Sunday, November 24, 2013

Hobbiton. Or, An Unexpected Journey, Really.

I had put off taking the kids to Hobbiton long enough, and I realized we are running out of weekends, so it was time to go. Part of my hesitation was the price tag given that I am not a fan, $75/adult seemed very steep, and I would rather buy a sundress or something else with that kind of cash! Fortunately the kids 10-and under were $10 a piece, so the total damage was $105 and strict instructions to Charlotte that she is NOT 11 (youth ticket was $38), because I am cheap like that.

I booked online the evening before for a 10AM tour, because the days are really warming up and any of the later tours could be pretty hot going - it is a walking tour the size of a couple of farm paddocks. So we departed home around 8:30 and arrived at the farm with 25 minutes to take our 1-parent-with-three-kids sweet time about getting out of the car, putting on sunscreen, making a toilet stop, etc... We had 5 minutes to spare before boarding our bus.

Hmmm, I didn't take a picture of the bus. The bus ride is short, but very hilly and windy farm terrain. Everywhere outside the movie set boundary is still the farmer's working sheep farm. The site was chosen due to fact that you can't see any signs of human development such as power lines, farmhouses or buildings, or roads. You're taken deep into the farm, 2 miles from the main a refurbished old white bus, definitely not worthy of a photo. I am sure there is plenty a tourist wary, at this point, at what standard of tour they have just paid big bucks for!

Whomever the film studio big bosses are, they require that the tours of Hobbiton be guided tours. Our guide's name is Dan, and he quickly tells us he is the most fun guide, and it seems that the bus drivers genuinely agree with that self assessment, so off we go. With plenty of "come and see this bro' ", and "sweet as"-es thrown in, he is doing a good job of being a typical kiwi bloke, and the kids lap it up!

So the tour walks you around the entire shire, countless hobbit holes, especially manicured 'natural' gardens, including vegetable grades, washing on the lines, the Party tree where 111-teenth birthday takes place, and ends at the Green Dragon Tavern where drinks are included in your ticket price.

Originally the set was not built to be permanent. But after the LOTR, when they were preparing for the Hobbit trilogy, they realized there was a lot of tourist interest to visit the deserted set. It was decided to build out of bricks and mortar, and wood this time around. The hobbit holes have all passed structural inspection, so you can visit for the next 50 years. The 'genius' of that decision is certainly paying off! I really couldn't believe the amount of people visiting! Really? This many people like Tolkien?! The guided tour was probably the best way to manage the hoards in the end, you only have small groups at any one address, at a time. With tours starting at 30 minute intervals you never run into the other groups. It is possible to take photos without featuring screeds of tourists, and lets face it everyone is here to take snapshots!

I recommend Hobbiton tours for anyone, even if, like me, you are not a fan of the book or movies.

I am just going to post the pictures now, because I didn't learn any trivia that will impress you.

Carson was selected to be the model hobbit, along with the tall gentleman, who was to model Gandalf. Standing in front of differently scaled hobbit holes they show how human actors were made to appear so different in size.
This one is a 60% scale (above).
It is such a fun place to visit for kids, even if they only force themselves to watch movies because they are supposed to love them, like all their friends do. Two out of three admit it is too scary for them.
So many hobbit holes! With such sweet landscaping. Full time gardeners are employed to keep it all looking so perfect and lived in.
One of these is Sam's house. Watch the movies to figure it out. (If you pay 100% attention to what the guide is telling you, you would know).
This is the home of Bilbo Baggins. It is the hardest one to get a photo of because it is up all those stairs, and you can't go behind the gate. Too many people were carving their names on it, and writing 'Kilroy was Here' etc. The tree above it is completely fake. It is the only completely fake tree here, and I can't tell you why they needed it. Carson received a twig of fake oak leaves, similar to the ones wired onto this fiberglass tree, for his help as model hobbit. He is very proud of it, no one else got one.
The party tree, on the left. Real. (Above)
Bilbo's view across the lake to the Green Dragon Tavern. It is human size, and serves real food and beer. You tour ends with a complimentary ale or ginger beer, and about 25 minutes to sit, relax and take in Hobbit hospitality. Of course you can take more photos, too:
It had cleared out because everyone was now sitting at outside tables. Sweet as! I didn't want them on my photos!
This photo was taken by someone 7, or younger.
My little hobbits:

So, we went to see 'Catching Fire' last night. My favorite of that trilogy. Loved it! Big fan! Tour of districts 11 and 12, anyone?


