Posted by: JLG | 28 May 2016

Been a While

Once again, it’s been a while since I have posted, so apologies for that! But if it’s any consolation, we’ve been REALLY busy over here! This was by far the busiest season we’ve had, and it continued well into the autumn, which is something we’ve been trying to achieve ever since we started in this business. Tourism New Zealand, who meets with us each year during our Luxury Lodges meeting in Auckland each May, has finally recognized that perhaps they should spend a bit of time and money promoting NZ as a year-round destination, since they have created a huge problem for the country during the summer months of January-March, when you could easily find yourself unable to secure accommodation in the country’s hotspots for the throngs of visitors. So they are now finally taking my advice and not only promoting holidays in NZ during the off-season, but they’re also helping to spread the word that there is more to the country than Rotorua and Queenstown, both of which have become so popular that no one wants to go there anymore.

Anyway, the work to expand the three guest rooms last winter has paid off in spades, with extremely positive feedback from guests and travel agents, and we have nearly paid for the project already, which is something of a miracle. Unfortunately, the project is not quite over, since the local council put a sort of quid pro quo on the job by requiring us to make one of the other guest rooms more handicapped-accessible than it already was. So J2 has removed the glass shower doors and the wall tiles in there so that a larger curtained shower stall can go in, along with a robust foldable shower seat. We’re taking the opportunity also to replace the toilet and lighting in there, and figured while we’re at it we might as well finally replace the toilet in the room opposite that one and completely renovate our private bathroom. So while that work progresses we have no bathroom on our side of the house, and are making do with a glorified outhouse, walking from our apartment across the inner courtyard of the house to use the bathroom in the Elizabeth Room (the one that is just having a toilet replaced). It’s kind of like camping, since it means that we have to walk through the open-to-the-elements courtyard to take our showers and all that for the next few weeks.

A few weeks ago–before we started tearing out the bathrooms–we had our second assessment visit to be recertified as a New Zealand Luxury Lodge. These assessments involve an overnight stay by two assessors, with dinner and an excursion that is typical of what a guest here might do. Last time they asked to do a cooking class here (though we also sent them to the blue penguin colony) but this time we had something a bit more interesting planned. Over the past few months we have worked with a number of local operators to put together some specialized tours for our guests, and we had them go on one of those. The one they chose is our “natural wonders” tour, in which they get a personalized tour of the Moeraki Boulders, the yellow-eyed penguin colony, and the historic Totara Estate and nearby Clarks Mill. Happily for us, the weather cooperated and they had a fantastic time, reporting back that they had no idea that the Oamaru area had such a varied range of things to see and do. Since one of the assessors is always a luxury-level travel agent, this was very good for him to learn, so we hope that it will translate into more bookings from his agency!

While we have been pretty busy this autumn, there have still been a number of lulls in guest arrivals, which has afforded us a bit of us-time. J2 and I both have started to go to the gym again, which we even managed to slot in between guest departures and arrivals during the summer, but which became a bit less rushed when we did not have to limit our visits to the hours between guest departures at around 10am and potential guest arrivals at 2pm. We have also been able to pursue our hobbies and other interests more actively, which has seen J2 dust off his brushes and canvases and start painting again, while I have done the same for my cameras and started to get out more and do more with my photos.

In mid-June we close the lodge down for the winter and prepare for our more-or-less annual winter break. I leave first, on 10 June, heading for South America, where I’ll visit Buenos Aires, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro for travel agent meetings, and pop over to Foz do Iguaçu for a bit of a break. I’ll spend a bunch of my time there in the company of our usual travelling buddies, Abdo and Barbara, though they’ll wisely skip São Paulo, so I’ll have people to explore these places with while J2 stays behind to work on those bathroom projects. Then we’ll meet up in London on 25 June and spend a week traversing England for more meetings before heading across the Atlantic to spend a few weeks on the US East Coast, followed by two nights in Houston and a couple of days in Los Angeles. We’ll end the trip with a week in Hawaii with our friends Naomi and Mike and return home on 3 August. Meetings are shaping up nicely in all these places, so it should be another productive trip!

Let me end here with some of the photos I’ve been taking lately, and some older ones that I have managed to resurrect with a bit of Photoshop.

Posted by: JLG | 23 March 2016

Confucius Say…

A few weeks ago (actually, it was probably months) we got involved in a community-driven activity to help brainstorm ways to expand the town’s gallery. It was a three-night thing, spread over three weeks, and we were seated at the same table as a father-daughter pair with whom we began to chat. They knew a bit about us, including the fact that we had spent time in China. They were Chinese-New Zealanders, both born here, and the father found it amusing that our Chinese is better than his (and far better than his daughter’s).

Fast-forward a few weeks (or is it months?) to last week. The father phoned me to get my email address, since he wanted to send me something. When I got the email, it turned out to be an invitation from the Oamaru Chinese Association to attend the opening of the Confucius Classroom at St  Kevin’s College, one of the secondary schools in town, set to take place on March 22. The Confucius Classroom is part of a worldwide initiative that is supported by the Chinese government to set up schools and classrooms all over the world to promote Chinese language and culture study, and this was to be the first one in this part of New Zealand.

So the big day was yesterday, and I headed up to the school for the official opening, to be officiated by His Worship the Mayor and the Consul General of the People’s Republic of China. When I arrived, I was immediately struck that JK Rowling must have modelled Hogwarts on NZ schools, since the male pupils were wearing corny blazers, some with contrasting coloured piping, and short trousers, and some had all sorts of awards pinned to their lapels.

