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Introduction to New Zealand

Elizabeth A. Sisson (ElizabethNZ)

New Zealand exists in many people's imaginations the way the perfect Christmas does. Tell someone you live here and odds on they'll say, "I've always wanted to go there." People who have been here want to return. Is it because it's far away but English speaking? Is it the photos of sheep used to promote wool carpets? Is it because they've heard it's beautiful and want to see for themselves? Whatever. It is beautiful and far away and most of its four million inhabitants do speak a version of English. Politically, it's sort of British. Economically, it's heavily agricultural. Culturally, it's increasingly polyglot. Sports-wise, it's pretty fanatical.

Geographically, New Zealand floats in the South Pacific like a small boat caught on a rock. A narrow channel divides the North Island from the South Island. The center of the North Island steams with thermal activity and the occasional volcano. Tectonic plates are squashing the South Island, driving up the long spine of the Southern Alps. The scenery is generally spectacular.

The country used to be part of Australia, but broke off from that continent's southeastern edge and drifted away on a tectonic plate. This happened long enough ago to give New Zealand its own particular flora and fauna: flightless birds, several kinds of unique trees and a primitive lizard, the tuatara, which is so lethargic it usually acts like a rock. The only indigenous mammals are two kinds of bat. Predators introduced over the last millennium - rats, cats, possums, hedgehogs, dogs, weasels and, of course, people - killed off some of the original inhabitants. Introduced deer, goats and rabbits and, of course, people damaged the environment - and still do.

You don't really miss wildlife until you start noticing what isn't there: no squirrels, no snakes, no raccoons (just as well), no native ungulates, no eagles (there was a huge one, but it didn't survive the arrival of guns), no great variety of inland birds, turtles, frogs, etc. On the plus side, there is a general lack of biting insects and poisonous anything. You can't really hold the extinction of the large flightless moa against the Maoris, who arrived about a thousand years ago from Hawaiiki (according to legend, this is where the Maoris come from) and ate them. Well, they'd come a long way and there wasn't much else to eat, which is exactly what the European explorers discovered when they arrived about 200 years ago. And then they mined the land and cut down and burnt away most of the native forests to create pastureland for sheep and cattle. There's no doubt that this makes it easier to get around and admire the endless views.

New Zealand is a stunningly beautiful country: green hills, snow-capped mountains, long beaches, turquoise bays, lovely lakes, great clouds, wrap-around sunsets; and plant growth so rampant it's all a gardener can do to contain it. Weather blows across it in ever-changing patterns. If you get sick of the rain on the South Island's west coast, you can drive over the mountains to the east coast to find the sun. Winters (June - August) are chilly and wet on the North Island, icy and snowy in the mountains and at the bottom of the South Island. Summers (November - February) are golden.

The New Zealand population is an interesting mix of Maoris, Europeans (English, Scots, Danes, Dutch), Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thais), Indians, and Polynesians from Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu and other Pacific islands. Integration of all these people happens, but there's also a fair bit of separation: like often keeps to like. Most of the descendants of the early European settlers, having subdued the environment and negotiated a truce with the Maoris, have settled down cheek by jowl to grow roses in tidy suburban plots. The Maori culture survives in maraes or community centers scattered throughout the country. Maori and Pakeha (Europeans) are still working out their differences, most related to the European land grab, with some acrimony on both sides.

But generally New Zealanders are a sociable lot. Popular activities are organized into clubs and societies: croquet, cricket, rowing, soccer, rugby, lawn bowling, gliding, surf lifesaving, tramping, boating, fishing, theatricals, orchid growing and other specialties (you name the plant, there's a society devoted to it), antique autos, orienteering (there's plenty of scope for getting lost in New Zealand), egg decorating (no kidding), books - something for just about everyone. Then there are the arts and culture festivals, the marathons, the rallies, the charities, the fetes, the food events, the musical performances, the Big Days Out. People turn out for them en masse.

The country is quite secular. Last heard, only about 6% of everyone went to church regularly. However, they happily celebrate the Christian Christmas and Easter with four-day holidays. The country similarly shuts down for the Queen's Birthday in June, Labour Weekend in October and to mark the New Year. Holidays observed by other immigrants are becoming more popular: the Indian Festival of Lights, Chinese New Year, Maori Matariki. Waitangi Day in early February honors the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between Maori and Pakeha, often viewed as the formal founding of the country of New Zealand and now, sporadically, as a political grandstand by both Pakeha politicians and Maori activists.

