Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Autumn Break on the South Island

The reason I always sign up to Airlines’ Loyalty Clubs is that, if you’ve got to fly anyway (and let’s face it, living in NZ flying becomes, if not exactly a necessity, then certainly a way of making life easier if you have the option), then you are gaining rewards for quite literally sitting around doing not much.  In our house, all of us – including E – are members of the Air New Zealand Airpoints scheme, and we have taken up the option of combining them in Shairpoints so we can pool them all.  We collect them whenever and wherever we can – not only on flights but by shopping at New World, by using an Airpoints-affiliated credit card and prepaid debit card, and by shopping at other outlets for electrical items, amongst other ways of saving.  I’m quite the magpie when it comes to loyalty points, because I know they pay out. 

We recently had a short late-Autumn trip to the South Island, with the flights paid for via Airpoints.  The flights themselves were great.  Air New Zealand staff are, in my experience, always lovely, and we notice it even more when we’re flying with E.  On the first flight down to Christchurch they greeted him by name, gave him extra snacks first, let him sit in the crew seats, and generally indulged him in a way that made the flight not just bearable but enjoyable.  It makes me optimistic about our upcoming long-haul flight in August with Air NZ and Singapore Airlines.

Car Rental 

Everything was on time and we rented a car from Snap at Christchurch – they were significantly cheaper than any other rental we could find and had the bonus that when we arrived there to collect our car the child’s car seat we hired for E was already in place, whereas previously I’d had to struggle to attach a new and unfamiliar seat.  Top marks for Snap, and I’ll definitely use them again in the future when I’m down south.  We had a zippy Toyota Corolla, which both Andy and I enjoyed driving, and which was perfect for the length of driving we were doing. 


On leaving Christchurch Airport our first stop was at the Countdown supermarket next to the airport to stock up on essentials.  We then set off for the 3-hour drive to Akaroa, on the beautiful Banks peninsula.  I volunteered to do this first section of the drive, and I’m glad that I did – both Andy and E drifted off to sleep so I was left to enjoy the stunning scenery in peace.  The road leads out through the Christchurch suburbs on to the dips and peaks of the peninsula.  It heads through a handful of villages and townships before climbing the hill that then leads down towards Akaroa.  If you are wise, you will make a stop at Barry's Bay Cheese Factory.  If you are even wiser you will manage to do this leaving your sleeping child in the car with your husband, giving you free reign with the credit card to buy all the amazing cheeses they have on offer. 

We arrived early but because we were staying in the off-season, the lovely people at our Airbnb, Jaques Village, gave us a better apartment and let us check in early.  It was relatively basic but spick and span clean with everything we needed for a night's stay.  There are a couple of outstanding features – first is the extremely friendly and helpful staff, second is the great location.   

After a quick lunch (mainly cheese based) we set out for an explore.  I admit, I was initially a bit dubious we'd find enough to do in quiet Akaroa to keep E occupied, but we actually had a great time exploring.  I don't think we could have stretched it out to more than a day, especially in the winter, but one night was the perfect time to spend here. Akaroa was originally colonised by the French before the British arrived in NZ, and it retains lots of ties to its French history. It was drizzling but not pouring with rain, so we first set off to walk to the lighthouse, an easy flattish walk along a very quiet coast road.  Unfortunately, the lighthouse is only open to visitors on Sundays, but we still had fun exploring all around it.  After that we strolled back into the town, with the canons and whale pots providing plenty entertainment for a little boy who loves climbing.   

We had fish and chips for tea, then home to our very warm and cosy apartment for the night. 

We set off bright and early the next day, stopping at the fantastic Butchery and Deli first to stock up on supplies, headed back through the sleepy Banks Peninsula villages, and headed inland towards Hanmer Springs. 

Hanmer Springs 
Hanmer is a delightful little Alpine village about 90 minutes' drive north west of Christchurch.  Popular all year round, it really comes into its own in the winter.  It's surrounded by ski fields but the biggest draw, to us as non-skiers anyway, are the hot pools.  As the village sits right on a fault line (in NZ you're never far from a reminder of how shaky these islands are), the hot springs are a result of the geothermal activity.  It's a huge complex of pools and, with our son being half-boy-half-fish, we rightly guessed that he would be in his element.  The pools are a large complex with many different kinds of spa, including a child-friendly warm but not hot swimming and play pool.  After braving the dash from the changing rooms (pro tip: take flip flops), we spent pretty much two days there enjoying the warm water.  Andy and I took it in turns to tag team and spend some time soaking in some of the adults-only hotter pools.  As long as your child enjoys the water, you can easily kill a couple of days here.  It really is cold there though in the winter months.  We have a child who doesn't appear to feel the cold and was happy, but I'd definitely recommend taking robes or extra towels for warmth during that pool-to-pool dash.  This was the real highlight of the break for us – Andy and I have both enjoyed the pools before, but it was such a joy taking E and seeing how much he enjoyed it too. 

We stayed at another great Airbnb, bigger this time, with everything we could need – highly recommended.  This time round we self-catered one night and got takeaway the next (really delicious Chinese from Mr Yunan – they even delivered) so didn't get to eat out, but Andy have I have previously enjoyed fabulous meals in No 31 and Malabar. 
Our final night of the trip was in Christchurch, as we had an early flight out the next day.  We stayed at a beautiful Airbnb which was possibly my favourite of the trip – recently renovated with lots of little homely touches, including a box of toys that E loved exploring. 

