Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Factory Produced Housing

The Australis Diamond Beach Resort reminded me of my youth. No, not traveling on holiday with Estelle and my parents; rather, my 1971 thesis at the University of Toronto’s School of Architecture.

My thesis was based on factory produced modular housing, and that is how this resort is being built, literally overnight. Each cabin comprises two or three modules. Some are approximately 12 feet wide; others are 14 feet. In most instances they are placed side by side; in others they are stacked. Just like my thesis, some modules are ‘wet’ and contain the bathroom and kitchen plumbing. Others offer living space. Inside, you would never know the cabins were built off site and trucked in. With the clerestory windows and contemporary finishes, they really are quite attractive. The wider module adds to the sense of space. The add-on porches with fixed or pull-down screens add to their livability.

Since the exterior finish of the modules is very simple and inexpensive, the development ends up looking quite plain, and yes, boxy. But with a bit more effort and expense, it would be quite easy to more completely disguise the units’ factory origins.

Over the past 35 years, I have always been surprised that factory produced housing has not become more popular in Canada. It offers many advantages and is particularly suited for more remote locations, where materials are limited, and labour is expensive and hard to find. For example, it would be very appropriate for a location like Sydney Island, a beautiful small and secluded island off the coast near Victoria. This is where our dear friends John and Laura Swift have been putting off the construction of their second island home for many, many years. John, if you were to start planning now, using factory produced modules you could have a nice place finished by September, just in time for our homecoming party! Something to think about.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Water Shortages, Game Fishing, Wine and Diamond Beach

Water Shortages
On Friday morning, we left Sydney for points north, with
no real itinerary or plans. Since we didn’t know where we were going, we knew we couldn’t get lost! Our first stop was the small town of Gosford where we stopped at a small restaurant for coffee. I noticed they had Iraqi eggs on the menu. I had to ask what they were. “They will blow you away” said the charming guy behind the counter. So I tried them. (I’m still here to tell you they were two eggs fried in olive oil with fresh mint and cayenne pepper.)

I was surprised to see many stories in the local newspaper dealing with the same topic; the water shortage. Australia has been going through a drought for the past six years, and I cannot overstate the prominence of this issue throughout the country. The drought has been particularly devastating for farmers and those in smaller communities without water reservoirs or back up supplies. (And yet all the bathrooms have these torrential shower heads!)

That afternoon, we found ourselves in Newcastle, a former steel town, (Hamilton?) that is now reinventing itself as a tourism centre. With its mix of heritage buildings, fabulous beaches, and a wonderful waterfront walkway and housing, it was really very impressive. I’m convinced it would be a good place to buy property. (Maybe it’s not Hamilton!)

Game Fishing

We followed a 'tourist drive’ and ended up at Nelson Bay, where we decided to spend the night. Sally wanted to come here since Red Ned’s is considered one of the best pie shops in Australia, with over a fifty different kinds of gourmet pies. We passed on the kangaroo.

We were surprised to find that most of the accommodation in town was fully booked, yet there was hardly anyone on the streets, on a Friday night. That evening we learned why. The next morning, the largest game fishing competition in Australia was getting underway, and the 1000 fishermen were having their briefing. So although good accommodation was hard to find, it was easy to find a good restaurant. During dinner we started to chat to Mike and Ginny, a couple at the next table. It turned out that they had been fishing all week, but had only caught two sharks, which was not what they were hoping for.

The restaurant was very attractive, and quite expensive, with the mud crab costing $45, the lobster (crayfish) $80, and a seafood platter for two $150. But there was no wine list. Like many Australian restaurants, it was BYOB. The corkage fee was two dollars a person.

We got onto the subject of wine, and I asked Mike if he was familiar with my great bookshop find, Quaff, Peter Forrestal’s guide to the best 400 wines in Australia…under $15. It offers three ratings, ‘Bloody Good, ‘Good’ and ‘Pretty Good’.
Mike didn’t know the book so I urged him to buy it. Noting that he was drinking an Australian sparkling wine, I suggested that he might want to try the book’s recommendation, Sir James’ Pinot Noir Chardonnay.

