Panjikent

On our way back from Seven Lakes, we decided to take a quick detour to Panjikent. We had come nearly all the way, so the 20 minute detour to the city center was definitely not a huge undertaking.

Panjikent is situated on the Zeravshan River only a few miles from the Uzbek border. The road from Dushanbe to the city was newly resurfaced, and driving into town you can almost forget your’re in a chaotic place. Then you hit the main road and reality hits you in the face.

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We didn’t spend a lot of time in the city since we were tired from the hike the day before. I did, however, want to see the bazaar since it seemed to be one of the most photographed places in the city. For anyone who has lived in or visited Dushanbe, this statement will resonate: that bazaar makes the Green Market look like a well-organized, well-oiled machine.

From the bazaar, we drove a few minutes outside of Panjikent to the sight of Ancient Panjikent, then known as the town of Soghdians. The tiny town grew in the 5th century to house many professionals and businessmen. Today, there is a small one room museum with copies of artifacts excavated from the site (the originals are in Tashkent and Saint Petersburg), and you can take quick stroll through the ruins themselves.

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Travel Notes:

  • We didn’t spend a lot of time in Panjikent, but it’s pretty small so I don’t think you have to. If you happen to pass through like we did you can easily see the big sights in a few hours.

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Seven Lakes

Over Memorial Day weekend Sean and I did something for the first time since we’ve been in Tajikistan: we took a vacation in-region completely by ourselves. I realized that as we were driving home and could barely believe we finally got a weekend away alone. I couldn’t have picked a better destination for our first Crocker only trip either.

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I’ve wanted to visit Seven Lakes since I learned there was such a place called Seven Lakes. Nestled in the Fann Mountains, about an hour and a half outside Panjikent, the lakes are like a string of beads as the river works its way down from the mountains, each one a slightly different blue.

From talking to others who have visited, we learned you can drive up to six of the seven, but the last one was only accessible on foot. Also, we heard there are small homestays at lakes four, five, and six, which can serve as a base as you explore the area. Sean and I are not afraid of hiking long distances, so we decided to stay at lake four and hike up to seven; a nearly 16 mile total trek that follows the road until all that’s left is the river.

Luckily, setting up the homestay was extremely easy. I emailed the regional travel office and got a response in a few hours. Apparently the village at lake four is called Nofin and they had availability the dates we needed. We ended up being the only ones there, and the host Jum’aboy and his family were extremely accommodating and welcoming. He was no stranger to crazy Westerners hellbent on hiking to lake seven, so he gave us a few tips before we set out.

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The hike is not for the faint of heart. It’s not so much the terrain that’s difficult – though it is eight miles uphill before you reach lake seven – it’s more the sheer length of the trip. The road is well marked and one of the better routes we’ve been on in Tajikistan for hiking, and you wind your way through a few small villages with friendly onlookers as you make your ascent. The stretch from lake six to seven is probably the most difficult, but the view at the top is completely worth that last difficult mile.

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A few people have asked which lake was my favorite, and lake seven, in my opinion, clinches the top spot only slightly. We had a lovely picnic lunch right next to the water and enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere. Lake six is also gorgeous with picturesque views of the mountains rising up behind the turquoise water.

One great thing about this hike is you can break it up if you want to. There are homestays at other lakes, and if you want, you can drive through lake six, park in the small town, and then hike just six miles round trip to lake seven. It’s a choose your own adventure kind of trip.

Travel Notes:

  • ZDTA Tourism: English language website for tourism in the area. Great for arranging a stay not only at Seven Lakes but throughout the Fann Mountain region. The email address I used was ztda_zarafshon@yahoo.com and it worked perfectly.
  • Nofin Homestay: Najmiddin run by Jum’aboy is excellent. They had comfortable, simple beds, running water, electricity, and good food. Overall we paid $120 for two nights plus meals.
  • I do think the hiking is best with more stunning surroundings from 4-7 than 1-4, but you can hike in that direction as well.

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Hike Tajikistan, Finally

Sean and I are winding down. We only have 2.5 months left to explore Tajikistan, and it seems like our bucket list of things to do has only grown rather than diminished. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing.

One thing we’ve always wanted to do, but never seemed to find the time for, was Hike Tajikistan. Run by a few expats, Hike Tajikistan is a club of sorts that spends every Sunday when the weather is good exploring this beautiful country. And last Sunday was the first time we were able to attend.

