14 December 2010

Staying at the Queen's house and other adventures

We've been in the country of many names for the past two weeks: New Zealand, Aotearoa (the land of the long white cloud), and to most Americans, the land of Whale Rider, The Flight of the Conchords, and of course, Middle Earth.

The best place we stayed (and how could it not be?) was the former Queen of Tonga, Queen Salote's embassy house in Parnell, an upscale area in Auckland.

The Queen's house, with backpackers modifications here and there
It is now a cute, homey backpackers' hostel, filled with a maze of rooms and windows and balconies, and surrounded by sprays of flowers. When we asked the owner about its interesting history, he said that although he hasn't been able to find out much, he has figured out that she had it built as a sort of home base while acting on official business in New Zealand, and used it as a makeshift embassy to receive important international visitors.

Queen Salote's room (supposedly)
We were in the second story front room, which is guessed to be the very room Queen Salote stayed in while living there.

While simple, the house is certainly fit for at least a basic headquarters for an away-from-home queen. Its' dark wood staircase sweeps up to the second floor of high doorways, intricate moldings, and room fireplaces.

The Auckland Museum

Auckland Domain greenhouses
The house is minutes from the Auckland Domain, a beautiful park around the Auckland Museum that could pass for a simple botanical gardens with its wooded paths, wide lawns, and fairy like green houses. In our two days in Auckland, we thought about taking a bus to other parts of town, but quickly decided to leave further exploration to our next visit as soon as we walked in the enchanting grounds of the Domain.

An Orc at the WETA studios
Most of the time, though, we spent exploring Wellington, the charming capital city on the southern end of the North island that feels small, artsy, and very livable. We saw the hilariously dumpy looking neighbourhood where Peter Jackson and his crew made the Lord of the Rings movies, and got to visit the special effects studios that worked on LOTR, King Kong, I Robot, and many others. Many Wellingtonians are jovially proud of Peter Jackson and of him working in that neighbourhood: like what it would be like for a multi million dollar cultural icon being made in Corvallis, Oregon.

Two highlights throughout the trip was visiting art galleries and museums, and eating.

Most days, all we did was visit an art gallery in the morning, have frites and a glass of Leffe at a Belgian cafe, go to the national museum, Te Papa, in the afternoon, and make it out in time for a Malaysian spicy lamb curry. We made sure to eat every kind of nationality of food that we can't find in Tonga: French, Belgian, South Indian, North Indian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Japanese... and with a good appetite too, from walking six or seven km a day while exploring Wellington.

Went shopping at the amazing huge grocery store
Also, quite predictably, we spent a few hours goggle-eyed at the grocery store, pausing beside 20 different kinds of New Zealand honey, and exclaiming at the extremely cheap (for us) price of muesli, wine, peanut butter, spices, jam, and chocolate compared to Tongan prices.

Walked around the Wellington botanical gardens
The Wellington botanical gardens was another favourite of ours, sitting up on a ridge overlooking downtown, it was filled with little twisting paths through groves of trees, past duck ponds, around flower beds, and even along a herb garden.

Rode the cable car from the Wellington botanical gardens to downtown

We had a great time riding the cable car down the steep slope to downtown, and even visited the cable car museum. Some of the nicer houses on steep hills all across the city even have their own personal little cable car! We resisted the urge to hop in and try one out.

Saw a play: Apollo 13
We also had to catch a play while we were in town, and saw Apollo 13: Mission Control. It was a very weird, fun, interactive theatre experience that reminded me more of a very well-done Disney ride than actual theatre. I would have traded some of the interactivity for more actual acting, but nonetheless, we had great fun. We were the "press gallery" and the actors actually got asked my "paper's" question! (Elena)

We saw kiwis at Te Papa

We really enjoyed the New Zealand museums and readily available history, something that is hard-to-find in Tonga. Out of the many we vistied, the two we liked the best were the New Zealand National Museum (Te Papa), and the Auckland Museum. We spent the majority of multiple days in both of them because they were both so large that we felt too overwhelmed to see everything. The Maori exhibits in both museums were fascinating, extensive, and beautiful. We saw a range of Maori craft, art, carved meeting houses, and war and long-range catamaran canoes. It was all incredible. There was also a room of craft and tool exhibits from all over the South Pacific, including Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji, showing the similarities between Tonga and its neighbours.

