Hokitika Gorge and the town of the same name on New Zealand’s West Coast

The town of Hokitika on New Zealand’s West Coast reminded me of a nostalgic seaside experience I’d never actually had. Though the views are spectacular and tourism services are plenty, the region maintains an element of the undiscovered country. Sure, there are tourists, but they don’t overwhelm the place.

There’s an electrician’s shop on beachfront property. Industrial spaces like these have been gentrified in every seaside town I’ve visited in the USA. Driving along Highway 6 from Greymouth, you’ll see cows in a pasture with a view. More than a view, this is 100% ocean frontage, and the cows don’t even appreciate their prime real estate. They just stand there nibbling the ever-growing grass as the Tasman Sea churns beside them.

On a Sunday afternoon in February–New Zealand’s summer–the easy availability of parking in Hokitika’s heritage district made me fear we’d arrived after the shops and restaurants had closed. In fact, there were a few shuttered doors, but most cafes were serving and opportunities to buy pounamu (greenstone) and possum merino abounded. I was also struck by the number of book shops and vinyl record stores for a little hamlet. No wonder they call themselves “the cool little town.”

Having arrived on the TranzAlpine train to an hour of heavy downpours in Greymouth, we learned immediately to appreciate the sun when it showed its face. Make hay–or make merry!–as soon as the sun shines.

Note: Every season warrants foul weather gear in the Westland. Do not visit New Zealand without a rain jacket unless you plan to buy one for an apt souvenir.

Our decision to store the large baggage with a helpful Greymouth i-Site Visitor Center employee at the station while we ate a late lunch and let the crowds disperse from the car rental counters turned out to be clever. An hour after the TranzAlpine’s arrival and subsequent return to the Canterbury Plains, we were the only people requesting information in the fully staffed station that had been a scrum a short while before.

I still forgot to ask where I could buy postage stamps, but not because of madding crowds. Chalk that one up to my aging brain or jet lag.

Note: My postcards arrived about two weeks after I mailed them from a downtown Christchurch streetside post box. Don’t be surprised if you beat your posted letters home.

“Hiring” a car, while not essential, offers the West Coast visitor the most flexibility to vary one’s itinerary with the rapidly changing weather. Neither DH nor I particularly enjoyed driving a strange car on the “wrong” side of the road, but the low population density and clear signage in our native language made the process manageable. He never did master using the turn signals backwards, though. We ran our windshield wipers every time we turned.

The next morning, being blessed with stunning weather, sunny and warmer than average, sent us from our oceanside B&B in Awatuna straight to Hokitika Gorge… after a better than average continental breakfast and one more cup of coffee.

The GPS knew the way, but the simple tourist map available everywhere plus bright yellow informational signs at every relevant crossroads would have gotten us to the popular site without any need for modern technology.

New Zealand rates and advertises many public parks with specific advice for fitness levels and time required to complete each track. This attention to detail is reflected on road signs as well.

The primary car park at Hokitika Gorge was full by 10 AM, but the overflow lot had plenty of space when we arrived. Parking looked a bit more difficult closer to noon, but there were definitely still spaces available. I’ve found that most popular tourist destinations are best seen either early or late in the designated hours, and that seemed to hold true here.

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Hanukkah family fun, night 7: Making tracks with a small gift that has an outsized impact

Read about our celebration of Night 6, here.

I’ve learned over the years that more gifts can lead to less joy, at least for my little not so little boys. Spacing out the individual presents helps, and so does avoiding too many extravagant gifts at the same holiday.

This has been one of my hardest parenting lessons to internalize: don’t overwhelm the kids with gifts that attempt to quantify your infinite love.

  • It’s impossible.
  • You’ll spoil them.
  • Your house will overflow with stuff at a cost far exceeding its value.

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. I also try to alternate bigger impact gifts with simpler pleasures, and spread out amongst all eight nights the presents I believe will most please different members of the family.

Yes, that’s right: I had a plan all along. Could anyone who knows me think I just wrapped this stuff up and grabbed boxes at random to throw at my family? There’s a spreadsheet, of course. It’s all about the pacing.

Hanukkah 7 simple track on table - 1Night seven was one for simple pleasures, and enjoying what we’ve already got.

