Friday, December 30, 2011

In search of elusive New Zealand birds

Royal spoonbills nesting.
New Zealand is populated with birds you will see nowhere else. Until Westerners arrived, bats were the only mammals, a specie of eagle the only predator. Other birds came in all sizes from ostrich-high Moas to wren-small Titipounamu. Many like the Moas and Kiwi, didn't fly. They didn't need to. Freezing in place was their defense against eagles, the only predator.

Once man, especially Western man arrived with dogs, cats, stoats and other predators, that changed. Today many birds are extinct, including all of the Moas (you can see what Moas looked like at the excellent Otago Museum in Dunedin), and many more are in precarious numbers.

Naturally, those are the ones you want to see along with the albatross, gannets and penguins. I saw gannets on the North Island, the others on the South Island.

Frankly, your best bet is to visit a zoo for kiwi, the country's official bird, its colorful parrots and other non-flying birds. However, if you insist on seeing them in the wild, here are some tips.


They are extremely shy and nocturnal. They frequent isolated beaches so Levelers, you'll have sand rather than steps to deal with. Midnight excursions aren't cheap and most New Zealanders have never seen one except in a zoo.
Stewart Island just off the South Island is where many birders go in search of this elusive and shy creature.

Penguin spotted during a Monarch Wildlife cruise.
The tiny Blue penguin is extremely rare but I saw several during an overnight cruise in Doubtful Sound. You might also spot one or two in the water during a Monarch Wildlife Cruise outside of Dunedin.

Juvenile male yellow-eyed penguin, Penguin Place
Yellow-eyed penguins are also endangered. I encountered a few on the overnight in Doubtful and a day cruise in Milford Sound. Also saw a juvenile male and another two at beaches along the Southern Scenic Route. Usually spotted in the morning when the males leave to feed and at dusk when they return.

Tip: Levelers, binoculars and a very long lens for your camera will be necessary to see or capture images from easily accessed overlooks. Otherwise, expect hills, uneven ground and steps.

Female yellow-eyed penguin nesting, Penguin Place.
You are bound to see at least one penguin at Penguin Place, a private conservation effort supported by tours on the Otago Peninsula. What you see depends on the time of year. I was there midday in November during the breeding season which means I saw that exhausted juvenile male, peekaboo glimpses of two females nesting and one injured penguin being rehabbed in the infirmary.

Tip: Find out what season you're in to determine if it's worth the steps and climbs. Take the tour and you'll ride as close as possible in buses, but you will encounter uneven ground, changes in elevation and steps.

Hold your hands out and compare it to this to see just how big an albatross can be.
These magnificent birds frequent New Zealand waters and cliffs to feed and breed. The Royal Albatross Centre is at Taiaroa Head at the tip of the Otago Peninsula, about a 45-minute drive from Dunedin. As the world's only mainland breeding colony of the Royal Albatross it's your best chance to see the birds on land mating, nesting and raising their chicks.

What you see depends on the season.

Viewing site
Viewing is from an old World War II gun emplacement with dirty, cloudy windows and you don't see much unless a pair takes up residence nearby.

Halfway there.
Tip/Warning: It is a l-o-o-o-ng way up from the Centre to the gun emplacement and I wouldn't go all the way up unless the albatross are billing and cooing or the chicks are hatched. You can see the nesting females better from the water on a Monarch Cruise.

Red-billed gulls nesting

Red-billed gulls making chicks.
However, the antics of the breeding colony of red-billed gulls make at least a partial climb worthwhile.

From here you can see Pilots Beach, where a colony of blue penguins live, but the little buggers are so small you probably won't spot them.

White-capped albatross taking a break from fishing in waters between Stewart and Ulva Islands.

I saw and photographed albatross close up on the Bluff ferry to and especially from Stewart Island. 

