Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Amanbloggo: Amanpulo Resort and My First Philippines Trip

No enhancement here: this is really just how it looked
One of the nice things about living in the tropics is the relatively easy access I have to places that were considered quite exotic and idyllic when I lived in America. (Of course, it’s fair to say visiting a place with snow on the ground is considered just as exotic to those who have grown up in the tropics.) The jewel-like islands of places like the Maldives, Indonesia, and the Philippines are all but a short flight away, and even more far-flung locales like the Seychelles don’t take an inordinately long time to reach. But honestly, with some of the world’s most spectacular islands in the region, there’s never much reason to spend a long time on a plane when living in Malaysia.

I recently took my first trip to the Philippines, an archipelago of 7,107 islands, which is still only good enough for second place in Southeast Asia, with Indonesia’s count far eclipsing that number. Nonetheless though, I was excited to add another new stamp to my passport. The plan was to take a red-eye flight to Manila, where I’d stay for a few hours before heading south on a private chartered plane to a tiny island in the middle of the Sulu Sea for a few days of R&R. Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans…

Turns out that about the time my flight was set to depart, Manila was being manhandled by one of the dozen or so typhoons that lashes the Philippines every year. For all the lack of natural calamities Malaysia is blessed with, the poor Philippines makes up for it – volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, typhoons, you name it. So significant swaths of metro Manila were inundated with typhoon floodwaters, so my flight was delayed not one hour, not two hours, but five hours. My flight that was already scheduled to take off at the ungodly hour of 1:20 am didn’t leave the ground until 6:15 the next morning, so I spent a miserable night languishing in the ridiculously and needlessly vast KLIA2 – the new low-cost carrier terminal that’s just insanely overlarge. If you ever catch a flight there, wear comfortable shoes, that’s my advice, because you will be doing a lot of walking.

So I of course totally missed my 7:00 am flight to Pamalican Island, but there was an early afternoon flight, as well, so they rebooked me on that one. I was staying at a resort called Amanpulo, and anyone familiar with the Aman group of resorts knows that exemplary service is their hallmark. I didn’t have to expend any effort at all – they followed my delayed flight from KL, sorted everything, sent the driver (in a Mercedes hybrid sedan, no less) to await me at the Manila airport, then whisked me away to their private lounge where I had already been rebooked on the 1:00 flight to the island. So I chilled out in the lounge for a while, enjoyed drinks and snacks, and then boarded the 18-seat Dornier 228 turboprop and left right on time bound for Amanpulo, a 70-minute flight south from Manila.

Tagged and ready to go!
The rather squarish Dornier 228 – our private charter
Flying over a colorful hodge-podge of ramshackle homes
in metro Manila
The next-best thing to being in
the cockpit itself
I just thought this was a cool snapshot with the village
going right up to the edge of the cliff on an island
south of Manila

It was really quite cool onboard the small plane – I sat up front to get a closer look at the cockpit. As this was a private chartered flight, there was of course no cockpit door or anything like that. It was fascinating watching the pilots do their thing, taking us up to only about 10,000 feet or so (as the cabin was not pressurized). We flew over azure waters and mountainous islands and since we weren’t so terribly high, I could still make out plenty of details – villages, waterfalls, fishing boats plying the coastal waters. And before long, Pamalican appeared in the distance, unmistakable as I had seen the photos from the resort. A small, narrow island only 500m across at its widest point, with exceptionally clear, shallow waters ringing the land, mostly notably to the north of the island.

Following a textbook landing, we exited the small plane onto the private airstrip, each of the disembarking guests getting festooned with a fragrant jasmine flower lei. I was greeted by my personal “guest assistant” as they’re called, and we zipped off on a little golf cart to have a short tour of the tiny island and its myriad facilities.

Aerial view of Pamalican Island
Photo courtesy of Amanpulo
The main clubhouse and pool in early evening; though this isn't
my photo, it looked a lot like this on that first evening... the weather got
better and better with each passing day
Photo courtesy of Amanpulo
And here's the island... just 500m across at its widest point!
My casita was #23, just by the picnic grove
One really cool thing about Amanpulo is that each of the rooms – a private house called a casita – comes with its own “Club Car” golf cart, a little electric-powered buggy whose “roof” is a giant solar panel to assist in charging the battery. I asked for a regular bicycle, too, and it was delivered to my casita promptly. It was so nice having my own on-demand transport to go anywhere or just to take and explore the island. Usually, even at posh resorts, you have little choice but to either walk or call reception and ask for a buggy to come fetch you. This was a great change of pace.

