New Zealand-The North Island

West of Coromandel, on the scenic route along Firth Bay

I started planning for this trip to New Zealand five months ago and in a couple of hours, we will be boarding our flight to San Francisco, then on to Auckland, New Zealand.   I am having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that we are leaving tonight (Thursday) at 11 pm from SFO and will arrive in Auckland shortly after sunrise on SATURDAY.  Equally weird, on our return, we leave on a Tuesday at 2 pm and our plane touches down here in Austin the same day, an hour later.

I knew a little bit about New Zealand, but planning the trip was more of a challenge than usual because I simply didn’t know the lay of the land.  One of the challenges has been the names of  towns.  A large portion of the names are in Maori, an Eastern Polynesian language spoken by the Māori people, the indigenous population of New Zealand.  I did learn that the vowels are pronounced the same as in the Spanish language.  One major difference is WH Is generally pronounced like an F (the top front teeth and bottom lip barely touch).  A significant thing to know since a lot of towns start with Wh.

There is one name of a town in New Zealand that would stump most people and that is the longest name place of any in the world per the Guiness World Records.  Located near Porangahau in Hawke’s Bay (North Island wine country) is Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu”, which translates into English as “the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as ‘landeater’, played his flute to his loved one.” Locals simply call it Taumata Hill.  

 

A Guide to Vacation Rentals

I don’t begin to even think I know everything about traveling. There are travel warriors out there who are always one step ahead of the rest of us, so I’ll talk about what I do know. For the past ten years I have been booking short term rentals instead of hotels when we travel. My primary experience has been with VRBO, Homeaway and AirBnB. There are others, like Roomorama or Flipkey, but I’ve never used them. Once, when we went to Argentina, after receiving a friend’s recommendation, I booked a fabulous apartment in Recoleta through a local real estate agency  Reynolds Properties short term rentals in Buenos Aires.

BA apartment
Buenos Aires Apt
(Old World Charm of Recoleta)

It was a smooth transaction and a wonderful apartment. For the most part, all have been very good choices. I have nothing against hotels, except they can be more expensive and if you are in one place for an extended period, they often feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable. I do remember a trip to Paris back in 2007. Our hotel was in a great location, charming but tiny and cramped (often described as “cozy”). After a while, I don’t give a flip about charm if there isn’t a place to sit except the bed or nowhere to put toiletries or my reading glasses. I vowed then that I would only stay in a hotel if it was for a day or two. Over that time period, I would seek out rentals.

I’ll warn you: Finding the right rental can take hours of your time. It’s a process, and hopefully some of these guidelines will save you precious time — Time that you can use to nail down some restaurants you want to check out!

First of all, why get a rental instead of a hotel?

  • It can be less expensive than a hotel. Compare prices of apartments with hotel.com or tripadvisor if you are skeptical about a property.
  • You will have access to a kitchen. I love this aspect. At breakfast time, I can sit at a dining room table in my jammies with spiked rooster hair and eat breakfast at my own pace.
  • In most instances, you will have more space than a hotel, and that may even include a studio apartment. (I really look at the photos of a rental property. Futon couches and flimsy chairs are a turn off. I want a chair I can curl up with a book and relax.)
  • You get to “live like a local” in a neighborhood. On market days, you won’t drool over food stalls. You can actually take home that fresh pasta or basket of fresh picked berries and experiment in your kitchen…or not.
  • Unless you are looking for a property in the suburbs, the biggest demand in rental properties tend to be in the thick of things. Hotels can often be in an area of the city that dies when the sun goes down and office workers head home or located by a mall.   Yikes. I want to walk out the door and find restaurants and bars around me.
Collobrières France
Our Vacation Rental
Collobrières, France (above art gallery)

What neighborhood appeals to you? This is where some research is necessary.   Perhaps, you are already familiar with the area, which helps. Figure out how you will likely spend your time. Will it be mostly going to museums, looking at architecture, galleries, or are you content with mostly exploring shops, eating in cafes, sipping wine and watching people?   Look at a public transportation map and figure out how you will be getting around. Just Google or Bing “neighborhoods of your desired city” and you’ll find a wealth of information. Also, don’t just rely on the Internet. There are some excellent books out there and a lot of them are at your library, so no additional costs to you. Personally, I love Rick Steves’ books and website stories.

