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We changed airlines to fly from Hong Kong to Auckland from Virgin Atlantic to Air New Zealand. I explained to our Welsh hostie that we had travelled down to Hong Kong by Virgin and she told me "that's the trouble with Virgins. They don't go all the way"!
England were playing Wales in Cardiff during our flight and she promised she would ask the Captain for the score before we landed but she never did. I suppose the fact that we won the game had nothing to do with it?
Comparisons to Virgins premium economy are inevitable and of course Air New Zealand won hands down. The seats were much more comfortable although narrower, 18.5 inches compared to 21, but the seat pitch was a generous 41 compared to 38. When you get to our age 3 inches is a lot!
This was the older 777-200 aircraft so cabin pressure was higher than the 787 and we did notice it took us longer to recover from jet lag. This was despite an 8 hour time difference between London and HK compared to only a 5 hour difference between HK and Auckland. They say you need a day to recover for every hours difference and we did need five days in New Zealand whereas we recovered easily in HK.
The standard of food and service was also much better on this flight. We were served meals on china plates and premium New Zealand wines poured from full size bottles rather than plonk in little plastic jobs. Furthermore they kept coming round and refilling your glass until you said stop. I actually refused a whisky.
Arriving in Auckland we were met by our friends Terri and Byron Bentley who kindly gave us a bed for a few days to acclimatise to the time zone which we really needed. Kiwi TV is still as bad as ever but they have acquired the Rugby Channel since our last visit and I was able to watch England beating Wales after which we went on a tour of the North Shore ending up at the Bentley's daughter Sarah's new house.
Because the TV adverts are about 50% of the programmes, Byron records everything he wants to watch then fast forwards the ads. Watching rugby with him was often confusing as he would watch several prerecorded games in succession, continually flipping between games or fast forwarding to avoid watching reset scrums or injury delays! He would even alternate between live games and prerecorded ones.
We did not see much of Byron for the rest of our stay due to his work commitments but met up with brother-in-law Phil for lunch in Birkenhead (which he bought) and visited Mary Zaloum in Sandringham, an old friend who Sue used to flat with in Wellington.
Terri ran us back to the airport to pick up a hire car from Omega rentals who we used on our last visit. This time we hired a Toyota Vitz automatic and set off in torrential rain down to Balmy Palmie.
Terri had kindly lent us her satnav and we discovered the joys of Garmin Girl once more who pronounced streets and place names in a different language! With the route set to "shortest" she proceeded to take us into the woopwoops. When you get off the main highways in NZ there are no signposts so you have no idea where you are and we had no map. Sue had reached melting point, cursing the country of her birth and demanding coffee, threatening me with strangulation. The last place of any significance I noticed was Matamata or "Matarh-Matarh" as our Garmin girl would say. I therefore asked her to take us to the nearest coffee shop and she took us to Tokoroa where I had been before and was on highway one. I then ignored her every time she wanted me to turn off this road and we arrive in Palmie after about a seven hours drive.
Mother-in-law Joan has reached the grand old age of 90, still lives in her own house and tends her garden. She insisted on buying us both Christmas and Birthday presents from a Merino and Possum shop she frequents and told us our limit was NZ$100 each. I found a very nice jumper reduced 50% to NZ$99 and told Joan she could give me the odd dollar and Sue also found a jumper which was only half that price so off we went to Farmers department store to get our moneys worth.
Joan remarked how patient I was, shopping with Sue and that Phil and Mike and Fred would never be so good. I told her that I was also good in bed and Sue nearly ended herself!
We went out to dinner at a Thai restaurant one evening with John and Mary Croxson who we had last seen in Bridgnorth. Unfortunately Mary's mother had passed away peacefully aged 97 a few days earlier so when we sat down to eat Mary announced that the meal was on Therese, her inheritance from her mother.
We attended her mothers funeral a few days later and met up with Jean Harnett, now also 90, and all the little Harnetts, Barbara, Colleen and Allison. We also visited Jean at her home where we were also greeted by her daughter Jenny with husband Ted.
Our final visit was to see Sue's stepbrother Jon and Ann Asmus who both do sterling work keeping an eye on Joan at weekends. Jon revealed that he used to date Terri Quigan, now Bentley, and even provided a photo. Don't they look cool and we didn't know Jon had talents with the tambourine!
