Tag: Guide

Where the Hobbits Were

Where the Hobbits Were

Matamata, New Zealand – February 5, 2018

We departed from Ohope Beach at nearly 07:00.  Our destination was the iSite (tourist information) at Matamata to take the 10:00 tour of the Hobbiton movie set.  The weather forecast called for showers.  However; during our drive, it was clear.

The tourist information site at Matamata definitely has a Hobbit feel.

Arriving at the iSite shortly after 09:00, the sales associate asked if we wanted to join the 09:30 tour instead. I jumped at the chance, anxious to beat any impending rain. The iSite had more Hobbit souvenirs than one could imagine. Since there was a gift shop at the movie set, we opted not to buy anything.

We walked outside and boarded the bus. Our driver, Bea, told us we should expect about a 25-minute drive to the Hobbiton movie set. During the ride, she played several video snippets detailing what was at the movie set and the history behind the scenes.

Sir Peter Jackson’s (the film’s director) team found the Alexander family-run farm in 1998 while scouting for locations for the filming of The Lord of the Rings movies. It seemed the perfect site for The Shire, the home of the Hobbits of Middle-earth. It matched J.R.R. Tolkien’s description from the books almost to a tee.

Several Hobbit Holes on the hill. Bilbo Baggins’ Bag End home is below the large tree in the upper left corner.

The set covers some 12 acres and originally contained 39 Hobbit Holes. Filming began in December 1999. When filming finished, crews returned the land to its pre-filming condition, as happens with most movie sets. The crews dismantled or removed the Hobbit Holes used for the movie, with few exceptions. The few exceptions were enough to draw the films’ enthusiasts to the area to “tour” the set. Guided tours of the site commenced in 2002.

In 2009, Sir Peter Jackson and his team returned for additional filming. This time, they constructed the Hobbit Holes of actual wood, slate, bricks, and mortar. The re-done set claimed a total of 44 Hobbit Holes. That is what is seen today when one takes a tour of the movie set.

The bus stopped at The Shire’s Rest.  At that site, additional tourists boarded the bus.  Once full, approximately 41 tourists, the bus crossed Buckland Road and entered the Alexander family sheep farm.

Our tour guide, Charlotte, told us one could determine the occupation of each of the Hobbit Hole occupants by the clues left out front. That is how we deciphered the farmers, bakers, cheesemakers, etc. We had just begun our walking tour when Charlotte pointed out a small cut in the trail. That is where Bilbo Baggins, the main character in The Hobbit, ran; shouting, “I’m going on an adventure!” One of our fellow tourists recreated the scene while Charlotte filmed the “episode” on the tourist’s phone.

Bakers Hobbit Hole.

A walk of 1.17 kilometers (three-quarters of one mile) was ahead of us. We frequently stopped to listen to Charlotte’s stories and to take photographs. Like so many parts of New Zealand, the Hobbiton Movie Set was visually stunning. The colors were amazing, and the overall landscaping was perfect. Throughout the set, there are several active garden plots. After Leslie’s question, we discovered gardeners split the produce amongst the gardeners that work at the site. I am sure that is a nice extra benefit from their employment.

At the artist’s Hobbit Hole, Charlotte allowed each of us to enter while she made our photograph.  It was very kind of her to do that, especially for all 41 tourists.

To quote Bilbo Baggins, “We’re going on an adventure!” Taken as we departed the artist’s Hobbit Hole.

Charlotte shared that there was one tree on the property that was fake. She asked if we could spot the tree. One of the tourists piped up that it was the tree at the top of the hill. That was correct. The tree happened to be directly above Bilbo Baggins home, Bag End. Just before filming, when Sir Peter Jackson arrived on set, he said the leaves were not the correct color. That set a team into action, re-painting each leaf by hand. I do not know what it looked like initially, but it is very nice now.

Just after the artist’s Hobbit Hole, we came to an overlook. From there, we could see most of the set; all the way to the mill and the Green Dragon Inn. It was a beautiful view.

The view across the lake toward the Green Dragon Inn.

Next was the pinnacle of the tour; Bag End. It was surreal to stand in front of Bilbo’s “home.” The exterior featured in the films; however, the interior shots were made at Weta Studios in Miramar, Wellington, New Zealand. In front of the house is a bench on which Bilbo’s pipe is sitting. The sign on the gate to Bag End stated: “no admittance; except on party business.” The party in question, of course, was Bilbo’s 111th birthday party.

A panorama of Bag End. Note Bilbo’s pipe on the bench at the lower right.

We stopped to sit down on the party grounds.  There were a few benches under a shade cover.  We sat there while Charlotte talked about the party grounds, the party tree, and the overall celebration of Bilbo’s eleventy-first (Hobbit-speak) birthday party.

The party-tree behind our tour guide, Charlotte.

Leaving the comfort of the shade and bench behind, we walked to Samwise “Sam” Gangee’s Hobbit Hole. The flowers in front were beautiful. Sam is the close friend of Bilbo, joining him on his big adventure.

Sam’s Hobbit Hole.

From Sam’s Hobbit Hole, it was mostly downhill. We walked past a beer cart left alongside the road, just before the stone, two-arched bridge. The bridge crosses the lake near the mill. That made for some very scenic photo opportunities.

On the other side of the bridge is the Green Dragon Inn. Included in the tour is a cold drink in a ceramic mug. One can choose between three types of beer (unique brews, each with 1.0% alcohol), a non-alcoholic beer, tea, or coffee.

The green dragon…

We relaxed with our drinks for a while.  Then Charlotte gathered the group and moved us to the gift shop.  Other than our refrigerator magnets, we left empty-handed.

Back on the bus, I discovered the tours run daily, except for Christmas day, rain or shine (update – our trip ended up being entirely in the shine!). There are 70, yes, seventy; tours each day! That means around 1,000,000 visitors each year!

The bus dropped us off at the iSite in Matamata, and we walked across the street for lunch at the Dew Drop Inn. I had a Troll sandwich, essentially a ham and cheese panini. It tasted terrific, but what amazed me most was that the sandwich stayed very hot to the last bite.

