One of the things I love most about living in another country is experiencing their holidays. Whether it’s something nondescript like the UK Bank Holidays, similar like Remembrance Day, or completely new like Waitangi Day in New Zealand, holidays are a crucial component in the code of a culture. They say a lot about who you are as a people and what you value. All of this is to say that on Monday I observed for the first time the Queen’s Birthday, despite the fact that her birthday is officially the 21st of April. Having now resided in a Commonwealth country for about nine months, I’ve learned my fair share about HRH Queen Elizabeth II, and not just what you might see in The Queen: how her uncle, Prince Edward, abdicated the throne to marry an American divorcee; how her father, Prince Albert, reluctantly took to his new role as King George VI and reigned for only sixteen years; and how Elizabeth met her husband, the controversial Prince Philip, while only thirteen years old.
Of course, just like President’s Day back home, it’s not like any of this is really the focal point of the Queen’s Birthday in New Zealand. It’s annoyingly mentioned on TV adverts for department store sales but is chiefly just an excuse for a day off (sorry, Queen.) But I decided to honor (honour?) her in my own little way by going on a trip. My friend Kailim, a workmate from the restaurant, invited me along with a group of his friends to Hanmer Springs for the day. Despite a bustling population of oh, say, 800, it’s renowned for its hot springs, a “result of the fractured rock bed along the Hanmer Fault” (thank you, Wikipedia). A day involving nothing but hot pools? How could I say no?
I should mention my invitation came from an 18-year old…and early Monday morning I soon discovered the twenty other people in our group were the same age. Now, I’m turning 23 in a matter of weeks, so this made for some interesting conversations.
“So are you, like, thinking of studying?” a girl asks me.
“Well, I actually graduated from university last year…” I didn’t mention wanting to get my master’s next year – no need to exacerbate how old I was clearly going to seem to them.
After the typical confusion and delays that are to be expected when trying to get twenty-odd people – teenagers, at that – on the road, we finally set off. The sun was shining, I had control of the iPod – can you ask for much more from the passenger seat? We made our way across my ever-beloved Canterbury Plains before hills started to rise up around us. In the distance were the Alps, covered in even more snow than the weekend before. Richard, one of my new young friends in the back seat, tells us to look out for certain rock formations that should be coming up in the hills beside us: Frog Rock, Seal Rock (which Phil claimed more resembles a slouching lizard), and Lion Rock. Lion Rock gets its moniker from its weak resemblance to the open jaws of a lion; Chair Rock is nothing more than two stones set at a ninety-degree angle, one of them upright like the back of a chair.
“Man, this is so disappointing,” Richard says. “They seemed so cool as a kid. I coulda sworned it looked like a massive sofa. I almost wish I hadn’t seem them.”
While Richard mourned the disillusions of his childhood, I kept up watch for more formations. We never did find Frog Rock.
I don’t know what I was expecting from Hanmer Springs. I suppose when I heard “hot springs,” I had envisioned something more along the lines of pools dug out near riverbeds or tucked away among ferns and mossy rocks on the mountainside. What I found was that Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa is quite the commercial affair. The first thing that greets you upon arrival is an impressive price list detailing about fifty different entry options – single adult, single adult return ticket, children under 3, children over 3 but under 15, and even a mini group entry for two adults and up to three children but only one and a half dogs – they’ve covered all their bases.
After making your ticket selection at check-in, the attendant slaps a bracelet around your wrist and herds you along towards the changing rooms inside the complex. You shove your bags and belongings into wooden cubbies obviously ill-designed for the normal size of such a bag – or shell out $2 for an appropriately-sized locker – before heading into one of the nine pools. There’s quite the range of temperatures to be found, from 33-42 degrees Celsius, about 90-110 degrees Fahrenheit, and a cold pool if you get tired of the heat. Among the nine pools, some are modeled after traditional pools, some are landscaped with large boulders and greenery for a natural touch, and the sulfur pools are left chlorine-free – and your nose can tell, trust me.
The whole affair was all too reminiscent of a day spent at Water Country USA or some other watery amusement park. Of course, not being in America meant it was far less tacky, not so much designed with the A.D.D. soul in mind, or built to guarantee a sensory overload. But as soon as we stepped into the first pool, a photographer in board shorts and a polo wades his way over to us and snaps a series of shots, which we are helpfully informed will be available for our viewing pleasure in the gift shop as we exit for the day. The family pool area features hydroslides and a mutant giant wooden bucket that refills every ten seconds or so and, if you so desire, empties itself on you in a cascade of water.
But the setting couldn’t have been more picturesque. The Alps in plain view, steam rising all around, shafts of winter sunlight filtering through pine trees and steam (doesn’t sunlight always seem to “filter” in this kind of writing?). And all I did for four hours was soak it in, letting every customer, phone call, or messed-up order of the past week slip away in the mist.
It was a bather’s paradise. I’ve never been much of a bath or hot tub person – something about soaking myself for extended periods of time in hot water always leaves me feeling groggy and light-headed. But if it doesn’t leave you feeling like you might pass out, these hot springs are for you. What was so completely un-amusement-park-like about it was that there wasn’t anything to actually do. The point is just to be – to pick a pool of your choice and let the steam envelope you.
We dined for lunch in the Gardenside Café, where I paid approximately 400% the normal price for a burger and fries. But I was starving and as it was inside the complex, I sat in the restaurant in my bathing suit, wrapped in a towel. Walking from pool to pool, it felt like a day at the beach. Even the village of Hanmer Springs itself is replete with cafes, fish and chips shops, and – my favorite – mini-golf courses, which, of course, any American knows is a standard feature of a beachside town.
After lunch we walked into the heart of the village, where some of the boys ordered a late lunch at a fish and chips shop and I subsequently found a burger priced at a quarter of what I paid for mine. Excellent. Kailim and I did a couple of trails of a “Woodland Walk,” taking in creeks, lakes, ducks; all part of your average Woodland Wonderland. We then drove up a hill with some of his friends to catch incredible views of the village, the Alps, and surrounding valleys. Another girl asks me, “Can you get this kind of view in America?” I have no doubt something similar could be beheld in the Rockies or Yosemite or Yellowstone, but certainly nowhere I’ve ever been on the East Coast. And that’s what there is to love about New Zealand – the accessibility of nature. Everything is so close. I’ve been told that the farthest anyone would have to drive from anywhere in New Zealand to the nearest beach would be a couple of hours, and I can imagine the same goes for stunning Alpine vistas.
As I had a staff party to attend back in Christchurch that evening, I went straight to the showers rather than one last trip to the pools with the others. I could have been in a YMCA for all I knew. Cold showers behind plastic vinyl shower curtains, group changing areas, frigid tile floors. Except…it wasn’t summer and I’d spent the day in hot springs, not in a wave pool, lazy river, or traveling backwards in a intertube down the Aquaforce 3000x thrill ride with two loops and a gut-wrenching drop.
The familiar meets the new – I’m beginning to see a pattern.