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Tips on planning an independent trip to New Zealand

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International Travel News, Oct, 2004 by Thomas P. McKenna

The sign "Hawkes Bay Spring Festival 4 October" tells you one of the most significant things about New Zealand: the seasons are reversed in this land "down under."
So "summer," and the prime travel season, is, November through January. School holidays, when the Kiwis take their families on vacation, are December and January. Accommodations are scarce, and tourist destinations are crowded during those months.
Considering a visit?
A significant fact for Americans is that New Zealand is far enough away from the USA that an expensive ticket and a 12 1/2-hour flight from Los Angeles is required. A visit is worth it, however, because of the country's spectacular natural beauty, interesting places to visit and unusual wildlife.
It also offers visitors just about every outdoor sport, from alpine skiing to outstanding fishing and zooming down the rivers in a jet boat. It is a largely rural country with most of the population concentrated in the cities. There are no billboards to spoil the views and no smoking in restaurants and motels.
The locals are extremely friendly. Their written language is English and their, spoken language is close enough to English that Americans can understand most of what they say. However, many signs, some media programs and a lot of the place names are in Maori.

U.S. citizens need a passport but not a visa to visit New Zealand. The best place to start planning your trip is at the excellent official tourism website You will also need a good guidebook or two and a planning map that covers both islands. We liked the Lonely Planet guide, and I bought a Baedeker guide for $25 because it carne with a large 1: 1,000,000 map. (However, the guide itself was heavy on color illustrations and short on useful information.)
After we arrived, I bought an excellent spiral-bound Kiwi Pathfinder New Zealand Travelers. Road Atlas for NZ$25 (near US$16). It has 62 pages of 1:500,000 maps of both islands and 32 detailed 1:20,000 city and town center maps plus mileage charts. Travel information and places of interest are shown. Other atlases were available but this was the best. If you are driving yourself, I highly recommend it.
Even small cities had tourist information centers. They give away city maps and brochures on local sites and will book accommodations and tours.
When and where to go
After studying Lonely Planet's rain and temperature charts, I decided that either November or February would be a good compromise for suitable weather across the two long islands, which run north and south. We chose February for personal reasons.
There were still a lot of travelers in February, and there was a lot of rain on the South Island. The weather can change rapidly, so take layers of clothes, your umbrella and rain pants.
Based on the recommendations of friends who had been there, and after posting a query on ITN's online message board (, we decided to spend a week on the North Island and two weeks on the South Island. How you split your time will vary with your interests, but you should plan your trip to minimize retracing your route.
Getting there
I bought round-trip Los Angeles-to-Auckland tickets from Air New Zealand online through Orbitz ( for $1,163 each plus $49 per ticket in taxes and lees. These were special-fare tickets with several pages of restrictions.
Because we live on the East Coast, my wife wisely insisted on a night in Los Angeles before and after the long flights to and from Auckland. Online, I found the Hacienda Hotel (phone 310/615-0015 or visit in Los Angeles at $56 a night plus tax. It was 15 minutes from LAX on their free van, and there was a good restaurant adjoining the hotel.
Our flight to Auckland arrived after midnight, so we spent two nights in a hotel there to recover from jet lag and see some of the city. A day or two in Auckland is plenty.
We booked our return flight from Christchurch to Auckland, picked up free maps and the especially valuable accommodations guide from the Automobile Association and then visited the Maritime Museum on the waterfront. We did not get to the National Museum, which was a disappointment. We also picked up our rental car so we could leave early the next day before the heavy morning traffic started.
Getting around
If you are confident--or brave--enough to drive on the left side of the road, driving yourself is a good option that allows maximum flexibility and frees you from the delays and restrictions of group travel. Just remember to yield to vehicles on your right.
There is no upper age limit for renting a car, and only a valid U.S. driver's license is required. We considered renting a caravan (camper) but decided against it because gas was so expensive (over US$4 a gallon) and motels were so cheap.
Also, although the highways are "sealed" (asphalt) and are well maintained and marked, there are only a few short stretches of four-lane divided highways. Almost all of the roads have only two lanes, and there are many steep hills and sharp curves, sometimes with narrow shoulders.
