict XVI pointed out in Caritas et Veritate (61).

Balancing the harms and good is extremely complex. Our excursion was on a large boat that docked at a purpose built platform from which passengers could snorkel, scuba dive, walk into an underwater observatory or go out on a  submersible vessel that had the passengers sitting under water. Two marine biologists were on board to talk about the reef and lead special snorkeling trips. The area for snorkeling was marked, and we tourists were contained, as it were, and the harm we were doing limited. However, it didn’t prevent someone from throwing litter into the water.

I had my little digital camera and it cannot do justice to what we saw from the submersible. We saw 4 sea turtles swimming by, many varieties of fish, lots of corals — staghorn, that looks like branches and grows quickly, plate and stone coral which take ages to grow. The stone coral we saw was probably 200-300 years old. Altogether a fascinating place, and having been here I am much more likely to donate to causes to protect this natural wonder.