Monday, February 24, 2020

HIKING AND BIKING IN NEW ZEALAND, Part 2: Guest Post by Cathy Mayone

New Zealand, Waiheke Island, view from Man O'War Vineyards
Over the Christmas holidays, my niece and her husband, Cathy and Mike Mayone, spent two weeks in New Zealand, driving, biking and hiking on both the North and South Island, enjoying the southern hemisphere summer and New Zealand's unique landscape. I thank Cathy for sharing their trip with The Intrepid Tourist. You can read more about their biking experiences at her blog

Part 2:  New Zealand’s North Island Beaches and Lakes

Auckland’s Waiheke’s Island

We opted to spend our only Auckland full day taking a 40-minute ferry over to Waiheke Island, renting a car, and touring the Island’s wineries.  As scary as the narrow, twisty roads were for my jet-lagged husband to navigate and test his left-side driving skills, it felt safer than renting an e-bike or moped, more pleasant than being stuffed into a wine touring van, and more flexible than the public bus.  Plus, we would be driving the next two weeks so it was good practice!

After a quick 20-minute walk through the small town of Oneroa, we arrived just in time for the morning start at Kennedy Point Winery, a small, organic winery with its beautiful ocean views and enjoyable Sauvignon Blanc, Red Trumpet Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend, and olive oils.  Next stop was the famous Mudbricks Restaurant and Vineyard where I had made lunch reservations.  Our vegetarian/seafood lunch did not disappoint on this perfect weather day, sitting on the patio overlooking the distant water.

We decided to venture to the other side of the Island for our afternoon.  The paved roads turned to gravel and by the time we arrived to Man O’ War Vineyards, we were ready for an afternoon nap so we opted to sit on the porch with a view of the beautiful blue bay and consume coffee rather than wine.  With the jet lag catching up, we headed back to the ferry so we could rest up before our evening dinner with our new Kiwi friends.
Ohope beach
North Island East Coast Beaches

We knew we wanted some beach time early in the trip, and the North Island beaches are much warmer than the South Island beaches, although still not “warm” in early summer just like our U.S. northern East Coast beaches.  This was the first trip planning dilemma – do we go North of Auckland, spend time in the Coromandel Peninsula east of Auckland, or drive south down along the East coast?  We opted for the latter, figuring we could see multiple spots along the way and then go inland to the heart of Maori culture and lakes.
Mount Maunganui
Our Kiwi friends had recommended we stop in Mount Maunganui for lunch and hike up “the Mount.” For a popular beach town, we were surprised at how expansive and unpopulated the beach was.  The hike up the Mount provided spectacular views at every turn and a nice one hour hike to work off lunch.
White Island, view from Moto Dunes
We continued on to Ohope, a quiet beach town where we spent the next three nights, including Christmas day.  Ohope neighbors the larger town of Whakatāne, which had tragically made global news two weeks before when the White Island volcano erupted, at last count killing 20 and injuring 27 guides and tourists.  The day before the eruption, I had been researching what to do while in Ohope, and I had prioritized other activities, primarily a bike ride on the Motu Dunes Trail, which is one of New Zealand’s 22 “great rides” established by New Zealand’s Cycle Trail organization, an idea that was born in 2009 at a government ‘jobs summit’.  We spent a half day riding the trails that follow the coastline and then enjoyed lunch back in the town of Opotiki where we had rented the bicycles.

North Island Lakes

I had debated if we should stay in popular Rotorua or Taupo, and decided on Taupo after finding an AirBandB with stunning lake views and determining we could stop in Rotorua on our way to Taupo.  There are a number of Maori cultural attractions in Rotorua.  I would have liked to visit the Rotorua Museum, but it is currently closed for earthquake renovations.  The Maori dinner shows sounded like a Hawaiian luau, which was fun to experience once, but we felt like “we had been there, done that” so we passed.  After lunch, we did stop in the Redwoods – Whakarewarewa Forest ten minutes from town.  This is well worth a walk in the woods, with multiple walking and hiking trails and a fun-looking treetop walk, which we considered, but it was overrun with kids.  We decided to take the free admission low road, which provided a beautiful walk in the woods amongst the giant redwoods and ferns.
Our Air BandB at Taupo
Once we arrived in Taupo, I was glad to call this our home for two nights.  Lake Taupo, the size of Singapore, is New Zealand’s largest lake and the town is livelier than Rotorua, but not too much.  Just like the beaches, none of the lakes are overly populated with people and boats.  Our AirBandB lived up to its pictures and reviews and really was a slice of heaven, with large windows, patio and deck providing 180 degree views of the blue water and distant mountains.
Huka Falls
We spent a day biking the trail that goes part way around the lake, and then after lunch, headed up on mountain bike trails along the river to Huka Falls.  The next morning, we arose early so we could hike the 2.8 km up Mount Tauhara before our domestic flight.  Comparing it to Mount Maunganui, we figured we could do it in 90 minutes round trip.  But the terrain proved to be much more challenging so it took 2h 15min and ate up our airport arrival “contingency time”.  We arrived at the airport in a hurry only to discover an extremely tiny airport in which we didn’t even have to go through security!  So, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch and then boarded our Air New Zealand flight to Auckland, where we changed planes to Queenstown for our next week on the South Island.
Mount Tauhara hike
Part 3: New Zealand's South Island to post next week.