The Mayor and Officials Unveiling the Plaque

 I had thought I was just going to be in the audience, but when they called us into the event I was dragged into the procession behind the mayor and education counsellor from the Chinese consulate (standing in for the CG, who wasn’t available) and seated on the dais with all the muckety-mucks. Before everything got under way they played the Chinese national anthem, followed by New Zealand’s (thanks to Bernice, I was able to sing along with the Maori verse, though for the English one that followed I had to stand silently), and then, without warning, one of the boys started a very impressive haka that virtually the entire student body participated in. (I later learned that this haka is unique to this school, and tells the story of the school in Maori; at intermural sporting events each school would do their school haka, which I think is a pretty cool idea.)

 I had to leave after all the officials gave their speeches–with each speaker introduced in passable Mandarin by one of the pupils–but returned with J2 for the evening activities, when we would get a chance to participate in some Chinese cultural activities. They had a taichi class, a tea tasting, paper cutting, and lion dancing, among others, and we bopped between classrooms checking them all out. At the paper cutting, a bunch of young Chinese people were very surprised that we speak Mandarin, but they were even more surprised that we managed to complete our cut-paper flowers way before they did. The lady doing the tea tasting confided in us that the teas she was using were pretty poor, purchased in Chinese shops in Christchurch, and told us that she read all about us in some magazine (perhaps this was the result of our hosting a group from China Southern Airlines in October), and knew that we have a big collection of Chinese teapots and high-end teas at the lodge.

 After all the activities we were invited to a supper provided by the Oamaru Chinese Association. We were inexplicably expecting a wonderful array of Chinese foods, so were a bit disappointed to see mostly sandwiches, good ole Kiwi pies, and the like, and a small range of dumplings. It wasn’t bad, but if we’re going to have a resource like the Confucius Classroom in town (which will also be available to adults, and I’m already planning to set up a practicum for local hospitality businesses to learn some Chinese phrases and basic cultural things to help them deal with the growing numbers of Chinese tourists coming to town) we should really be able to do better. And that’s why J2 and I have started to plan to set up a Chinese restaurant in town! This could be the catalyst to get Alpha to move here at last, and of course it would give us a place to go for a really good meal. Stay tuned to see if it materialises…

Supper Spread

Posted by: JLG | 6 January 2016

Holidays 2015/16

I have never been especially fond of Christmas or New Year’s. When I was a kid, Christmas Eve was fine, since it was my parents’ anniversary, so we’d invariably go out to dinner (often it was Chinese, as is traditional for Jewish families) and to a movie (I remember seeing Young Frankenstein one year, and thinking my dad was going to die, he was laughing so hard at all these jokes I just was too young to understand). But on Christmas there was never anything to do, and even when I eventually started to get invited to join friends for their Christmas parties, I always felt a bit like a fifth wheel. And I never felt that New Year’s had much point, and as someone who hates crowds and doesn’t like to get drunk, it was always hard to find something appealing to do.

Now that we live in New Zealand, where the year-end holidays fall in what is supposedly “summer”, the locals go hog-wild about Christmas, counting how many “sleeps” remain until the big day, and then shutting the entire country down for the day, even going so far as to legislate a ban on shops being open that are not completely essential (or geared to travellers), which makes me wonder how grocery stores can be considered inessential, since they are 100% shuttered on Christmas Day.

Given that we are a traveller-oriented business, we are allowed to be open, and since I could not care less about the holiday, I am only too happy to have people here on the Big Day, though it means planning ahead to be sure to have absolutely everything I could possibly need on hand since it is not possible to run to the store to fill any gaps that could arise.

This year we were fortunate to have a full house pretty much every day from 23 December to 2 January, and to have a wide range of guests during that time. A few of these caused us to be a bit wary prior to their arrival–in particular, the range of people staying on Christmas and Boxing Day had us a bit nervous, since we were expecting a family of six Orthodox Jews from NYC whose dietary restrictions were pretty intense; a former Australian Foreign Minister and his wife, whose fastidious eating habits are mentioned in the Wikipedia article about him; and a gay couple from Pennsylvania who we figured would be a piece of cake. As it turned out, the Orthodox family were wonderful, and the dietary restrictions were not as bad as we were led to expect. The Australian guy and his wife–who stayed for a week–were also fantastic, and after dining with us on their arrival night, they ended up adding dinner four more nights, so we appear to have satisfied his requirements. But the gay couple were a real handful–needy, persnickety, and not quite what I’d call seasoned travellers, but despite a few hiccups caused by their travel agent failing to notify them that dinner with us was not included on Boxing Day (fortunately we were able to rectify the situation) they seem to have left happy with their stay.

For the Orthodox family, whose religious observance meant that they could not do anything more than do a walking tour on Boxing Day (since they not only had no car, but would not have ridden in one on the Sabbath anyway), we organised a guide and prayed for nice weather to allow them to make the most of their time with us. Happily, our prayers were answered, their walking tour was a hit, and we even managed to convince a few places that were officially closed to open for their tour. They loved the fact that for their Shabbat dinner I had made a loaf of challah (though I only made one, not realising that they should have had a pair of them), and wanted to share images of their meals on a kosher gourmet website, though of course the Sabbath restrictions meant they could not take any photos (lucky for them, I took shots of all their dishes).

