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Halfway down the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island are two conspicuous reminders that this country is closer to Antarctica than most people realize. These are the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, hulking astroid ice blocks that surge from the base of the Southern Alps towards the coast. Eponymous towns have sprung up around each glacier. Their small populations cater to (and live off) the steady flow of tourists who pay anywhere from $115 to $700 to walk/ice-pick/helicopter-hike a taste of the ice age.

Franz Josef has a reputation for being “more touristy,” which is a subtler way of saying “more expensive.” Being the budget-conscious travelers we are, we opted for the $115 Fox Trot, described in the brochure as “a half-day eco-adventure full of variety and interest.”

Fellow fox trotters

wide view of Fox Glacier

Here is a first-hand account of our experience:

Fox Guides run six daily Fox Trot tours. Ours is the last of the afternoon and departs at 4:30. The group is comprised of 28 tourists and 2 guides, who conduct a brief safety lecture and Q&A before we head to the glacier. Our group contains families with young children and older couples, which makes the three of us (Meg, my mom and me) less anxious about slipping on a wet patch and ending up in a canyon. A gray-haired lady with a bandana asks our guide Dora if she can bring binoculars on the hike. Dora responds that she’s never heard that question before, but sure.

On the bus ride to the glacier’s parking lot we sit at the front and get to know our guides. Oddly enough, they’re both from New England. The male guide, Josh, is ecstatic about this. He’s a huge Patriots fan and I think we instantly become his favorite trio on the tour. Dora isn’t as energetic, but I get the feeling she’s tired from a long day and an even longer week. I’m also a little disappointed she gives me a straight-faced “no” when I ask if she thinks it’s funny that her name is Dora and she ended up working in the adventure industry. Oh well.

Our bus turns off the main road and we’re suddenly ambushed by green. Leaves and vines scrape against our windows.  They’re so green that the best word to describe them is lush. I’m a bit confused since we’re headed to a glacier and because of this, even though January is the southern hemisphere’s July, we all wore pants and four layers of shirts. Not only am I confused by the climate, but I’m jealous of a young Swedish couple wearing shorts and cotton t-shirts. It appears they will not be perspiring as much as us today.

Off the bus we split into two groups. I quickly lead us to Josh’s group because it’s a Tuesday and the Patriots season isn’t over yet and I haven’t talked “American” football with another guy (at least face-to-face) in over 12 weeks. Josh gives us a quick science lesson before we begin the trot.

this is what happens after a glacial recession

this is what happens after a glacial retreat

Like Western economies (and George Costanza), glaciers experience periods of growth and shrinkage. Over the last century, however, most glaciers have receded as a result of rising temperatures (cue Al Gore). Fox Glacier bucked the global trend with a period of growth from 1984 to 2009–it reached the green edge of the above photograph–due to conducive westerly winds and increased snow fall. But in the last four years it has receded dramatically, which explains the baffling rain forest climate that has emerged near the edge of the glacier.

Finally, we start the “scenic 60 minute hike” towards the terminal face. The brochure is full of these little half truths. The hike is indeed scenic. But the 60 minutes would be closer to 20 if we didn’t stop every fifty meters to take pictures or listen to Josh catch up with another tour guide. (Interesting fact about the tour guides: it sounded like all of them under 30 were American, or possibly Canadian, adding further evidence to our theory that all kiwis under 30 have fled the country or simply don’t exist).

enough photo breaks, let's get to the ice!

enough photo breaks, let’s get to the ice!

Our scenic hike leads us to a flat grey-area between the rocky path and the icy climb onto the glacier. The sun feels further away here and I’m starting to think I made the right decision by wearing my fleece, although the Swedish couple seem content in their tee-shirts. At this point we are given a walking pole and instructed to fasten our crampons as tightly as possible lest they slide off and we fall to certain death.

crampons!

crampons!

The ice is as slippery as I expected. The crampons take some getting used to–if you step with your toes then your foot will slide a few inches before the spikes sink in, which is unsettling–but we finally learn how to take high steps and plant the center of our boots. The ice’s composition, however, is different than I expected. It has a cookies-and-cream look, owing to millions of deposited rocks embedded at all levels of the surface. (Interesting fact about the ice: it’s not much older than 70 years, which kills my fantasy of interacting with the ice-age).

"wait, I thought we all agreed to close our eyes for this one"

“wait, I thought we all agreed to close our eyes for this one”

Burrrrr. In the middle of the glacier the temperature suddenly drops. The wind picks up and the Swedish couple starts shivering involuntarily. I’m no longer jealous of their wardrobe decision, but I am worried they might lose a finger or something if their skin turns any bluer. Fortunately Josh packed two extra jackets and morale is restored. #hero

We spend almost two hours on the glacier and it’s a very surreal experience. We peer down bottomless canyons, climb man-made steps and squeeze through claustrophobic crevices. The awe-inspiring scenery is juxtaposed with constant reminders of how commercialized this giant ice block is. We pass roughly a dozen other Fox Trot groups and witness five helicopters transporting tourists to the top of the glacier for the $700 option.

