Back in the 215/609

I’m just about wrapping up a two week stay in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, my former home.  I’ve had ties to the 215 and 609 area codes since I was 16, when my family moved from the south shore of Long Island, New York to Pennington, New Jersey.  I left at 18 for college, went west, and then returned in 1997 at age 41, settling across the river in Bucks County.  So it’s natural that being here stirs up lots of memories.

Like, my father and my brother Jamie died in the 609.  My mother and my brother Chuck died in the 215.

I really AM trying to dwell on the positive.  This is where my children grew up – there were certainly many happy times.  And I’ve SO MUCH enjoyed seeing friends I’ve missed greatly over the past nine months.  I’m truly thankful for the many warm relationships I still have here, but those sad thoughts creep in just the same, triggered by familiar landmarks in the area.  It’s definitely been bittersweet.

One of the highlights was a three-day side trip to Long Island to visit my lifelong friend Carol.  No RV, just my little car.  We went to the resort-y town of Greenport, way out on the east end of the island, to visit her new grandson, and then had a wonderful night out.  I love her like a sister!

My beautiful friend/sister Carol with her grandson, Michael
Chris and Carol out on the town!

Another highlight was getting back together with my friend Agnes.  She was my BFF for twelve years, and then we had a falling out around eight years ago.  Now we’re just looking forward, and it feels soooo comfortable, natural and – well, just fantastic all the way around.  She took me out to dinner on my birthday last week, which was a real treat – any time spent with Agnes is special.  Here we are, “back in the day” –

Agnes and Chris, circa 2009

Speaking of birthdays, I was excited to turn 62 and qualify for the National Park Service senior pass…well, kind of excited…  But you should know that the price for a lifetime pass is increasing from $10 to $80 sometime this fall – so if you’re 62 or older, get yours now!

I also spent time with friends from my former workplace, my genealogy buddies at the Bucks County Genealogical Society, and my girlfriends Cindy, Denise, Kim, Else, and Nancy.  It was wonderful to be with them all, and I hope it made them feel good to be with me, too.  I’ll carry that feeling with me for a long time.

I’ve done so much socializing that I’ve hardly done any work – that’s a good thing!!  But even with all the hugs and kisses going around, I did still have to get things done.  I met with a genealogy client, and a new one came along that I’m very excited about.  I completed some of my online self-paced genealogy classes, but I’m still one class behind (I take two per month – I haven’t finished one of my May classes, and it’s already June!).

I was also hoping to do a bunch of scanning of my genealogy research files while I’m here near my storage.  I need my files with me as I do my research, but of course I don’t want to lug them around.  I did get SOME scanning done, but not all.  I have a little reprieve because I’ll be making an unexpected (but brief) trip back to Bucks County at the end of July, so now my plan is to scan the rest of them over the next two months, and return a box of files to storage then.

I was able to off-load some stuff from the RV back to storage: a couple of tubs of genealogy files which I’ve already scanned, and a huge tub of books which is VERY heavy (what was I thinking??):

Tote full of HEAVY books!

There are several genealogy books which I need to have and will keep, but for pleasure reading I’ve started buying used paperbacks at book sales, and will recycle them back to Goodwill so I’m not carrying around books I’ve already read.  I also installed an Amazon Kindle on my laptop, and I can get free or very inexpensive downloads from Amazon and other sources.  Slowly trying to change my habits to accommodate my new nomadic lifestyle!

I love the campground here, and except for Memorial Day weekend, I had it pretty much to myself:

A nice, quite campsite
Empty campsites all around

But now it’s time to say goodbye to the 215/609 – except for that quick trip at the end of July, I won’t be back until May of 2018.  Returning to a place I used to call home after being away for so long sure puts a different perspective on life in general.   I’m expecting that next year, with more time behind me, the acute sadness I’m often feeling in this place more than others, will dull a little more.  I’m hoping I’ll be able to simply enjoy the good memories, and all the people still here who I love.  Now, on to the many adventures in store for summer of 2017!!

A Week at the Spa

I spent last week at my cousin Betsy’s, which was almost like a week at a spa.  We ate luscious, healthy meals, lounged around the pool, slept late, drank wine on the peaceful front porch, enjoyed the bucolic views of the sheep and horse pastures, and read novels.  And I gave myself a pedicure.  I literally felt like I was at a fancy resort!

The pool and hot tub from the back porch

Betsy is a shepherd, and her sheep gave birth collectively to about 20 lambs earlier this year.  She also has chickens, so we had farm fresh eggs every day.  Here’s a picture of the smallest lamb, “Tom Thumb”:

Tom Thumb, a three month old lamb
The barn – you can see my RV in the driveway!

The companionship with my cousin was the best part – we talked for hours on end.  We realized that we’ve spent very little time in the past being together, just the two of us.  Usually we’ve had family all around, but this time, her wonderful husband was away most of the week, and we had a real girls week.  It’s such a treat to be with family and to reminisce with someone who knew and loved my parents and brothers.  I love Betsy like a sister!

View from the front porch

I did all that fun stuff, but it actually wasn’t all pampering and relaxation.  I had an agenda (as I usually do!) of tasks to complete:  did several large loads of laundry, got Betsy’s DNA sample and mailed it in to Ancestry, bought three turkey breasts to roast and freeze in serving size bags (my RV has no oven and I like to use real roasted turkey in sandwiches and salads), completed my scanning of two tubs of genealogy files so I can leave them in storage, and washed both the car and RV.  My online genealogy classes were on the list, but I never got to those this week – and that’s fine.  My new motto is “No Stress”, so if I don’t get to it, I don’t get to it.

