Riding the Rails: Taieri Gorge Railway

After pedaling 150 kilometers along the retired Otago Central Railway, it was a treat to ride the rails by train. The Otago Central Railway was instrumental in developing Central Otago as an agricultural region. Today day-trippers and cyclists are the main “cargo”.

As we left Middlemarch I noticed a cute café called the Kissing Gate and Nick explained it was owned by Kate, a Dunedin councilwoman. We are more than 60 km from Dunedin and yet we are part of the greater city of Dunedin. Go figure.

My Off the Rails guide Nick turned off the main road at the sign to the Taieri Gorge Railway; we still had 12 km to go in the middle of nowhere. We arrived a few minutes before the train was due. Nick groaned slightly when he spied the little flea market along the side of the track. Their presence signified that there would be a tour train catering to a cruise ship that would delay our train.

The middle-of-nowhere stop at Pukerangi is as beautiful as it is remote.
The middle-of-nowhere stop at Pukerangi is as beautiful as it is remote, even in the rain.

Nick purchased my ticket for me and drove me to Pukerangi. Pukerangi means the Hills of the God in te reo Maori. The isolation does make a person wonder about the choice of the railway terminus (Middlemarch makes more sense). It was raining by the time we reached the station. The train was a little behind schedule and Nick was able to suss out the delay was due to an extra train carrying cruise ship tour groups.

When the train arrived, Nick had a word with the elderly guard Joe. He confirmed that we would experience a delay of about 40 minutes because there is only one track so we have to wait for them to arrive and their cruise ship disembarked an hour behind schedule. Meanwhile people desperate for retail shopping browsed among the market tables. The rain started coming down hard and the vendors covered their goods with tarps. The hardiest tourists continued to browse as best they could.

Our train arrived first and the train conductors greeted us warmly. They had my souvenir ticket and loaded my bags. I had time to stop at the dining car and purchase an egg salad sandwich and some potato chips before the train filled with travelers. There was a family with a baby who screeched. Not the usual boo-hoo from a baby or toddler but a screech like a parrot. Thankfully the rocking of the train seemed to calm him once we were underway.

Too bad it did not quiet the opinionated American woman with the southern accent who responded to a gentle joke from the conductor, “Barrack Hussein Obama is a secret Muslim.” It was apropos of nothing and really awkward. The Chinese-speaking rider across from me obviously understood and caught my eye as if to see if I would respond. I really did not know what to say. I did write in my journal, “Tests for letting people out of the country instead of in.”

View from the train window of Taieri Gorge Railway.
View from the train window.

The train is aptly named as we passed one gorge after another. The Scotch Broom blooms bright yellow on the hillsides among the tor (rock outcropping). Seats are assigned, so if you are keen to take pictures, request a left side window seat en route to Dunedin and opposite on way to Pukerangi, and if you are afraid of falling off the side of roads request an aisle seat.

Gradually the terrain levels out and transforms into bucolic farmland. Finally we reach the outskirts of Dunedin and see homes and businesses. About 1 hour and 45 minutes later, we arrive at the majestic Dunedin Central Train Station. The station is a gorgeous Victorian era monument to railroads and is centrally located in downtown Dunedin.

Dunedin Railway Station

Dunedin Railway clock tower.
Dunedin Railway clock tower.

Dunedin Railways (www.taieri.co.nz) offers several daily trips from the majestic Dunedin Railway Station to Pukerangi (short drive from Middlemarch) or one train to/from Middlemarch on Sunday and Friday. The fare (as of January 2015) is $89 per adult. Tickets can be booked on line and I recommend you purchase in advance especially during summer season.

Larnach Castle is Worth the Effort

The mansion known as Larnach Castle and its extensive gardens are open to the public. There is an admission charge unless you are staying overnight in the lodging. It is about 20-30 minutes on a narrow, windy road from the Dunedin City Centre, South Island, New Zealand. It is worth the effort.

Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand
Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand

It was built by William Larnach,who was a bit of a scoundrel, in 1871. It took over 15 years to build, finish the interiors and furnish. Larnach was a merchant and politician who ended a bankrupt suicide. The house fell into dereliction for years and then in 1967 the Barker family bought and restored it. Margaret Barker searched high and low for the original furnishings or photos to return the home and its gardens to its former glory.

The home is impressive. I am always more interested in the gardens and they are lovely. Larnach Catstle Garden, Dunedin, New ZealandLarnach Catstle Garden, Dunedin, New Zealand

Larnach Catstle Garden, Dunedin, New Zealand

Larnach Catstle Garden, Dunedin, New Zealand
Incomparable views of Dunedin.

