Monday, January 23, 2012

New Zealand in a nutshell

Sheep in New Zealand

A short (well, not really) New Zealand overview.  Beyond just listing our top three favorite things, this is a compilation of things that we learned while traveling around NZ.

David’s Top Three:
Waitomo Caves
Routeburn Track and Milford Sound

Sara’s Top Three:
Rail Trail
Tongariro AlpineCrossing/Routeburn Track (tie!)

We rented a car for our entire 22 days (loved Apex car rentals) and drove more than 2,000 km.  We figure that is at least 25 hours in the car, probably more.  That gave us plenty of time to enjoy the beautiful scenery, read about NZ, play games, and write some blog posts.  Gas is expensive - about $2.10 NZD per liter (about $6.35 per gallon), which meant about $75 to fill up the tank.

For us, having a car was absolutely the best way to see NZ!  The driving is really easy (even on the left side).  All we needed was a few road maps and we were set.  There just aren't too many roads here, and there aren't too many cars either.  Almost all of the roads outside of the big cities are two-lane, and many bridges are one-lane.

When planning our NZ leg, we really considered renting a campervan, which is really common here.  It only took a day or so before we both agreed that a campervan would have gotten tiring really quickly for us.

There is great food in NZ, but it is unbelievably expensive.  Main dishes at even casual restaurants were $20 NZD or more.  The food at grocery stores was pretty expensive too.  Locals often complained to us about how expensive it was.  If you aren't on a budget, you will have no problem eating very well - great lamb and tons of ethnic restaurants.  It took a bit more creativity for our budget, but it wasn't too hard.  We picked up bread, peanut butter, and jelly early on in the trip, and that became a staple lunch whether we were hiking or driving.  There are fruit stands all over the place, so we made a habit of stopping often for fresh fruit.  Our favorites were the apricots (Sara has overcome a bit of her aversion to eating fuzzy foods) and nectarines.  We also stayed at several places with BBQ grills, so we did a bit of grilling out for dinner those nights.

We usually had at least one meal out a day.  It is funny how much we loved our first dinner of fish and chips, because after having it for dinner four more times we were really tired of it!  Fish and chips was by far the cheapest meal you could get.  We had several great Thai meals, some tasty lamb, good meat pies, several great burgers, some delicious NZ breakfasts, and a few good pizzas.  We didn't go hungry, but we didn't eat too healthily either . . . Hoping to change that in Australia.

We landed in NZ without much booked in the way of accommodation.  We ended up staying at hotels, motels, BBH and YHA hostels, B&B's, a farm, and hiking huts.  The places we stayed were all comfortable, and provided a place to sleep, which is about all that we were looking for.  Other than the hiking huts and hostels, we always had our own bathroom.  The hostels were the cheapest places to stay, but were always nice and clean (other than our last night in Christchurch, but that’s another story).  We only booked places with high BBH or YHA ratings.  The B&B's were the most expensive, but they did include a great breakfast.  For B&B stays, the black B&B book (available in NZ) is great, for hostels there are YHA and BBH books.  Hotels and motels were easy to find online.  For the Great Walk hiking huts you have to book several months in advance.

We didn't stay anywhere for more than two nights, which meant that we didn't spend much time in our room.  While it would have been nice to linger in some places a bit longer, we preferred to see more places, so moving on after a night or two suited us just fine.

There seems to be a fine balance between booking everything in advance and just booking as you go; we are still trying to figure out what works best for us.  Although we only had trouble finding accommodation one night, we did end up spending more time on the Internet coordinating onward accommodation than we would have liked.  But the advantage was being able to add things to our itinerary at the last minute, like the Rail Trail.

There is very little wildlife in NZ other than native birds and the occasional small creature.  Just tons of sheep and cows.  For Sara this was a huge plus - no snakes, no bears, and almost nothing else that would hurt you - it sure made the hikes more carefree.

We also noticed that almost no one has pets.  We could count on two hands the number of dogs we saw.  Not exactly sure why, but one person told us that they think it is because dogs aren't allowed most places in NZ (parks, hiking trails, etc.), so most people just don't have them.

The Kiwis that we met were all really friendly!  Many of them had lots of questions about the US (particularly the political situation and upcoming election).  We found them to be very welcoming and happy to have us in their country.

To Do
There is SO much to do in NZ!  We spent most of our time hiking, walking around, or driving, with some fun time in boats and biking mixed in.  Our activities generally were of the lower cost variety, but there are tons of ways to see NZ by air, jet boat, hot air balloon, etc.  I can't imagine ever getting bored there!

There is an i-Site tourist information office in every city and most small towns in NZ.  They are extremely helpful for booking activities, transport and accommodation, and for giving tons of advice on NZ in general.  Everything they do is free and we stopped at more than a dozen iSites during our stay.

Anything goes in NZ!  From what we saw, people tend to dress pretty casually.  Shoes aren't even a must.  The most important thing is to have clothes for any weather.  Even during the summer the weather ranged from highs in the 90's to lows in the 30's as well as rain, sun, snow, and wind.

The Internet in NZ is pretty lousy.  Very few places have free wi-fi, although we did find a few.  When you pay for the Internet, you tend to have a megabyte limit.  Ordinarily this wouldn't have been a big deal, but because we had to make bookings etc. on the Internet it did add a bit of frustration.  We did hear from someone that you might be able to buy a wi-fi card for your computer that is good for a certain number of megabytes within a month.  That may have been worth checking into at the beginning of the trip.

We had an unlocked international cell phone and bought a $30 Vodaphone SIM card.  We never used this to call the US (used Skype instead), but we did use it to make a lot of local phone calls.  It came in really handy for booking accommodation and some activities.  Minutes on the phone seemed to be about $0.50, so we tried to keep our calls pretty short.

We felt really safe throughout our trip.  We were careful to secure our bags when we would be away overnight (like hiking), but we never had a problem or heard of anyone having a problem.

Guide Book
Although we usually love Lonely Planet, we really didn't like the one that we brought for NZ.  We used the Lonely Planet "Discover New Zealand" book, and it just didn't meet our needs.  We ended up having to research a lot of things on the Internet, like hikes and places to stay.  The book seemed to contain only touristy things and places, and didn’t even mention some big cities/towns that we were interested in visiting.  We should have looked at the book more carefully before we bought it.

Still to Do
Bay of Islands, Night on Doubtful Sound, Invercargill, Catlins, Dunedin, and another Great Walk.


  1. Great recap of NZ - have fun in Australia!!! Looking forward to more fun posts :)

  2. SO glad you did a recap, it is great to hear about all of the little details of your trip and how it worked! Can't wait for your next country!

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  4. Love hearing about your trip and can hardly wait to hear about the rest of your journey!