Do’s & Don’ts For Independent Travel in New Zealand

Before I finish seven glorious months of doing absolutely nothing in Nelson, New Zealand and drag my well-rested self around the world, I thought I should write something about the place I call home. So I’m getting up on my soap box and sounding off about what I consider to be some of the key mistakes travelers make when it comes to New Zealand, rounded off with the top ten experiences I think everyone should have in my beloved Aotearoa. I’m dressing this all up as inside knowledge so read on to be in the know and we’ll start with the don’ts…

Don’t take a once in a lifetime extended trip to Australia and forget to visit New Zealand. If you are from Europe, the Americas or Africa (and most other places) then you’ll likely find it a long trek that you may not be planning to make again. So for the love of whatever, jump on a plane and tag on New Zealand. Even if you only have a few days you’ll be able to fly for a couple of hours on a direct flight from Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane to most of New Zealand’s main centres. If you can only pick one I recommend Queenstown and when you are there be sure to squeeze in a trip to stunning Milford Sound to get a solid introduction to New Zealand’s scenic beauty.

Don’t spend more than 50% of your time in the North Island as wonderful as it is. I am always amazed at the amount of people I meet around the world whose New Zealand vacation only consisted of Auckland and Rotorua. Even more jaw dropping is the amount of people who visit the South Island and only hit Christchurch. Seriously?  In my opinion you should follow a 70/30 rule with 70% of your time spent in the South Island and 30% in the North Island. When I worked with inbound independent travellers the number one complaint that I’d hear (and I’d hear it several times a day) was that they spent most of their time in the North Island, never realizing how much the South had to offer and how different the two islands are, or that the South Island is not only bigger but has a skeleton road network meaning that it takes longer to hit all of the worthwhile sites than it may seem when looking at a map.

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Auckland is a wonderful city but restricting your New Zealand adventure to here is a bit like going to Los Angeles and saying you’ve experienced California.

Don’t stick to the most common tourist route of Auckland, Rotorua, Christchurch and Queenstown. By all means visit those places but unless you get off that well-trodden tourist path you’ll truly be missing out on all that New Zealand has to offer including most of the stunning scenery. Do a bit of research on the Bay of Islands, Coromandel, East Cape, Hawkes Bay, Wellington, the Marlborough Sounds, Nelson, Abel Tasman National Park, Westland (my fave place on Earth), Fiordland, Dunedin and Kaikoura. They are just a handful of places that come to mind that I guarantee you’ll be glad you visited and there are many more if you have the time.

Don’t restrict yourself to the high season. It’s true that mid-January through to the end of March is the most reliable time of year for lots of warm sunny days, however the already stunning scenery becomes even more spectacular when there is snow low on the mountains in winter and spring. The latter is my favorite time to travel in New Zealand but winter is also fairly temperate in most places yet still offers some excellent skiing.  Autumn is on the cool-side yet generally offers calm weather.  Plus if you avoid the January/February rush when most people visit (and when many Kiwis travel) you’ll have more freedom to find accommodation and book activities as you go.  The prices may be lower too however a big caveat is making sure that nothing on your ‘must see’ list is closed for the low season.

fresh snow tasman ranges
Fresh spring snow on the Nelson ranges at dawn.

Don’t assume you can leave your car unlocked or your pack unattended just because it is a small laid-back country. On a global scale New Zealand is a very safe place however there are still petty thieves who will take advantage of unsecure vehicles and hotel rooms just like any other country. Several times a year there are local news articles where exasperated police talk about tourists having expensive cameras or cash stolen from unlocked cars and campervans.  Follow the same rules you would at home of keeping your car locked not leaving your belongings unattended.

Do give yourself as much time as possible. Yes New Zealand is a small country but due to the mountainous terrain and relatively sparse road network it can take longer to get around than it seems from looking at a map. Whilst I’d encourage you to visit even if you only have a few days to spare, the  minimum trip length to see the most of the main highlights would be 21 days with about 7 spent in the North Island and 14 in the South Island. To get a more comprehensive experience you’d want to dedicate at least 6-weeks.

