09 July 2016

Northern Explorer

Saturday, I took the last remaining long-distance train service on the North Island, a scenic route that covers 681km (just over 400 miles) down the length of the North Island, from the biggest city, Auckland, to the Capital city, Wellington.  As in America, the history of the development of this country is intertwined with their railroad history.  Also, like the US, relatively long distances between population centers means the extensive rail network that they built faded away once the jetliner service became a much more affordable and efficient means to get about the country.  The two islands are not connected by road or rail, as the strait between them can be quite turbulent, as I hope not to experience later this week, so rail service was already limited geographically, and now just a few tourist trains survive outside of commuter trains in Auckland and Wellington.

The trip was nice, climbing up onto the volcanic plateau, home to Mt Ruapehu, better known as Mordor to Lord of the Rings fans, and through National Park, before descending to the coast and the charming Capital city of Wellington.  I didn't get many great pictures through the glass windows, but I posted a couple.  The cars were roomy and comfortable, with on-board cafe service and commentary, triggered by GPS waypoints, that was well done, and helped to drown out the yammerings of a New Zealand family who evidently wasn't used to using their inside voices, parents included.  They complained about the superficiality of Americans, just before launching into a two hour discussion of the various Real Housewives "reality" shows, and an even longer discussion of which Hollywood actresses they should reach out to for his latest screenplay.  Unfortunately, there wasn't quite enough commentary on the trip to drown them out.

I arrived at my hotel in central Wellington, which is surprisingly flat, given the dramatic hills we encountered on the way in.  The desk clerk informed me that there was a night market (food trucks, basically) going on around the corner at Cuba St.  It was a chilly but not windy evening, so I wandered over and ate a couple of tasty items and meandered back to the hotel.  It wasn't a big crowd, owing to the season, but there was a wide variety of mostly Asian items, much of which I recognized, but there were a few oddities, including churros, which they had to explain to the locals were Mexican donuts.

Speaking of food, a bit about the cuisine of the country.  As you might expect, the diet here is heavily influenced by the British, which since they are still members of the Commonwealth (which means Queen Elizabeth is still on their money), and then being an island, seafood also figures into the menus.  The island has a large fruit and vegetable growing capacity, so there's lots of salads and veges, as they call them, available.  From the Maori comes the tradition of cooking underground (only seen occasionally at restaurants, more often at Maori cultural events, both private and commercial), and root vegetables.  Sweet Potatoes are especially important to the Maori, and by extension, New Zealand diet.  They are known mostly only by their Maori name, Kumara, and come in a muted rainbow of red, orange and gold.  Pumpkin and carrots are also popular.

They also love their sweets and candies and cakes (called slices), and have a few uniquely New Zealand treats.  Chocolate Fish is an obnoxious concoction of a strawberry marshmallow dipped in chocolate, in the shape of a fish.  Perhaps they are fish-shaped to make you wish you were eating fish instead.  Continuing in the 'items that maybe shouldn't be dipped in chocolate' are Pineapple Lumps.  It's evidently a hunk of pineapple jel dipped in chocolate.  I'll be sure to bring a bag of those back for my 'friends'.  Hokey Pokey is a funny name for any product containing honeycomb toffee, a unique crunchy, honey-y addition that you'll find in granola bars and trail mix, and most importantly, ice cream.

Coffee is popular, and they have very high quality dairies here, so there is a wide range of milk (flavored milks included), and yogurt.  L&P is the local soda, whose slogan is "World Famous in New Zealand", and it tastes a bit like a less effervescent Sprite.  The L stands for Lemon and the P for the town where it was invented, Paeroa.