Refined minimalist quality at Casita 23!
My welcome goodies
Just a small part of the gorgeous
bathroom; I availed myself the use
of the soaking tub several times
This was the view from my casita on that first day...
a bit overcast, but still beautiful
My bike and buggy... I'm sure I need
hardly mention which got used more
And the room, of course, was typical Aman: understated luxury, perfectly executed. Nothing was over-the-top, everything was just nice. I was right on the beach, with a suitably stunning view of the turquoise seas fronted by soft, sugary white sand. Only a tidal influx of seaweed ceaselessly washing ashore kept the scenery from being an absolute postcard.

Hobie cats on the beach
Usually I take a friend along on trips like this, but this time, I felt I just needed a solitary escape. Relaxing, reading a book or two, chilling out to some tunes, swimming in the sea… that’s what sounded appealing to me on an island retreat, so that’s pretty much what I did. I spent most of my days lazing on the bed, on the sunlounger, snorkeling, splashing around in the ridiculously clear ocean, reading, soaking in the big bathtub, and just trying to unwind a bit. The first day was mostly cloudy, but each day got progressively sunnier, and by the third day, I managed to get fairly cooked while out on the reef snorkeling. I had rather half-heartedly applied a thin coat of sunscreen before leaving my casita, but didn’t bother with my back (a good reason to bring someone along, perhaps?) and that’s exactly what got broiled with less than half an hour’s direct exposure. Yikes. I’m peeling like a sad red onion as I write this blog entry, but it wasn’t really a super bad sunburn... certainly glad I rolled back over when I did, though. Another 10-15 minutes and I think my back would have been seriously scorched.

Predictably, I had scheduled my deep tissue massage service at the spa for that same evening, so the fresh sunburn on my back rather kept the experience from being as enjoyable as it may have otherwise been, but honestly, as it was a fairly therapeutic massage to begin with (as opposed to a strictly relaxing one), it might never have been all that blissful in any case. That said, the massage really was quite good and mysteriously did away with some persistent soreness in my lower back and legs, so go figure. One of those “cruel to be kind” experiences, I suppose. Surprisingly, given the frankly exorbitant cost of flying to and staying at Amanpulo, their signature massage service is pretty reasonable, particularly given the skill of the therapists and the absolute top-notch quality of the spa facilities. You’d pay as much or more in any number of Las Vegas hotel spas and get a less satisfactory, and considerably less personalized, experience, so that was a pretty pleasant surprise.

I was out and about one afternoon with the buggy and this great pterodactyl of a fruit bat took flight from one of the trees overhead, presumably having had its sleep disturbed by the wind swaying the tree. The beast, with a wingspan comfortably surpassing three feet, circled lazily above me a couple of times and I seized my camera and fired off a few shots. Later, on the ground, a more colorful, if considerably more diminutive, island inhabitant – some sort of pigeon, I think – was scurrying about and slowed his wandering just enough for me to grab an image. So I guess here on Pamalican Island, the mammals fly and the birds waddle. There were also some strikingly yellow and black birds, quite sizeable really, frequenting the trees around my casita, but I was never quite agile enough to get the camera and capture a shot. I got one, shown here, that’s not going in any magazine soon, but at least somewhat blurrily shows the strong coloration of this bird which, from what I can gather, is a black-naped oriole.

