A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: SueJWardell

Las Vegas!!

Wardells Reunited

sunny 10 °C

Total confusion to wake up at home this morning! Reuniting the family in Las Vegas - what a way to end my big trip and now enjoying wondering what the boys are up to in that extraordinary city. They were certainly in high spirits and raring to go when I left them on Sunday night.

Saturday 17th was my longest birthday ever... Relaxed breakfast in Auckland with a lovely parting gift from Tom and Jess - a multi-frame reminder of my ace early present of the skydive. Lots of time at airport waiting for the slowest check-in I've ever experienced. Straightforward 12-hour flight with Tom to Los Angeles with American Airlines and outstanding cabin-crew. Admittedly I was wearing my Birthday Girl badge, but they certainly made a fuss of me, including extra bubbly and chocolates. However, their attention and manner with all passengers was simply excellent. Regrettably little sleep on flight and so odd to arrive in the USA apparently several hours before we left New Zealand... Start the birthday all over again! Short wait in LA for Las Vegas flight, just over an hour, arrived to clear, blue sky but chilly wind. Minor hiccup of leaving airport through wrong baggage-claim area, which required waiting for the shuttle to a different terminal to reunite with our bags... First Las Vegas advice: Apparently this happens a lot - maybe a clue the signage needs changing to ensure passengers reach the right area, as no escorted re-entry available.

Great to see Las Vegas again, with the familiar scenery of the mountains all around, including snow on Mt Charleston, even if the city-skyline has changed and grown quite a lot. Checked in at the Palazzo Hotel - mini-suites highly recommended, lots of space and possibly the most comfortable beds we've ever slept in. Short sleep and freshen-up before return to the airport to meet Josh, Ben and Zack arriving from Gatwick, having started their holiday the previous night at the Gatwick Hilton. That was mainly for my peace of mind to be confident they'd all be at the airport in time, but it really takes pressure of airport-arrival with the hotel connected to the terminal, linked parking very nearby. They also benefited from some Virgin extra attention with Zack wearing his 21st badge and definitely enjoyed the complimentary drinks during the flight. It was great to see them come through the gate and us all be together again for the first time in almost two years.

Boys very happy with their connecting suites. Lovely surprise room-service delivery of birthday-champagne for me and Zack from Ben's girlfriend - thank you Sarah 😊 (Of course we shared it with the others!) First walk to familiarise selves with immediate area, main purpose = boys finding location of nearest food-court! For anyone who has never visited LV, everything is accessed by walking through huge casino areas active 24 hours. It probably sounds a nightmare to many, but even as a non-city, non-gambling person, I find it extraordinary and entertaining in its own unique way. The biggest contra-indication to visiting is if you don't like walking, because it is necessary in your own enormous hotel and/or visiting any/some/all the others! The Palazzo is part of the Venetian Hotel complex, which is one of the largest in the world with over 7000 bedrooms and 36 restaurants between them, but The Strip has most of the world's largest hotels, many extravagantly themed throughout with accompanying shops and other attractions, quite apart from their own huge casino. It's simply its own unique place and has to be taken on that level - don't knock it until you've tried it! Tom and Josh thoroughly enjoyed staying in the New York, New York 6 years ago for Josh's 21st - one of the 'smaller' hotels with only 2000 rooms - and a high-level roller-coaster around its towers. Las Vegas gives many visitors a feeling of world-travel with its Disney-esque reproductions of famous destinations - it's a gigantic grown-up playground/ theme park with only 30% of income generated from gambling, 70% from shopping, dining and other attractions. Interesting to learn that December is the quietest month in the hotels, most running at only 50% occupancy (usually close to 100%), thus great offers available (although unfortunately flights everywhere are more expensive from 14 December until after New Year). It felt neither quiet nor crowded, which was great.