Mike responded, in a nice way, that his wine cost significantly more than $15. He then shared that he was the senior wine buyer for Woolworths, one of Australia’s major wine retailers! I decided that perhaps it was time to change the subject, but not before telling him that Sally and I are slowly working our way through all the ‘bloody good’ wines in each category. As an aside, wine is relatively inexpensive in Australia. 90% of the wine bought is less than $15 a bottle. Mike told us the average price paid is $9.40
a bottle. Quaff reports that 49.8% of all wines sales are casks (cardboard boxes), that is down from 63.7% in 1988.
We may give this category a pass.

On Saturday
morning we got up early to join the town residents, family and friends and watch the parade of game fishing boats as they left the harbour.

We then played golf at Pacific Dunes, a highly rated new course. We asked in the pro shop whether it was walkable. “Most definitely”, said the sweet young girl behind the counter. But we soon noticed we were the only group walking, and by the eighth hole we realized why. With the temperaturein the high 30’s, and very little shade, it was much too hot to walk. We got a cart for the back 9.

Diamond Beach
That afternoon, we discovered that even though it’s hard
to get lost when you don’t know where you’re going, you can. We took another tourist drive, but this time we ended up hot and hungry at a very dry and dusty old town, with nowhere to eat. We eventually made it back to the coastal town of Forster,but were disappointed with what we found. So once again, we went onto to see what nearby accommodation might be available. We found a ‘flaming hot deal’ at the Australis Diamond Beach Resort, a brand new property about 20 minutes north of town. At $89 a night for a two bedroom, two bathroom beachfront cabin with spa, plasma TV, and a gas barbq, it seemed too good to be true. But we booked it anyway and headed over to the fish coop and grocery store to buy fresh oysters, prawns, fish, steak, wines and other provisions. We arrived at the resort just after 7 and it was really quite interesting, except for one thing. There was no one there to check us in.

I called the manager’s phone number and got his voice mail. By 8 we realized this wasn’t going to work and set off to find another place to stay. We found Tallwoods, a nearby golf resort community. The reception was also closed, but at the clubhouse bar we found someone with keys to a vacant unit. We took it. Fortunately, it too had a barbq, along with a two car garage, four bedrooms, and a view over the course. We didn’t want to leave. But the next day, we did return to Diamond Beach where the management was very apologetic and accommodating, and we have been here for the past two days, playing golf, visiting the beach, and popping into town to seek out more ‘bloody good’ wines.

So once again, we’re off. This time we have a destination in mind: Coffs Harbour, and the Bonville Golf Course, at the southern end of The Gold Coast. I’m told it is Australia’s Augusta.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Greetings from Kissing Point

We are experiencing the quintessential Sydney lifestyle, staying in a waterfront home, with its own small beach, at Kissing Point. It belongs to Dennis and Carolyn, an old friend of Sally's from her days at the Brompton Hospital. To get into the city, we take the River Cat from a nearby wharf, and admire other wonderful waterfront homes and new developments rising along the river.

It's all very pleasant. On Tuesday, I borrowed a bike and set off for the Olympic Village, just two ferry stops away. It was hard not to compare the new community with our city waterfront developments and the future Olympic Village at Southeast False Creek. I've written a piece on what I found for the Vancouver Sun. But suffice it to say, if our Olympic Village turns out as well as Newington, 7 years after, we’ll be ok.

Yesterday, it was a day of sailing in areas that were as undeveloped as the day James Cook landed in Sydney Harbour. Tonight I'm passing up the chance to crew on Dennis' boat at the his yacht club’s twilight race, but we'll be there for the celebratory drinks, assuming he retains his title as twilight champion.

