We started following the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) in January, when it was declared a World Health Emergency. By chance we left Italy just before the outbreak started there, and we kept an eye on the news as we traveled in Africa. During our safari we had occasional (and very slow) Wi-Fi access at strategically-placed restrooms across the Serengeti. From the snippets of news we picked up, it became increasingly clear that the epidemic (which was not yet officially a pandemic) would influence our travel plans. But how much?
By the time we got to Dubai in early March we knew we needed a serious look at our plans for onward travel. Many countries were barring entry to travelers from virus hotspots like northern Italy. Others were quarantining new arrivals. Airlines were beginning to cancel flights. We didn’t want to find ourselves stuck indefinitely in a tiny hotel room someplace, unable to leave for even a walk around the neighborhood.
Over the years I’ve built up New Zealand in my mind as a sort of paradise. I can’t say any one thing is responsible for this perception, and I probably can’t even explain why I have it. That said, I have noticed that the people who have traveled there or lived there get a wistful look in their eyes when they talk about the small island country on the edge of the world. Whatever the reasons, visiting New Zealand has been on my bucket list for years.
Our original plans had us visiting New Zealand for several weeks, so from Dubai we decided to try to get there as quickly as we could – racing against the clock of quarantines and travel bans. Emirates offered a direct flight from Dubai to Auckland. However I couldn’t survive the 17-hour ordeal in coach without re-injuring my fragile lower back, and we couldn’t afford the hilariously-expensive business class tickets. So that was out. Instead we modified our original itinerary through Singapore.
Back in December we’d decided to spend a week in Singapore on our way from Dubai to New Zealand. This would break up the jet lag as we traveled east, and would expose the boys to their first taste of southeast Asia. Since we now wanted to get to NZ as quickly as possible, we tried to get in touch with the airline to change our flights. Thousands of other travelers around the world were also changing their plans due to the virus, and despite repeated attempts I couldn’t reach the airline by phone. On a whim I sent the airline’s local office an email requesting an itinerary change. I was shocked a couple days later they responded that they’d made the requested change. We would now arrive in Singapore at 7am local time, and fly out at 10:30pm that night: 2 back-to-back red-eye flights. Fun. We scrambled to rearrange accommodations, and explained to the boys the change in plans.
We stumbled off the plane in Singapore at 7am, still half-asleep. Our bodies were on Dubai time, where it was 3am, and we now had 15 hours to kill in Singapore. By this point there was a COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore. The city-state’s authoritarian government was doing an excellent job tracking and controlling it, but nonetheless there was a real risk that New Zealand might implement border restrictions for anyone who had been in Singapore.
A quirk of international travel is that when you’re in the international arrivals part of an international airport (“airside”), you’re not considered as a visitor to that country since you haven’t gone through immigration. To maintain our haven’t-visited-Singapore status, we chose to remain airside without passing through immigration. This also meant that we couldn’t go on a city tour or anything else that would help kill the time. So how do you spend 15 hours at the Singapore airport?
Starbucks. Lots of Starbucks. I have only foggy memories of these visits, but we went at least 3 times – maybe more. The caffeine ultimately didn’t help much.
We spent plenty of time wandering around the massive airport, which regularly wins awards for being the best in the world. It’s a very nice airport. It was clean and there was ample seating. There is plenty of shopping for those who are so inclined. My favorite thing was the gardens. We visited an orchid garden, an outdoor cactus garden, and the butterfly garden among others. These indoor and outdoor spaces were relaxing and aesthetically pleasing; they made the airport a more humane place. I am sure there is some accountant somewhere who is pleading to have these “unnecessary costs” shut down, and I hope s/he never succeeds.
Our fatigue eventually got the better of us, so we booked a day room at one of the hotels inside the airport. This provided us a place to shower and 2 double beds for a much-needed nap. Feeling somewhat refreshed after a couple hours’ sleep, we awoke to find we still had 5 hours to kill before our flight. We wandered around the airport some more, read books, ate dinner, and made a futile attempt to have the boys do schoolwork. Finally it was time for our 10pm, 10-hour flight to Auckland.
Thanks to the magic of time zones we landed in Auckland in the early afternoon of the next day. We cleared customs and breathed a sigh of relief – we made it!
We used our rented apartment in Auckland’s center to catch up on sleep and adjust to the 9-hour time change from Dubai. Our few days in Auckland involved lots of napping. We got in a few walks around the city, which is home to 1/3 of New Zealand’s population.
On one afternoon we took our 2 very cranky boys to the top of the Sky Tower, the observation tower in the city center. The 360 views from the top are amazing. We had clear views of the harbor, suburbs, and surrounding hills. Even from the middle of the city I could see that New Zealand is a beautiful country. Besides beautiful scenery, the country is also known for adventure sports. One of the options was a controlled 600-foot free-fall down the outside of the Sky Tower. We did not do this, though we did spend 10 minutes entertained by the live video feed of someone who signed up for it then had second thoughts while standing at the edge of the platform. He eventually went for it.
We had pizza one night at Sal’s, a small chain that claimed to use cheese imported from Wisconsin. It was excellent pizza, though I’m not sure why they need Wisconsin cheese – there are more cows than people in New Zealand. And if you’re importing cheese for pizza, shouldn’t it come from Italy?
Back at our apartment, we made plans for the rest of our time in New Zealand. By this point (early March) there were runs on toilet paper in the US, and stock markets were in free-fall. Little did we know, our freshly-minted itinerary for our time in New Zealand would soon go right out the window.