Excellent dinner within the hotel at Morels, rated as one of the best steakhouses on The Strip. Fantastic food and service, once again further aided by the birthday-badges, including complimentary, dramatically-firework-adorned creme brΓ»lΓ©es. After-dinner stroll including the wonderful Bellagio fountains-with-classical-music. Disappointing to learn that Treasure Island's excellent hourly live-action pirate show, including sinking ships and 'drowning' participants, is no more, while the Mirage's once-upon-a-time-astonishing erupting volcano and lake of fire looks to be a tiny shadow of its original self - admittedly it may have been the biggest health and safety contravention ever in its original OMG-stand-back-and-protect-your-face blazing format!

Relaxed, mixed Sunday - eating, shopping, playing a few slots. Big Don't Do Tip - Marvel Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N attraction - expensive, disappointing non-event, even for serious fans; more like the queue-time-killing-displays to be found at film-studios. Late afternoon saw me preparing to depart - and the boys preparing for When Mum Has Gone... Happy Birthdays and Christmas to my four young men - delighted to see them all happy together and to have shared in this special family-reunion, a wonderful end to my fabulous Big Trip.

Straightforward journey home, worst part being Heathrow Terminal 5. Many thanks to Elaine for braving heavy rush-hour traffic to meet me at Manchester Airport, having first made my home welcoming for my return. Just the small matter of Christmas for which to prepare now... (And then plan the next big trip? Definitely looking into a skydiving course... )

Posted by SueJWardell 05:22 Archived in USA Comments (2)

My last NZ days - Waiheke Island

13 - 16 December 2016

sunny 17 °C

Back in Auckland from Queenstown, still elated from our skydive, bit warmer weather, although not as good as might have hoped. Bit of shopping at Sylvia Park Mall, where Jess's branch of STA is located - very busy shop and long days, as mall hours apply. It has been good to see that NZ is neither as expensive nor as choice-restricted as Tom and Jess initially felt, but I can understand how it seemed that way, when they had everything to buy, having arrived here with just normal luggage, but then had to set up home. Quite a contrast with their life now, having furnished and equipped a two-bedroom flat and bought a car!

Burgers on the way home, but although the usual international brands are all available, Kiwi burger-companies serve up a very different product. They take a bit longer to prepare, but are generally much larger and offer additional ingredient choices such as avocado, beetroot, a fried egg, onion rings, mango, chia seeds, peanut satay sauce...as well as the obvious bacon, cheese, salad. You may imagine things can get very messy, but it also shows why McDonalds (Maccas), Burger King etc have made less of an impact. Similarly, barista coffee is almost universally available, even in filling-stations, so branded coffee-shops are far less evident - New Zealanders expect good coffee as a matter of course.

Wednesday 14th December - Happy Birthday Tom 😊 Jessica had booked a "bach" - a holiday-home - on Waiheke Island, forty minutes away from Auckland via a half-hourly ferry. Waiheke is described as having "its own unique warm micro-climate and is celebrated for its beautiful sandy beaches and world-class wines". It's an extraordinary contrast to the bustling city across the water, although we were quite surprised by the volume of traffic on the primary roads. I read a newspaper article saying that the island has ceased to be mainly a holiday destination and is now more like suburban Auckland,' the population having quadrupled in 25 years to 9000, with commuting on the rise - and house-prices with it'. The bach is lovely and actually a pretty good blueprint for the future home I would happily live in - hill-top, coastal location with dual-aspect wide-ranging views; open-plan living, two sides almost completely glass, verandah and decking all around; path down to the beach, local shop and takeaway; 15 mins walk to the village with shops and restaurants, where we dined on a terrace above the beach and watched the full- moon rise.