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The hike itself was in Romit Valley, about an hour and a half away from Dushanbe. We had a group of about 30 people, including many Americans from the Embassy. It was a relatively easy hike that was supposed to end at a waterfall. Of course, things don’t always go according to plan, and when we came to where the last bridge was supposed to be, we found it had been washed away.

Luckily the day was not lost. There was a small waterfall and tiny pool a little ways back where nearly everyone in the group took a quick dip to cool off.

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Hiking in Tajikistan is tricky. The most difficult part sometimes is finding the trail heads, which is why Hike Tajikistan is so helpful. The guides know exactly where they are going. It’s also a nice way to meet new people and get away from Dushanbe for a few hours.

Travel Notes:

  • Hike Tajikistan has a Facebook page where they post their weekly Sunday hikes. Cost without transportation is 50 TJS per person.

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Tursunzade: Tajik Hospitality at It’s Finest

When most people think “tourism in Tajikistan,” they usually don’t think Tursunzade. It’s probably true that most people from the Western world don’t go so far to think “tourism in Tajikistan” in the first place, but that’s beside the point.

I myself didn’t think much of Tursunzade aside from it being the last city we went through before the boarder crossing to Uzbekistan last year. I knew they had an aluminum plant. I knew there was some kind of pottery factory. But that was the extent of my knowledge.

Then my office got a new Admin Assistant who lives in Tursunzade and makes the 45 minute commute to the Embassy each day. Who better to introduce the Embassy community at large to this city than a local? Two weeks ago, we finally made that a reality.

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We began our day at the TALCO aluminum plant’s museum. This TALCO plant is the largest in Central Asia and it’s products are Tajikistan’s main export. We weren’t able to take a tour of the plant itself, but they did open up the museum for a brief tour. As far as Tajik museums go, this one was excellent. It was well organized and kept my interest – which is difficult for any museum to do. A great start to the day.

From the museum we went to lunch. When we travel with the Embassy, I’m very adamant that we pre-order all the food. Service here can be painfully slow, especially when trying to accommodate 50 plus people all at once. We’ve never been to Tursunzade before and therefore never been to this restaurant, I was quite nervous for lunch.

Well, as usual, my worrying was unwarranted. The restaurant fed nearly 60 people in just over an hour. Impressive anywhere if you ask me.

After lunch we went to the pottery factory. This was by far my favorite part of the day. We got an exclusive look at every aspect of their process, from molding, to baking, to painting, to glazing. It was pretty amazing.

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By this point in the tour, quite a few people had dropped off and gone back to Dushanbe. What’s great about this little city is that it’s only about 45 minutes from home and the roads are paved and well maintained. Perfect for a day trip.

For those of us who stuck around, we finished the day at the home-turned-museum of Mirzo Tursunzada, for whom the city is named. He was a famous poet and prominent political figure, and today his home now stands as a tribute to his legacy and to Tajikistan’s national history.

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Besides the pottery, my other favorite part of the day was just spending time with the people of Tursunzade. I know they don’t get a lot of tourism, so everyone we encountered was happy to see us and eager to ask questions, snap photos, and show us their warm hospitality. We ended the day at a riverside tapchan restaurant and were treated to a delicious meal of fish and other traditional Tajik food.

So, while Tursunzade probably won’t top your list if you plan at trip to Tajiksitan, I’d highly recommend giving it a try if you’re able. It won’t disappoint.

Travel Notes:

  • Where We Ate: Regar Restaurant – there’s no website. We had plov and it was Uzbek style which I much prefer over Tajikistan’s version.
  • For more on the TALCO Aluminum plant, the only place I could find decent English information was Wikipedia, unfortunately.

Buzkashi

Buzkashi is one of those cultural experiences you simply must have if you spend any lengthy amount of time in Central Asia. I would equate the experience to witnessing a bull fight in Spain – which I did in 2008. You simply must go since it’s such an integral part of the culture, but you don’t necessarily need to experience it more than once.

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Before I delve too deeply into this blog, I want to be clear. I’m not in any way judging or criticizing the sport. I simply want to state the facts and document this unique experience.