Boxing Day had one little surprise for us–a pipe in the Elizabeth Room (where the Australian FM was staying) burst, necessitating a call to the plumber to come fix it. Luckily for us everyone involved took it in stride, but we cannot get it properly fixed until things reopen in mid-January.

On the 27th, the last of our newly reupholstered sofabeds was returned to us. The sofabeds as delivered were so horrible that we quickly realised that we’d have to get someone not just to change the fabrics on them, but also do something to improve their comfort. The upholsterer did a fantastic job, turning what were pretty unappealing pieces of furniture into something that we can be proud of.

For New Year’s we had a family of Americans who live in China, a pair of Americans from Georgia, along with some British guests and a pair of non-resident guests who just wanted to come for dinner. We made a really celebratory menu, centred on things like oysters, Beef Wellington and Sachertorte, though it turned out that one guest was dairy-intolerant and another was gluten-free, so we had to make two “deconstructed” Beefs Wellington and a quick meringue-based dessert. Most of the guests went to see the penguins after dinner, which meant–I thought–that I’d get to bed early, but that didn’t work out, since everyone wanted post-dinner drinks, and the American guy working in China, who has been there 20 years and has a Chinese wife but still speaks no Chinese, wanted to sit with me long past midnight to nut out what his exit strategy from China should be.

I got to bed a bit after 1am, and hoped to have a decent sleep before getting up for breakfast prep, but the Chinese wife wanted a Chinese breakfast (I had not counted on that) so I had a very fitful sleep and finally at 5am decided enough was enough and got up to start preparing it. I was pretty worthless the rest of the day, and had counted on letting Ashley run the show for that night’s dinner, but of course she called in sick so I was on my own. Luckily we finished their dinner pretty quickly and I was in bed by 9:30.

With that the holidays were technically over, but the celebrations continue in NZ until at least the fourth, with some places not reopening until the 11th (including the plumbing place…). We continue to have a load of guests, including a wedding party who took over the lodge for two days this week, so 2016 appears to be starting off pretty well. Long may it continue!

Here’s wishing you all a very happy new year–may it bring you all that you hope for!

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Vintage car to take our bride to the church

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Garden Room with reupholstered sofa

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Sabbath dinner table with my 6-strand challah

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Beef Wellington

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Vegetarian starter “Beetroot Symphony”

Posted by: JLG | 10 December 2015

Getting Ready for my Bees

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In my beesuit (on the right) with my friend Iain

Early in the year, I was made aware of a Kickstarter (or Indiegogo, I can’t remember) campaign to support a newfangled beehive, one that allows ignoramuses like me to raise bees in a much easier-to-use hive that even allows the honey to flow relatively freely without having to disturb the bees. The campaign was looking to raise $60,000 or so, but by the time I learned about it it had already exceeded that figure so the device was sure to come to fruition. I decided to back the project and get in on the ground floor, committing to the full-fledged package that consists of everything you need to start my first hive. By the time the campaign was over, they had received pledges in excess of $1,000,000, making the Australians behind it crowd-funding celebrities. (You can learn all about it at their company’s website: http://www.honeyflow.com)

The campaign ended in April, and with the huge number of orders they had to leap into action to be able to start fulfilling orders, even going so far as to set up a production facility in North America, where presumably most of their orders came from. Luckily for those of us near Australia, we will be supplied from the Australian factory, and sooner than the others, though we still had to wait till December to receive our hives.

In the meantime, we have started to collect books about beekeeping, but we haven’t really done much more than that to prepare ourselves for the arrival of the hive. But then a few weeks ago we learned that the Waitaki Community Gardens were going to host a beekeeping seminar one morning so we planned to attend.

The event was pretty low-key, and amounted to a local beekeeper telling us about the things to look out for when raising bees in the area (varroa mite is a problem here, so that’s the main concern), but then a few lucky people–basically the people who could fit into the beesuits that they had around–got to go with her to inspect her hives. Happily for me, there was one large suit, and no one else that size was up for getting up close and personal with the bees.

Putting on a beesuit for the first time was a bit odd, though it’s really just like wearing a set of protective clothing like when you go into an operating room or a sterile production area, and the hood reminded me of a fencing helmet. But as odd as that was, even odder was the sensation of walking toward a pair of hives that were quite literally buzzing with activity. Normally I am a bit wary of bees, but here I was, blithely walking toward them and eventually peering into their hives as the beekeeper opened it up to show us their workings.

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I’m second from the left

The bees were fascinating to watch. It’s quite early in the season, so there was not much honey in the first hive; instead the cells of the frames were filled with much more interesting things to see–eggs, larvae, hatching baby bees, pollen, and nectar. I had never realised before that the cells get used for all those activities, nor did I realise that drones are all born in a separate section of the frame (always on the periphery), and that the lifespan of a bee is determined more than anything by how far it flies, with the result that in summer the bees tend to live only 5-6 weeks, while in the winter (when they don’t fly as much) they can live for 5 months or more. A bee basically dies when its wings wear out.

The second hive, which the beekeeper was afraid might not be thriving since she had the impression that its queen had left, was in fact thriving. Given the presence of a lot of baby bees, larvae and eggs, it was clear that the hive had created a new queen who was busy populating her hive. And unlike the first hive, this one even had honey, and quite a bit of it, too!

