Washed Up in Akaroa (New Zealand)

Along the rocky beach of Akaroa’s French Bay, the low tide exposes all sorts of interesting things. Among them are seashells, including turrets that curiously seem to accumulate in one small area.

Turrets along French Bay, Akaroa, New Zealand

Turrets along French Bay, Akaroa, New Zealand

The tide pools reveal not only various forms of sea life, including small crabs, mollusks and sea cucumbers, but marine algae, including this most unusual-looking brown seaweed, hormosira banksii, commonly known as Neptune’s Necklace. They are found only in New Zealand and Australia. Besides jewelry, even children’s pop beads, they look to me like strung-together green olives.

Neptune's Necklage (Hormosira banksii)

Neptune’s Necklage (Hormosira banksii)

Exploring New Zealand’s Banks Peninsula

How is it that a hilly, almost mountainous peninsula that is an ideal environment for lush forest, surrounded on three sides by the ocean and composed of mineral-rich volcanic soil, seems almost devoid of it? Any drive through the Banks Peninsula reveals a landscape that is tussocky with very few stands of trees. What isn’t covered by grassland seems overtaken by gorse and broom, hardly forest land that you might expect in this setting.

It is an unfortunate fact that old growth forest was destroyed by the Maori who set fire to the canopy to flush out game. After the Europeans arrived, the practice of deliberate burning continued, along with introducing sheep and goats and gorse that didn’t do any favors to the ecology.

It seems incongruous now but the Banks Peninsula was previously the domain of two slightly overlapping, non-contemporaneous volcanoes that were last active approximately 10 million years ago. Because they were shield volcanoes, they released broad lava flows that are now highly eroded. What remains now are ridges with steep sides that radiate from their volcanic centers. The most extraordinary features of the peninsula are its two enormous harbo(u)rs, Lyttelton and Akaroa, which formed from the oceanic flooding of the two volcanic calderas. The peninsula now looks like a giant lobster claw jutting out from the Canterbury Plains.

Banks Peninsula. Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA-Johnson Space Center. “The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth.”

I got a breathtaking view of Lyttelton Harbour from a viewing platform at the top of the Christchurch gondola. From there, I could also see the town and port of Lyttelton that suffered so much damage in the earthquakes. Other than the views from up here, including one of Christchurch and the Southern Alps beyond it, there is very little to admire. The ground is covered in tussocky grass. All the footpaths are littered with sheep poo as these animals have free rein to graze anywhere among the hills.

Lyttelton Harbour as seen from the top of the gondola attraction

Lyttelton Harbour as seen from the top of the gondola attraction

I saw a more grassy landscape at Godley Head Reserve, which once served as a military defense battery during WWII, the bunkers now abandoned and covered in graffiti. The grasses grow higher here probably because sheep browsing is restricted by fencing. There was no need for careful sidestepping along the walking paths. The headland is surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs that drop off to the ocean.

Godley Head

Godley Head

Godley Head's grassy landscape

Godley Head’s grassy landscape

My wife and I also took a two-day trip to the peninsula’s other side, Akaroa. The scenery changes here with greener hillsides and larger stands of trees, also some second-growth forests that suggest the promising possibilities of regeneration on the Banks. Akaroa is now a resort town, its commercial district divided by an indenting bay, that were once  French and English settlements. The entire township now has a more Gallic character as all the streets and restaurants have French names, though there’s hardly a word of français spoken. A good way to see the lava flows that occurred many times is to take a boat cruise into the harbor. The erosive power of pounding waves becomes apparent when you notice the many sea caves along the cliff faces.

One of numerous caves in Akaroa Harbour.

One of numerous caves in Akaroa Harbour.

The Banks Peninsula experienced many lava flows.

The Banks Peninsula experienced many lava flows.

Hector's dolphins play in the sailing vessel's bow wave.

Hector’s dolphins play in the sailing vessel’s bow wave.

The drive to Akaroa passes by the Kaitorete Spit. Although not technically part of the Banks Peninsula, the spit juts out from its southwestern tip for 25km, separating shallow Lake Ellesmere, larger than either harbor, from the sea. Two weeks ago, we visited Birdling’s Flat which can best be described as a pebble beach. Rockhounds come here to find agates and geology students from UC to identify rock samples. My geologist son-in-law explained to me that this vast accumulation of rock was deposited by a tsunami.

Birdling's Flat

Birdling’s Flat

Spectacular Lyttelton Harbour

Lyttelton Harbour was created when the extinct Lyttelton volcanic crater eroded and flooded over millions of years. It is a spectacular body of water dramatically seen from the top of the Christchurch gondola attraction.


Mobile Food Vendors in Christchurch’s Red Zone

Christchurch’s earthquakes clearly shut down many restaurants. To address these vendors’ concerns and as a way to meet demands of workers in the red zone for refreshment, the city council has provided these businesses the opportunity to operate at certain access points. This seemed like an effective solution. While exploring revitalization efforts in Christchurch’s Central Business District on Thursday, I did notice food trucks and trailers near construction sites.