Larnach Catstle Garden, Dunedin, New Zealand

Castle annex with cafe, toilets and plants for sale.
Castle annex with cafe, toilets and plants for sale.

Is it worth it to pay $200 or more for a hotel night?

Maybe your headline would say $100 or maybe your threshold is $300 or $400 a night. I thought about this a lot on my most recent trip to New Zealand because I splurged on a few nights at special venues.

When my Aunt and I travelled to Iowa we stayed at a Hampton Inn in West Des Moines. The staff was super friendly and provided great service. The room and beds were comfortable. The bathroom was extra clean and toiletries were provided. There was a mini fridge where we could store our leftovers from dinner and then forget them. All for a bargain price (thanks AARP and AAA) of about $100 a night. What more do you need? And is it worth paying for?

Sorry. You have to decide for yourself. Is it worth spending an additional $200 a night to have more space (a small apartment) at The Rees overlooking Lake Wakitipu? For my Mom and her friends. Hella yes!

When I was planning my most recent New Zealand trip I had Friday to Friday to plan on South Island. I started with a super ambitious agenda that included Christchurch. My Kiwi friends helped me get some perspective, yet I still bit off a little too much. (I will share what I will do next time at the end).

Wilderness LodgeI finally landed in Queenstown, which is the closest airport to Haast and yet it is still a 3-3.5 hour drive to the Wilderness Lodge at Lake Moeraki. As you can tell by my Christmas post on the Fiordland Crested Penguins, I do not begrudge any of the time invested. It was a fantastic experience. It was (gulp) $499 NZ ($387 US) a night for a room that included dinner and breakfast. My room was very comfortable and had a super view of the river. The was the most expensive room I had ever booked and I only stayed one night in part because I had a hard time justifying the expense–even for penguins. Now I realize part of the room rate is because Gerry and Anne McSweeney invest so much in the habitat surrounding the lodge and in providing lodging in as sustainable a way as possible. If I had that trip to do over I would stay at least 2 nights.

I left about 1:00 p.m. to drive about 6 hours to Invercargill in the hopes of visiting Stewart Island. Then I turned around the next day, disappointed and tired without getting to the Island. My neck was torked from driving. I decided to return to Queenstown as quick as I could to enjoy my next splurge: The Dairy Private Luxury Hotel. In February a taxi driver pointed out the hotel and said it was consistently ranked number 1 on Trip Advisor. I was intrigued. The proprietors have taken an old “Dairy” or corner market and several other buildings and converted it to a first class hotel. I called ahead and asked Matt if he could arrange a massage for me in town. It was a Sunday so I thought it might not be possible. He made an appointment for me at the Body Sanctum spa just a few blocks into town from the hotel with Juliana. After the ill-fated massage in the Pyrenees I was hesitant. Wow–best massage I have had since my favorite masseuse Jackie moved away.

The Dairy Private Luxury Hotel is in the heart of Queenstown.
The Dairy Private Luxury Hotel is in the heart of Queenstown.

I arrived at the Dairy Hotel in time for afternoon tea. It was a very proper and delicious tea with cream scones and fruit (all prepared in their kitchen). The public rooms in the hotel are so comfortable I actually did make use of them. Other guests also read in front of the fire in the evening. My bed was super comfortable. The bathroom was well appointed except that I could not figure out the bath fixtures which made for a bit of contortion washing my hair. When I mentioned it to Paul he explained that I needed to push the button to start the shower before I turned the water on. Oh well. I only wish I could have stayed longer. Even at $465.00 NZ a night. Just to have Matt’s exquisite omelette again at breakfast. And to be referred to as Madame.

Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand
Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand

The thing about spending more on a hotel night is that it then makes the $290 NZ spent on Larnach Castle accommodation seem like a bargain. Again I justified it with the proximity to penguins. It is only 20-30 minutes from the Royal Albatross Centre–depending on your nerves driving on a windy road where one moment of daydreaming will have you swimming in the bay. The rooms are not in the Castle, which is a historic restored mansion open for tours. The hotel rooms are in specially built buildings and in the retrofitted stables. This price includes full breakfast the next morning but not dinner in the Castle. I pulled out my wallet for the $65 NZ for a 3 course meal with other guests. It includes ghost stories.