A glacial crev-ace; or crevice

A glacial crev-ace; or crevice

g

stairway to heaven

Hiking the glacier felt like an odd combination of walking on the moon and accidentally stepping onto the set of a Dentyne Ice commercial. I’m glad we did it and I don’t regret spending $115. Chances are I won’t have many other chances to walk on a glacier. But I wish the sheer commercialization of the experience wasn’t so obvious. I realize this is picky and unrealistic. After all, we are tourists who paid to tour a unique landmark. But it just felt a bit too contrived. At least we chose the “less touristy” glacier.

Up next: I’ve been terrible about publishing this article. It’s been way too long since our last post–Meg has reminded me every day that “our readership is suffering.” So I apologize for the radio silence but promise our posts will become more regular. We’ve been traveling around the South Island and Australia for the past month, but we’ve finally picked a place to settle down for the rest of our trip. Meg will bring you up to speed on the details soon….

in front of Queenstown's famous steamer, the TSS Earnslaw

in front of Queenstown’s famous steamer, the TSS Earnslaw

 

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The kiwi capital has been a gracious host, but after spending nearly seven weeks here it’s time for us to move on. In two days we’ll hop a ship and cross the Cook Strait en route to the South Island. Before we do, however, we share with you the best and worst of Wellington.

Rain

  • Public transport: while we can’t fault the city government for not having a train/subway service (geography makes it impossible), the bus system is a poor excuse for public transportation. A one-way ride to the center of the city is just under $4. Multiply that two rides a day, five rides a week and it’s no secret why most Wellingtonians opt for cars.
just another empty bus in Welly

just another empty bus in Welly

  • 20-26 Demographic: the age-group is largely unaccounted for in Wellington. Most young kiwis have flown the coup to Australia or the U.S. to pursue better employment opportunities. This didn’t shock us since Auckland was similar, but once again demographics were cramping our social style.
  • Cost of living: unfortunately this has been getting higher every day, thanks to our politicians in Washington. When we arrived the kiwi dollar was just under 0.79USD and it’s currently sitting around 0.84 (though we’ve seen it spike to 0.87). Like all cities, Wellington isn’t cheap. And like all islands, you pay a premium for everything in New Zealand. Especially food and beer.

Shine

  • Weather: maybe the seven-plus weeks we’ve spent here have been an anomaly. But our experience refutes all the warnings people offered ahead of our arrival. Sure, “Windy Welly” has some gusty days. But it’s a port city on the Pacific Ocean! The sun’s been out and blasting 80% of the time and we got scorching sunburns on Christmas.
December 25, 2012

December 25, 2012

  • Urban planning: big thumbs up to the civil engineers. Wellington’s CBD is extremely walkable and easy on the eyes. Lots of scenic lookouts over the harbor and enough green space to forget you’re in a major city. Yesterday we napped on bean-bag chairs overlooking a canal filled with kids racing paddle boats.
  • Coffee: no shortage of cafes and they all brew a high quality cup of Joe. Franchise roasters (cough, Starbucks, cough) are the minority, and that’s a good thing. Each cafe has it’s own taste and identity. One of our favorites is Fidel’s on Cuba street.
  • Botanical gardens: walking through here felt like we were visiting the secret garden. Granted I’ve visited more beer gardens than botanical ones, but Wellington’s park made my day and blew my mind. It’s a mix of wooded trails, carefully manicured bushes, a handful of monuments, and a very English rose garden.
how'd they make the water look like a Van Gogh painting?

how’d they make the water look like a Van Gogh painting?

  • Te Papa: the national museum and art gallery rivals any of the Smithsonian addresses. Five floors of history. You could spend a week there and still not even see everything. (And it’s free!)

Overcast

  • Hobbit Premier: on one hand, standing along the red carpet at a blockbuster’s world premier was a once in a lifetime opportunity. On the other hand, waiting three hours to catch a 7-second glimpse of Peter Jackson sweating through his suit was something my sunburnt face could have done without.
at least we saw James Cameron

at least we saw James Cameron

  • Hostel scene: pretty lackluster. Lonely Planet’s pick is the YHA, which is a large international hostel chain. The Wellington YHA felt more like a hospital than a hostel. And smelt like one too.
  • Beaches: to put it this way, Silvershell, the puny beach from my hometown, offers a much nicer experience than the Wellington beaches. The sand is dirty, the water is cold and dog poo abounds. But viable beaches in a capital city? Not many U.S. capitals can boast that. So we won’t complain about it…too much.