From the restaurant, it was back to the car to head to our next stop.

I cannot recommend this tour highly enough. For those that are interested, one can plan a visit at Hobbiton Movie Set.

Hobbit hunter number one.
Hobbit hunters two and three.
The mill at the lake.
A portion of the Green Dragon Inn.
Looking across the lake to the set.
A view of the mill at the lake.
A display just outside the door to the store.
The Green Dragon Inn just to the left of the double-arched bridge by the mill.
Walking toward the Green Dragon Inn.
A direction sign. We departed Hobbiton, heading toward the Green Dragon Inn.
An ale wagon…my kind of transport!
Herb gardener’s Hobbit Hole.
Hobbit Holes overlooking the party grounds.
Farmer’s Hobbit Hole.
The home of Bilbo Baggins close friend, Samwise “Sam” Gamgee.
A weaver’s Hobbit Hole.
A Hobbit Hole.
Herb gardener’s Hobbit Hole.
Farmer’s Hobbit Hole
Cheese-maker’s Hobbit Hole.
Small Hobbit Hole.
Bilbo Baggins home is just below the large tree. FYI…this tree is the only fake tree on the entire set.
Bag End.
Gardener’s Hobbit Hole.
Hobbit Holes
Looking up the hill toward Bag End, Bilbo Baggins home.
A wider view of the florist Hobbit Hole.
A Hobbit Hole duplex??
This Hobbit is cooking fish for lunch just below the entry.
Florist’s Hobbit Hole
Several Hobbit Holes on the hill. Bilbo Baggins’ Bag End home is below the large tree in the upper left corner.
Gardener’s Hobbit Hole
Fisherman’s Hobbit Hole
Farmer’s Hobbit Hole
Farmer Hobbit Hole
Toy Maker Hobbit Hole
Kapiti Island Adventure

Kapiti Island Adventure

Kapiti Island, New Zealand – January 18, 2016

If nothing else, the town’s name, Paraparaumu, is fun to say. Try saying that three times fast…Paraparaumu…Paraparaumu…Paraparaumu!

We drove to Paraparaumu to catch a boat to Kapiti Island. The boat departs from the Kapiti Boat Club. We had a little difficulty finding it due to some TomTom issues, but we finally made it to the right place.About 19 of our closest friends and we met the Kapiti Island tour operator, Kapiti Explorer, and Marine Charter, at the Kapiti Boat Club in Paraparaumu. Kapiti Island is a nature reserve, and as such, it is highly protected. One can only visit the island if one first obtains a permit. There are only three tour operators that can carry people to and from the island. As part of the tour package, the permission is included.
Before boarding, we listened to a biosecurity talk. We all self-inspected our daypacks and other items to ensure they did not include any pests or seeds of any kind. Lastly, we each brushed debris off of our shoes and walked through a disinfectant solution. The Kiwis take their nature reserves very serious, rightfully so.
The boat was on a trailer hitched to a large tractor. One of the tour operators climbed on board and lowered the ramp from the stern. Once we were all on board, the tractor drove out of the parking lot and onto the beach. The tractor turned around and backed the boat directly into the surf. The waves were only twelve to eighteen inches, pretty calm by Tasman Bay standards. Once we floated off the trailer, the skipper started the motor, turned the boat toward Kapiti Island, and we were off. The Tasman Sea was not quite smooth-as-glass, but it was darned close.
In about 25 minutes, we arrived at the island. The beach on which we were to be deposited was reasonably steep, the skipper was able to turn the boat around and back up toward the beach. When he was within a couple of meters of the shore, he lowered the ramp from the stairs, resting the far end on the beach of small stones. The stones looked like smooth river rock, about three or four inches in diameter. Stepping on the beach, Leslie and I found it difficult to walk. It would have been easier if the beach had been a sandy beach. Regardless, we made it to the top of the beach with the others in our group.

View from Kapiti Island toward Paraparaumu.

We all followed the guides to the shelter on the island. There, the man and woman shared stories and insights with us about the island. When they finished, we all went our separate ways on the many groomed trails. Leslie and I stayed on the reasonably flat Rangatira Loop. It is about a one-mile loop.

The visitor center on Kapiti Island.
One of our guides speaking about Kapiti Island and its birds.

During the walk, we saw several species of birds as well as some spectacular sights. One of the first birds we saw was the ubiquitous seagull, nothing that spectacular. However, it was neat to see several seagulls and young gulls in a nursery on the beach. Another plentiful bird on the island is the Tui. The Tui is common throughout New Zealand. A popular beer brewed in New Zealand is called Tui. They feed on flower nectar, which is why we saw them feeding on the flax plants along our walk. The Kakariki is another bird that liked the flax plants. The Kakariki is a sizeable brownish parrot. The bird is vulnerable, but thankfully not endangered. We also saw one Kereru, a large New Zealand pigeon. They can measure nearly two feet from tail to beak. The Kereru because of their large beaks are the only birds to disperse some of the larger fruits in New Zealand. I thought the Variable Oystercatcher/Torea was one of the most striking birds we saw. I am sure that is due to the contrast of their orange eye and beak against the black feathers. They nested on the beach, very near the seagulls. Lastly, we saw at least two Wekas. The Weka looks somewhat like a chicken. That may be why European settlers called it a Woodhen. They reminded me of a Kiwi with a short beak.

A Kaka feasting on a flax plant.
Seagull at the beach.
A weka just passin’ through.
A variable oystercatcher on a piece of driftwood.
Seagull chicks.
A seagull and two variable oystercatchers.

After about two hours of walking, we found ourselves back at the shelter’s picnic tables. We dug into our daypack to retrieve our lunch. Leslie made her world-famous mountain sandwiches. The guides had warned that some species of birds might be a pest during lunch. Luckily, none of the birds bothered us.

Lunch is ready.

