After the baggage ordeal, I staggered through the customs exit where I was met by Embry, who had been patiently for almost two hours as the bag switch was being resolved. We were met by one of the smiling, peppy Viking greeters and escorted to one of their vans, which drove us, along with a dozen other jet-lagged Viking passengers, to a large downtown hotel. Our plane had landed around five a.m., and we stumbled into the lobby at eight, mercifully unable to figure out what time our biological clock thought it was. Besides not yet reunited with my luggage, there was one more problem: hotel rooms would not be ready before three in the afternoon.
(We had opted for a two-day pre cruise stay in Auckland before boarding.)
So what to do? I had no idea of how many hours I had slept but certainly not many. Yet the day was drop-dead gorgeous with Carolina blue skies, occasional white cloud puffs, low humidity, and temperatures in the mid 60s, forecast to top out at 70—normal for the summertime. Would anyone regardless of how tired and disoriented, want to stay indoors? We get days like this in Washington two or three times a year.
So off we went to explore the city of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest at 1.5 million.(Total population is only 4.8million on a land mass that is about the size of Colorado.)
Now to be honest I had not done a lot of preparation beforehand. The sum total of my knowledge about the country boiled down to seeing one of the Lord of the Rings movies (during which I had no idea what was happening but bowled over by the landscapes) and hearing enthusiastic accounts by the few people I knew (including my son-in-law, Peter), who had visited the country. Embry reads everything she can get her hands on before we leave on a trip. I like to be surprised.
We took a free shuttle from the hotel to the harbor area and then got on a hop on-hop off bus that took us to something like 20 locations. We stopped at maybe a half dozen spots including the city’s major historical museum, a couple of parks, and the Anglican Cathedral. At the end of the day I was astonished to discover that the pedometer showed that on this “bus tour” we had actually walked four miles. Here is what stands out:
- The city is considered by many to be the undisputed sailing capital of the world. Two recent Americas Cup trophies are displayed in the yacht club, and the next up will take place here in 2021. On this beautiful Saturday the bay was dotted with white sails of every size and variety including some very tall white sails on the 1995 Cup boats, which now cater to tourists.
- If you want a parallel in the US, San Francisco and Charleston both come to mind. San Francisco because the city is busy and full of energy and it rises on steep hills providing stunning views of the bay, and Charleston because in the older sections, the houses show the best of 18thCentury charm, with lots of gingerbread , wide front porches and built on tiny lots.
- There is no evidence in the various neighborhoods we drove through of any rundown or troubled communities, very little trash, and no graffiti. I kept thinking what is wrong with these people. The second day when we drove out into the country we did see some more modest communities but still nothing like what you see in the U.S.
- The city ranks very high on virtually all quality of life scales and is the most ethnically diverse city in the country with about 15% of the population being Maori (whose ancestors were the first humans to discover these isolated islands) and the largest concentration of Polynesians of any city on the planet. Anglos (“New Zealanders” or “Kiwis”) still dominate with over 72%, and you can’t help thinking how ironic it is that in two countries—New Zealand and Australia—that are the farthest away from the US, the two cultures, at least on the surface, are so similar. Same language, same religions, similar lifestyles.
- There is also very little crime, a strong educational system, and less disparity in incomes compared to the US. Voter turnout averages close to 80%. (Parliamentary system, totally independent of the UK since the 1940s despite the fact that the Queen remains the titular head of state).
- While there is a lot of variation in climate depending on where you live in New Zealand, in most places you are in the Goldilocks’ zone. Summertime highs are in the low 70s, wintertime highs in the low 50s, and at sea level it rarely freezes. Rainfall is generally heavy on the western coast and mountainous areas with 50 or more inches a year on average, about half that on the east coast where all the major cities are and over 75% of the people live.
- Surely there are issues, but first impression: not a bad place to live.
One key to understanding New Zealand is that it is the last land area on the planet earth to be inhabited by humans. The Polynesians did not arrive until the mid 13thCentury and while a Dutch explorer was the first European to discover the island in 1642 (Captain Cook visited in 1769.), the British migration did not really pick up until the early 19thCentury. The reason behind this, of course, is the island’s remoteness. The closest Polynesian islands are over 600 miles to the north and Australia about 1,000 miles to the west. Talk about isolation.
But people do not visit New Zealand because of its political system but rather its unparalleled natural beauty. We got a taste of that on our trip to the West Coast the second day of our visit and that will be the subject of the next blog.