Comparison shopping
I compared six rental car companies online and selected Apex (phone 011 800 7001 8001 or visit After asking for a price on the smallest car with a boot (trunk) rather than a hatchback, four companies offered a Toyota Corolla or similar economy car for NZ$49 a day, with unlimited mileage and no second-driver charge.
They also offered a free exchange of their cars between the North and South islands without a one-way drop fee. You leave the car in Wellington, get off the ferry in Picton on the South Island and pick up a similar car there. That saves you from paying to take their car on the inter-island ferry and saves them from having a lot of cars left on the South Island after one-way trips when renters fly back to Auckland to go home. They also booked the ferry for us.
If you are willing to fly to Christchurch, drive the South Island first and pay to take the car north on the ferry, there are some great deals on rental cars--as low as US$1 a day--because they want cars moved back to Auckland.
My 21-day rental plus our ferry tickets cost US$805.
Although I have rented from Auto Europe many times in Europe, they offered the worst deal in New Zealand. They apparently have no operation in that country and subcontract with other companies like Hertz or Budget.
Driving caveats
In New Zealand, the collision damage and other waivers are included in the car rental price and you cannot decline them. You are responsible for the first NZ$750 of loss or damage. Do not pay extra to reduce or eliminate that deductible because Visa will cover it if you charge the car rental on their card. (Your U.S. car insurance company will not cover it.) Visa's 24/7 toll-free number from New Zealand to the U.S. is 08-00-443-019. If you have a different type of credit card, ask about their coverage.
A 15-year-old can get a driver's license and a low-interest loan to buy a car in New Zealand. Overall, Kiwis may not be any worse than American drivers, but we thought many drove too fast and followed too closely, and they sometimes strayed over the center line on curves.
Outside towns, the speed limit is 100 kilometers per hour (62.5 mph) and most people drove that fast. There are some passing lanes, but if you have even one person following close behind you, find a place to pull off so they can pass you.
In-country flights
Most international flights go in and out of Auckland on the North Island, so we decided to see that island first and then take the ferry to the South Island, see it, turn in the car in Christchurch and fly back to Auckland to connect to our flight home. (The ferry schedules and times are on the tourism website.)
If you make your in-country flight reservations in country, you save a lot over making them from the U.S. The possible downside is a limit of one checked 20-kilogram (44-pound) bag and a 7-kilogram, one-item limit for carry-on items on domestic flights that are not booked as part of an international itinerary. However, they did not enforce restrictions or even weigh our bags on that flight.
The typical motel is a 1950s-style mom-and-pop operation with "studios" that are one room with a kitchenette and "one or two bedrooms" that have a separate kitchen and probably a sitting room as well. We were pleasantly surprised at how spacious and well equipped they were.
When you check in, they hand you a carton of milk for your tea and ask if you want a free newspaper in the morning. You can get a very nice unit for NZ$75-$85 a night, tax included. Even if you splurge and spend NZ$100, that's just US$65.
Homestays and farmstays are also available, and there is a good guide to the many B&Bs online. (You should buy a NZ$10 calling card for booking motels, and tours when the operator does not have a toll-free number. Be certain you do not buy the type of card that is for cell phones only.)
We bought groceries to prepare breakfast and picnic lunches in the motel kitchens. There were many roadside picnic tables or other nice places to stop.
I worked out a tentative itinerary based on averaging about 80 kph (50 mph) and driving no more than three hours a day, when possible. I reserved rooms only a day or two in advance, so we were not tied to a rigid schedule. That worked well except in two towns with a lot of tourists. Kiwis like to travel around their own beautiful country, so keep track of weekends and their national holidays because that is when they will be competing with you for motels, restaurants and tours.
The food
Coming from a fast-food nation, I hesitate to complain. But despite the fresh vegetables, abundant seafood and famous lamb, the restaurant food was somewhat disappointing because of a predilection toward frying, creamy sauces and mystery gravy. Restaurant prices may seem high, but, remember, the tax is included and there is no tipping.
What to see
Your own interests will determine your itinerary, and guidebooks will give you enough descriptions to evaluate the various cities, activities and attractions, to some extent. However, some of our best advice carne from friends who had been there, so here are my impressions of some of New Zealand's attractions.
