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[New Zealand 2013 Trip Report] Day 7: Oamaru This day involved a lot of running back and forth, because some particular flightless birds follow a specific commuting schedule. I had always wanted to see penguins in the wild, and New Zealand offered a viewing experience beyond any aquariums!Itinerary of the day: Omarama → Elephant Rocks → Blue Penguin Colony → Oamaru Farmer’s Market → Riverstone Kitchen → Oamaru → Lockie’s Takeaway → Moeraki Lighthouse → Blue Penguin Colony[[MORE]]As most visiters have limited time, the West Coast of South Island is often chosen over East Coast. The West Coast has the world famous Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, but I’ve seen glaciers in Canada and most likely will see more glaciers in the future. I chose the penguins and never regretted that decision.Our first stop of the day was Elephant Rocks, on the way between Omarama and Oamaru, near a small town called Duntroon. It was not searchable on Google Maps yet, so we used coordinates “-44.893428,170.655806” to locate it.This was one of the filming location of The Chronicles of Narnia (never seen the movie though). As these rocks were located on a private farm, we had to dodge countless sheep droppings, but access was free. 
It was also part of a tourist trail called “Vanished World”, which consisted of a few points of interests including fossils, cave drawings and geological formations.
After another 40 minutes drive, we arrived at Oamaru, a town best known for penguins and old Victorian buildings.
It was too early to check-in our motel, so we headed to the Blue Penguin Colony first to re-confirm our night viewing. Back in the 90’s, a few Little Blue Penguins started to build nests at this location. As the numbers increased each year, people of Oamaru decided to build a facility to protect this colony. 

The Blue Penguin Colony’s visitor centre also served as the local i-Site. There were a souvenir shop, a mailbox, and some exhibitions about the habitat and life cycle of the Little Blue Penguins.
Every night, the Little Blue Penguins that nested here would return home after sunset, and visitors could pay an entry price to witness this. December was prime time to do so as it was breeding season and penguin parents would bring food to their partner and chicks. The number of penguins coming ashore could reach as high as 200.

(from Blue Penguin Colony official flickr)
We were told to return to the colony by 8:45pm. Since we’ve already paid for the night viewing, we were offered to take a look at the colony during the day. Day viewings were available for a cheaper price, which a tour of the nests would be given from an underground access. At this time of year though, the chicks weren’t hatched yet and eggs wouldn’t be as interesting to look at.
The nests here were obviously manmade, but the penguins were not fed or taken care of by humans. They were free to come and go as they please. 
We saw a hint of one parent waiting for their partner to return home from sea.
After seeing so many old buildings in Europe, I was not particularly interested in looking at “old” buildings in New Zealand. Victorian isn’t my forte anyway, so we skipped that part of Oamaru. The Sunday Farmer’s market though, I really enjoyed.
The market was small, with only about a dozen vendors. We bought some gigantic Dawson cherries (the only type available in the beginning of cherry season) here.
We had found Whitestone cheese in supermarkets all around NZ, and its headquarter was in Oamaru. Their cheeses were on the milder side and worth a try!
I didn’t catch the name of this sandwich stall, but the meat was delicious! Would have gotten two if I wasn’t planning a big lunch after!
There were many food choices around Oamaru, and unfortunately we just didn’t have the stomach to try them all! For lunch I had to choose between Riverstone Kitchen and Fleurs Place, both 30 minutes from Oamaru in opposite directions. Both restaurants were owned by famous NZ chefs. In the end I chose the former because I felt that since it was newer, the legacy of the chef might have stayed more intact.
At first sight, my dad questioned whether this steel building could really be a popular restaurant. It soon became obvious that by using such cost-effective material for construction at a location away from the city, real estate cost could be kept down, in which transfer to reasonable prices on the menu. 
Unsurprising for a Sunday, we had to wait for about 45 minutes to get a seat. There were some specialty shops outside to past the time.Or alternatively, I preferred to browse around their garden. The vegetables and spices grown here would be used in their kitchen only a few steps away. 
The motto of Riverstone Kitchen was “buy local, think seasonal and eat well”, and they lived up to that motto. The menu changes every 4-6 weeks, and we could really taste the difference of fresh, organic ingredients.
We ordered fried whitebait, a dish only available in the summer. This used to be common dish in Taiwan, but now much less so due to overfishing. When I read about New Zealand’s restrictions on whitebaiting and fishery in general, I had such admiration on this country’s efforts on conservation. Thanks to them, I got to enjoy something that I hadn’t seen for more than a decade.
The soup we got was a squash and zucchini soup, drizzled in olive oil. It was amazing but kind of got overshadowed by the other dishes on the table.
Each table has a piece of “riverstone” placed as centerpiece, which I thought was really clever.We got “Platter of Riverstone Favourites” to share, and loved every one of them! The meats and vegetables were wonderful, but the sauces were the star. The dills in the tartar sauce for the fried blue cod, the fig marmalade for the meat jelly, and the homemade Hollandaise for the asparagus were all very very good!
The dessert menu tend to stay more constant throughout the year. We got “affogato with vanilla bean ice cream + Lustau px sherry”. Although meant to be enjoyed mixed, I also liked them separate.
Hands down this was the best meal we had of the entire trip. I felt this restaurant hadn’t made its name among international visitors, as most of the customers seemed Kiwi, so I wholeheartedly recommend this place to anyone visiting NZ! 
After a satisfying meal, we drove back to Oamaru and check in our motel Highfield Mews. 
This motel ranked no.1 on TA, and rightfully so. Everything was sparkly new and rooms were spacious.Earlier I was talking about how I admire NZ’s mentality of conservation, and I had to add more observations to that regarding hotels. In most places we stayed at, heater blankets were provided, and power outlets in the room usually have switches. Perhaps both were implemented for energy-saving? Many hotels also went out of their way to make sure customers knew about their eco-friendly laundry services.
We rested at the motel for a while, then set out again in search of another type of penguin - the yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho). Different penguins return to their nest at different hours of day, and yellow-eyed do so 2 hours before sunset, which is earlier than little blues. The Oamaru i-Site would tell visitors to go to “Bushy Beach”, about 15 minutes south of Blue Penguin Colony, to observe the yellow-eyed penguins. While Bushy Beach would be more convenient, I chose to drive 40 minutes South to a place called “Katiki Point”. According to the experience of previous travelers, the penguins there could be observed at a much closer distance.
We had to have dinner early to accommodate the penguin schedule, so we stopped by Lockies Takeaways in the town of Hampden. They open from 11am-7:30pm-ish, with a break at 2-4pm. 
This place was rumoured to be the best Fish & Chips in NZ, so I simply must give it a try!
We ordered blue cod and elephant (referring to elephant fish, a cartilaginous fish similar to sharks). No chips because we were still kind of full from our lunch.Both fishes were great, though I preferred the blue cod’s flakiness. The fillets looked more yellow than usual because it was fried with beef shortening. Best fish & chips in NZ? Debatable, but I would recommend it as a drive-thru stop!
Katiki Point is located on top of a hill with the “Moeraki Lighthouse”, at the very end of “Lighthouse Road”. The last 10 minutes of the drive was gravel, but our Corolla managed well. There was a penguin-shaped donation box at the entrance. Go to the left of the fence to descend downwards to the penguin colony.

Since the locals discovered the rare yellow-eyed penguins come to Katiki Point to breed, the lighthouse keeper’s house transformed into a penguin rehabilitation centre that cares for sick and injured penguins. The project is non-profitable and volunteer-operated, so any donations to the penguin box would be great!Not even five minutes in, we already saw one standing in the bushes near its nest.
For some reason, these penguins tend to stop and idle a lot when they make their way home. These two had been standing in the same spot for the entire time we were there.
Example of how close we got to the penguins. According to NZ law, a person must stay at least 10 metres away from wild animals, be it penguins or seals. However, some penguins were standing idle right on the walking path, so we had to ignore the the 10m rule and walk past by them…
These penguins were not afraid of humans at all. They might waddle away unenthusiastically if we got too close, but most of the time they were just minding their own business. Again I think this must be a result of NZ’s efforts on conservation and education.
Yellow-eyed penguin’s Maori name is “hoiho”, which means “noise shouter”, and the name couldn’t be more fitting. We never stopped hearing their loud calls!
This small bay was where the penguins come ashore, and they would make their strenuous journey back to their nests. Maybe that’s why they had to stop so much.
Caught one in action! Still wet and drying itself.

