All Work and No Play

…makes for surly sailors. Just ask, if you could, the residents of 19th-century Russell, New Zealand. Located on the beautiful Bay of Islands, Russell was the first permanent European settlement in New Zealand and a welcome port of call for the whaling ships and merchant vessels that dropped anchor in its turquoise waters, sometimes after months at sea. The sailors flooded ashore in search of two things: women and rum. They were joined by adventurers, deserters and escaped convicts from Australia, and by the 1830s the lawless behavior of this unruly crew earned Russell the nickname “Hellhole of the Pacific.” Drunken brawls and brothels were the order of the day.

A reprobate in Russell

Eric and I did not spend our holiday in quite so debauched a fashion, but we did devote almost three weeks away from the boat in pursuit of fun with our daughter Kira, her husband Seth, our son Dane and his wife Gray. In addition to visiting Russell—today, a charming tourist town with a pretty church, a pleasant museum, a strollable waterfront and respectable citizens—here are some highlights that may tempt you to put New Zealand on your own must-visit list:

First off, Hobbiton, the delightfully detailed movie set created in 1999 by Sir Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings films. Built within a working sheep farm 110 miles south of Auckland, the 12-acre set was partially torn down when filming was complete, then rebuilt for The Hobbit trilogy, filmed in 2011-2012. It is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in New Zealand, and on a picture-perfect day, you can understand why, scouting the area by helicopter, Jackson and his team zoomed in on the lush green hills, grassy pastures and placid pond as the ideal site to match the idyllic landscape in Tolkien’s book. The 44 hobbit holes are built to three different scales to assist the size illusion of hobbits, dwarves and humans. However, with a few exceptions, none of the holes extend more than a foot or two inside the door; all the interior shots were filmed in a studio. The winding tour, replete with behind-the-scenes anecdotes, ends at the Green Dragon pub with a cup of specially brewed ale.

Welcome to Hobbiton
Some hobbit holes

Another “hot” spot was Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. Of course, beautiful beaches abound in New Zealand, but beneath a small area of this beach there bubbles a geothermal patch. Rent a small spade from the café at the entrance, dig a shallow pool, and slip into your personal oceanfront spa. The sizzling spot is exposed for only two hours either side of low tide, and it takes some probing to find a spot that is hot but not too hot. How hot does it get? 64ºC, or 147ºF—ouch, ouch, ouch! Soak too long and you’ll emerge bright pink. Good thing the ocean is right there so you can pop in to cool off. Though originally we were disappointed at the misty day, it turned out for the best. The cool, wet weather made the steaming pool all the more inviting, and had the sun blazed through, we would have baked. Due to the depleted ozone layer that sits above the country, New Zealand has one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world. Apply copious amounts of sunscreen and bring a wide-brimmed hat.

Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula

Naturally, we visited Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city though not its capital; that honor goes to Wellington farther south. I’m sorry to say that on first impression we found Auckland uninspiring, just another big city with too little parking and too much construction underway. At some point during our stay, we’ll give it another chance. But a 30-minute ferry ride from downtown takes you to undeveloped Rangitoto Island, a 600-year-old volcano that has been cleared of introduced predators like rats and stoats to allow native flora and fauna to thrive. The one-hour climb to the top brings you to a spectacular panorama and some up-close “wildlife.”

View from Rangitoto Island
A mother brown quail and chicks, Rangitoto Island

Another jaunt took us to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, site of the signing of the 1840  treaty between the British Crown and over 500 Maori chiefs that gave the British “sovereignty” over Maori lands. The exact meaning of this term and others used in the treaty is still a subject under debate. This was Eric’s and my second visit to the site, which includes a museum, replica war canoes, the 1834 home of the British Resident and a carved meeting house. On the first visit Eric volunteered—confession: I pushed him forward—to be the “chief’ of our tour group and exchange a welcome with the Maori chief that opens the cultural performance of song, dance and history. It was so entertaining and instructive, we knew we had to bring the kids to see it.

Carved meeting house, Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Chief Eric greets his Maori counterpart
Maori cultural performance

There was much more to our vacation: waterfalls, more beaches, giant kauri trees, rambling hikes, restaurants, wine tasting, a snorkeling day trip for Kira and Seth, a quick trip to the South Island for Dane and Gray. Above all, there was family time, the first opportunity for the six of us to be together in over three years. But no worries. We’ve already made a date for December 2019 in Australia.

Now, after spacious accommodations in an AirB&B outside Auckland and house/pet-sitting for friends in their hillside home near Whangarei, we are readjusting to our smaller, less luxurious space aboard Corroboree. We are not, however, surly. We are regenerated and continuing to regenerate Corroboree as well, crossing off projects right and left. Yesterday, the refurbished mast went up—new wiring, new sail track, new instruments, new fastenings at the mast step, and a New Zealand $2 coin beneath the mast, a sailor’s tradition for good luck. Come February, we’ll pack into an even smaller space, our van, Sage, and head off to explore more of the country. As Bilbo shouted as he bounded away from the Shire, “I’m going on an adventure!”

May you all have the very best sort of adventures in 2019!