Tomorrow, we set off. We plan to take about 10 days driving up the coast and around Brisbane. We will then fly to Townsville, from where we will drive up to Cairns and Port Douglas. At least, that's the plan. Then we’ll head over to Adelaide and Melbourne.

As for Sydney, it has the vibrancy and sophistication of London and New York, but it is so much more beautiful. The city is still on a high from the 2000 Olympics, which was the catalyst for the purchase of the River Cat ferries that connect communities all along the river. Future ferries may be solar powered, like this vessel which cruises around the harbour.

Of course, not all is well. The city has been going through a drought...for the past 6 years, and is seriously examining major water recycling programs or desalination facilities in the future. In addition, notwithstanding the comprehensive ferry, train and bus transportation networks, traffic congestion is also a serious problem. And housing affordability is a major concern. Sydney prices are very comparable to Vancouver.

But all in all, this is a very exciting and livable place. Had we not spent a month here at Christmas 2004, we would be staying much longer. But we can't this time. There are too many other Australian places to see. And every extra day here could mean one less day in the Greek Islands or Prague!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Goodbye New Zealand

On Sunday the 18th after more than 5 weeks in NZ, we decided it was time to leave. And as expected, our plane reservations did get confirmed, and Emirates did send a chauffeur to pick us up and take us to the airport. Does Air Canada do this?

We had hoped to spend our final nights in Auckland at the Duxton, where we had such a wonderful start to our holiday, but due to the arrival of the Queen Mary 2, and other cruise ships, the hotel was very busy, and the best rate was three times what we had paid when we arrived. So we checked into the Precinct Centr@l, the new condominium hotel project I wrote about in my first Vancouver Sun article from NZ. This allowed us to experience first hand the car elevators in the parking garage, the wonderful showers, but very tight living spaces. And no heating or cooling!

As you well know by now, we very much enjoyed New Zealand. In addition to the good wine and food, scenery, affordable golf, and excellent accommodation, we particularly appreciated the fact that we felt very welcome here. There is a strong affinity between NZlanders and Canadians. We both live in the shadow of our neighbours. They are to the Australians what we are to the Americans.

A few more observations. When we first told people we were coming to NZ, we were often told that we would love the country, but would find it ‘a bit behind us’. This may well be true, but what we found are cities that are not defaced by graffiti; where you are not constantly hassled for spare change by street people; and where there are public toilets everywhere. We found a country which has abolished the penny and the nickel, and rounds every bill to the nearest 10 cents, using ‘the Swedish Rounding System (5 cents or under is rounded down, and six cents and over is rounded up). There is no paper money to be easily counterfeited. Instead, the country uses plastic notes, manufactured in Australia, with clear embossed ‘holes’ to further foil counterfeiters.

Generally speaking, employed people in restaurants, the hairdressing industry and taxis do not depend on tipping, since they earn a reasonable salary. Speaking of taxis, they are clean, and plentiful. A number of years ago, the taxi industry was deregulated, and today there are many different companies charging different rates for different levels of service. On Friday night, we took a taxi from downtown to the hotel. The flag rate was 99 cents, and the total fare came to 5.60. (Yes, I gave him $6!) On Saturday night, we asked the restaurant to call us a cab. A large silver Ford arrived with the driver in a suit and tie. The flag rate was $6, and the total fare was $13.60 for a similar length trip. (Yes, I gave him $14, particularly since the driver gave me a comprehensive overview of the taxi industry). Peter Ladner and Suzanne Anton should take note. When the industry was deregulated, all of the valuable taxi licenses were made worthless overnight. However, soon new companies opened up, and just as happened in the airline industry, they offered different fare structures and different levels of service. While I’m not sure we need to go quite this far in Vancouver, I sure hope we can overhaul our taxi industry, so that cabs are more plentiful, and affordable.