In New Zealand, food trucks and trailers are called mobile food vendors. Such operations in the red zone have to meet certain conditions in order to be granted a license, one of them being a requirement to relocate as reconstruction progress reshuffles access points.

coq au vin rotisserie

All the walking around last Thursday whetted my appetite for lunch.


Co-located with several other trailers in Re:Start’s Cashel Mall, French-style Coq au Vin Rotisserie caught my eye from the start. A rotisserie was actually revolving at the back of the truck. The menu includes chicken and beef with a choice of salad or fries.

My choice was a very good chicken (☆☆☆½), moist, tender, skin nicely crisped and not too salty. The chicken is available in one-quarter and one-half portions. I dropped my knife but it didn’t really matter very much, the fork easily able to pull the meat off the bone. The fries were an added bonus, thinly cut and perfectly cooked, a fine aioli drizzled over the whole works. I also asked for a squeeze of ketchup on the side.

1/4 rotisserie chicken with fries

Coq au Vin’s 1/4 rotisserie chicken with fries


Images: Rebuilding and Revitalization of Christchurch

It was 2½ years ago that the last great earthquake struck Christchurch. Many lives were lost and much of the Central Business District (CBD) was destroyed. Soon thereafter, red-zoned properties were closed off to the public in the CBD and elsewhere. Even if government aid was forthcoming and the Christchurch City Council charged with rebuilding damaged buildings, roads and utility pipelines, it was to be expected that recovery would be slow. To this day, empty lots cleared of damaged buildings still stand, chain link fences surround sections of the CBD and streets blocked off to traffic. Iconic Christchurch Cathedral, a shell of its former self still standing, may eventually have to be torn down.

Still, some new buildings have replaced older, damaged ones. There is building activity everywhere it seems, a prosperous time for workers in the construction trades who will see employment for years to come. For a more thorough and thoughtful treatment of Christchurch’s post-quake recovery, I highly recommend Leeann Apps’ blog.

I took a little time to wander through the CBD yesterday and recorded in images what I saw. I also revisited Project Re:Start’s Cashel mall, as good an example of revitalization as anything in the city. Though the residents of Christchurch and surrounding areas suffered great losses, it’s heartening to see their spirit and optimism overcome adversity.

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Hagley Park North (Christchurch, NZ)

The weather in Christchurch has been schizophrenic lately, yesterday pelting sheets of rain with gusty winds in the late afternoon, other days cloudy, rainy or sunny, giving Melbourne a run for its money. Today was another spectacularly beautiful day with some clouds and mild temperatures. Hagley Park still amazes me with its beauty, especially its stately tree-lined paths.

hagley park 1

Tramping in the Castle Hill Scenic Reserve

They look like the remains of a ruined castle in the high country of the Southern Alps. They are limestone outcroppings that weirdly punctuate the landscape. It looks as if an ancient megalithic civilization once lived here. They comprise the Castle Hill Scenic Reserve, one of several similar groupings that appear in the area.

On Monday, we arrived past the noon hour on a beautiful, cloudless day, a perfect day for casual exploring. A half-mile walk beyond the parking area leads to the rock formations. There are several worn footpaths that wind through the area, one leading up to a grouping on higher ground that from a distance looks strangely like Stonehenge perched on the hilltop. You can enjoy the park hiking (called tramping in NZ), rock climbing or mountain biking. With a little rock scrambling, you can get gorgeous views of the terrain, which is not in the least flat.

It really is wondrous to imagine that this entire area of limestone was at one time submerged in an ancient sea that millions of years ago was raised up to its current elevation of 700m (2300ft), the result of subduction between the Australian and Pacific plates. Heavy erosion combined with structural crustal deformation over the last 20+ million years created the fascinating outcroppings we see today.

castle hills 1

There is another nearby attraction. Just a few miles east, Cave Stream Scenic Reserve features a 362m-long (1190ft) cave, which is pitch black and is wet the entire distance, including a deep pool with a 3m-high (10ft) waterfall.

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Sheffield Pie Shop, Savouries on the Highway

Meat pie is serious business in New Zealand, as it is in Australia. When one comes across a pie shop, it will specialize in meat pies, unlike in the U.S. where “pie” is synonymous with a crust filled with cooked fruit. Meat pie is so ubiquitous in NZ that it must surely be a national snack. It’s such an important adjunct to the Kiwi diet that an annual competition is staged for different categories of pie, including vegetarian—the Bakels Supreme Pie Awards.

One well regarded establishment, the Sheffield Pie Shop, is located in the small town of Sheffield along Highway 73, the major road that goes between Christchurch and Hokitika over the Southern Alps. Truckers take this route. Many stop at the shop to get a pie or two. We stopped there yesterday to pick up our lunches to have later at Castle Hill Scenic Reserve.

The shop is small, with very limited seating inside, a couple of small picnic tables outside. All the savory pies available for the day are displayed behind a glass case., several already sold out at almost noon, including steak and mushroom that I intended to get. I settled for mince (beef) pie. My wife preferred a sandwich instead.

The mince pie was quite good (☆☆☆), the mince, as ground beef is called down under, tender, moistened with an extremely savory gravy mixed with the right amount of tasty cheese (as cheddar is called). One bite and the filling oozed out and spread inside the paper sandwich bag.