When we finished lunch, we loaded up our rubbish and walked to the beach. It was amazing how many shells we saw, especially the paua shells. Unfortunately, since the island is a nature reserve, nothing can be taken from the island. We sat on a log and just watched the sea.

A seashell sculpture??
A collection of paua shells.
I love you compact.

We truly felt fortunate to be on Kapiti Island. The only permanent residents on the island are the two rangers and some people that live on the far north end of the island. Other than that, it is just the handful of authorized persons that come to the island daily. It was a unique feeling to be on such a pristine island that used to be a Maori stronghold.

About an hour later, we moved to some logs near where we landed. We sat there to wait for the return boat. The seating was on the edge of a seagull rookery, so it was noisy. Ultimately, two rangers joined us. We talked with them about their experiences on the island. It was interesting.

The boat for our return arrived at about 15:00.
Our trip back to Paraparaumu was a little more exciting than the morning trip to Kapiti Island. The sea was considerably choppier. I estimate the swells were as high as four feet at times. The swells tossed the boat around.
It took nearly twice the time to return to Paraparaumu than it had to get to the island. One poor woman looked terrible when we finally made it back. If we had stayed on the sea another 15 minutes or so, I am sure she would have been seasick.

The waves at the shore were more significant now. Up ahead, we could see the tractor sitting in the surf with the trailer. The skipper worked the rudder and the power like a symphony conductor, trying to get everything lined up just right to get the boat back on the trailer. With one final push of the throttle, the boat made it safely onto the trailer. As soon as we were on, the tractor began pulling us out of the surf. Once we were safely out, we disembarked.

Our boat captain.
The tractor used to launch and recover the boat.
Disembarking at Paraparaumu beach.

We walked back to the car and pointed ourselves toward home. Just south of Paraparaumu, we turned off onto Paekakariki Hill Road. It is not Leslie’s favorite road. It is very narrow, twisting, and it has steep drop-offs. The steep drop-offs allowed for a spectacular overlook of the Tasman Sea. We stopped and got a perfect look at Kapiti Island sitting at the edge of the Tasman Sea right at the Cook Straight.

The house on Kapiti Island for the Department of Conservation workers.
My Kapiti kompanion…
A seagull nesting area.
The Kapiti beach. In the distance are Tahoramaurea and Motungarara Islands.
One of the many seagulls.
No unauthorized landings…
Tokomapuna Island in the distance.
The Kapiti beach looking south.
A Tui eating on a flax plant.
View of Tuteremoana Peak. The elevation is 521 meters (1,709 feet).
View of Tuteremoana Peak. The elevation is 521 meters (1,709 feet).
This area reminded me of the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
A Kereru in the tree.
The pouwhenua carving greets all visitors.
A large piece of driftwood.
A piece of driftwood with extensive roots.
Kapiti Island beach at Rangatira Bay.
The view north along Rangatira Bay.
A young pohutukawa tree.
Moss covered rocks.
Getting ready for lunch.
Pouwhenua detail.
Pouwhenua detail II.
Pouwhenua imitation.
Directional sign.
The beach at Rangatira Bay.
The beach at Rangarira Bay on Kapiti Island.
Some of the hills on Kapiti Island.
The tour group heading toward the visitor center.
A tunnel trail.
Detail of the pouwhenua.
A seagull resting.
Seagull at the beach.
Tokomapuna Island.
A silver fern.
A Kereru in the tree.
The Pouwhenua at the entry to the visitor center.
Lots of driftwood at Rangatira Bay.
A weka.
The weka walking through our picnic area.
A weka searching for food.
Many seagulls on the beach. Paraparaumu is on the far shore.
A lone seagull.
Two variable oystercatchers searching for food.
A variable oystercatcher.
More seagulls.
The Kapiti Island welcome sign.
I love you on the stones.
A variable oystercatcher.
A variable oystercatcher behind some driftwood.
A seagull and a variable oystercatcher.
Kapiti Island as seen from the Paekakariki Hill Road Lookout.
View to the north from the Paekakariki Hill Road Lookout. A portion of Kapiti Island is visible on the left.

Gannets Everywhere

Gannets Everywhere

I woke up first the next morning; not unusual. I heated some water and placed it in a French press. I took the French press and my coffee cup out onto the terrace of our motel room. From the desk in our room, I also picked up a tourist brochure to look at while enjoying my coffee.

It was a beautiful morning. The view was breathtaking. The brochure I selected was for Gannet Safaris. I was not keen on booking a tour; instead, I wanted to drive to the nesting colony and look around on our own. In the brochure, I saw a photograph of a Range Rover parked very near the Gannet colony. I thought that bode well for our adventure.

Leslie joined me on the terrace for coffee. We discussed what we wanted to do and settled on a trip to see the Gannets.
In the car, I set TomTom to take us to the small town of Clifton. We arrived in Clifton in about 25 minutes. We found my description of Clifton as a “town” was a little bit of an exaggeration. The paved road stopped at a small parking area right at the edge of the ocean. To our left was a small trailer park. To the right, along a single lane path was a camping area. Directly behind us was the Clifton Café. That was it.

The beach at Clifton, New Zealand.

In the parking area (about five parking spaces), I saw a sign. I got out of the car to look at the sign. What I saw was a little disappointing. There are only two ways to get to the Gannet nesting colony; hike to it on the beach or access it by a private road. According to the sign, the hike was about 18 kilometers (about 11 miles) roundtrip. The sign estimated the walking time to be about five hours. The poster also warned that the trip required caution, meaning an understanding of when low tides and high tides occur lest one be stranded during the hike. We were not prepared mentally, physically, nor with proper equipment to consider such a trek.
We knew we could not drive on the private road because it was, well, private. Dejected by being so close yet so far, we decided to drive about half a mile back on the road to the Gannet Safaris location. Upon arrival, one of the safari drivers checked the availability of a tour. He happily noted there was space on the 09:30 tour. I asked him how much walking was involved in the tour. He thought there was only about 20 meters of walking, some 65 feet. We both thought that was more than reasonable, so we paid the NZ$75 fee each, about $97.