Not sure if these two were a couple, but very likely as they kept grooming eachother’s feathers.
These three amigos were idling in front a fence for a long time. Penguins have a very good sense of direction and don’t really get lost. They stop at an unlikely path mostly because they were trying to find the safest route home, away from potential predators.
Yellow-Eyed Penguins are one of the most rare penguin species in the world. Little blue penguins could also be seen in Australia, but yellow-eyed penguins is native and specific to NZ. It was a very special experience to see this rare species!Aside from penguins, we also saw many New Zealand fur seals (kekeno). These two were both females, communicating with one another in somewhat violent ways.Spotted shags, a native NZ seabird. 
Katiki Point was so cold and so windy, but well worth it! We left at 7:50pm and returned to Oamaru just in time for the Blue Penguin Colony night viewing.
More spotted shags at the Oamaru port.
This was how the night viewing was set up: the stony slope on the left was where the Little Blue penguins would come ashore. Unlike yellow-eyed penguins which tend to work individually or in small groups, Little Blue penguins return in a group of ~20 members called “pods”, with one single leader at the front of the pack. They would rest on slope for a bit, and then dash straight towards the right side of the photo, under the fence and back to their colony. 
The blue seats in the photo were “premium seats”, which costs 40 NZD per person. Across from those seats were “general seats” which costs 28 NZD per person. We booked the premium seats and could confidently say they were a lot closer. Visitors who paid for the general seats mostly left a lot earlier, probably because they couldn’t see much. I recommend taking binoculars and also extra clothing to keep warm.Guests enter more or less around 8:45pm, and were free to stay and leave as they pleased. On the way to the seats we saw this poor thing covered in mud.
Once we entered the seating area, we weren’t allowed to take anymore photos. Photography used to be allowed, but after many visitors failed to turn off their flash, all photography were banned (learn how to use your camera please). Here is a photo from Tourism Waitaki’s official flickr to give an idea of what it was like:
(Source: Tourism Waitaki)The little blue penguins were sooooo cuuuuuute! As the smallest penguin species in the world, they are only about 30cm tall and weigh 1.5kg. They were like little torpedos when they swim, but became so clumsy on land. The way they dash towards goal was just adorable!
(Source: http://www.nzonline.org.nz/)Staff members on duty counted the penguins as they pass by, and kept an eye on the tourists’ behaviour (no photos, no loud noises). There were a lot of waiting time in between the pods arriving, so they kept our interest level up by presenting fun facts about these penguins and the surrounding habitat. With their help we even spotted a killer whale out in the ocean!During the mad dash to home, some penguins broke away from the pod and wander off in the direction of the parking lots, as though they were lost. According to the staff, they got scared and had gone off to their private hiding place. When they felt it was safe again, they would eventually make their way back to their nest.We stayed until the penguin count to about 180, and the sea wind became too cold to bear. Dad wasn’t feeling so great, so we called it a day and left at 11pm. The staff even reminded us to check under our car for penguins before leaving!This “penguin day” was a delightful break from landscapes, not to mention all the amazing food we had! Totally worth the drive over to the East Coast and I would do it all over again! Hopefully in the near future, I can add other species of penguins in the wild to my travel list!
[New Zealand 2013 Trip Report] Day 7: Oamaru 

This day involved a lot of running back and forth, because some particular flightless birds follow a specific commuting schedule. I had always wanted to see penguins in the wild, and New Zealand offered a viewing experience beyond any aquariums!

Itinerary of the day: Omarama → Elephant Rocks → Blue Penguin Colony  Oamaru Farmer’s Market → Riverstone Kitchen → Oamaru  Lockie’s Takeaway  Moeraki Lighthouse  Blue Penguin Colony

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Sunday, March 30, 2014
[New Zealand 2013 Trip Report] Day 6: Hooker Valley Track Despite the questionable name, Hooker Valley Track is the most popular one-day track in Mt.Cook National Park. There weren’t any hookers on this track, but majestic mountain, glacier and river views at the foothills of Southern Alps.Itinerary of the day: Mt.Cook Village → Hooker Valley Track → Omarama → Omarama Hot Tubs[[MORE]]I always thought many of New Zealand’s places with a human name were named after whoever did research in the region, but that wasn’t the case. The giver of such names was German geologist Julius von Haast of 19th century. During Haast’s investigation of the Canterbury region, he named hundreds of places after famous scientists - Davy, Newton, Humboldt, Haidinger, Hutton, Mueller, and Hooker, to name a few. Part of Haast’s plan was to get his own name out and make friends with these famous people. William Hooker was a British botanist of the time, but he had never set foot in NZ!This was why German place names seemed so abundant in New Zealand. The very famous tourist destination, Franz Josef Glacier on the west coast of NZ, was named after the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire! 
Last night I told myself to get a good night’s sleep, but I couldn’t help but got up at 2AM to take some photos of the perfect night sky. Mt.Cook is just as good place for stargazing as Lake Tekapo, and the weather was perfect today. Mt.Cook only has 1/2 chance of a sunny day in a year, and we had been extremely lucky that both days of our stay were impeccable.
There is nothing quite like watching the stars in complete solitude. In the morning, we got ready for the Hooker Valley Track. Lunch, water, sunhat and a light jacket were recommended. We drove to the entrance at White Horse Hill campsite and parked there. It would be a 4-hour walk from this point to Hooker Lake (endpoint) and back. Add 30 minutes if walking from Mt.Cook Village.
Not far from the starting point was Alpine Memorial, to commemorate climbers who had lost their lives.View from the Alpine memorial.
There were a total of three swingbridges along the Hooker Valley Track. The first one was built over Hooker River and Mueller Lake. There used to be quite a bit of glacier ice here two decades ago, but like most glaciers all around the world, the ice had receded and not much could be seen now.Since this track was so popular, we shared the hike with many others, including three busloads of Japanese tour groups.
Although an endangered species, the Mt.Cook Lily could easily be found on this track. We were just in time to catch the last few days of the flowering season.
As we entered the heart of Hooker Valley, Mt.Cook became closer in sight.
Optimus Prime face!About 2/3 of the way, there was a small rescue hut called Mueller Hut. It holds a first aid kit and a basic washroom (no running water).
Even for such a basic washroom, everything was exceptionally clean. Everyone put the toilet lid down after use (to keep flies and odour out). Hand sanitizers and toilet papers were also provided. I’ve never been to another country with cleaner, more readily available public washrooms! 
After two hours and fifteen minutes, we arrived at the end of the track, Hooker Lake. As if some parts of Mt.Cook didn’t remind me enough of Peru, seeing these “apachetas” totally brought me back!
Some very nice benches were set up here for hikers to have lunch and enjoy the scenery at the same time.
When I looked up photos of this track before the trip, I wasn’t at all convinced if it would be worth the time. Some people even suggested to turn back at the first swingbridge! I got to say this lake was much better seen in person than on photos. I was glad I walked the entire length.
The glaciers part of it though, was not great…partly due to the summer heat, and partly of global warming, there weren’t much ice left. Don’t come here just to see glaciers, and save the glacier-watching trip for somewhere else.
Still fun to pick up an “ice waffle” and get a taste of it though!
After lunch, we started heading back the same way we came.
I’m not sure if this place was used for any LOTR filming, but it did possess that Middle-Earth feel.
The third swingbridge. Even though the sign clearly said Maximum load of 20 persons, the Japanese tour groups all walked right on it…
The second swingbridge. I was sure these bridges were sturdy, but they did swing quite a bit.
We returned to the starting point at exactly the standard suggested time of 4 hours. At the White Hill Campsite car park, we encountered a family of paradise ducks. Contrary to what I assumed, the white-headed one is female and the dark-headed one is male.
Their ducklings weren’t startled at all when we approached to take photos, and continued on with their afternoon nap. Just showed how people of this country must be very protective of their animals.
We got in our car and continued on our journey to the next stop. As we waved Mt.Cook goodbye, we passed by Lake Pukaki one last time.
Our next stop was Omarama, a small town about only an hour-drive away.
we stopped at Four Square on the way to stock up on food. This was my first summer Christmas, and seeing all the Christmas merchandises in the store was…weird, but in a good way.
I would grab one of these whenever possible. 
We also made a stop at High Country Salmon Farm. Here we could see where the salmon we ate in NZ came from, and feed some salmons (free!). We passed on the salmon sashimi because we were kind of sick of salmon at this point.
At Omarama, we stayed at ASURE Sierra Motel. There weren’t much to do in this town, but it was cheaper compared to Mt.Cook Village, and also cut down driving time the next day.This was not our favourite motel, but far from our least. The owner was super friendly as usual, and gave us a free bottle of milk. Fresh milk given at check-in instead of cream seemed to be standard protocol for NZ accommodations, and I absolutely loved it!
One of the very few tourist attractions here was the Omarama Hot Tubs. I figured we would be pretty tired from hiking at this point, so it was the perfect opportunity to soak up.
For those of you who had already seen The second Hobbits movie, remember the giant bee that was hovering over Bilbo’s face? THOSE BEES DO EXIST IN NEW ZEALAND THIS IS MIDDLE EARTHI saw this bee outside of the Hot Tubs, and kept wondering how its little wings could ever kept its fluffy fat body in air!? Ok back to the tubs. For 40 NZD, I thought it was a bit pricey. I’ve never been in a wooden outdoor tub though, so I figured I was paying the money for a new life experience.The water was not spring water, but rather heated mountain water. A small private change room was there for storing personal belongings. Each tub was secluded by bush plants for added privacy. The firewood burning underneath heated the tub constantly, and a cold water faucet could be controlled to adjust the temperature. The staff also provided complimentary cold water and cups. Jacuzzi jets were also available.All rejuvenated and relaxed, we returned to the motel with dinner already prepared for us! My mother opted out of the hot tubs because she had her fair share of hot springs in Taiwan and rather cook dinner. With me doing the planning, navigating and some driving, and dad doing the majority of driving, she pulled her weight by managing all our food related matters.
Perhaps it was asparagus season, but we ate asparagus in NZ pretty much everyday.
I gave my parents such an intense workout at Mt.Cook, they fell asleep right after dinner. As usual, I use this 1~2 hours alone to surf the web, organize photos and update instagram. Tomorrow we head to East Coast of South Island for a very different experience from hiking mountains!
[New Zealand 2013 Trip Report] Day 6: Hooker Valley Track 

Despite the questionable name, Hooker Valley Track is the most popular one-day track in Mt.Cook National Park. There weren’t any hookers on this track, but majestic mountain, glacier and river views at the foothills of Southern Alps.