I’m so lucky to have this little oasis to visit when I’m traveling up and down the east coast! Now I’m in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, my former home, for two weeks of socializing, going to doctor appointments, and re-shuffling stuff in and out of storage – more on that soon!

China

China wasn’t on my bucket list, so I never would have chosen to go to there on my own, but when my ex-husband found a very inexpensive two week tour and asked if I would join him, I figured I may as well go and have an adventure.  I love history, and certainly China has that in spades.  And the four day cruise on the Yangtze River looked stunning.

We used a company called Sinorama, which I would very highly recommend.  They were organized and efficient, and the various Chinese guides were terrific.  The 15 day tour included airfare, two in-country flights, a 500 mile trip on a bullet train, a four day cruise on the Yangtze River, five star hotels, and most meals – all for about $1,400 per person.  I’ve never ever traveled with a tour before, but I wouldn’t do China any other way.  I didn’t expect to enjoy being on a tour (I prefer to travel independently), but I found it fun to be with a group of people, most of whom we liked very much.

We flew from Seattle to Shanghai and spent the first two nights there.  We toured the city on a bus, went to a museum, and then a shopping area. Unfortunately, the weather was rainy/drizzly/misty, and it stayed that way for about the first 9 days of the trip.  One thing I noticed on the first day in Shanghai was a lot of people wearing face masks.  We learned they did that because of the smog. We saw it all over China.

Typical Skyline in China

Next, we took the bullet train from Shanghai to Wuhan, about 500 miles west, where we stayed one night before boarding the cruise ship.  I love to cruise, and enjoyed being on the water.

Chinese flag on back of cruise ship

The highlight of the cruise was going through the famous Three Gorges area.  A huge dam was built there, the largest hydroelectric project in the world and an engineering marvel.  The ship had to move through five different locks, taking almost four hours.  The picture below shows the two ships ahead of us moving into the first lock.

First Lock at Three Gorges Dam

 

View from cruise ship

Although the Three Gorges dam was fascinating, I was generally underwhelmed with the scenery on the Yangtze River.  Much of it was spent passing through various cities.  The Three Gorges area itself was more remote and lovely, but it wasn’t spectacular – I guess I got totally spoiled with the New Zealand landscape!   The river itself is extremely polluted, and I’m pretty sure the ship was dumping its trash directly into it.

Another scene along the Yangtze River

I’m not generally a complainer, and I’m definitely not that picky about food, but I am an experienced cruiser, and I thought the cabins on the ship were tired and worn – stained carpet, unpleasant smell – and the food was very marginal.

The cruise ended in a town called Chongqing where we visited the zoo.  This was truly another highlight of the trip. It was beautifully landscaped, and huge.  We saw Giant Pandas and yaks for the fist time.  We could have spent all day there!

Giant Panda eating bamboo, Chongqing Zoo

Chongqing is in the Szechuan area of China, and the lunch there was one of the best meals of the trip.  Added to the great food was an actual traditional Chinese wedding which just happened to be taking place in the same restaurant. We couldn’t understand a word, but it was amazing to watch.

In the afternoon, we visited the Old Town there, which was a crazy crowded place, full of vendors hawking their wares, and odd smells everywhere.  We found a little cafe with great coffee on a second floor balcony, where we could look down and watch the crowd – that was fun!

One of the less crowded areas of Old Town Chongqing

After one night in Chongqing, we flew to Xi’an.  The experience of going through security for an in-country flight in China was like nothing else I’ve been through.  They do a completely thorough search of every person.  Our carry-on bags were scanned three different times. Our guide made it clear that if anything was found in our checked luggage which wasn’t allowed, the luggage would be kept by the authorities and we wouldn’t even know that there was a problem until we got to our destination.  Fortunately, all of the luggage in our group passed muster.

Chris and Eric at one of the meals along the way

It was in Xi’an (pronounced SHEE-ahn) that we finally saw the sun, the first day through a haze, and the second a full fledged sunny day. I think Xi’an was my favorite place, and maybe it had something to do with the sun, but I also really loved seeing the Terra Cotta Warriors.  This active archaeological site with an amazing army of 8,000 soldiers is over 2,200 years old.  Each soldier’s face is unique. The army, including horses, was buried with the first emperor of China, and was intended to protect him in the afterlife.

Terra Cotta Warriors
Warriors Close Up
A very special warrior!

After Xi’an, we flew to Beijing, where we saw the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and Tiananmen Square.  I think my favorite part of Beijing was the Hutong District, which is the Old Town.  We went on a rickshaw ride through this part of town, and then had dinner at a resident’s home there.

Scene in Hutong District, Beijing
Rickshaw drive through Hutong District
Arriving at private home for dinner in Hutong District
Cooks in the kitchen at private home in Hutong District
Tiananmen Square
View from the Great Wall
Climbing the Great Wall
Entrance to popular Beijing shopping street
Scorpions for Dinner, Vendor Booth, Beijing

Overall, I thought Sinorama did a good job, but to be completely honest, I could never say “You gotta go!” about China.  There are plenty of negatives that I haven’t mentioned about this communist country, and I wasn’t always happy to be there.  Among many other things, the smog and other pollution was a real turn-off.  I feel very fortunate that I was able to experience China, but I won’t be going back.

Sarasota: My Happy Place

When I think back to where I was a year ago, so many feelings come up, but mostly relief- I’m SO GLAD I’m not there!  If I had known then that I would be here now, it would’ve been easier, but I didn’t know when I would sell my house.  I was in the middle of another winter where I was often snowed in by myself, and unable to afford a proper snow removal service for my extra-long, steep driveway.  Any time we had a winter storm, I was outside after work in the dark with my snow shovel, trying my best to keep the driveway from freezing overnight, so I could get to work the next day.