More recently, I’ve started looking at blogs by expats in areas that I am interested in visiting. Those blogs lead to other blogs or other websites and my notes become a notebook. It’s equivalent to working on a puzzle on the dining room table. Consult friends who have visited your destination. Consult friends of friends who have lived there.

There is another way of knowing what neighborhood is the most appealing. I watch a lot of House Hunters International and when I see an area full of restaurants, bars, and galleries in a city of interest, I jot it down for later use. Note: The TV series has become so contrived and scripted now that I can fast forward through a 30 minute segment in 7.35 minutes. (For the love of God, can they please stop having the buyers say, “Now we’re talking” or “We have a lot to think about”)

Once you have decided on your preferred location, start looking at rentals on established rental websites, such as Homeaway, VRBO, or AirBnB. I have not used Flipkey, but it also becoming popular.   Here’s a Rick Steves article about vacation rentals. https://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/sleeping-eating/find-vacation-rentals

Orvieto Vacation Rental
Orvieto Apartment (Italy)

 

Looking for Your Rental: This is where you put on your detective hat. First sign in and create an account at the sites you have chosen to review. This way you can keep a list of favorites and any correspondence you may rack up with owners. Always remember, other people are looking, so if you zero in on a place that you love, don’t wait too long to make your booking.

Begin your search and place your booking as early as you can.   The best properties go first. Also, many properties get repeat business and they are often the cream of the crop.

You may find yourself scanning the descriptions of properties. That’s understandable, but if you are really interested in a property, before you take any steps to contact the owner, thoroughly read the description.

Study the photos. Does the furniture look worn? Does there seem to be natural light coming in? If you can’t quite figure out the configuration of the apartment, ask if there is a floorplan available.

Study the amenities list carefully. Some of the things you want to look for:

  • What size is the bed? Outside of the USA, king-size beds are rare. A double in Europe is usually the equivalent of two twin beds together. A full is a little bigger than a twin.
  • Know if there is a shower and tub combination or just a shower.
  • If the apartment is on the 5th floor, don’t assume there is an elevator. In a lot of countries that will not be the case.
  • If you are going in the summer, and with recent heat waves in Europe, you may want air conditioning. Ask what rooms are air conditioned because sometimes it can be just the main room, or just the main bedroom. What is the source of heat in the winter?
  • If you have picked a bustling part of a city and you are concerned about noise pollution, ask if the windows are double-paned.
  • Know the terrain around the property. If you don’t mind climbing hill after hill at the end of day of playing tourists, then go for it. Me. I don’t want to have to hail a cab all the time. I want to walk but I always don’t want to walk and pant, day after day.
  • What all is included? Linens, towels, dishwasher, utensils and kitchenware for cooking?
  • Is there a washing machine, and specifically, is there a dryer? Often a dryer means some drying racks.  If there is not a dryer, know that can be common in Continental Europe.
  • Is there WI-FI? Sometimes they will say they have free Internet, but it’s just a hard line modem/router. How many devices can it support?
  • If there is a TV, do they have cable or satellite and, if so, are there any English channels?
  • If you will have a rental car, find out if parking comes with the property. If not, where is the closest parking facility or is on street parking viable?
  • Does the owner have a list of recommendations, i.e. restaurants, grocery markets, ATMs, phone numbers for calling a taxi to the airport, or nearby metro or bus stops?
  • Is this an “Owner occupied” or “Holiday Rental”? Owner occupied means that you will be surrounded by a lot of the owners’ personal items, something I personally would not like. A holiday rental will be more geared to your needs and less “hands off”.  VRBO and Homeaway are usually dedicated rental properties.

Read Reviews, then read them Again.   This is often where your detective work really comes to play. Note references to noise pollution or poor water pressure. If more than one review has comments about a lousy mattress, you may want to know if the owner has addressed this issue or just not chance it. Do, however, notice if a reviewer seems to have expected much more than the price would warrant, you may need to trust that review accordingly.  Keep in mind, renters often form a connection with their hosts and don’t want to say anything negative in reviews, but watch for subtle  hints.