My view was impeccable. The windows run the length of the room including the bathroom. There is a short deck too. I could have stayed on the deck and enjoyed the view of Dunedin longer but the gardens were calling. I wandered around the various “rooms” of the garden until it was time to change for dinner. You do not have to dress for dinner. They said “come as you are.” I had packed some nicer clothes and I wanted to mark the occasion of the last night of a very special visit to New Zealand.

View from Room 18 at Larnach Castle lodging.
View from Room 18 at Larnach Castle lodging.

I still want to visit Stewart Island. And I have heard enough about the Catlins that I want to explore there as well. So driving from Dunedin to Invercargill is probably the best strategy. I do not recommend trying to squeeze Invercargill in as it takes some time to get there and then some flexibility needs to be built in on account of weather.

I have seen so much of New Zealand. Just when I think I have seen everything I learn about something else. Plus I have not done a Great Walk yet. I am looking forward to my next visit already. It helps to keep the “I’m not In New Zealand blues” away.

Planning the Perfect New Zealand Adventure, Part II Cycling

The place to begin planning your Otago Central Rail Trail adventure.

One of the challenges of visiting any country where it takes 12+ hours to fly to: you want to pack in as much as humanly possible in your schedule. (My kids say not everyone approaches travel this way. Whatever.) When I was last in Dunedin I really wanted to spend a day cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail. It takes an entire day with the coach pick up from the railway station, the cycling, and the return; plus it was not offered the one day I could have made it work.

So this trip I was determined to make sure to experience the retired railway, now pedestrian and cycling path.  After my experience with my Tour de France adventure, I knew I wanted a supported ride and as many days cycling as possible (in between penguin stops).

I started my research at the official website for the Otago Central Rail Trail. Interestingly, some tour operators advertise on the homepage but are not listed on the Tour Operators page. I made a complete list of possibilities. Then I went to Trip Advisor and checked the reviews under Otago Central Rail Trail. It is ranked the number #1 attraction in the Otago region. There were a few more tour operators reviewed here and so I added their names to the list.

Then I began the laborious process of visiting their websites and reading what options are offered and the possible schedules to fill in my matrix. Some options were eliminated because they only begin offering tours in January. Seasons are opposite from North America in New Zealand. (I know, duh.) Early December is not quite summer. I also have some time constraints and some companies have a minimum of 5 nights. Many of the businesses put together all of your reservations and equipment, but do not support you on the road. I believe I found my sweet spot. At a price of $1,200 a person or more, it is worth the extra time and effort to do my homework.

I also discovered that I will begin my adventure in Queenstown. This makes it easier to coordinate my car rental but adds some drive time to my overall adventure. I will take a train at the end of my four days to spend some time in Dunedin and fly to Auckland and then to the US from there.

Making these plans has definitely reenergized my bicycling workouts. I am using the training plan from Bike Your Butt Off! by Selena Yeager with Leslie Bonci.

Have any of you done this trip?  What do you think, does it deserve its #5 ranking in AA’s 101 Must-Dos for Kiwis 2012? Any tips to better enjoy the adventure?

Designing the Perfect New Zealand Adventure, Part I Penguins

These plywood penguins are helpful educational tools, but I want to see real penguins in the wild!

My adult kids and I will be celebrating my birthday and Thanksgiving in St Heliers, Auckland, New Zealand. I am so excited to share my favorite places in Auckland with them and tackling some adventures such as climbing Rangitoto. We will make a traditional American groaning feast for my Kiwi friends and then we will pursue our own adventures.

Every trip begins with booking tickets on Air New Zealand. For $50 one of their helpful advisors will help make more complicated reservations over the phone. Sometimes there is a savings if you are traveling to several places within New Zealand during your stay. This trip I made all of my reservations on line. Their easy to use site allows me to book my flight, pick my seat and let them know if I have special dietary requirements or need to bring an extra bag.

With my bookends of arrivals and departures (and notice that you lose a day on the way over from USA and live your last day twice on the way back), I begin to fill in the middle points. If I have confirmed dates in certain places I typically log on to Booking.com and make my hotel reservations, Kayak.com for auto reservations and then Trip Advisor for ideas for things to do and for reviews of hotels if I am undecided on Booking.com.

I am going to South Island for a combination of penguin viewing and cycling.  Penguin viewing was my highest priority: I want to see both Fiordland penguins and yellow eyed penguins. And I want to visit Stewart Island (mainly for kiwi birds).  My challenge was figuring out the best places to see these and then create an itinerary that is reasonable and fulfilling.