Looking down the driveway (to the left) at my former home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania
Looking down the driveway (to the left) at my former home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania
View from the back of my former home looking up at Mom's house at the top of the driveway
View from the back of my former home looking up at Mom’s house at the top of the driveway

Every day, I saw my mother’s dark empty house at the top of the driveway, which created a pit in my stomach each time.  It certainly could have been worse, but it was a friggin’ nightmare compared to where I am today.  And it was a nightmare which had been preceded by several other nightmares.  It’s so true that “we do what we have to do”, and we surprise ourselves when we live through it.

I had completely forgotten what it feels like to be this happy.

I am LOVING my winter in Florida!  The weather has generally been in the 70’s, with lows in the 50’s – quite perfect. Every time I go outside, I’m extremely aware of how incredibly lovely it is, and how fortunate I am to be here!  I don’t even bother to put the top up on my car, because I never need to – which adds to the overwhelming feeling of freedom I have.  Driving around town in the open car in shorts, sandals, and a sleeveless top in January, with the sun shining down on me, makes the smallest errand feel like I’m on vacation.

I’ve joined the YMCA, I’ve joined the local genealogical society, and I’ve joined Meetup to get together with people for different activities – walks, movies, bowling, happy hours, all sorts of things.  The people here are generally relaxed and happy.  Many are retired and single, and, like me, they’re also looking for new friends.  So I feel like I fit in.

Staying at my cousin’s house makes me feel like a princess in a castle – it’s a lovely, comfortable home, still full of my aunt’s unique possessions, including family pictures everywhere.   My mother’s sister had the house built in 1989, when she was 57.  She was a creative thinker, and had custom features installed, like an electrical outlet under the couch in the middle of the living room so no one would trip over the lamp cords, a Murphy bed in the third bedroom, a built-in ironing center in the master bedroom, a fireplace which is rare in Florida, a window seat, a custom spice drawer and slide-out drawer cabinets for pots in the kitchen.  It’s not a big house, but it’s classy. She knew what she wanted.

My Mom and my aunt were just 15 months apart and were very close friends.  Mom visited her sister here often, and every day I hear their laughter as I’m cooking in the same kitchen – they were both over-the-top fun to be with!  So being here feels comforting.  It feels like I’m with my family. I feel so grateful to my cousin for letting me stay here.

My Aunt Arden and my Mom at Arden's Sarasota house
My Aunt Arden and my Mom at Arden’s Sarasota house

So it’s not surprising that I started to think that maybe I’ve found my “happy place.”  Maybe this is the place where I should settle down.  I like that it’s easy to get here from the northeast, and that Florida is a place where many of my friends will retire.  I LOVE that it’s near the beach, and there’s lots of water everywhere.  I LOVE the west coast, because one of my favorite things to do is sit on the beach and watch the sunset over the Gulf.   I could actually afford to buy a home of some sort here – maybe not in Sarasota, but somewhere close.  And of course maybe eventually my cousin and her husband will retire here – I’d love to live near them.

So I made an appointment with a real estate agent.

And then I canceled it.

After a heart-to-heart conversation with myself, and some budget scrutiny, I realized that I’m just not ready to settle down.  I’ve barely begun my RV life, and I miss it.  There are lots of things I still want to do, including doing my genealogy research overseas.  It just doesn’t make sense to buy a house before I do all or most of these other things.

And then I started brainstorming with myself, made a list of the most important things I still need/want to do, and created a plan for the next 22 months.  All planned out.  And none of it involves buying a house, or being in Florida.  Stay tuned!!

 

 

Researching at the Family History Library

In addition to the ongoing delightful process of discovering Sarasota, my next travel adventure will be a week-long visit to Salt Lake City, Utah, where I’ll be attending an annual genealogy conference called RootsTech, and researching at the Family History Library (FHL) there.  I did the same thing in February 2016, except that I went by myself.  This year, I’ll be meeting up with a genea-friend I met there last year – which means it will be even better!

There’s no real preparation needed to attend the conference – I’ve already downloaded the app and the syllabi – but the planning involved in researching at the FHL is significant.  I’ve been there three or four times, which doesn’t make me an expert by any means, but it’s enough to have learned a few things which I’m happy to share with you.

As with most of us, I try my darndest to be efficient with my limited time, and frugal with my limited money.  A trip to Salt Lake City for a week can be expensive, so every minute there is precious, and I want to make the most of it.  This takes lots of planning.

The way I rationalize the travel expense is by comparing it with the cost of ordering microfilm at the local Family History Center at $7.50 a pop.  I can stay home and order 100 films at a cost of $750, which could easily take a year or more because of the wait time for each microfilm, or I can go directly to Salt Lake City and get it done in a few days.  And who doesn’t want to get their genealogy questions answered NOW? Plus, traveling is much more fun!!

Before Booking

Before you actually make flight and hotel reservations, it’s a good idea to see what’s going on in Salt Lake City.  You probably want to pick a time when there’s not a big conference going on, so the library isn’t as crowded.  Also, check the FHL’s holiday schedule and hours.  It’s generally open from 8 am to 9 pm Tuesday through Friday, with shorter days on Mondays and Saturdays.  It’s closed on Sunday.

If you only have a few days, you might want to plan your research trip for the days the library is open the longest.  When I had a full time job, I scheduled my travel day on Sunday when the library is closed.  Other people like to plan a week at the FHL with Sunday in the middle, taking a break from the crazy, sometimes overwhelming, research days.  You need to decide what works for you.

