Whether you picture helicopters perched atop glaciers, Lord of the Rings characters galloping in front of soaring mountain ranges or plush super-lodges, New Zealand is a destination that conjures strong images. It’s also one of those rare places where the reality actually surpasses the fantasy, be it in the drop-dead beauty of the landscapes, the friendliness of the locals or the amazing breadth of experiences. Indagare’s Simone Girner recently returned from a scouting trip to both North and South islands, convinced there isn’t a person in the world who would not fall in love with this majestic country.
Here she shares the top ten things she learned while on the go. (All photos courtesy Julian Bassermann.)
1. Mapping out the right itinerary is crucial.
One of the most difficult things when creating a New Zealand itinerary is deciding on which regions to focus on, especially when time is limited. Since many lodges are in extremely remote locations, traveling between places takes time, so it’s better to focus on fewer spots and staying an extra night. It’s also important to plan in some down time since many regions, like the Queenstown or Taupo areas, offer so many activities. Great properties to unwind and relax are: Wharekauhau, Annandale, Bay of Many Coves (above) and Kauri Cliffs.
2. Consider going slightly off season.
Many U.S.-based travelers see New Zealand as purely a summer (i.e. our winter) destination. But insiders know that the shoulder seasons, especially March, April and November are great alternatives – the main spots are less overrun (like Abel Tasman National Park, above) and top guides are more likely to be available.
3. Air New Zealand is a fabulous airline.
Traveling to New Zealand takes a long time, especially if you’re coming from the East Coast. The most direct route is to fly to Los Angeles or San Francisco, then connect to Auckland (13 hours). Air New Zealand is a great choice for travelers. The airline doesn’t have a first-class cabin but instead offers a sizeable Business Premier and a large Premium Economy class. Business Premier comes with flat-beds (outfitted with down comforters and fluffy pillows) and excellent meal service. Economy Premium is like an entry-level Business Class. While seats don’t fold totally flat, they are spacious (arranged in twos) and come with such amenities as a leg rest, foot stool and in-seat power plug. Even Economy offers a great option for families with small kids: the Sky Couch, where three seats transform into a pod-like bed, which the friendly crew will outfit with blankets for the little ones. The flight from the U.S. is long, but this is actually an airline that does a great job at faciliting rest and sleep in every class.
4. Domestic flights are a breeze.
Due to the size of the islands, your New Zealand itinerary will surely include a few domestic flights, which are a far cry from domestic travel in the U.S. There’s no need to show up more than 30 minutes in advance; the planes are generally right on schedule (barring weather issues); and the staff is friendly and efficient. Also, fun fact: if it’s a prop plane, which most of the internal shorter flights are, there is no security, so it feels more akin to taking a train.
5. Consider whether you are a self-driver.
Road tripping through New Zealand is definitely memorable – the countryside is stunning and roads are well-paved and clearly marked. That said, there are lots of parts with winding hairpin turns, single-lane bridges and round-abouts, and driving on the left-hand side of the road (in cars where the driver sits on the right) requires some getting used to, especially in the beginning. Be really honest whether this appeals to you and if not, plot an itinerary that requires minimal driving or hire a car and driver for your time in New Zealand.
6. Reserve your dream lodges well in advance.
Many of New Zealand’s best lodges are small – ten to sixteen rooms is the average, although there are even smaller ones, like acclaimed Edenhouse, in the Tasman area, which has three rooms. If you have your heart set on staying at a specific property (like the acclaimed Matakauri, above), reserve early and be flexible with your dates. Many of the lodges are mobbed during the high season, especially between Christmas and New Year’s, then really calm down in March, which is a great month to visit.
7. Many lodges are in remote destinations – choose wisely.
Part of the beauty of staying at lodges like Wharekauhau, Bay of Many Coves or Annandale is their unspoiled, secluded settings. But getting there requires long drives or a combination of driving and ferry transfers, so chances are you will be spending a fair amount of time on property (and will be eating your meals there). It’s important to understand the type of lodge you are booking and what activities are offered. On paper, for example, Wharekauhau and Annandale are both working cattle and sheep farms, but they offer vastly different experiences. Wharekauhau has a lot of on-property activities and is in driving distance to Martinborough wine region, while the Annandale is all about hiding out, unplugging and never seeing another guest.
8. New Zealand is an expensive destination – but it pays to splurge.
A top tour guide, a private fly fishing lesson, a helicopter tour with lunch on a glacier: New Zealand is the place to splurge on personalized touring, since it will get you off the beaten path. Especially tourist-heavy places like Taupo, Queenstown and Rotorua can turn off seasoned travelers with packaged tours and throngs of backpackers. But getting away from the crowds is easy with an insider. Around Queenstown, our excellent guide took us into regions where we were practically the only visitors, and he regaled us with stories about New Zealand history, local customs and culture, as well as took us to lunch at a local favorite in Arrowtown.
9. The cities are not as impressive as the countryside.
Banish all thoughts of cute little villages, à la Europe, or big bustling metropolis cities. While Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington all have some nice neighborhoods, the greater sprawl of the cities are generally uninspired. Even towns central to the wine regions, like Blenheim and Martinborough, are generic (those looking for a St. Helena or even a Calistoga will be disappointed). Ultimately, a visit to New Zealand is all about the great outdoors – which is why many of the lodges are based in remote locations. The landscapes are as awe-inspiring as you imagine. From the smoking, geothermal hot pools and deep-green fern forests of the North Island to the snow-peaked drama of the Southern Alps and the transparent blues of the Fjordland on South Island, New Zealand is a photographer’s dream.
10. To properly see both islands, New Zealand is a stand-alone.
I get it – you have limited vacation and if you’re going to make the epic journey to Down Under, you want to tack on and include as much as possible in that part of the world. But combining New Zealand with Australia is a mistake (unless you want to only see one specific part of either massive place). New Zealand may look like a blip on the map, but it’s a big place, comprised of two islands, more than 9,000 miles of coastline and nearly 20,000 acres of national parks. Moreover, each region is completely unique (with beaches, volcanoes, glaciers, fern forests etc.) and there’s a lot to explore on both islands. A two-week trip will offer a great introduction to New Zealand (and even then, you won’t be able to do it all). One exception to the “pure New Zealand” rule is Fiji: for beach addicts who have a little more time, this is a great add-on thanks to the fact that its hub city, Nadi, is a three-hour direct flight from Auckland (and in the direction of the United States).