Takahe at Te Anau Wildlife Centre.
Kaka, Kea, Tui, Takahe, Weka, Parakeets and Pigeons
Saw all of these at the Te Anau Wildlife Centre, a free, self-guided conservation area on Lake Te Anau in the South Island's Fiordland. You may not see all of them; much depends on what the non-aviary birds are doing - or not doing.

World's largest accessible gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers.
The world's largest accessible colony of gannets settles at Cape Kidnappers in the Hawkes Bay area of the North Island.

A big strand of seaweed is the way to a girl gannet's heart.
Tip: Gannet Safaris will take you up the winding, bumpy track to within a foot or two of the birds. After experiencing the climb, it's a bargain.

All in all, even non birding enthusiasts will get a kick out of seeing these winged - or not - species, whether in a zoo or in the wild.

Personally, the more I travel the bigger my bucket needs to be to hold an ever-expanding list. How about you?

May we all have bigger buckets and more fulfilled wishes in 2012.

Leia Mais…
Thursday, December 22, 2011

Offshore Auckland Beats Jet Lag

Auckland, NZ, from the harbor.
Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, is beautifully situated on a large bay that's always full of boats and ships. If flying in from the states you will arrive there seriously jet-lagged. My recommendation: Head to the harbor and get on one.

Nothing will pick you up and put you back in the world better than massive doses of sun and fresh air plus a bit of exercise. Luck will determine the sun but if you sit outside on a ferry ride the clear, crisp air will act like a tonic.

Tip: If our entry to Auckland was any example, you're likely to get a little bit of everything. In 20 minutes it went from warm and sunny to cold and wet and back to sunny. Layer and bring a lightweight tote for stowage.

There are many tour options, among them:
Tiritiri Matangian, an island wildlife preserve a 75-minute ferry ride away.

Motuihe Island, an uninhabited island a 30-minute ferry ride away.

Rotoroa Island, a former alcohol and drug rehab center 75-minutes away.

The volcanic island of Rangitoto from Devonport.

Rangitoto Island, a 600-year-old volcano 25-minutes away where visitors walk to the top.

Waiheke Island, known for wine tours of Te Whau Vineyard.

Devonport Island, one of Auckland's oldest suburbs known for its beaches, Victorian architecture and shops, a short ride away.

Not up to hiking, knowing wildlife only emerges early morning, dusk and nighttime and afraid the wine tasting would put us back to sleep, we opted for Devonport. The lady at the Fullers tour office couldn't have been more accommodating.

Not a bad choice for a pair of bleary-eyed travelers preparing for a very early wake-up call, more flying and major activity the next day.

Auckland ferry terminal.
Auckland's harbor is beautiful, its ferry terminal is striking and the terrain is flat.

Warning: Levelers, once you leave the harbor area, Auckland gets very hilly.

On our way to Devonport.
The ferry ride perked us up, but the guide almost did us in. His response to our first question was that Americans asked too many questions and that if we didn't hush up we wouldn't hear what he was telling us about where we were. Not what wise guides say to anyone, much less a pair of travel writers!

The Esplanade Hotel is a focal point of downtown Devonport.

Harbor side park
Still, Devonport was a scenic introduction to New Zealand flora and history. Technically it's not an island, but with 90-plus percent of it coastline, island stays in local terminology.

Devonport nestles around three volcanic hills.

Devonport was settled around three small volcanic mountains, Takapuna, Takarunga and Takaroro. The Maoris arrived first, 1350 AD, followed by the British in the mid 1800s.  Maoris farmed sweet potatoes, the Brits farmed and built ships.

A pair of German tourists jump for the camera atop Mt. Victoria.

Its original name was Flagstaff because atop what was once Flagstaff Hill (Takarunga to the Maoris) is where the flag was raised to alert the Auckland harbormaster of incoming ships. Now the mountain is Mt. Victoria and the name is a tribute to Devon, England.

The tour guide will urge you to walk up to the top of a hill to see the World War I and II gun emplacement and to watch a film on the island's history. The views are stunning, but the film's no great shakes.