Contact the Owners  Don’t rely on the website’s availability calendars to always be up to date. Contact the owners and give them your dates. If you have any questions, pose them now so you don’t waste everyone’s time. Ask them to furnish you with the street address if the property is indeed available for your requested time frame. Map out the location on Google Maps, and go one step further, check out the building and the neighborhood on Google’s street view. I studied our apartment in Orvieto, Italy so often that when we arrived in the town in our rental car, I was able to guide my husband directly to our apartment. (I also already knew where a bakery and a wine café was located.)

detective graphic
Read the Fine Print Before you Book

Read the Fine Print   My preference is Homeaway and VRBO.   There contract is straightforward, but then I have used them the most. I found AirBnB’s website easy to navigate, but I loathe their cancellation policy. The only time I have used them was when I booked a house in Philadelphia. I accidentally booked the wrong place, caught the mistake before 24 hours had lapsed and contacted the owner, who was great. The booking was five months away. I went to my account on AirBnB and cancelled my reservation, then booked the correct house. I rechecked the transaction and my account clearly showed my cancellation before 24 hours the period. Five days later, I get a call from the original property owner, telling me I was still registered to rent his place. After going into my account, I noticed I was no longer cancelled. I did this immediately, then got an email that they were keeping half of my deposit (around $600).  Keep in mind this was a booking five months away!   Their “help desk” is maddening, a list of multiple choices to explain your problem (none of which included my situation). I wrote several messages to them and I never received a direct reply. After two weeks, I got an email telling me that they were returning all of my deposit except a $100 administration fee. Way too much time was spent dealing with them and not once did anyone answer my questions. So, don’t hit that send button until you are certain you have the right place!  Good luck if you have to cancel at all.

I’ll be posting shortly more information on what to look for when you first arrive at your rental.

Chocolate, Art and Porn

We sampled chocolates everywhere we could.  We bought truffles in shops on St. Germain and thoroughly enjoyed them all.  Then we went to Josephine Vannier’s artisanal chocolate shop in Marais, just a block or two from the Place de Vosges. At first, I thought we were passing a curio shop.  There was a guitar in the window and a saxophone.  Fertility dolls and what appeared to be some African masks, and elaborately covered books.  Then we realized the shop windows were filled with chocolate sculptures.    Inside we discovered even more goodies.

I did a double take when I saw a display of  chocolate dildos, which coincidentally had been reduced 50%, but Dean said no.   All I can say — chocolate is chocolate.  Chocolate Dildos Paris[In hindsight, I should have bought all of them.  I could have had a party and cut all of them up (but one) into individual bite sizes (no pun intended) and served them up to my guests — then held up the lone, in-tact dildo.  I really missed the boat on that one.]

Chocolate guitar
Chocolate guitar/books
Chocolate Fertility Goodess
Chocolate Fertility Goodess

Art and chocolate at the same time Had a car hit me just seconds earlier, and by some miracle, I actually went to heaven after all?  Here’s there link.  chocolate and art.  Go to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dome, walk the Seine and get chocolates at Josephine Vannier’s.  Go just to see their window shop display.

 

I don’t know who Josephine Vannier is but I wish we were close relatives. 

 Located on 4 Rue du Pas de la Mule

Watch how many people press their noses to the window.  The sales people should take photos of what we all look like as we admire their artful play on delectable chocolates.

Off Beat Things to do in Paris

For years, we have been going to the beloved taxidermy place called Deyrolle, located on the fashionable Rue de Bac off of St. Germain.    Deyrolle Exhibits

Deroyle Taxidermy
Deroyle Taxidermy

I say beloved because several years ago when a fire devastated this stuffed menagerie, Parisians came out in droves to help.  Afterwards, the army offered to house anything salvageable.  The renown auction house, Christie’s set up a foundation to raise funds through an auction.   Hermes created  a scarf to raise funds, and animals from other countries were donated.  All for a taxidermy place, you say?  Go there.

IMG_0066Deyrolle is a magical place.  Sometimes, you are looking at creatures that no longer exist.  The wood floors have signs of fire and the orangutan that I “talked to” last visit is gone.  The back room is still full of preserved butterflies and insects from places like Madagascar,  a place I probably will never see.  There are shells so outrageous that only God could have thought them up.  You are looking at beauty, never beasts even if they once could have snapped your head off.   