Buzkashi literally means “goat pulling” in Persian, and it’s the traditional sport of the region. A very crude, but simple, description is that it is unorganized, teamless, polo match where horsemen attempt to place a headless goat or calf carcass in the goal. It is believed to have possibly began with nomadic Turkic-Mongol people who came to Central Asia between the 10th and 15th centuries. Today games are played in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.

The reason it took us so long to attend a match is due mostly to the secretive nature of the games. Rumor has it that organizers of these matches do not want a huge group of Westerners showing up and sneering at the national sport. Also, games are usually announced only a few days in advance and, with a limited marketing strategy, word doesn’t reach everyone as quickly as it should.

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Last month we were lucky enough to stumble upon some vague information about a game happening about 30 minutes away. A group of us took a chance and ventured out that morning. Luckily, the directions we had were perfect and even if they weren’t it wouldn’t have been hard to find. Just follow the many vehicles carrying horses. Usually a good indication you’re in the right place.

This particular match was a massive free-for-all. Hundreds of mounted players raced around the field trying to hoist the carcass up onto their horse and hold it there long enough to reach the goal. For most of the time we couldn’t really see what was happening, but it was fun just to be a part of the day.

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I will say, for all the rumored fuss about foreigners attending these matches, everyone was extremely welcoming. There was a definite picnic feeling in the air. Vendors sold food and drinks, and everyone seem to settle in for an enjoyable day. We left after a few hours, but the match was still in full swing when we departed.

Not a bad way to spend one of the first of many beautiful spring days in Tajikistan if you ask me.

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Almaty vs. Shymbulak: A Tale of Two Cities

Now that I finished my (probably overly long) New Zealand series, I can get caught up on some Central Asia things I’ve neglected. The first of which, is our return to Shymbulak Ski Resort, and our first real experience with Almaty proper.

I previously spoke about Almaty about a year ago when we had our first ever CLO ski trip to Shymbulak Resort about 45 minutes outside the city. We had a fun time skiing last year, and a less than fun time in town due to the absence of Kazakh Elvis at Hard Rock Cafe. I left with a good feeling about the tiny ski resort, and a sour taste in my mouth about Almaty itself.

This time around, things completely reversed.

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The ski trip was significantly smaller this year than last. Several people, including my co-CLO, were by chance going to be in town that same weekend. The schedule was much less structured and no one really needed any guidance. We also extended the trip a day so we had more time to explore.

Our friends knew I didn’t have a good Almaty experience last time and were determined to show me the city could actually be a nice escape from the day-to-day stress in Tajikistan. I was skeptical to say the least.

Then, we went to the mall.

We didn’t do a whole ton of shopping, but just the atmosphere was nice. We were in a Western-style place with European shops and, most importantly, no one was staring at us. In Dushanbe, Westerners are an anomaly and we get a lot of looks. Mostly curious, but after 18 months I’ve grown really sick of the attention. In Almaty, we were mostly ignored.

We spent the late morning wandering around the gardens and had lunch at Craft Kitchen and Bar, a great little burger joint that you could easily find in DC. They had good beer. They had good burgers. They had good salad for goodness sake! For the first time I understood why people love this city.

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After more malls and more wandering, we at dinner ate this trendy restaurant called My Cafe. Psst! Want me to love a city? Serve me good food! It’s pretty simple.

After a lovely dinner, we jumped in a taxi to take us to the gondola to head up to Shymbulak. And that’s where it all went wrong.

It was Saturday night, and the gondola up to the resort runs until midnight. The alternative to the gondola was a steep, windy, mountain road that was slippery with ice and snow. No thanks. I like living, or at least not vomiting in the back of a taxi.

Trouble is, when we got to the gondola – that was clearly still running, people were getting off at the bottom being my first clue – the guard told us it was closed. After going back and forth with him and several people they called the operator at the top who finally confirmed that yes, it would run until midnight. Minor issue, probably, but it made me afraid for the 25 minute ride that the car would stop suddenly and we would spend a cold night suspended above the snowy mountains.

We spent the next two days, Sunday and Monday, skiing. I’m not a good skier at all, and Shymbulak is probably right above my ability level. While I can make it down the mountain, each run is a major ordeal and I got less and less confident as the day went on. Plus, it was snowing and I was trying to ski in powder for the first time. So. Many. Faceplants.

