Monday, July 3, 2017

New Zealand, Day 1 and 2 - Arrival and Coromandel Peninsula

Let’s just state the obvious from the start—I loved New Zealand. Like LOVED it. Please don't tell England, but I may have experienced a transfer of affection. I'm still sorting out my feelings in that regard. I mean, NZ can't boast of Jane Austen, but other than that, it was so me!!—the cold weather, the farminess, the mountains, the food... I don’t think I fully comprehended how much I’ve struggled with settling into Hawaii until I left and found so much of what I’ve been missing in New Zealand. But I’m sure we’ll get to all that later. Let’s start with the logistics.

First of all, I’d never planned on visiting New Zealand. I’d watch Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit and think, “wow, that’s a beautiful place!” But it never really occurred to me that we could actually go see it ourselves. When we moved to Hawaii, one of our Coast Guard friends told us about their trip. And then as we’ve met more and more people here, we’ve found that lots of our military friends have vacationed there. It’s really quite convenient being wayyy over here in the Pacific. So we thought huh, maybe that’s something we could do before we leave. You know, when the kids are old enough to appreciate it.

Then we had our first Hawaiian winter (or non-winter.) Or our first year in Hawaii. And island fever had started to set in. It wasn’t so much that I needed to leave the island, but rather that I just needed a change. So much about Hawaii is the same day in and day out and I felt like I was losing my ever-loving mind with the redundancy of it all! It hasn’t been such an issue for Jon though, because he’s been traveling so much this last year. But he happened to have a lull in his work schedule in June. And the kids had off school. So we decided maybe we should trade in our plans to travel to the East Coast for Christmas and do a family vacation this summer instead.

I needed cold. So we considered Alaska. But then the idea of New Zealand kept coming up and Jon found a really good deal on tickets for the whole family and we literally just decided that day to “just do it” and next thing I knew we had 6 seats on a plane leaving in June and absolutely no idea what to do after that!

 By the way, June is WINTER in En Zed. Which I was absolutely thrilled about. But it made packing bags that much more challenging. We left all or our winter clothes and gear back on the mainland. Silly me never thought I’d need it here. Silly me never imagined how much I’d be craving snow and ice and chill after only 12 months in eternal summer. So between a bag of coats/hats/gloves arriving from back home, a few trips to the thrift store, and several shopping sprees on Amazon, we were able to scrounge up enough to get by.

 And yes, we brought our kids. For weeks leading up to our trip I wondered if it was really the best idea to bring four kids 8-and-under to the other side of the world… and now that we’re back I’m still wondering. There’s so much they didn’t appreciate. There’s so much they won’t remember. But at the end of the day, we’re a family. And this was a family vacation. And overall, we had a really good time together!

So I’m going to do my best over the next few weeks to share this experience with everyone who enjoys following along on our journeys, preserve the memories so my kids have something to look back on, and jot down a few tips and logistical information for some of our friends that are hoping to make a similar trip in the next year or so. Hold on and mind your head!

Our flight wasn’t until the late-afternoon which meant plenty of time to do last minute packing and cleaning … and plenty of time for the kids to undo it all! We loaned out all three of our cars and our house to friends that were PCSing to and from the island. So I was also trying to prep the house and yet keep things as low-stress as possible, but in the end it ended up being a race against the clock to get it all done in time. Sadly, the rug never did get vacuumed before we left.

We were some of the only blondes in the international queue. That's Hawaii for ya!

We sat in three rows of two on the plane. Julia sat with Jon, the boys sat together, and I had the honor of sitting with the child with anger management issues (which is why I ended up with orange juice all over my pants and shoes). We had packed much of the same stuff we used on our flight to Hawaii, and the rest of the kids all did really well. It also helped that Hawaiian Airlines has individual video screens with lots of movies to choose from!

Of course, Joci was being a typical 3YO and only wanted to watch 20 minutes of every movie, while simultaneously playing with a different toy. So I spent a good chunk of the flight keeping her entertained until she finally fell asleep. But I did manage to watch 3 movies and that ain’t bad!

By the time we landed it was around midnight Hawaii time. We still had to get our bags and get through customs, which is the point where Joci did her whole “refusal to walk” thing that she tends to do. Thankfully, the airport isn’t too crowded in the middle of the night and we were able to drag everyone through fairly quickly. 

Jon had made reservations at Oakwood Manor, saying it was the only place he could find close to the airport that could accommodate a family of six. It was, shall we say, unexpected. It was not, as their website states, an urban luxury hotel.

We caught the tail end of fall here!
The cool part was that we got a two-story suite and everyone had a bed. As soon as we walked in the door I was reminded of my flat in Oxford almost 13 years ago (which is the last time I left the country except for our honeymoon to a resort in Turks and Caicos.) Like, overwhelmingly reminded me of English living. From the smell down to the way the floor creaked under the thin blue carpet to the terrible lighting and draftiness + necessary space heaters. It was uncanny. But only the first of many instances where I felt like I was back in England.

Room service?
 Although it was nearly 2am Hawaii time when we arrived, the kids were sooooo amped. This was to be our new normal for the first day or two because everything was new and soooo EXCITING!!! After a good amount of running, yelling, and jumping on the bed, we finally got to them all to bed. And everyone slept fast and hard until about 6:45 NZ time, when I could hear them running up and down the stairs.

They really liked the stairs. It sounds silly, but we haven’t had stairs in our house since we moved and apparently the kids really miss them. Who knew!

Although we left on Friday, it was now Monday. Because we crossed the International Date Line, Hawaii was actually one day behind but two hours ahead (and the East Coast eight hours ahead). Super confusing. But we were on vacation so it didn’t matter what day it was!