The boys opened two boxes of additional Lego train tracks (Flexible & Straight Set 7499 and Switching Tracks Set 7895) for our Winter Holiday Train and its Station. You’ll want to begin with Nights 1 and 2 to hear more about those.

We spent the rest of the evening building circuits and inventing ridiculous scenarios for the minifigs and trains on the table.

Hanukkah 7 minifig throwing switch - 1

What’s she up to? No good!

I thought about providing the track right after the train, but this seemed to be a better plan. For one thing, we often but not always get a set built in one evening. Why rush the extra track onto the scene if the train wasn’t ready to roll?

More importantly, my little guy has had several days of marveling over the Station’s details and pushing the train up to the platform on its simple loop of track. Each time he immersed himself in the scene, he became more aware of how much he would enjoy expanding it and connecting it to another part of his imaginary world.

He’s been musing to himself for a few evenings:

“Wouldn’t it be cool to have a track that led to…”

Now, he can make that happen, and he’s ready to put in the effort to make it happen with no other distractions for the evening. The boys even dug into our existing Lego sets and pulled out an older, motorized train Grandma bought for a Christmas past.

This led inexorably to the aggressive shunting of steam engine and holiday trucks by a Diesel locomotive. Shades of the Island of Sodor, anyone? If you don’t get the reference, commence reading the Reverend Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine immediately.

A few pieces of track don’t make an extravagant gifteven at Lego prices, but today it has an immediate value to my younger, somewhat more materialistic son.† He also receives the gift of a modest object that gratifies his imagination above all else.

Too many toys are too easily forgotten in the chaos of more, more, more. The right accessory on Night 7 served to reignite all the excitement from those first, bigger gifts.

At least, that was my nefarious plan, which will be discovered if my kids start reading my blog.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 7 hanukkiah lighting - 1


Stay tuned for the final night of Hanukkah, Night 8.

The big kid just loves to build. He always sees the value in a gift of parts to expand on a modular set. The trick with him—and, it must be noted, with Mommy—is to remind him to graciously allow the younger child to assemble some tracks and learn for himself why symmetry and careful planning are so important when it comes to engineering a system of moving parts.

We didn’t mean to make the little guy cry! Sigh. And, eventually, he did get to play, too.

Hanukkah family fun, night 3: Lego Train heading into the Winter Holiday Station!

Go back to Night 2, here.

If you read yesterday’s post, you probably saw this gift coming, and full steam ahead at that.

That’s right: the Legoset 10254Winter Holiday Train has arrived at Winter Village Station. Thank heavens we got the platform built in time!

Hanukkah 3 train gift

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. I’ve gone on at length about our family love for Lego toys, but I think this photo might best express the joy a train can bring.

Hanukkah 3 train fans

That’s joy, I promise, and not terror (that the gift was a Trojan Horse promising to unleash a conquering army while we slept?)

Hanukkah 2 train station barista espresso - 1

Commuters into Bricklyn have received the greatest holiday blessing of all: Espresso! Okay, that’s a little blasphemous. So sorry. But it couldn’t be helped. Or, rather, I won’t help myself.

For those of us with espresso obsession, I’d also like to point out that the Winter Village Station has finally brought to Winter Village that most essential of services: a coffee window with barista working her espresso machine.

Lest you think these gifts are getting too predictable, I’ll share one hint about what’s coming tonight: it’s something the whole family will enjoy, but with a much greater focus on the long-held dreams of the grown up boy in our household, my darling husband.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 3 hanukkiah


Click here for night four.

Hanukkah family fun, night 2: Let there be Lego of the Winter Village variety

Go back to Night 1, here.

On the second night of Hanukkah, our family received the gift of Lego set 10259, the Winter Village Station.Hanukkah 2 - Lego front

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. While some parents may think Lego is just for the kids, those of us who still love to build would argue that a Lego set is a great starting point for creative family togetherness.

It is possible that I threaten the kids on “one gift shared by two brothers” nights by saying they should either enjoy their collective present peacefully, or the joy of building reverts to Mommy.

I may as well admit right now that I’m a tyrannical dictator albeit with benevolent intentions. I’m supposing that’s been obvious for about as long as I’ve been writing about parenting.

