Visiting Middle Earth: New Zealand

May 20, 2016
Whites Beach North Island, New Zealand

When we decided to move from North Carolina back to Phoenix, we had nearly two months before starting our new jobs.  Of course, I saw this as a huge opportunity to plan an epic adventure!  Where to go?  The choices are ENDLESS.  I felt almost overwhelmed trying to decide.  India?  Southeast Asia?  South America?  Australia with a side trip to New Zealand?  Initially, we settled on the latter.  So I set off asking everyone I knew who had been to either, or more rare, both to get some recommendations.

And here is what I heard over and over…”I really wish I would’ve had way more time in New Zealand” and/or “If I had to pick between the two places, I would choose New Zealand”.  Huh?  Those were not answers I was expecting at all!  I started doing some research and finally decided New Zealand had much more to offer than I ever imagined and we should spend all of our time there.  Even with 3.5 weeks, we still missed out on so much!

You’ve probably heard amazing tales of its beauty…pristine, isolated beaches to gorgeous mountains…it’s all true!  New Zealand is arguably one of the most stunning places on earth.  And it’s not just one or two spots, it’s ubiquitous.  Nearly everywhere you look there seems to be something photograph worthy!  While we have not yet been to Australia, I can see why people recommended spending our time here.

A Wee Bit of New Zealand Geography

New Zealand is located in the South Pacific, a bit southeast of Australia, with the Tasman Sea between the two countries.  New Zealand is made up two main islands, North and South Island.  Unless you’ve got heaps of time (more than two weeks), you are likely keeping to just one of these islands.  Both are spectacular in their own way and have so much to see and do.  North Island is home to Auckland (the capital and likely where you will fly into) and South Island is home to Queenstown (adventure capital and probably the most popular destination).  There are, of course, other islands to visit, the largest being Stewart Island.

Waiheke Island New Zealand

Waiheke Island, New Zealand

History In a Nutshell

The Maori (believed to be of Polynesian descent) were the first to settle New Zealand approximately 700-1,000 years ago.  Abel Tasman, a Dutchman, was the first European to lay eyes on the land in 1642.  However, though he claimed it for Holland, he never stepped foot here.  In 1769, Captain James Cook spotted then subsequently circumnavigated and mapped out what we now know as New Zealand.  The treatment of the Maori by the European settlers sounds eerily similar to the treatment of the Native Americans in North America.  I won’t delve deeper into this subject, but if you are interested in learning more, click here and here.

Let’s Start With Some Basics

My goal in this and the following posts is to encourage you to give New Zealand the time it deserves and to help you decide what you must see/do and what you can skip if time is limited, based on your interests.  For ease, I am going to post North and South Islands separately and keep to some basics you should know before visiting New Zealand.  Keep reading for general information you’ll find helpful in planning your visit and after you arrive.

Flights/Arrival:  I strongly advise you to read all customs rules prior to leaving for New Zealand (and Australia, for that matter).  They have strict rules and they enforce them.  Don’t think you will sneak something through or they’ll give you a free pass.  Nope!  You go through more than one screening and you will pay a fine, if caught.  There is even a reality show about this in Australia.  Don’t pack things you shouldn’t and do declare everything on your customs form (you get fined for not declaring something, even if it’s allowed in the country).  They take their environmental safety very seriously.

You should also read and follow your airlines luggage weight and size restrictions, particularly New Zealand Air.  They literally inspected and weighed every passenger’s carry on baggage.  If it didn’t meet their requirements, they made you check it.

When to Go:  Remember this part of the world has reverse seasons.  So our (meaning north of the Equator) winter is their summer and vice versa.  Their busy season is their summer (our winter), particularly December and January.  In doing my research I read tales of busloads of tourists and hordes of people everywhere during peak season.  And we were planning our trip for January.  I was picturing long lines like at the Louvre (unless you know about the underground entrance…) and the Vatican.  Packed like sardines just to capture a photo with tons of strangers in it…argh!  Let me just tell you the New Zealand idea of a crowd is NOT equivalent to what most people would consider a large crowd.  That’s not to say there aren’t a fair number of people in the most popular places (Queenstown, The Tongariro Crossing, Hobbiton, etc), but it’s not so overrun with people you can’t enjoy yourself.  Unless, of course, you only enjoy things in complete solitude (there are plenty of places to find that here, though!).  I would still advise booking things you REALLY want to do ahead of time (like Hobbiton, a wine tour), but many of our activities were booked only a day or two ahead of time and we had no problems at all.  If you plan to do a Great Walk (more on that later), you should absolutely plan and book ahead, no matter what.

Hobbiton, New Zealand

Movie Magic at Hobbiton

Weather:  Even if you plan to visit New Zealand during their summer, I highly recommend packing some layers and bring a jacket.  Generally speaking, the weather is temperate.  However, the temperature decreases as you travel south.  For example, on North Island, we found ourselves nearly roasting some days.  However, on South Island we met much cooler and sometimes rainy weather.  Our first few days in Queenstown, the temperatures were in the 50’s (fahrenheit)!  We were so glad to have packed warmer clothing and jackets.  And keep in mind, depending on where you are traveling, you may find yourself in the mountains where temperatures can be much cooler.

Getting Around:  You are probably landing in Auckland and if you are going to be exploring South Island only, I advise flying into your starting destination immediately.  After that, the best way to explore the country is by car.  This is definitely a place where it’s about the journey (roadtrip!!), not just the destination.  You will be missing out on SO much if you fly everywhere!  Consider a “rent-a-dent” option from a local company to save money.  This is also a good idea since there are still many unsealed roads and you’ll likely get a ding or two while driving (don’t worry, the rental company doesn’t “ding” you unless it’s a large dent).

