Dedicated with love to Vanessa

IMG_9303While Jenny left Auckland to go back home, Frank and I had a special reason to stay. I was going to meet the pen pal I had been writing to since fifth grade!

Vanessa and I had exchanged countless letters as we journeyed through life – school years, boyfriends, graduation, jobs, marriage, children. As we got older, the letters were less frequent — we’d often disconnect for a decade at a time — but then she’d find me and we’d pick up right where we had left off. When Frank and I downsized a few years back, I came across all her old letters. Wouldn’t it be fun to send them to her? I thought it would be like having a “diary of her life” and was certain Vanessa (and her daughter) would love them. I tried tracking her down online but had no luck. I stuffed the letters back in a box.

Just before New Year’s 2014, Vanessa got ahold of me through my parents, who still had their same landline phone number. We talked for an hour and exchanged contact info. I sent her the old letters but there would be no more long, handwritten letters between us. Times had changed. We stayed connected through Facebook!

Then Frank and I decided to go to Australia and New Zealand. Would Vanessa and I finally get to meet in person? Unfortunately for us, she was living in Brisbane, which wasn’t on our list of destinations. I was thrilled when Vanessa decided to go “home” and surprise her dad after the holidays — while we were still in the country!

On January 25th, Frank and I arrived at an Indian restaurant belonging to a friend of Vanessa’s father. There she was smiling and looking beautiful in a bright yellow dress! We hugged tightly, enjoyed a wonderful meal and caught up on each other’s lives.

The next day, Vanessa toured us around Papakura. It had been a long time since she had been there and she enjoyed showing us her old haunts. I saw the home where all my early letters went, her schools and the home where her dad lives now. We met her dad, a lively cheerful man, who treated us to lunch and a live karaoke show at the RSA (Retired Servicemen Association).

After a lovely dinner at an oceanside restaurant, it was time to say goodbye. I was sad to leave but so thankful I got to finally meet the dear friend with whom I had shared so much. We laughed that it seemed like we had known each other forever, which, in reality, I guess we have!


Nelson, Golden Bay and Abel Tasman

“Lovely property with sea views.” The house was great. The view not so much — unless you like a sprawling, dried up valley. Needless to say, we were disappointed. But alas, a few hours later, we looked out again — a marvelous sea view! And so it went, our view went in and out with a truly remarkable tide. Although I had seen beaches shrink and grow within several yards, none of us had ever seen such a dramatic (and quick!) metamorphosis! Even when Jenny and I would go to Tahanui, the Nelson beach, we’d laugh because our “stuff” would start out close to the water’s edge. Then we’d read for a while, look up and realize we’d have to take a relatively long walk to go cool off!

Aside from the beach, the Nelson area had much more to offer. The city is convenient to Abel Tasman (New Zealand’s most famous park) and to Golden Bay. We took a day and drove to the area, which was very beautiful. We planned on visiting the wine area of Blenheim but after realizing we’d have to drive two hours back through a dizzying mountain pass after drinking, we were happy to discover that Nelson has almost three dozen wineries right in the area! We also found a few good restaurants and since we had a very well-equipped kitchen, we were able to enjoy some of Jenny’s wonderful home cooking. Two nights we had fresh fish (local blue cod and tarkhini) and our host brought over his special marinade(!) for our leg of lamb dinner.

All in all, sunny Nelson was the perfect destination for our final days in New Zealand.



Up the west coast and across to Kaikoura

Glacial Encounters

Frank has a thing for mountains. On the North Island, it was Mount Ruapehu. On the South Island, it was Aoraki or Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak. We saw the 3,754 meter snow capped monster from afar but he wanted to see it up close.

The road to Mount Cook village is flat and runs along turquoise Lake Pukaki before entering the narrow valley in the midst of the Southern Alps. There is a slight rise as you enter the tiny resort town. We saw condos, a visitor’s center and a couple restaurants but surprisingly, no chairlifts. Although it is in the mountains, there is no regular skiing here(!) — only backcountry heli-skiing. The other reasons tourists come is to heli-hike, regular hike, camp and to see the amazing Tasman Glacier. The Tasman Glacier, at 17 miles in length, is the largest glacier in the southern hemisphere. It was truly an amazing sight to see.

A few days later, we approached the Southern Alps from the west. The Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are two New Zealand icons – unique because they reach from mountains into rain forest. We hiked in the pouring rain to within 500 meters of the Fox Glacier. Though the glacier was magnificent, what was more compelling were the sign posts leading up to it – signs showing us where the glacier HAD BEEN. In the 90 years between 1893 and 1983 – the end of the last big retreat – Franz Josef Glacier receded about 3km. Between 1983 and 2008 it advanced almost 1.5km after heavy snowfalls but in the past four years it has melted almost 500m. Scientists are saying, “What has happened at Franz Josef in the last few years is incredibly dramatic – almost 25 years of advance has been lost in just five years.” They attribute this to global warming. I truly fear my great grandchildren will never be able to view this incredible wonder.