We’ve been collecting the “Winter Holiday” series from Lego since it was introduced a few years ago. While it is true that their “seasonal” decor leans more “Christmas-y” than secular, it is also true that the classic holiday look reflects fairly closely what we see in our community.

Hanukkah 2 - Lego back

Reflects our New England community, except maybe for the steam engine. Our local commuter rail employs modern diesel-electric locomotives.

It’s not hard to construct our own hanukkiah* to add to the Christmas tree in the winter village square.

Considering the number of aliens and other non-traditional types who populate our Lego scenes, we consider Bricklyn** to be a tolerant and accepting community where every minifig can worship or not as s/he sees fit.

And this particular contribution to the Winter Village? A train station? With a level crossing?

Oh me, oh my, there was no chance I would let this set slip by.

This mom likes trains. I like to travel by train, and I like to build toy tracks. I’m a sucker for the romance of the rails.

My oldest child was a Thomas the Tank Engine nut as a tot, and he still enjoys model railroading. To this day, he can name more of those little wooden trains than I would think possible. He’s our greatest engineer, and will build the best layout for our space, with our tracks.

DH is less an enthusiast, but will play with any radio controlled (RC) or motorized vehicle when given the chance. The trick with that man is keeping him within the bounds of our Lego city and the established decorums. He never builds according to the rules! We appreciate his creative nature, but sometimes have to reign in his wildest innovations.

And DS2? He’s a natural storyteller. You could give him a bowling set to play with, and he would weave a complex tale of the pins’ interrelationships and the great tragedy of the upcoming ball. Seriously! He might already be the most compelling narrator I’ve ever met, a fabulist in the best sense of the word. I often see my role as protecting him from having his boundless talent for spinning yarns educated out of him by a well-meaning system run by dull-witted bureaucrats. This little boy breathes the breath of life into Bricklyn, animating its subjects, and inspiring everyone else’s constructions to add dimension to our shared story.

Someday, we plan to have a model train—probably of the Lego variety—permanently set up around an open atrium in our living room. Blame it on my early exposure to Mr. Rogers and his trolley, but it’s been a dream of mine since I was a child, and my family seems equally keen on the plan. In my most elaborate fantasy, we will sandwich a Lego public transit system between two layers of acrylic sheet and create an entire subterranean level for our Lego city. My heart flutters when I think of it!

But, for today, we have a Winter Village Station to build. I promised the little guy that DS1 and I would get the main building assembled before he got home from school; he wants to make the old-fashioned truck by himself.

With the holiday school break approaching, we should have some serious hours to spend together in our invented winter wonderland.

Happy Hanukkah!



Click here to go to night three.

*The nine branched candle holder used specifically for Hanukkah is a “hanukkiah.” Notice the raised position, in the center of my hanukkiah, for the helper candle, or “shamash.” We use the shamash to light the other candles.

A “menorah” is a (now purely symbolic) seven armed candelabra that dates back to the days of the First Temple in Jerusalem where it would have been lit by the priests in a nightly ritual. Our Temple was destroyed, so we now make religious observances together in a house of prayer or “synagogue” instead of the Holy Temple.

**Read more about our family Lego project and its pride of place smack dab in the middle of the living room in this post.

Packing for a train trip


sleeper car compartments require different solutions

You may be the world’s most experienced traveler, ready to fly on a moment’s notice with a super-organized one bag solution that works every time… but you may not be ready for your first overnight in an Amtrak* sleeper compartment.

Train travel isn’t like most other modern trips. Yes, the train provides for your conveyance from point A to point B, just like your bicycle, the SUV in the garage, a Greyhound bus, or a Boeing 737. However, unless you customarily hit the road in a small RV, your typical ride isn’t also your home away from home for a night or two. I’m not familiar with any other type of travel where every inch counts for so much.

Cruise passengers may be the closest commercial counterparts to travelers enjoying the train compartment experience. A ship will take you from place to place, and will provide for your sleeping and toilette accommodations along the way. Even the tiniest interior stateroom on a modern cruise ship is palatial when compared to Amtrak’s sleeper car offerings, though, and knowing what to expect can make or break what may be a once in a lifetime trip through some of America’s most spectacular scenery.

