We began Christmas Day 2020 the same way we have begun almost every other day of 2020: we went for a walk around our neighborhood. We did not sleep in. We had no need to sleep in, having retired on Christmas Eve no later than we have retired on any other night. And we needed to get up and get going, because this was to be the first day of our trip to the South Island.
First, some background on this holiday excursion. Last September, our co-worker Sister E decided to extend her mission so she could stay in New Zealand another six months—long enough, she hoped, to give the U.S. a chance to get its COVID-response act together. Originally, Diane had planned to take a cruise around the whole of New Zealand before going home at the end of her mission in January 2021. The cruise was to begin in Sydney, where she had arranged to meet an American friend to accompany her. COVID changed everything, of course. New Zealand closed its borders, meaning that passengers on a cruise originating somewhere else would not be allowed to disembark anywhere in the country. Moreover, cruising itself suddenly became the sort of high-risk activity that only fools would attempt. Reluctantly but wisely, Diane cancelled her reservation (thanks to COVID, she was able to get her deposit back), but mourned the loss of the opportunity to see the South Island. Her visa would expire in July 2021, so now she wouldn’t have time after her mission to do any touring—and anyway, she didn’t want to travel around New Zealand by herself.
Sensing Sister E’s sorrow, Michael began formulating a plan to put a smile back on her face: He and Nancy would take Diane on a trip to the South Island for Christmas. Because the Church observes all national holidays, the Matthew Cowley Pacific Church History Centre would be closed for Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, and the Day After New Year’s Day (an official NZ public holiday), so Barry had decided that we might as well close the Centre for the other three days between Christmas and New Year’s. That would give us more than a week off to travel.
Having not done any serious trip planning since our group excursion to Wellington in October, Michael was itching to get back into “travel agent” mode. After checking airline fares and calculating approximate driving distances, he put together a rough proposal to present to Diane and Nancy: Fly from Hamilton to Christchurch on Christmas Day, rent a vehicle, and then spend nine days driving a loop around the southern half of the South Island. The itinerary would include Dunedin, Invercargill, Stewart Island, Milford Sound, Queenstown, and Aoraki-Mount Cook Village. We’d then return to Christchurch and spend a night there before flying back to Hamilton. Diane was thrilled with the idea, as was Nancy, and both approved the preliminary budget Michael had worked out, so he set to work finding accommodations and at least one worthwhile “attraction” at each stop.
Our excitement was hard to contain as the three of us discussed sightseeing options, restaurant recommendations, and other details. Barry and Eva, who had been preoccupied with executing their own plan to stay in New Zealand by applying to serve another mission here, listened with growing interest.
“You’re welcome to come along,” we said, but they declined, noting that they probably would have at least a couple of weeks in January to travel between their release as directors of the MCPCHC and their new mission assignment—whatever that may be. (Many people asked why Elder and Sister G couldn’t simply extend their current mission, but the answer was that another couple had already been called to replace them, although their names had not yet been publicly announced.) By the beginning of October, however, the Gs’ resistance had dissolved; the trip we were planning sounded like too much fun. And after all, what else were they going to do between Christmas and New Year’s if the Centre was closed?
It should be noted that we also invited Alan and Wendy to join us, but they had already made their own holiday travel plan: they would be heading in the opposite direction, driving up the sparsely inhabited west side of the North Island to Cape Reinga, New Zealand’s northernmost point, and later spending a couple of nights in a yurt near Whangarei.
During the first few weeks of October, it was not unusual to see Michael, Diane, and Barry huddled together at the end of the workday, laptops open on the workroom table, making coordinated reservations for flights, accommodations, and ticketed attractions. All such arrangements were carefully tracked on a shared Google spreadsheet that Michael had set up—the type of document that our children jokingly refer to as a “Schedule of Known Events,” after a similar spreadsheet their father created while trying to coordinate a family vacation several years ago. This is the sort of thing Michael excels at, and although our kids sometimes roll their eyes at their dad’s detailed vacation-planning spreadsheets, we all appreciate his efforts to ensure that our excursions and holiday get-togethers go as smoothly as possible.
At the beginning of November, Michael began researching restaurant options for our South Island trip. He had anticipated that finding restaurants that stayed open on Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day would pose challenges, so he had booked accommodations for those nights at hotels with in-house dining rooms. What he did not anticipate as a challenge was Boxing Day (the day after Christmas). He began to despair after calling ten restaurants in Dunedin and discovering that all ten would be closed on 26 December, but was relieved to learn that the eleventh restaurant on his list would be open. Unfortunately, it would not accept reservations, so he made a note (on the spreadsheet, of course) that we would need to arrive in Dunedin so we could find the restaurant and get our name on the list for a table before it got too late. Finding a place to eat on New Year’s Day in Christchurch ceased to be a challenge when we were invited to the home of the Church History Department’s newly-hired New Zealand manager. We had met Melanie when she came to an interview at the MCPCHC in October and looked forward to the opportunity to meet her family and become better acquainted.
By the middle of November, all travel arrangements were set, and everything seemed to be under control—except the weather. On 17 December, a severe tropical cyclone cut across Fiji and sent rainstorms swirling around the South Pacific. We’ve learned to be prepared for any type of weather any time we go out anywhere in New Zealand, so we had planned to take rain gear and lots of layers, but we feared that heavy rain would make the trip less pleasant than we hoped. We also worried that stormy conditions might force the cancellation of some of our planned boat and air excursions. All we could do was pray for better weather—so we did.