Thursday 15th - Island and wineries tour in a small mini-bus, which we shared with six others who turned out to be the owners and staff of a small, fashion-design company on their Christmas 'do' - what a great day out! There are thirty boutique wineries, of which we visited four for tastings, as well as having a leisurely lunch at Stonyridge, one of NZ's top producers, and whose busy restaurant was reminiscent of the south of France, including the popular "degustation platter" on offer. The company became most entertaining as the day progressed and more wine was consumed - a great day out, thank you again Jess. We enjoyed the evening back at the bach with the views, the hot-tub and sparkling rosΓ© from "Thomas's Bach" Batch Winery (from where Jess felt compelled to buy two large glasses for the obvious reason!).

Friday 16th - Ferry back to Auckland and the reality of it being the last day of my New Zealand extravaganza. It has been a fantastic month in which I've seen a very great deal of this terrific country. I don't have a favourite island between North and South - both so different but with so much to offer. South - the dramatic scenery, wide-open spaces and sparse population, the excitement of Queenstown - perhaps an unexpected highlight unduly influenced by the skydive! North - big advantage of better climate, especially the sub-tropical north (that still seems wrong!), lots of lovely albeit less dramatic scenery, but with all the volcanic influence and the best beaches. Asked to identify my favourite place, I truly can't. I've been so fortunate to have the company and input of Tom and Jess - can't quite believe tonight is my last NZ sleep.

It's not quite all over. Tomorrow Tom joins me for the first leg of my homeward flight. Team Wardell will reunite for the first time in almost two years since Tom departed for NZ - we'll meet up in Las Vegas on 17th December to celebrate the 21st birthday of youngest member, Zack, an event we've been planning and looking forward to all year. For anyone not in the know, Las Vegas has a special place in our lives, as we lived there 1988-1990 when Graham was on an exchange posting from the RAF to the USAF. Josh was born there, so it seemed a fitting place for him to celebrate his 21st with Tom 6 years ago, with Ben and Zack on a promise they would go for Zack's 21st. Some time ago, Zack expressed a hope that the brothers would have another holiday together one day, the only previous time being when Ben worked a winter-season in the French Alps and Zack, at 17 was still at school and a little young to fully 'appreciate'(?!) it. When I proffered the Las Vegas 21st, the boys said it wouldn't be right without me there (thank you 😊), especially as it happens to be my birthday too, so the plan was hatched to tie-it in with NZ - a fitting finale for Susie's Big Trip. I will have an exceptionally long birthday, with time-zones meaning we land in LV earlier than we take off from here (21hours difference), arriving at 0930 there, and Zack will also gain an extra 8 hours - the UK three land noonish after taking off at 10! It will be quite a day for all of us... Late on the 18th I'll continue my return home, leaving the four brothers to create mayhem together for another four days and nights.

Mutti - sorry the 'bulletin' days are drawing to a close. I'm glad you've enjoyed them, hope others have too, while I have a record of what, where and when. Perhaps one more to come, although what happens in Vegas is supposed to stay in Vegas!

Posted by SueJWardell 23:09 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

NZ Skydive Day

Tuesday 13 December 2016

YES!!! We did it and it was truly "awesome" - wow, wow, wow πŸ˜„πŸ˜„ So worth getting up before 6 to check in. First jumpers/fallers(?!) of the day. Felt so secure attached to the professional, posing for the cameraman in freefall from 15,000ft, being spun under the parachute - fantastic adrenalin buzz all round. Tom said he's never seen me "so pumped". Every day should start this way πŸ˜„πŸ˜„ I was far and away the oldest in our group, Tom probably second. I was last out of the aircraft, apparently with the senior instructor - possibly seen as greatest "risk" in group? Didn't falter for a moment, even in the doorway - not that much chance given for that. Loved it from first moment, including the initial drop. Indeed, I'd have gone straight back up, given the opportunity. Thanks for the initial suggestion and slightly early birthday pressie, Tom - haha your surprise at my immediate agreement! and being there to share it as your present from Jess (still says no way, no how will she do it...). Happy day for us - and nice to have so many comments from staff happy to see us jumping together and saying they wish their mums would do it with them.