Itinerary of the day: Mt.Cook Village → Hooker Valley Track → Omarama → Omarama Hot Tubs

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Thursday, March 27, 2014
[New Zealand 2013 Trip Report] Day 5: Lake Pukaki & Mt.Cook The Mt.Cook Road (Highway 80) from Lake Tekapo to Mt.Cook/Aoraki was the most beautiful road I had ever driven on! Within a short distance of 100 kilometres, we saw an ocean of Lupins, scenery right out of The Hobbit, luminous coloured basins, and lakes of turquoise, blue and red. Amazing day!Itinerary of the day: Lake Tekapo → Mt.John Astro Cafe → Lake Pukaki → Peter’s Lookout → Mt.Cook Village → Red Tarns Track[[MORE]]Unlike the day before, we were blessed with gorgeous weather today of endless stretch of blue skys with the occasional fluffs of cloud!
After breakfast, we popped a quick visit to the Church of the Good Shepherd before leaving Tekapo.This tiny little church is still in use, but tourists visit here to see this rectangular window that frames Lake Tekapo like a painting. From Lake Tekapo to Mt.Cook was about an hour drive, but just to be safe, we filled up our gas and stocked up on our food. There were no petrol stations or supermarkets in the Mt.Cook National Park.Not far outside of Tekapo town is a road that lead to Astro Cafe, located on top of Mt.John. Driving would take 20 minutes without stopping, but hiking to the summit was also an option.On the way there, we encountered A SEA of lupins, much more dense than the ones we saw at Lake Tekapo yesterday!Without hesitation we found a shoulder (if you can call it that) to pull over. The biggest advantage of driving in New Zealand was the freedom to stop and look, as the most beautiful sceneries often occur on the road!These lupins were as tall as my shoulders and I felt like I was making my way through a jungle of giant lavenders!As much as tourists like us loved these flowers, the sign explained how the locals despise these weeds. An overgrowth of lupins changes the landscape and courses of water, which as a result endangers birdlife. The lupins here were deliberately left alone as a tourist attraction, so they grew into such unrestricted sizes.The road to Astro Cafe was winding and narrow, and most parts of it only allowed one car to pass. Downhill vehicles yield to uphill vehicles, as long as we obeyed that this was far from the most difficult drive of the trip. The Cafe opened at 10am, and a few tourists were already there admiring the sceneries over coffee.We were now able to appreciate the entirety of Lake Tekapo. We could even see the motel we stayed at!The darker blue lake beside Lake Tekapo is Lake Alexandrina. Since it is not connected to the glaciers up in the mountains, it does not have the same turquoise colour as Lake Tekapo. It did however reflect the colour of the beautiful sky that day.Not only was the sky perfectly sunny, there were no wind at all, so we could see reflections in the water as well.As mentioned in yesterday’s report, this area is a dark sky reserve and the Mt.John observatory is where the stargazing tours were held.Interior of Astro Cafe.We ordered mocha and latte, but didn’t expect them to be filled with Tip Top ice cream! A pleasant surprise!Buzzed by coffee and sugar, we departed Mt.John and made our way towards Mt.Cook National Park.The clear blue sky came with the price of intense UV rays. Sunscreen was a necessity and had to be reapplied throughout the day, especially while driving.30 minutes later, we reached the Lake Pukaki Visitors Centre. The retail shop of Mt.Cook Alpine Salmon farm was also set up here. We tried to visit its farm nearby prior to coming here, but it was inaccessible. The shop sold some delicious salmon, and don’t be afraid to ask for samples! We were concerned that the smoked salmon we bought wouldn’t last in this weather, so the storekeeper gave us a small pack of ice for free! So nice! We were able to reuse this ice pack throughout the trip, which probably saved me from several possible occasions of food poisoning. Thank you so much, lady from Mt.Cook Alpine Salmon!In the other section of the visitor centre were exhibitions about the geology and natural inhabitants of this area. Right outside the centre was the glorious Lake Pukaki. Perhaps the weather helped a lot, but the turquoise colour of Lake Pukaki was even more stunning than Lake Tekapo! Lake Pukaki was also the filming location of Laketown from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The Southern Alps in the back, including Mt.Cook, served as Misty Mountains in the films.When I saw the Laketown scenes in theatre, I smiled because it actually looked like Lake Pukaki! I enjoyed the second Hobbit movie so much because I just got back from the trip and the NZ sceneries were still fresh in my mind! We continued north onto Highway 80 towards Mt.Cook/Aoraki National Park. About one-third of the way was “Peter’s Lookout”, a perfect lookout for a postcard view of Lake Pukaki and Mt.Cook.I did not mess with the hues at all, this was really the colour of Lake Pukaki. We were constantly amazed by the dramatic landscape at every turn along Highway 80. None of the other roads we passed in NZ compared to this.Mt.Cook was always in the view, but its surroundings were ever-changing. The clouds gather for one minute and took on another shape by the next. New Zealand is called Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud, for a reason.Mt.Cook’s Maori name was originally Aorangi, as in a person’s name. Now it’s commonly called Aoraki, which means “cloud piercer” as a direct translation. The peak of the mountain was always surrounded by clouds, and we were very lucky to have seen its “face” shown up a couple of times (some travelers say it looked like Optimus Prime from Transformers).It didn’t matter what segment of the road we were on, every moment was picture perfect.I didn’t plan to drive to Milford Sound on this trip, therefore did not get to witness the famous Te Anau-Milford highway. I really doubt it would get any better than this though. Besides, Mt.Cook Road is only an one-hour drive, compared to Te Anau-Milford’s five. Much more pleasant!With a campervan in the photo for comparison, these glaciers were gigantic…The scenery on Mt.Cook Road was so great that the drive felt short, and we were already at Mt.Cook Village before we even realized. As popular as a tourist destination Mt.Cook National Park is, the limited number of accommodations and the visitor centre were congregated within this tiny village.The visitor centre was beautiful and informative. Parts of it focused on Sir Edmund Hillary, the first mountaineer to summit Mt.Everest. Why putting a Mt.Everest exhibition here? Because Hillary was from New Zealand! From Mt.Everest summit to the invention of the Bungy Jump, made me wonder if Kiwis are really naturally adventurous.Mt.Cook accommodations were hard to come by during high season, so the earlier you book, the better. The Japanese owned and operated Hermitage Hotel was the priciest of the bunch. It had monopoly as the only hotel facing directly at Mt.Cook and has exclusive mountain view suites. The hotel lobby had souvenirs shops, tour agencies, and also postboxes (New Zealand Post only - more on this topic later). Its restaurants are also open to all visitors.I wanted to book a mountain view room at Hotel Hermitage, but they were fully booked 4 months in advance! Luckily, I found a great alternative Aoraki Motel. Built only a year ago, it also has mountain facing suites (except not facing Mt.Cook), not to mention much more affordable!Our lucky streak continued, as we got upgraded to a 2-bedroom suite from a studio with no extra charges! The suite had the most complete kitchen amenities, and the most upscale tea/coffee selection yet. We even got free biscuits “Esther’s Kitchen” on the counter! The rooms were spacious and modern with ample storage space.My parents loooooved the bathroom. A jacuzzi tub AND shower? Manuka honey shampoo/soap? This was way more than what I expected from a motel! This motel was definitely our favourite stay out of the whole trip! We loved it so much that we didn’t want to leave our room! Eventually, I managed to gather enough motivation to proceed with my planned itinerary of climbing the “Red Tarns Track”.This track is only two hours return, but I knew it involves a steep ascend of stairs. I asked my parents if they would want to challenge themselves, and dad, seemingly confident with his fitness level, followed along. Mom stayed behind to enjoy the jacuzzi.Signage in NZ was mostly strategically placed, so we had no trouble finding the entrance of the track. This photo was taken about five minutes in, over looking Mt.Cook Village, and a small glimpse of Mt.Cook behind those clouds.According to my father, he instantly regretted his decision when he saw what this track looked like - lots and lots of stairs! After experiencing Huayna Picchu in Peru, this track was a piece of cake for me. I carried my dad’s backpack from time to time, although his parental instinct made him reluctant to do so :DThis photo was taken near the top, and the vantage point was slightly different. I loved this track! It was one of the few hikes that I felt the reward far outweighed the efforts!Proof that I made it, and wearing the very same hat that I wear hiking around the world. Across from the sign, there was a bench to relax a bit and take in the scenery.Just when I thought we had reached the end, the track seemed to continue on…
At the end of the small gravel pathways was the “Red Tarn”! Tarn means a small mountain lake, and the red colour came from the pond weed. Would had been a shame to miss this!So…this must be the end of the track right? Wrong! Just as I was wondering, a hiker runner RAN his way past by me and continued upwards! What was he even running on? Bushes? Where was he going? The summit? I had no idea and by the time I thought of taking a photo, he was already far, far away.When we were in New Zealand, and especially while tramping (how the Kiwis call hiking hehe), we often ran into such Kiwi baras. They wear very little clothing, ran at crazy speed, and greeted us with their muscle-ridden arms. I love Kiwi baras and so should everyone.Compared to these baras, my dad complained so much about how I “tricked” him into Red Tarns! Come on dad, it was good get some exercise first so we could stuff ourselves at the Hermitage buffet for dinner!At 85 NZD/person, The Alpine Restaurant’s dinner buffet was way overpriced for what it was. The quality of food was good, but I couldn’t say it was worth the money. What justified the pricing was obviously the view of Mt.Cook while having dinner. The waiter was even nice enough to gave us the best table!I skipped the Asian section because the sushi there looked repulsive. Thai salads etc. were ok, but I would suggest to focus on the local stuff - mussels, salmon, lamb, beef, and meat pies! The meat pie was made from game meat, and I loved it!The dessert was also the better part of the buffet. I especially loved the cream puff croquembouche, tiramisu and pavlova.The name “pavlova” sounds Russian, but it was invented in New Zealand in honour of the ballet dancer Anna Pavlova. Although not the most original recipe (meringue and cream, well), New Zealand put a twist on the consistency of meringue to give it a crunchy shell and soft interior, then topped off with cream and fruits.Pavlova was a dessert that my kiwi friends has told me NOT to try, but it exceeded my expectations! I usually do not like meringue at all, but really digged this puffier, more airy version. The meringue was super sweet, but soon got neutralized by the sourness of the fruits. Not bad at all.After dinner, we were greeted by Mt.Cook basked in golden sunset under the moon. What a way to end a perfect day. Back at the motel, we really took advantage of our jacuzzi, because tomorrow the hiking continues and it was no time for sore muscles!
[New Zealand 2013 Trip Report] Day 5: Lake Pukaki & Mt.Cook 