Steps up to the old gun emplacement.
Tip: It's 25 steps to a landing followed by 31 steps to the next landing and a short but steepish walk to the top.

Former home of poet A.R.D. Fairburn.

The 120-150-year-old houses, built by shipwrights, are fascinating but if your guide is like ours, he won't stop for photographs and the good ones are WAY up this hilly island. Once someone obtains one of these pricey homes, it stays in the family as long as there is one. Most residents are 3rd and 4th generation Devonporters.

Locals refer to this as the Harry Potter tree.
Once we shed out guide and walked around downtown a bit we could see why.  Not a bad place to live or to begin shedding jet lag.

Leia Mais…
Thursday, December 15, 2011

New Zealand a natural for Middle Earth

North and South islands of New Zealand personify Middle Earth.
From my first look at the Hawke's Bay region of New Zealand's North Island, J.R.R. Tolkein's Middle Earth came to mind, as much because of the images evoked by the books as the films of his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. Obviously, New Zealand native Peter Jackson agreed.

Hobbits and sheep have similar tastes in landscapes.
It is, at times, truly otherworldly with pastures of iridescent green, hills like dumplings formed by a giant child (perfect for hobbit holes) and flora unlike anything you'll see elsewhere in the world.

Occasionally you'll spot seriously large, chiseled men that remind you of a ranger. Unlike a Tolkein ranger, though, they are normally friendly and outgoing with a "Good on ya, luv," benediction after encounters.

Wellington from Mount Victoria.
In Wellington - the self-proclaimed "Coolest little capital in the world" - I took a Lord of the Rings tour of film locations given by a former extra with a penchant for the dramatic and yes, I'll say it, Ham with a capital "h".  Just what you need to make the cinematic moments live again.

Tip: The only part of my half-day tour that included any difficult walking was in Victoria Mountain park and it wasn't really that bad.  Looks worse than it is: Some elevation, some rocky, rooty and uneven pathways that could trip you up if not paying attention. If going on your own, do not even think about walking up Mt. Victoria; take a cab or a bus. It's so steep along this road that residents install their own trams and cog lines to get from street level to their homes!

Phil Mackie, our guide to the movies.
Phil Mackie, a former orc, Gandalf warrior, knight, member of the spectral army and an elephant warrior, let us in on a few tidbits as we headed up to Victoria Point and the park that served as the Forest of Buckland where the Hobbits first encountered the Nazgul.
Christopher Lee was the tallest in the cast, John Reese Davies at 6'1" was the tallest of the fellowship.
• Most of the Riders of Rohan were women wearing false beards.
Viggo Mortensen is a method actor and slept in his costume with his sword and horse, but Liv Tyler, who as Arwen was supposed to be a warrior, couldn't wield a sword convincingly enough and didn't like horses, so the Rohan princess' role was enlarged.

Frodo senses the Nazgul.
I think we should get off the road.

You would, too, if you had been on this path in the darkening dusk, with or without the spooky Nazgul looking for you. But then Frodo and crew had 1/2 million watts of light to catch the scenes.

Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith

Enormous sets were built in Dry Creek Quarry, which has been returned to business as usual.

Where Boromir's body washed up.
River Anduinar

Several scenes were shot along here including the finding of Boromir's body.


According to Mackie,  illustrator John Howe wept when he saw Kaitoka Regional Park because it so matched his vision of Rivendell.

Giant ferns and massive trees, especially the native rata and rimu, do give it an other-worldly look.

Because it was a national park, it took a ton of money and very specific restrictions for the filmmakers to use it. They could eliminate a plant but had to put a GPS tag on it so it could be replaced exactly as it had been pre-filming.

Mackie at Legolas's tree.

Legolas at the tree.

Isengard Gardens and Orc Tree

The gardens of Harcourt Park were in bloom when I walked there.
Gandalf and Saruman walk through Harcourt Park.
Gandalf's cart drove through Harcourt Park as he traveled to the Shire and he and Saruman walked along its gardens. It's also where the trees were felled to feed the fires of Isengard but no trees were harmed in the process.