The North Island
Driving the perimeter of the Coromandel Peninsula, southeast of Auckland, sounds better than it is. We reserved a motel in Thames and drove the west coast to Coromandel, where we ate lunch. It is not an interesting town. That route follows the coast closely and the narrow road has narrow shoulders, sharp curves and some steep hills.
We returned to Thames by the slightly better eastern road. However, from that road we seldom glimpsed the sea. It took us three hours total. Your time might be better spent doing something in Coromandel Forest Park in the center of the peninsula.
A tour of the old thermal baths in Rotorua is interesting and the building is an architectural gem. It also contains the Museum of Art and History. Otherwise, we were not impressed by this popular tourist city.
An earthquake destroyed Napier and part of nearby Hastings in 1931, They rebuilt in the architectural style of the time, Art Deco, so this attractive seaside town may have the World's best collection of Art Deco buildings. Napier also has a waterfront park built on the rubble of the destroyed buildings. This is a nice place to visit, and don't overlook the museum/cinema on the waterfront.
Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington, also should not be missed. Allow at least three hours to see it.
The South Island
Kaikoura, on the northeast coast, is a popular place to see wildlife. There are cruises, which must be booked ahead, during which you may see seals, dolphins, orcas, penguins and pilot and sperm whales. We passed on this because we have done similar trips elsewhere and because Kaikoura is out of the way in the middle of the 319 kilometers (200 miles) between Blenheim and Christchurch, with no other major attractions along that route.
Travelers can make the 4 1/2-hour drive along the west coast between Westport and Haast to see Mt. Cook and the Franz Josef Glacier. However, the drive is almost entirely through open sheep country or forest with only a few glimpses of the sea. If you drive this route on a clear day and see the Southern Alps, it might be worth it. We drove it in a rainstorm and saw neither the mountain nor the glacier.
There were few gas pumps and restaurants along the way. Westport and Greymouth are not worth your time, and Haast is a rural area rather than a small city.
Instead of driving that entire coast, you should consider a side trip to Haast where, on SH6 at Haast Village, there is an excellent visitors' center with displays. About 25 kilometers north of Haast, on SH6 at Knight's Point, there is a dramatic view of a rockbound beach and maybe some interesting wildlife. Elephant seals go there to molt in April. Forty-six kilometers south of Haast at Jackson's Bay there is a 20-minute walk through the rainforest to Waseka Te Kan and a 2-hour walk to Smoothwater Bay.
We stayed at the excellent Heritage Park Lodge (Marks Road; phone 0800 526 252 or visit in Haast with a grocery store and restaurants nearby. The room cost was NZ$110. Avoid the Haast World Heritage Hotel, which has a reputation for scruffy rooms.
Queenstown is in a spectacular setting on the shores of a beautiful lake surrounded by high mountains. Think Swiss lake resort. Unfortunately, it is usually packed with tourists and is dominated by businesses that cater to them. It is worth seeing, but for a nearby alternative in which to spend the night, try Arrowtown.
The road along the Cardrona River between Wanaka and Queenstown is now paved and is a better way to drive between those cities. Also consider driving along Lake Wakatipu on the dead-end gravel road between Queenstown and Glenorchy, where part of "The Lord of the Rings" was filmed.
Te Anau
Fiordland, the southwest part of the South Island, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Te Anau, a small town with plenty of good motels and restaurants, is a better choice than Queenstown as a base from which to visit it. The movie crew of "The Lord of the Rings" liked it so much that they stayed there. They ate in the Redcliff Cafe (12 Mokonui St.), which we considered one of the better restaurants in New Zealand.
We spent three nights in the Parklands Motel (phone 0800-727-552 or visit with a 2-bed room, a large living room with balcony and a complete kitchen for NZ$90 a night.
In Te Anau we booked a day trip by van with Trips 'N' Tramps (phone +64 3249 7081 or e-mail They drove us to Milford Sound and back, with frequent stops along the way for photos and short walks to waterfalls of cataracts and even tea brewed from river water. We also joined other groups on a large boat for a 2 1/2-hour cruise on Milford Sound. The entire day cost NZ$126 per person. (Some people who have cruised on both say that Doubtful Sound is better than Milford Sound.)