We returned the next day to admire Jons new man cave complete with nude manikin and drink his special blend of coffee before taking Joan off to Fielding for lunch.
Our next stop was Napier. At long last, after years of resistance from my Kiwi wife, we are seriously considering moving to New Zealand to live in a couple of years and the Hawkes Bay region was one place under consideration. We had picked a time which coincided with a big Maori festival and every motel was full but we at last managed to find one between Napier and Taradale.
We know this area pretty well having spent three weeks here over Christmas and New Year five years ago.
We drove into Napier about 6pm then walked the length of Dickens Street which was deserted with only one restaurant open, an Italian where we met a retired couple from Yorkshire who moved to just outside Auckland three years ago. We told them we might be doing the same and they gave us some relevant information.
We had breakfast in Taradale and revisited Hastings and Havelock North where we thought we might be able to live but the more we thought about it the more we went off the idea as there was just not enough to do in the area once you tired of visiting wineries which was our next stop.
A renewed acquaintance with Te Awa vineyard was always on our agenda and it is still the same standard five years on. We tasted all the wines and selected a bottle of Rosť with our lunch where we shared the house sourdough with local olive oil and Zaatar Labneh, an Arabic yoghurt cheese.
The market fish was Bluenose which was accompanied with baby squid, a chilli and walnut tarator to which we added some fried potatoes with lemon and oregano, all sumptuous. Of course Sue finished it all off with strawberries and fennel, buttermilk panna cotta and meringue while I chose semillon roasted peach, lavender milk curd, chick pea candy and pistachio. We was stuffed and had to go back to the motel for a lie down.
Hastings now had a night market so we set off that evening to investigate with thoughts of a sort of up market Asian night market. What we found was a grassed over building site where an old hotel had been demolished a few food stalls and a couple of hundred people watching a stage where a Maori choir was just beginning to sing. They were really good. They don't just sing but they waggle their fingers and dance a bit with the odd shout and all with perfect timing. The encore was a Haka which would put the All Blacks to shame and thank goodness we arrived in time to see them because the so called night market was otherwise a real let down.
Next stop was Sue's sister Diane and Brother-in-law Mike Keaney who have gone native since our last visit and bought a smallholding on the Coromandel Peninsula.
We met them on the wharf in Thames where there was a fish and chip shop. We ate Gurnard fillets and oysters washed down with cold beers before driving up the West coast of the peninsular to Tapu then turned inland for a couple of miles up the Coroglen Road to Diane and Mikes farmstead.
Their Golden Retriever Gemma who is now 15 years old was there to greet us. She would never swim in the sea but now swims in the river that borders their property.
The next morning, before breakfast, we had the dubious privilege of feeding the 11 sheep in the Keaney flock, the Bellweather flock leader having been given the name Joan. Any resemblance between Joan and Mikes mother-in-law is purely coincidental.
Then it was off back into Thames to meet up with another of Sue's ex flat mates who she hadn't seen for 47 years, Fran Binning. We informed her of our plans to come and live in New Zealand as she had lived overseas for many years before returning to NZ and had lived in Havelock North. Having established our likes and dislikes she was of the opinion that Wellington was the only place for us. Only problem with that is that I don't much like the place or the climate.
The next day we drove up the Coroglen road and climbed up the see a big square Kauri tree (photo above) when I realised we had been here before, 10 years ago.
But we had never been to the Rapaura Watergardens nearby where we ate lunch. The lady owner was born and bred in NZ and her son is the renowned chef, the kitchen being in view from the restaurant. The others all had a whole flounder while I had a steak sandwich. This was unlike any steak sandwich I have had before and consisted of a 300g rib eye thickly sliced on a toasted wheatgerm bread slice with a mixed salad. More than I could eat and we took the left overs back for Gemma.
We complimented the chef and it transpired that he went to Cheltenham College in Bath Road for 5 years. Small world.
We paid a visit to Stan and his wife who live opposite the Keaney farmstead. Stan is the Mr Do-it-all of the area and if he can't do it then nobody can. One of his many talents was wine making but having tasted them, Te Awa has no worries. He also has a Still and makes whisky by adding whisky essence to raw alcohol. That tasted no bad if you were desperate but his Port wine was indescribable!