New Zealand Penguins website is a life saver.  It lists several options for each type of penguin that I want to view.  I decided to visit Lake Moeraki in South Westland, Stewart Island in Southland, and Dunedin in Otago for my three penguin stops. I created a matrix for Dunedin since there are so many options. I have begun searching the various penguin guide websites and emailing for more details. I will soon have my tickets or reservations.

The complicating factor is the cycling. I really would like to cycle the Otago Central Rail Trail from Queenstown to Dunedin (the last bit by train). I had to establish the timeframe for that before I could solidify my penguin plans. And I had to make some adjustments to my plans. Originally I thought I’d drive from Queenstown to Lake Moeraki to Invercargill to Dunedin, but the cycling trips begin in Queenstown. Some quick changes to my itinerary and voila! I am able to do everything I want to do.

It is a very full schedule, and not everyone would find four days of cycling the “relaxing” bit. I am super charged about it.

Swatch: Diamond Lace Mitts in NZ Wool

I was given a skein of “Cocoon Amethyst” by Rare Yarns of New Zealand when I was in Dunedin in September. (Remember the lovely ladies of Twisted Stitch?)  I left New Zealand without a pattern, so recently, as I looked at the gaps on my Christmas gift list, I logged onto Ravelry website and found a pretty project for my young friend Grace Julie.  It is called “Diamond Lace Mitts” and can be found in a Rare Yarns publication and only requires one skein. I could not find the book, so I emailed Rare Yarns and they sent me the pattern–complimentary.

Wool and pattern from Rare Yarns, NZ
Wool and pattern from Rare Yarns, NZ

These mitts are relatively easy and fast to knit. I made these up in two evenings of knitting while lounging with the family immersed in Thanksgiving holiday conversation.  I sewed them in about 20 minutes on the plane trip home using my Auntie’s small hands as my model. I like how they turned out and they will keep Gracie’s wrists and hands warm during her German winter. The yarn is delightful to work with and quite strong and the overall effect is very pretty.

I really like Rare Yarns, yet there is only one yarn shop in Maryland (USA) that sells their wool. So I guess I will need to stock up when I am in New Zealand in February.

Rafts of Blue Penguins

In my pre-trip planning I experienced some frustrations in trying to line up penguin experiences. The Otago Peninsula in

Royal Albatross Centre at end of Otago Peninsula
Royal Albatross Centre at end of Otago Peninsula

Dunedin is one of the few places in New Zealand guide books where penguin experiences are specifically called out, so I was a bit mystified that it was such a challenge to arrange. I was not able to arrange a yellow-eyed penguin tour so I signed up for Blue Penguins Pukekura at the Royal Albatross Centre.

The drive on the Otago Peninsula Low Road was an adventure. Even though I had a firm grip on the wheel part of me had to smile at the “at your own risk” road. Not a great place to be in a storm unless you have a life jacket in the car. Also, stay sober! Driving all the way to the end to the Royal Albatross Centre is worth it.  The Centre is interesting and I recommend arriving an hour before sunset so you can watch the albatross arrive to their roosting area for the night. (There is also a cafe to grab a bite to eat or hot drink).

This particular evening the blue penguin viewing started at 6:30 p.m.  Thumbs up for the jackets provided as an extra barrier against the cold and for the Maori welcome.  The stairs are also well lit to the platform at the bottom of a gentle beach along the harbor.  Unfortunately, this is not a wheelchair accessible experience.

Landing beach for little blue penguin rafts
Landing beach for little blue penguin rafts

The sandy beach was easily visible from the viewing platform and we only had to wait a short while before the first raft of penguins arrived.  Because of the gentle approach, the penguins could assemble in the bay and arrived on shore together. About 100 yards off shore we could see their dark shape and the thrashing water signal their approach. Nothing however prepared me for their burst on to shore and sprint to the grassy area about 15 yards beyond the surf.  It was so charming and funny. They are adorable. Again flash photography is prohibited.

Everyone was in a super good mood by the time we started the steep climb up the hill. We handed our jackets over and began the “fun” drive back the coast road. It was actually not as worrisome as I expected.

The next day I serendipitously discovered the office of the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust on Lower Stuart Street.  They are celebrating their 25th anniversary of restoring habitat, funding research, and promoting penguin appreciation and education.  I have seen other communities celebrate an individual (Rio Vista humpback whale Humphrey, Dingle dolphin, and of course the Loch Ness monster!), yet I found it sweet how Dunedin and the Otago region embraced their special stewardship of the yellow-eyed penguin.

Yellow-eyed penguins celebrated in Dunedin
Yellow-eyed penguins celebrated in Dunedin