Logistics

Once you’ve chosen your dates, it’s time to book your flight and hotel.  I try to use frequent flyer miles for the flight (I accumulate them by using a credit card which provides miles for dollars spent), unless I find a terrific bargain air fare, which I did this time:  $200 round trip, non-stop from Orlando to Salt Lake on JetBlue!  The catch is that I have to drive two hours to Orlando and pay for parking for a week, but it’s still worth it.

I researched all the lodging options before I went the first time, and since then, I’ve done the exact same thing every time, because it worked so well.  I stay at the Carlton Hotel, a few blocks away from the library.  It’s a small, older hotel, but for about $70 per night it provides everything I need:  a free shuttle to and from the airport, a free shuttle to and from the Family History Library, great wifi, a fridge and microwave in the room, and a full cooked-to-order breakfast. And the staff there is wonderful.  You just can’t beat that!

It’s about a 15 minute walk to the library if you’d rather get the exercise and fresh air, and a short walk to an excellent grocery store.  One of the terrific side benefits of the Carlton is that other solo genealogists stay there, and you end up sharing a breakfast table and making new friends.  It’s perfect!  And, it’s an even better deal if you can share a room with a friend, which I’m going to do this time.

Some folks might prefer a more modern hotel which may be more expensive, but closer to the library.  There are several of those, but I have no experience with them, so can’t comment.  It’s been more important to me to keep costs down.

Food

To me, the whole food thing is a big pain in the neck in Salt Lake City – eating takes time away from researching.  Frankly, I haven’t quite figured out how to handle it.  Breakfast is covered at the hotel, and I make sure to get plenty of protein so it keeps me going through the morning.  But when it comes to taking meal breaks during the day at the library, I just don’t wanna. I know I have to eat, but I’m enjoying my research so much that I don’t want to leave!

The FHL has a lunch room with a slew of vending machines – that’s where I’ve had my lunch, and sometimes my dinner, in the past:  a pre-made sandwich, a soda, and maybe a couple of cookies.  It’s not a good solution, but it’s the quickest one.

If you’d prefer to take a break and leave the building for lunch, there are plenty of options within walking distance in the neighborhood.  Some people recommend asking at the front desk for a pass to eat in the cafeteria in the Church Office Building.  I’ve never tried it, so can’t comment.

This year, I’m going to try bringing my meals to the FHL, which will save money and help me stay on a healthy food plan.  If I’m very organized, I can shop at the grocery store behind the hotel, and prepare to-go meals in the room.  My friend Marina does a great job of planning ahead.  Last year, she brought everything she needed to support her food prep requirements, including plastic food containers.  I’m going to follow her example!

Research Planning

This is the fun stuff, and the hardest part as well.

First, you need to choose what you’re going to research. Sounds easy, but before you choose, consider the following:

  • Location:  You don’t want to spend time researching something at the FHL that you could also research locally.  That would be a waste of travel time and money.  For example, when I lived in Pennsylvania, I would NOT research at the FHL in any Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, or Maryland records.  These are all locations which I could access from home over a long weekend.  It made a lot more sense to research in Ohio, Oregon, California, or Wisconsin records.  These are locations I’m not likely to physically get to anytime soon.
  •  Where do you need assistance?  Think about areas where you might need help.  The plentiful staff at the library is generally extremely helpful, patient and kind.  Take advantage of their expertise by choosing areas where you might need help.  For example, consider researching in international records while you’re there.  Not only is it more difficult for us to get overseas to research in these records, but at the FHL, you’ll have help.  When I did some research in the German records there, the staff guided me every step of the way, and even translated some of the records for me – they are fabulous!
  • Should you focus, or grab and go?  Some people recommend focusing on only one family line, so you don’t feel overwhelmed.  I follow more of the grab and go method:  I come prepared with a list so I’m organized, but I’m all over the place.  I don’t do much analysis there at the library – I just grab records for later analysis.  I feel like this is the most efficient way to use my time there.  For example, perhaps there’s a record I’m missing for a particular person but I’ve just not been able to access it easily anywhere else.  Maybe I know the record exists because I’ve seen an index, but the record itself isn’t online.  This might be true for ten people across family lines, so I keep a Family History Library list as I research at home.  My goal in Salt Lake City is to obtain these missing records.
  • What’s online?   Don’t make the mistake of flying all the way to Salt Lake City and doing research you could have done online at home!  When you’re deciding which family to research, take into account whether or not the records you need have been digitized and uploaded to the internet.  I’ve made this mistake enough times that I now check the internet the week before I go to Salt Lake.  As you know, new records go online all the time, so it’s worth a quick look to avoid wasting your precious time at the FHL.

Next, prepare a research plan.  Once you’ve decided which families you’ll research, prepare a research plan. The first step is to review everything you already know about the family.  Make a list of what you still need to learn, and what types of records would help to find the answers.  This process will refresh your memory and give you an opportunity to find out as much as you can online before you go.

Then, familiarize yourself with the floor plan of the FHL. You’ll need to know this when you’re organizing your microfilm list in the step below.  The five floors are organized as follows, from the bottom up:

  • Basement 2: British Isles
  • Basement 1: International
  • Main Floor: Family History and Canada Books
  • Second Floor: U.S. and Canada Microfilms
  • Third Floor: U.S. Books and Maps

Fourth, check the FHL catalog online to find the records you need to access. Make lists of the film numbers you need, along with what you’re looking for on that film.  I organize the film numbers numerically, and by floor – this will make it quicker to locate them when you’re there.  You might also choose to list the microfilm in priority order, to make sure you have time to view the ones most important to you.