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Our friends who convinced me to give Almaty a chance were staying at the second hotel on the hill that night, SnEG. It’s halfway up the mountain and accessible only by chairlift. We – since we were staying at the hotel at the bottom of the hill – decided to eat dinner with them and then either ski or ride down.

Nope.

The chairlift of course stopped running at 6:00 p.m. and the hill had no night skiing that day so we were absolutely not allowed to ski down after dinner. On top of that, the other restaurants at the bottom of the hill closed down so we were stuck eating at the one attached to the hotel. The food was fine, but it would have been more fun to eat with our friends.

After our second day of skiing, the same thing happened. Our friends left that night so we had one more day on the hill. Again, everything shut down at 6:00 p.m. so we were stuck at that same restaurant. This time they forgot Sean’s food and didn’t tell him until after I had finished eating mine. Then they had nothing left so he went to bed pretty hungry. In our tiny, uncomfortable hotel room. Not a good way to end our long week.

So, my final assessment.

Almaty: Good.

Shymbulak: Bad.

Go ski at Shymbulak, but head back down the gondola at night for a good meal and better hotel in town. You’ll thank me.

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Travel Notes:

  • Where We Stayed: Shymbulak Resort Hotel, Almaty – I don’t recommend this.
  • Where Our Friends Stayed: Ritz-Carlton, Almaty – I do recommend this.
  • Where We Ate: Craft Kitchen and Bar, Almaty; My Cafe, Almaty; SNeG, Shymbulak; Chalet, Shymbulak; Paul, Shymbulak – when it’s open, this place is amazing for breakfast and lunch. It’s a French chain that can be found all over the world.
  • Shymbulak Ski Resort – skiing is generally good and well-groomed. They also have full-service rentals which include jackets and snow pants.

Wines of New Zealand

Wine is my absolute favorite of all the alcoholic beverages. I have many fond memories from our first few years of marriage sitting outside on our balcony, drinking wine, snacking on cheese and crackers, and marveling at how adult we were.

I am not at all an expert – as you will see if you choose to continue reading. My assessments below are a reflection of my own personal preference. For the record, I like Riesling, Pinot Noir, some full body reds like Syrah, and apparently Sauvignon Blanc. I’m not a fan of Chardonnay, Merlot, or Malbec.

We visited three distinct wine regions of New Zealand on this trip. Our favorite was definitely Marlborough but we found a few gems in Waiheke as well.

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Central Otago

Central Otago is the land where Pinot Noir is king. It is the southernmost wine region in the world which can come with major difficulties, but wineries persist and often yield unique results. We truly were just breezing through Cenral Otago, so we didn’t have a lot of time to stop and enjoy many cellar doors.

Rockburn

  • What we tried: Pinot Noir, Pino Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling
  • What we bought: Pinot Noir
  • Overall thoughts: We had a really nice time here. We were the only ones in the small shop and it was a lovely start to our New Zealand winery exploration. Worth a stop if you’re in the neighborhood.

Mt. Difficulty

  • What we tried: Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay
  • What we bought: None
  • Overall thoughts: This winery is on top of a hill which gives a beautiful view of the surrounding area. The wine was good, but didn’t totally blow me away like some of the others. We did see this brand in quite a few restaurants throughout New Zealand as well.

The Winery, Queenstown

  • What we tried: Literally everything
  • What we bought: Seifried ‘Sweet Agnes’ Riesling
  • Overall thoughts: This is a wine aggregate shop in Queenstown with over 80 varieties to taste and purchase. It’s magical. They have these dispensers where you can choose if you want a tasting, half, or full glass of wine. I was in love.

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Marlborough

Marlborough is the largest wine-producing region in New Zealand. It put New Zealand wine on the international stage with it’s signature Sauvignon Blanc. The region is also known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and it was here that I learned that sometimes my taste buds play tricks on me.

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  • What we tried: Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Montepulciano, Merlot Cabernet
  • What we bought: Pinot Gris, Merlot Cabernet ‘Spirit of Marlborough’
  • Overall thoughts: I’m not usually a Pinot Gris fan, but when they told me ‘this is a Pinot Gris for people who don’t like Pinot Gris” I understood why my taste buds were seemingly deceiving me. Sean is also the one who likes big, bold reds so he enjoyed the Merlot Cabernet quite a bit.

