Only Three Weeks in New Zealand? Yeah Right —
Tracey Barnett © March2006
You have been stuffing a half dozen Kiwi guidebooks inside your pillowcase at night so you can dream about a trip to the land of the long white cloud for years now. Yet when it comes time to make it happen–splat!–your trip itinerary resembles a Jackson Pollock painting. The dirty travel truth is Americans too often make the same maddening New Zealand trip planning mistakes. We don’t have to be a travelling Homer Simpson-Hawaiian shirt tour de force. We can get it right. Just put this in your Blackberry and smoke it:
Trip hazard #1: Do not combine a trip to New Zealand with a trip to Australia. End of story, no arguing. Think of a well-meaning Kiwi tourist telling you they want to do a see-America-AND-Canada trip in 3 weeks. Might as well throw in 14 European countries in 15 days and call it a night with a handful of Ritalin. Your life is not a reality travel race TV show. This place deserves your undivided attention.
I know–you only have 2-3 weeks holiday to set aside after visiting the “rellies” for Groundhog’s Day but most Europeans manage to devote 4-6 weeks to see this country properly. You are travelling a hell of a long way, make an exception and add time to your itinerary. Who lays on their deathbed bemoaning the fact that they took an extra two-week’s holiday in 2006?
Trip Hazard #2: Don’t focus on the cities. New Zealand cities are very nice [and not terribly foreign feeling by American measure]– but the real beauty of New Zealand is the land and its astounding sense of place. If you fly into Auckland and out of Queenstown or Christchurch and don’t step foot in a town with a population larger than your university graduation class, you will not have been cheated. Yes, if your trip falls near September [Wearable Art Festival] or February/March [International Arts Festival] run to Wellington and it’s terrific Te Papa national museum and don’t look back. Otherwise, think of this trip as activity-centered destinations and don’t give any city more than a day or two, especially if you only have three weeks.
Trip Hazard #3: Resist the urge to come at Christmas. Okay, it might be your longest holiday span but it is also dicey weather-wise in New Zealand, often a faux summer that is pretty unconvincing until mid January. The best time to travel to New Zealand is late January through March. The mad Kiwi holiday rush is finished by late January and most have returned to work. If you are a ski bum and want to visit in winter, remember that international departures from Queenstown are seasonal, making Christchurch the next logical choice for your outbound flight.
Trip Hazard #4: I may get rotten kiwi fruit thrown at my North Island front door for saying this, but plan on spending at least 2/3rds or more of your time in the South Island no matter how long you stay. The exception to this is if you are a sailor/kayaker and want to do the Bay of Islands in the North Island. Otherwise, there is a reason why they call the South Island “God’s Country.” It is as if they took all the most beautiful bits of America and smushed them into an area a little smaller than California to make driving more manageable. Make the South Island the focus of your trip. Trust me. Don’t let p.c. guidebooks tell you otherwise.
Trip Hazard #5: Scrap the suitcase if you are under age 50. Wheels-schmeels, you need to be able to move about the place with nothing much bigger than a microwave on your back and live to tell the tale.
Besides, you will never need nice clothes, ever. No exception to this rule. New Zealand’s Prime Minister would negotiate trade agreements in flip-flops [Kiwi translation: jandals] if she could.
What you do need is excellent hiking/walking shoes, comfortable casual clothes, a raincoat, a polar fleece jacket, a daypack, and if you are into hiking, a good pack with appropriate hiking gear inside. If your fitness level is a two-hour hike or a two-week tramp, this is the place to do it. Travel light, be fleet of foot and your feetsies will reward you with stunning, accessible scenery. There is a reason Kiwis always say, “Good on ya Mate.” They are referring to where your luggage should go.
Ready for a three-week sample itinerary that makes sense?
Arrive Auckland: Explore the city, dinner in the Viaduct or on Ponsonby Road; leave in the afternoon of day 2.
Bay of Islands or Coromandel Peninsula: [choose either]for a short 1-3 night trip. Book this one ahead of time. Find a beautiful spot, rent a ‘Bach’ [small cottage] and splurge on coastal beauty. Every trip deserves a beach/veg/navel-gazing segment. This is it.
Rotorua: Make sure to catch the 12:15 show at the NZ Maori Arts and Crafts Institute and sniff out their geysers and boiling mud pools. Park your behind in a steamy thermal stream or a lovely lake the next day.
Fly to Christchurch: Explore Christchurch’s new art museum; stroll around the old university arts complex. See if Dumbledore look-alike, The Wizard, is orating in Cathedral Square while you play a local on the giant chess set, have a beer at Dux DeLux, sleep, then head out of town with a rental car to charming Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula for the next night.
Mt. Cook/Aoraki: This is New Zealand’s grand cloud piercer, attended by 22 other peaks over 3000 meters. The Hooker Valley hike is a must and accessible for all levels of fitness. Mueller Hut makes a terrific overnight for those considerably more fit.
Wanaka is a mini-me Queenstown on half the steroids. Just pretend you are going to Puzzle World for the kids and ignore that half the folks there don’t have any. The entire area is lovely, leading you to…
Mt. Aspiring National Park: If you want to sample your first tramping hut experience, Mt.Aspiring Hut is an easy, flat walk through a beautiful valley ringed by towering peaks [4 hrs return]. The Rob Roy Glacier hike is a wonderful next day pay-off on the way back to the car.
Queenstown: This is the frustrated Olympian-wannabes zip code. How else can you explain this gorgeous setting with every conceivable adventure tourism activity just a credit card swipe away. Even the teeming masses Jet boat, bungy jump and paraglide. Only here can you see a busload of middle-aged Indian women get their saris tangled up on the mountain luge ride with such freewheeling conviviality.
Glenorchy: Need a breather from flinging yourself off precipices? One hour Northwest of Queenstown is the remote, quiet tranquillity of LOTR’s Country. If you don’t know the abbreviation by now, you haven’t been listening. Invite an Orc in for cocktails. Relax the pace and enjoy the hushed beauty.
Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound Fiordland is the place where shutterbugs and sandflies come together as one. Hikers, this is the area to consider committing yourself to a longer hut-to-hut walk like the Routeburn, or the Grand-daddy of them all, the Milford Track [reservations required for this trek only.]
If you can’t possibly stomach another National Geographic vista at this point, head to the Otago Peninsula instead and watch blue penguins waddle at your feet while Albatross soar overhead. A tough second choice.
Depart from Queenstown–then kick yourself for not allowing enough time for Punakaiki’s Pancake rocks and the entire West Coast, the pristine Abel Tasman coastline or the whales of Kaikoura, among so many other greatest hits.
Just pinky promise you’ll do it right next time.