Sunday, October 27, 2013

An Unexpected Journey

Whew,  it's been a while since my last post.  I could give several reasons, all of which would be true,  but none would change the fact that there hasn't been a post (from me) in almost 2 months.  I have been busy,  however, so I guess I need to report on this stuff before I forget about it.

We left our young (okay,  maybe not-so-young) hero,  having just had a moderately disappointing trip to Versaille, continuing his vigilance for protecting the world from the invasion of the extra terrestrial cgi insectoids.   Fear not,  the 8-bit activision aliens have not abducted this not-so-young invader watcher… but the Frogs did catch up with him.

The original plan was to spend almost 5 months here in Paris working at two different institutes.  Since an American cannot spend more than 3 months each year in France,  this plan required a VISA.  Despite planning this for about 1 year,  that requirement was not fulfilled.  I don't like to point fingers as to who was at fault,  but I will say that the problem was not from the US side,  and I'll leave it at that.  Lacking this crucial piece of paper,  I was forced to leave France for a few weeks.

While back state-side I was supposed to be making a trip to the French consulate in LA,  though still lacking necessary paperwork was told by the consulate to not bother wasting my time (or theirs,  which is what they were really saying).  I did manage to get a different set of papers that would allow me to return to Paris for under 3 months.  Because of this I had to spend 3 weeks back in NM.

Truth be told,  this was actually a blessing.  After spending 6 weeks in Paris, without the family, I was getting pretty lonely.  I had even all but abandoned any desire to continue trying to speak French.  I was pretty bad at it, and it was all just becoming exhausting.  And,  though French food is great, there are no burritos in Paris.  I needed my chili!  As a result this was my first meal.

 After getting my chili fix I boarded the little NM Air plane to take the quick flight back to Los Alamos.  Fortunately for me I arrived in the biggest rainstorm in recorded history for the Jemez Mountains.  This meant that I got to fly up to Los Alamos twice in one day.  The first time we flew all the way up,  only to be rebuffed by the weather.  Three hours later we tried again and were able to land on the mesa top.  Exciting rides!  I had a great time.  A few hours later I was headed upto Taos,  oh how I missed out little Taos Haos.

Knowing that I was head back to the US,  I had made plans to install some new handles on the kitchen cabinets.  Long story short,  new handles led me to refinishing all of the cabinets in the house.  The first weekend I took everything apart.  Spent the next week sanding all the doors everyday after work and then started treating everything.  Here are a few photos showing the progress

During this time the rain continued to fall.  After having spent 3 weeks refinishing cabinets I noticed some interesting things had started to appear outside.  This won't look like much to all of my Seattle friends, but this is the biggest mushroom I've ever seen out here on the sage covered planes of Taos,  NM…  namely because I've just never seen a single mushroom out here before.  I guess it's a testament to the "biblical" torrents that we had been witnessing.  Perhaps it's a sign of the end of the world, fire & brimstone, locusts and now mushrooms in NM.

 Well if it is the end,  at least I got to spend some time in our little bit of heaven.  I never get sick of this view.

A month later and I'm missing NM again,  especially considering they're skiing at Wolfcreek in Oct. again and I'm missing it. 

Well, I've finally got this post wrapped up.  Stay tuned for reports on trips to Chantilly,  Vaux le Vicomte,  Z├╝rich, and Saint Germain-en-Laye.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Southern Alps

Some of the biggest landmarks in New Zealand carry names most lacking in imagination. The two biggest islands are the North Island, and The South Island, and some of the regions are the West Coast, Southland and Northland. Our destination for this trip would be the Southern Alps.

More specifically, the Mackenzie Basin. (The blue stripe in the center of the red square, is Lake Pukaki.)

Our kids spend are used to a mountainous landscape, living in the Jemez Mountains at 7200 feet, and spending time in the Rocky Mountains whose southernmost ranges lie in nearby Colorado as well as New Mexico. The thought of and endless scenic drive with young kids being told to look up from tablets, and out the window at scenery, didn't seem appealing. So how could I make this trip memorable to them? I decided that we should try to get to one of the glaciers of the Southern Alps, and to New Zealand's iconic Aoraki/Mt Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. (It rises 12316' with a distance of less than 25 miles to the sea).