When Christmas Day arrived, the forecast called for chilly, drizzly conditions in Christchurch—not the beach weather we had hoped for, but at least we weren’t in for a tropical cyclone. After our morning walk around our Frankton neighborhood, we showered, did one last load of laundry, and then opened our little pile of Christmas gifts from other senior missionaries, museum volunteers, and ward members. (Among other things, we received enough chocolate to last until Easter.) Sadly, Michael had not made his traditional Christmas-morning cinnamon rolls, but we had some leftover bran muffins and assembled a very nice omelette from the rest of the perishable food in the refrigerator. Once the dishes were washed and the bags packed, we were ready to go.
Barry picked us up in the mission van at 11:40. Vic had come along to see us off, and then drove the van back to the Centre so none of us would have to leave our cars and pay for parking at the airport. Few flights were coming in or out of Hamilton on Christmas Day, so when we arrived about noon the terminal was completely empty except for the two desk agents who cheerily checked us in. As our 1:30 departure time drew closer, more people showed up. We were flying on a medium-size ATR 72 prop plane, which is to Air New Zealand what the Boeing 737 is to Southwest Airlines, i.e. the core of their fleet.
Cloud cover prevented us from seeing much of the North Island out the window, but the view cleared as we flew from Taranaki to Nelson over the Cook Strait. On our first visit to New Zealand in 2014, we had spent a day sea kayaking in Tasman Bay near Nelson, so it was fun to be able to look out and see where we had paddled.
After we landed about 3:30 p.m., we found the Christchurch Airport much busier than Hamilton’s had been—not surprising, considering that Christchurch is more than twice the size of Hamilton (400,000 vs. 176,000). The Budget car rental agent was just as cheery as the airline agents had been. He identified himself as a Latter-day Saint, too, and we thanked him for being willing to work on Christmas Day so that we could pick up our Hyundai iMax diesel van and get on our way without delay.
Our first destination in Christchurch was Melanie’s house so we could drop off a Christmas gift. We had made a couple of batches of strawberry jam the previous weekend to give our associates for Christmas, and had saved a jar for our soon-to-be Church History manager and her family. We also had a fresh sourdough boule that Michael had baked on Christmas Eve, so we didn’t want to wait until New Year’s Day to make the delivery. Melanie had told us that her family (like most other Kiwi families) would be spending Christmas at the beach, but the damp, chilly weather changed their minds, so they were home playing board games when we stopped by. Not wanting to disrupt their holiday too much, most of us didn’t even get out of the van, but because a few of our party were determined to spend at least a little of Christmas Day in the Kiwi way even if weather conditions were less than optimal, we asked Melanie and her husband Jared to tell us where we should go to get to the nearest good beach.
They recommended driving to New Brighton Beach, about twenty minutes from their home. New Brighton was a good choice because its pier, which extends 300 metres into the Pacific Ocean, provided us with a great view of the surrounding geography without having to get our feet sandy or wet. When we visited Christchurch in 2014, we had seen only the city center and the airport, both of which are on level ground, so we were surprised to see rugged hills and misty mountains not too far away. Few people were on the beach and even fewer in the water because it was cold and blustery, but several were fishing from the pier or just out walking, as we were, and a number of bundled-up families were at the adjacent playground.
Having gotten our fix of ocean air, we headed toward the center of town, looking for the Rydges Latimer Hotel. We found it soon after our driver (who shall remain nameless) momentarily forgot that when one makes a right turn from a one-way street onto a two-way street in New Zealand, one must turn into the left lane. (We wish we had been able to snap a photo of the alarmed look on the face of the driver of an oncoming car in the right lane!) By the time we had checked into the hotel it had started raining in earnest, so we scrapped a plan to walk around town before dinner.
Every table in Bloody Mary’s, the hotel’s unfortunately named restaurant, was decorated with a Christmas cracker at each place—which explained why most of the diners we passed on the way to our table were wearing funny paper crowns. When pulled apart, the crackers produced a small prize in addition to the royal diadems: those at our table included a top, a yo-yo, a tiny joke book, a plastic paper clip, and a little protractor.
The Christmas buffet was nicely presented, but the food might best be described as high-end mediocre. There was a good selection of breads, salads, sides, meats, cheeses, and fruit, but most dishes lacked distinction. A couple of very nice chutneys (jalapeño and tomato) prepared by the Indian chef made the generally overcooked meats more palatable.
Desserts included a decent plum pudding and individual pavlovas that were crunchy rather than soft, but the best dessert was a crisp, lacy cookie, rolled up and filled with whipped cream.
We sat around the table for a long time after the buffet had ceased calling us back, sharing memories of favorite Christmas gifts we had given or received. Yes, we missed familiar traditions and being with our own family, but as we exchanged pictures and messages with them throughout the day, we didn’t feel so far away. And we were happy to be with friends who have become like family over the past year. We are grateful that these friends share our commitment to serving the Lord, and that our children are teaching their children to love and serve him as well. Our grandchildren are learning that our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is a celebration of God’s love for us. They are beginning to appreciate, as we do, the marvelous gift each of us has been given.