Stans garden was lovely and was full of butterflies.
I should mention that the beach at Tapu is delightful and being on the Firth of Thames the water is calm, warm and shallow so nice for swimming. For me though I appreciated the shade of a Pohutakawa tree and a few nice cold beers.
Our last destination before returning to Auckland was Marianne and Fred Okkerse, Sues sister and brother-in-law. They have now retired and just moved to a brand new house on a championship golf course just South of Katikati on the Bay of Plenty. They were still in the process of nesting which was why we left them to our final visit. Fred plays golf every day he is not watching sport on the TV and says he had to work really hard to convince Marianne that living on a golf course was a good thing.
On the first day we all went shopping in Tauranga. Fred does not like shopping but enjoyed lunch at Mills Reef Winery which was OK but not a patch on Te Awa.
The picture at the top of this page is of Waihi Beach and is a few miles north of Katikati. It stretches for miles down the coast towards Tauranga. The highlight for me though was the walk through the bush of just over 2km to Orokawa beach. When the tide is in you might have to wade to get to the start of the track and it could be impassable in a rough sea but once up the initial steep rocky climb the walk is fairly level and shaded, climbing slowly to a summit after which Orokawa beach comes into view.
All along the beach are old Pohutakawa trees which must make a spectacular sight around Christmas when they come into bloom. On my return to the others who I had left lazing on the beach apart from the odd paddle, I had a sudden urge for a milk shake which regular readers will know is another Kiwi passion of mine. Fortunately there was a Tip Top dairy close at hand where my thirst was regaled. I contemplated a Hokey Pokey ice cream to follow but then thought better of it.
On our final day we went shopping again in Tauranga and Fred was given the day off to play golf. You should have seen the look on his face. One objective was to look at a house that had been advertised for rent on the peninsula within walking distance of the centre of Tauranga. It had 3 bedrooms, two bathrooms in a quiet street close to the water and was about the same rent as we are paying for our two bedroomed apartment in Cheltenham. We did not have time to make an appointment to see inside but from the outside it looked fine and it did have location, location, location.
When you rent property in NZ the rent always includes the rates or council tax. If we could afford to rent such property with the exchange rate as bad as it is at present I assume that once all this Brexit nonsense is sorted and Sterling recovers it might get even cheaper.
Tauranga itself is a lovely town in a well populated area with a buzzy feel to it. Along the harbour there are busy bars and restaurants by the score, lots of good shops and us culture vultures are well catered for with regular performances by the New Zealand Symphony. Sue would be within easy reach of two of her sisters, her mum and friends in Palmie and Auckland. That seems to be the place where we might settle but we have a lot of research left to do and it will be years rather than months before we do it.
On our last night in Katikati we went to the Talisman local pub which boasts a wood fired pizza oven. We sat outside under the avocado tree and enjoyed very good pizzas and beer. I should add that the Kiwis are slowly beginning to appreciate that you should not serve beer too cold if you want to appreciate its flavour. Of course, if it is Australian beer it has no flavour so it is best served ice cold but Kiwi beers are good and I had a pint of IPA in Tauranga which was as good as any in England.
I was also privileged to watch a classic innings by New Zealand batsman Martin Guptill of 180 runs in the ODI against South Africa at Hamilton to level the series. It reminded me of that great hit of 145 not out by Botham in the 3rd test at Headingly in 1981 against Australia. Unfortunately Guptill was out cheaply a few days later at Eden Park where SA clinched the series win.
The journey back to Auckland was uneventful. We dropped our luggage off at Terri's place and she collected us from the airport after we dropped the hire car off.
Kate Muir arrived from Brisbane that afternoon so there was much reminiscing that evening. Unfortunately it looks as if Sue moved as I took the shot of them both and she looks as if she saw a mouse? Notice though her Katikati haircut where she asked for a "National Treasure cut" a la Judi Dench!
Our flight to San Francisco did not leave until the evening so Byron treated us to a tour of the countryside South of Auckland as far as the Bombay Hills before dropping us off at the Airport.
San Francisco here we come.