In two years Sally and I plan to come back to NZ. While we managed to see much of the country, we missed so much more. We want to play more golf, and enjoy more wines, food, accommodation, spas, and magnificent scenery. And of course, see some more sheep. I hope that you will have come here by then, but if not, you are all invited to join us. February 2009!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Bubbling Rotorua

Rotorua is one of New Zealand’s top tourist destinations. And for good reason. How many developed places in the world have hot steam rising out of bubbling mud beside the road, and no one pays much attention! Well that’s not quite true. In some instances, a makeshift fence is placed around the source. In others, it is turned into a major tourist attraction. But you don’t need to see the bubbling mud and steam rising out of the ground to know something is happening here. There is a permeating odour of sulphur in the air. We were told we would get used to it, but after a couple of days, it’s as prominent as when we arrived.

As a result of its geological properties, generations of families have come to Rotoru ‘to take the waters’ and that’s what we did. We went to the Polynesia Spa, (despite its name), since it was close to our hotel, and voted one of the 10 best spas in the world by Conde Nast magazine. Sally had a dry treatment, with mud; I had a wet treatment! (No Rubenstein, that’s not what you think!) Water showers you from above while you enjoy a full body massage.

Following the Spa Treatment, we had lunch in the busy town centre, and then 9 holes of golf at a Municipal Course near the spa. Conde Nast would not rate this one of the 10 best golf courses in the world, but the sun was shining, and it was very pleasant. We spent the Valentine’s Day evening walking through a dark forest looking for glow worms. This was preceded by a Maori Concert and traditional dinner comprising lamb, chicken, root vegetables, potatoes…and trifle!
At the concert, we discovered that 20 different ‘tribes’ were present from literally all parts of the world. By far, the majority of people were from England, followed by Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. There were two other Canadians, and we happened to sit with the only two Israelis in attendance. Ari and Esther are doing a very similar tour of New Zealand, but in reverse. As a result, we could tell them about our favourite places; the peninsula east of Dunedin, Akaroa, the drive across to the West Coast, and the pancake rocks (even though they don’t look like pancakes.) We discovered that we had both made the mistake of not renting cars from Budget or Hertz! In their case, the Toyota Camry turned out to be a 1994 model; in our case, Ezy Rentals wanted their nice new Nissan Sunny car back in Auckland!

And so that is where we’re headed. We may make a final stop on the way. But all being well, we will fly out of Auckland on Sunday. I say all being well, since agent Veronica at Emirates Air seems to be having trouble dealing with an open ended Business Class around-the-World Airline Ticket over the phone. So far, they have not confirmed our booking, although they will send a car to pick us up and drop us off from the airports. I’m sure it will all work out in the end. Otherwise, we’ll continue to drink New Zealand pinot noirs instead of Australian cabernets.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Dunedin to Queenstown to Fox Glacier to Nelson to Picton to Rotorua

We’ve been on the move! The change of pace was somewhat initiated by our Car Rental Company, which refused to authorize yet another extension to our contract. They wanted their car back! We wanted another 10 days. Eventually they agreed to our request, but it made us realize that perhaps it was time to move on. And so as I write, we are on the ferry, returning to the North Island.
A few observations and highlights from the past week.
We went to Queenstown, in the heart of the skiing r
egion, because it was described as a must see, and New Zealand’s St. Moritz. It was also the departure point for a trip to Milford Sound, recently voted New Zealand’s number one destination for Kiwis. When we arrived, we were a bit disappointed. It seemed that every tourist in NZ had decided to assemble in Queenstown for the afternoon. While it had a lot of buzz and excitement, we are spoilt by Whistler, which is so much better. But one good thing did happen in Queenstown; we finally found The Lord of the Rings on video.

We watc
hed it in an apartment that I booked because of a web photo of the living room. It opened onto a balcony. However, rather than a conventional sliding door, the entire double-glazed glass wall folded open. It’s a detail that would work nicely in Vancouver.