Note whether any of the films you need to see are in the “Vault” (the catalog will indicate that if applicable); if they are, you’ll need to order them in advance, which can be done online.

You might want to prioritize films which are in a series, or films which require looking at an index in one film, and the record in another.  This type of research is more time consuming and expensive to do at a local Family History Center.  For example, with deed research, you need to look at the index first.  At the local center, you would pay $7.50, wait two to three weeks for the film with the index, then order the microfilm with the deed book for another $7.50, and wait two to three weeks again.  At the FHL, you can look at both right away.

A lower priority would be films which you need to search line by line, page by page.  Since this is so time consuming, it might be better to do that at the local Family History Center when you get home.

If in the catalog you find books that look useful to you, plan to look at them first.  Books can’t be circulated, so the FHL is the only place where you can view them (of course, they could be at other libraries as well).

Remember, you want to “hit the ground running” when you arrive at the FHL. The more you can do in advance, the more you’ll be able to focus on getting the records you need when you get there.

What to Bring

  1. A flash drive. The FHL has high-tech digital microfilm viewers which allow you to save the images directly to a flash drive.  These machines also allow you to adjust the focus and the brightness/contrast, and you can zoom in to the sweet spot.  If you bring your own flash drive, there is no cost to save documents this way.
  1. One or more notebooks. I’ve found that if I have one notebook, or one section in a notebook, for each surname, it keeps me more organized.  When I get home, I file my notes in the appropriate surname folder both in my physical and digital files.  My notes document which microfilm I looked at and what I copied to my flash drive.  This helps me to create the citation later as well.
  1. Your laptop or tablet. Everyone has their own way of keeping their information.  Some folks don’t even use paper any more.  I still use both, so I bring both a paper notebook, and my laptop.  Make sure you have access to your complete family tree and genealogy files, whether it’s on your computer, on paper, or on the internet, and don’t forget your passwords! Scan everything you have on the family so you have the information without having to carry a large pile of paper with you. If you’re like me, you’ll probably go back to your hotel room after a day of research, and do some online research with the new information found.

My laptop has all of my genealogy information on it, so as long as I have that with me, I don’t have to remember what information to print out for my research.  Another reason I bring my laptop is that the FHL has free wifi, so I can access the internet from my own computer right there at the microfilm station, rather than getting up to use the FHL computers every time I need to look something up.

  1. A research bag. You’re going to need a bag to carry to the library with you.  Stock it up with your laptop, notebooks, flash drives, snacks, pens and pencils, pencil sharpener, Tylenol, a magnifying glass, ruler, tissues, and so on.
  1. Digital camera. Instead of using the copy machine to copy pages in a book, take a digital picture.  If you take a picture of the cover of the book and the title page in the front, and then the internal contents you want, you’ll know what book your photos came from, and then  you can craft your citation.  If you do need to make copies, the library sells copy cards you can use – you don’t need to bring change.

At the Library

The library provides a ten minute orientation which you might want to watch first.  Also, check the class schedule to see what’s offered during the time you’re there.  The staff is very helpful, so don’t hesitate to ask if there’s anything at all you need.

I arrive at the library at opening time, go directly to the floor I want, and get started!  This time I’m going to the third floor to look at the U.S. books, where I’m sure I’ll spend at least a day.   I can’t wait!!

The Frugal Traveling Pensioners

If you’re interested in the details and logistics of our trip to New Zealand, read on!  I thought perhaps our experiences might help someone else who’s planning a trip to this amazing country.

Everyone has their own idea of what’s important to see and do when traveling.  Eric and I had one basic mission, which drove the planning process:  see the natural beauty of the country while staying within a very limited budget. Our goal was to avoid the pricey activities, while still soaking up the essence of New Zealand.

Seniors in New Zealand are called “pensioners”, so Eric and I adopted the term.  We asked ourselves “What would a frugal pensioner do?” when faced with a financial decision.  This helped keep us on track!

General

Using the internet extensively as a research tool, I learned that the South Island is where most of the magnificent natural beauty is.  Travel experts recommend scheduling at least three weeks in the country:  one week on the North Island, and two weeks on the South Island.  I googled “Top Ten Must See Sights New Zealand” to find out more specifically where to go and what to see.  Then I created a personal Google map where I pinned all the recommended places, so I could have a visual to help plan the route.

Transportation

We decided to use our frequent flyer miles with United Airlines to keep costs down (flights were $3,000 round trip), which limited our flight options to arrival in Auckland, a major city on the North Island.  Eric wanted to visit with some folks in New Plymouth and Wellington, both on the North Island, so we knew we would spend at least a few days there.  But, after analyzing the locations of the “must see” sights, we decided to head south as quickly as possible.

We considered traveling by bus, but after comparing the costs of individual bus tickets with renting a car and splitting that cost, and considering the lack of freedom with a bus, we chose to rent a car.  One thing we did NOT consider when making this decision was the price of gas – we were stunned to find when we got there that gas was about $5.45 per gallon!!

We decided to pick up the rental car at the Auckland airport, and return it in Christchurch on the South Island, where we could catch a flight back to Auckland and then take the return flight home.   By doing this, we avoided the drive all the way back to Auckland.  Our route ended up being three nights on the North Island and the remaining nineteen nights on the South:

Planned drive around the South Island, New Zealand
Planned drive around the South Island, New Zealand

Lodging

I used TripAdvisor to help choose places to stay – I’ve used it for many years and it’s always served me well.  I sorted each town’s options by price, and then chose from motels with the lowest price which had a user rating of 4 or above.  Challenges included the busy time of year (I was booking only two months in advance, and many desirable places were already booked), and our requirement for two beds in each room.  Ultimately, we stayed at twelve different motels ranging from $59 to $175 per night, at an average of $100 per night – which we split, so it cost each of us about $50 per night.  We were not disappointed by any of them!  If you go at a different time of year, and you only need one bed, you could probably do even better than that.