Be warned: If you are in New Zealand over a holiday a lot of stores and some restaurants will be closed and flights can be cancelled. Check the availability of both in advance. Most stores also are closed on Sundays and very few banks are open Saturdays, although ATMs are generally available.

What you need for a stay in New Zealand

Sunscreen and a hat are essential in summer. Burn times can be as short as 12 minutes in mid-summer and New Zealand has a high rate of skin cancer. You can buy hats and UV protection at any chemist (drugstore) and sunscreen in supermarkets.

Bring clothes for rain, cold and heat, unless you're coming just for the winter skiing, and sturdy shoes for walking. If you plan to tramp (hike) bring a good pair of boots. The hills are full of tramping tracks and huts that offer basic lodging: bunk beds, a wood-burning stove, cold running water, gas cook tops and, somewhere outside, a longdrop (outhouse). You have to carry everything else. The Department of Conservation maintains the tracks and huts and their offices have maps and other info. See for details.

For information

Check out Most cities have staffed information centers (I-Site Visitor Centres) which offer suggestions, brochures, maps and general information.

Getting in

If you have a US passport, you don't need a visa for a three-month stay. Baggage areas at international airports are patrolled by trained sniffer dogs looking for banned fruit, vegetables, etc. Forgetting an apple in your backpack can result in an immediate $200 fine. If you're on your way home, be prepared to pay the $25 departure tax.

Getting around

New Zealand roads are good if they're paved but can be quite narrow, not to mention winding, out in the country. Many back roads are not paved, although some are metalled (graveled). Usually only the sheerest of drops have real guard rails. Keep to the left and watch for oncoming traffic, especially trucks. Be prepared to stop for flocks of sheep or herds of cattle being moved on the road. You can drive through them slowly, which is a hoot.

Most paved roads around and between towns are two lanes with the occasional passing lane. Multi-lane highways are reserved for the larger cities. Be patient and observe speed limits. The police use speed cameras, both fixed and mobile. Wear your seatbelt: it's a $150 fine if you're caught without it. The police do spot checks for seatbelts and for drunk drivers. And watch out for boy racers, especially on Saturday nights in town.

Car rentals are no cheaper here than anywhere else. If you're not used to driving on the left side of the road, rent an automatic and then be extra careful at turns and exiting driveways. It's very easy to end up on the wrong side of the road. (Remember, the driver - not the car - should always be in the center of the road.) There are some odd road rules: e.g., if you're turning left at a corner and an oncoming car is turning right at the same time, the oncoming car has right of way. You can get a copy of the latest Road Code at Automobile Association (AA) offices and some bookstores.

Bus services operate in and between cities. There also are specialty tour bus operators. You can find information online ( or check into the first I-Site Visitor Centre you come across.

Camper vans are very popular and there are several chains that rent them. You can park for the night off the road, on a beach or riverside, in a holiday park or camp. The parks are inexpensive and have hookups, showers, kitchens, pools, etc. Automobile Association offices sell directories that list holiday parks along with hotels and motels.


There are many Internet sites, usually cafes. Most public libraries also offer Internet service.

For regular snail mail, airmail and international parcel post go to a Post Shop, which are privately operated and can be anywhere. Watch for the red Post Shop sign (not to be confused with Posties, which is a clothing store). Post Shops operate during regular business hours. Some are open Saturday mornings.

You can purchase phone cards at most dairies (which are small cash markets, Mom 'n Pop stores - you know, the kind that specialize in bread and milk and cigarettes. But they don't sell beer or wine here.)


Dairies (see above) are open early and late most days. Large and small supermarkets generally are open from early morning into the evening and on weekends but close entirely for some public holidays. They sell beer and wine but no hard stuff. For that you must go to a liquor store. There are lots of them around. Check the yellow pages or watch for the signs; you can't miss them. Hard liquor is more expensive here than in the US. If you want it, buy it at the Duty Free stores on your way through the airport.

With some exceptions, most shops tend to be open weekdays from 10am to 5pm and on Saturday mornings.

Where to stay


You can spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars a night for luxury accommodation here. Most of us look for something more modest. Hotel chains provide different grades of housing along with the makings for tea and coffee, a hair dryer and an iron. (By the way, every town has an old building that describes itself as a "hotel." Mostly it's a pub that provides rooms because it was required to by law in order to get a liquor license.)