There has just happened to be, a fantastic documentary series on TV called 'Wild About New Zealand', each episode showcasing one of the National Parks. Charlotte was watching with me late one Tuesday evening and it was an episode on the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. The footage of the scenery was amazing, it really made us want to go there! It ended with a visit to the Tasman Glacier, at 27 miles long, it is the longest in New Zealand. As elsewhere on the planet, the glaciers are receding, at a faster rate than ever. After what I read in Wikipedia about the 600m deep Tasman Glacier, I was aghast:

The glacier has retreated about 180 metres (590 ft) a year on average since the 1990s and the glacier is now in a period of faster retreat where the rate of retreat is calculated to be between 477 to 822 metres (1,565 to 2,697 ft) each year. It is estimated that the Tasman Glacier will eventually disappear and the terminal Tasman Lake will reach a maximum size in 10 to 19 years time.

It is quite clear that glaciers are a disappearing phenomenon, if we don't see one this decade, we may have missed our chance! The most famous and accessible glaciers are the Franz Joseph and the Fox Glaciers on the West Coast. Still, it would be a 4-5 hour drive along windy mountainous, possibly carsick-inducing, roads. Then, I knew our hiking range would be limited with a 5 year old, and even a 7 year old. To hike a rocky moraine, to hopefully see the receding glacial terminus off in the distance - would this be the glacier memory I was looking for for them? And that is how we came to book a helicopter tour.

In October in New Zealand, the seasons are still transitioning from winter to spring, even if it is officially spring. As you travel south you expect a drop in the mercury. Clouds, wind, some rain, and a damp chill is what I packed for - nothing but winter layers. I absolutely did not expect the fantastic blue sky day we were blessed with for our journey to the Mt Cook region! The snow capped landscape looked stunning. I stopped often to take too many photos, because it just kept getting more and more amazing. We stopped at two of New Zealand's most picturesque lakes, Lake Tekapo, and Lake Pukaki. The kids really enjoyed getting down to the water to throw sticks and skip rocks. And they really seemed to feel the grandeur of the breathtaking scene they were standing in. It was just a wonderful road trip, perfectly warm for an ice cream stop at Tekapo village as well.

Lake Tekapo (above and below)
Lake Pukaki, above, and the three below.

Over fish and chips for tea at Omarama, I asked the kids, "after taking a train, a ferry, and a car, what different form of transportation do you think we are taking at Mt Cook tomorrow?". It took quite a few guesses to get to helicopter. And then, wow, we were all incredibly excited for the next morning!

We woke to a day not quite the perfection of the previous day, but fine with high clouds. The only concern was going to be the wind, especially higher up in the mountains. We had a 45 minute drive to Glentanner, where the heliport was, right at the western end of Lake Pukaki. Our booking was for 10:30AM. Indeed, wind was a concern for the helicopters, fortunately they were still operating, unfortunately on just a truncated route. We wouldn't be able to do the tour I booked, crossing the main divide was out, so we wouldn't see the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers on the western side. But we would still see the Tasman, and be right up in the peaks. We'll take that!

The lower Tasman Glacier is grey from rock debris cover. I was expecting to see it white. But it is still clear that we were looking at something you don't typically see. Keep in mind, that that lake in front of it, is 7km long. (Below)

My parents came with us too.

You can just make out the Tasman Glacier Valley (above).

This region of the Alps is really only accessible by expert climbers and mountaineers, people preparing to summit Mt Everest, etc., so it is a rare view for us ordinary people from where we were perched, it was an amazing experience. We are right across from Mt Cook, for these photo opps. It was windy, but really not too cold.

Mt Sefton, above.
Lake Pukaki, looking east.

I now have two kids who aspire to be helicopter pilots. The third one would prefer to keep her feet on terra firma and perhaps do the marketing or accounting for the Ulrich Family Helicopter Tours business.

We definitely missed having TJ with us for this experience, it was a memorable morning. However, I have a pretty good inkling, that there may be some heli-skiing for him with the kids, in the not-so-distant future.