We had a very enjoyable round of golf at the Kelvin Heights Golf Club. The only problem occurred when we played the 18th hole instead of the 4th hole. We discovered this when Sally asked a lady near the clubhouse “Where’s the next hole?” She thought we were mad.
That evening we experienced our first wine tasting machines. It seemed like a party going on in a downtown wine store. Then it was explained to us. You purchase a card, insert it in a slot, and then choose amongst hundreds of different wines. You can have a taste, a half, or full glass, with the cost automatically added to your card.
The next day, we
had planned to go to Milford Sound. Rather than drive ourselves, the choices were a coach trip, followed by a cruise and return coach, (13 hour day) or a helicopter or fixed wing flight and cruise. After some research, we decided to take a flight on Air Milford, but the weather wasn’t cooperating and there were no flights. We didn’t want to wait another day and so we headed off. (In a discussion with Hank Sproull of Air Milford, we learned that last year they were only able to fly 118 out of 365 days. It’s a shame, because I know we missed a wonderful trip, but next time…)
Historic Arrowtown
Arrowtown started in the 1860’s during New Zealand’s gold rush. Today, many of its original wood buildings have been renovated, and the town has become a tourist destination. While some find it a bit too cute, we really liked it, especially the early housing. Coincidentally, the day after I took these pictures, there was a story in the newspaper about a developer who had become a local hero as a result of these properties. They had been slated for redevelopment by an off-shore owner. However, he had purchased them, and agreed to sell them to a Heritage Trust at his cost, so that they could be saved. There was also a lovely golf course there, but we had to move on. It’s a shame, but next time...

The drive to Wanaka, past
Mt. Aspiring, was literally breathtaking. Every 15 kilometres there was a different landscape, and it was all the more impressive because we were the only car on the road for over an hour! To give you an idea of the road, although the posted limit was 100 km/hour, many of the hairpin turns were restricted to 15 km/hour, and I was afraid to drive that fast!
Fox Glacier
We spent the evening at Fox Glacier. The next morning we walked past all the people assembling their ropes and picks for a climb up the glacier, and instead headed off to Lake Matheson to join busloads of German and Japanese tourists for a hike around the lake to a special spot, from which you can take one of the most spectacular photographs in New Zealand. It’s a shot of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman reflected in the waters. My shot is not as impressive as it might have been because of a loutish Brit who decided to dive into the perfectly still water to make some ripples, just before I took the picture!
The West Coast
We should have stopped at Franz Joseph Glacier, and climbed to the base, but we didn’t. Instead, we drove off to Greymouth, in sear
ch of more whitebait, which although just out of season, is quite good. (The fish are so small, they are served as a patty, or in an omelette.) We ate at the 124 Café which was described in our guidebook as having some rare Greymouth commodities: outdoor tables and vegetarian options.
After lunch we set off for one of the most remarka
ble places in a remarkable country, Punakaiki, to see the Pancake Rocks and blowholes. As noted in our guidebook, ‘Through a layering-weathering process called stylo-bedding, the limestone has formed into what looks like piles of thick pancakes’. While I questioned the reference to pancakes, it was an impressive place; especially the sound of the water surging through the rocks. When we get home, you are all invited over to watch the video!
The drive up the coast reminded us of the Oregon Coast with miles of beautiful and deserted beaches. However, the vegetation is much more varied: in places it is wild and tropical; in others it is very colourful with the road lined with lupins, agapanthas, wild hydrangeas, and bright red flowers.
After driving j
ust over 500 km, which is a long way in New Zealand, we arrived in sunny Nelson, which the Lonely Planet described as ‘the home of an enthusiastic and progressive community of artists, craftspeople, winemakers and entrepreneurs.’ Furthermore, there were two golf courses. We checked into The Rutherford, a large hotel in the centre of town, with all the ‘mod cons’, because it was very different from where we had slept the night before.
The next morning, I set off for the Nelson Golf Club where I met an engaging couple from Toronto, who had discovered New Zealand two years ago, and were back for an extended golfing holiday. Over drinks in the clubhouse, we agreed that this country is a relatively undiscovered treasure, especially for golfers. They had joined the Nelson Golf Club, with annual dues of $700 a year. This entitled them to unlimited golf at the club, plus free golf at many of its reciprocal clubs around the country, and membership in the New Zealand Golf Association which entitled them to significant discounts at most of the other courses in NZ. Next time, I’m joining the Waahi Taakaro Club. There the annual dues are $350, with similar privileges!
That evening, we had one of our best meals in NZ at the Boat Shed. We heartily recommend the roasted whole fish with fresh herbs and shellfish.