One of the four-wheel-drive buses.

Since we were well over an hour early (imagine that, the Vice’s being early), the driver suggested we go back to the Clifton Café for a cup of coffee. Since we had just been there, I told him it was not open. We told him we were happy to sit at the site, under a tree and wait. He said our driver, Trevor, would arrive soon. Meanwhile, he and two other drivers left with three buses. Just before he left, he said they were driving to Napier to pick up cruise ship passengers for the safari.
Trevor arrived as advertised, as did several other passengers. Soon, the 21-seat bus was full, and we were off on our adventure. Trevor turned onto the paved road, toward Clifton. In just a quarter-mile, he turned off the way onto the private road. The trail is the private entry to The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, a very exclusive golf course and inn on over 6,000 acres. It is better known as Robertson Lodges. Julian Robertson, a U. S. billionaire, owns the development. He made his fortune managing hedge funds.
Had Leslie and I opted to stay at The Farm at Cape Kidnappers versus staying in Napier, it would have run about US$2,000 per night. On the other hand, we could have stayed in the Owner’s Cottage for about US$8,700 per night. We both could have added a round of golf for right at US$600 total. After learning that, we felt pretty thrifty with our US$130 per night room at Pebble Beach Motor Inn.

The very exclusive Robertson Lodges.

After driving through a portion of the golf course, near The Farm, the road changed from paved to dirt. At several points along the way, Trevor stopped so he could get out and open a livestock gate. After one or two of those, a passenger opted to get out, handling the opening and closing, making things a little easier on Trevor.
At one point, the bus emerged from some trees. We found ourselves on top of a bluff. Trevor stopped the bus and allowed us all off to take in the scenery. We were at the edge of a cliff. There was an ominous sign on a piece of wood stating, “DANGER, Unstable Cliff Edge Please stay behind the barrier.” The “barrier” was mainly a 4×4 post at the height of some ten inches. Standing close was a little unnerving.

Our guide describes the formation of the cliffs.
View of the cliffs from the lookout.
The view from a lookout back toward Clifton, New Zealand.
It was definitely dangerous at the edge of the lookout.

Back onboard the bus, the journey continued. The narrow, dirt road wound around, up and down, sometimes very steeply. Just before we crested the final hilltop, the Pacific Ocean was visible out the right side of the bus. Trevor pointed out a large group of Gannets sitting on the ocean.
A few meters beyond where we had seen the Gannets sitting on the ocean, Trevor stopped the bus. Out the right side of the bus, we found ourselves face-to-face with the nesting Gannets. Instantly, we heard the noise of their calls and detected the rather wild aroma of their nests. The odor is due to their choice of nest-building material, kelp and their own feces.

Our first view of the gannet colony. There are several chicks visible in this frame.

After telling us a little about the birds, Trevor drove onto the flat bluff area and parked. We all exited the bus and stared in amazement at the colony of birds.

The Gannets, known as Australasian Gannets, are large birds. The adult wingspans are around six feet. The birds gather in colonies on Cape Kidnappers for mating and raising their young. They hunt for food in the ocean, diving into the water headfirst from great heights to catch fish.

The birds could not have cared less about us being there. Even though we were all standing mere feet away, the birds went about calling, taking off, caring for the young, and greeting each other after landing as though nothing was different about their surroundings. That is the main reason so many other New Zealand species of birds are now extinct. Before the arrival of the Maori people who inadvertently brought rats, there were no ground predators. The many extinct birds had no fear of the rats or the Maori. The European explorers compounded the problem with their arrival in the late 18th century.
When the Gannets came in to land, they passed by us tourists, often with only inches to spare, and went on to the colony. When they found their mate, they dropped out of the air from about three feet up or so, a rather ugly landing. Some of the birds that landed in the bachelor track had even worse landings, often skidding along on their bellies unceremoniously. The bachelor track is named after the younger males who pace back and forth, not quite sure yet how to woo a female Gannet.


About 100 feet below us was another colony. Trevor pointed out yet another colony on a small spit of land going out into the ocean. This additional group meant Gannets were everywhere in the air.

A second gannet colony far below.
The nesting birds at the lower colony.

Trevor offered the best advice of the day. Stand in one place with your camera and let the Gannets come to you, no panning necessary. That turned out to be very helpful. I captured several good shots of the birds coming in to land.

During all of our gawking, Trevor set up a table at the rear of the bus and provided tea, coffee, water, and biscuits to those who wanted them.

We had the Gannets all to ourselves, all 22 of us, for about 30 minutes. That is when the other three tour buses from the cruise ship arrived on the bluff. Suddenly we were with 60-some of our new best friends. The sound of camera shutters was nearly deafening.

The gannet press corps.

After nearly an hour on the bluff, we all got back on the bus for the 50-minute drive back to the Gannet Safaris headquarters.
When we got off the bus, we were both pleased with our decision to take the safari. We shall not forget that for a long, long time.