The Mt.Cook Road (Highway 80) from Lake Tekapo to Mt.Cook/Aoraki was the most beautiful road I had ever driven on! Within a short distance of 100 kilometres, we saw an ocean of Lupins, scenery right out of The Hobbit, luminous coloured basins, and lakes of turquoise, blue and red. Amazing day!

Itinerary of the day: Lake Tekapo → Mt.John Astro Cafe → Lake Pukaki → Peter’s Lookout → Mt.Cook Village → Red Tarns Track

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014
[New Zealand 2013 Trip Report] Day 4: Lake TekapoThis photo of Lake Tekapo outlined by lupins in full bloom was the reason I set my heart on traveling to New Zealand. All previous days in Auckland felt like a warm-up after seeing South Island’s beauty, and this was only the beginning!Itinerary of the day: Auckland → Christchurch (Apex Car Rentals) → Lake Tekapo → KOHAN Japanese Restaurant[[MORE]]As mentioned in earlier entries, we cooked most of our meals, and most accommodation in New Zealand did not provide breakfast. This was what our typical breakfast looked like.I booked a taxi to the airport through our hotel, with a flat rate of 35 NZD. Cheaper than the shuttle or the bus (for a group of 3).Air New Zealand’s domestic check-in was completely self-serve, but the staff there helped us with everything without making a fuss. Regarding booking domestic flights in NZ, my advice as a visitor is to book tickets through “airnewzealand.co.nz”, not “.com”! The “Grabaseat” special airfare will only show up in their NZ website, and the difference between a regular ticket vs. Grabaseat can be as much as 100 NZD. We took our flights with no problem, so this is not a resident-only ticket option (unlike in Peru). Just make sure to read all the fare and luggage rules before buying!Since this was my first time taking Air NZ, I asked flight attendants to take picture with me. They were so nice! I love Air NZ’s uniforms! I could’t help but grin to look back at this thing I once drew and realized that I ticked off all the landmarks plus the airline!The paint job on the aircraft and the inflight magazines were all so cute!We visited just the right time to catch the Hobbit safety video An Unexpected Briefing. I had seen this when it first came out, while the Peter Jackson cameo was obvious, but didn’t realize Dean O’Gorman (Fili) was also in it! He was also in the newer Air NZ video Just another day in Middle-earth.No srsly I cannot handle all this cuteEven the paper cup was Hobbit themed! (and I was writing all my 1304925 postcards)One hour and twenty minutes later, we arrived at South Island!The Amazing Race had visited New Zealand several times in Season 2, 5, 13, and 22. Not surprising when kiwi host Phil Keaghan has his own section on the Christchurch & Canterbury tourism site. Christchurch airport seemed so familiar when I just finished watching Season 22 at that time!After landing, it was time to pick-up our rental car. Car hire is the best way to tour New Zealand, as buses are scarce and pricey. Global chains like Avis/Hertz/Budget (first-tier) were more expensive, but local company (second-tier) rate could be as low as 35NZD a day! The most popular companies among backpackers are Ace, Jucy, A2B, GO, Omega, Ezy, just to name a few. For the South Island, we chose Apex car rental company for the following:- 12 NZD/day zero excess insurance <—-main reason- 6.50 NZD/day GPS rental- no extra fee for return at different location- no airport fees- no extra driver fee <—-common in NZ- unlimited kilometres <—-common in NZThe total cost with GPS and insurance still came up to be much lower than what I would have to pay for the first-tier rental companies. The only real disadvantage for using second-tier companies was that their office were mostly not located in the airport, and would require a short shuttle ride.The car pick-up process took only about half and hour. Online booking is highly recommended, and as is reading the fine prints regarding driver’s requirement, extra fees applicable, and insurance coverage. Each company’s policies are different.Apex gave us a free empty SIM card, as a promotion for the phone company 2degrees. This has proven to be SO USEFUL in the next few days, because even without any cash credit in the card, we could make free calls to 1800 numbers (most tourist businesses had that) and also receive calls. The car we got was a grey Toyota Corolla, my top choice because of its great fuel efficiency. 1800 c.c. was plenty enough for South Island. Apex generally stocks older cars, but this one had mp3 jacks! The only complaint was the wheel alignment was off by a little, so we constantly had to pull the steering slightly right. Again, older car that was probably due for a maintenance.Studying the traffic rules ahead of time was a good thing to do. Most rules were identical to Canada, but on opposite sides. Many travelers would agree the trickiest thing in NZ is the roundabout. In addition learn about common road signs to ensure a safe drive.Speaking of signs, the speed limit sign looked so similar to a local soft drink brand in Taiwan, which made the long drives a little bit more entertaining. 台灣人都知道我在說什麼吧?每次變限速時副駕就會以“黑松70了”“黑松100”來提醒駕駛…
This was my dad’s and my first time driving on the opposite side (mom refused to drive at all), so we were glad the route from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo was flat and straight. Traffic was light everywhere (yay low population density!), so we were able to get the hang of it quickly and safely. Having said that, in the beginning we were all(obligatory Amazing Race reference)We kept driving too close to the edge of the road, mixing turn signals with wipers, and occasionally turn into the wrong side OTZBefore leaving the city, we stopped by a suburban Pak’nSave to have a simple lunch and replenish our food supply.
Exactly in this Pak’nSAVE’s parking lot, dad managed to hit someone’s jeep in the parking lot because he miscalculated the distance on the left of the car. There weren’t any damage to the jeep because it had rubber bumpers, but our car’s front bumper dislodged a bit. In the next nine days, the car got many more small scratches because of flying pebbles and whatnot. With zero excess I didn’t have to worry about any of this, so I was glad for the ease of mind at such a small cost.The first two hours of the drive to Lake Tekapo (Highway 1) was pretty meh, but got a lot more scenic after we turned into Highway 79 and Highway 8.I felt like I was back in Tuscany.

