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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

New Zealand day 2: Christchurch to Mount cook via Lake Tekapo

The day was supposed to be long as we had to cover 330 km to Mount Cook village with lot of stops in between. The weather in the morning did not look good with rains pounding. Our start was also delayed a bit as we overslept due to jet lag!! Nevertheless, we were all in high spirits as we started from Christchurch.

Lake Tekapo
This was my real experience with New Zealand roads. We quickly got out of Christchurch and started crushing on SH-1. The drive was amazing though it was raining continuously. Most New Zealand roads are single lane and maximum speed limit is set to 100 km. This is much lesser than in US or Europe but the considering New Zealand (at least South Island) as hilly area, the speed limit look realistic. And thin traffic on roads make the drive beautiful!!

Road on the way to Lake Tekapo
The scenery got better as we left SH-1 and entered into hilly areas. And slowly the cloud cover started decreasing giving us some opportunity to stop the car and take some snaps.

Views on the way to Lake Tekapo
And then the Lake Tepako made its first appearance. Looked beautiful at its first look!!

First view of Lake Tekapo
Parked our vehicle at Dog monument(!!) and spent some time in the lake. The background of the mountains gave a nice view of the lake.

Lake Tekapo
View of the church from the pedestrian bridge on the lake.

Lake Tekapo with church in the background
It was time for lunch and the lake was the good place to eat our self cooked food. 

Lunch time
Mount John was the next destination. Situated high on the mountain is the astronomical research observatory. It is a narrow road to the top. As we started to climb up, the scenery reminded me of my visit to Hanley in Ladakh. The observatory and surroundings looked similar!!

Lake Alexandra from observatory
The views from the top of the mountain were stunning. The Lake Tekapo and Alexandra was visible. 
Lake Alexandra and tekapo
The road to Mount John is is open till 5PM and a fee of NZD 8 is charged per vehicle. There is also a midnight twilight tour but that requires a stay at Lake Tekapo.

Tekapo township seen from Mt. John
We climbed down the mountain and continued our journey. The next lake in sight was Pukaki, a huge lake. There were two places to view the lake. One was the lookout that was situated on the main road.

Lake Pukaki
The second was “Peters lookout” on the road to Mt Cook. The road goes next to the lake for several km and it was one of the great rides.

View on Mt. Cook road
Mt. Cook village was a small village situated in a isolated place with few lodges. This was the most expensive place we stayed in our New Zealand trip but was worth the price. Our place of stay was Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine lodge. 

Mt. Cook village
The day was ended with a visit to visitor information center that was opposite to the hotel. It had lot of information about Mt. Cook area. Mt. Cook at 12,218 feet is the highest peak in New Zealand and it attracted lot of mountaineers. A good place with lot of historical information.

At visitor center
Mt. Cook was the only place where we could not get a kitchen in the room. But the hotel had a common kitchen which I liked a lot. It was a kind of opportunity for social gathering!!

Kitchen in the hotel

Saturday, April 22, 2017

New Zealand day 1: At Christchurch

It was a long journey from Bengaluru to Christchurch with a stopover of several hours in Singapore airport. Since we were deprived of sleep, we spent most of the time sleeping at recreational area!!
View from port hills in Christchurch
The flight landed on time at Christchurch at 9:30AM. The weather looks great with clear skies which would become luxury in coming days!! The immigration was done in a jiffy where they asked some basic questions. We had to wait for just two minutes to get our luggage. That was fast considering we had passed immigration very quickly. Things seemed very normal.

At Singapore airport
But then came the customs part. New Zealand looked to be most difficult country to pass through the customs. In my visit to nearly 20 countries, I never was stopped by customs. But not in New Zealand!! Since we had planned to cook during our trip, we had carried good amount of spices and essential items (all packed) required to make Indian dishes. We also declared the same in customs part. Big boards mentioning about fine of NZD 400 if failed to declare were displayed near the customs area.

The first attack was by a sniffer dog. It jumped on one of our bags and signaled something to customs officer!! Since we had already declared the food items, we were asked to proceed further and meet a customs officer. The officer wanted to physically see all our food items. I had packed food items in all the bags and that was not helpful. After removing the food items, our bags were in messed up state. 

Christchurch airport
To cut the story short, they allowed us to take everything except few lemons which my mother had packed. It was good to declare about the food items in the customs form.

With all entry formalities done, it was time for some real action. First, I got a prepaid SIM card at Vodafone booth for 29 NZD. Though all the hotels we stayed were offering free Wi-Fi, I find local SIM useful while roaming outside.