Up next:

Kia Ora, Lisa! My mom landed in Auckland yesterday and is spending two days there to see the sights. We’ll rendezvous with her in Wellington tomorrow and spend a couple days here before setting our bearings to the South Island for another epic road trip.

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Thankfully the Mayans were wrong. (Funny side note: New Zealanders didn’t even acknowledge the apocalyptic hype). As the new year approaches, we’ve reached the part of the calendar where it’s fun to look back and reflect. Without further ado, here are our top 12 memories from 2012.

12. Long distance election

thanks for the memories, Mitt

thanks for the memories, Mitt

Our isolation protected us from the daily annoyance of political commercials and Fox news. But thanks to the internet we  caught all the highlights from the campaign trail. Here’s looking at you, binders full of women.

11. Breezy Point

Breezy lives up to its name

Breezy lives up to its name

One of our single favorite days. It was one of those spring days where you could feel summer fighting to get out. Rich invited a bunch of us to spend the day at his family’s beach house so we all spent the night at Katie’s apartment (closest to the ferry), rolled out of bed, took a boat ride, and enjoyed our first beach day of 2012.

10. Double summer

Arguably the biggest perk of our year. We left one summer, crossed the equator, and landed in a second summer.

Raglan in December

Raglan in December

9. White Christmas

Not snow white. Sand white. This was the first Christmas we spent together and also the first Christmas either of us spent on a beach. Despite the fact that we painted our bodies with two coats of spf 50, we both got our first New Zealand sunburns.

8. Waterfalls

Bridal Veil Falls, Raglan

Bridal Veil Falls, Raglan

There’s something about cascading water that makes me happy. Maybe I’m weird. But we’ve encountered a few different waterfalls in 2012 and each one has created an incredibly beautiful memory. This was our favorite.

7. Moonrise Kingdon

thanks for the memory, Wes Anderson

thanks for the memory, Wes Anderson

This just makes the list because it was our favorite movie of the year. And we had a great afternoon watching it in Lincoln Square with Kate, Rich and Walker. Speaking of movies, being at the world premier of The Hobbit was cool too.

6. Thanksgiving

actually went with a chicken since turkey's are scarce here - but still delicious

actually had chicken since t-bird’s are scarce – still delicious

We were a bit anxious about turkey day since it was our first holiday in New Zealand away from our families. And the onus of cooking an edible feast fell entirely on us. But we pulled it off and enjoyed the best meal of our year. Special thanks to the Mauro family for their sausage stuffing recipe and Meg’s dad for spiritual and culinary guidance.

5. Wedding season

We crashed this one...

We crashed this one…

We attended two weddings this past summer: Hannah and Marcus & Jessie and Mick. Both were held at postcard-worthy destinations in upstate New York and we made a million great memories with our friends. O’Briens anyone?

4. Road trips

Who doesn’t love a good road trip? I was fortunate to enjoy two in 2012. I have many good memories driving east from Colorado with my brother and dad–trying green chili beer in Taos, New Mexico is at the top. And Meg experienced her first road trip in epic fashion during our ten-day Brogtrip.

3. Leaving New York

another line crossed through our NYC bucket list

another line crossed through our NYC bucket list

Yes we miss our friends. And yes we both left jobs that we were lucky to have right out of school. But the only way we could experience the adventure of a lifetime was by leaving New York. But even before we fled the city, we had some down time after leaving our jobs to explore parts of the city that we were too busy to see while working. Like visiting the Bronx Zoo. And setting foot in Brooklyn. The five going away parties we had were nice too.

2. The first week of July

It would have been easy for us to leave New York and suffer from social withdrawal symptoms after being surrounded by so many close friends for two years. Fortunately we are able to call some of the best people in the world our friends, and these people took time off from work to spend the week in Massachusetts.

Beer Olympics - the delegates were frustrated with Iran

Beer Olympics – the delegates were frustrated with Iran

1. September 18, 2012

Air New Zealand

Boston to San Francisco to Auckland

 

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We hope everyone has a happy and healthy new year. Since we’ll likely welcome 2013 a bit sooner than most of you, we’ll be sure to let you know if anything crazy happens. Like, for instance, the Mayans were right but just a couple days off.