Note: After hiking to the glacier in the pouring rain, we dropped our bags at our motel and then went into  “town” (pop. 300). Jenny and I popped into an outdoor store while Frank went to the grocery store for some apples. While in this little store he was startled when suddenly he heard in a booming voice, “Is that Frank Busalacchi?!!” Meanwhile, Jenny and I, still drenched from the walk, walked across the street to meet Frank. I laughingly remarked, “I am so glad I don’t know anyone here!” Wasn’t I surprised when I saw him talking with Mike and Jill Duckett in front of the 4 Square?!!! We had known they were touring around NZ before heading to the Australian Open but what are the chances that we would run into them?!!! A few beers and glasses of wine were in order.


Hello Wanaka

After sharing a few of our Queenstown/Arrowtown favorites with Jenny, it was time to continue our journey around the South Island. We drove north to Lake Wanaka. The road wound sharply over a mountain (thank you CVS Vertigo-less!) and through a valley until we arrived at the beautiful alpine lake nestled in the midst of towering mountains. The upscale area is a year-round magnet for New Zealanders who come to ski in the winter and fish, hike and swim in the summer.

Knowing we’d be staying for a few days, we went through our routine: Check out the place and see if we need to add staples to our grocery list (i.e. salt/pepper, olive oil, toilet paper); Frank finds a pool for his daily workout (we’ve been lucky in that each town we’ve visited has had at least one); we hook up our adaptors and connect our phones/computers to the internet. Then it’s off to the grocery store for our first exploration of town.

Jenny was in shock when she experienced the throngs of people in the grocery store. As I mentioned, it’s vacation time in New Zealand. RVs are everywhere and kiwis flock to their summer homes. The restaurants and grocery stores are filled with hungry people. Especially when we are staying long term, we eat many of our meals “in.” Lake Wanaka was no different. The restaurants we did visit (via local recommendations), however, were very good.

The weather and the area were both beautiful. Our original plan was to relax for a couple of days but we decided we couldn’t let Jenny come to NZ without seeing Lake Tekapo or Milford Sound. It made for a busier schedule but Jenny was a trooper—and we certainly didn’t mind seeing these wonderful places again!


Adventures in Queenstown

Forgotten but unforgettable

Over half of all Kiwis (New Zealanders) travel during their summer holidays, especially over Christmas and New Year’s. Decent travel accommodations in many of the more popular destinations can be difficult to come by so we decided to make the most of it by opting for the road less traveled. We made a loop from Milford Sound through an area called Southland. Southland spans 13,000 sq. miles and has a population of only 96,000 inhabitants. What it lacks in population, it more than makes up for in scenery and wildlife.

We began our south southern adventure in Te Anau. The house we rented was a bit dated — and unusual — but clean. It served us well as we visited the incredible Milford Sound (see separate post) and Fiordland National Park. Nick and Maddie were able to tour some glowworm caves and we celebrated New Year’s Eve along the lakefront watching fireworks, eating awful corndogs and drinking beer.

We left Te Anau, traveling along the “Southern Scenic Route,” visiting the Scottish city of Dunedin and settling for the night at Kaka Point. From Kaka Point, we began our journey along the Catlin Coast, exploring New Zealand’s southeast “forgotten corner.” “Forgotten corner” could refer to many things: a place that forgot to hook up to the modern world (unreliable internet, poor cell service); a place that forgot to pave the roads (Frank was sure our rented station wagon wouldn’t survive!); or even a place that forgets tourists might be confused (Nick and I were on the beach when a siren started blaring. Could it be a tsunami? We ran off the beach. Turns out it was a call for the volunteer firefighters to head to the station for a fire!). But in reality, these “inconveniences” only added to the magic of this untouched, truly UN-forgettable area of rugged cliffs, sandy bays and encounters with penguins and sea lions!!!


The Wonder of Milford Sound

Milford Sound is often referred to as one of the most beautiful places on earth and always seems to make the list of “Places to See Before You Die” (I know, nice thought, right?). Rudyard Kipling even described it as the 8th Wonder of the World. But knowing no trip to New Zealand is complete without a visit, our next stop was Fiordland, in the southwest corner of the South Island.

Milford Sound can be explored by land or air. Our plan was to base ourselves in the small town of Te Anau, drive a couple hours through the Fiordland National Park to the harbor and then board a boat for a 2-hour tour of the sound.

I was looking forward to shooting some great photos — anticipating blue skies and soaring mountains reflected in still, crystal clear waters. That wasn’t meant to be. On the day of the tour, we awoke to a cloudy downpour. November to March are the area’s warmest months. Temperatures are moderated by a constant sea breeze.