Farm visit
The next day we went to Annieis Farm (phone 03-249-8303) for a 2-hour visit (NZ$25 a person). Annie and Rod have a working farm in a beautiful setting. There are dogs, cows, chickens, pigs, ducks, sheep, donkeys and horses for you to interact with, and their border collie gave a sheepherding demonstration. Then Rod sheared a sheep. Their insights into farm economics, the environment and Kiwi politics were interesting. Highly recommended.
That afternoon we took a boat ride across Lake Te Anau to visit the unusual glowworm caves on a trip we booked at the local tourist information center.
Around Dunedin
The Southland Museum in Invercargill has an eclectic collection of paintings, Maori artifacts, displays about New Zealandis sub-Antarctic islands and even live reptiles, including tuataras, which can live up to 150 years.
If you are especially interested in architecture, you might consider it worth driving into Dunedin to see the exterior of the old railroad station. The only other attraction there is the Cadbury chocolate factory, and we felt their tour was a waste of time. So you would do well to skip Dunedin and go straight to the Otago Peninsula where you can see albatross Dying and visit the Yellow Eyed Penguin Conservation Reserve (phone 03-478-0286). From hides and blinds, you can watch the nearby penguins. If the albatross are flying, you can see them without a tour.
Do not miss Shag Point, north of Dunedin, where you can see hundreds of shags (like a cormorant) and for seals. One seal was basking a few feet from the trail and obligingly posed for photos. This is a wild, beautiful place overlooking a striking shoreline. Take your binoculars.
Farther north, near Moeraki, there are large round boulders on the beach that are natural phenomena Worth the short detour. North of there, Oamaru has dozens of historic limestone buildings and beautiful public gardens. On the waterfront, there is a colony of blue penguins ( At dusk you can watch dozens of them come ashore for the night.
Timaru is a nice town halfway between Dunedin and Christchurch. We liked the South Canterbury Museum and Timaru Botanic Gardens.
Christchurch has an enormous, beautiful park with the Avon River running through it. There are botanical gardens and a good museum in the park.
At the Antigua Boat Sheds (phone 03-366-5885 or visit you can rent small watercraft or, better yet, pay NZ$15 for a half-hour punt ride on the Avon. This is a great way to spend a pleasant afternoon and, as we know from "The Wind in the Willows," "... there is nothing--absolutely nothing--half so worth doing as messing about in boats."
Mona Vale is a former estate in northwest Christchurch. It has botanical gardens and an old mansion where you can have lunch or tea on the open porch. The Avon flows by on the edge of the lawn and you can take a punt ride from there also.
A good day trip is the one-hour drive to the Banks Peninsula east of Christchurch. Akaroa is at the end of the narrow winding road through the hills. French colonists founded this nice little town on a beautiful bay, so you can also get there by "The French Connection" bus.
The excellent New Zealand Air Force Museum (phone 64-3-343-9532 or visit is in Hornby, on the west side of Christchurch. It traces Kiwi military aviation from its origins in World War I through all the subsequent wars with static displays of restored aircraft and many exhibits about the people who served and the equipment they used. You can use flight simulators for four types of aircraft. I crashed a Spitfire fighter on takeoff.
A one-hour tour of the restoration workshops is especially interesting. Some older veterans are there to answer questions and provide guides. I talked to a man whose World War II job was dropping spies into occupied France. The New Zealand Fighter Pilots Museum in Wanaka is also worth a visit.
Travel tips
A 12.5% Goods and Services Tax (GST) is included in all prices in New Zealand. On the bright side, there is no tipping! ATMs are readily available, so paying all bills in cash is an option. A New Zealand dollar cost us about 70 cent (the current rate of exchange is NZ$1 = US$0.64).
If you charge expenses on a Visa card, Visa will make the currency exchange to U.S. dollars, add one percent for that service and then add two percent more, compounded on the one percent. If you earn frequent-Dyer miles with your card, it may be worthwhile to get the miles to and the Doat o but you will be paying slightly more than two cents a mile to get miles generally considered to be worth two cents each.
Some ITN readers have reported having their credit or ATM cards blocked after using them only a few times in a foreign country. Their banks or card companies were concerned that sudden, large ATM withdrawals and purchases in a foreign country meant a stolen card. So before leaving home, I called Visa to tell them when and where I would be using their card.
Thomas P. McKenna
Montpelier, VT

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