Top O’ the South, South Island, NZ

Friday 14 February 2014 – Top o’ the South, New Zealand.

For a holiday we were up pretty damn early on Tuesday, we had to check in for the ferry that was taking us across the Cook Strait to Picton in the Marlborough Sounds at 7:00 AM. We were travelling on the Bluebridge ferry and good fortune rather than good planning saw us on a crossing where my brother in law John, was the captain. Good fortune also saw us on a quiet crossing, apparently the previous day there were five metre swells in the Strait, and vomit bags were well used :

We had a lovely, if cool, morning.

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The crossing was delayed slightly as the competing ferry companies ferry broke down again and we had to wait for their passengers and freight to be loaded on our ferry, but after an hours delay we were under way – on the next leg of our wee NZ adventure.

The journey to Picton on a good day is one of NZ’s finest – yet relatively under-subscribed, experiences. The exit from Wellington harbour is lovely and crossing the Cook Strait gives the sharp eyed the opportunity to see all sorts of sea mammals. I was lucky enough to be able to be able to briefly catch up with John and as I asked him about seeing dolphins a school of them passed by the front of the ship, fabulous – though of course I did not have my camera on me at the time!

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The real highlight of the three or so hour sailing is slowly cruising up through the Marlborough sounds, being on a large sea vessel as it negotiates these narrow channels is pretty damn amazing. It was very cold out on the deck, I was wrapped up more thoroughly than I was when I walked from my home to the station in wintery London and El was wrapped for the full Antarctic :)but it was worth the minor discomfort to experience the ride.

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We arrived in Picton an hour late and by the time I had run around picking up the rental car we were well into the early afternoon. My daughter Mel and her friends had come over on an earlier ferry but had left by the time we arrived – though we would see them later on. (Yay). After some time spent in Blenheim we headed out to our hotel for the night, the Marlborough Vintners Hotel.

Maybe if you have been dead for the last twenty or so years then you would not know that the Marlborough district at the top of the south island is one of the premier wine growing regions in the world, so I am assuming that most people have at least heard of Marlborough sauvignon blancs ! Before we left London we had decided that a visit to Marlborough and a tasting or two was an essential part of our trip.

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We were a bit late for tastings on the Tuesday but had a very nice meal and some lovely local wine in the hotel. The local rieslings and pinot gris were just stunning! The sunset was better than what I managed to capture on my camera.

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Sadly, the following morning had to check out of the hotel, we had tried to get a second night but it was fully booked. It would have been a perfect place to just laze about for a day and enjoy the main reason for holidaying – relaxing (with awesome wine !). We stayed until kicking out time which happened to coincide with the opening for tasting a number of the major wineries in the area. Our first stop was the obligatory Cloudy Bay, where we shared a couple of tastings. I was driving so this was all very civilised – and it was only 10:00. The wine was fabulous as you would have expected!

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Our next stop was Allan Scott, we were looking forward to this as we had a couple of Allan Scott pinot gris in Auckland and they were absolutely lovely. However, after hanging around in the shop for five minutes with no one coming down to see us we left. Pissed off.

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Anyway, it was our good fortune as we decided to check out Hunters Vineyard as we had time and capacity for one more small tasting before hitting the road. Wow ! Hunters was great. The tasting was free and very informative, and the best thing was the wine was fabulous, especially the Riesling and gewurztraminer. We bought a couple of bottles and I was especially pleased to know that the London importer was Laithwaites, which is just down the road from where I live. Well done Hunters ! stupidly I did not take a photo ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

Today was supposed to be a fairly chilled and relaxed drive over to my sister’s place outside of Nelson (I have two sisters for those who have read this blog for a while and may get confused, one in Auckland and one way the heck out in the country outside of Nelson). We decided to take the scenic route through the Marlborough Sounds Drive – oh so lovely. We stopped for photos on a couple of occasions on the way, first at the bay where my sister used to live in a tiny hamlet called “The Grove”.

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And then at the top of a hill on Queen Charlotte Drive (I forgot to get its name) with views over Queen Charlotte Sound.

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And our next stop, the small town of Havelock.

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We stopped for coffee and lunch in Havelock, and as mentioned in my last post, the food and the coffee were great. This cafe had the added bonus of homemade fudge – I bought watermelon, passionfruit and Bounty as after dinner treats for my sisters family. Surprisingly they actually tasted as described, the watermelon was simply delightful!