Back in town by 0900 for a Fergburger (what a fantastic business in all departments - deserves its reputation) breakfast - I feel like the oldest student/backpacker in town, enjoying all these experiences! Preparing for airport now, collecting our film/photos on the way. Over far too quickly , we need to relive it πŸ˜„πŸ˜„

Posted by SueJWardell 13:31 Archived in New Zealand Comments (1)

Queenstown, NZ

11/12 December 2016

semi-overcast 14 °C

Queenstown - Monday 12 December

Skydive fail ☹️ Conditions against us, although it seems a reasonable day - too windy for the activity, so all jumps cancelled today. We have rescheduled for 0630 tomorrow, as our flight back to Auckland is not until 1255. The whole process from briefing etc is approx 3.5 hours, so at least we have time for a second bite at the cherry. Quite disappointed right now πŸ˜”

Smooth transition day yesterday. Packed up in the morning. Drove the short distance to Manapouri - much smaller than Te Anau, but also very pleasant - from where the ferry leaves for Doubtful Sound cruises and realised it is actually 'easier' to access than Milford Sound. Only an hour to cross the lake , then 40mins transfer on a purpose built road to the Sound. Far fewer passengers and boats on a much larger expanse of water; but also generally a much more expensive option - it is possible to see Milford quite cheaply; not so Doubtful - which was named from Captain Cook being doubtful there would be sufficient wind to sail back out of the sound if the ship ventured in. Cook bears such a lot of responsibility, good and/or bad, depending on perspective, but I love some of the stories behind names.

Easy 2 hr run back to Queenstown to our town-centre hotel to drop off luggage before returning the motorhome. Seeing the clean ones waiting to go out, ours certainly looked like it had been travelling for 3 weeks and over 4000km...

Another note for anyone thinking of hiring a motorhome in NZ - diesel is less used here and seems much cheaper than petrol, as there is no tax applied. Instead there is a Road User Charge of approx $6.50 per 100km, in the case of a hired vehicle payable on return. It was only pointed out to us at the last moment that the Express Return Package for $299 means no requirement to refill the fuel and LPG, empty the toilet and waste-water, nor wait around to hand back the vehicle, but also includes the RUC, so it was well worth it for me with at least $260 for that alone. While mentioning diesel, the price varies widely - up to 40% dearer in more remote areas, which means much of South Island. Some garages automatically discount by as much as 10c per litre if your spend is over $40; many supermarkets issue widely-accepted vouchers for 6c off per litre. I paid as little as 93c/litre and a high of $1.38.

Queenstown is a year-round 'buzzing"town and generally the favourite place of younger travellers. It is "backpacker-central", totally geared around activities and socialising - lots of travel and ticket agents, bars and food-outlets of every sort, late-opening gift and designer shops. There's plenty to do for all ages, unfortunately much of it at quite high cost, and lots to like about it, although it's expensive to stay or live here. Attractive location on northern shore of Lake Wakatipu, the longest and third largest lake in the country, and right next to the Remarkables mountain-range, thus great scenery. Significant young British population - certainly most shop and cafe staff. We've had plenty of time to wander around, especially with the failure of our skydive, so it will be the NZ town I know best by the time we leave tomorrow. Tom has introduced to me to the legendary Fergburger (Five Guys eat your heart out) with Mrs Ferg's bakery and excellent ice cream parlour next door; also to Pita Pit - like a healthier Subway. Far too many enticing food options here!

So, nearing the end of my tour, I'm happy to know I've travelled much of Northland and Eastland on North Island and Westland and Southland on South Island. It is not difficult to see the attraction to the British over the years - recognisable but more dramatic scenery and a familiar but better climate. Having been fortunate to have travelled quite widely in general, I haven't found it quite as "Wow round every corner" as is often suggested - indeed there are some long stretches and large areas of nothingness - but to quote Lonely Planet (thanks for the well-used guidebook and map, Elaine 😊), "it is one of the most varied and spectacular landscapes in the world...with a diversity of landforms you would expect to find across an entire continent rather than a small archipelago in the South Pacific". I've had a wonderful nearly-a-month and know I will enjoy the last few days back in Auckland with Tom and Jess and their special final treat of a two-night stay in a "bach" (holiday-house) on Waiheke, a smallish island in the Hauraki Gulf, just a 35 minute ferry ride NE from the city, a now-wealthy, "grown-up hippy", wine-making community - wine-tasting tour booked!