As we left, I spotted a side office.  A woman was working at her computer.  On her desk was a stuffed monkey and a large, regal bird.  There were other creatures scattered around her office like the rest of us stack folders and arrange photos of family.  It all made perfect sense.

 

Aurouze in Paris
Since 1872

Then there is  Auruoze, the pest exterminator shop on Rue des Halles, where you buy poisons to kill rats and other city vermin.   You are asking yourself.  Why does one frequent places like this as?  First of all, we stumbled on the place decades ago while  looking for a car model shop, which turns out to be next door.  It’s the window front display that grabs your attention.  Stuffed rats dancing in a circle with several other rats hanging from traps above, their necks clearly broken.Auroze shop window584

In the past we’ve always just taken photos and went next door, but this time, I ventured inside and purchased some of the old fashioned mouse traps called Lucifer.  I just know they will come in handy for an art project.  I’m thinking some kind of political satire about Congress.  Stay tuned.

Need More Time, Better Knees, and a Good Broom

Paris has flown by. Tomorrow we head home.  I will hopefully be able to work on my Paris postings during the return flight and wrap up this trip sometime next week when I am working with a real computer.

The apartment worked out beautifully, although the master bathroom was weird.  The design was so awkward.  I won’t even try to explain except to say it would bring tears of joy to an American liability attorney.  You basically take a cat walk on polished granite tiles to get to the deep, sunken tub/shower.  Getting in or out is challenging especially when the wet tiles turn the floor into an ice rink.  I think a breathalyzer test should be a requirement before venturing near that tub.  Thank God there is a powder room for answering the calls of nature in the middle of the night, because to get to the master toilet, you must use that same cat walk.

Actually, having a big tub in a Paris apartment is uncommon, and I probably wouldn’t have been such a wuz if I hadn’t fallen on my knee on the second day of our trip.  When one knee is giving you trouble, you can be guaranteed that some other body part will get jealous and retaliate, like the other knee.

We’ve eaten fresh croissants every morning.  Our white-tiled kitchen floor has drifts of flaky croissant crumbs piled in corners and under the table. A broom is in order before we turn in our keys.

Orvieto Field Notes-Final Day

101 Public Toilets.  Flushing a toilet can be a hide-and-seek game at times.  If it isn’t obvious, just stand back and look around.  It can be a  lone button on the wall, maybe plastic or an antique brass looking thing that you might pick up in a flea market and wonder what it was for.  It can be a chain hanging from the ceiling, a foot pedal, a sleek plastic, flush surfaced button that isn’t even noticeable at first glance.  Like I said, just keep looking around and you’ll figure it out. Years ago in Madrid, I went into a restaurant bathroom, a cavernous room with a lone toilet.  A light switch turned on automatically when I opened the door.  I sat down and in only enough time to say out loud, I wish I had eaten some prunes, a timer turned off the light and I was thrown into total darkness.  I spent the next few minutes feeling walls trying to find a light switch.

It’s all in the name.  Or at least one must wonder why a group of ancient people named their town Bastardo. We passed the sign on one of our road trips, which started a slew of questions. What do you call someone from Bastardo?  Bastardos or Bastardas? What do they call the mascot of their soccer team?  Sons of bitches?  Do they skip over the security question “what city were you born?”, simply because it causes too many problems?  Of course, none of these questions were obviously important enough for us to turn around and check out the town of Bastardo.

Orvieto to Spoleto 001

 

A gorgeous drive.  Originally, we were going to drive to nearby Todi, another charming hill town close to Orvieto.  Along the way, we decided to pass on Todi and head over to Spoleto to a restaurant specializing in truffle dishes.  The drive through the Martani Mountains, with occasional glimpses of a meandering river,  was inspiring. We took turns driving so we each had a chance to gaze out the window and enjoy the scenery.  The road is as curly and winding as my hair on a humid day but we both enjoyed ourselves tremendously, despite the tendency for Italian drivers to have issues with space.  Specifically, wanting to be in our space.

