I arrived in New Zealand via Charlotte to Chicago to Los Angeles to Auckland. Whew!

A group of Kiwis – what New Zealanders call themselves – were returning home from a European tour and I was fortunate enough to be on the Air New Zealand flight with them. In fact, I was seated beside of a very nice elderly man named Percy Blythe. This was lucky because he shared some information about his home country with me and gave me a little insight about the strange Polynesian names of villages such as Aotearoa, Rotorua, and Waitomo.

At one point during the flight the pilot announced over the intercom that the All Blacks – the NZ rugby team – was winning against Australia and the entire plane erupted in enough whooping and clapping to cause turbulence. Percy explained the significance of this rivalry to me saying that most Kiwis support two teams – the All Blacks and whoever is playing Australia! Enough said.

Percy also told me that I was going to love New Zealand and he was right.

As we approached for landing in the dark wee hours of the morning, lone lights glowed here and there. Percy said they belonged to the farmers who had to start their days before sunrise. And then suddenly, a blaze of lights as the city of Auckland appeared and we descended to the City of Sails where the airport has the sculpture of sails attached to its facade, as though it too could take to the sea if it so desired.

By the time I made it through immigration, baggage claim, and shuttle service, slivers of pink were splicing into the lightening sky. From the open shuttle, I could see the entire glorious sunrise as she made her first appearance of the day to mother earth. And as she did so, enormous Norfolk Island Pines with their crosses on top, the tallest palm trees I had ever seen, grass the color of spring, sparkling water everywhere and ancient architecture next to brilliant new construction popped into view. I thought it one of the most spectacular visions I had ever experienced and suddenly knew why the sun chose this place to wake up to.

Beauty everywhere!

After settling into my hotel, the Sky City Hotel and Casino – aptly named because it is connected to the Sky Tower via an underground tunnel – I checked out the city and hunted down some breakfast.

The streets of Auckland are hilly, a little like San Francisco. And they are lined with great little cafes and pastry shops. Breakfast sandwiches, some at least five inches tall, were already prepared with everything piled on them – egg salad, bacon, avocado, tomato, lettuce, bean sprouts. Quiche options were thick and cheesy and sweet pastries, golden and flaky tempted me. But what became my breakfast staple was the Fresh Fruit Topped Cheese Tarts.

I loved the mix of textures from the crunchy shell, creamy filling, and fresh fruit popping in my mouth. Strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, and kiwi, of course!

Like the British who colonized them, they enjoy tea. So this also became part of the daily routine and tea shops are dotted throughout New Zealand. Even the Sky Tower’s restaurant offers a weekend tea menu. I was usually out and about at tea time and found cozy little spots. Fresh cold lemonade with tiny little doily coverings would be laid out along with the tea – usually meant to be consumed hot.

A typical menu might include cream cheese and smoked salmon sandwiches, savory muffins or tarts, scones with fruit preserves, pasties, and quiche. Beverages would always be tea – naturally – along with a fruity coulis, lemonade, or champagne. And the costs range from inexpensive to quite pricey.

The pastie was a new experience for me. These are small savory pies similar to a turnover but filled with meat, vegetables and gravy. I especially liked the lamb and vegetable, but the chicken was a lot like our chicken pie rolled up in crunchy pastry. I tried a different one every day. This was usually my lunch.

But there were a few exceptions. Some of the tours offer lunch buffets as part of the package and at one I distinctly recall the only thing I found inedible.

This was an Asian style buffet – spring rolls, soup, what we refer to as stir-fry with rice. The soups were mushroom – which emptied before I got through the line, pumpkin – which was alright but a little too bland for me, and seaweed – which I initially passed on. But as I discovered that I didn’t care for the pumpkin, and seeing so many Asians in the restaurant really relishing the seaweed soup, I decided to try it. The other Americans at my table were appalled that I would even sample it, but I am not a squeamish eater. Although it looked a bit like stagnate water, it smelled like the sea. I took my bowl back to the table and everyone was looking at me. I wanted to like it. I really did. I wanted to say it was heaven. But one spoonful of it was almost too much to get down. It tasted like warm stagnate sea water – or at least what I imagine that would taste like. That is definitely a taste one must acquire at birth or I’m certain it can never be cultivated. At least I can say I have tried it.

Dinner in New Zealand is an amazing experience and what I allotted my dining dollars for. The presentation itself is like art – haute cuisine.

The people of New Zealand are lovely in every dimension. They are super helpful, laid back, and quick to engage in conversation. If they don’t have what you are looking for, they will find who does and give you the directions. I cannot say enough about the spirit of the locals. So generous with their time and patience!

The landscape will blow you away. There is everything from Mt. Eden’s green volcanic bowl, to the volcanoes off in the distance, to gorgeous beaches, sail boats in the harbor, ranches with mountain ridges rising up behind them, enormous red deer, fields dotted with sheep or cattle, and even caves.

In Waitomo there are glowworm caves. I have been in and around many caves but this one was as magical as New Zealand itself. First, it was thermal – not the damp, cold kind that I was used to. After walking down, down, down through the limestone caves and grottos of stalactites and stalagmites, I boarded a row boat and glided silently through the underground waterway with nesting glow worms overhead. Their glimmering reflected in the water and it was an amazing experience indeed. I imagine this is the place that fairies would choose to live in.

For the wine enthusiasts among us, New Zealand is producing some fabulous wines. Their Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs are especially noteworthy. Wine Spectator referred to it as “New World’s utopia for Sauvignon Blanc.” Although most of the wineries are in and around Auckland, they are expanding into the Northern areas of Keri Keri, Warkworth and Matakana.

Another perk of New Zealand is a profound respect for the land. I did not see a single piece of litter the entire time that I was there. I mentioned it to the tour bus driver one day and he said that he often took this for granted. And then suddenly a single chewing gum wrapper would be seen and everyone would dive for it. They live in Paradise and they know it.

And now, I know it and hope that you will as well.

Auckland's Harbor

Auckland’s Harbor

Renee @ NZ Beach

Renee @ NZ Beach

View from Mt. Eden

View from Mt. Eden

Renee @ Glow Worm Cave

Renee @ Glow Worm Cave

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