Something very different about New Zealand motels is that they all provide milk in the room for your coffee or tea!  Sometimes it was in a little pitcher, sometimes in a small bottle, and sometimes in little plastic single serving containers.  Never the powdered stuff!

How cute is this?!?
How cute is this?!?

Food

We were quite surprised and pleased that ALL of the motels had a small kitchen in the room, except for one, which had access to a shared kitchen.  We bought a little cooler, which the Kiwis call a “chilly bin”, and bought food at supermarkets for breakfast, lunch and snacks.  We made our own iced tea to drink rather than buying drinks along the way.

We tried to limit our dining out to dinner only, at a maximum cost of $15 per person.  This was very do-able by ordering entrees only – no appetizers, dessert, or drinks (just water). If you know me, you know I like my wine!  I found perfectly acceptable wine in the supermarket for about $6-$7 per bottle, so I had my wine in the room before dinner.

One of the fun meals to have in New Zealand is the daily or Sunday “Roast”. The type of meat varies (beef, pork or lamb), it comes with “mash & veges”, and it’s often on special.  We ordered it numerous times for anywhere between $10 and $15 a plate.

Extras

We enjoyed hiking, taking scenic drives, and going to any free activity we found.  We didn’t pay more than $25 for any activity except for a ferry ride at Abel Tasman Park ($50 each), and a cruise on Milford Sound ($88 each); there was no other way to see these two natural landmarks.  We had endless temptation, from helicopter rides to the glaciers, to penguin and albatross tours, jet-ski rides on the beautiful lakes, a visit to Stewart Island, and the opportunity to observe the night sky at a professional observatory.

We had to keep reminding ourselves that we’re frugal pensioners, and we couldn’t do it all.  We were just thankful to be in New Zealand!  We have yet to tally up the exact costs, but I’m pretty sure that we’ve done a 22 night New Zealand adventure for perhaps $3,000 each, all in.  That’s about the same as the typical cost of a flight there.

Next Time

Here’s a link to our RV life: we had no idea that in New Zealand, renting a “camper van” is a thing.  Everywhere we went, there were dozens of RV’s on the roads and in campgrounds (“holiday parks”).  It’s definitely something to consider for next time – I’ll bet it would cost less than renting a car and staying in motels!

Love the bright colors!
Love the bright colors!

If we did it again, we might go directly to the South Island, and skip the North Island entirely.  And, we would avoid the month of January, when it seemed like the entire country was on holiday.  Other than that, we thought the itinerary worked out extremely well, and we would make only a couple of minor changes here and there (like one less night in Invercargill).

If I can help you in any way to plan your own trip there, don’t hesitate to ask!

Goodbye, New Zealand!

One of the measures of a happy life might be to gauge how you feel when you get to the end of an adventure and it’s time to go back to your “real life”, like I did last week.  I feel SO differently than I would have just a few months ago, when I was still living the life I had in Pennsylvania.

I wrote most of this blog post sitting at the airport in Auckland, New Zealand on January 19th, while I was getting ready to board a plane to San Francisco, and then another one to Orlando.  Reflecting on the previous three weeks, I absolutely loved my time in New Zealand, AND I was excited to be getting back to my winter home in Florida – I feel like I’m just jumping from one fun thing to the next!

It’s such a welcome change from the usual sadness when coming home from a trip – sad that I didn’t have more time to stay in whatever place I just enjoyed, sad that I have to go back to a lonely house, sad that I have to go back to freezing cold weather, and sad that I have to go back to work.  I definitely did NOT feel that way this time!!

Eric and I enjoyed seeing the airport’s decorative photographs of some of the most beautiful places in New Zealand.  We realized that we had been to most of them, and it just confirmed my sense of satisfaction about the whole trip – I feel like I DID New Zealand.

During the final few days, we traveled from Dunedin up to Twizel, in the central part of the South Island.  Of course the scenery is fabulous everywhere, but this area is unique because it’s on the eastern side of the “Southern Alps”.  Meltage from numerous glaciers creates absolutely stunning turquoise rivers and lakes:

Lake Pukaki, New Zealand
Lake Pukaki, New Zealand

The other amazing thing about this area is that it’s designated an International Dark Sky Reserve.  There’s an observatory on top of Mt. John, and there’s a café there where we got spectacular views:

Lake Tekapo, New Zealand
Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

Seeing the famous “Dark Sky” was a little tricky, because twilight lasted until about 10:30 pm, just before the moon rose and lit up the sky, but we did it.  Here’s a photo from the University of Canterbury, which does not do it justice at all:

tekaposign

We could see the entire Milky Way, and of course the constellations are completely different in the Southern Hemisphere.  I can usually spot the Big Dipper right away, but it’s not visible in New Zealand.  I was excited to see the Southern Cross for the first time, which is depicted on the New Zealand flag.

After a couple of nights in Twizel, we drove to Christchurch.  As you may know, multiple earthquakes and aftershocks have caused significant damage in Christchurch, where about 70% of the buildings in the Central Business District have been or will be demolished.  It was especially sad to learn about the many historic buildings lost.  Here’s a picture of ChristChurch Cathedral,  built about 150 years ago, before and after the earthquake:

ChristChurch Catherdral, Christ Church, New Zealand. From Wikipedia.
ChristChurch Catherdral, Christ Church, New Zealand. From Wikipedia.
ChristChurch Cathedral after the earthquake
ChristChurch Cathedral after the earthquake

You can see that the beautiful spire is completely gone, as well as much of the end wall, which had to be braced with steel scaffolding.