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Our last three days in Gisborne were more action-packed than the latest Bond movie. All-hallows-eve in New Zealand was fun, but less of a spectacle than we experienced growing up. The loot was pretty tame compared to the monjo-sized candy bars we used to collect. #americanobesity

face paint in broad daylight just didn’t feel the same

Luckily, the lack of sucrose on Wednesday helped us squeeze into wetsuits for our surf lesson on Thursday. That’s right, a truly Endless Summer. We were a little nervous because kiwis are renowned for their extreme take on sports, but it all turned out for the best. The waves were pretty mild. Surfing with Frank was amazing! He drilled the basics, but got the both of us standing within 20 minutes.

unparalleled form right here

We even advanced to surfing the “green faces” and turning, which he said was pretty good for first-timers. “You’re freaks,” was the actual language he used. We hear that there’s good surfing outside of Wellington so we’ll try to keep our momentum going. Who knows, the surf may now be a factor to consider when we look for our home-base back in the US!

hanging ten-ish

We ended our lesson with a dinner party hosted by Greg and Sue. We enjoyed some local fermentations, a massive pork shoulder, and a signature NZ Pavlova with some of the neighbors. Our crew included a surprising number of Americans who had moved to NZ, including the Putnams from Cape Cod and Kris from Michigan. After spending 3 weeks in Gisborne we weren’t at all surprised by their moves, but don’t worry everyone- we still miss you too much to stay here permanently.

we’re growing a taste for the local flavors

Which brings me to our next and last piece of business, the highly anticipated announcement of Sheap Travel’s political endorsement. Well the wait is over folks:

the ballots were a bit confusing this year

So while our votes won’t be counted in Massachusetts (little snafu with the absentee ballots on our part), just know that the outcome on Tuesday might sway our inclinations towards NZ a bit further….

Just Kidding! Politicians couldn’t really influence our plans that much. In the end they’re all just a lot of bark, and never much bite.

too bad Rover’s not a citizen, he’s 44 in goat years and his foreign policy is second to none

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Last Saturday we attended our first New Zealand party. Ever the gracious host, Sue invited us to join her for a house-warming party at her friend Eileen’s newly renovated home. Eileen’s house is doubling as an osteo-clinic, where Eileen will care for patients with osteoporosis and other bone-related health conditions. It’s a beautiful home overlooking the harbor. With high ceilings and open rooms it’s the perfect venue for a party. And a perfect spot for a clinic. We left the camera in our lodge because we didn’t want to be the creepy foreigners sniping candids of everyone, but it was a great house. Trust us.

following Frodo’s footsteps to the party

We met a range of interesting people, the majority of whom are not originally from New Zealand. Piri, from the vampire grounds of Transylvania, is a petit woman in her mid-forties who has jumped out of a plane over 800 times. She’s worked all over the world as a parachute-packer and videographer. If any of you have ever gone sky-diving and had someone film the experience, it was someone like Piri. After her son was born she gave up diving, but encouraged us to give it a try. Meg is staunchly opposed. I’ll try anything once, but hate the idea of doing it alone. So does anyone want to visit and give it a whirl?

Then we met Sue’s acupuncturist. Paul is a white-haired buddhist in his early sixties. He’s apparently known for putting people on the spot with his razor sharp tongue. The music was loud and Meg started raising her voice to talk over it, so Paul said, “Why are you shouting?” Meg kept a straight face and retorted, “Because I want to make sure you can hear me, grandpa.” According to Sue she’s never seen anyone make Paul blush the way Meg did. So we’re all waiting to see how Sue’s next acupuncture appointment goes…

We also befriended Nan, the sweetest grandmotherly woman you could ever meet. She brought a tray of mini egg salad sandwiches, with the crust meticulously cut off of each slice. After complimenting her on the snack we ended up talking for quite a while. At the end of the night Nan gave us a slip of paper with her address and invited us over for drinks the next day. She lives in a beautiful home on Onetangi beach and we spent the following afternoon there drinking lime sodas and swapping stories.

made a wrong turn en route to Nan’s but we figured it out eventually

When we returned to the EcoLodge Dave and Sue invited us to have a night cap on their deck. Dave brews his own beer and keeps it fresh on tap.

wouldn’t it be nice to have this on your back porch?

One beer turned into a few too many to count. Dave and his oldest son, Zion, are passionate Chelsea football fans and invited us to stay up late and watch Chelsea take on Arsenal. We’ve watched a handful of soccer games in America, but nothing compares to this experience. Dave and Zion hung up banners and jerseys all over the living room, transforming it into a blue dome. By the time Dave’s friend Paul (a big-time Arsenal fan) arrived, it was clear he would be watching behind enemy lines. (Paul–not the acupuncturist–is another interesting guy. The son of a diplomat, he’s lived all over the states and went to Skidmore, where he met his wife, so he was quite familiar with Hamilton).

At halftime Dave served homemade pizzas and topped off our pint glasses. The match ended with a 2-1 Chelsea victory just before 3am. Meg and I made good on our promise to wake up and get to work by 9, albeit with our first New Zealand hangover. Cheers.

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