A giant bat takes to the air
The view from near the pier
A shallow tidal bay against a crescent beach
Most of the "roads" on the island
looked like this
A colorful pigeon being camera-shy
A poor shot of a beautiful oriole
Looking down the beach from my little patch of sand
By day three, the weather had improved and along with it,
the view from my casita's deck
Day's end
After two days of drab evening skies and no
sunset to speak of, there was finally a nice one
on day three
The clouds on the horizon provided a strong contrast against the
sun-dappled ocean below

On a tangent here, I must say that Amanpulo gets just about everything right, but on one count, they have fallen victim to one of the most insidious infestations to worm its way into high-end hotels and resorts around the world: the nefarious capsule coffee machine, in this case, a Nespresso. I hate these things. Absolutely, unquestionably hate them. First of all, whatever these machines make is going to, by definition, suck. There is simply no way to duplicate a cup of properly brewed, quality coffee by mixing hot water with some sort of capsulated concentrate. There’s a reason you see devices like these in precisely NO proper cafés. No coffee connoisseur would ever permit such a blasphemous contraption in his or her home, either. The machines are also singularly wasteful, as you have to use one of these silly foil capsules for every cup of coffee, and though the foil is presumably recyclable, there’s an environmental cost of producing and packaging them that far outstrips an equivalent bag of coffee beans.

I hate you, little Nespresso!
And of course, once you buy their stupid machine, you’re beholden to it, having only one choice should you want coffee, which is to buy their capsules. These things, even ordered online in bulk, are at least $1 each, usually a bit more. These devices are the coffee equivalent of the inkjet printer. But most irksome of all, they simply never work. Never. I have used these stupid, evil little machines, of various brands, all of which presume to be upmarket and chic, in over a dozen hotel and resort properties in both Asia and Europe, and not once – not one single time – has one ever worked to plan. I remember a particularly diabolical episode at a posh resort in Bali where the staff had to actually replace the bloody device three times to get to one that even remotely did what it was supposed to do. But even under the best of circumstances, these stupid things just suck at delivering on their most basic premise: providing a decent, hassle-free cup of coffee. Point in case: I popped in a capsule, preheated the water, waited for the blinking light to go steady, did everything I was supposed to do, then took a great breath and pressed the “big cup” button. A horror show of noises emerged from the contraption to announce that some coffee-like substance was on the way, and sure enough, a stream of thick brown goo spurted into my cup followed by a stream of hot water, filling what is by nobody’s definition a large cup to begin with exactly one-quarter full. Like always! I hate these stupid machines! So I can either drink my grand ounce of coffee and just live with it, or I can push the button again and get another diluted stream of hot water/coffee capsule remnants. It usually takes three times pressing the button to get the cup up to three-quarters full. And after all that, guess what? It sucks. The resultant dreck is not even close to what anyone would consider good coffee. A sachet of rubbishy instant Nescafe would yield better results.

Now before anyone chides that it’s just supposed to be an espresso-sized shot, then why have two different cup sizes? Why stock the machine in a room with normal-sized coffee cups if the machine is wholly incapable of filling them? So hear this, luxury hoteliers of the world, I beg of you: resist the siren song of savvy marketers who would sell you these ridiculous machines under the guise of providing your guests with a more upscale, more enjoyable coffee experience. They’re crap. They’re wasteful, they don’t work, they don’t produce real coffee, and they’re not even a cost-effective choice for you, given the exorbitant price of those wasteful little branded capsules that you’ll then be locked into buying. Most of your guests, if polled, don’t want a tiny little cup of fake espresso, but would prefer a proper cup of actual coffee more often than not. Put a quality drip-brew coffee maker in the room, provide good coffee in little filter pouches, and be done with it.

Departing Pamalican Island
So four days in this paradise of peacefulness, the coffee machine saga notwithstanding, and then it was back to the urban chaos of Manila. One fun thing I saw in my short time there was something I learned is called a “jeepney,” a popular means of transport – both public and private – in the Philippines. After WWII, American troops packed up to return home, and hundreds of surplus Jeeps were cheaply sold or given outright to the Filipino people, who over time customized the vehicles for local use. Metal roofs were added, chassis were extended, bench seats were put in to accommodate more passengers, and all manner of kitschy décor was added to the vehicles, from giant Mercedes-Benz logos to Texas longhorns. The garish colors and decorations of these jeepneys has now come to be a unique symbol of Philippine culture, and the government now regulates their use. Today’s jeepneys are also a mish-mash of surplus parts, mostly from Japan, but it seems unlikely, of course, that any of the originals would still be in use.

I had enough of a layover in Manila to venture out from the Amanpulo lounge, so I went to nearby Makati, one of the 16 cities that comprise metro Manila, and apparently a haven of business, shopping, and entertainment. I didn’t have enough time to really explore much, but I did stumble across a Wendy’s serving up actual bacon cheeseburgers, so I had to indulge. They also had some other surprising meals on the menu… take a look.