After a 3h drive, we arrived in Lake Tekapo. Lake Tekapo is a popular tourist destination, but had very few accommodations. B&B’s only take one client at a time, and holiday houses mostly required a two night stay. There were about two or three small-sized hotels in total. I tried to book three months prior, and most places were already full! Luckily, I found Parkhead Motel (which also got full by the time we checked in).

This motel didn’t fill up that fast most likely because of its age, and the lack of an automated booking system. The owner was not very prompt with replying emails either. To make a booking, I had to make international phone call to secure our room with my card number, and many travelers would not be comfortable with that.
Thankfully, everything worked out and the owner, Simon, was a friendly old guy. Don’t be put off by his blunt replies in emails and phones, he’s just busy and not very tech-savvy.

The setup reminds me a lot of old cottages in Muskoka (Ontario, Canada). The furnitures were dated, but gave off a nice cozy atmosphere.
The bathroom showed just how old these little cottages were. My family are peasants at heart so as long as stuff function properly we wouldn’t complain. 
A washer was a huge plus.

This cottage had two bedrooms, with one extra bed in the living/dining area. 

I was very set on booking a place to stay with the perfect lake view, and Parkhead Motel totally fitted the bill. The motel sat right by the lake and was only a short walk to the Tekapo township.

Lake Tekapo is best known for its beautiful turquoise waters, formed by “rock flour” - rocks ground into fine dust by glaciers in the headwaters.
The weather was cloudy and windy today, so the surface and colour of the lake was less than optimal, but we were still blown away by its beauty! We started walking towards Tekapo town, and saw bundles of lupins dotted along the lakeshore. We stopped for so many photos, not knowing that this was nothing compared to what we would see later!
Tekapo is a small place, and the only landmarks were the “Church of the Good Shepherd” and a bronze statue of New Zealand Collie sheepdog beside it. 

Lake Tekapo town had a small Four Square, a gas station, and a few selection of restaurants. Kohan Japanese Restaurant had been made popular by backpackers.com.tw, and the popularity was proven when we had to wait for a table.
We used the waiting time to browse the souvenir store next to it. The store was also Japanese run, and geared towards Japanese tourists. 
Here I found the famed possum fur nipple warmers! (informed by my Kiwi friend and her Hetalia fancomic) This shall be on my list of questionable souvenirs along with Italy’s penis shaped pasta and Netherland’s penis shaped salt & pepper shakers!
No really. What’s the purpose of this. Do people really use this or there are just too many possums to kill? This cost 7.50NZD? Little do I know, the best has yet to come of this possum line of body part warmers…
Ok back to Kohan, and let’s talk about food. The chef and the waiters of Kohan were all Japanese, but the food was made from local New Zealand ingredients. Their most popular menu item was the Salmon Don, which I highly recommend. The salmon were farmed nearby (which we would visit a couple days from now), using the very same glacier water as the source of Lake Tekapo. 

We also got the Tekapo Roll, which I felt was not of the same value…kind of small for the price.
For value, I would suggest the Kohan Bento Box. Again, a lot of salmon. The grilled salmon was delicious!

After dinner, the sun was setting and clouds departed, perfect lighting for photos! The lupins in full bloom, the turquoise waters, and mountainous drama of the Southern Alps were a perfect trio. I FINALLY caught the flowering season this year, and I got to say this felt a lot better than my epic tulip miss in the Netherlands!

The lupins near the Tekapo town were the most luscious. 
I took soooo many photos here that my parents had to ditch me and head back to the motel by themselves.

Shooting till the moon came out…
The cast shadows of the clouds on the mountains were just breathtaking!
A view of Church of the Good Shepherd.
Lake Tekapo is a popular wedding photo spot. I saw this couple shooting by the lake, and they returned to the Church of the Good Shepherd at 2AM for another photo shoot! Wow so much hard work for wedding photos! I wonder how much would a photoshoot trip like this cost?

The Church of the Good Shepherd was closed at this time (5:00pm), so I planned to come back tomorrow morning.

It was getting dark and started to rain, so I had to dash back to the motel, get some rest, and prepare for my night photoshoots.
Lake Tekapo is a world renowned spot for stargazing because of local effort to eliminate light pollution. The Lake Tekapo region, along with Mt.Cook National Park, were developed as “Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve”. Any new constructions would be carried out under strict regulations (perhaps this was the reason for so few hotels). Not far from the town is Mt.John, and the observatory on top of the mountain provided daily stargazing tours given that the weather is good.
Even though this area claimed to have a high probability of clear nights, it was obvious that today was not the best. Not only it was intermittently cloudy, the moon was too bright. Nevertheless, I headed out at about 11pm to the Church of the Good Shepherd for some night photography. 
There were already a few photographers there, so I was deprived of options as to where I could set up my shot. I also regretted not having a full height tripod with me, as there weren’t many things to attach a Gorillapod to. 

I was not too happy about this shot, but other shots with better compositions were photobombed by Chinese girls =x= 
Tour groups only do a short stop-over at Lake Tekapo, but I full-heartedly recommend staying one night here. Aside from great photographic opportunities at night, we got to enjoy the serenity of this beautiful lake in late afternoon and early morning without coachloads of tourists!I photographed until 1am, and dad woke up in the middle at night to look at the uninhibited stars. We were too excited to feel tired, not knowing that tomorrow would be an even more amazing drive into the Mt.Cook National Park.

[New Zealand 2013 Trip Report] Day 4: Lake Tekapo

This photo of Lake Tekapo outlined by lupins in full bloom was the reason I set my heart on traveling to New Zealand. All previous days in Auckland felt like a warm-up after seeing South Island’s beauty, and this was only the beginning!

Itinerary of the day: Auckland → Christchurch (Apex Car Rentals) → Lake Tekapo → KOHAN Japanese Restaurant

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014
[New Zealand 2013 Trip Report] Day 3: Tiritiri MatangiWhen I started planning my New Zealand trip three years ago, I came across this birdwatching haven and it instantly made my list of things to do. We saw many native birds at a close distance, including the rare takahe! Best activity to do in Auckland for bird/nature lovers!Itinerary of the day: Auckland (day trip) → Tiritiri Matangi → Kawerau Track → Lighthouse & visitor centre → Wattle Track[[MORE]]
Tiritiri Matangi used to be inhabited by human for farming and fishing, and much of its forests were cleared. A revegetation project took place in 1984, which involved 250,000 native trees to be replanted on the island. Pests like rats were exterminated to prepare this island for the re-introduction of rare native bird species.
The only way to get to Tiritiri Matangi is by ferry 360 Discovery Cruises, one departure and return a day, Wednesday to Sunday. If we missed the return ferry, the only alternative left would be a 400 NZD water taxi. To protect conservation efforts, a maximum of 150 visitors a day were allowed, so do buy tickets beforehand if possible.

We were at the ferry terminal early, so had plenty of time to exchange tickets, watch commuters come on shore, and let volunteers check our bag. To keep Tiritiri Matangi pest-free, all bags and backpacks must be zipper sealed, and food placed in ziploc bags or closed tupperware. We saw someone with a draw-string type backpack, and was asked to place the backpack into another plastic bag provided. Shoes need to be brushed cleaned (brush provided) before boarding the ferry to ensure no foreign seeds were brought onto the island.

On the ferry, a volunteer came to sell the map of the island for $1. Even though low-res maps can be found online, the official website does state that the reproduction of this map is prohibited. Please buy a new map and contribute the dollar towards conservation!
After 1h15mins of a comfortable ferry ride, we arrived at Tiritiri Matangi.
At the dock, volunteers prompted visitors to wait until everyone got off the ferry, then a ranger explained the basic rules and divided visitors into their designated groups.There were two tracks on the island suitable for day trips: the 1-hour Kawerau Track, and the half-hour Wattle Track. Both can be done in one day as a loop, starting and ending at the dock, so it was only a matter of order.There was a huge school group going on the Wattle Track, so everyone else chose the Kawerau Track. We along with 7-8 others were led by one volunteer.
Our volunteer guide (guy with the red fanny pack) really liked plants. He was spending way more time explaining plants than birds! 

Thanks to him, I remembered the New Zealand celery. This was one of the plants James Cook used to prevent scurvy among his crew.
No offense to the admirable volunteer who guided us, but his comprehensive explanation of plants got boring rather quickly. Moving with a group was a disadvantage for birding, as most birds got scared away by so many people approaching. We wanted to break away from the group, but were too embarrassed to tell our guide.We managed to see a few birds, like this New Zealand pigeon (kereru).
Stitchbird (hihi). Like Stephen Fry joked in BBC’s Last Chance to See, the Maori names do sound quite funny to a non-speaker, not to mention hard to memorize. I would say remembering names of places and animals in New Zealand was all part of the fun!
After a short walk along the seashore, we then entered the lush forests. Some climbing was involved, but nothing too strenuous.

