There isn’t another place in the world that makes my heart sing the way New Zealand does. Maybe I’m biased, because it was the first country I had ever visited. But I’ve re-visited NZ over the years, and I still find myself marvelling at its natural beauty- all in the backdrop of years of Maori history and culture. It’s a tourist’s delight, backpacker’s dream and a luxury traveller’s treasure trove. For many countries, New Zealand is an example of governance done right- there are environment protection laws, senior citizen and unemployment benefits, infrastructure on par with that of the world’s most infrastructurally forward countries. It’s the ideal road trip destination, the perfect place for a kick of adrenaline and Hollywood’s favourite shooting location. It’s picnic spots are every Instagrammer’s dream, it’s beaches- although freezing around the year- put on some of the most colourful sunsets, and its lakes go on and on until you encounter the next. It’s dim and light, and everything you pictured your retirement home would be. It’s alacrity is infectious- complete with the adventure sports it offers everywhere. Whether you want to bungee jump off bridges, read by its silent lakes, gape at penguins or revel in its history- it can all be done. Provided you plan a 2-week trip at the very least. Watch the New Zealand Vlog here:
When should you visit:
I should say it depends. If you’re interested in snow-covered peaks and a biting wind, then the winter months spanning May-August are ideal. But summer in New Zealand is an odd mix of hot day, cold evening with a strong wind at all times. Summer lasts from December till February/March and those are the best months to visit. Traveling to NZ during these months opens up many other prospects as well- ferry rides at Milford Sound, road trips around the country and beach days that winter renders impossible. It’s still cold though, specially in the shade, but if you’re keen to be out and about exploring, then Summer is your best bet. Of course, prices increase significantly around this time- peak season brings with it the expensive accommodation costs and inflated flight fares. This clashes with the holiday season, which means a lot of Kiwis traveling around the country themselves- adding to the rise in prices everywhere. This also means, though, that you get to experience Christmas in Auckland and other parts of the country, and though a warm Christmas isn’t as magical as a white one, there’s still plenty of magic thrown around. Plan ahead to time, because the visa takes 20-25 days to process (during peak season) from the time you submit your application, and it takes a few days to get documents in order as well. Since NZ High Commission shut its offices in many places, most passports go all the way to Mumbai for the tourist visa and are likely to take time to return to you.
The total flying time to New Zealand is approximately 16 hours. The suggested route is via Singapore (splitting the journey into 5 hours- then layover- then another 11 hours) on Singapore Airlines (in coach-sharing with Air New Zealand), Thai Airways (via Thailand), Cathay Pacific (via Hong Kong) or Emirates (via Dubai). The flight tends to get exhausting, specially the last leg that is usually 10-11 hours flying time. This is not a trip you want to experience on a low cost carrier, where entertainment systems are unavailable and the food tastes sad. I flew Premium Economy on Air New Zealand on my return journey- and it is an experience I would strongly recommend. I didn’t take premium economy on the Singapore-Delhi sector, but I didn’t regret it. I would also recommend a route that allows you to take the 11 hour sector as a night flight, because it gives you more time to sleep and you’re not just sitting there counting the minutes in discomfort.
Where should you go:
The better question is, where shouldn’t you? In New Zealand- nowhere. Every corner, every city, ever lake and every mountain peak is worth seeing. Every city has its own charm, and the main destination spots are postcard worthy. You’re likely to fly into Auckland and spend 3 days here at least, (visiting Devonport, Waiheke Island etc) given that it’s the financial hub of the country. South Island is unmissable, with Milford Sound, quant little Queenstown, Wanaka, Mount Cook, Dunedin and Christchurch (trams still run here!). There are day trips worth taking from these places, such as Arrowtown from Queenstown or Te Anau (also from Queenstown). If you’re feeling ambitious, I recommend the Queenstown- Milford Sound drive and the Queenstown- Mt Cook drive. There are lakes, fresh farm produce and many beautiful turns along the highway. In the North Island, Rotorua offers natural geysers, warm spring water baths and authentic Maori village experiences, Mount Ruapehu and Taupe and Hobbiton near Hamilton are worth visiting. Stop at Hukka Falls along the way for Jet Boating- or simply, to admire the baby blue waters gushing out at lightening speed.
Where to stay:
The wonderful thing about New Zealand, is that irrespective of the small town, city or remote destination you pick, AirBnb is always a reliable option. The Kiwis are ardent AirBnb users and the entire process is clean and easy. Don’t go expecting uber luxurious resorts though, because even the high-end brands don’t operate on the same level as their Indian counterparts. That said, most hotel experiences are usually pleasant, but many Indians could have a problem with the food offered at hotels in the lesser-touristy spots. The menus are strictly composed of grills and steaks, lamb, pork and tenderloin and in remote places like Mt. Cook, this could be a problem.