Always interesting to see other countries' interpretations of
American fast food standards... this is a Wendy's in Manila
In the Philippines, pork chops, Salisbury steaks, and spring rolls
are regular fixtures on the menu at Wendy's!
One of many wildly colorful "jeepneys" plying the
streets of Manila
Hysterical... I wasn't sure whether to be impressed
or mortified by these things

Before long, I made my way back by cab (in a veritable crush of higgledy-piggledy traffic – more jeepneys!) to the comfortable Amanpulo lounge, where a driver was standing by to take me to the main airport terminal. I was flying from the lamentable terminal 4, which is about as dire an airport experience as you could hope for, even more dismal than the old low-cost terminal here in KL. Fortunately, I didn’t have to languish here for long – no epic flight delays this time around – and was soon winging it back to KL.

Despair at Terminal 4
All in all, a nice introduction to the Philippines, but being ensconced on a tiny private island isn’t really anything that paints a remotely accurate picture of the country, and I didn’t stay in Manila long enough to experience much more than a traffic jam and a cheeseburger. So perhaps I’ll go again another time and check out Cebu or Boracay or this place called El Nido, which isn’t too far from Pamalican Island, but a bit less posh and exclusive.

The view from shore on my final day
A thin slice of R&R paradise on this tiny Philippine island

Thursday, July 31, 2014

New Zealand, part 2 of 2

So when we left off, I had just finished up with the overnight cruise on Milford Sound and taken the bus back to Queenstown, since my scenic flight was cancelled on account of too many clouds.

Looking northward along the beautiful Lake Wakatipu
on the trip back to Queenstown from Milford Sound

We got back to Queenstown obviously much later in the day than had been expected in the original itinerary (which called for a 45-minute flight rather than a six-hour bus odyssey), so I scrambled to squeeze in another activity in the waning daylight, a zip trek adventure up on the mountainside that was just a short walk from the hotel I was staying in. I took the Skyline Gondola on a scenic 900-meter climb up Mt. Ngongotaha to the Rotorua "adventure complex" at the top, which features seriously hardcore mountain biking, luge, bungee jumping, a sky swing, and ziplining. Though the ziplining experience itself was enjoyable, and the company, Ziptrek Ecotours, incredibly admirable for its stance on sustainability and preservation, I think this would have been a lot more enjoyable had the scenery been better. As it was, we were ziplining through swaths of largely denuded pine forest, as most of the lower boughs of the trees were quite free of foliage – and moreover, the soaring Douglas Firs that we sped through aren't even native, but rather had long ago been introduced from North America. Anyway, the experience of ziplining (sometimes called "flying fox") was fun, though honestly, I should have left my Nikon and the giant zoom lens in the hotel room. I was so fearful the thing would end up bonking me in the head, I was reluctant to get too crazy on the upside-down ziplining (though I did do it somewhat inadvertently once), and my futile efforts to get a good shot probably prevented me from getting the full enjoyment out of the experience. The final line (it was a four-line "trek") was the longest and the views, finally, were great, as the large clearing afforded a terrific view of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu.

Looking down on Queenstown as I rode the Skyline Gondola up the
mountain to do my ziplining; my hotel is at the lower right, just
on the edge of the beautiful Queenstown Park

The bungee and sky swing platform – the steep
grade of the mountainside would make this jump
particularly terrifying!

One of the "treehouses" from which
I flew on a zipline; note the stairs on
the right leading to nothingness:
that's the launch point
Looking up at one of the treehouse platforms
(Photo courtesy of Ziptrek Eco-tours)

This was the final line of the experience, and indeed the only one that
yielded any sort of scenic views (Photo courtesy of Ziptrek Eco-tours)

Impressive scenery at a winery in Central Otago
I stayed two more nights in delightful Queenstown, enjoying some great meals during my time there, and took a great tour of five wineries in the Central Otago region. There's something quite special about drinking wines right at the place where they were made and talking to the people who actually made them. It was a great experience on the whole, with the one standout being Carrick, a winery in Bannockburn. It's not that their wines were head and shoulders above the other wineries' offerings, but it was the food and experience that made it so memorable. My little group stopped there for lunch and we enjoyed these incredible tasting platters of antipasto goodies, local cheeses, smoked salmon, a tasty bacon hock terrine, salami, prosciutto, salads, fritters, pickles, piquanté peppers, fresh fruit, a couple of different spreads, and freshly baked breads. The four of us, after tasting a half dozen Carrick wines, opted for a bottle of their crisp Sauvignon Blanc (a varietal New Zealand excels at) and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

This old Presbyterian church has been converted
and re-appropriated to serve a much more
practical use: tasting wine!