The next task was to get the rental car. The Ezi rental was situated at the arrival hall and within few minutes, I had got the key of my Toyota Corolla car!! It was very fast. 

Our car
The ride to the hotel was uneventful and I started getting used to New Zealand driving. Since everyone followed road conditions, it was not difficult to drive. Also, the left side driving makes it easy for Indians.

“Southern comfort hotel” was the hotel we were staying. We had reached there at 11AM which well before 2PM check-in time. Some hotels are very finicky about check-in time. I had suffered many times because of this rule. But here the lady at the reception was kind enough to give us the room. It was a two bedroom apartment with kitchen!! 

Our place of stay at Christchurch
We quickly freshened up and had our lunch quickly. The destination of the day was Gondola ride situated about 10 kms from the city. The 1000 meter long Gondola ride takes to the top of Mount Cavendish. The area looked brown due to summer. In fact, there was fire on the mountain few days ago.

Gondola ride
At the top is the Gondola terminal with shop, restaurant and several view points.

Gondola terminal
The greatest views are from Lyttelton harbor. It is also possible to walk up the mountain instead of taking gondola. A good workout for anyone!!

Road to the top
The other side of the mountain provides the view of Christchurch. On a clear day, it is possible to view the snow capped mountains. But on a clear day!!

Christchurch with sea view
Also included in the “package” was the time tunnel that graphically explained the history of Canterbury region. A nice 6 minute show!!

Time tunnel ride
It was a good start of our trip and with full satisfaction we came down. The cost was 28 NZD for adults and 12 for kids. There was also a combo pass with tram route in the heart of Christchurch city. We opted only for Gondola ticket.

On the way back, we spent some time at the botanical garden.

Christchurch garden
Before heading to hotel, we went to Merivale supermarket to guy the necessary groceries required for next few days.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

New Zealand visa for Indians

When I started planning for New Zealand trip, the first action was to look at the process of getting the visa. With a bit of search in internet, I found the following:
  • New Zealand had two embassies in India - Mumbai and Delhi
  • In India, they have outsourced the process to TTS —> https://www.ttsnzvisa.com/in-en/Home 
  • TTS had Offices in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Hyderabad.
  • Online application was available but it was not an option if we are applying as family.


I visited TTS office in the month of December to enquire about the process and documentation needed. The lady at the counter was very helpful and she quickly provided all necessary details. Basically, I needed to provide the following documents.
  • Filled Visa application form. TTS sent me the soft copy of the application form to my email.
  • 2 passport size photos
  • Itinerary which I created on my own.
  • Six months Bank statement with bank seal. Need to show NZD 1000 for one month of stay.
  • Leave letter from my company or school. This was optional.
  • Copy of the first and last page of the passport.
  • Covering letter. Standard format.
  • Original passport


There was no need to provide the flight ticket or hotel bookings. The cost of New Zealand visa was around Rs 9050 + TTS service charge of Rs 950. But there was a pleasant surprise. 

New Zealand allows family (Husband, Wife and max 2 children) can apply together in a single form. All of them get separate visa in their passports but they only charge Rs 10,000 in total. That saved me Rs 20,000!! My Mother’s application still had to go separately but the supporting documentation (Ex: Bank statement) was shared.

I must say that the support of TTS personnel was exceptional. I called them few times while filling the form and their support was always prompt. 

I went to TTS office again at the end of January with all the necessary documents. There was no need of physical appearance for all people. No appointments were needed. It took about 45 minutes to process, make the payment (credit cards are accepted) and get acknowledgement. There was an option of either getting passport directly to Home or to TTS Office.




It was told that the Embassy would take 10 working days to process the application. Exactly after 10 working days, I got the mail that the visa was processed and a day later I got a call from TTS to collect the passport.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Prologue to my New Zealand journey

The idea of visiting New Zealand had occurred to me couple of years ago. All of our family abroad visits was to Asian countries and they wanted to go somewhere outside the continent. I had been to Europe and US for my work and was looking at something new and fresh. The Australian continent looked promising. But Australia was too large a country and the places I liked to visit were spread across the country. On the other hand, New Zealand was small and the places looked stunning. I was hooked on to it.

Milford Sound on a cloudless day
Reality dawned when I casually checked the flight tickets. It was way beyond my budget and it took some time for me to get out of the shock!! But slowly I realized that I need to plan well in advance in terms of budget and tickets. So, the plan to New Zealand started almost two years ago!!

In this post, I will list down few preparation points for my New Zealand trip.

Places to visit
New Zealand consists of two major islands - North and South. With two weeks of time to spare, I found it difficult to cover both islands in that period. South Island looked more beautiful with lot of nature and scenery. North Island had some nice volcanoes and natural geysers but I had to prioritize one of those islands. I chose to visit South Island only.