Giesen

  • What we tried: The Brothers Sauvignon Blanc, The August 1888 Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, The Brothers Riesling, The Brothers Pinot Noir, The Brothers Merlot, Pomme de Gris
  • What we bought: The August 1888 Sauvignon Blanc
  • Overall thoughts: These guys have an absolutely huge tasting menu to choose from. They are also the ones who taught me about Sauvignon Blanc which Sean surprisingly also enjoys. Maybe we finally found a wine we can agree on.

Nautilus Estate

  • What we tried: Cuvee Brut, Pinot Gris, Albarino, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Southern Valleys Pinot Noir, Four Barriques Pinot Noir
  • What we bought: Chardonnay
  • Overall thoughts: Now it’s probably surprising to see Chardonnay as the top choice for this one when I mentioned above I don’t really like Chardonnay. It seemed to be a theme here that New Zealand Chardonnay is different than other Chardonnays I’ve previously encountered. Chardonnay is usually described as “buttery” and that’s exactly what I don’t like about it. These New Zealand Chardonnays don’t have that “buttery” quality and I appreciate it.

Framingham

  • What we tried: Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Riesling, Classic Reisling, Select Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir
  • What we bought: Select Riesling
  • Overall thoughts: Being the Riesling girl I am, this was my favorite winery of the trip. Their Select Riesling is my new all time favorite. It tastes just like lemon meringue pie. The other Rieslings were tasty, and the Pinot Noir was also a winner in our book.

Cloudy Bay

  • What we tried: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pelorus
  • What we bought: None at the time
  • Overall thoughts: Cloudy Bay is one of the brands from New Zealand that is widely available worldwide. I know I’ve seen it in the States, and we actually ordered a bottle Sauvignon Blanc through the Embassy. Truthfully, we stopped here mostly to eat. They have an amazing lunch menu featuring oysters that completely blew my mind. It’s also very pretty and breezy. Perfect for a lazy afternoon.

Spy Valley

  • What we tried: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir Rose, Pinot Noir
  • What we bought: None at the time
  • Overall thoughts: This is another one that is widely available in the States. Our pick was the Sauvignon Blanc. Sean also liked the Pinot Noir. We will definitely be on the lookout for these when we return home.

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Waiheke Island/Auckland

This is red wine country. Here you will find New Zealand’s Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Syrah vineyards. At this point in the trip we had ditched the car and I’m glad we did since red wine is Sean’s favorite and this way he didn’t have to worry about driving.

Stonyridge

  • What we tried: Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Malbec
  • What we bought: None
  • Overall thoughts: This one was probably the most annoying tasting experience. We had to pay per pour, and the staff didn’t seem to care about us at all. I’m perfectly happy to pay for a tasting, it was just quite expensive for a cellar door.

Te Motu

  • What we tried: Te Motu, Kokoro, Tipua, Cabernet Merlot, Syrah
  • What we bought: None
  • Overall thoughts: This was probably one of the more unique wineries. We really enjoyed the tasting and will probably order from them in the future. We ate a lovely cheese plate from here which was the perfect amount of food to go with a wine tasting. Definitely worth a visit.

Obsidian

  • What we tried: Estate Merlot Malbec, Montepulciano, Obsidian Reserve, Viognier, Riesling
  • What we bought: Montepulciano 2013
  • Overall thoughts: We had to hike to this one but boy was it worth it. Best red wines we tried on this entire trip. This tiny winery has had international acclaim, and is pretty famous for their Montepulciano. A definite must see.

Wild on Waiheke

  • What we tried: No wine here. Sean had a beer and I tried a mixed drink. We came here for the food.
  • What we bought: None
  • Overall thoughts: This place is a fun take on wine tastings and beer gardens. There’s a bunch of activities for the kids to keep them entertained while the adults drink. We had pizza and a seafood sampler platter that was a special for the day. Great for a lunch stop.

Cable Bay

  • What we tried: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
  • What we bought: None
  • Overall thoughts: The view here is absolutely spectacular. That’s the only positive from our experience. We got there at 4:30 p.m. and their cellar door should have been open for another half hour but we were told they were closed. Since we had to wait for a bus we decided to each get a glass, but we were annoyed so we probably didn’t enjoy the wine as much as we should have.