A fairly simple, yet wildly colorful, tasting platter
of cheeses, meats, and dried fruits

The tasting table: better than a pulpit

Settling in for a meal started with fresh-baked breads

One of the most memorable meals of the trip – a lovely tasting platter
complemented by a bottle of wine at Carrick Winery

A postcard-perfect view from the back deck at the Carrick cellar door

Autumn comes to Central Otago

Looking out from the winery's cellar door

Rows of vines with a beautiful palette of colors and textures as
a backdrop in the Kiwi autumn

Another scenic shot with a
directional sign to one of Otago's
 notable wineries, Mt. Difficulty

The daily menu at Fishbone... note the breathtaking
prices (for reference, 1 NZD = 85¢ USD)
Another memorable dining experience was at a popular restaurant in town called Fishbone where I got to try their famous Bluff oysters from the cold waters at the very southern bit of the island (the seaport town nearest to where they're from is called Bluff, hence the capital 'B'). Permit me to go off on a bit of a tangent here... I've never quite understood the whole oyster thing, frankly. I'm convinced a lot of people just pretend to like them so they can appear chic and trendy or whatever. I mean, really... they're slimy, they're really expensive these days, and it's basically like swallowing a squishy piece of raw muscle that tastes like salt, with a splash of ocean water tossed in for good measure. You can't even really eat them in the sense of chewing and savoring them. You have to gulp them down like you're swallowing a pill. I guess some people chew them up, but I think for a lot of people, that would trigger a pretty strong gag reflex. I grew up on the Gulf of Mexico and had more than my fill of oysters as a youngster. In those days, of course, they weren't all nouveau and trendy like they are today. We'd go to this little divey joint, I guess you'd call it an oyster bar, and sit at the counters which were – if memory serves – filled with crushed ice and scattered with a bunch of fresh oysters from the Gulf. You'd get an oyster knife and just have a field day. Cheap, disgusting, and not remotely haute cuisine. Back then, the only way I could get an oyster down without it coming right back up was to sandwich it between two saltine crackers (the crunchy offsetting the slimy, in my child's logic) with a generous dollop of cocktail sauce. I remember, perhaps a decade ago, visiting the tourist trap hell known as Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco where I nearly passed out when I was told a platter of four oysters cost $9. Seriously! And they're probably double that cost now. I mean, come on, they're just oysters... not exactly the speediest or most elusive of beasts. It really can't take all that much effort to catch them! We've got a place here in KL that serves these special oysters from off the Normandy coast that cost RM38 each. That's about US$12 per oyster. Now, admittedly, this is a pretty good oyster. I've had them, and they're indeed not your run-of-the-mill pieces of slime. And also admittedly, Malaysia is a very long way for these little guys to travel from Normandy, France. So yeah. But what's the excuse in San Francisco? What's the excuse in New Zealand? That's what I thought.

My lone Bluff oyster: World duly rocked,
life forever changed. Except not really
Okay, anyway, back to Fishbone. So I had my big famous Bluff oyster, hoop de doo, and it tasted exactly like a mouthful of ocean water. It was alright though, as it was only one – the full serving of six would have done me in (and at US$25 for the serving, I was a bit mortified). But I looked very, very cool as I sucked that one lone oyster down, I'm sure. So yeah, the rest of the meal was great (prawn tacos and baked flounder, yum), and the dessert was New Zealand's pride and joy, pavlova, a meringue-based dessert that was somehow simultaneously airily light and richly decadent. Great restaurant, with nearly everything sourced locally. But to eat well here, or nearly anywhere in Queenstown for that matter, come empty of stomach and full of wallet. Food is just not at all cheap as a general rule in New Zealand. A meal for two at Fishbone could easily approach US$200 if you throw in a bottle of mid-grade local wine (about $60). Yes, the food in New Zealand is, on the whole, outstanding. No place in the country is more than about 80 miles from the ocean and plentiful grazing land, clean air, and unspoiled water have allowed New Zealand to develop a fine reputation for quality food, particularly lamb, beef, dairy products, and seafood. Fresh, local, delicious. But oh, you will pay, my friend. You will pay.
One of my yummy prawn tacos at Fishbone