We had heard the hotel offered a continental breakfast. We had not heard that it was $7/person and consisted of cold cereal, canned pears, the whitest bread I’ve ever seen, and Weetabix (which I did not attempt to try during our whole visit!) The only coffee we could find was instant, so I enjoyed three cups of tea instead. Because it was chilly and hot tea seemed appropriate.

Jon and Jude took a taxi to pick up our campervan while the rest of the kids and I enjoyed more fun on the stairs and watched some cartoons. Interesting to note: NZ also has the Disney channel, but the voiceovers are all with an accent. Which was kind of funny!

A little while later, Jude burst into the room with a huge smile on his face to announce that the campervan was here! And it was amazing! And we’re all just SO EXCITED TO TRAVEL THE COUNTRY IN A SMALL, CONFINED SPACE TOGETHER! AHHHHH! But on a more serious note, the campervan was nice. Much nicer than I was picturing. And it was kind of exciting. But the children’s enthusiasm was starting to become a little much at this point.

But yes, we spent the rest of our time in a 24 foot campervan (RV for you Americans.) We rented through Britz, although they work in conjunction with Maui, so our first van was a Maui. Campervans are THE THING TO DO in New Zealand and there are all sizes and sorts that you can use. Ours was a 6 berth and fully-contained (i.e. included a fully equipped kitchen and bathroom/shower). Money-saving tip: if you can swing it, a relocation campervan (or rental car) would be the way to go! For only $5/day, you can rent a campervan as long as you pick it up and drop it off at the specific location. We attempted to do this, but with 4 kids we just didn’t have the flexibility we needed. But it is possible to travel NZ very cheaply if you can make this work!

Our first stop was for provisions. There is no Wal-Mart or Target in NZ. Instead, they have The Warehouse. Apparently, despite weeks of planning and packing, I had forgotten Julia’s socks and underwear. Random, I know. So we had to get some of that for her along with some warm jammies. Next door was Countdown, a big grocery story chain. (At the end of our trip Jon visited a Pak and Save and seemed to think that was a much better bargain!) It’s interesting shopping for groceries in a foreign country. They didn’t have many American brands and we didn’t know what was good otherwise. Always a gamble. And some of the food tastes different. For instance, “tomato sauce” is not the same as “ketchup.” And good ole Heinz ketchup is pretty hard to find!

Everyone warned us that NZ is expensive but, coming from Hawaii, I don’t think it was quite as bad. It also helps that the exchange is currently $1USD = $.73NZD. Some things were a bit much. Like the dozen cage-free brown eggs that Jon picked up for $9. Yikes! The portions were also much smaller, but that may have been because we were shopping in the city. For a family of six, one small jar of pasta sauce doesn’t get very far. So grocery shopping was a bit of a challenge, especially since we were trying to eat meals that didn’t involve a lot of ingredients.

But we finally got our kitchen stocked and were able to hit the road! So here we are, cruising down the motorway (i.e. highway), in a 24-foot campervan, on the opposite side of the road with Jon sitting in the driver’s seat on the righthand side, trying to figure out kilometers per hour and maneuver all the roundabouts and the children are VERY EXCITED!!! And it was all just a bit much.

Those tiny white dots on the hill? Sheep!!

And then we quickly transitioned to rural New Zealand with beautiful green hills and cows and sheep grazing everywhere. The roads narrowed and curved and we wound our way around hills and pastures. I thought we were either going to roll down the mountain or get sideswiped by a truck on more than one occasion and the kids’ excitement started to die down as car sickness set in. I had crawled back there to help them out and after sitting in the backwards seat a few minutes I began feeling quite miserable myself.

Right about the time I was laying on the camper floor dry heaving into some grocery bags, Jon decided to pull over for a break and the kids all poured out into the fresh air. I tumbled out onto the beach to watch the kids attempt to skip rocks where I promptly got nailed in the forehead by a stray stone that Jack accidently let loose a few seconds too soon.

And that’s when I started to cry. And laugh, because it was kind of funny. But also cry because it hurt and I felt like throwing up and the kids were being so terrible all day long and Jon was stressed out with learning to drive in a foreign country and it was all just.too.much. I was certain we had made a huge mistake with trying to bring alllll these children to “vacation” on the other side of the world.

But I can now say, from the other side, that there’s a definite adjustment period, and it probably lasts around 24-36 hours, where everything is new and overwhelming and the children are wayyyy overstimulated and acting out in all sorts of crazy ways. But it ends. And after that first day, we started to find a rhythm and settle into our new normal. But in that moment, when I’m rubbing a bump between my eyes and the kids are climbing back into the campervan with mud all over their shoes … I just wasn’t so sure.

We hadn’t planned on traveling very far that first day FOR THIS VERY REASON and I’m very glad for that. We treated everyone to some Dramamine and headed back on the narrow, winding road to Coromandel.

Coromandel Town was cute and appealing, but also fairly empty this time of year. We ended up driving on a little further to Shelly Beach Top 10 Campground (Top 10’s are kind of like a brand or chain in NZ.) There was only one other campervan there besides ours, but the receptionist was kind enough to turn on the jumping pillow for our kids. Apparently these are a big thing on this side of the world, because nearly every campground we visited had one. The kids thought it was great and even Jon had a chance to get a little carefree.

We had bought pre-made pizzas for dinner that night, but unfortunately, couldn’t figure out how to get the propane to work. Which meant we didn’t have an oven/stove or hot water. So instead, we used the microwave, and had pizza mush for dinner. Eh.

Shelly Beach didn’t have much to offer, but we didn’t know that at that time since it was our first holiday park. It did have a big kitchen, hot showers, a few cows next door, and a beach with lots of seashells. And that’s where we spent the final few minutes of daylight that evening before collapsing into bed a little bit earlier than usual.

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