A red building near Cape Kidnappers.
Detail of the blooms of a pohutakawa tree.
The sign on a more exclusive Land Rover.
Sheep in a small paddock near the Gannet Safari location.
Looking east from the lookout. I did not know it at the time, but the flat portion of land in the distance is where the gannet colony nests.
A unique rock formation at the beach far below.
A view of the wilderness area.
Detail of the cliffs as seen from the lookout on Cape Kidnappers.
The paddocks seem to go on for miles.
This is the last gate before the final climb to the gannet colony.
This monolith is known as Shark’s Tooth.
The final climb was quite steep.
There are hundreds of birds in the colony. The nests are about 112 meters (367 feet) above the ocean.
The nests are constructed from seaweed and feces.
Low and slow…coming in for a landing.
The colony seems to go on forever.
The colony is at a very barren location.
Soaring toward a landing.
The two gannets in the front center are doing their reunited greeting.
At times, not only was ground full of birds but the sky as well.
Napier is on the far shore. on the rocks jutting into the sea, there is a third gannet colony.
Walking along this beach, one can reach the main gannet colony on foot.
The view back across the section toward the cliff lookout in the far distance.
The gannets that are not paired up simply walk around the edges of the colony.
An orange billed gull sneaking by a gannet.
The gannets are incessantly calling out.
The gannet in the center is literally dropping in for a landing.
Another busload of tourists approaching the parking area.
This bird just finished a low pass, looking for its nest sight.
Some of the tourists standing by the Cape Kidnappers Lighthouse.
Yet another tourist bus approaches.
The two gannets in the center of the frame are greeting each other after being reunited.
This gannet is readying for its takeoff “roll.”
We have liftoff!
Another lone gannet pacing the fringes.
The gannet must be wondering if it will ever find a mate.
Coming in overhead, looking for the nest.
A pair flying together.
Soaring and searching. I have no clue how they can possibly find their nest among the masses.
Another gannet making a low pass.
Making a pass over the colony.
The tourists and the colony.
A lonely-heart sleeping on the fringe.
Cruising over the Pacific.
Just droppin’ in.
The Pacific beckons. That’s where the food is located.
Locate the nest…must drop in…
Photographing from a different vantage point.
Trying for just the right shot.
Now, where did I leave my mate??
Cruising high.
Several birds making several passes.
Looking for the lost nest.
The bird with the wings partially extended had just landed.
Cruising by…again.
It takes an expert to determine a male from a female gannet.
A gannet stretching its wings.
Just about to touch down.
Searching for the right nest.
Taking aim on the nest.
And the bird is down.
Compensating for the breeze.
It appears this bird is ready to make the landing dive.
Coming in on the final approach.
Yes, please do!
Departing the colony, the road seems a bit steeper.
Another bus following us down.
Sheep on the hillsides.
Descending back to the valley paddocks.
Kiwi crossing sign.
The lower gannet colony.
A gannet on the nest with its chick.
Many of the birds have closed their eyes. I cannot imagine they can sleep with the never-ending sounds.
A pair of gannets.
At the cliff’s edge.
A gannet preening the chick.
A gannet calling out.
A gannet standing above the nest.
St. Petersburg (Санкт-Петербург)

St. Petersburg (Санкт-Петербург)

St. Petersburg, Russian Federation – July 13, 2015

We docked at St. Petersburg, Russia this morning. At breakfast, Leslie and I commented that we would never have guessed we would ever visit Russia, but here we are!
This morning, we were part of orange group #1, our tour group for our visit to the Hermitage Museum. Before we got on the bus, we all had to go through passport control. It was not necessarily a breeze. The immigration officer looked closely at us. She even motioned to my passport photo in which I sported a goatee and then pointed at my now clean-shaven face. In addition to our passports, she also demanded to see our ship excursion tickets. Those essentially acted as our Russian visas. Ultimately, even though she seemed a little cranky, she did stamp both of our passports. We thought it was cool getting that entry stamp.
Leslie, Lorraine, Arlene, and I boarded the tour bus. Leslie and I lucked out and got two of the front seats. That made it helpful for taking photos on the way. It was one of several buses lined up at the cruise depot. By 09:00, we began our journey to the museum. On the way, our guide told us St. Petersburg enjoys only about 60 days of sunshine each year. That is precisely the opposite of Colorado, which enjoys approximately 300 days of sun each year. Our day was nice. It was not until later in the day when we returned to the ship that we encountered some raindrops.

All of the buses…
Color on the other side of the international border. The colors are beside the ship. Standing on this side of the barrier with the buses, one is in the Russian Federation.
The business end of our Russian tour bus.

After about 30 minutes on the bus, we arrived at the museum. The Louvre in Paris, France, has long been my favorite museum, but that may be in jeopardy now. At the Hermitage, in addition to the museum, one also walks through an awe-inspiring palace. The other fact that sways me is that one of my favorite paintings is at the Hermitage, The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. The only downside is the size of the exhibit area does not comfortably allow for viewing when the museum is crowded.

The green building is our first glimpse of the State Hermitage Museum, also known as the Winter Palace.
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt (1663-1669). I got this view as our tour group walked by the portrait on their way to another.
Just before we left the Rembrandt room, the guide gave some insight into my favorite painting by the artist.

When we arrived, our guide shared that we were in luck. We were entering the museum about an hour before it opened to the public. That meant we had many portions of the museum virtually to ourselves. That worked out well for my photography.

The worn, bilingual sign near the entrance.

The museum is just over 250 years old, founded by Catherine the Great. The palace consists of six different buildings. We walked through five of them; the Winter Palace, Small Palace, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage, and the Hermitage Theater. The buildings total over 2.5 million square feet of space. The ornate decorations in each building and the displayed artwork are just incredible.
We entered the museum through the main Winter Palace door facing the Neva River. It took a little while to get our entire group through the turnstiles; however, once we did, we met the very ornate staircase known as the Ambassadors’ Stairs. When an ambassador visited the Tsar or Empress, they ascended the Ambassador’s Stairs. I am unclear on whether the audience took place in the Peter the Great Throne Room or the St. George Hall. Regardless, they were both stunning spaces.

The Hermitage Museum seems to stretch on forever.
Detail of the pediment above the main entrance to the Hermitage Museum.
At the base of the Ambassadors Staircase, a name used in the 1700s.
A marble statue in a niche on the upper portion of the Ambassadors Staircase.
The columns at the top of the Ambassadors Staircase.
The second landing of the Ambassadors Staircase.
A ceiling fresco above the Ambassadors Staircase.
The tour group ascending the Ambassadors Staircase.
A marble statue in a niche along the Ambassadors Staircase.
The first landing of the Ambassadors Staircase.
Marble sculptures near the top of the Ambassadors Staircase.
Our guide explains many of the features of the Ambassadors Staircase.