It looks like Eggs Benedict with the bizarre addition
of capers, but nope... it's NZ Pavlova, a meringue
dessert; the greenish bits are passionfruit seeds

My car for a couple of days... the Aussie/NZ version
of Chevrolet called "Holden" or something like that
Moving on to the next phase of my journey, I rented a car and headed out from Queenstown en route to Lake Tekapo. The first few hours of the drive were incredibly scenic, and I made a number of stops, even briefly tempted to try bungee jumping at the place where it all started (on a commercial basis, at least), but figured that jumping out of a plane was enough for one trip. Unfortunately, the blue skies didn't last through the day, and with spectacularly uncooperative weather descending like a mantle onto my shoulders, the evening and at least the first half of the subsequent day was the most dismal stretch of the entire trip. The scenery at Tekapo should have been stunning. I should have taken an incredible sightseeing flight around the mountains and glaciers. I should have gone to an observatory for nighttime stargazing in one of the world's darkest "dark sky" locations. Precisely none of that happened thanks to an entire afternoon, evening, night, and following morning of low clouds and persistent light rain. I stayed in a nice apartment at a resort called "Peppers" that would have probably been great under better conditions, and I did indulge in another terrific tasting platter (similar to the one at Carrick Winery) for my dinner that night, along with a couple of outstanding wines from Marlborough and Central Otago. Pretty much nothing else about that day was memorable, though.

The beautiful suspension bridge spanning the Kawarau River gorge,
now home to AJ Hackett bungee jumping

This is where commercial bungee jumping all began
I suppose if you're going to be terror-stricken
in a bungee jump, the stunning scenery
in the area surely must help a bit

The "tasting board" with a glass of Pinot Gris at
Peppers Resort in Lake Tekapo

The kitchen at the resort apartment I stayed
in... used only to make coffee the next morning

As I proceeded the next day towards Christchurch, the gloomy weather held on, but pockets of sporadic sunshine and the evocative atmospherics that cloud and humidity can combine to provide actually yielded some pretty special photos. I stopped in a quaint town called Ashburton for a quick lunch and a tiny bit of exploring. But "quaint" turned rather rapidly into "dull," so I pressed onward. Just before I rolled into Christchurch, I detoured to do some jet boating on the alpine Waimakariri River, a real thrill ride speeding along at 50-60 mph on the shallow, clear blue glacial water and taking in the gorgeous scenery along the way. The abrupt turns, 360-degree spins, and of course the steady light rain that started about halfway into the ride all contributed to a really good time, if not to any particularly great pictures. So though there aren't any photos from the jet boating that are worth sharing, take a look at some of the scenery from the road trip... be sure to click on and enlarge these photos (which are not presented chronologically). The beauty of the region really came across nicely that day, and once again, it's pretty amazing how much some of these photos remind me of my home state of Colorado!

A damp mist created saturated colors and great atmospherics

Dew drops and light fog

The contrast between the bright white low-level clouds and
dark, shrouded mountains made for a great scene here

This was really nice... not too far out of Queenstown, I stopped at
a little rest area by Lake Hayes and this was the view
Another study in contrast, with focused bits of sunlight
splashing down on the landscape in the distance

Another lovely lake near the border of Otago and Canterbury

One of my very favorite photos from the trip... so much color!

Same lake as before, entering the Canterbury region along
Route 8, called the Twizel-Omarama Highway

This was well into the Canterbury region, after Lake Tekapo...
a true sense of space and solitude in the area, to be certain

A mobile advertisement! This flight-ready vintage biplane near Lake
Tekapo serves as a marketing tool for a locally based flightseeing outfit
(though the flights offered are not in this aircraft)

One of my favorite images, and I can't quite even remember where
I snapped this – somewhere between Queenstown and Lake Tekapo!