Before I frighten you away from the train—one of my favorite modes of travel!—let me assure you that you will have more personal space than you endure enjoy on any commercial flight. An average- to plus-sized American will fit comfortably in every seat on the train, including those in the smallest sleeping compartment. If you can fit yourself and your belongings in a domestic first class airline seat and overhead bin, you are more than prepared for the daylight hours aboard the train.

The difference comes once the beds are “made down” in your sleeping compartment, prepared by your sleeping car attendant for the night’s repose.

The cozy dimensions of spaces on the train are never more obvious than during the transition from day to night (and back again, come morning.) Unless your attendant gets your bed made down while you are in the dining car, you will have to step into the hall while s/he performs this task. There simply isn’t room for an extra body in the compartment during the transformation. They are that small. Luckily, it only takes a skilled attendant a few minutes to accomplish the task.

Once back in your private compartment, the under seat areas you could reach easily during the day become difficult, if not impossible, to access with a bed stretched from wall to wall. You might be able to reach the bag, but not get it past a metal leg that now blocks the opening. Even if the bag can slide under the obstruction, if it has a rigid side, it may not have room to come far enough out to lift it up leaving it halfway in and halfway out of its under seat dungeon until freed in the morning.

Happily, solutions are easy! Forewarned that your wheeled carry on is not the best bag for a train trip, you can plan ahead to have a comfortable and convenient journey.

1) Rigid-backed, wheeled bags will be hard to access under seats, and heavy to stow in upper storage bays in Viewliner cars. It will also be hard to find room to open them for access at night. Soft-sided bags are a smarter choice on the train.

Your wheeled luggage is a fine choice for checked bags. On the bi-level Superliner trains out west, rigid bags can be conveniently stored in the luggage rack you pass upon entering your sleeping car. They won’t be in your compartment, but they will be accessible during travel. You would still face the inconvenience of finding a large, open space to open an inflexible bag, like the floor in the middle of the hallway by the toilets. Ugh.

Better choices for overnight bags to access in the privacy of your compartment include soft-sided luggage and simple duffel bags. Backpacks are the easiest to carry aboard, but use caution when stowing bags with loose straps under seats. I’ve had bags get hung up on the bed transformation mechanism underneath. A travel pack with self-storing straps is probably ideal, but not a necessary purchase if you won’t use it again.

2) Hanging bags are space- and sanity-savers in small compartments.

One utterly unique piece of luggage that seems a perfect option for use in a train compartment is the Rolo soft, rolling, hanging bag. I wouldn’t purchase one for a single trip. It isn’t a requirement for a good journey. If the organization of this bag appeals to you, it worked better on my most recent rail journey than anything I’ve used before.

Rolo bag empty roll hang suitcaseRolo is unique because it hangs up like a garment bag, which would also work well on the train if still own one. Unlike an old-fashioned garment bag, Rolo has zippered pouches more suited to folded or rolled casual clothing. Larger men’s sizes might not fit, but it was the perfect size for a change of clothing plus nightwear for one of my kids and me.

Every Amtrak compartment has at least one coat hook as a legacy of an earlier era when people dressed up to travel. This little foldaway hook is the perfect place to hang a long, flat bag. Garments stored in such hanging bags will be accessible even when the beds are deployed.

Another option would be to use a lightweight bag with long handles to temporarily store just you want for the night and early morning and hang that bag from the coat hook. You’ll need to plan ahead before bed, but this cost effective option can keep your belongings under control and accessible overnight.

In spite of half a dozen overnight journeys on Amtrak and reasonable planning and packing skills, I invariably end up sleeping with a lightweight bag on the bed near my feet. I’m not very tall, so this is comfortable for me, but it might not work for every passenger. If you are petite, it can be easier to sleep with yesterday’s laundry than contort into position to stow it after dressing for bed.

3) Toiletries should hang up, too.

Only the sleeping compartments known as “Bedrooms” have full en suite baths on Amtrak, but all sleepers have access to toilets and showers. Your toilet might be in your compartment (all Bedroom compartments, Viewliner Roomettes) or down the hall (Superliner Roomettes, Family Bedrooms.) Showers are en suite in the Bedroom compartments, and down the hall for all Roomettes and Family Bedrooms.