When we got home I got to work looking for a beesuit for us, eventually opting to order one from the people who sold me the hive, which will come with gloves, hood and even a bee tool (used to move the frames around and pry open the boxes) and should arrive with my hive. I’ll keep you posted as things develop!

Posted by: JLG | 29 October 2015

Whoops

When we left Beijing more than five years ago, one of the things we were saddest to leave was actually not a thing, but a person, our friend and personal trainer, Alpha. We became good friends with Alpha over the course of several years training with him and eventually opening a gym with him. When we moved to NZ, he saw us off at the airport and ever since he has kept in regular touch with us. When we went back to Beijing in 2011 we of course spent time with him, and when I went to Shanghai in 2013 he came down and met me.

So we were really excited when he told us that he and his wife were planning to come for a visit to New Zealand, and even more that they were going to check the place out as a possible place to emigrate. They had a bit of trouble getting their visas at first, but in the end they got the visas and began to plan their trip. A few weeks before arriving, Alpha said that they would be accompanied by two friends of theirs, one an old friend of Alpha’s wife, and the other a client of Alpha.

Their itinerary was to start off by flying into Auckland where they’d spend two or three days before flying down to Dunedin where they’d hire a car and come to Oamaru. Then, after five nights here, they would drive off to Queenstown, spend some time there, and then drive all the way to Picton (a 9-1/2 hour drive), cross the Tasman on the ferry to Wellington, and then drive up to Auckland. All started out just fine, and we enjoyed following their exploits in Auckland on Facebook. They arrived as expected on Sunday, and Alpha and Diana settled into their room (the Elizabeth) before they headed out to take their friends to their accommodation for their time in Oamaru, a backpackers a bit of a drive away. Before too long, they were back, since Diana’s friend–a well-to-do woman with houses in Beijing, Macau, France and a villa at the Great Wall–was not going to be caught dead staying in a place with a shared bathroom. So she would now take the Victoria Room, while Alpha’s friend was content to stay at the backpackers. No problem, especially since he would spend his waking hours with us and just sleep out there.

On Monday we spent the day together as planned, and in the evening, after dinner and penguins and some tea at our place, I went to bed and the friend got into their car to head to his place. Almost immediately Alpha came to find us to tell us that there had been an accident. Turns out that the friend pulled out of our driveway, turned left up the hill and somehow managed to hit the neighbour’s car with such force that he a) sheared off the front left wheel of his car, and b) forced the rear right wheel of the neighbour’s car into the passenger compartment. And incidentally the neighbour’s car was brand-new, and the neighbour is the CEO of the local district council. Of course, the rental car company cancelled their contract and banned them from hiring from them again. This of course put a bit of a damper on their plans to drive all over the South Island so on Tuesday we headed to a local travel agent (strategically choosing the one where the mayor’s wife works) to book alternative plans for them. Getting them from Queenstown to Wellington was easy enough (they’ll fly rather than take an arduous drive followed by a rough sea crossing) and we even managed to hire them a car (with a different company), but getting them from Oamaru to Queenstown was proving a challenge. There being no public transport option that met with their approval, the solution I came up with was to drive them myself in a van that I hired to let us all be able to get around together, with them falling all over themselves to promise that they’ll pay for my room in Queenstown (I’m going to stay with them to help them get around…) and all my other expenses. I’m actually looking forward to it, but I’m sure it’ll provide fodder for a follow-up post…

Posted by: JLG | 17 October 2015

New Rooms Unveiled!

At long last, after years of planning and months of work, we are finally able to reveal the newly expanded and renovated rooms in our Annex building. To recap, the Annex is a stone building located across the courtyard from the main house, and while it was built at the same time as the rest of the house (in 1889) it suffered a fire in 1925 and was massively rebuilt in the 1990s, thus causing it not to be protected by the historic covenants that govern the rest of the property. Thus we were able to do a bit of construction there, as long as we did not do any digging, since digging would require the expensive oversight of Heritage NZ, who would send an archeologist to make sure we did not unearth any artefacts in the course of our work.

Work started in June, taking off the roof from the ground-floor cinderblock extension that would be the base on which our new build would stand, and then knocking out the bits of wall that would provide access between the existing parts of the rooms and the new parts. Then the framing went up, followed by the roof, and once things were enclosed they started to work on the interior. The interior walls went up in early September, followed quickly by plumbing, electrics, and the other bits and pieces. By late September it looked pretty much finished, though to comply with the district council’s building codes, we also had to put drywall up on the walls in the downstairs section and make it fire-safe, thus accelerating our plan to convert that space into a number of rooms to use for storage, gardening and J2’s hobbies.

Even while under construction we managed to bring a few groups in to see the rooms, including a few travel agents who had come by on site inspection visits. Each of them was very impressed by the size, design and amenities of the rooms, and earlier this week, after sending out photos of the new rooms (which you’ll soon see below) to some of our key travel agent partners around the world, quite a few immediately asked to upgrade their guests from the “inside” rooms to these new “outside” rooms. So early signs are that this will prove to have been a worthwhile undertaking.

So, without further ado, here are the rooms, with both “before” and “after” shots:

Here is the Park Room:

Park Room BEFORE

Park Room BEFORE

Park Room Bedroom

Park Room Bedroom AFTER

Park Room Bedroom

Park Room Bedroom AFTER

Park Room Ensuite

Park Room Ensuite AFTER

As you can see, the room is much larger, and while we do not have a photo of the previous ensuite, I assure you that the new one is not only far bigger, offering both a shower and a bathtub, but it also has lovely views over the garden and park beyond.