We took a trolley tour around the downtown, which was a terrific way to see it all.  Many creative minds have joined together to provide temporary solutions, while the city is being rebuilt.  Here’s an example of a downtown area where shipping containers are being used to house shops and restaurants:

Container Shops in Christchurch, New Zealand
Container Shops in Christchurch, New Zealand

And the congregation of the ChristChurch Cathedral constructed a Transitional Cathedral, which is a temporary building made with ginormous tubes of cardboard:

Transitional Church Interior, Christ Church, New Zealand
Transitional Church Interior, Christ Church, New Zealand
Transitional Church Stained Plastic, Christ Church, New Zealand
Transitional Church Stained Plastic, Christ Church, New Zealand

The next day, we got on a plane from Christchurch to Auckland, and you know the rest of the story.  It was a perfect ending to get on the airplane headed home, with a feeling of satisfaction that the trip was everything I hoped it would be, and I can now check New Zealand off the bucket list!

NZ – Southern Scenic Route

The Southern Scenic Route (SSR) of New Zealand begins in Queenstown, runs southeast to Te Anau, then along the south coast to Invercargill, north through the Catlins on the east coast, and ends in Dunedin.  We’ve traveled the entire four hundred mile route over the past week!

For three nights, we used Te Anau, in the Fiordlands National Park, as a home base while we toured Milford Sound and went on a couple of great  hikes.  Pictures of Milford Sound are often found on the front of tourism brochures – that’s how gorgeous it is!!  Unfortunately, it was cloudy, drizzly and misty the day we went, so my photographs don’t do it justice.  Here is a photograph of what Milford Sound looks like on a sunny day:

Milford Sound on a clear day
Milford Sound on a clear day

And here is a photograph I took on the day we went:

Milford Sound on a cloudy day
Milford Sound on a cloudy day

Looks like a different place, but it was still very lovely in a misty sort of way!

When we left Te Anau, we traveled along the SSR to the south coast of New Zealand and stayed in Invercargill, which is not a very interesting place. But it’s near the town of Bluff, which is the southernmost point on the South Island:

Signpost at Bluff
Signpost at Bluff – 9,300 miles to NY but only 3,000 miles to the South Pole!

Along the SSR we passed these scenes:

Scene along the road to Milford Sound
Scene along the road to Milford Sound
Fiordland National Park from SSR
Fiordland National Park from SSR
Southern Coast of New Zealand
Southern Coast of New Zealand
Unbelievably windy on the south coast - note trees almost on their sides!
Unbelievably windy on the south coast – note trees almost on their sides!
Sheep crossing the road!
Sheep crossing the road!

New Zealand has nine “Great Hikes”, which are multi-day backpacking trips.  I would have loved to do ALL of them when I was younger/in better shape!  But, we’ve done quite a few one-to-three hour hikes, which included portions of the Great Hikes, and these are some of the scenes we saw:

Hike Scene 1
Woods on one of our hikes
Stream on Keplar Track
Gorgeous clear stream on Kepler Track
Swing Bridge on hike - there were many!
Swing Bridge on hike – there were many!
Another hiking scene
Another hiking scene

We’ve had a couple of days in Dunedin, which is a college town founded by Scottish immigrants in the mid-1800’s.  Yesterday, we drove out to the Otago Peninsula and visited an Albatross colony:

Otago Peninsula
Otago Peninsula

Today’s been rainy, so we went to a Farmer’s Market this morning, and an amazing local history museum this afternoon.  We only have four more full days to enjoy New Zealand, so I’m going to stop writing, and enjoy!

NZ – The First Nine Days

It’s  Friday the 6th today, our ninth day in New Zealand.  When we arrived on the South Island on New Year’s Eve Day, we felt like our trip had really begun, because the guidebooks say that the most beautiful natural sights are here.  Without having seen much of the North Island, I can’t really compare, but let me just say that we’ve both been stunned by the spectacular scenery around every corner.

Haast River along Haast Pass
Haast River along Haast Pass – the river is turquoise!

It seems like everywhere we turn, there’s a waterfall, a turquoise river, jungle-like woods in every shade of green, wildflowers like lupine and foxglove in bloom, lakes, oceanfronts, and towering mountains with snow-capped peaks.  New Zealand has it all.  Oh, and add a glacier or two.

We spent New Year’s Eve in Nelson on the north coast of the South Island, and then drove along the shore to the Abel Tasman National Park on New Year’s Day.  Much of the huge park is accessible only on foot or by boat, so we took a ferry ride along the coast for a bit.

Some of the coastline of Abel Tasman National Park
Some of the coastline of Abel Tasman National Park

Over the next two days, we drove down the west coast to Franz Glacier, via Westport.  The view from our motel:

View from motel in Franz Josef
View from motel in Franz Josef

There, we did three separate hikes to two glaciers and a lake:

Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier – notice the blue color of the ice!
Trail to Lake Matheson
Trail to Lake Matheson – doesn’t it look like an elf could jump out any minute??
Lake Matheson
Lake Matheson – on a clear day, the lake mirrors the snow capped peaks behind

That was an exhausting but amazing day!  It felt like we never got a chance to put the camera down – it was one incredible view after the next.  And it just keeps going! When we left Franz Josef and headed for Queenstown, this was some of the scenery:

Knights Point Lookout, West Coast
Knights Point Lookout, West Coast
Stopped for lunch at Cameron Flats along the Makarora River
Stopped for lunch at Cameron Flats along the Makarora River
Lake Wanaka
Lake Wanaka, on the drive from Haast Pass to Queenstown
Lupines in bloom
Lupines in bloom on the Crown Range road to Queenstown
Approach to Queenstown
Approach to Queenstown on Crown Range road – note sheep in foreground!