So now you’re on the road…on the other side of the road!  That’s right, they drive on the left side of the road (i.e. the opposite of the U.S.).  But, don’t let this intimidate you!  Traffic is nowhere near as hectic as you might imagine.  Honest.  It’s probably one of the best places to “learn” to drive on the “wrong” side of the road.

As I mentioned, there are still some unsealed roads, and many winding roads. So, when you are mapping out and estimating your travel times, be generous.  Renting a campervan and road tripping is popular here, which can make for some slow going on the roads, as well.  Always overestimate your travel times!  I cannot emphasize this enough.  For the most part, we found our way easily with just our GPS.

Sidenote:  Gas is pricey, so make sure you take this into account when making your budget.

If you are blessed with ample time to explore both Islands, consider taking the car ferry across Cook Strait.  We went from North to South and the scenery was really pretty.

New Zealand

Driving up the Tutukaka Coast

Hiking versus Tramping:  Now pay attention to this one!  The lingo is a bit different.  I found a few different descriptions for types of “hikes” and I think it can be a bit confusing.

Tramping=Hiking through bush, can be rough, streams may not have bridges, etc.  It can also be used to mean a backpack hike for several days (according to the guidebooks and websites I used).

A Walk=A well formed track, bridges over streams, etc (according to NZ Frenzy author).

A Great Walk=New Zealand has 9 of these, they are actually tramps (hikes) that take several days and require backpacking (and planning/booking ahead).  Some do have huts that can be booked ahead of time, saving you from carrying a tent.

If you are doing any day hikes (e.g. Tongariro Crossing) or a Great Walk, it is extremely important you check with the Department of Conservation (DOC) for conditions.  Be prepared for anything!  Since this post isn’t intended to discuss the Great Walks in depth, I will refer you to the DOC.  We didn’t do any Great Walks during our trip, but I can’t wait to go back to New Zealand to do one!

I will say there were a few hikes we did that were not well marked.  And sometimes we even found ourselves trekking through pastures, mingling with sheep and cattle!  I will discuss more about specific experiences in my North and South Island posts.

Tongariro Crossing New Zealand

The other worldly landscape of the Tongariro Crossing

Rob Roy Track New Zealand

Hiking into Mt Aspiring National Park on the Rob Roy Glacier Track

Sun & Bugs:  For the love, even if you NEVER get sunburned (as my husband claimed…and got terribly sunburned…even wearing sunblock), WEAR sunblock.  And don’t just put it on in the morning and think you are good all day.  Nope!  You. Must. Reapply.Often!  Consider covering exposed parts of your body and wear a sun hat.  The ozone here isn’t so great and sun exposure is a real problem.

Apparently, sandflies can be a serious nuisance.  I say apparently because though we spent about a month in New Zealand, we never got bit by a single sandfly.  We went many places and hiked to remote beaches.  We didn’t even have an issue when we visited Milford Sound.  We wore light colored clothing and left minimal skin exposed as advised by my research.  I have read and heard other tales of bites galore, so we must have great luck!

Food/Diet:  Vegetarian or vegan?  Gluten free?  Not a problem.  I am vegetarian and had no issues whatsoever.  We were both quite surprised at how conscious Kiwis (New Zealanders) seemed to be of dietary preferences and requirements.

New Zealand has some great wine regions, the most famous being Marlborough for their Sauvignon Blanc.  We really enjoyed visiting a few of these regions and ate some of our best meals at the winery restaurants (just a bit pricey).

Sidenote:  If you have a coffee addiction, it will not go unsatisfied here.  We would be driving along the highway, in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, and there’d be either a coffee shop or some sort of pop-up coffee stand!

Accommodations:  There’s no denying New Zealand can be an expensive adventure.  I mentioned above you can save some money by renting a rent-a-dent (older car) from a local company.  Another way you can save (or spend!) some cash is how you choose your accommodations.

Camping is plentiful here.  From designated campsites to freedom camping (don’t camp if there are signs forbidding it, of course), there is likely a site somewhere near wherever it is you want to see.  Another popular option is to rent a campervan.  Seriously!  They were everywhere!  And so were what they call holiday parks (what we might call a campground in the U.S.).  There are some places strictly requiring self-contained campervans, so keep that in mind when planning out your trip.  If you are not into sleeping so close to (or in) the great outdoors, there are hotels, hostels, lodges, etc.  We stayed in many motels (no, not the seedy kind) and lodges, which frequently had kitchenettes.  That was a big help in cutting down food costs for us.  Even better, a few had laundry!  And don’t forget sites like Airbnb.  You can find private rooms or houses to rent, some at bargain prices.  So there really are accommodations to fit every budget!

Resources:  This was a big trip for us, requiring a lot of detailed planning.  I used information from more websites than I can even begin to recall.  I did loads of googling!  I also used a few different blogs, usually discovered through aforementioned googling or via a pin from Pinterest.  I also used the NZ Frenzy books (divided into North & South Island) by Scott Cook and The Lonely Planet.  Personally, I didn’t think there was any one source I found to be the holy grail.  However, I was interested in discovering “off the beaten path” places and Scott Cook delivers (so well we couldn’t find a few places!).  He also offers more information on campsites and such, so I recommend those books if you are interested in this kind of thing.

Queenstown New Zealand

Driving just outside Queenstown, New Zealand


New Zealand is absolutely worth your time (and money).  I guarantee you will be WOW’ed!  I would say it’s a “once in a lifetime” trip, but I certainly hope to visit again (and again)!  Have a question or comment?  Just hit the comment button below or send me a message.  I would love to hear from you!


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