Nest, the Nest Room:

Nest Room BEFORE

Nest Room BEFORE

Nest Room Bedroom

Nest Room Bedroom AFTER

Nest Room

Nest Room AFTER

Nest Room Ensuite

Nest Room Ensuite AFTER

Nest Room Ensuite

Nest Room Ensuite AFTER

The Nest Room is also much larger, but still retains the sunken bedroom that had made this room so popular with honeymooners and others looking for a romantic room. While the sleigh bed is now gone (it is now being used as the bed that our personal guests can use rather than occupying a guest room), it has been replaced by a new super-king bed that splits into twins when needed (all the Annex rooms now have this feature). And again the ensuite is far larger, and has great views of the ocean and the mountains.

Finally, the Garden Room:

Garden Room BEFORE

Garden Room BEFORE

Garden Room Bedroom

Garden Room Bedroom AFTER

Garden Room

Garden Room AFTER

Garden Room

Garden Room AFTER

Garden Room Sitting Area

Garden Room Sitting Area AFTER

Garden Room Ensuite

Garden Room Ensuite AFTER

The Garden Room fulfils the maxim that the “last shall be first”, since it has gone from our “ugly duckling” room, which was so small that we actively discouraged travel agents from booking it, and almost always upgraded people out of it if they had booked it and our other rooms were not full. Now it has by far the largest living area of all our rooms, with an enormous space occupied by the California king bed (poached from the former Park Room) at one end, and a sitting area at the other. Like the other two rooms, this one also has a satellite television–the only rooms in the lodge with this feature–and a Nespresso machine in addition to the former tea kettle, and the ensuite (which, it has to be admitted, is the smallest of the three, and has no great views) has the same bath and shower and heated tile floors of the other rooms.

There is still work to be done to complete the rooms. You may have noticed that the Nest and Garden Rooms have no curtains in these images (the Garden Room curtains have now been installed, and we’re just waiting for the Nest curtains to be finished) and the shelves that will go above the tea/coffee areas have to be made, stained and installed, and the closets that have been built into the corridor connecting the rooms have to have their doors painted etc, so more photos from when this work is done will be forthcoming!

What do you think of the outcome?

Posted by: JLG | 23 September 2015

Our Wee Project

I just realised that I have not written in at all about our little project back at the lodge. In case you’re out of the loop, back in June prior to my departure from NZ for my US trip, J2 and I dismantled the three rooms in the Oamaru stone annex building at the rear of the lodge in preparation for the builders to come in and work on turning those three not-overly-large rooms into something more befitting a luxury lodge. Throughout my time away, J2 kept me abreast of developments on the project, from the breaking through of the outside wall, to the removal of the roof over the portion of the building that the extension would sit on top of, and to the raising of the walls. By the time I returned, eight weeks of work had already passed, together with a few of the Council inspections that are part and parcel of the building process here. Most of those inspections were merely routine, but a few turned up some issues that required a rethink of the project, such as the requirement to put emergency lighting over all steps in the rooms, fully lining the space underneath the project (which we planned to line one day, to make it more useful as storage and work space, but we had hoped to put off until this project was long-since paid for), and adding fire exit lighting.

When I returned, most of the interior walls were still going up, and the windows had just gone in, but progress went very quickly, despite several workers taking numerous sick days. J2 has been an absolute workhorse throughout, working late into the evening and making sure that progress was kept up. A few weeks ago the drywall went up, but as a cost-saving move J2 agreed to do all the finishing of the walls, including the plastering and the painting. That work was all done (we thought) by Monday of this week, but then yesterday the glass people came to reinstall the shower doors, and in doing so they realised that there was no wood in place to screw the hinges into, so a portion of the drywall had to be removed, a 2×4 installed, and the drywall put back in place.

Last night the electrician came to wire up the place, so we now have light throughout the building. Coming from a family in the lighting industry, the lighting of these rooms has proved to be an especially trying challenge, since the range available here is not quite what I had hoped for. Also, technology has moved way forward in lighting and the thing nowadays is LED, which provides wonderful light economically (barring the initial investment, which can be high) but not always in forms that suit a high-end environment. We managed to find nice lights however, and even make use of some old Glucksman Lighting Product lamps, that I hope will give the rooms a nice ambience.

This morning the bathroom vanities arrived (not a moment too soon!), and the plumbers began the work of installing the toilets, sinks, mixers, and heaters. We have ordered granite from the local monumentalist to serve as counters for the tea-and-coffee areas in the rooms, and we have found some Portuguese bedspreads to cover the new super-king beds, and high-quality bed linen to go underneath. The carpeting is due to go in next Tuesday, so the plan is for J2 to sand down the wooden portion of the floors on Wednesday and refinish them on Thursday and Friday, so we should be done just in time for a travel agent from the US to come and visit on October 6.

Pictures are worth 1000 words of course, so here you can see the project from start to current status. What do you think?

Posted by: JLG | 9 August 2015

Los Angeles and Home!

As mentioned in the last post, Los Angeles is not exactly my favourite place in the world, and I could easily live the rest of my life without ever going back there. Nonetheless, one of my favourite people in the world, Kris, lives there, and she is always generous about letting us stay at her house when we visit, so that makes visiting the city actually rather pleasant.