On the way back, we stopped at a typical country restaurant that had a view of the river and vineyards below.  We were the only tourists there.  Loved that little place.  I got a bottle of Prosecco that cost what a glass of same costs in the States.   Vineyard near Spoleto

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, and one other obscure little thing that puzzles me.  There isn’t a word in the Italian language for “hangover”.  The closest thing they have is “postumi di sbornia”, which means the aftermath of drunkenness.  Doesn’t that seem odd to you?  I will admit I never saw anyone drunk in Italy, but there must have been a tourist somewhere on a beach nursing a splitting head, cursing the light of day, and swearing off grappa for the rest of their life, or at least until happy hour.  In spite of all the wonderful wine (and beer)  Dean and I sampled, I am happy to report that during our entire trip, we never had a postumi di sbornia.

 

MOMENTS THAT MADE ME PAUSE

ORVIETO:   Walking down a narrow, crowded street in Orvieto, you turn a bend and you get your first glimpse of The Duomo, one of the most important cathedrals in Italy.  That first feeling of awe was nothing compared to when we walked onto the piazza.  It’s massiveness is imposing.  The front of this building is beautiful and inspiring, but the sides of the building are painted with stripes.  My first thought was war, then the stripes on concentration camp uniforms.  The building said to me, I am beautiful but I am also a fortress.  I don’t know what I am talking about.  I’m just telling you fluid thoughts as they transpired.

DSCF2478

1st Glimpse of Duomo
1st Glimpse of Duomo

Inside, there are less decorative facades of the building than most catherdrals of this size.  How do I say it?  It is less gaudy.  There are less “monuments” to the famous. It rests on the fact that it is a holy place.  There are two small chapels on either side of the front altar area.  One is for prayer only, and I went there and said prayers for friends who are battling illnesses or grieving.  As always, I asked him to strike down terrorists like ISIS, dictators, and several of the idiots  who have thrown in their hat for the USA presidential race.  (I guess I should stop doing that.  One good request might get cancelled out by a not so nice one.)

Anti-Christ (who looks somewhat like Christ) and Lucifer whispering in his ear.
Anti-Christ (who looks somewhat like Christ) who is fumbling during a speech to the crowd.  Lucifer is  whispering in his ear what he wants him to say.

The other smaller chapel, Chapel of San Brizio has an altar in the center but it’s the frescos that captivate you.  I should tell you that they were painted during the period of 1499-1504 by Luca Signorelli, a man who certainly had every reason to go home every night and complain to his wife about his poor, aching back and neck.  The Frescos are of the Day of Judgment and the After Life.  They are the stuff of nightmares, but nevertheless compelling.  I thought about this guy Signorelli.  His frescos are his interpretations of Revelations, which makes you want to know more about him– this painter who had such visions.  This one in particular stood out.

Prediction of the End of the World
Creatures that look like ISIS

Men dressed in modern attire coming from a different kind of church not particular to anything painted in this chapel. They remind me of, well, you decide.

PAUSE No. 2:  The white-haired, tuxedo-wearing, mad professor playing the flute on the street.  Specifically, Ava Maria.  I cried.  I saw him again later and took a short video, but you had to be there.  Dean saw him as well but this time he was in a heated argument with another man.  At one point, he was screaming at the other guy, then stormed off.  Maybe he is a relative of Signorelli.Kimi

PAUSE No. 3:  Thirty-minute drive from Orvieto is a beautiful little town on Lake Bolsena.  It’s a great excuse for a drive to find a place to have lunch overlooking this lake dotted with islands.

Lake Bolsena
Approach to Lake Bolsena

The day we went, it was a cloudless day and the lake was a deep blue.  It was the first water we had seen in Italy and it warmed my heart.  A tree lined street carried us along to the shore where we dined in a little restaurant that looked like it belonged in Nice, France.

 

PAUSE 4:  The best seafood restaurant and perhaps our best meal in Orvieto took place at CIBUS on Via Garibaldi, a small piazza.  Travel Advisor Cibus  Dean ordered a octopus seafood salad and I had stuffed sardines.  Mine were good, but Dean knew better than leaving the table for a second.   Cibus chef and II later went back to the kitchen and asked to talk to the chef.  I was hoping I could watch them tenderize the octopus, but he told me that when the octopus is first caught, the fisherman bites it and kills it before it has time to tighten up its muscles and get “tough”.  Usually, you have to beat the octopus against a table or something.  I’ve watched it done in Greece and have done it once myself.  But, biting the octopus?  Where do you bite it?  I need to research that one.  Why do I feel that I lost something in the translation?