A signage on the track showed different birds to be seen on the Kawerau Bush Walk. We ended up spotting most of them on this board and a couple more listed in the brochure, with the exception of the kokako. There were only 20 kokako on the island so it would take a lot of luck to see one, but we did hear its call! 
After we exited the bush, we entered an open hill of grass with a few isolated flax plants.
The white lighthouse marked the end of the guided tour. The guided tour was scheduled to last an hour, but we took two hours to reach the lighthouse. If I could do this day over again, I would opt out of the guided tour. The tracks were really straightforward, and it was easy to find someone and ask for directions. I would have preferred more time on our own to photograph the birds properly.
There was a visitor center with complimentary tea/coffee, toilets, and a souvenir shop beside the lighthouse. No food was sold on Tiritiri Matangi, so we had our packed lunch on the benches provided. This was also the only place on the island with trash bins.This area would be the best place to spot a takahe - a rare, flightless bird indigenous to New Zealand. This species was thought to be extinct a century ago but now rediscovered and protected.

We searched around and saw that the usual track to see this rare bird was closed!
…but! We were very lucky to be right outside the fenced track when an adult takahe walked by.

Better yet, a chick followed! I was so happy because I got so much more than I bargained for.

Since the guided tour took much of our time, we had to pace our walk on the shorter Wattle Track in order to make the ferry departure on time.  
Little puppet toys set up along the track for the school children.

We had much more success with spotting birds when it was just the three of us. All we had to do was be still and quiet for a few seconds, and the birds would be totally oblivious.
A North Island saddleback (tieke).
An Australian quail (obviously not a native).
Tui was the most commonly seen bird we saw in all of New Zealand, and this island was no exception. They’re adequately sized with easily recognizable indigo colour, and has a signature puff of white feather on their throat.
Smaller birds like this hihi was much harder to photograph, and they had a tendency to show me their butt. This stitchbird is a male.
and this is a female.

Bellbird (korimako).

We saw this adorable whitehead (popokatea) about 3 or 4 times, but they moved so fast! Could have been a great shot if my lens wasn’t so slow!

For the uninformed the pukeko could be mistaken as takahe. They’re taller and slimmer, and are much more common. Some locals even consider them pests because they destroy the gardens!

Brown teals (pateke), New Zealand’s unassuming looking, but actually endangered native ducks. Like many other native species of NZ, they were easy prey to introduced predators, and conservation is going underway.
My parents and I all enjoyed Tiritiri Matangi! Many birdwatching trips I had done in the past usually involved of a lot of waiting time, but not here. We were seeing birds every minute, and the birdsong never stopped! It’s hard to believe that this island was restored to be a nature reserve through the efforts of volunteers.
We catched the return ferry to Auckland, where we had a chance to see the Auckland skyline.

After embarking, it was still early, so we shopped for souvenirs like volcanic salt, lanolin lotion, and manuka honey coughdrops. Auckland was the best place to buy souvenirs, in terms of price! The Chinese-owned convenience stores are your best bet, as they often sell the same product for a much cheaper price.
Dinner was Auckland’s classic burger caravan, the White Lady Burger, in business since 1940. It’s more of a late-night food joint, so when I got there at their advertised opening time, I had to wait another 20 minutes…

I ordered the King Burger, but probably should have gotten something a bit more adventurous. The burger was very hearty, and reminded me a lot of the breakfast burger in Taiwan. The best burger however, was to be had in Queenstown (to be continued!).

In addition, we also bought oysters from St.Pierre’s Sushi at Britomart. The idea of buying oysters from a sushi chain never sounded good to me, but I read online that they are actually of decent quality! Glad to found out the reviewers were right.

Auckland in so many ways reminded me of Toronto: long airport commute, too far to walk anywhere, confusing transit systems, many asians plus a tower. If not for any specific interests, I would suggest spending precious vacation days elsewhere in NZ. With that said, I did have loads of fun by taking advantage of what Auckland has that Toronto doesn’t - a bird sanctuary only one ferry ride away.Tomorrow, we would temporarily wave goodbye to this city and say hello to the best things NZ has to offer - the beautiful countryside of South Island! 
[New Zealand 2013 Trip Report] Day 3: Tiritiri Matangi

When I started planning my New Zealand trip three years ago, I came across this birdwatching haven and it instantly made my list of things to do. We saw many native birds at a close distance, including the rare takahe! Best activity to do in Auckland for bird/nature lovers!

Itinerary of the day: Auckland (day trip) → Tiritiri Matangi → Kawerau Track → Lighthouse & visitor centre → Wattle Track

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Monday, March 24, 2014
[New Zealand 2013 Trip Report] Day 2: Waitakere RangesWaitakere Ranges was a regional reserve of rugged forests and coastlines which provided many opportunities for outdoor activities. It was hard to believe that such unspoilt nature could be found a mere 40 minutes drive from downtown! Led by a great guide, the day was not only fun, but also educational.Itinerary of the day: Auckland → Gannet colony at Muriwai → Piha beach → Karekare falls → One Tree Hill[[MORE]]To be honest, the only reason that we stayed in Auckland for so many days was the bird ecosanctuary island of Tiritiri Matangi. We arrived on a Monday, but the ferry going there did not run on Monday and Tuesday. Not many things in Auckland city interested me, so I arranged a day trip to its West Coast, including the Waitakere Ranges.Trying to find a group tour that ticks off all the boxes was not easy, so I settled on spending a bit more money and hired a private guide from Kauri Tours. It was a great decision. The owner, Tom, was informative and laid back (no small talk unless we wanted to), and saved us the hassle of driving the tricky roads in this area. For three people, the cost also came down to be only slightly more expensive than a group tour.Tom stopped at several view points on the way, and of course we could always ask for additional stops given this was a private tour.In less than an hour, we arrived at the Muriwai Gannet colony.Birding was one of my main focus of this trip, and this place was an extraordinary place to do that. New Zealand is really a kingdom of birds, where mammals fly and birds rule the land. The gannets (takapu in Maori, which I will include in future mention of different birds) chose this cliffside for breeding because of the strong wind to carry them as they glide in air. Every year from August to March, the adults return to nest here.Couples nested in close proximity to each other, and the single, usually younger gannets gather in another area.Every time one parent returned, the other showed an ecstatic display. Like many birds, gannets mate for life with one partner. December was great timing to observe hatchlings. The chicks looked like cotton balls! The white-fronted terns (tara) were the newcomers at this nesting site. According to Tom they only started to repeatedly breed at Muriwai only a few years ago. Can you spot the chicks in this photo?I was dying of cute! The terns were a lot smaller than gannets so not as easy to photograph. Muriwai gannet colony was not accessible by bus, so the only transportation options were self-drive or join a tour. We took a quick walk to see the Muriwai beach, then continued our tour.On the way we stopped by this fruit stall of a strawberry farm.Here I tried for the first time the fruit mixed ice cream. A box of fresh or frozen berries were machine-mixed with a slab of vanilla Tip-Top ice cream. Tip-Top is a NZ brand based in Auckland, and could be found pretty much everywhere in NZ, from supermarkets to gas stations to restaurant desserts. For an economical brand, I was very impressed by it.Unlike in Netherlands where everyone loved to be photographed, Kiwis were a little more shy about the matter. If I asked, they mostly consented, but not with the same enthusiasm.One simply must try this ice cream in NZ! They can be found in most fruit stalls and farms. The ice cream was so milky, and the flavours were sure to came from the actual fruits. We also bought two boxes of their dirt cheap, humongous strawberries.We learned a lot about New Zealand’s flora on this tour, as Tom never failed to share his knowledge when we pass by a native plant. I wrote about manuka honey in yesterday’s trip report, and we saw the source flower today.Pohutukawa, also known as New Zealand Christmas tree, had very distinctive crimson flowers. December was peak tourist season, but on the upside, many flowers were in bloom during that time.Cabbage trees (ti kouka), named so because they apparently taste like cabbage? Maori people ate these as a source of starch and sugar, and used the leaves as fibre.New Zealand’s national plant, the silver fern.Soon enough we reached Piha beach. The rock in the centre of the photo was Lion Rock, which I would climb later. South of Piha beach is another beach called Karekare beach.Karekare and Piha beach were where Oscar-winning The Piano was filmed. I had never seen the movie, but was it where the “piano stranded in ocean” cliche came from?Xena the Warrior Princess (this I have watched, nostalgia) was also filmed in this area.Tom dropped us off at one end of the beach, and let us walk towards Lion Rock on our own. Some imagination might be needed to see the “lion” in this rock (hint: it’s facing sideways and has a big face and mane).Piha is known to be a popular, yet dangerous surf beach of black sand. The sand’s colour came from a high iron content, and even though it wasn’t particular warm today, the sand retained heat really well. Some areas of sand were too hot to step on!The Lion Rock looked intimidating, but really was an easy climb, and we saw someone had left a nice message for people at the top.We packed lunch for ourselves, but supplemented it with coffee and fish and chips from a small cafe nearby.Fish and chips was one of the must-try food items in New Zealand! Yes it might not be a specialty dish, but the quality of fish was superb in every fish & chips place we tried! I highly recommend the blue cod. Tartar sauce or ketchup were usually not provided, but the fish was good enough to skip on the sauce.We watched surfing classes took place while we had lunch. After lunch, Tom brought us on a short bush walk to the Karekare Falls. The dark, spiky plant in the photo was the New Zealand flax (or just flax), a prevalent plant in NZ and the temperate North Island. It was used in Maori textiles and weapons.
There were locals swimming in the water underneath the Karekare Falls. Unlike in North America, we never saw any signs of “caution” or “swimming prohibited” in these public places. I also noticed the local children were free to roam around in setting which I know would freak out most of the Asian moms. In New Zealand, everyone, including visitors, are covered under the national Accidents Insurance (ACC). It insures a bare-bones amount for accident-related injury (extreme activities included!), but also prohibits anyone from filing personal injury lawsuits. There are pros and cons for both approach, but I was all for getting rid of the ugly signs.A nice scenery upon exiting the bush walk.On the way back to Auckland city, Tom took us to One Tree Hill. It is located in the suburbs of Auckland and was a lot easier to reach by car compared to bus.One Tree Hill is one of the larger volcanic hills in Auckland. This place used to be of great strategic importance for the Maori tribes, hence it became a cultural symbol after the Europeans arrived. One single tree had survived the raids, first a totara, then a pine, hence the name One Tree Hill. The pine tree was chopped down by a Maori activist because it was not a native plant (really) in 2000, so now a monument was erected in replacement of the tree, until locals have decided what, and when a new tree would be planted.The monument showcase the story of Kupe, the first known Maori to visit New Zealand, and Treaty of Waitangi. I had always been interested in Polynesian migration, and to my surprise, Tom acknowledged that the common homeland of many Polynesian cultures “Hawaiki”, was very likely to be Taiwan. That seriously made my day. I wasn’t implying that the cultures of the two lands were the same, but I loved to see traces of the connection. It was like witnessing history happening!For a quick intro to Treaty of Waitangi, I highly recommend a Hetalia version that can be seen here!Other than doing historical fangirl dance, One Tree Hill was also great for overlooking Auckland in 360 degrees.There were many sheep, but they recently got sheered for the summer so not as cute at the moment.The Sky Tower.Rangitoto Island.At the end of the tour, I asked Tom to drop us off near the Mt. Eden area, and said good bye to this wonderful guide. We visited my parents’ colleague, one of the many Taiwanese people living in NZ. Due to privacy reasons I wouldn’t post photos of their house.The missus later brought us to her favourite Malaysian restaurant, KK Malaysian Cuisine, for dinner. Malaysian cuisine was not common in my city, so I was keen to give it a try.Malaysian Style Deep Fried Tofu. Loved this dish and probably could have done with just this alone.Mee Goreng.The hostess recommended this Beef Rendang because of its part in Dutch food as an item in Rijsttafel. Kind of funny that I traveled from Zeeland to New Zealand to eat the same dish?Garlic Kang Kong.This place didn’t receive very high ratings on TA, but I thought the food was decent. The portions were plentiful for a good price. We ended up taking a lot of food back to the hotel and repacked them for tomorrow’s lunch.We had an early ferry to catch tomorrow, so even though Mt. Eden was close by, we had to leave that at the end of the trip.