A few interesting statistics:

If New Zealand were 100 people, 69 would be European, 14 Maori, 9 Asian, 7 Pacific Islanders, 1 other.

Population of 4.5million. Where they live: 63% North Island, 20% South Island, 10% Australia, 5% Rest of the World, 2% Travelling.

Similarity in neighbour-relationship: New Zealand generally want Australia to lose in sport, just as Scotland generally want England to lose, although England more likely to root for Scotland than Australia for NZ!

And finally, possums were introduced from Australia for fur and are now the most destructive mammal-pest, 70 million chewing their way through millions of tons of foliage a year - and pretty much the only road-kill I have seen, but lots and lots of them.

Fingers crossed for our early morning tomorrow.

Posted by SueJWardell 21:08 Archived in New Zealand Comments (1)

NZ Southland

8 - 10 December 2016

all seasons in one day

Thursday morning - very low cloud, heavy rain - no further sightseeing worth attempting around Acoroa - straight to Christchurch to meet Tom and head southwest. Not a great journey with the conditions, but not a scenic route at that stage anyway and a long way to go. Minor stress of very long distance through not much, so fuel becoming an issue - bit of a diversion to ensure not a much bigger problem! Coincided with improving weather and perfect conditions by the time we reached the blue lakes, first Tekapo, then Pukaki. Extraordinary turquoise shades caused by glacier sediment, although obviously also need blue sky for the full stunning effect. Hard to believe they're natural and whole scene made even more remarkable by sweeping fields of wild lupins - predominately purple, but also lavender, pink, peach, lemon. In fact, they go on for miles and miles, lining the roadsides, filling valleys, stretching as far as the eye can see. Broom is the other species doing the same thing in other areas, and both are regarded as "noxious weeds", but they look absolutely amazing at this time of year. Wild flowers lack variety overall - North Island was mostly foxgloves and buttercups, as well broom.

Early birthday greetings to Josh (Number Two Son) - NZ is 13 hours ahead of UK and 21 hours ahead of Las Vegas, where he was actually born - the fun of time-zones.

Final drive along the western edge of Lake Pukaki into Mt Cook National Park, scenery improving all the time, but once again somehow odd to be on a fast, good road into a mountainous region. The drama increased with the cloud burning off to reveal snow-topped peaks and glaciers at the head of the wide valley we were penetrating. We were hoping to find available Freedom Camping within the Park, and didn't expect to arrive at a complete village of varied accommodation! Also a sizeable ranger-controlled campsite, so not Freedom, but toilets and running-water provided, and all at the foot of not one, but several glaciers. Minor compromise was that I'd failed to recharge Tom's awesome camera, so we accepted we'd be without great photos - I'm a point-and-shoot pocket-camera or iPhone person, photos uploaded or otherwise! We were then thrilled to see the camera unexpectedly charge via the 12v USB adaptor, as we thought the transformer was necessary - evidently not so. Hoping for a clear night-sky with no light pollution, but cloud rolled back in again.