As much as I was looking forward to seeing Kris, it was not quite enough to make me actually enjoy the experience of dealing with LAX. I had booked a rental car through a company that only tells you the name of the rental agency after you commit to the booking, and I had never heard of the company I was stuck with. Waiting for the shuttle bus at the arrival terminal was my first indication that this was not one of the better car hire companies, since dozens of shuttles for every other rental company passed by before even one for mine came, so I gave the company a call to find out what’s going on. The agent basically told me to be patient, and before I got a chance to ask if there was an alternative way of reaching them he actually hung up on me! Then when I finally got there the choice of cars was abysmal but at least I only would have to drive it for four days.

I had a meeting the afternoon of my arrival, so I headed there straight from the airport, letting my GPS guide the way. Unexpectedly, I wound up driving through several streets that are on the “tours of the stars’ homes” routes, so I had to dodge slow-moving open-topped tourist coaches as I drove along, but I eventually got there and had a very good meeting with a very boutique agency. After that I headed to Kris’ place, waited for her to get home from work, and then we went out for a Mexican dinner (natch!) before jet lag caught up with me and I called it an early night at 9pm (though midnight for me).

During the day on Thursday and Friday I mostly occupied myself either meeting with people or getting to my meetings with people, since traffic in LA is pretty abhorrent. But luckily for me the meetings all went really well, and everyone is upbeat about the prospects for West Coast travel to New Zealand this coming year. I did have one other thing to do though while in LA. My niece had seen a thing on TV about a restaurant in Studio City that makes a dish that she wanted to try to replicate, but she needed some intel on its consistency and components, so I said I’d pay it a visit. That was before I realised that Studio City is miles away from anywhere I had to be, and as I mentioned before, dealing with LA traffic is not my favourite thing to do. But my love for my niece is endless, so off I went on Friday. When I got to the restaurant, I told the waiter (who was one of the best-looking people I have ever seen, and is clearly a model or actor waiting to be discovered) that I was a man on a mission to taste one and only one item on the menu (since I had a lunch meeting later), and he was extremely accommodating. The dish, a hoecake with maple syrup, chopped scallions and flaky sea salt, was not really all that great, since it’s basically just a corny pancake, but I was able to get my niece the info she wanted, and that’s a priceless commodity.

When I got to LA Kris asked me what things I wanted to do, and I casually mentioned that a friend had told me that Spamalot was playing at the Hollywood Bowl. That sounded appealing to her, so she ended up getting us tickets, and we went on Friday. I had never been to the Bowl, so I was doubly excited, since I am a big Monty Python and had not yet seen this show. The deal with the Bowl is you generally eat there, either bringing a picnic or buying something at one of a number of places that sell food (and wine) for consumption at your seats. The seats themselves are just wooden benches, none too comfortable, so people bring cushions to soften the blow. But the shows are first-rate, and this one was no exception, especially since they enlisted a cast of big names (including Christian Slater, Warwick Davies, Craig Robinson and Eric Idle) who were excellent and clearly were having a blast themselves.

On Saturday we decided to treat ourselves to lunch at Langers, the famed Jewish delicatessen in the heart of a very Mexican neighbourhood, and then head to the Getty Museum for an afternoon of art. This was my first visit to the Getty, which is housed in a beautiful set of buildings on a hill overlooking the city and the ocean, with several interesting special exhibits in addition to a range of permanent displays and a beautiful garden. On Sunday we kept close to home, visiting the Mar Vista farmers’ market in the morning and then babysitting Kris’ friend’s two-year-old newly adopted daughter for the afternoon while the friend edited a commercial she’s working on. Walking around Venice on a hot, sunny day was probably not the best thing to do, especially without sun protection, and sure enough I got a bit of a burn, but nothing too terrible.

This ended up being a really fun visit to LA, and it was a great way to cap off my visit to the US and Canada. Big thanks to all my friends and family who put me up these several weeks, and looking forward to my return next year, and to returning the favour when you visit me!

Posted by: JLG | 9 August 2015

Last Days in NYC

On my last two days in NYC before heading to the last stop on my trip, Los Angeles, the weather gods decided that the city could use a bit more heat and humidity, so whatever time I would spend traipsing around on the streets would be sure to be a bit stickier and ickier than my visit had so far been. Luckily I didn’t have that many more things to do, so I could manage to keep somewhat out of the heat for the most part. A friend from Wellington had sent me an email over the weekend, asking, if my luggage would accommodate it and I could locate it, I could bring him back a bottle of something called Bonal Gentiane-Quina. The friend is something of a cocktail aficionado, and has generously offered to concoct a “house cocktail” for the lodge, and he’s something of a bitters fan, so I assumed that this was some sort of bitters, and would probably come in a small bottle with a dropper cap. A quick Google search revealed that I was close–it is in fact a French apéritif along the lines of Campari or Fernet-Branca, and awfully hard to come by in New Zealand–but it comes in a 750ml bottle. Still, I had not much better to do, and I still had two days left on my all-you-can-stomach NYC transit pass, so I headed into the city to visit the Mecca of any self-respecting drinker, Astor Wines & Spirits, down near NYU.