Our next stop was at the aptly named Pelorus Bridge, over the Pelorus River. The Pelorus River was used for the scene in the Hobbit Part 2 where the hobbits were fleeing the orcs in barrels down the river – one of my favourite scenes in any of the Middle Earth movies. The river was not quite as exciting where we were. We took a short walk down to a swing bridge and back again to the car as out short driving day was slowly getting longer and longer.

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We arrived at my sisters in the late afternoon, my bro-in-law was still working on the ferry so it was just my sister and their two sons who were there. They live way the heck out in the countryside and we had drive down two long unsealed roads to get there, El’s first time on metal roads – as we call them in NZ. I had to resist the teenage urge in me to go sideways round the corners…

It was great to see my sister and the boys, it has been a wee while since I last saw them and the boys had grown immeasurably since.

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They live in a house on a small farm, and though there are only four of them living there there were EIGHTEEN gumboots !

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They have sheep – it is NZ, of course they have sheep!

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The following morning we set off towards the north-western corner of the south island and Farewell Spit, I have never been there before so was keen to check it out. The spit is twenty something kilometres long and is only accessible by a day tour, we didn’t have the time for that so just had to contend with a visit to the base. We started with a walk over to Wharariki Beach, on the Tasman Sea. It was howling with wind and once we had passed the farm land we were constantly being sand blasted in the gusts. But it was a beautiful and remote spot and on a fine day would be spectacular. There are baby fur seals in the area which was one of the attractions for me, but we did not see any.

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We then headed up to Farewell Spit proper and found a a really nice cafe at the entrance to the park, the coffee was great and the food pretty damn fine, a very nice lunch was had – very much to my surprise. After lunch we walked down to the beach and strolled up for a while before turning back and heading back to the nearest point of civilisation – Takaka, where we spent some time on the internet and booked a bed for the night. This is the closest we got to Farewell Spit – though one day I will be back !

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We found a very nice little hotel at Pohara Beach, just outside Takaka on Golden Bay. This whole area used to be very erm, rural and a wee bit hippy, especially towns like Takaka. The game has really been lifted and it is a charming country town. It is very tourist driven, something I am normally against, but it works here. I liked it. And I had the best damn coffee in NZ in Takaka.

We arranged to catch up with Mel and her BF, plus additional friend from the UK here. It was my final catch up with Mel before we left and it was very special to see them in such a cool place like Pohara Beach. So I did get a photo before we left.

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The following day we caught up with Mel again for breakfast coffee before El and I drove back to Nelson city where we had lunch with some old friends of mine before flying back to Auckland, and there pretty much ended the holiday.

A very short North island road trip.

Mon 09 February 2014 – Road trip North Island, New Zealand.

On Saturday morning mum took El and I out to Auckland airport where we picked up a rental car for a couple of days of driving down to Wellington. As we were not bringing the car back to Auckland we were charged a monstrous “one way” fee. Almost twice the car rental, outrageous in these modern global tourism times. They all charge it, milking the customers – bastards!

We were going to take two days to drive south, not a huge amount of time given all the cool things to see on the way. We had limited ourselves to two stops on the first day –ย  Hobbitton near Matamata and the Orakei Korako thermal area between Rotorua and Taupo.

We stopped in Matamata at the very neat tourism office, made up to look like a Hobbit house. We were informed that the only way to visit Hobbitton was on a tour, this really didn’t suit our (my) aggressive timetable that much so we sort directions to Hobbitton (not that easy to get) and drove there ourselves.

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El is a big fan of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series (I am little bit) and we were both keen to at least have a look at the site and El wanted to pick up some gifts from the gift shop. After the very cool looking tourism building in town we were both seriously let down to find the entrance to Hobbitton is a large tin shed…

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El bought a couple of souvenirs and we then carried on with our journey to Rotorua. Rotorua is the probably the main tourist centre of the north island. One of only a couple of areas of thermal activity in the world it has some fairly unique attractions, combined with a few Maori cultural sites and some extreme sports make this tourist heaven. We took a slow drive through town and then continued on to the thermal area of Orakei Korako, almost in Taupo.

To get to the smallish area of interest you take a small boat from the office and then walk up the edge of a large silica bank, it looks very dramatic with the white silica stained by the different algae growing in the warm thermal waters.

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The thermal activity here comprises of a lot of pools of super hot spring water and a couple of small geysers, though the geysers did not spout while we were there. It was incredibly cool though and we both enjoyed the walk around. I loved this, the Diamond Geyser – so East London…

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At the top of the trail we found some boiling mud, something I was really hoping to see, as it is something very unique to the area. One of the downsides of thermal activity is the smell of sulphur, just like rotting eggs. Luckily it was not overpowering here; or maybe we got used it !