Another good restaurant was next door.  Very regional, comfort foods.  Il Cocco Ristorante on Via Garibaldi.

PAUSE No. 5:  The Pisco Sour that the bartender just brought to me at our favorite restaurant so far in Orvieto, Bar Montanucci, which touts itself as a Caffe Pasticceria Gastronomia

Best Bartender Orvieto
Slavic, Best Bartender in Orvieto – May 2015

Ristorante.  They have an amazing buffet at lunchtime that reminds me of tapas bars in Spain, a glass cabinet full of beautifully displayed tortes, and pastries.  And, then there is the bartender who makes every drink with such artistry that I keep waiting for him to sprinkle fairy dust from a wand over the whole thing.

PAUSE No. 5:  Dean and I (finally) feel better.  Energy is back up and I think we aren’t walking around slack-jawed anymore as we appreciate the sites around us.  However, Kleenex is still my best friend.  I think it is all the cedar trees blooming around me.  Austinites:  you know what I am talking about: cedar fever.

Sorry.  I know I need to post photos.  I miss my computer.  I’ll try to put aside some time and some Pisco Sours for photos tomorrow.

Now, my second Pisco just arrived and I’m pretty sure I see some fairy dust on it…..

 

Philadelphia’s South Street, etc .

Ben Franklin garage doorWe traveled to Philadelphia, PA recently for a wedding. I worked at a client site in Philly for about six weeks several decades ago. I was on a ridiculously lax expense account so I dined like I suspect members of Congress do when they cross paths with a lobbyist. It was a fun six weeks except for the actual work I was doing: interviewing employees of our client, and ultimately making suggestions for the ones who needed to be laid-off.

I had good memories of South Street back then, so we rented an AirBnB apartment off of South Street. Like most things in life, it has changed into more of an eclectic neighborhood by day: lots of restaurants and sports bars, hat shops, sex toy shops, consignment stores (some good, some skanky), and a Whole Foods.   Continue reading

What does a Mississippi Gal do with Left-Over Grits? Make salad.

Put left-over grits in a container. Pack it down so when it is cold it will lift out of the container in one piece.  (My mom used to put the left-over grits in an open ended left-over soup can.  That way when she wanted to use the cold grits, she just pushed them through to the other side, then cut up the cylinder of grits into slices.)Grits-Houlimi Salad

Cut the grits up in slices and cook slowly(medium heat) in a combination of butter and canola until crispy. (If you do this too hot and fast, it won’t work, although you could put it into a fryer and be done with it but the grits would absorb more oil and butter – less healthy. Anyway, cook until crispy. Then cut into cubes. Allow about 10-15 minutes for this.

Another Unexpected Ingredient:  Halioumi cheese. It is a weird sheep cheese from Cyprus that you can grill and it doesn’t melt. This is the best way to eat this cheese. Served cold, well, it is like doing penance. Grill it on the grill or cook it on a high temp cast iron skillet, which is what I do. (You can also put it on a non-stick pan on high and cook very quickly till brown.) Cut up into squares and put aside.

Make your salad dressing. I did a basic balsamic vinegar salad dressing with a bit of orange zest and smoked salt. The latter is not necessary.

I cooked two slices of bacon and chopped up the crispy slices afterwards. Chopped up some tomatoes (not too much), spring mix salad, and tossed all the ingredients. (Gently put the cubes of grits on top. They tend to crumble if you just toss them with all the ingredients.)

Note: My Momma taught me not to waste. An easy enough concept since I couldn’t feed my leftovers to the poor people in China. I am referring to the mantra of our parents: “Think of the poor people in China syndrome of the 50’s generation”. I am sure that I am not the only person who silently thought that if it made sense to ship over the food we didn’t want to eat on our plate, we would have happily taken the money out of allowance to pay for it: just to not hear that phrase at the end of every friggin meal.

I don’t want to think of what my parents would say about China now.