Friday 9th - Awoke at 0200 - yay, clear sky, which I enjoyed alone (Tom had suggested setting the alarm, but in the event was simply too tired and couldn't wake up sufficiently). Milky Way visible, several satellites, two shooting-stars. 0600 beautiful sunrise on glacier, but then watched the cloud rolling in along the valley - back to sleep and woke again at 0730 to thick fog all around. However, by 1030 a beautiful day and we joined the hordes - well, not quite that bad....following the path and suspension-bridges to clearer and closer views of more glaciers, rivers, lakes and Mt Cook - this is a very popular visitor destination and not yet the busy season, which will commence on Boxing Day for two months. Anyway, a rewarding and enjoyable 3 hours. If planning a trip to NZ with time/distance constraints, don't worry about missing out the west-coast glaciers if you can come here - these are not as big, but there are more here, just as, if not more, accessible. A problem with NZ is lack of circular routes or roads generally, given challenging terrain. I'm glad to have been able to visit so many of the best-known locations, but not all are as spectacular and/or unmissable as may be suggested - although some of us have that curiosity that likes to see for itself, rather than wonder what may have been missed!

1400 on the road for our next long journey into Fiordland - 450km (280miles) yesterday, roughly same again today. An amusing side to driving a motorhome with km on the clock is the feeling of keeping up pretty good speed - 90 is the legal limit for larger vehicles, 100 otherwise, so actually travelling at 55-60mph, but with the illusion of going so much faster! So, quite a distance south to Cromwell, then west to Queenstown, south again to
Lumsden, final leg west to Te Anau - a very pleasant, quite remote, small lakeside town, usual population of 3500 trebles in the busy 2 months, good base for Milford and Doubtful Sounds. Pleasant campsite - decided to book their luxury minibus/Milford Sound cruise for next day. Found highly-rated, unassuming-looking Redcliff Cafe for dinner - turned out to be award-winning restaurant = excellent dinner.

Saturday 10th - 0800 minibus departure = only us as passengers, so very personal! It's another 100km north to Milford Sound, again a busy road, as another top NZ destination. Weather dull, forecast not great, but the locals insist it is better to see the deep valleys and sheer cliffs in these more atmospheric conditions. As it rains 200 days a year, perhaps they have to say that!? The cloud partially lifted, so we could still see all but the peaks. Very dramatic scenery much of the way, added bonus of keas (mountain parrots) en route. Busy terminal at the Sound - a departure every 15mins, different size boats. We went for a smaller one - max capacity 70; nature cruise, so more highlighted points plus commentary along the way. Quite cool and wet much of the time, but not disastrous conditions and even occasional hints of clearance on the way back in from the Tasman Sea. We both braved the drenching of nosing into a waterfall. And I braved having a full conversation in German with some other passengers - very rusty, but it went well - I must try to practice more.

Again, if you're planning a trip, it's a visually-dramatic road and self-drive to the terminal is fine, although apparently parking can be tricky in the busy two months and cruise-tickets will need to be pre-booked. The 100km journey from Te Anau is likely to take 2-3 hours, allowing for traffic and stopping off at viewpoints, and many tourists do not allow enough time, so crashes are not uncommon in the race to try to catch the booked sail-time. At other times, there's likely to be space on some sailings, even if you have to wait a little. There is actually a campsite there, but I'd guess it fills quickly, and there are also some Freedom Campsites along the route. Many buses travel from Queenstown, but it is a 13-hour day-trip... We are not doing a Doubtful Sound cruise, but again its a whole day, as it is necessary to take a lengthy ferry across a lake to reach the sound - tomorrow we'll take a look at Manapouri, 20km south of Te Anau, from which the connecting ferry sails to reach the road to enable onward-transfer to Doubtful. NZ is a country which sometimes requires considerable time and effort to visit the best-known sites.

Relaxed end of day; sun came out, but also a cool wind. My first real experience of astonishing strength of NZ sun, about which Tom had warned me - sitting outside wearing jeans, conscious of my legs burning - through the jeans!! Astonished to see the redness, though not actually severe. Tonight has been about packing and generally sorting things out - motorhome-return in Queenstown tomorrow afternoon. Forecast a bit iffy for next two days, but hopefully enough clearance to enable our skydive, also Queenstown, on Monday.

Posted by SueJWardell 03:39 Archived in New Zealand Comments (1)

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