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We spent a couple of hours at Orakei Korako and thoroughly enjoyed it, in a way it was good we did not go to Hobbitton as it gave us more time here to walk around and enjoy such a unique experience.

We briefly stopped at Huka Falls on the edge of Lake Taupo.

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Then a further brief stop to photograph the lake, which is one of the world’s largest.

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We had original planned on staying in a lakeside hotel in Taupo but I had a brain wave as we were researching accommodation and we decided to stay at the Chateau Tongariro on the edge of the Whakapapa ski-field on Mt Tongariro. The only time I have been in there was to see a band on some ski trip way back in the beginnings of time and I had always wanted to stay there. It was surprisingly ‘cheap’, so we decided to do it. The drive to the Chateau through the central highlands and national park was just stunning. We could have done two days there alone…

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We had a great night in the hotel, I was expecting ‘faded glory’ but it has been well maintained and was quite plush.

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The following morning we were up early, and under cloudy skies headed off for the long drive to Wellington. We stopped for more photos of the mountain on the way but sadly did not get to see Lord of the rings ‘Mount Doom’, otherwise known as Mt Ngauruhoe as it was so cloudy.

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We stopped for coffee in Bulls – NZ pun central, and had an average drink in a place that really did not make us feel welcome at all. The only place in NZ we visited that seemed to not like visitors – or us anyway.

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We arrived in Wellington in the early afternoon and checked into our hotel before returning the rental car, the bill still sends shivers up my spine ! We arranged to meet my daughter and her BF for lunch, they are on a longer road trip than we are – lucky them. And then El and I walked down to water front to the Museum of NZ, Te Papa for a look – it was free, and pretty good.

I found some cool anti-shark fining street art on the way ๐Ÿ™‚

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After a drink with Mel and friends we enjoyed a really nice meal in the hotel and then retired early and tired. Up early tomorrow for the ferry to the south island!


Friday 07 February 2014 – Auckland, New Zealand.

My plan to blog most days and get a good written and visual record of El’s and my trip to NZ was doomed to fail from the very start – too many things to do and not enough down time planned. I did, however, expect to get at least a couple of posts done while I was actually ‘in country’. I am now over a week back in London and have just sat down to write something about NZ. At least I have been through the rather meagre collection of photos I took on the trip and selected the best of an average bunch, so there is something to base my report on other than slowly fading memories.

I will say the trip was really good, I was a little nervous about, especially introducing El to my family. They are all lovely so I was not expecting any issues, but I was not 100% sure on how it would go. I should never have been concerned; the kids were fab and El lovely. We were also blessed with pretty good weather – apart from Wellington where it was cool and wet, the windy city certainly lived up to its name. It was also colder than London was on the ferry across to the south island! Thankfully the rest of the trip was mostly completed under warm sunny skies – just what was needed coming from grey damp London.

El and I stayed at my mum’s place for a couple of nights, she gave up her room for us, which was much appreciated and it was nice to be able to relax in one place for a day or two. My mum walks for an hour most mornings before breakfast so I was up early on the Monday and out for an hour long power stroll around the nicer bits of Henderson – not really one of Auckland’s lovelier suburbs I will admit, though the park areas and interlinked stream side path ways make for a decent and reasonably car-free walk and it was nice to spend some time with mum.

My brother-in-law, Allan, had kindly lent us a car for the week we were in town so after breakfast we headed off up the north western motorway to Muriwai Beach so mum and I could show El one of our favourite NZ spots, and one of the few places I really do miss.

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After watching the waves from the king tide banging on the rocks we took a walk up to the gannet colony at the top of the cliffs before Maori Bay. The gannets have mostly gone for the season, just a few stragglers left, but enough to see and plenty of gannet noise going on.

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After lunch we met my daughter and her partner for lunch at the Hallertau Brewery. This was El and my first introduction back into eating out in NZ and it was really good. I must say that the quality of the food and service has really stepped up in the last few years, almost without exception we had fantastic dining experiences everywhere we went – even small and remote (though touristy) locations like Farewell Spit. No more bad tea and soggy ham and cheese sandwiches.

The following day was another food fest, we caught the ferry over to Waiheke Island to visit a vineyard or two and have some lunch. The ride over to Waiheke is all part of the experience and the Waitemata Harbour and inner Hauraki Gulf were as gorgeous as always, with Rangitoto lurking under cloud in the background.