My route map
Timing
New Zealand being in Southern Hemisphere has climate opposite to India. May to September being winter was ruled out. The summer from November to March was the peak season but it did not match with my daughter’s school holiday. It had to be either October or April. I choose April which was the beginning of Autumn. It was supposed to be one of the dry months but it was not the case during my trip!! It can rain any time in New Zealand. A point to be always noted.

North Island and parts of South Island was battered by two tropical cyclones during my visit resulting in floods. 


Flight
The cost of flying to New Zealand is the most expensive part of the trip. Since I zeroed in on South Island, starting my trip from Christchurch made sense. On the other hand, flights to Auckland (In North Island) were more frequent and slightly cheaper. But flying to Auckland and then to Christchurch did not result in any significant cost changes.

Christchurch Airport
A cheaper option was to first fly to Australia and then to New Zealand. But that added one more stopover to the trip and required Australian visa. Not a convenient option.

So, I had to directly fly to Christchurch. And the cheapest ticket was from Singapore Airlines!! I booked it nine months before the journey.

At Singapore's Changi airport
Visa
Indians need a visa to enter New Zealand and the country follows traditional way of giving visa. There is no concept of online application or e-visa. But the process is straightforward but bit time consuming. More on this in my next post.

New Zealand Visa
Mode of transport
Considering that I was traveling with my family, I decided to take rental car for the entire journey. While I was looking at international companies like Hertz for rentals, my friend in New Zealand suggested the local company “Ezi car rentals”. The prices were very competitive against the International companies. One month before my journey, I booked “Toyota Corolla” with them. The entire process with Ezi was done with ease!!

Our car in New Zealand
New Zealand allows tourists to drive with their home country driving license as long as it is in English. Not a problem for Indians as our driving license is in English. So it is not required to have International Driving Permit(IDP). IDP would have been a hassle as I had to visit RTO which on any day is not a pleasant experience!!

Roads of New Zealand
New Zealand follows left side traffic which makes it easy for Indians to drive. But they have some rules which are different than ours and I spent some time to understand them. Two things to note were the priority while taking turn in intersections/roundabouts and one way bridge rules (Yes, New Zealand has lot of “One way” narrow bridges!!)

"One way" bridge in New Zealand
Food
I am fine with any type of food as long as it is vegetarian. But my family prefers to have “Indian” food. This was a problem in New Zealand. The cost of eating out in an Indian restaurant is very high and also it is not available in many areas that we were planning to visit. So, we decided to try cooking food ourselves during the visit. This was an experiment but it turned out to be very successful!!

Stay
I used booking.com extensively for all hotel bookings. For the price between Rs 6,000 to Rs 10,000 I could get an apartment with 2 bedroom and kitchen. Also, booking.com provided very flexible cancellation options. This was useful when I had to make run time changes in my plan to avoid going to places facing bad weather.

Though I booked accommodation 6 months in advance, it was not necessary to book so early for the month of April.

Our place of stay at Mt. Cook village
Final words

This trip is not about traveling on budget though I made all efforts to keep the cost under control but in few scenarios I choose convenience and safety over cost. But still it costed 50-60% of what the standard tour operators in India charges for the trip of similar (or less) duration.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Street performers of Barcelona

In Barcelona, you can see people showcasing their skills in the streets to earn money. They can be found at metro stations, tourist areas and prominent roads. At many places I saw them fully engrossed in showcasing their art. In this post, I am trying to show few of them in action. 
A person "sitting" without support!!
People painting themselves and sitting still is not uncommon. In Barcelona too I saw many people around tourists areas. At first I ignored them considering as statues but apparently one of them moved when a kid came to take a photo!! It was then I realized that they were live performers!!


Many people sing in metro stations. Here was one person showing his talent using this strange musical instrument in Park Guell. I was just mesmerized with the instrument.


At Arc de triomf, I spent a long time admiring the skills of two people who performed various acrobatic moves using Cyr wheel. It was stunning!!


One of the impressive performance was from the group of four people at Montjuic musical fountain. There was still some time for the fountain to start and they boys kept the tourists engaged with their stellar dance performance. Look at the glimpse of their dance in this video. It is amazing.

video



While street performers are common in Europe, the variety of performance was something I liked in Barcelona.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sagrada Familia - A large incomplete church in Barcelona

When I checked with my colleague from Barcelona about the places to visit, Sagrada Familia was the first item in his list. The building was still under construction and I was wondering how it could be such an attraction. And I was also asked to book ahead in advance to avoid last minute surprises!! Hmmm, seemed to be an interesting place. I promptly booked the tickets that included audio guide and entry to the towers. Website —> http://www.sagradafamilia.org/en/tickets/ 

Sagrada Familia in construction
About Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia is considered as the masterpiece among Antonio Gaudi’s architecture works. The construction was commenced in 1882 but the work lingered on for some reasons. Now even after 135 years, it is still under construction!! The estimated completion date is 2026 which coincides with the centenary of Antonio Gaudi.