Mince pie

Mince pie

Chicken tender sandwich with salad and satay was more tasty than it looked (☆☆☆). Battered and fried chicken was spread with a generous satay sauce that was interestingly tomatoey, sweet and tart, with peanut flavor. Kiwi touches included sliced hard-cooked eggs and cooked beetroot (as beet is called here), embellished with a slice of cheese, sliced cucumber and salad (as lettuce is called).

Chicken tender sandwich, salad and satay

Chicken tender sandwich, salad and satay

Sheffield Pie Shop
51 Main West Road
Canterbury, New Zealand 751
(03) 318 3876

Dining on the Cheap in Christchurch: Samurai Bowl

My four-year-old grandson loves ramen.

His first exposures to it were the dried, packaged quick-cooking kinds that come from Japan by way of the U.S., specifically, Sapporo Ichiban (original flavor) and Myojo Chukazanmai (miso flavor). Our care packages to Christchurch usually include these, and we were sure to bring a good supply with us on our current visit to New Zealand.

So, there was little surprise that he wanted to go straight to Samurai Bowl to have fresh ramen after he and my daughter picked us up and, a week later, his dad at Christchurch Airport. Two visits in eight days. The restaurant is quite popular among locals for offering Japanese food at affordable prices.

There are lots of things on the menu, including gyozadonburi, sushi, salads, curries. Ramen is the most popular meal. The menu is overwhelming at first from the sheer number of things that can be ordered. Lots of pictures on the wall with descriptions added to the full frontal assault of possibilities vying for your attention. Add to this the monthly specials that are also posted at the counter and on the walls, and a cooler full of beverages, including beer.

Samurai Bowl also markets three kinds of packaged ramen, which it sells at the restaurant and various food outlets in Christchurch and other major cities throughout New Zealand.

All the ramen were good (☆☆☆), which is rather surprising for a restaurant with a big menu. The broths were full and tasty. The noodles were eggy and slightly thicker than usual, with good chew and generously portioned. All came with two slices of roasted pork belly, bean sprouts, seasoned bamboo shoots (menma), a square of nori and green onions. A soft-boiled egg (ajitsuke tamago) can be added for additional cost.

The original ramen is a pork and soy sauce flavored broth, which (judging from the menu) is not simply tonkotsu with soy sauce splashed in, but a less milky broth, but good enough to rate pretty well.

Oiriginal reipe ramen (pork and shoyu)

Oiriginal reipe ramen (pork and shoyu)

The miso ramen is my grandson’s favorite, which he shares with his mom.

Miso ramen

Miso ramen

The spicy ramen, Samurai’s most popular, is based on its pork broth, which was spicy though not unbearably. The broth’s distinct reddishness couldn’t possibly come from hot chiles alone, so it’s possible that it derives from kochujang, the relatively mild Korean chile paste. My sample’s egg was cold on the inside and the yolk congealed, a misstep straight from the refrigerator.

Spicy ramen

Spicy ramen

The non-ramen items don’t fare as well.

The spicy miso galbi-don that I had last year was less than impressive. Kara-age curry-don (☆☆) had a couple of problems. The most important was a curry sauce that was a tad sweet and had an overly ground coriander taste. The kara-age pieces were dry from over-frying, but they sure were crispy.

Kara-age curry-don

Kara-age curry-don

One would be tempted to conclude that donburi is not one of Samurai Bowl’s strong suits.

Maybe it might not matter so much when a customer can have a pretty good ramen experience.

Samural Bowl
Shop 5/574 Colombo Street
Christchurch, NZ 8011
03-379 6752

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Urban Oasis: Christchurch’s Hagley Park

It dominates the center of Christchurch near the Central Business District, a verdant stretch of forest and open space that was set aside in 1855 by the Provincial Government. In a city known for beautiful parks, Hagley Park is the largest. It is no wonder that Christchurch is called the Garden City. At 1.6km2, it is half the size of Manhattan’s Central Park but is no less important for the respite it provides to its residents or pleasure it gives to horticulturists. The Avon River defines one border of the park where punting is enjoyed through much of the year.

hagley image

On previous visits to Christchurch, I’d experienced the park’s Canterbury Museum, botanical garden and rose garden. Many trees on the grounds are over a hundred years old which bestow a stately grace across the beautifully maintained lawns. Today, four of us visited the stunning dahlia garden and walked through the New Zealand forest (top image).

Because there never seem to be crowds at Hagley, you feel as if you’re almost alone in the park, as my son-in-law pointed out.

hagley lane2

Today, fall was in the air, still on the warmer side but punctuated by a definite chill when the breeze picked up. Autumn colors were beginning to make an appearance, but the seasonal showcase was a spectacular garden of dahlias, many cultivars developed from the original Mexican and Central American specimens imported in the nineteenth century. It was attractive enough that my 19-month old granddaughter wanted to roam through the garden and admire the flowers.

Fall color at Hagley Park

Fall color at Hagley Park

Hagley Park is one of the world’s great urban oases.

Continue to dahlia gallery