Departing the upper landing of the Ambassadors Staircase, we entered the Field Marshal’s Room. While it was impressive, it may have been the least remarkable space we saw that day. One may come to that opinion simply because the decorations are quite muted, not so ornate, and over the top, as some of the other spaces in the museum.
Most notable in the Field Marshal’s Room is the massive chandeliers. They each weigh a jaw-dropping two tons; 4,000 pounds! Several members of our group stood under the lights until our guide related that the chandeliers did fall once. That was enough to get everyone to clear the space.

The Field Marshal’s Room.
A vase in the Field Marshal’s Room.
A portrait of Field Marshal-General His Serene Highness Prince Tavrichesky Count Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin.

The Peter the Great Throne Room was a little more intimate than the vast expanse of the St. George Hall. The throne room had an intricate parquet and wood inlaid floor. The walls were a warm, but dark red. That red echoed in the throne dais carpet and the upholstery of the throne itself, displaying the double-headed imperial eagle on the back, an imposing figure. The ceiling consisted of arches and coffers with hints of gold leaf. It was elegant.

The throne in the small throne room of Peter the Great. The painting behind the throne chair is Peter I with Minerva dating between 1732 and 1734. The columns are made of jasper.
The parquet inlaid floor in the Small Throne Room.
The throne chair. I believe I prefer my recliner…

Leaving the Small Throne Room, we walked into the amazingly ornate Armorial Hall. The amount of gold in the hall defies description.  There was so much gold in the room that there was a gold hue throughout.
At one part of the hall, one could see through the doorway toward the throne in the St. George Hall. It is hard to imagine the numbers of staff that must have been required to make this Winter Palace a place to live and receive guests. Had I been alive in that era and in the St. Petersburg area, I am more than confident I would have never been able to set foot in the palace.
Comparing the Winter Palace living areas to the Napoleon Apartment in the Louvre in Paris is like comparing Versailles to a studio apartment in New York City. There is just no possible comparison between the two.

The Armorial Hall. By the way, all that glitters IS gold!
The Capture of Berlin on 28 September 1760 by Alexander Kotzebue (1849) in the Armorial Hall.
A very ornate lamp.
A view into the St. George Hall.
The aventurine lapidary in the Armorial Hall. Across the top of the lapidary, one can catch a glimpse of the throne in the St. George Hall.
Some of the golden columns of the Armorial Hall.
A marble sculpture in the Armorial Hall.

Even though we could see the throne in the St. George Hall, there was yet one more room to traverse; the Military Gallery. It is a long, narrow room. It is sometimes referred to as the War Gallery of 1812. The walls have dozens of paintings, all approximately the same size, of war heroes involved in the defeat of Napoleon. The entire tour group made quick work of the visit and moved on the hall.

Another tour guide leading her group through the Military Gallery.
Emperor Alexander I on his steed. The painting is in the Military Gallery. Equestrian Portrait of Alexander I by Franz Krüger (1837).
The bas relief above the door from the Military Gallery to St. George Hall.

The St. George Hall was an immense and massive space of approximately 800 square meters. That translates to about 8,500 square feet. That is more than three times the size of the average American home. A large dais, throne, and canopy dominated the east end of the hall. The throne seemed to be an exact duplicate of the throne in the Small Throne Room, including the imperial eagle. Behind the throne hung a large red banner from the canopy with an equally large imperial eagle. The ornate white and gilded ceiling soared two-stories above the floor.
Leaving St. George Hall, our group wound through some smaller spaces, ultimately stopping in Pavilion Hall. Intimate and two-stories do not necessarily go together, but this space was genuinely intimate. Dominating this hall is the 18th-Century Gold Peacock Clock. The clock is behind a glass covering. The peacock is life-size, as well as the cockerel and the owl. With such large creatures in the clock, one might think the clock face is large too, wrong. The hidden clock face is actually in a small mushroom. The automated birds originally went through a series of movements every hour. My understanding is that the clock now moves only a few times a year. That is to keep from wearing out the mechanical parts. Even though we did not see it move, it was an impressive piece.

The Peacock Clock in the Pavilion Hall dates from the 1770s.
One of our tour group members getting a closeup of the Peacock Clock.
Chandeliers in the Pavilion Hall.
The Peacock Clock.
Mosaic floor in the Pavilion Hall.
Detail of the mosaic floor in the Pavilion Hall.
Courtyard off the Pavilion Hall.
A sculpture in the courtyard titled “America.”
View from the Pavilion Hall across the Neva River to the Peter and Paul Fortress.

We ended up in the Old Dutch Masters area shortly after leaving Pavilion Hall. That is where we began seeing painters copying various paintings. They had easels, stools, and drop cloths set up. We quickly saw a dozen or more painters. Our guide shared that it was a big test for the art students through one of the local universities. I could barely take photographs of the paintings; I know there is no way I could copy one with a brush. Their talent was amazing.

This art student was copying Haman Recognizes His Fate by Rembrandt (circa 1665).
Ready to apply the paint at just the right spot.
Mixing paint.
Another view of the student copying Haman Recognizes His Fate by Rembrandt (circa 1665).
The unknown art student was copying Portrait of an Old Man in Red by Rembrandt (circa 1652-1654).
This view provides an idea of how each artist set up so as to not make a mess.
The tour group went from alcove to alcove, listening to our guide. We entered the display at the far end. That is where The Return of the Prodigal Son hangs, just out of view.
A closer view of the artist at work.
This art student is copying the Holy Family by Rembrandt (1645).

Our next viewing was the Italian Renaissance area of the museum.  Below are some of the works that caught my attention.  In this area of the museum, we found more art students copying paintings.

Madonna with Child and Two Angels by Paolo di Giovanni Fei (circa 1385).
A chandelier near the theater.
Another painting on the ceiling near the theater.
A painting on the roof near the theater.
Our guide describing an unknown painting.
This art student was copying The Madonna and Child (The Litta Madonna) by Leonardo da Vinci (circa 1495).
A stop in the Hall of Italian Renaissance Art.
This art student was copying a painting in the Hall of Italian Renaissance Art.
This art student is copying Portrait of a Lady by Lorenzo Costa (circa 1506).
The Nativity by Giovanni Della Robbia an example of 16th Century Italian majolica pottery.
An anteroom and chandelier near the theater.