As though to prepare me for my departure from the city, the powers that be decided to much around with the IRT subway this day, causing all downtown local trains to run express between Grand Central and Brooklyn Bridge. To get to local stops, such as Astor Place, you would have to overshoot and take an uptown local from the express station “below” your chosen destination. Astor Place, of course, is four stations uptown from Brooklyn Bridge, so I’d not only have to way overshoot the stop, but then I’d have to wait for an uptown train to come and then ride it for four stops if I were to do as the MTA gods instructed, or I could just get off at 14th Street and walk south for one stop. Despite the heat and humidity, I decided that was a better option. Having been to Astor Wines many, many times, I more or less walked there by autopilot, but was caught off-guard when I got to its location and found that in its place was a Walgreens drugstore! I couldn’t imagine that it was out of business, so I got on my phone and found that it had moved a few blocks further south along Lafayette Street, a short walk away.

Astor Wines has expanded a bit in their new location, and the new layout is a lot easier to navigate than the old one. One thing that has not changed is the breadth of their offering, and they remain competitively priced. Sure enough, they had the Bonal, and for only $19, but they had only two bottles left, which I took to be a sign. Up until now, I had only bought one bottle of alcohol to bring back to NZ, a bottle of Zacapa rum, which our friends Mike and Naomi turned us onto a few years ago and which I frequently choose as my tipple of choice when sitting with guests after dinner. Zacapa is essentially unavailable in NZ, and when it is it is very, very expensive, so I usually try to get a bottle when out of the country (and it’s our standard answer when visitors ask what they can bring us from overseas). I had not planned on bringing much more than that back with me, but now that there was the Bonal to contend with, I figured I might as well fill a box. Astor does not sell suitable boxes, but on a previous trip to NYC we discovered the Spirited Shipper, a company that sells specialised cardboard boxes designed to carry wine and spirits securely as checked-in luggage. Having learned my lesson from my walk to Astor, I phoned them to make sure they are still around and in their same location, and happily for me they were, and they’re not far from the subway, to boot. So with a new option to buy, I bought not just the two bottles of Bonal but also a bottle of Zaya rum (which Mike and Naomi also introduced to us) and a bottle of Amaro Lucano, an Italian aperitivo that I also enjoy sipping and that is not sold in NZ at all (to my knowledge).

For lunch I made myself a booking at Craftbar, a restaurant owned by Tom Colicchio (of Top Chef fame) that was participating in NYC restaurant week. Their entire lunch menu was available under the $25 promotion, so I had a wealth of choice, but in the end it was pretty easy to make my selection since a) they had soft-shell crab on the menu (in the form of a sandwich), and b) they had a few things on the menu that I thought could easily be adapted for use at the lodge. So for my starter I had a lovely salad of beets with watermelon, pistachios, cucumbers and yogurt, followed by the soft-shell crab sandwich (the crab was great, but the bun was a bit too heavy for the delicate crab), and a “pavlova” for dessert. My understanding of pavlovas has evolved since moving to NZ, the home of the famed dessert, and this one was more of a meringue than a true pavlova, but it was still very tasty, and the berries and corn custard that accompanied it were delicious.

I made it to the box store very easily, but had not considered that the box would be a bit unwieldy to carry, together with four heavy bottles of liquor, since it comes unassembled. To get back to my mom’s from the store involved taking a bus and the subway, and walking a few blocks, too, and doing so encumbered by heavy and awkward packages, in the high heat and humidity, was not exactly fun, but knowing that I was doing my friend a huge favour made it all worthwhile…

My last lunch in NYC was booked at Nobu downtown, which was also taking part in restaurant week. Having visited Nobu in several other cities, and having enjoyed the meals I had at each of them, I was really looking forward to this lunch. The meal itself was fantastic, but the arrogance of the model wannabe who was responsible for showing me to my seat was a bit much, and put a bit of a damper on the experience. My menu consisted of a sashimi salad with Matsuhisa sauce; uni tempura; seared Arctic char with pickled vegetables; and Earl Grey crème brûlée. (Normally I would not order crème brûlée at a restaurant, since mine is always better, but I had faith that Nobu would do it well, and I was not disappointed.)

Before heading back to mom’s for the evening on my last full day in NYC I stopped in midtown to meet up with my goddaughter, Alisa (whom I had seen during the weekend at her parents’ house), since she wanted to help us with some PR for the lodge. So we met near her office and I took her to Magnolia Bakery for a touristy cupcake while we chatted about what she can help us do and she asked for some godfatherly advice (which I supplemented, of course, with the old standby to “leave the gun and take the cannoli”). I also stopped at William Greenberg’s bakery at The Plaza to buy some black-and-white cookies to take to LA and to NZ, further adding to my packing woes for the flight across country.

I wanted to spend my last evening in town with my mom, and she had chosen a new Italian restaurant as the venue for our farewell dinner. The meal was great, but it was even better to have some time for just mom and me to culminate the more than two weeks I got to spend with her.

One of the best things about the way I organised this trip was that it involved an absolute minimum of air travel. Other than the big flights between NZ and the US, the only other flight I had to contend with was one flight from NYC to Los Angeles on Virgin America. I had thought, since it was an early flight (departing at 9am) that JFK would be virtually deserted when I checked in at 7am, but boy was I wrong! The place was a madhouse, with thousands of people lining up to check in for their flights and go through security, but the wait at Virgin America was pretty short. When I got to the check-in agent, I put my William Greenberg bag on the counter, which lead to a friendly banter between the agent and me about giving her the contents, and I think that friendly exchange is responsible for her deciding not to charge me for one of my bags being overweight (woot!). With that bit of good luck my visit to NYC ended on a very positive note, and I now had Los Angeles–not one of my favourite cities to visit–to look forward to.