For more information about New Zealand’s amazing Great Rides cycling initiative and an in depth look at all of our New Zealand biking adventures, visit my “Great Riding” articles on my Swim Bike Run Survive blog.

Our North Island accommodations included:

Taupo – 2 nights in a bach (cottage) with stunning lake views

Monday, February 17, 2020

HIKING AND BIKING IN NEW ZEALAND, Part 1: Guest Post by Cathy Mayone

New Zealand: Sheep at Lake Pukaki, South Island
Over the Christmas holidays, my niece and her husband, Cathy and Mike Mayone, traveled to New Zealand, driving, biking and hiking on both the North and South Island, enjoying the southern hemisphere summer and New Zealand's unique landscape. I thank Cathy for sharing their trip with The Intrepid Tourist. For more details about their biking and hiking experiences, you can go to her blog .

Mike, on the Hooker Valley trail, South Island
Part 1:  Introduction to New Zealand

New Zealand wasn’t on my bucket list, but I recommend you put it on yours.  It’s actually now on my list of countries I would return to explore more. With little to no tourism advertising or iconic pictures beckoning me to New Zealand, it had simply gone unnoticed until a colleague recommended it, knowing how active we like to be.
New Zealand. South Island landscape.
Requiring advance frequent flyer tickets during the busy Christmas to New Year’s holiday and having absolutely no knowledge of the country and its geography, we began researching the trip a year in advance.  I quickly became overwhelmed prioritizing where to go in a country the size of the U.S. East Coast for our two-week, 25-year wedding anniversary trip.  We decided to make this a “reconnaissance trip” and see different parts of the country, so that if we ever came back, we would have a better sense where to “zero in”. 
We flew into Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city with only 1.5 million people.  This stat alone tells you a highlight of New Zealand – it will feel like one of the least populated, modern day countries you will visit.  In fact, according to Stats NZ, the country’s 2015 population included 4.6 million humans and 29.5 million sheep.  New Zealand does not have any of the scary creatures that inhabit Australia; they do not even have any snakes!  In 2016 the New Zealand government introduced Predator Free 2050, a project to eliminate all non-native predators (such as rats, possums and stoats) by 2050.
Typical landscape on the North Island
New Zealand’s Kiwis (the people) and kiwi (the bird)

I would be remiss if I didn’t start by mentioning one of New Zealand’s biggest attractions –they are the friendliest people you will ever meet. The people of New Zealand became called Kiwis after soldiers donned a patch of the national bird, the kiwi, on military uniforms in World War I. They are proud to be called Kiwis, and they are eager to have visitors to their country. To my surprise, a simple connection turned into an offer for dinner in Auckland with a lovely family, who are now new friends. Throughout our trip, it was easy to strike up conversations with locals, who openly shared their stories, adventures, and heartbreaks.

The Māori, who self-identify as 17.5 percent of the population, are the indigenous Polynesian people who settled in New Zealand in the early 1300s, before the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman became the first European to sight New Zealand in 1642. The official languages of New Zealand are English, Māori, and New Zealand Sign Language. New Zealand was a colony of the British Empire from 1841 – 1907, and then a dominion from 1907 – 1947, when it gained full statutory independence with the British monarch remaining the head of state to this day.

The fact that Kiwis like to welcome visitors is perhaps why I was able to find amazing AirBandBs for every step of our trip.  For each stop, I had researched hotel options and AirBandBs, and opted for the AirBandB every time, and they met or exceeded our expectations every time while giving us easy laundry and kitchen facilities.  Another option we may do if we return is to rent a camper van, as free or low-cost camping is plentiful.

In Part 2 (to post next week), I will recap our week on the North Island, and in Part 3 (to post in two weeks), I will recap our week on the South Island.