Welcome to Christchurch!
I arrived in Christchurch late that afternoon and was pretty astounded at how obvious the destruction from the earthquakes of 2011 still was. In February of that year, Christchurch was devastated by a quake that hit on a Tuesday right at the busy lunchtime hour. Six months earlier, the area had been rattled by a 6.3 temblor, and though the February quake wasn't as powerful, it was much shallower and much closer to the city center. The violence of the ground shaking was among the most intense to have ever been recorded in an urban area. Buildings – many already weakened by the previous quake – collapsed throughout the city, significant liquefaction occurred just east of the downtown area, and damage throughout Christchurch was widespread. In the destruction and collapsing buildings, 185 people perished. Two substantial aftershocks, the latter of which was as strong as the main quake, struck the city in June of that same year, causing still more damage.

The Christchurch earthquakes made global headlines in 2011, of course, but they were in and out of the news fairly quickly, and having been there now, even three years later, it's easy to say the media seriously understated the destruction wrought on the South Island's largest city. Arriving on the scene in 2014, it wasn't immediately evident there had been a major earthquake in the city, but it was quite clear that something was going on. Following the series of quakes, over 1,000 buildings in Christchurch's central business district were demolished. That's a staggering number of buildings for a relatively small city (about 375,000), underscoring how grievously these earthquakes affected Christchurch and the whole of New Zealand. Even during my visit, numerous condemned buildings still stood, vacant, silent, cordoned off, awaiting their impending doom. Now, the entire CBD is effectively a massive construction zone, a veritable blizzard of orange cones, blocked streets, redirected travel, and temporary fencing. It's a stark testament to the devastation that was wrought by the 2011 earthquakes.

Note the pneumatic tubes snaking about overhead
Yet, after spending some time in Christchurch – a truly engaging and charming city, I found – and talking to its proud and resilient residents, it seems certain that the Christchurch of tomorrow will be an even stronger city. One particularly fascinating denizen I met there owns an eclectic, funky café built in the space that once housed the High Street Post Office. His place was among the first businesses in the CBD to be re-established after the February 2011 quake, and even that accomplishment took a year to achieve, so complete was the damage. The popular C1 Espresso Café serves up great coffees, pastries, and other light fare in a truly funky and hard-to-pigeonhole environment. The café also offers the very unusual experience of having some of the food zipped directly to your table by clear pneumatic tubes, the same kind you see at the drive-up bank teller or in large supermarkets, used for sending cash to the office from the registers. The tubes at C1 have been modified and adapted to deliver not bank deposits or cash (sadly), but rather a trio of delicious sliders and crispy fries, all cradled in a metal cylinder and zipped from kitchen to table at 60 mph via overhead pneumatic tubes. Pretty cool.

Delicious sliders and crispy fries at C1 Espresso Café

Scallops and streaky bacon...
there's no way this was going
to be anything but yummy!
My final meal in Christchurch was something purportedly resembling Mexican, I guess, but though it was very tasty, it was also nothing resembling either real Mexican or Tex-Mex. Sadly I can't remember the name of the place, but I could find it in a pinch, I'm sure. It was a fitting end to a short, but enjoyable time in Christchurch.

From there, I drove to the airport the next morning, dropped off my rental car, and grabbed an Air New Zealand flight back up to Auckland on the North Island, where I had a leisurely lunch – sushi of all things! – then caught my nonstop and still-lengthy 11-hour flight back to Kuala Lumpur. New Zealand is indeed far from everything (except perhaps Australia), but that isolation no doubt contributes greatly to its remarkable appeal. Enjoyable activities, loads of adventure, great wide-open roads, outstanding food and wine, and the fascinating Māori culture (which I didn't even get to touch on here!), all set against a stunning backdrop of natural grandeur and unspoiled, sparsely populated spaces, New Zealand is easily one of the world's most heralded travel destinations, an isolated island nation that is perhaps among a choice few Holy Grails of tourism for global wanderers. I thoroughly enjoyed my very rapid eight-day vacation there, and have already started making some tentative plans to (hopefully) return again next year... to the southern sensation the Māori call Aotearoa.

Natural, wide-open, clean, and beautiful... just as the tourism ads
proclaim, it's indeed 100% pure New Zealand