Posted by: JLG | 28 July 2015

New York City Part Six! Eating and reunions!

IMG_0939I am pleased to report that I suffered no ill effects from my wild day on Friday, not even as much as a bout of dry mouth or a headache. So when my niece and sister came down to Forest Hills to join mom and me for a traditional dimsum lunch at a nearby place, East Ocean Palace. This is a place that we’ve been visiting for years, and my sister and niece even sometimes come here with mom in my absence, so it’s clearly not just that I drag them here. Still, it was really nice of them to tell me that, while they enjoy going there anytime, it’s a whole better experience with me. Maybe that’s because I have a bit of a ritual when we go there, including making sure that I get a quality pot of tea instead of the swill (aka jasmine) that they normally foist on non-Chinese diners. I also usually end up conversing with the cart ladies in Chinese, generating much amusement and the inevitable effusive praise of my language skills from the servers. I’m not sure that we had any items on this visit that they wouldn’t have had without me, other than perhaps the chicken feet (I don’t think my family are fans, though they gave it a go). It was a lovely little reunion of our tiny little family before I leave the area, and I enjoyed it immensely.

After dropping mom off at home, my sister, niece and I drove into Corona for a visit to the Lemon Ice King of Corona, only the second of my visit to NYC. This time, however, I stuck to the lemon ice, while my niece and sister opted for piña colada and watermelon, respectively. The reason for this little stop was that they were dropping me off at a nearby restaurant to meet with

Diane and Debbie with their ices

Diane and Debbie with their ices

my old friends Robert and Katya, whom I know from my days working in Moscow in the early 1990s. They now have two grown kids, a daughter who is also my goddaughter, and a son. They were at this restaurant with Robert’s dad and other family members, all of whom remembered me from get togethers from years and years ago, so we had a fun chat over espresso and cantuccini before the party broke up and I headed up to Westchester to spend the evening and overnight at Robert & Katya’s house.

Despite a number of years having passed since we last saw each other, Robert, Katya and I fell immediately back into our old friendship, as though we had last got together last week. Sure, we had to catch each other up on some things, but when you are good enough friends, those grooves are well-worn, and you fall back into them easily. Since we had all had big lunches, we thought we’d just have a light dinner, but when I accompanied Katya and my goddaughter to the store, we wound up buying the makings of a huge feast (Katya’s mother is also in town from Russia, and their son is a big kid, so I guess definitions of a ‘light dinner’ may vary depending on your frame of reference).

When we got back from the store, I then went out with Robert to their local liquor store, which was doing an absinthe tasting. Robert could not believe that I had never had absinthe, so this was a must-do, he reckoned. As a fan of pastis, which in fact I had just had last week at one of my meetings, I enjoy the flavour of liquorice liqueurs, and was happy to sample the three varieties on offer. The first one we sampled was Vieux Pontarlier, and was easily my favourite, very smooth with a not-too-sweet flavour. The second was made for Marilyn Manson, a singer whose songs I do not much like and whose taste in absinthe I like even less. The last was a Swiss brand whose name I don’t recall, despite having liked it almost as much as the first one. Robert then noticed that they had an open bottle of one of his favourite bourbons (we used to drink rather a lot of bourbon back in Moscow, since he had Jim Beam as a client), and it was extremely good, but they had no bottles for sale (thank goodness).

Mozzarella & Tomato salad that I made for dinner

Mozzarella & Tomato salad that I made for dinner

Dinner was tremendous fun, sitting outside on their deck and sipping a fantastic bottle of Italian wine that they brought back from their recent trip to Tuscany, reconnecting with my goddaughter, who is now in public relations and eager to help spread the word of our lodge to the right people in the US, and playing with their three dogs. It just doesn’t get better than this!

In the morning, Robert, who wakes up early, was eager to make Sunday breakfast for everyone, and what a spread it turned out to be! Several packages of bacon were cooked up, followed by a huge batch of pancakes, and then Russian-style fried eggs with ham. I think he’d have kept cooking more stuff if I had let him. Unfortunately, I had to leave rather early to catch a train to head into town, since I was meeting another old friend for lunch in Chinatown.

Erika and I studied in Leningrad in 1985 and when we returned to the US we stayed very close for years. She got married, had twins, got divorced, and we saw each other less and less, but like Robert and Katya, we were such good friends that whenever we get together it’s as though no time has passed. Unfortunately, the fact that her kids are now 17 years old makes it hard to pretend that no time has passed… We went to a dimsum place (yes, dimsum twice in a row!) that was the first I had ever visited, way back in the 1970s, long before dimsum (aka yumcha) was popular outside the Cantonese community. Thank goodness the place has undergone a bit of a renovation, since in the old days it had no air conditioning and it was not the cleanest place you’d ever like to visit (my parents turned up their noses at going here when I introduced them to dimsum, preferring a more sanitary looking place that is now long gone). Our lunch was fantastic, with a tremendous amount of laughter, jokes at everyone’s expense, and the realisation by the daughter that her fencing instructor (who was also my fencing instructor back in college) is a distant relation of mine.

This was a stupendous way to spend a weekend in New York, and one that I hope I’ll get to recreate before too many years pass.

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