Another unusual feature of the Hermitage is the Raphael Loggia. It is a relatively narrow hall, but it is around 20 feet tall. Some call the loggia Raphael’s Bible. That is because Raphael painted several stories from the Bible in this loggia.

The Raphael Loggia.
Detail over a door from the Raphael Loggia.
Detail of the ceiling from the Raphael Loggia.
Detail from the Raphael Loggia.
Our guide in the Raphael Loggia.
Detail from the Raphael Loggia.
Detail from the Raphael Loggia.

Below, in no particular order, are some of the other sights we saw in the Hermitage Museum.  The narrative continues well below the photos.

Another ornate ceiling.
A row of chairs in the Small Italian Skylight Room.
An art lover in the Small Italian Skylight Room.
Our guide imparting information in the Small Italian Skylight Room.
Martyrdom of St Peter by Caravaggio (circa 1601).
The beauty of the Small Italian Skylight Room.
The Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine by Domenico Beccafumi (1521).
Madonna with Beardless St. Joseph by Raphael (1506).
An art student copying an unknown work in the Small Italian Skylight Room.
Death of Adonis by Giuseppe Mazzuola (1700-1709).
Portrait of Doña Antonia Zárate by Goya (1810-1811).
An unknown art student’s copy of Boy with a Dog by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (circa 1655-1659).
This art student is copying the Repentance of Saint Peter.
Our guide was very knowledgeable.
The base of a lamp.
An unknown art student’s copy in progress of the Battle Between the Lapiths and Centaurs by Luca Giordano (circa 1688).
Meeting of Joachim and Anne near the Golden Gate by Paolo de San Leocadio (circa 1500).
Another detailed ceiling.
The Doctor’s Visit by Jan Steen (Circa 1660).
Marriage Contract by Jan Steen (circa 1668).
Detail of the large vase.
A large vase.
A small, but beautiful chandelier.
Smokin’ !!
Fruit and a Vase of Flowers by Jan Davidsz de Heem (1655).
Esther in Front of Ahasuerus by Valentin Lefevre (circa 1675-1699).
Yet another chandelier.
This painting of Jesus entering Jerusalem caught my eye.
Inlays on the side of a table.
Some very ornate chairs.
Detail of a light fixture.
Adam and Eve (The Fall of Man) by Hendrick Goltzius (1608).
Laocoon by Paolo Andrea Triscornia (1798).
Three dancing women near the exit.

The Hermitage is just like the Louvre in one respect; there is no way one can see everything. We did see many more works of art. When we emerged from the Hermitage, we saw a sea of people waiting to enter. We were glad we went when we did. We walked across the street toward the Neva River, onto our bus, and then back to the ship.

Departing the Hermitage Museum.
A boat passes by the Rostral’naya Kolonna in the Neva River.
View across the Neva River.

Back on the bus, our guide greeted us all with a Russian chocolate bar.  That was very nice of her.

Our prized chocolate bar.

At the cruise terminal, several gift shops were dealing in items designed to catch the eye of tourists. As usual, we found some refrigerator magnets.

Returning to the cruise ship.

After dinner that evening, we all went to a show. The entertainment was a troupe of 14 Russian dancers/singers.  Seven  band members accompanied them, playing authentic Russian instruments. The entire performance in Russian did not deter us from understanding what was happening.  The eye-catching traditional costumes were colorful.

The following day, our canal tour was in the afternoon. After breakfast, it was the same drill through immigration and onto a bus. Our destination was close to the Hermitage Museum. It was very cloudy. The bus stopped so we could all get off. We faced about a two-block walk to the canal boat. Some of the walking was a little dicey, but we all made it safely. While walking, we saw a bride and groom stopping to take photos.  Our guide told us it is normal for newlyweds to travel around the city, taking photographs at their favorite locations.

The bride and groom.
The bride and groom walking.

As we finished our walk, it began to drizzle. That did not stop me from taking photos. I kept clicking from under my umbrella. Shortly after the boat pulled away from the mooring, one of the workers brought us a complimentary glass of champagne, my kind of cruise!
Our boat departed its mooring on Moyka Canal. After passing the Japan Consulate, we took a quick right turn onto the canal that is on the east side of the Hermitage Museum. That canal led us to the Neva River. On the Neva, we turned to the west toward the Bolshaya Neva. I believe that means “little Neva” River. We cruised under the Dvortzovyy Most (bridge) and then under Biagoveshchenskiy Most. We made a U-turn back to the east, ultimately going under the Troitskiy Most. One right turn and we were on the Fontanka Canal. Our final right turn took us back to the Moyka Canal and our original mooring.
The bridges over the canals were extremely low. Some only had a total clearance of two meters, about six feet. If one were to stand while passing under, one would definitely lose body parts.