So what is Milford Sound & Fiordland like on a wet day? The locals say it’s even better than on a clear day. When it rains, the landscape is more dramatic – the steep rock faces stream with thousands (yes, thousands!) of waterfalls, mist hangs around the tops of the mountains and rivers and streams rage. We arrived prepared with rain jackets. Gray skies resulted in less than stunning photos but trust me when I say this place was incredible! We discovered that the moisture is what makes Milford Sound so lush and beautiful, certainly living up to its billing as one of the Wonders of the World.





Turquoise Tekapo

Lake Tekapo is a stunning, 32-sq. mile, light turquoise lake nestled in the shadow of the Southern Alps. Our place sits on the end of a point overlooking the lake, a block away from the tiny one-street, two-block “town.” The view is spectacular and like nothing we’ve ever seen. As pretty as it is in the daytime, it is also incredible at night. Lake Tekapo is part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, making it the perfect spot for stargazing. We went out last night (late because it isn’t fully dark until after 11!)  and walked around. I have NEVER seen so many stars!

Buses of tourists make pitstops on the road in front of our house for quick photos of the lake and the tiny Church of the Good Shepherd. They also tramp up the front lawn to take pictures of each other in our patch of colorful lupines, which dot the roadsides and are in full bloom this time of year. Lake Tekapo is in ultimate contrast to the crumbed concrete of Christchurch and the perfect place for a couple days of rest and relaxation.

Christmas in Christchurch

As the faithful approached the altar for Christmas Eve communion, the floors vibrated and the chandeliers swayed. The crowd began singing Silent Night when the lady next to Nick showed him her Ipad screen – a 4.0 earthquake! The verse, “Angels quake at the sight,” will now represent something very different to me! No one else seemed particularly concerned, just another tremor in Christchurch.

Christchurch has recently experienced two major earthquakes – one in September 2010 and another in February of 2011. Both caused major damage but, though less in magnitude, the 2011 earthquake resulted in much more destruction and 185 deaths. Driving around, you see crumbled buildings everywhere. The whole city seems to be one big construction site. That said, there is much beauty to be found among the devastation — pop-up parklets, murals, touching memorials, even the colorful shipping containers that shore up walls or are stacked to create a shopping mall! You find yourself in awe of the people that live in Christchurch and their tenacity to rebuild and move on. It was a very special place to spend Christmas and to count one’s blessings.

Frank and I arrived in Christchurch, our first city on New Zealand’s South Island, on Christmas Eve eve. Nick and Maddie were to fly in the next day from LA. Trying to preserve some semblance of holiday normalcy, our plans were to cook a couple nice meals at “home.” After dropping our bags, we made our way to the grocery store. It was pretty much what you’d expect on the day before a holiday — countless shoppers, picked over stock – What? No cloves?! Cornstarch is corn flour?! You end up making due and it all works out fine.

On Christmas Eve morning, we picked up our order from the local butcher. The place we rented had no decorations so Frank and I stopped at a dollar store for some holiday cheer — garland, ornaments, poppers. I whipped up a batch of Christmas cookies. NOW we were ready for visitors! We were so happy Nick and Maddie could come spend the holidays with us. It’s sad Andy couldn’t get away but he had fun visiting Jenny in Montana. It was a very different Christmas for all of us. After an early dinner and the very eventful Christmas Eve mass, the four of us went to Latimer Square for Caroling in the Park. Although it was (relatively) cool, the park radiated with holiday warmth–families gathered on picnic blankets, kids running around, hand-held candles and, of course, a band with singers — young and old.

Christmas morning the four of us rose early to help set up a luncheon at the Christchurch Mission. The large crew of friendly and happy volunteers quickly transformed an empty tent into a festive venue for over 600 guests! Feeling so fortunate to be here in New Zealand, it was nice to play a small part in helping to make someone else’s holiday a little happier. And being the holiday, we had the city streets to ourselves for exploring. Nick and Maddie took several long runs, getting acclimated to looking right versus left for oncoming traffBoxing Day, the day after Christmas, is also a major holiday in New Zealand. In addition to being a big shopping day, Christchurch was hosting a large cricket tournament. We decided to get out of town, heading to the scenic Banks Peninsula and the charming French town of Akaroa (pics below.) The next day, we explored Christchurch. Mike and Marianne Daley (friends of a friend of ours from back home) had us all over for morning tea at their lovely home in the hills of Christchurch. Marianne was originally from the States and had worked at Gesu (our church in Milwaukee). It was fun hearing about her life as a Kiwi and her experiences during the earthquakes. Mike, a native, gave us great tips for our journey around the South Island. He also gave us a suggestion for a nice restaurant in the Botanical Gardens, the final stop on the day’s tour and on our fascinating stay in Christchurch.