Motels (with kitchenettes)

Motels in New Zealand range from central city, main street overnights to more permanent spots at holiday destinations. Experience indicates that they are usually clean, often relatively inexpensive and most have kitchenettes equipped with pots and pans, a toaster, sometimes a microwave, a small refrigerator, china (well, some variant thereof) and place settings; in short, the basics for cooking and serving a meal. All motel units are equipped with electric kettles, tea bags, instant coffee and sugar and they generally give you fresh milk when you check in. We hit a new motel in Blenheim that had only a kettle and cups and no kitchenette. That was unique in our experience, but you might want to ask first.

Motels frequently have one or more bedrooms separate from a lounge. At an older motel at Onehunga the one-bedroom unit smelt a little musty, but the room was away from the road with a fullly equipped kitchenette and an owner who offered, at no charge, a night walk in a nearby preserve to see the glowworms. He supplied flashlights, transportation and guidance. We stayed in a two-story unit at Hamner Springs complete with wood-burning stoves, a unit with a view of the beach at Kaikoura, a nice little cabin on Lake Waikeremoana and at a flash roadside place on Lake Taupo where, unfortunately, the trucks roared up a slope most of the night.

The best source of info about motels is the Automobile Association. The AA is centrally located in most larger towns and cities and sells two inexpensive guidebooks (for the North Island and the South Island) listing motels, hotels and holiday parks throughout New Zealand along with their locations, rates, phone numbers and amenities. Sometimes you will find both the AA books and another set produced by Jason's at motel check-in desks at no charge. I-Sites (information centers) also offer brochures for accommodation, including hotels, motels and bed and breakfast places.

Baches and Holiday Homes

If you would prefer to stay in a bach (translates to "cabin" or "cottage") or holiday home, a good source of info is "Baches & Holiday Homes to Rent" by Mark and Elizabeth Greening ( It's updated annually, sold in bookstores (travel section) and lists about 1,000 places by location throughout New Zealand. The listings often include photos of both the place and its view, rates, contact info, smoking or non-smoking, amenities and number of people each place can accommodate. This year it sells for about NZ$20. Just looking at the photos makes you want to start packing. And the prices are reasonable, if variable from season to season. (December and January schools are out and it's high tourist season; Easter is another school holiday and popular travel time.) Prices can be anything from $20 per night per person to $4000 per week for a place that sleeps 17. You pick.


Backpacking is a popular way to tour NZ and there are plenty of hostels. See for lists of hostels and other accommodation.


There are lots of Asian and Indian restaurants, bistros, cafes, fish and chip shops, bakeries, and so on. Many sell takeaways (takeout). Prices tend to be less, on average, compared to US restaurants and the US dollar is still worth more than the New Zealand dollar. New Zealanders do tend to put capsicum (green or red bell peppers) in everything and have a weakness for combining chicken with brie and apricots. But generally the food and the wine are good. And they've learned how to make coffee.

Some neat things to do in New Zealand

  • If you have any interest in thermal activity, Rotorua is a great place to visit. Clouds of sulphurous steam are everywhere, even rolling up out of the drains in the streets. The most active spots, like Whakarewarewa, have geysers and pits of boiling mud. While thermal activity is most intense in Rotorua, it really exists in a subterranean band across the North Island, from White Island, which is a new volcano still forming in the Bay of Plenty, down through Rotorua to Lake Taupo, where several volcanoes stand in Tongariro National Park. One of them, Ruapehu, last blew its top in 1995.
  • Keep going to the west coast and the thermal beach at Kawhia, an old whaling port, where you can dig your own hot tub in the sand when the tide is out: the hole fills up with hot water from thermal springs under the beach.
  • Visit the gannet colony on Cape Kidnappers. You can get there by overland bus, beach tractor or on foot (mind the tides). The Concorde jet was modeled on gannets, golden-headed, blue-eyed, soaring sea birds that nest on the cape's cliffs.
  • The boat trip down Milford Sound is great, even in the rain, when waterfalls pour off the hills that edge the Sound.
  • On a clear day, the scenic flight over Mt. Cook is well worth the NZ$270 or so it costs. Opt for the six-seater plane if you can. Even the people who slog through the snow to get there don't get such a view.
  • Visit the wild west coast of the South Island.
  • Swim with wild dolphins in the bay at Kaikoura on the opposite coast. The boat operators will tell you to make a noise to attract their attention. Try humming Verdi.
  • Do go tramping in the hills. It's the best way to appreciate them.

And enjoy your stay!!

Resources Department of Conservation, New Zealand Official tourist information for New Zealand Book, "Baches & Holiday Homes to Rent" by Mark and Elizabeth Greening

Elizabeth Sisson was born in New Zealand a long time ago, but to date spent most of her life in Michigan and Maine. She returned to live in New Zealand in September 2001.

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