After the trip from Akaroa we were a bit too early to check in but, needing to stretch our legs, we headed to the outstanding Margaret Mahy playground.  The city of Christchurch has had, and is still having, a very tough time over the last few years post-earthquake, but this seems to us to be a great way of demonstrating what they want their reimagined city to be.  Stretching over a whole city block and named after the famous NZ children's author (she wrote, amongst many others, Hairy Maclary), the park has so much to engage children and occupy all their senses. 

Later that afternoon we went to the Antarctic Centre which I think was the only disappointment of the trip – it seems very overpriced for not very exciting or engaging displays.  E's favourite (not mine but I hid it well in front of him) was the Haglund Ride,a short 10-15 minute ride in the vehicles designed for driving over the harsh Antarctic terrain – I was terrified but E was delighted and laughing.  It wouldn't be appropriate for every child, certainly not the more nervous children, but our bold, no-fear boy loved every minute.  

Getting to the airport the next morning was an early 5-minute drive and, after a hairy 15-minute detour due to roadworks, so was the drop off at Snap car rentals.  The flight home from Christchurch to Wellington was on time and again was an excellent service. 

We arrived back home within a couple of hours of leaving Christchurch feeling rested and glad that we'd had such a great break. 

Monday, 2 April 2018

Travels with my son: It's all in the Details

One of Andy's many, (mostly) complimentary nicknames for me is twenty-tab-Sally, originating from the fact that whenever there is any kind of research to be done - from what car we buy to what we eat for dinner - I thrive in searching down every single option and combination of options out there.  Sure, it cuts down on spontaneity but what I lose in that I gain in the fun (fun! I tell you!) of being completely informed at all times on all occasions.  Of course, what I'm not good at is making the actual decisions, but I took the precaution of marrying someone who is good at that.

My day job, too, requires the ability to analyse and - joy of joys - draw up spreadsheets that allow decisions to be made across multiple criteria.  So when the time came to book flights back to the UK for E and me, I rolled up my sleeves, opened my twenty tabs, and made some lists.  I decided we needed:

1. A reputable airline that I knew and trusted.  If it was just me, or even Andy and me, I might be tempted to wing it a bit in the name of a good fare, but travelling solo with E, I needed to know who I was dealing with.  My backpacker, bargain-basement travel days, for now, are behind me.

2. A stopover.  Everyone has an opinion on stopovers.  Some people (my Mum, for example), prefer to go straight through as quickly as possible - but she's one of the lucky ones who can sleep on an aeroplane.  I am not one of those lucky ones and, in the name of sanity and sleep, need to be able to get off the plane, stretch, sleep, shower, eat, and wear out E ready for the next flight.

3. Flying into Manchester.  Avoiding a transfer in NZ when you live in Wellington is nearly impossible; most of the long-haul international flights leave from either Auckland, Christchurch, or require a change in Australia.  A second transfer in the UK was just a step too far.

So, throw all these in the mix, add in a further requirement of not TOO extortionate, and what do you get?  Well, even though my twenty tabs included all the flight comparison websites and some travel expert websites, the cheapest deal I got that ticked all the items on my criteria list was directly on the Air New Zealand website, using the multistop trip tool.

So in August, E and I will be setting off to fly Wellington-Auckland-Singapore with Air New Zealand, where we will stay for a day and wear ourselves out in the pool of our hotel, before flying Singapore-Manchester with Singapore Airlines.  Coming back we will fly Manchester-Singapore with Singapore Airlines, have 48 hours in Singapore before flying Singapore-Auckland with Singapore Airlines and the final leg, Auckland-Wellington with Air New Zealand.

Can't wait.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Travels with my son: Planning a long-haul flight

When you live upside down, on the other side of the world to your family, long haul travel very rapidly becomes one of the realities of life.  We've gone back to the UK twice in the eight years we've lived in New Zealand, in 2011 and 2015 (when our son was 10 months old), and we're incredibly lucky that most years in between we have family able to make the journey here to visit.  This year will be different, though.  I had a huge amount of leave banked in work - only saving it for the proverbial rainy day - so Andy suggested I head back with E, our boy.  Andy can't get away from work at that time of year so it'll just be the two of us.  While the thought of making the trip a year ago made my blood run cold (E was very, very good at being two...), this time round he'll be close to four when we go and while I'm preparing for the worst, I'm also expecting the best.

E is a lucky boy in that he's already got plenty of flights under his belt at the tender age of three, and we live so close to the airport that we can see the runway from our living room, the first flights of the morning our wake-up call, the comings and goings of the airport our ever-changing wallpaper.  He's therefore very familiar with the logistics of air travel, while at the same time it's still enough of a novelty to get him enthusiastic and excited about.

I'm by nature a planner.  Understatement of the year.  I research and organise spreadsheets for just about every event, and holidays are no exception.  Throw a pre-schooler into the mix and my planning reaches peak levels.  The separate elements to plan and book so far have been:

- Packing lists
- The flights
- Stopovers
- Travel insurance
- Itinerary for the UK (including all-important shopping lists)

I'm going to be writing the next few posts about this, and about tips I've picked up in our previous travels with E.