Visited Zealandia, 
and saw kakas (this parrot eating an almond)
We spent another day at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, Zealandia, a park area in the hills above Wellington to help a pre-human, pre-mammal, pre-deforestation forest grow back. A predator-proof fence has been built to keep out introduced mammals and plants, and an army of volunteers works to track down and eradicate invasive species, as well as introducing all the native bird, plant and insect species that they can. To get there, we spent part of the morning working our way up through the upper neighbourhoods of Kelburn in Wellington, past a great German bakery, and finally up a long walk up to a dam framed by two steep hills on either side. Inside, we saw kaka (one of three native parrots), tui, kereru (a giant New Zealand forest pigeon), weka (a quail-like bird), as well as a bevy of smaller endangered song-birds and insects. There are also kiwis, tuatara (New Zealand's ancient reptile), and giant wetas (enormous cricket-like insects). The slightly ludicrous but sad problem that faces most of the birds is that because there were no mammals before humans came to New Zealand, most of the birds nest on the ground. Zealandia is a long-term project that will probably take 500 years to come to fruition, but it was fascinating even in its infancy, and probably one of the few opportunities to see some of those animals on mainland New Zealand.

We went to the Saturday farmers market for delicious vegetables
We were really impressed by the farmers' markets: they're better-quality and cheaper than in the store! Unlike most in the US, we found amazing bargains on produce, cheese, and sausage, all in a cute farmers' market laid out in the parking lot next to Te Papa, the national museum.

Went to the Wellington city library - 3 floors!
Another luxury of New Zealand was the city library full of every kind of book imaginable! It has three stories, and is in a beautiful building downtown on the waterfront. Even though we went during the day on a week day, there were hoards of people there browsing, reading, and checking out books, including a uniformed gaggle of private school girls.

and late at night, saw Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 3-D
We also had to be geeky and see a late-night showing of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 3-D. No movie theatres in Tonga! There actually used to be a very popular one here in the city, but it apparently got burned down in the 2007 riots. Everyone's waiting eagerly for it to be rebuilt.

Finally, we will leave you with our impressions of arriving in NZ for the first time, and then coming back to Tonga:

After our three hour flight, we arrived in the Auckland airport after not leaving Tonga for over a year. In the airport bathroom, I approached the gleaming grey marble sink and when I stuck my hands under the gushing hot water from the automatic faucet, I involuntarily whispered a reverent "oh my gosh," at the marvelous feeling, at which my hand-washing neighbor gave me a skeptical and suspicious look. We got more looks right outside the bathrooms when we both were loudly giggling at being able to fill up a water bottle from a real drinking fountain that produced forth amazingly delicious cold, sweet water.

Then, after two weeks in New Zealand, we took huge breaths of flower-scented tropical night air on the way home from the airport in Tonga, feeling our dry skin come back to life in the humidity. I laughed with delight when I went to the market and got two huge bags of fresh, garden-grown local vegetables for under the equivalent of $7 USD, and then was given an extra bundle of bok choy by the vendor who knows us, and a huge passion fruit and three mangoes by friends at work.

There are obviously much more important things that we appreciated in New Zealand and like about Tonga, and the day we came back, both Mark and I agreed hands down that if we live in the Pacific region after Peace Corps, we will have to make frequent trips to both countries. We're lucky to experience both.


  1. i miss you guys! it looks like you had a great time

  2. I have been enjoying reading all of your posts. It is interesting to hear about your different experiences in Tonga (my favorite was the one on bugs!)and also see how you went to NZ. Even if you do end up living in the Pacific region after the Peace Corps, I hope you come home to visit. I miss you guys!

  3. Aww, thanks Amanda! I miss you too- I was just facebook stalking you the other day. If you have any blog suggestions of what you want to read about, let me know. Hehe, aren't molokaus scary! Have a very happy Christmas. We will see about next year but we are planning to come back right around this time for at least a visit if all works out! :)

  4. Thanks Josh! We are LOVING that game you gave us :) Miss you too....


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