Monday, February 10, 2020

IN THE LAND OF NJÁL’S SAGA IN ICELAND Guest post by Karla Chucsdottir (a.k.a. Caroline Hatton)

The author with an axe to cut quiche and a sword as a toothpick. Photo by husband Viljam Glennsson. Viking costume, weapons, and picnic table courtesy of the Saga Centre (Hvolsvöllur, Iceland).
My friend and fellow children’s book author Caroline Hatton visited Iceland in June 2019 with her husband Bill. She took all but one of the photos in this post. For more information about her, visit

Before my first visit to Iceland in 2007, I had long been fond of its first inhabitants, the Vikings—those formidable, endearing brutes. But I had not yet read their stories, the Icelandic Sagas, widely considered gems of world literature. They are set long ago when Iceland resembled America’s Wild West, and the Viking settlers’ idea of exercise was to go around skewering neighbors. The Sagas are family oral histories written down a few centuries after they had happened. Scholars speculate that following generations of deft storytellers, the anonymous recorders captured optimized history.
Today in the south of Iceland, the setting of Njál’s Saga.
After returning home in 2007, I learned that one of the most famous Icelandic Sagas is Njál’s Saga (Njála in Icelandic, also known as The Story of Burnt Njál [pronounced nyahl]). I devoured the English version and loved it. This epic lawyering novel is set around the year 1000 CE in the south of Iceland. It’s about Njál Þorgeirsson of Bergþórshvoll and Gunnar Hámundarson of Hlíðarendi, who were very good friends. Unfortunately, their wives were anything but. It was between them that the trouble began. One mean wife ordered the killing of a servant of the other wife’s, the other wife returned the favor, and the next thing they knew, the whole situation snowballed into decades of bloodshed.

The story delivers (in alphabetical order) affronts to family honor, ambushes, battles, betrothals, dead bodies, deceit, grievances, matings, mediation, revenge, and much, much more, against a backdrop of historic commotion—the conversion of Iceland from Norse paganism to Christianity. The English version of Njál’s Saga is available online, easy to read, fascinating, heartbreaking, and haunting.
The Viking world, the context of the sagas, as shown at the Saga Centre in Hvolsvöllur, Iceland. The Vikings sailed from Norway to Iceland, Greenland, and America.
A great way to learn more about Njál’s Saga is by visiting the Saga Centre in Hvolsvöllur in the south of Iceland where the story takes place. I jumped at the chance in 2019, during my second trip to Iceland. The Centre's exhibits introduce Njál’s Saga’s characters and plot in the context of the Viking world. Once educated, I borrowed a costume and toy sword, axe, shield, and helmet, to defend my picnic. The Saga Centre is located an easy hour-and-a-half drive from Reykjavik via the excellent Ring Road that loops all around Iceland. The Centre is one of the milestones on the multicountry Saga Trail .
Seen at the Saga Centre: Njala (Njál’s Saga) Tapestry design detail, as printed for display. This woman might be Gunnar’s wife, who was not a nice lady: “Hallgerda, the fairest of women, tall of stature, fair-haired, and had so much of it she could hide herself in it; but she was lavish and hard-hearted.”
The Saga Centre is also the home of the Njala (Njál’s Saga) Tapestry. Contemporary Icelandic creators dreamed it up. It is reminiscent of the world famous Bayeux Tapestry, which is a 70-meter long, 50-centimeter tall, embroidered cloth that depicts the conquest of England in the year 1066 by William, Duke of Normandy. The Njala Tapestry, which depicts Njál’s Saga, consists of 90 meters by 50 centimeters of linen in the process of being embroidered with Icelandic, plant-dyed wool yarn.
As a horse lover, all the photos I took of the Njala Tapestry designs were of horses, until I caught myself doing it. Then I made sure to take this photo of something else. It’s not my fault if there are horses in this ship.
The project is unusual in that anyone can pick up a needle and help. I would have loved to learn the Bayeux stitch used to embroider the tapestry, but we visited on a Sunday when the sewing room was closed. Before leaving town, I consulted a map highlighting nearby locations identified in Njál’s Saga.
Njál and his friends and foes bonded and bled in settings like this one.
The saga’s characters lived on farmsteads spread across a landscape that looked much as it still does today.
Njál’s Saga mentions Keldur where this farm, now a museum, is located. In 2019, drought associated with climate change killed roof sod that had naturally stayed lush for centuries.
One character, an uncle of Njál’s illegitimate son, lived at Keldur, where the Keldur Farm Museum  is located, a 15-minute drive from Hvolsvöllur. The turf buildings are the oldest of their kind still standing in Iceland. They were lived in, added on, and “updated” into the 1900s, though they remained rustic.
Inside the medieval part of the Keldur Farm building: cow’s stomach windows panes (not in photo) let daylight in near the cow dung fire (not lit) used to cook cow soup (not on the day I took this photo).

Some seven hundred years ago, Vikings were immortalized in the Icelandic Sagas. Today, you can visit many of the sites where their lives unfolded, and stand where they once fought literal and legal battles. Of all the sagas, Njál’s Saga is the only one set in the south of Iceland, where I can’t seem to get enough of the stunning, dramatic scenery.