Tuesday, December 20, 2011

When in Rome

So do you know what it's called when the axial tilt of the earth's polar hemisphere is farthest away from the sun? And no, that's not the set-up to a joke only astrophysicists get. It's the technical description of what occurs on the winter solstice, also known as midwinter in parts of the world. In the northern hemisphere that is this Thursday, December 22, at precisely 5:30 AM UTC. In other words, the shortest day of the year. Sort of.

Of course all days are 24 hours long, but we all know that some "feel" longer than others. Take Christmas with the in-laws, for example. But the amount of sun we get in a day can make it feel shorter as well, and on the winter solstice, we record the least amount of daylight of the year. Which is why it has a special name, and is the source of numerous celebrations and observances worldwide. Did you know that Stonehenge was built to align exactly with the location of the sunrise on solstice? Yep, and you can bet your hat that place is crawling with druids, hippies, and all manner of freaks and geeks as we speak, as a result. Of course in Seattle, where I am from, a day with almost no sunlight is just called Tuesday.

But what about the other half of the world, down in the southern hemisphere? You guessed it, it's the summer solstice, and they are getting ready to celebrate the longest day of the year. So while it means missing Christmas with the in-laws, I've decided to head to the land of the Kiwis, a.k.a. New Zealand.

New Zealand was one of the last land masses to be populated by humans. It is estimated that Polynesians began arriving here around 1250. These folks became the Māori, and are considered to be the indigenous people of New Zealand. Prior to their arrival, there were no mammals at all and the land was noted for its numerous bird species, many of which can be found nowhere else. Among them, a flightless bird called the Kiwi became the national symbol and nickname for the people of New Zealand. The first contact with Europeans came in 1642 when a Dutch explorer named Abel Tasman (as in Tasmania), "discovered" it. However, the Māori discovered him and his crew, and let's just say it went very poorly for the visiting team. Europeans did not come back again for over 100 years. But when they did, it was the British and they have never left. The British brought with them English, mammals, muskets, potatoes, and Old World diseases. And all of that worked out about the same is it did elsewhere, and today about 15% of the population identifies themselves as Māori. The remainder are predominantly of European descent with minority Asian and Pacific Island groups represented as well.

New Zealand is made up two primary islands: North Island and South Island. They stretch almost 1,000 miles from north to south. So you really can't see all of this country in one go. Most people focus on one island and perhaps a portion of the other. At their closest, North and South Island are 14 miles apart, separated by Cook Strait. I chose South Island, which is the larger of the two, and is divided lengthwise by a mountain range known as the South Alps. This mountain range has 20 peaks that are above 9,000 feet, and one - Aoraki/Mount Cook - towers at 12,316 feet. So as you might imagine, the weather varies wildly depending on your relationship to the mountains, and the sea. My timeshare rental is in Wanaka, which is among the few places in New Zealand that enjoys four distinct seasons. And while they are approaching the summer solstice, the spring (September to December) is noted for rain. So it is a little soggy here and there, but the temperature is hovering in the 75 - 80 degree range and the sun is showing itself a little more each day. We don't have a name for that in Seattle, since the sun never shines for more than two days in a row.

Wanaka is located in the Otago region of South Island, just south of Lake Wanaka, from which it derives its name. It's primarily a resort town, but is not intensely developed. Kiwis are very concerned about over-development and creating a sustainable society, even when it comes to tourism. Over 30% of New Zealand's land mass has been set aside in the form of parks, reserves, and natural areas. And more and more inns and hotels are being built or retro-fitted to reduce the consumption of natural resources. It makes a lot of sense when you consider that the very thing tourists come for - the natural setting - must be preserved in order to stay viable. In this way, Kiwis see preservation and hospitality as two sides of the same coin. And having taken in some of the breathtaking natural splendor of the place, I have to agree.

Summer in Wanaka offers hiking and climbing, mountain biking, fishing, paragliding, kayaking and rafting, jetboating and close proximity to Mount Aspiring National Park. In winter, it is all about skiing, snowboarding, and anything else you can strap to your feet and scream down a mountain on. Plus there are several nice wineries in the region, as well as some seriously good golfing. And for a cinephile like me, no trip to Wanaka would be complete without hitting the Paradiso Cinema at least once (and maybe more). It's a classic old movie house, but instead of rows of stadium seats, it offers couches, easy chairs, and even an old Volkswagen convertible. Plus they have an in-house restaurant and welcome you to eat before, during, and after the show. They even show each film with an intermission, so that you can enjoy your meal and stretch out a bit. Of course, none of this is going to help a movie like Adam Sandler's Jack and Jill stink any less, but what could, really?

I am staying at Wyndham At Wanaka, which features rustic timber interiors, heated outdoor pool, sauna, steam room, onsite restaurant and bar, and is in easy walking distance of the lake and the village of Wanaka.

Well, I am off to Stuart Landsborough's Puzzling World. Describing itself as a "unique attraction specializing in puzzling eccentricity," it features leaning and tumbling towers, a great maze, hall of holograms, Ames forced perspective room, and many more illusions and mind-bending installations. There's even a Roman style-toilet. In addition to separate restrooms for ladies and gents, they offer a replica roman communal toilet area, complete with mural. I guess the mural is to give you something to focus on, rather than staring at the fellow across from you while you are trying to take care of business. I'm not really sure that this qualifies as "puzzling" so much as it is just gross, but when in Rome...

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