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We arrived on Waiheke later than planned and started (and ended) our experience at Mud Brick Cafe. I have been here before and it has always been a great spot, the food was fabulous, the wine tasty and fresh, El loved it, so there was no need to move on.

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The vege sharing plate for lunch – OMG !!

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Heading back into the city just seemed wrong – and the clouds certainly agreed !

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On Wednesday we had breakfast in the newly completed Wynard Quarter on Auckland’s waterfront. The renovation project had started before I left NZ at the end of 2011, but was no where near complete at the time. I must say it is pretty damn cool, and breakfast was great too. I really liked the new buildings in this area, even the bank had come to the party with a really funky office.

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We had a fairly major walking day planned and visited the Auckland City Art Gallery, which I love. My favourite painting Robyn White’s “Fish and Chips, Maketu” was sadly not on display, but I really liked this massive Ralph Hotere piece.

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After lunch El and I walked up to K’Rd and then across Grafton Bridge to the Auckland Museum. I must pause the narrative to comment on how disappointed I was at the changes to some of my favourite shopping streets. High St particularly and K’ Rd to a degree have all changed since I was last here. I really liked the little boutiques on High St, but now it just seems full of sushi shops, sad. We were to be further disappointed when we arrived at Auckland Museum, I wanted to show El the Maori history section, but there was a $25 entrance fee for non-residents. WTF !!! This is insane… We spent $8 each and visited a reasonably good history of fashion photography exhibition instead. We got to pose in front of a couple of backdrops with some good lighting to have a play. Sadly I was not that fashionable…

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Seriously disappointed at the cost of entry to the museum, that really sucked.

We stayed at my brother in law’s house for the next few nights which again we appreciated, it was good being able to unload all the stuff out of the suitcase and lob it around the floor – well that was me anyway. The boys came round for tea on the Wednesday night which was great, it was so good to see so much of them while I was in town.

On Thursday morning my youngest son came around and we went for a big walk up to the Arataki Centre on Scenic Drive, the views out over the Manukau Harbour and the dam and bush are fantastic and the centre has some good information on the lovely Waitakere Ranges – my favourite part of NZ. Later on El and I drove out to one of the many ranges beach, Piha for a walk but it was really windy and not entirely pleasant on the beach so we didnt stay for long. We were planning on having lunch at the Piha Cafe, but it was closed as it was a public holiday, grrrrr. We drove on over to Karekare beach, Karekare is my favourite part of my favourite place, I love the fact that there are no shops, not many houses and that the carpark is not right by the beach. Time and energy have to be invested in getting to this lovely expanse of black sand beach, therefore not that many people go there. I have a million photographs of it (lots anyway).

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After the beach we walked to the falls over the road, as it is the end of summer, there was not a huge flow of water, but they are still wonderful…

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Friday was a bit of a rest and organisation day, we had a small mission in the afternoon – I went record shopping at Real Groovy Records and picked up five bits of NZ vinyl, mostly second hand. A friend of my brother in law was talking about a new venture down at the end of town. A shipping container had been converted into a wine tasting and blending shop so we went to check Blend out. The idea is you get to taste a few grape varieties and then have three goes at blending them into a blend that you really like. You then get a bottle of it to take away. It was such a cool idea and a bit of fun. I ended up with a red made up of 50% cab sauv, 30% merlot and 20% grenache. Not sure I would buy it in the shops mind,ย  but we have brought them back to London and will drink them soon. A very cool idea indeed.

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After Blend we moseyed back on out west and went to a BBQ with a group of my old Titirangi friends which was just perfect. We just did not have the time to visit people on this trip so seeing a group all at once was great. It was a good evening, thanks Martha ๐Ÿ™‚ I had a run planned the following day so kept it all quite tame.

Saturday was our final day in Auckland, and I had arranged to go bush running with my friend Vicki. She had a pre-run run organised so we didn’t meet up until mid-day which was appreciated ๐Ÿ™‚ I dropped El off at a friend of mine’s house as she was going on a shopping mission to the main boutiquey type areas of Ponsonby and Newmarket – work related research apparently, while I was out getting muddy.

It was a great run, up from Karekare beach.

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Across the top of Mercer Bay.

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Down past Kitekite falls and into Piha.

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It was interesting to see all the changes to the tracks as the council is ‘upgrading’ a lot of the trails that make up the “Hillary Trail”, I can understand why they are doing it, but it does sort of ruin some of the fun, and makes it so much less exclusive ! It was a great run, nice to catch up with Vicki and try to solve the world’s problems as we ran. Much as I love London, I do miss running the Waitakeres !