Now you can play frisbee golf, watch jousting matches and let the kids loose in the playground.

Do it yourself
There are many Lord of the Rings Tours throughout New Zealand. The one I took in Wellington was a half-day tour but you can go for days and cover sites on both islands. is a good place to start. Just remember, while The Hobbit films are being shot there now, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was shot 12 years ago. Things change.

Leia Mais…
Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Reynolds Plantation

Reynolds Plantation, GA.
Spreading across 10,000 acres along the shores of Lake Oconee, just south of Interstate 5 between Atlanta and Athens, is a golfers,' foodies' and vacationers' paradise, Reynolds Plantation.

One of the 117 holes of golf at Reynolds Plantation.
For the golfers, begin with 117 holes of golf on six courses designed by Jack Nicklaus (Great Waters), Tom Fazio (27-hole National) Rees Jones (Oconee), Bob Cupp (Plantation and the Landing) and Jim Engh (The Creek Club).

Commute to Great Waters by pontoon boat.

Follow that with the Reynolds Golf Academy led by teacher and author  
Charlie King with its famed three-day "Red Zone" short game school and the TaylorMade Performance Lab to more accurately fit club to player.

The long putt is one of the Red Zone challenges.

Get your swing with each club analyzed just as the tour pros do.

Top with the ultimate the swinger's maraschino, TaylorMade's The Kingdom Corporate Experience that puts you on a par with the pros when it comes to personal attention, equipment fitting and swing analysis.

Warning: Levelers, make sure carts are allowed off paths before committing to a round. Unless you have unerring aim, cart-path-only conditions will require steps and a lot of walking.

Three clubhouse restaurants - The Plantation Grille, The Landing and The Water View room plus course snack bars provide variety. Having a Ritz-Carlton on property adds an gourmet exclamation point with its Georgia's Bistro, Gaby's by the Lake and detached Linger Longer Steakhouse.

Our small group of travel writers sampled all of the favorites and wished we could rent an extra stomach to go back for seconds.

Fishing is good in Lake Oconee.
Vacation add-ons
Fishing for large-mouth bass, bream, catfish, crappie and striped bass hybrids in Lake Oconee keeps anglers' lines wet and catch strings full.

Pool at The Ritz-Carlton Spa.
The Ritz-Carlton offers 90 health and wellness treatments, whirlpools, indoor lap pool and a full-service salon.

There are eight tennis courts, lots of hiking and walking trails, a Heritage & Nature Center with canoes and kayaks and Segway tours and a kids' camp at The Ritz-Carlton.

Tour Heritage House, c. 1811, in Madison.
The nearby city of Madison is a charmer, considered in the early 19th century as "the most cultured and aristocratic town on the stagecoach route from Charleston to New Orleans." Most of its historic architecture was completed between 1830 and 1860. It survives because Georgia Senator and strong unionist Joshua Hill was a friend of Generals Sherman and Slocum, the commander whose troops were headed through Madison en route to the sea. He rode out and reminded Slocum of the Gentleman's Agreement not to burn and loot the town's homes and Slocum honored it, destroying only that which contributed to the Confederate war effort. However, his men were so enraged at not being able to loot, they destroyed Hill's plantation on the way out of town.

 Town 220 is an excellent spot for lunch - there's a neat store attached - and Patrick Alligood's confections at Antique Sweets are worth the calories.

Cottages at Reynolds Plantation.
Reynolds Plantation gives visitors a choice of 1-, 2- or 3-bedroom condos or cottages with full kitchens and daily housekeeping services. Or you can select the standard luxury of rooms at The Ritz-Carlton.

Tip: Two- and three-bedroom cottages will have at least one bedroom/bath upstairs.

Note: Recipes from Reynold's Plantation will soon be posted on my other blog, Food Afar - Recipes from a Travel Writer.

Leia Mais…