After arriving in Queenstown and checking into our Airbnb, we took a drive along the lake up to Glenorchy:

Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown
Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown – looks unreal, doesn’t it??
Lake Wakatipu at sunset
Lake Wakatipu at sunset

And this was the view on today’s hike:

Queenstown Hill Hike
Queenstown Hill Hike

Are you on sensory overload yet?? Couldn’t handle looking at one more beautiful thing?  Join the club!  And we still have twelve more days….

New Zealand, New Year!

[This was written a few days ago on New Year’s Eve – access to wifi during the trip has been limited, so today was the first opportunity to post it!]

Even though this New Year’s Eve is our fourth day in New Zealand, and I’ve worked my way through the jet lag and shock, I can still hardly believe that I’m actually here!  Traveling to NZ has been a dream since I first became aware of the country’s natural beauty when I was in college, and I feel so fortunate to be finally experiencing it.

This post is a little longer than usual, so in case you don’t make it to the end, I’ll say first that I wish you all a Happy New Year and the very best in 2017!

I remember this time last year, saying to myself that 2016 HAS to be better than 2015 was, and that hope certainly came true.  2016 was a year of many happy changes, and for the first time in a long time, I’m truly excited about the future.

The flight from San Francisco to Auckland was about 13 hours, and here we’re 18 hours ahead of the east coast of the United States.  So when the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, it will already be 6 pm on New Year’s Day here!  It’s summer here, but the weather is wonderfully comfortable: 60’s – 70’s during the day, 40’s – 50’s at night.  And the days are long, with sunrise at 6 am and sunset at 9 pm.

We’ll be in NZ for 22 nights, so the trip has only just begun.  Auckland is on the North Island of NZ, but we’ll spend the bulk of our time on the South Island.  So, we’ve spent our first three days trekking south from the airport.  We spent the first night in Turangi, the second in New Plymouth, and the third in Wellington:

View of Lake Taupo with Mt. Ruapehu in the distance.  Near Turangi.
View of Lake Taupo with Mt. Ruapehu in the distance. Near Turangi.

 

Sunset in New Plymouth, New Zealand
Sunset in New Plymouth, New Zealand

 

Wellington Harbor
Wellington Harbor

One of the highlights so far was the drive on the Forgotten World Highway, which will never be forgotten as far as I’m concerned!  It’s considered the #1 scenic drive in NZ, with about 100 miles of twisty-turny road through some gorgeous, and quite remote, hilly countryside. We drove it on a cloudy, drizzly day, so unfortunately it wasn’t the best for photos, but a few are below:

One Way Tunnel with dirt road along Forgotten World Highway
One Way Tunnel with dirt road along Forgotten World Highway

 

Lavender Farm along the Forgotten World Highway
Lavender Farm along the Forgotten World Highway

 

Intersection along Forgotten World Highway
Intersection along Forgotten World Highway

 

Scene along Forgotten World Highway showing gravel road
Scene along Forgotten World Highway showing gravel road

 

Terrain along Forgotten World Highway
Terrain along Forgotten World Highway

It may be the most scenic drive in New Zealand, but we read that it’s also the most dangerous drive.  In many areas, where part of the road was washed out and fallen down the cliff, you have to drive in the oncoming lane with blind curves; in other areas, rock slides have left debris in the road which you encounter by surprise when rounding a bend.

Area of road washed down cliff along Forgotten World Highway
Part of road washed down cliff along Forgotten World Highway

 

Fallen rocks in road
Fallen rocks in road

Add to this the driving on the left side of the road and the lack of any guardrails – well, let’s just say I was extremely glad that Eric was behind the wheel!  Definitely a white knuckler: the drive was exhilarating and we’re glad we did it, but we both needed that cocktail when we arrived safely in New Plymouth…

Another highlight of the first few days was delving into Eric’s father’s history in World War II, when he was injured in the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942, and recuperated in Wellington for several months. During that time, he became engaged to a NZ woman named Joan Hay.  Although they never married, Eric has numerous letters from Joan to his grandmother and aunt during the war.

Unfortunately, Joan died last year, but we had breakfast with her son yesterday in New Plymouth, and then found her parents’ house in Wellington where Eric’s father courted her.  We also found the location of the Marine barracks where he would have stayed during his convalescence. I think Eric felt very satisfied to track down his Dad’s path here, and I certainly have enjoyed that touch of family history on our trip.

As I’m writing this, we’re cruising on the Interislander Ferry from Wellington to Picton, where we’ll jump in another rental car and begin our South Island tour.  It’s a three hour stunning ride across the Cook Strait to Picton on the South Island.

View from Interislander Ferry as we approach the South Island
View from Interislander Ferry as we approach the South Island

After a few hours of driving this afternoon, we’ll be clinking glasses in the town of Nelson tonight as we say a fond goodbye to the wonderful year of 2016, which brought multiple significant milestones to our little family.

Interislander Ferry in Picton Harbor on the South Island
Interislander Ferry in Picton Harbor on the South Island

Cheers to family and friends – here’s to a happy, healthy and adventure-filled 2017 for one and all!!!  xoxo