The Round Market building alongside the Moyka River.
A sightseeing boat on the Moyka River.
View of buildings beside the Moyka River.
Yet another sightseeing boat on the Moyka River. The Japanese Consulate can be seen in the background.
A beautiful old building, the Menshikov Palace, on the Neva River. Today, the palace serves as a branch of the Hermitage Museum.
Buildings facing the Neva River.
A view of the Rostral’naya Kolonna column on the Neva River.
Heading toward the Neva River on the Reka Zimnyaya Kanavka. The Hermitage is on either side of the canal.
Pedestrians on a bridge.
Looking back toward the Japanese Consulate.
Pedestrian walking near the Amber Palace.
According to Mr. Google, this building is known as the Pediment Genius of Glory crowning science.
No anchorage here!
A dome on an unknown building as seen from the Neva River.
The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation.
Some of the more colorful buildings.
The buildings seem to never end.
Another view of the Hermitage Museum.
A fellow tourist capturing photographs from the sightseeing boat.
A view of part of the Peter and Paul Fortress from the Neva River.
Looking back at the Reka Zimnyaya Kanavka. The Hermitage is on either side of the canal.
A videographer filming to the right.
A videographer filming to the left.
Some of our fellow tourists on the sightseeing boat.
The main facade of the Hermitage Museum.
The detail on the Troitskiy Bridge over the Neva River.
A commercial building. The sign on the right seems to translate as Megaphone.
One sightseeing boat is entering the Fontanka River while the other is entering the Neva River.
A sightseeing boat preparing to enter the Fontanka River.
A closer view of the Noplasticfantastic building.
The building on the corner houses the Noplasticfantastic store.
Another sightseeing boat passing under the Troitskiy Bridge.
Pedestrians on the Troitskiy Bridge.
The entry to the Fontanka River from the Neva River.
Detail of a building across the Fontanka River from the Summer Garden.
The tree-lined walk of the Summer Garden.
The videographer at work.
A no anchorage sign.
The Tea House in the Summer Garden as seen from the Fontanka River.
Entering into the Fontanka River.
There is not a great deal of clearance under the bridge.
A view of St. Michael’s Castle from the Fontanka River.
A very colorful delivery truck as seen from the Moyka River.
A speedboat on the Moyka River.
Pedestrians on the Panteleymonovskiy Most.
The detail on the Panteleymonovskiy Most.
The tallest spire of the Savior on the Spilled Blood church was just visible from the Fontanka River.
The detail on the Panteleymonovskiy Most.
Pedestrians cross the Panteleymonovskiy Most in front of St. Michael’s Castle.
A not-so-speedy boat on the Moyka River.
The Savior on the Spilled Blood church.

Just as we docked, the downpour began. It did not let up until we were back on the bus, of course. On the way back to the ship, we stopped by the Red October souvenir shop. Surprise, we bought another refrigerator magnet. Since there was still time to burn at that stop, I took a few photographs nearby.

Teremok is a favorite Russian stop for pancake type treats.
Two young men meeting.
The top of the poster proclaims “Music of Maxim Aunaevsky.” I believe the name of the production is “Scarlet Sails.”
A nice Beemer.
I do not know what it is, but this building is at the northeast corner of Konnogvardeyskiy Bul’var and Ploshchad’ Truda. Mr. Google says it is Dvorets Velikogo Knyazya Nikolaya Nikolayevich. That doesn’t help me much…
Cars waiting for their left turn signal.
A food delivery truck.
The word at the top of the newsstand states “newspapers.”
The boys were flocking to the Teremok.
A bus stop near the newsstand.

When the bus arrived at the cruise terminal, it was about 17:00. Our seating time for dinner was 17:30. After exiting immigration, we discovered a very long line to board the ship. I think part of that was because the ship was due to depart at 17:30.  We might have been a few minutes late for dinner that night, but it was no big deal.

Waiting in line to get back on the cruise ships. Earlier in the morning, the buses were on the other side of the barrier on the left.
The dining room hostess on the ship.

Even though we spent a night on the ship in the port of St. Petersburg, we were only allowed off the boat if we were on a ship’s shore excursion. We wished we had been able to get off the ship and explore on our own, but it is what it is.
After dinner, I was able to stand on our balcony and take photographs of the Gulf of Finland. One of the highlights was the flood control dam. It is about 15 or 20 miles west of St. Petersburg. There are large motorized steel dams, which close in cases of flooding. At that location, a divided highway traverses under the water. The road is labeled KAO. I believe that is a ring road around the St. Petersburg area.
Just before the flood control dam, I saw a small island. There was a small humanmade harbor in the center. I found out later that this is Fort Kronshlot, built-in 1704 to fortify Russia from other Baltic states.
We watched a little TV in our room and then retired, ready to awake in Helsinki.

Multiple lighthouses.
Abandoned buildings at Fort Kronshlot.
Looking at Fort Kronshlot from the west. St. Petersburg is at the far distant horizon toward the left of the frame.
Another lighthouse.
The far western end of Fort Kronshlot.
A lighthouse at Fort Kronshlot.
An abandoned building at Fort Kronshlot.
Fort Kronshlot.
Passing a sailboat flying a Netherlands flag.
A tall, narrow lighthouse.
A barge coming toward the cruise ship.
Looking back toward an abandoned building on a small island. It is known as Emperor Paul I.
The barge, L’aigle.
A ship in the distance.
Another view of the odd-looking lighthouse.
An abandoned building on a small island. It is known as Emperor Paul I.
Fort Kronshlot with St. Petersburg in the distance.
The same barge.
Another view of highway A118.
One of two large flood control gates.
Looking south over one of the flood control gates along highway A118.
A sign on the building at the flood control gates. The top portion states, “The complex of protective structures protects the city of St. Petersburg from flooding.”
One of the protruding points at the flood control gates.
View of the barge with the lighthouse in the background.
As best I can tell, the name of the barge translates to “crops.”
A smaller barge.
A Russian ship. The name may be SIGULDA.
A wider view of the SIGULDA.
A Russian barge.
A point at the flood control gates departing St. Petersburg.
The Maersk Norwich on the Baltic Sea.
On the Baltic Sea.
Gathering storm clouds without the flare.
Gathering storm clouds at sunset.
The starboard side of the Maersk Norwich.

Lastly, below are random photographs I took as we rode around town on the bus going back and forth from the ship to our tours.

A woman crossing the street. I found it odd that there are two stopping areas for red lights, one on either side of the crosswalk.
The Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great in the Senate Square park.
Immediately to the left is the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library. Just ahead on the left is the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation.
Steadily making our way through traffic.
A side street in St. Petersburg.
Graffiti on an abandoned building.
The yellow sign reads “detour.”
The sign reads TRUBETSKA First Class Transport. Under the phone number, it reads “around the clock.”
The Church of the Assumption of Mary on the banks of the Neva River.
A trolley passes by the intersection.
Traffic must turn right.
It looks like this baby is ready to get out.