[New Zealand 2013 Trip Report] Day 2: Waitakere Ranges

Waitakere Ranges was a regional reserve of rugged forests and coastlines which provided many opportunities for outdoor activities. It was hard to believe that such unspoilt nature could be found a mere 40 minutes drive from downtown! Led by a great guide, the day was not only fun, but also educational.

Itinerary of the day: Auckland → Gannet colony at Muriwai → Piha beach → Karekare falls → One Tree Hill

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Sunday, March 23, 2014
[New Zealand 2013 Trip Report] Day 1: Auckland15 hours to Taipei, 2 hours to Hong Kong, and 10 hours to Auckland. I was going away to a far, far away land! Having had the painful jetlag experience in Antwerp on my last trip, I decided to take it easy at our first stop, Auckland.Itinerary of the day: Toronto → Taipei (1 day layover) → Hong Kong (transfer) → Auckland  → Depot Oyster Bar and Eatery → Kelly Tarlton’s SEA LIFE Aquarium
[[MORE]]After working at the same job for a really long time, I finally had enough paid vacation to afford doing two overseas trip in one year. New Zealand was my last destination to cross off my travel short list (there is a longer list, mind you). I was made fun by my friend about “traveling halfway around the world to go to another Canada”, but they were so wrong.My travel companions this time around were my parents. They weren’t impressed by the idea of New Zealand at first, but after the trip they were both won over!Out of this month-long vacation, I spent about a week in Taiwan, including a one day layover in Taipei on the way to NZ. Since most of my time spent in Taiwan consists of eating, sleeping and being a useless slob, this trip report would mostly focus on New Zealand.
The first leg of flight was me taking EVA Air from Toronto to Taipei. I didn’t take the Hello Kitty plane, as this is a Taiwan-Japan route exclusive, but it was the first time I saw one!
EVA Air’s services were always amazing, as in, they actually treated me like a paying customer. The seats were comfortable, and food were very good, which made a 15 hour flight seemed like nothing.

An older Canadian lady from Brampton, Ontario was sitting beside me, and I recommended her to choose the congee option for breakfast. She didn’t know how to eat the fish floss (in blue package), but really liked it once she tried! She was on her way to Taiwan for a teaching job, and we had a great conversation about our past travel and life experiences!

After a day of rest in Taipei, I met up with my parents there and took a Cathay Pacific flight to Auckland, with a stopover in Hong Kong.
The last time I was in Hong Kong, it was still Kai Tak and the Hong Kong airport didn’t exist!
The Taipei-HK segment was short, but we still got served fried rice and tea. The tea was made in China, and tasted really gross so I only took one sip.

The HK-Auckland segment served much better food. The plane-sized Häagen-Dazs was the dream of a traveler!
Cathay Pacific had very new entertainment system with HD screen and easy navigation. That were their pro’s. Cons? Online check-in system was horrible. I had to insert A LOT of passenger information, and repeat the process three times for every passenger. Even worse when I had to do this on mobile!10 hours later, we arrived in Auckland. I booked a taxi transfer to take us to our hotel, and the taxi company said clearing customs should take 15 minutes. 15 minutes? More like 1.5 hours! We weren’t in a hurry or anything but nobody wanted to wait that long for customs! The line was moving at a very slow pace. When it was finally our turn, the officer asked me a couple of questions, which was not unreasonable, but some were really not that relevant. For examples: "Where did you learn your English? Korea?" <—why
"Canada? So it must be cold?"<—whySo both stereotypes of “Kiwis work slow” and “Kiwis are over the top friendly” were both validated upon landing in New Zealand.After the passport check, there was another luggage check, fully equipped with x-ray machines and beagles. New Zealand’s food and environmental import policy was more or less similar to Canada’s, except they were even more strict on dirts and seeds. Anyone with outdoor equipments (camping gear, boots etcs) had to declare them.Despite the tedious landing process, Auckland airport redeemed itself to us with its perks. Like a Maori welcoming…
A Smaug plane (the plane in front was Fiji Airways)…

…and dwarf sculptures! We were in luck to see these Hobbit-themed installations because the second movie was just about to be premiered!

Since we took so long to clear customs, the taxi I booked already left. We ended up hiring Super Shuttle at the airport i-Site (tourist information). New Zealand is a country with a fully developed tourism industry, and we were pretty much able to find i-Sites just about anywhere.
I was glad that I didn’t plan much activities on the first day, because the transfer into Auckland downtown also took way longer than expected. 1.5 hours instead of the claimed 30-45 minutes. Three hours after landing, we finally checked-in at Waldorf Celestion.

We were very happy with our 2-bedroom apartment. Spacious, clean, and quiet, just what we needed for a good night’s sleep. The only downside was the lack of free wi-fi, but that was impossible to find in downtown Auckland accommodations to begin with. Most places we stayed at had very limited wi-fi (usually 50MB~200MB), even the airport had pretty pathetic internet connection. Just something to get used to in NZ!
Didn’t care for the balcony. Rangitoto Island could be seen, but still not so much of a view.

After some rest, we head out for lunch at Depot Oyster Bar and Eatery. Saw the CN Tower Sky Tower next to it, which we planned to visit on our last day.

Auckland was not an easy city to walk in, as it is a hilly city built on 53 volcanoes. Two points that look close on a map would take a lot more effort and time than expected. 
Anyhow, we found our restaurant eventually, after swerving through many detours.

I am so horrible with accents, I had trouble understanding the waitress. I thought I could take a break from language barriers for this trip, but apparently not! Evidently by the name of this restaurant, we were here for the oysters. Not that Canada didn’t have oysters, but the point was to have local varieties around the world.