Compact yet diverse. Take the time to really explore New Zealand.

Do research the long-distance bus network and consider it as a great option for seeing the country, particularly the South Island where the main bus routes cover much of the scenery and attractions you’ll want to experience. InterCity Coachlines offer an extensive daily service around the country along with great value bus passes. If you want to party your way around New Zealand then there are a few backpacker bus options. Even if you don’t want to party they make an excellent low-cost option that specifically focusses on tourism sites and the driver/guides generally give a commentary so you know what you are seeing.

Do have a long hard think about if you want to drive yourself around. If you aren’t a confident driver and don’t like the idea of fairly narrow, winding mountain roads that have no dividing medians then you should think about using New Zealand’s excellent long-distance bus network. Even as a native Kiwi, after spending many years driving on US and European roads I find New Zealand takes a bit of getting used to again when I come back.  In fact a 100km speed limit on a busy road with no divider is downright terrifying at first.  However if you are a confident driver who is used to mountain roads and you feel ok about driving on the other side of the road (depending on where you are from) then go for it and you’ll have a blast.

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One lane bridges are prevalent throughout New Zealand and most foreign drivers master them very easily.  But how do you feel about sharing one with a train like this one in Westland?

 

Do utilize the i-SITE network. These visitor information centers are all over the country and offer expert impartial advice and usually a full booking service as well. They can assist you with itinerary planning and many of them are linked to the Department of Conservation who can help you arrange hiking in one of the many stunning National Parks and reserves the country has to offer.

Do keep your eye out for rest areas, picnic areas and scenic reserves that you’ll find along the roadside. Many offer short walks through beautiful forest or along the coastline. A lot of travelers miss them as they assume they are a little like some of the dodgy rest areas found alongside highways in other parts of the world. Worry not and you’ll likely make some cool discoveries.

Pohara picnic
My Dad during a family lunch at a picnic area in Pohara, Golden Bay.

My New Zealand Top Ten

In no particular order, here are my Top 10 New Zealand experiences in case you want to add some to your Kiwi wish list…

Take the ferry between Wellington and Picton. Make sure you find a comfy spot with a view for the spectacular trip through the Marlborough Sounds.

Sea Kayak and/or walk in Abel Tasman National Park, even if it is just for one day and even if you aren’t normally an outdoorsy person.

Take the Coastal Pacific train between Christchurch and Picton.

Drive (or bus) all the way from Picton to Queenstown via Nelson and the West Coast. This is my favorite drive on the planet. Maybe in the universe.

Explore at least one rural place that is off the main tourist path such as Waikato, Golden Bay or Taranaki. Stop in a small town for a meat pie and a slice of lolly cake. Ask the locals to recommend their favorite drives or scenic spots.

Stay a night in Franz Josef or Fox Glacier and splurge on a helicopter flight with a snow landing. Breathtaking.

Spend a day exploring Wellington on foot. Visit Te Papa (the national museum), explore Upper Cuba Street and take the Cable Car for stunning vistas of the harbor. If the weather is cooperating then finish your day with a sunset stroll along the waterfront followed by a few pints with the locals at one of the many waterfront bars or restaurants.

Visit Te Anau then take a day tour to Doubtful Sound. It is incredibly beautiful and much quieter than Milford Sound. In fact they call it the Sound of Silence.

Find at least one wild New Zealand beach with nobody else on it and take a stroll. Most of the time it is not too hard to find a beach that you can have all to yourself, an experience that is sadly hard to have in many parts of the world. Ideally take some fresh Fish & Chips with you then have fun dodging hangry seagulls.

Head underground on one of the many unique caving experiences on offer throughout the country. You can do something mainstream like Waitomo Caves or get off the beaten path in Golden Bay. My personal favorite is a black water rafting experience in Charleston, basically tubing through underground rivers. 

My New Zealand Gallery

I have hundreds of pictures of New Zealand.  You’ll be glad to know I only uploaded a few.

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