Green Shelled Mussel Capital of the World
On the advice of my new Canadian friends, the next day we set off for Havelock, the green shelled….There we had, what else? After having to limit the number of glasses of different local sauvignon blancs, we set off for Picton for an evening cruise on Marlborough Sound. But it wasn’t to be. It was too cold and wet; just the third time in over four weeks, when the weather had forced us to change our plans. So we ended up in an Irish Pub with a couple of dozen motorcyclists who were touring the country on bikes. I tried to tell them about the book ‘Investment Biker’, but they really weren’t that interested. Instead they were downing pints of Guinness, while the local fisherman were downing shooters made with vodka, grand marnier, and an equal amount of Tabasco sauce. It hurts, just to think about them.
And that brings us to the present. We plan to stay until the 18th. We’re now off to Rotorua for more golf, thermal pools & massage, and a Maori Concert and Hangi. More later.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Waitangi Day 2007

We decided to celebrate Waitangi Day, New Zealand’s national holiday, by taking the Taieri Gorge Railway. It was described in a guidebook as one of the most dramatic train rides in the world. It departs from the Dunedin Train station, New Zealand's most photographed building, and travels 60 km to Pukerangi. (Maori for Hill of Heaven). It was a surprisingly enjoyable outing. At one point, we were all invited to get off the train and walk across a trestle bridge. What was remarkable was the casual attitude towards security and liability. Somehow, I just can’t imagine an American company, or even a Canadian railway operator allowing the passengers, including some young children, to get off a train, walk along the tracks across a bridge with a railing on just one side, and then stand by the tracks while the train approached. The scenery was quite magnificent, and having worked on the planning of Furry Creek, I kept seeing wonderful sites for future golf course communities! On a more serious note, one could only marvel at the ingenuity and bravery of the engineers and construction workers who built train lines like this around the world in the 19th century.

Following the train ride, we had lunch at a downtown outdoor café. In keeping with the local practice in NZ and Australia, we paid an extra 20% on the bill, to cover the additional staffing costs since it was a national holiday. Now there’s an idea for Peter Horwood at Bridges! We then set off for what had to be one of the most dramatic drives of our life, along the Otaga Peninsula High Road, in search of penguins and flying albatrosses. I have always been fascinated with albatrosses since I saw one of Neil Kornfeld’s golfing partners almost get one on the 18th hole at Richmond Golf and Country Club. These were not quite as impressive, but they did put on a good show, with their three metre wing span, and ability to soar with relatively little wing movement. But they do need wind to get started. And apparently they mate for life, which seems silly for a bird that can travel over 500 km a day.

As for the road, it made the Sea to Sky highway feel like Highway 1 in from Chilliwack. I couldn’t believe the cars, and large tour busses would manage to negotiate every turn, and pass one another, without getting into an accident, or falling off the road. We were both queasy for much of the drive. On the trip back, we took the low road, which hugs the edge of the water. With the sun setting, it was quite magnificent, and much less terrifying.
We returned home to 12 Royal Terrace for yet another fabulous meal. This time it was smoked salmon, artichoke, venison, fresh berries and cream. I believe everything, except for the salmon and deer came from the garden.
We spent the evening trying to understand why many retired people, and those on holiday, often feel guilty when they are not doing something ‘productive’. It’s certainly true in my case. But it’s getting easier!