Entrance

Our experience
I had booked the ticket for 9:30 AM slot for me and my friend but we arrived before that. Instead of waiting, we strolled around the building. Indeed, it looked grand but utterly complex. It is said that once completed, it will be the tallest church building in the world. 

Sagrada Familia

We were back at entrance at the stipulated time. The audio guide provided was very useful. The brief history of the building was mentioned and description of interiors of the structure was also impressive. While from outside, the building is incomplete with continuous construction, the interior works are complete and it looks stunning.

Ceiling of the building
Gaudi had used the idea of the forest for interior design. According to the Sagrada Familia site “Gaudí arrived at the revolutionary idea of leaning columns branching out like trees and of using the idea of a forest, not only as a space of magical lighting conducive to intimacy and meditation, but as an organised and hierarchical structure for the optimal support of a beautiful vault of leaves. Each tree splits into branches and supports part of the vaulting; when one tree falls, the whole forest does not collapse.”

"The forest" idea
Out of 18 towers of the Basilica, eight are completed. Four of Nativity facade and four on the Passion facade. While booking the ticket for tower, I noted that I could only book for one of them. I selected Nativity facade as it provided the views of the city. 

View from the tower
The lift took us to the top of the tower. We were also told that the lifts were available only for climbing up and we had to walk while climbing down!!

There is not much place on the top but the views were spectacular. As we got down, it was amazing to see the construction of the stairs in circular fashion is such small area!! Simply awesome. 

Steps leading down the tower
A museum in the underground gives some historical information about the building and works of Gaudi. 


We spent about 1.5 hours in Sagrada Familia and it was a good visit. Would recommend to anyone visiting Barcelona. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Barcelona - some tips and info

I had an opportunity to visit Barcelona recently. It was an official visit for Mobile World Congress but I could find some time to explore and appreciate the city. In this post, I am putting some perspective about my experience.

From Montjuic Palace
About Barcelona
The first time I heard about Barcelona was in 1992 when the city hosted Olympic Games. That provided a huge boost to the city in terms of visibility and promoting tourism in a large fashion. But like many other European cities, it had a very long history and it reflects in many forms in the city. It is a huge city saddled between the hills and Mediterranean sea. 

Fishing boats in Barcelona
Language
Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia province in Spain and Catalan is widely spoken. Spanish is a national language. It did not make a difference to me as I could not speak or understand neither Spanish or Catalan!! I do understand some Spanish words but it is just a drop in the ocean. But I did not face any difficulties as people could understand and speak English at most places. But it is good to learn few words for greeting (Like “Hola” for “Hello”). People appreciate it!!

Going around
I used public transport throughout my trip expect for airport transfers as I landed late night and left early morning. The train and bus network is very efficient. Barcelona card for 2,3 and 5 days are quite economical and hassle free to use. Taxis are expensive. I never waited for more than 4 minutes for any connection.

Walking in La Rambla
Food
There are lot of options available. Being a vegetarian, I did not face any issue at all. The local rice based dish “Paella” should be tried. Apart from local food, I also tried Mexican, Syrian, Italian, Mediterranean and Indian (There are many Indian restaurants). Specifically, Catalunya and La Rambla areas are filled with restaurants.

Inside a restaurant in Barcelona
Stay
I really cannot comment on it as my stay was taken care by Office. Considering one lakh visitors for MWC, the city has lot of stay options. As a tourist, do not think of visiting Barcelona during MWC. The hotel prices will be expensive by 3 to 5 times. 

At Catalunya

Cost
Compared to other Western European countries, I felt Spain was much cheaper whether it was for transport, food or entry to tourist places. Of course, stay was super expensive due to MWC but on other days it is also quite cheap.

Places to see
Barcelona is famous for the buildings architected by Antoni Gaudi, Spanish Catalan architect. Many of his buildings are now declared as UNESCO world heritage sites. Some of this works like Sagrada Familia, Casa Mila, Casa Battlo and Park Guell are interesting to see. A walk in La Rambla is quite nice. Barcelona is famous for beaches in summer. 


Will put some details on some of these places in subsequent posts.