Travel Notes:

  • For more information on New Zealand wine in general, visit www.nzwine.com.
  • New Zealand has this great service called NZ Wine Export where you can send them a list of what you want and they will take care of collecting it from the different vineyards and ship it all in one case. Perfect for people like us who hop around to several different wineries in one trip.

New Zealand: Auckland

New Zealand is the birthplace of adventure tourism. Specifically, Queenstown is home to the world’s first commercial bungee jump, Rotorua invented Zorbing, and Auckland is home to SkyCity. As our days in this adrenaline-fueled country came to an end, we had one last day of crazy adventure seeking left before relaxing in wine country to polish off the trip.

Before departing Rotorua, Sean somehow convinced me to stop at OGO Rotorua. OGO is the original Zorb and in 2006 they sold the rights to a different company but continued operating under the new name. It’s confusing but worth mentioning because sometimes people know what Zorbing is, no one knows what OGO is, and many people don’t know what on earth I’m talking about. It’s ok.

So what exactly is OGO/Zorbing? Well, it’s difficult to explain. You basically roll down a hill in a large transparent plastic orb with a little bit of water and get very disoriented and may end up punching your spouse in the face. Sounds…fun? It actually was a total blast and I completely destroyed Sean when we went separately and raced.

From Rotorua we drove up to Auckland. After ditching the car at the airport we went to our hotel for a little bit of downtime before jumping off the tallest building in New Zealand.

If you know me, you’ll know I’m pretty terrified of heights. I have a huge issue with those glass floor experiences because every time I really feel like I’m stepping into thin air. This time, I would willingly(ish) literally step into thin air and free fall 630 feet (192 meters). And this was my idea.

Unlike when we were repelling, I was unable to mask my terror as I prepped for this jump. However, we did look awesome in our 90’s superhero flight suits.

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It was pretty incredible if I do say so myself. I’m not ready to go skydiving anytime soon, but the adrenaline rush was pretty addictive. With the jump, you get free access to the observation deck, so we went back up while we waited for our dinner reservation.

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If you are in Auckland, you must eat at Depot Eatery. After living in Annapolis for 2.5 years, we developed a taste for seafood. Then we moved to the landlocked Tajikistan and have been craving seafood ever since. We’d been eating our fair share throughout this trip, but Depot has the best mussels I’ve ever tasted.

Also.

I’ll say this slowly so it can really sink in.

Wine. On. Tap.

Yes, really.

Totally worth waiting an hour for a table.

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Travel Notes:

  • Where We Stayed: Ramada, Auckland (the one on Federal Street) – great location! So much within walking distance.
  • Where We Ate: Depot Eatery, Auckland; Auckland Seafood School, Auckland – I have a major bone to pick with the Auckland Seafood School. The reason they didn’t get the same treatment at Depot Eatery above is because we got in a fight with the staff. We ordered the seafood sampler platter which was amazing but apparently they put peanuts on the calamari and I’m highly allergic to them. It was frustrating to me that they didn’t list a MAJOR ALLERGEN on the list of ingredients, because who puts peanuts on seafood?! The staff was also not very responsive to my concerns and the manager only came over to check on me when we insisted to speak with him. Not exactly stellar service.
  • OGO Rotorua – this is the original Zorbing company and has been a certified adventure operator since the register began in November 2014. There have been reports of other companies being investigated by authorities, but none involving OGO Rotorua.
  • SkyJump/SkyWalk – for the lesser thrill-seekers, you can also walk around the outside of the Sky Tower. Don’t fear you’ll be fully teatherd to the building with no chance of falling off.
  • SkyCity Auckland

New Zealand: Rotorua

There really is no place on earth quite like Rotorua. Where else are you going to wake up to the sweet smell of sulfur in your geothermal-heated hotel room to go bathe in hot springs and walk past boiling mud? No where that I can think of. I believe the guidebook even referred to Rotorua as stinky and unique.

We had two days here and it was a lovely break after all the driving we did during our first few days on the North Island. Our first day we spent wandering around town taking in the sights. Normally “taking in the sights” would mean picturesque landscapes or cityscapes with beautiful architecture. In Rotorua it means boiling lakes, bubbling mud, and weird geothermal formations.

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Rotorua is not only known for it’s geothermal activity. It’s also a huge tourist town with lots of great souvenir shopping. Especially the famous New Zealand greenstone, also known as pounamu or jade.

