There are lots of things about New Zealand we didn’t have a clue about until we arrived. It’s actually quite a challenging place to explore without plenty of research and advice, so here’s a breakdown of the little things that will hopefully make your experience a little smoother. Not that ours wasn’t particularly smooth, more that I wish I could do it all again with the bonus of knowing what I know now. From the best places to visit to how to get around, here are a few valuable lessons we learned in magical New Zealand.
BOOK ACCOMODATION WELL IN ADVANCE
I’m really ashamed to admit this, but after years of wanting to travel around NZ, months of knowing my dream would come true in February 2016, and god knows how many lunch breaks spent looking up all the amazing things we’d be doing, we didn’t actually book anything until the night before we flew from Bali. Shocking, I know.
To be fair, we were in Labuan Bajo in the build up to our jaunt down south, with incredibly limited internet, but that really is no excuse. Travelling around New Zealand is not like travelling around Thailand. You can’t just jump on a tour bus without pre-booking and you certainly can’t turn up at hostels expecting a vacancy. Every year, February sees a vast influx of Chinese tourists, thanks to Chinese New Year and sunny weather, who book out most of the accommodation months before. I was frantically scanning Booking.com and Hostelworld for double rooms and they were quite literally vanishing before my eyes. We thought, ‘Ah well, we’ll just have to sleep in shared dorms for a while’ and were horrified to find the same. There was nothing left.
Fortunately, after hours of scanning every corner of the internet, we found a mish-mash of ‘last-available rooms’, ranging from bunk beds in shared rooms to overpriced doubles we couldn’t afford. Some were miles from town, and others were plain awful. We definitely learned our lesson. Thankfully, even the most shocking of places we stayed in didn’t cast too much of a shadow over our trip, and we did find the odd good place within our budget. We were just thankful we didn’t turn up on the day and have to buy a tent.
BE MINDFUL OF HOW YOU TRAVEL
As with your accommodation, be sure to book your seats onto tour buses well before you arrive. There is limited availability, and often only one bus going to your destination each day. This means planning out your route around NZ well in advance as well. If you’re old ( +25) like Joe and I, you will probably want to opt for Nakedbus, which is all on your terms. You pay $254 for a ticket and can choose your 10 destinations. Or if you’re a bit younger and want more of a set tour, you might prefer the Kiwi Experience, which will also point you towards the best places to stay, drink and socialise.
So many people seemed to be hitch hiking their way around. I thought maybe they just didn’t book the bus in time, but I was assured it’s a fairly common method.
What we really wish we’d done is rent a JUCY Campavan. It seems expensive when you still have to pay to pitch up in campsites, but once you add up the total cost of rooms, taxis, bus tickets etc, it probably works out about the same and you have complete free range of your trip. If you want to ignore the typical traveller tracks and forge your own, this is the option for you.
As someone who is used to London’s living costs, I thought New Zealand would average about the same, if not cheaper. I was wrong. As a whole, I would say that NZ is more expensive than London, particularly in terms of food and drink. Whereas in the UK we’re well accustomed to where to look for budget shops, supermarkets and eateries, there just isn’t the variety anywhere in NZ. Supermarkets are expensive and corner shops are extortionate.
Necessities in holiday parks and hostels are add ons, meaning that you often have to pay extra for towels, Wifi, plates, even bed linen.
Activities are pricey, but worth it. That’s why you’re there after all. We splashed out on white water rafting, sky diving, renting mountain bikes, visiting hot pools and mud spas, whale watching and swimming with dolphins.
As a couple, our daily budget was around £200 for everything. Which was hard to stick to in certain places where there is so much to do, and easy in places that demand nothing but gentle walks around a beautiful lake. In just over 3 weeks, we spent about £4,500 in total, which is about 1/5 of our total travel costs for 6 months, to put it into perspective a bit. We didn’t eat out every night and we mostly stayed in budget hostels.
SPEND MORE TIME IN THE SOUTH ISLAND
We allowed 1 week in the North and 2 in the South. Weirdly, more people actually live in the North but the South is where it’s at in terms of things to do and see. The scenery is stunning in both but very different in each. The climates are also very different. The North island was consistently pleasant and warm with a bit of rain, while the South ranged from blistering heat to biting cold to relentless rain, all in a single day. It’s the diversity of the South Island that appeals the most – a couple of hours in the bus and you find yourself somewhere completely different to the last.
PRE-BOOK POPULAR ACTIVITIES
We considered everything we wanted to tick of our lists before planning our route, ensuring we’d have enough time to do those once-in-a-lifetime things New Zealand is so famous for. What we didn’t do, however, is pre-book those things straight away. We had planned to go whale watching on Valentine’s Day (cheesy, I know), only to find it was obviously fully booked. We had to change our route slightly to accommodate our must-do activities when there were available spaces. So it’s the same lesson. Book everything before and you’ll have your pick of the bunch.
Many activities are weather-permitting, so I would avoid visiting somewhere for less than 2 days just in case your chosen pursuit is postponed until the following day
In general, we were on the move every 2 or 3 days. Here’s an overview of our 3-week itinerary:
Bali → Aukland (by plane, obviously)
We flew into Aukland and stayed for 3 days. Although there is a bit of shopping, and nice bars and restaurants, I would actually suggest flying into Wellington first, which has a lot more to offer. We visited Aukland Museum, ate green lipped mussels by the harbour and wandered around the city, but mostly we used the time to catch up on work/washing/sleep because Aukland is so much like home.