Public Transport and all:
While buses and trains run regularly in the big cities, the rest of New Zealand doesn’t have end to end bus service. Uber is always an option- but an expensive one. I remember paying over $60 from the airport to the city in Auckland, one way. This could get very expensive, very quick- so the best option is to rent a car. These could cost you around $50 on an average (for a hatchback) with additional fuel costs, and even so, it would be economical in comparison to the other options. If you’re planning a road trip- which you should, renting makes a lot more sense than hitchhiking in a country where people are few and highways are empty! The other advantage to renting, is that you can pick and drop off your car at the airport, with shuttle services running from the main terminal to the rental counter. The instructions are easy and car rentals are fuss-free. Hatchbacks are affordable, but perfectly okay for road trips. You can rent a car from any city and drop it off in another city on the island with ease. Once there, the process is fairly simple and requires basic documents and passports (for international customers). Parking could be expensive in certain cities- specially in tourist spots such as Queenstown, ranging from $5 per hour to $20 for every 30 mins. It’s extremely important to go through the driving rules, because many come unexpected. There are certain parking spots that have signs signalling whether or not you can re-park your car in that lot after your 1 hour of parking time is over, or, highway lines indicating whether or not you’re allowed to overtake in certain places. One of the most basic rules is the backseat seat belt. It takes some getting used to, but again- been there, fined for that, so I would recommend taking extra care to keep it in mind. The Indian driver’s license can be used to rent a car in New Zealand without an additional permit.
Ferries run smoothly and usually on schedule. There are ferries every 15-20 minutes on average, with the last ferries generally operating between 5:00 and 6:00 pm. These connect the further-most points of the city to the centre, but could also be tourist ferries in places like Milford Sound.
A trip to New Zealand will cost you, for a few main reasons: Flights are expensive (you’re looking at 75-80K during peak season on a comfortable airline like Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Cathay Pacific or Air New Zealand), accommodation costs are high- Airbnb is strongly recommended, widely used and completely safe in my experience, and food, general transport and cost of living is high. The supermarkets here are hella-amazing (Countdown and Pack N Save FTW), and so are departmental stores like Warehouse and K-Mart, where you can shop affordably. Some products- shoes, bath products, lingerie and everyday sports and gym wear are a steal at these stores.
Things to do in New Zealand:
Besides admiring the natural beauty of Mother Earth? Rent a car, drive around, picnic on solitary cliffs, read a book by the sea, sip margaritas by the bay, live the good life. But adventure sports in New Zealand deserve a special mention- because there are many. There’s bungee jumping (off the harbour bridge in Auckland, Auckland’s Sky Tower or Queenstown), jet boating- my favourite way to call on the adrenaline (Hukka Falls 1.5 hours away from Auckland has the best jet boating), the Sky Walk at Sky Tower where you walk along the rim of the tower, river rafting, scenic flights (helicopter rides to glaciers and nearby islands), parasailing in Queenstown, skiing up North, and kayaking are some options among plenty others. Depending on how adventurous you’re feeling, New Zealand will happily acquiesce. There’s strawberry picking to be done at strawberry farms, Maori villages to visit in Rotorua, take vineyard tours, sift through lavender fields and take luge rides with the family. Depending on where you want to go, there’s a list of activities you can conjure up.
There’s also the road trip to Rotorua, Taupo and Mount Ruapehu- all in the same stretch of drive, but each worth staying overnight. Rotorua has natural geysers, and hot water natural springs turned into mud pools and baths. An experience I would strongly recommend, if you have the time and appetite for a spa. Gondola rides- anywhere and everywhere, should always be taken because nothing beats aerial views of the city. To be able to truly do justice to New Zealand, take adequate time to experience each place you’re visiting. For example- Queenstown cannot be covered in a day, for there are many wonderful things to do and explore in Queenstown. It’s a town and on the surface it seems like there’s little to do, but 3 days would give you enough time to visit nearby Arrowtown, explore Glenorchy and shop, eat or drink by the lake downtown.
Where and what to eat:
If you like to stick to Indian meals while traveling abroad- you’re in luck. If you don’t- you’re in luck then too. The wonderful thing about New Zealand being such a confluence of cultures reflects in the plethora of cuisine options it offers. There’s asian of every kind imaginable- Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, you name it. And in most places, it gets as authentic as possible. For those who love their sea food- you’re in paradise. Fresh creatures of the sea tossed in delicious ingredients are served at most cafes, along with pizzas and European food. But the delicacies are lamb dishes and even rabbit dishes (but please don’t eat them, because their cousins- guinea pigs- live in my house!) You could really indulge your wildest food fantasies here, and in all likelihood- it will be worth it.
Shopping and take-me-homes:
Raid the 2-dollar stores! That’s where you’ll find the adorable little tidbits, and those are the best places to buy fridge magnets and snow globes to take home, because souvenir shops- as is the case everywhere- are rip-offs. Cotton On is another brand for young people with different stores under the same brand name. There’s Cotton On Body for Lingerie, Cotton On for clothing, Typo Shop for cute phone covers, decor items and everything fun and quirky! It’s my personal favourite too, and I usually hoard a bunch of stuff from here every time I visit. Glassons is another popular clothing store with some really amazing clothes! For those over 30, Farmers and Postie + are great clothing, cosmetics and accessories stores. Warehouse and K-Mart are departmental stores selling everything under the sun at pretty great prices! Countdown and Pack N Save are the best places to visit for groceries and food items to take home. Maneka Honey and Antipodes Skin Products are famous here and many swear by their quality. They make for great presents to take home as well.
Got questions? Drop a comment and I’ll do my best to answer them as soon and as sincerely as possible!