It’s a good idea to bring a robe or other quick-to-don garment for modesty during trips through the corridor if you are staying in anything but a full Bedroom.

Whether you will be sharing the facilities or using your own in a Bedroom, it can be handy to have a hanging strap or hook on your toilet kit. The train moves, shimmies, and shudders on rough tracks, and anything that isn’t fastened down can shift, sometimes suddenly. I always hang my toiletry bag on the coat hook (yes, there’s one in each toilet and shower room, too) lest it take a tumble into a sink or onto a floor that’s been left less than immaculate by the user before me. Your Bedroom or Viewliner Roomette sink will be as clean as you’ve left it, but it won’t pitch any less from side to side. An unsecured bottle can roll into an inaccessible corner under the bed pretty quickly, leaving you without your favorite toiletries. It’s safer to tuck them back into your hanging bag as you go about taking care of your toilette.

Particularly in the shower compartment, I take great care to place all of my clothes into a securely hung, water-resistant bag before running the water to wash. I managed to drop my clean pants into a puddle on the floor during my first Amtrak trip, and it made for an uncomfortable morning. Now, I wear yesterday’s clothes into the shower room and only bring my fresh undergarments to put on there (beneath my old clothes.) When I make it back to my sleeping compartment, I change out of yesterday’s outfit and into my clean, dry clothes for that day.

4) Eyeglasses and bedside necessities

In case I haven’t made this point clear enough yet, the train is moving, and sometimes that movement is abrupt. You might have a shelf or ledge next to your head while you sleep in your compartment, but important items you place there may not stay still through the night. If you wear glasses, use a travel alarm clock, or have other items you’d like to access in the night, a soft bag with a strap that can disconnect to wrap around or hang from a hook or bar is a very good idea. I use the same Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder Bag for this that I use for comfort items on a plane. It’s about the size of an average ladies’ purse. The key is the strap that can disconnect so it will work with either a hook or a fixed arm/bar.

Bags on hooks Waldsee

Green bag at left is my expensive and perfect Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder Bag, but the cheap white mesh shower organizer on the right has its uses

The upper berths (top bunk beds) always seem to have a built-in pocket for personal items, but I’m very reluctant to use them. I’d say that these pockets are likely about as clean as the seatback pockets on an airplane—not very! If you do plan to put your things in here, consider bringing an empty gallon size Ziplock bag to line the fabric pouch with first for hygiene’s sake. I’ve seen a wad of used chewing gum, for example, in a seatback pocket.

5) Cash

This final suggestion may be ridiculously obvious to some, but caught me off guard on my first cross-country Amtrak trip. It is wise to make sure you have enough small bills to last throughout your journey. There is no ATM on the train.

Food is included with Amtrak sleeper car fares; full service, sit down meals in the dining car were included in the price of your ticket. Since tipping is customary in American restaurants, and service charges have not been included in your fare, it is usual to leave a cash tip for the wait staff after every meal on board. Traveling as a family of four, we typically leave $5-10 at breakfast and lunch and $10-20 after dinner.

We had cash with us, but not enough small bills, during our first trip. If you are in a sleeper, you may not spend any other money during your trip, so you won’t be getting any more change. Drinkers who purchase alcoholic beverages in the Diner or the Café Car would be an exception to this.

Traditionally, one would also tip the sleeping car attendant who makes your beds and keeps the facilities tidy. Amounts vary—and Amtrak’s service is known to range from exemplary to downright awful—but I budget up to $20 per compartment per day for this. The only time I didn’t tip the attendant at all was when I literally didn’t see him the morning I left the train. That was an unusual case.

* Commentary applies about equally to Amtrak trains in the United States and ViaRail trains in Canada, though I can’t remember if there were as many coat hooks in the Canadian sleeper car. The ladies’ room in the ViaRail sleeping car was the nicest train restroom I’ve ever seen, and was both larger and cleaner than any other. That was the one train washroom where I didn’t feel compelled to corral my toiletries in their bag at all times.

I haven’t traveled on any other nations’ overnight trains to make additional comparisons.