Aukland → Rotorua (by bus)
The first thing you will notice about Rotorua is the smell: Sulphur. Thanks to being built on volcanic soil, steaming geysers and exploding mud pools. Don’t let this put you off in any way, because there are some great things to do here. We ate at the Saturday market, recharged in the healing volcanic mud spas at Hell’s Gate and rode mountain bikes through Redwood Forest, stopping for a picnic at the sacred ‘Green Lake’.
Rotorua → Taupo (by bus)
Taupo has a lively atmosphere compared with sleepy Rotorua, as well as beautiful rolling hills as far as the eye can see, one of the biggest lakes in NZ, famous day treks, the Waikato river and the staggering Huka Falls, which is a must-see. We stayed at the Huka Falls Resort; an array of romantic, well-equipped chalets overlooking a vineyard.
Taupo → Queenstown (by plane via Aukland)
From Taupo, we took the bus back to Aukland and hopped on a plane down to Queenstown. Queenstown is a pretty special place, both in terms of looks and content. The views are like nothing else I’ve ever seen and there is SO much to do (if you have the cash). Annoyingly, we could only find vacancies in neighbouring Arrowtown, which is lovely, but a 30-60 minute bus ride (depending on the time of day) from where all the action is. Must-do things in Queenstown? Bite the bullet and do something truly memorable. We did a sky dive with NZONE and it was the most terrifying/exhilarating/emotionally demanding thing I’ve ever done. Rafting on the Shotover river was also amazing. Be sure to join the Fergburger queue after a few too many glasses of wine at one of the many bars. Just steer clear of the bar crawls if you want to avoid feeling like a pensioner.
Queenstown → Te Anau (by bus)
You can do day trips to Milford Sound from Queenstown, but we chose to spend a night in Te Anau to break up the journey and experience a new place. Like most Idyllic places in the South island, Te Anau is built on a huge lake, has stunning mountain views and has some lovely walking trails. We took the 7am bus to Milford Sound the following day, which I can’t recommend enough. Think jagged mountain tops peering through low misty cloud, crystal waters, powerful waterfalls, unique rock formations, wild dolphins and seal lions and the wind in your hair as you sail through speechless.
After Milford Sound (pictured below), as a Valentine’s Day bonus, Joe treated us to the most amazing ”Cathedral Room’ in Te Anau Lodge, a truly exquisite guest house, furnished with nothing but gorgeous antiques and framed with stained glass windows, which rounded off the day pretty nicely.
Te Anau → Wanaka (by bus via Queenstown)
More great-quality restaurants overlooking a very pretty lake, Wanaka is small but definitely a worthy of a stopover. Unfortunately, our experience was a very rainy one, so I spent most of my time there glued to my laptop and eating instant noodles in a shared kitchen. I did manage to get one photo before the heavens opened.
Wanaka → Franz Josef (by bus)
We had planned to visit Franz Josef to hike it’s famous glacier via helicopter ride, so you can imagine our frustration when all tours were cancelled and the walkway closed due to torrential rain. At least we were able to relax in the hot pools and enjoy some of the nightlife on offer.
Franz Josef → Christchurch (bus and Alpine Crossing via Greymouth)
Wanting to make our way from West to East, we booked ourselves onto the TranzAlpine and took in the sights by train. It was pretty amazing actually. The scenery is unbelievable and you would never usually get to see so much in one go. The train travels fairly slowly and has a number of ‘viewing carriages’ without windows. Its a great opportunity to get some amazing photos and quite literally watch the world go by in all its glory.
Christchurh famously suffered an incredibly damaging Earthquake in 2011 and the city is still rebuilding itself. Community spirit is rife and there is enough to keep you busy for a few days. We found a lovely flat on Air bnb and borrowed the owners’ bicycles to cycle to the botanical gardens, ate Lebanese kebabs at Re:Start (a collection of shops and foodstalls made from shipping containers), and relaxed on Sumner beach. I wouldn’t suggest traipsing the city by foot as everything is quite far apart.
Christchurch → Kaikoura (by bus)
Another quaint little town, Kaikoura is known for it unique marine life and the opportunity to get up close to the native whales, dolphins, seals and sea birds. We saw 3 giant sperm whales, went swimming with hundreds of dusky dolphins, and caught many glimpses of the giant albatross. Literally incredible. A wonderful place to indulge in some seafood but most of the fun is out at sea.
Kaikoura → Wellington (by bus and ferry via Picton)
And finally, we ended our 3-week trip with 3 days in Wellington; New Zealand’s captital and the ‘cultural hub of the country’ as it likes to call itself. The are loads of great places to eat to suit every budget (thanks to the resident students) and a multitude of lively bars. We visited Te Papa, an impressive museum that hosts free exhibitions, saw a satirical play at the BATS theatre, spent the day at Zealandia (a huge conservation project dedicated to preserving New Zealand’s indigenous species) and ate street food at Cuba Street’s night market, stopping off at various points to drink good coffee and cheap gin and tonics.
So there you have it, my attempt to condense 3 weeks of New Zealand into a few measly paragraphs. NZ is wild and wonderful – an actual haven that’s begging to be explored by anyone, of any age, from anywhere. It is a truly unique place, so as long as you’ve sorted a roof over your head and you’ve got a couple of quid in your pocket, just get out there and make it your own.