The oysters were beaaaaaautiful. Even long after the trip was done my dad and I are still fantasizing about these beauties. They tasted like ocean, not overly alkaline, so the lemon or the vinaigrette were not even necessary.

If my love for shellfish was not yet obvious from the Italy trip reports, here it is again. We ordered the “Squid ink linguine & ‘Cloudy Bay’ clams with hand-cut pasta. There were too many local species of clams in NZ to try! The clams were amazing but the chorizo in this dish made everything a tad bit too salty. Overall I would recommend this restaurant, if not just for the oysters.

Next stop was Kelly Tarlton Aquarium, located at “Mission Bay”, 7km from downtown. The aquarium provided free shuttle that departed from the wharf area, but only one on each hour.
At first we didn’t want to wait for the shuttle, so we walked around for 20 minutes trying to find a bus stop with no avail. I looked it up in Google Maps beforehand but the bus stop was simply not there. The bus route map was not helpful, and neither were the locals (some guy told me we can walk to Mission bay in 10 minutes, idk maybe he was a troll but that was a load of bullcrap). We gave up eventually and returned to the shuttle stop to wait for the “shark bus”.

The aquarium was divided into several sections. One section was the Antarctic Ice Adventure and Scott Base, with some info on the expeditions of Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

The penguin exhibition was the highlight of the aquarium. This aquarium had two species, the King and the Gentoo. The penguins were very active and they did seem to respond to humans.
The King penguins tend to cluster together and not move very much. December was nesting season for many birds in the southern hemisphere, but judging from the molting adolescent in the picture, it seemed like the Kings were near the end of theirs.

The Gentoos however, were still well within their nesting period. Note the hatchling at the foot of their parent.

It was also a highlight to see the Gentoo’s life of crime, a behaviour that was also documented in BBC’s Frozen Planet (except carried out by an Adelie). A male was stealing stone pebbles from another nest to build his own!
I wanted to see the preserved colossal squid in Wellington, but the city was too out of the way. This one would have to do.

The whole aquarium was underground, and a view of Auckland from water level could be seen from the aquarium cafe.

We spent the majority of our time in the penguin exhibit, and went through the rest of the aquarium fairly quickly. The other tanks were nice, but nothing that we hadn’t seen before.A tank with a disturbing number of clownfish.

The underwater conveyor belt through a shark tank. There were also sea turtles.

Really big hermit crab?

Sea dragons.

The aquarium could be done in 1-2 hours, and we had no problem catching a return shuttle. It was worth the visit because this was my first time seeing a live King penguin or a Gentoo penguin, but as a whole, it wasn’t on par with other world-class aquariums. I was glad to have found a good deal on GrabOne for the admission!Near the shuttle bus drop-off point, there was a “Manuka Doctor” shop that sold a wide variety of manuka honey products. The honey is made by bees that harvest the manuka flower (a type of tea tree native to New Zealand and SE Australia), which is known to have antibacterial effects. I ate Manuka honey cough drops during the trip when I felt like I was about to get sick, and successful ward off the cold. It has a faint minty taste, but the best part about it is that it still taste very good. If honey isn’t so heavy I would have bought 10 jars all for myself as souvenirs (do keep in mind there are many counterfeit products so stick to reputable brands)!

One block next to it was Movenpick, an ice cream brand of Swiss origin (Nestle). It had very high ratings on Tripadvisor and also seemed to be well known around the world, so we gave it a try. 

The ice cream in NZ were all very milky and creamy, which was to be expected considering the dairy industry of the country. A different type of deliciousness in comparison to gelato. Movenpick was no exception, although for the price, I think I prefer the nameless, farm-produced ice cream at random fruit stalls, which I would show in later trip reports.
We would have gone to the Auckland Museum today, but it closed at 5pm and we were dead tired anyway. We spent the rest of the day grocery shopping.
There were four major chain supermarkets in NZ: Countdown, Pak’nSave, New World, and Four Square. We were lucky enough (?) to had visited all of them throughout the trip.

Countdown was my favourite because they had my WALL OF WHITTAKER’S CHOCOLATE! This is NZ’s local brand, and I love it! Forget about Cadbury, get a giant slab of Whittaker’s for 2.99 NZD!

Many travelers recommend the kiwi flavour because it’s kiwi, but I personally recommend peanut butter and macadamia block. The peanut butter tasted like the manufacturer actually used peanut butter from a jar, unlike that fake stuff in Reese’s! 
Self-serve cooking was the norm of traveling in New Zealand. Almost every motel had a kitchen with basic condiments, cookware and utensils. In some small towns, dine-out options were not that exciting, and it was much more rewarding to cook our own meals. Cooking not only saved us a lot of money (our food budget was half of what I allocated), we were able to enjoy locally grown NZ ingredients. For this reason, not every meal would be mentioned in this trip report, as sometimes we just had a sandwich or similar dinners for two or three days straight.
As in Canada, I found New Zealand whites to be a better bet, when we were simply taking a guess among the wide selection of wine. Mission Estate Late Harvest 2013 was the best bottle we bought during the trip, but couldn’t find it again.
NZ might not had much of a cuisine, but it was all about the produce! Vegetable and fruits were so sweet! Beautifully cut meats, and fresh greenlip mussels were always on sale! Everything was local, hence the better taste. If only it would be this easy to eat locally where I live! The most exciting food experience of this trip didn’t come from a restaurant, but from meals we cooked ourselves.With the help of jetlag, wine and fatique, we slept promptly at 8pm sharp. Tomorrow was going to be a full day.
[New Zealand 2013 Trip Report] Day 1: Auckland

15 hours to Taipei, 2 hours to Hong Kong, and 10 hours to Auckland. I was going away to a far, far away land! Having had the painful jetlag experience in Antwerp on my last trip, I decided to take it easy at our first stop, Auckland.

Itinerary of the day: Toronto → Taipei (1 day layover) → Hong Kong (transfer) → Auckland  → Depot Oyster Bar and Eatery → Kelly Tarlton’s SEA LIFE Aquarium

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Friday, February 21, 2014
Saturday, February 15, 2014
I’m ready to move onto other fanart ideas now because this made me blind.Germany and Lithuania were not only mentioned in best and worst (best for both lol) but also in most retina-burning outfits roll call. 

I’m ready to move onto other fanart ideas now because this made me blind.
Germany and Lithuania were not only mentioned in best and worst (best for both lol) but also in most retina-burning outfits roll call. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014
Saturday, February 8, 2014
The Bay and Ralph Lauren.
Inspired by this. Do you agree, or do you not? I admit USA’s uniform was obnoxiously hilarious at first sight, but after I’ve drawn it and looked long enough, it doesn’t seemed that bad anymore!

The Bay and Ralph Lauren.

Inspired by this. Do you agree, or do you not? I admit USA’s uniform was obnoxiously hilarious at first sight, but after I’ve drawn it and looked long enough, it doesn’t seemed that bad anymore!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

It’s that time again, I’m going traveling! Starting tomorrow till Jan 3, I’ll be spending 17 days in New Zealand and a week in Taiwan. I’ve been planning for this trip since I started working, and this is my last country to tick off “the priority list” (doesn’t mean I’ll stop traveling, but I’ll be a lot more flexible in the future!). 

There will be many firsts, like driving on the other side, spending a summer Christmas, taking two new airlines, watching birds I’ve never watched before, and perhaps participating in some crazy kiwi-originated activities! Also I haven’t been to a decent beach since Palau 3 years ago! I WANT COASTLINES! If I survive NZ, then I’ll indulge in Taiwanese food and laze around like a bum for the rest of my vacation.

See you all in 2014!

Monday, December 2, 2013

I don’t think I’ll have time to add anymore drawings in the next few days, so here are all my Hetaween sketches so far! It was very fun to just draw/write freely without worrying about presentation!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013
I think I'm falling for your drawings of Portugal. Bless you Sherry, you are amazing.

Gasp thank you! I wasn’t expecting of such ask gaaah. Portugal is a little bit like my first love hehe (be careful of choosing your first country to travel to out of the continent…) so I always put a lot of shoujo heart into drawing him. Thanks for letting me plague your dash!

Monday, November 25, 2013
The recent update made me want to colour Maria I! Regarding the background CIV V used, the architecture is obviously Pena Palace (I was there at this exact same spot!), the red cliff and ocean backdrop is very likely to be inspired by Algarve.
BGM used for painting: 哀愁のポルトガル | Olive Wind | Caprice for Lute | Lisbon Theme | Saudades de Coimbra Peace & War (From Uncharted Waters I, II, Online and CIV V)

The recent update made me want to colour Maria I! Regarding the background CIV V used, the architecture is obviously Pena Palace (I was there at this exact same spot!), the red cliff and ocean backdrop is very likely to be inspired by Algarve.

BGM used for painting: 哀愁のポルトガルOlive WindCaprice for LuteLisbon ThemeSaudades de Coimbra Peace & War (From Uncharted Waters I, II, Online and CIV V)

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