El and I took mum, my boys and my bro-in-law out for tea on the Saturday night to thank them for their hospitality. We went to Mikano on the waterfront and it was fabulous – and the most I have ever spent in a restaurant, lucky none of us were drinking ! It was a lovely night, and a great way to cap our week in Auckland.

Yay – off to New Zealand !

Sunday 02 February 2014 – Hong Kong / Sydney and Auckland, New Zealand.

Last week had finally seen some wintery weather arrive, a cold wind and rain made walking the streets of London on the first week after I finished work less fun than I would have liked. Though, I did make it out for a quick look at some street art and the purchase of a new record.

The great news for the week was meeting El at Camden tube station after she finished work on Thursday and heading off to Heathrow Airport to start a two week trip to New Zealand – ย 22 hours of flying to Sydney, with a lay-over in Hong Kong.

The first leg took eleven hours and was not too bad, the plane was only half full so we were not rammed in like sardines as usual. Service was good and the food and drink not too bad, though of course I did not sleep as much as I would have liked. We arrived in Hong Kong on time and were whipped off the plane and with a group of others taken aside and asked if we would like to be put on an earlier flight to Sydney – we did ! This meant only an hour of transit time – yay.

I had been to Hong Kong once before, in 2007, and did not have the best of experiences. No fault of Hong Kong’s, but I spent eight days of my five day trip in a private hospital with a serious bacterial infection of my liver. I am quite keen to go back there and see the city, it looks amazing, but there was no time on this trip to stop. I did snap a couple of photos out the window of the airport terminal. Good to see the smog has not left the city!

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The flight to Sydney was another nine hours, not as long as the first leg, but those hours really dragged and made the flight seem a lot longer. The plane was also very full which always make the flight less pleasant. It was a nice plane though.

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We arrived in Sydney two and half hours earlier than originally expected at 7:00 am, it was a bit of a haul though customs but we were soon out of the airport and on to the (very expensive) train to Circular Quay. We had a hotel in “The Rocks” area of downtown Sydney and were very fortunate to be able to get in to our room so much before normal check in. After twenty four hours of travelling a shower was definitely top priority.

We had heard that the view from the roof was pretty cool so we headed up there before we left for a walk. El ha has not been to Sydney before, but as we only have twenty four hours we wanted to focus on the harbour area.

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Apparently sunrise over the opera house was well worth the early rise, but there was a very large cruise liner between us and it, hopefully it leaves before then.

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We went for a walk around the opera house and over to the botanical gardens when we got a call from El’s Sydney friends and we arranged to meet them in Manly where they were having lunch, which worked for us as we were heading over there later in the day to visit my friend Nicole.

I love the ferry ride to Manly, one of the best harbour crossings, it has great views of both the Opera House and the harbour bridge and on a great day it just a magic trip. It was a great day.

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We had a very nice lunch with El’s old London friends, Mel and Ian and then shared a bottle of bubbles with Nicole before heading back over to the city side in the late afternoon. We were both knackered after the flight and feeling the effects of jet lag and no sleep. It was great to be able to catch up with Mel and Ian and Nicole in one of Sydney’s best locations, plus get to see the harbour all in one go. Stupidly I did not take any photos in Manly, though I did get a few when I was there last year.

We had a walk around the harbour side for half an hour and then meandered back to the hotel to try and get some sleep in, before getting up at 5:45 for the sunrise at 6:15. The cruise liner had left while we were out.

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We had a reasonable amount of sleep, but I was definitely a bit thick in the head when we got up on time for the sunrise. It wasn’t particularly spectacular, but it was pretty and I am glad we got up for it.

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After a monster breakfast in the hotel (well, I had a monster breakfast) we took a cab to the airport, it was only slightly more expensive than the train – and so much easier! We had a late-morning flight to Auckland that was frustratingly delayed, though not by much. With the time difference we did not arrive almost 6:00pm. The airport was busy and it took ages to get out, which was annoying. Auckland airport always seems to be a slightly different configuration each time I fly in, and this one didn’t work at all well – massive bottle neck at customs….

My sister picked us up and we drove up to my mum’s where the whole family were waiting to join us for tea. I was very happily surprised to see my daughter was there, she arrived back in New Zealand for Christmas with her BF and I was not expecting to see them until next week. It was great to see all three “children” together in one place for the first time in over five years. They are lovely !

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It was wonderful to see my family again, and introducing El to them was a wee bit nerve wracking, for everyone I suspect, but it all went well and it was a nice evening. Two weeks will seem like a very short time I think.