Greenstone is significant in Maori culture. It is considered a treasure and signifies prestige. Today artists carve greenstone into pendants, earrings, statues, and other decorative items. The shapes of these carvings are also significant and each symbolizes a different virtue including the koru (spiral) which symbolizes harmony, and the hei matu (fish hook) which symbolizes strength and good luck.

After shopping we went to relax in the historic Polynesian Spa. We treated ourselves to a private pool (which was not so private thanks to about a million chatty seagulls) to unwind. Still aching from the rafting, hiking, and caving, relaxing in mineral rich water was exactly what we needed.

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On our second day in Rotorua, we spent the evening at the Tamaki Maori Village for a full cultural experience. The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. The migrated from eastern Polynesia sometime between 1250 and 1300 CE. They have their own language, rich mythology, unique crafts, and vivid performing arts.

The evening began with the traditional welcoming ceremony before we were invited into the village where we learned about the Maori way of life including dance, games, crafts, and the Haka, the traditional war cry, dance, or challenge. I do have photographic evidence of Sean performing the Haka, but I have been strictly forbidden from posting any of it here (or anywhere), so I’ll leave you with a few photos of the professionals.

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After this introduction to the Maori culture, we were treated to a performance in the village meeting house by our hosts. This performance included poi, the art of swinging tethered weights through a variety of rhythmical and geometric patterns, often used to depict the wing patterns of favorite birds. The poi was done in conjunction with authentic songs and dance.

We then feasted on the traditional hangi dinner which had been prepared for hours by our gracious hosts. The food had been cooked in a pit oven using heated rocks. While this practice is less common with today’s modern technology, it is still used for special occasions.

Unfortunately I don’t have too many decent pictures to share with you since it got dark quite quickly and we were in the back for much of the tour. Plus, I was more focused on the experience than snapping photos to be perfectly honest.

Once we returned to the hotel, we hopped in the geothermal hot tub to wind down for the evening. Not a bad way to end our fantastic few days in this stinky, unique town.

Travel Notes:

  • Where We Stayed: Ambassador Thermal Motel, Rotorua
  • Where We Ate: Eat Street, Rotorua – I don’t remember exactly which restaurant we ate at in Rotorua, but not because it was forgettable! Eat street has about a dozen restaurants with indoor and outdoor seating. We waffled between several and I can’t remember which one we decided on. You can’t really go wrong here.
  • Greenstone: Mountain Jade – we ended up buying a statue from this store. There are two locations in Rotorua. This jade is amazing, but be prepared to spend quite a bit for the larger pieces.
  • Polynesian Spa
  • Maori Cultural Experience: Tamaki Maori Village

end

New Zealand: Waitomo Caves and Hobbiton

Now I know the title of this one is weird. Two very different things crammed together: black water caving with glow worms and frolicking around a movie set for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Opposite as these two things are they did happen on the same day, and it was only a little crazy.

After an excellent night sleep (we were exhausted from Tongariro the day before), we awoke bright and early to drive to Waitomo, a town famous for the network of caves running below ground that happen to be home to glow worms.

This would be our third and final wet suit adventure. We choose to do one of the longer tours which involved abseiling (repelling) down a 130 foot shaft to enter the caves. I, again, was terrified – though it doesn’t translate into the pictures. Apparently I fake it pretty well.

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After surviving the descent, we made our way through the caves. This involved zip-lining, tubing, wading through waist deep water, and climbing up two waterfalls to get out. It really was an exciting trip. Oh, and we did see some glow worms which was pretty incredible.

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From here, we ate a quick lunch in town, then left for Hobbiton and some Lord of the Rings magic.

The Hobbiton movie set is actually part of the Alexander family farm, a 1,200 acre property of rolling grassland. Peter Jackson first saw the farm from an aerial scouting trip and fell in love with it.

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When Lord of the Rings was filmed, the set was made of disposable materials and was completely restored to it’s original state once filming finished. When they returned for The Hobbit, the Alexander family negotiated to have the set constructed from permanent materials so that it could remain as a fixture for New Zealand and the world.

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Apparently, the family has been giving their own tours to interested folks in between Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit where all they were doing was pointing at hills.

I promise the tour now is much more impressive than those early days.

Travel Notes:

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