New Zealand, Island of the Long White Cloud

Wanaka, New Zealand

I wrapped up my 40 days of traveling around the world in the southern hemisphere's answer to Iceland.

After an exhausting six weeks of travel in Iceland, Morocco, Dubai, Cambodia, and Bali I flew into New Zealand, just about as far from the rest of the world as possible.

Everyone wants to see it, everyone has heard that it’s the most beautiful country in the world. The reputation is well deserved. I’d like to take it a step further and actually pick up my life and move to the best place on earth.

You’re sensing some bias here. I don’t deny it. I’ve been here before and I’m coming back again. But one of the privileges of traveling the world is the ability to be totally subjective about what you do and don’t like: and I absolutely love New Zealand.

The first thing worth noting is that it’s quite larger than most people think. It’s easy to see it on a map and think “look at the little island!”…but remember that it’s positioned right alongside Australia, a landmass as large as the continental United States. Driving New Zealand from top to bottom is roughly the same as driving from New Orleans to Chicago, stretching almost 1,000 longitudinal miles. The mountains rival the Rockies or the Alps in size and magnitude. The miles of farmland, rolling vineyards, massive rivers, and precipitous gorges are every bit as impressive as any other geography on earth. Even the everyday, average, small-town New Zealand visuals just blow you away for no reason at all.

Buller Gorge, NZ

Buller Gorge at sunrise

My Itinerary Around New Zealand

I flew from my previous destination Bali to Auckland early in the morning. Auckland gets a bad rap for being the worst part of New Zealand. And perhaps it is. But here’s the thing: being the worst part of New Zealand is still better than anything else.

In my opinion, New Zealand’s natural beauty only improves the further south you go. I got on a bus towards Hamilton and it started to get a little hillier, a little greener, a little more variated. I hit Taupo, a city on the edge of a big lake. Still not my favorite, but a famous resort area with volcanic hot springs. And then I got to Napier on the east coast.

Napier was totally destroyed by an earthquake in 1932, and immediately rebuilt. The benefit of this, for the casual lover of architecture, is that the entire central city district is Art Deco. It’s the largest collection of Art Deco architecture in the world. It happens to be one of my favorite periods, so it’s worth just walking through the town looking at buildings.

Here’s the deal: Napier isn’t even a nice place by New Zealand standards. It’s a small town on the coast, that’s about it. Nobody raves about Napier, and there’s no particular reason to move there.

Wellington Harbour Sunrise

Wellington Harbour at sunrise

Keep going south and you go through the large farmland of the southern section of the north island. Millions of sheep. Acres of grapes. And about everything else that could possibly grow. Passing through the hilly range in the middle, you come to Palmerston North. I’d have to say that of all the cities in New Zealand, Palmerston North takes the cake for the least attractive. If I wasn’t afraid of ruffling a resident, I’d draw a comparison to some towns in the American Rust Belt. But then, an hour’s drive south, you come into Wellington. The best little city in the world.

I could write an entire article on Wellington. I could write a whole book. While small for a capital city, it’s a thriving cultural center that’s friendly, communal, walkable, and has one of the highest cafe-to-population ratios in the world. World-class coffeeshops, burger bars, vegetarian dives, Lebanese kiosks, Mongolian eateries, and five-star gourmet restaurants are just around the corner. Have some coffee at the 24-hour Midnight Espresso staffed by hippies in combat boots, go to the Atomic Night party at San Fran for some eighties disco music, have an expensive cocktail at the hidden Library bar, buy some military surplus on Cuba Street, or tip a busker after he covers Pink Floyd on the sidewalk.

putangirua pinnacles

The Putangirua Pinnacles, badlands-style erosion

I rented a car in Wellington and drove a couple hours out to Cape Palliser, which is too far out of the way to be a huge tourist draw but still a fascinating area of New Zealand. After miles of rolling vineyards and sheep farms, you take a tiny winding road around the coast until you come to the Purangirua Pinnacles. These are badlands-style columns eroded from rocky sediment from a small river emptying into the Pacific Ocean. It was a long, muddy track up a poorly marked riverbed to get to it (and it started raining halfway through) but worth going to such a remote destination.

After this, I took my little rental car down a gravel track that probably should have voided my Toyota Corolla’s damage waiver (I crossed a pretty wet spillway and some washed-out hairpin turns). But at the end was a gloriously rocky coast and one of those old red-and-white lighthouses perched on the cape point.

Heading back to Wellington, I stopped in a little farm town called Featherston. A population of 2,360…just a little strip of shops along the road and a few houses scattered behind. I was thinking of just popping into a petrol station to grab a sandwich, but instead I accidentally found an amazing cafe that rivals anything you’ll find in a major metropolitan city. I had a mouthwatering pot pie, potato, gravy, and cappuccino…in a farm town of 500. The fact that a community that small can support such quality still blows my mind…and it says a lot about what makes New Zealand as amazing as it is to me.

After a few days enjoying the city of Wellington, I hopped a domestic flight back to Auckland. The flight was only two hours long…and an entire $35 including luggage. The equivalent bus ticket was $45, so I figured saving a day of travel was worth spending $10 less.

I spent my remaining day-and-a-half exploring Auckland. Besides the obvious downtown highlights like the Sky Tower and the wharf, you should check out K’ Road (Karangahape Road) which is an alt-culture haven with venues, coffeeshops, bookstores, hostels, foreign restaurants, military surplus stores, and new age shops. A quick $15 bus ride back to the airport gets you on your way to home within a half hour.

Franz Josef Glacier

The Franz Josef Glacier in the Southern Alps

Tips on Traveling Around New Zealand

In my opinion New Zealand is best traveled by car. It’s a big place, and there are just so many places that you feel like stopping in and exploring for a few hours or a few days. Fortunately cars are affordable to rent and the roads are great. Camper vans are a popular means of transport, and help you save on accommodation.

The bus system is unrivaled and affordable. InterCity offers regular routes on brand-new, wifi-enabled buses from most destinations, for prices as low as $15 to $30 for long hauls. Naked Bus offers even cheaper routes.

Every town in the country has an i-SITE, a community-run visitor kiosk which is always located in the center of town. You can ask for directions, booking assistance, and directions from here…and it’s always free. All bus lines and public transit operate from a stop directly by an i-SITE, so it’s always easy to know where to go.

It would be hard to cram all of New Zealand into two or three weeks, so I’d recommend focusing on either the north or south island if your time is limited. Though I do love the north island, the south is much more visually appealing and holds surprises like the Southern Alps, the fjords of Milford Sound, Mt. Cook, and many many glaciers. My favorite city, Wellington, is at the southern tip of the north island. Islands are connected either by regular ferry or by cheap domestic flights.

If you’re backpacking, New Zealand has some of the best hostel networks I’ve ever seen. It’s worth becoming a member of either the BBH (Budget Backpacker Hostels) or the YHA (Youth Hostels Association) and trying out the perks of a few dollars off here and there.

cape palliser lighthouse

Cap Palliser lighthouse, north island

Thoughts on Backpacking New Zealand

This country is one of the best destinations in the world for the traveler, whether you’re younger or older, richer or poorer. It’s not terribly expensive, and it has a strong traveling culture embedded in the country. Every part of the country is beautiful and accessible in it’s own way. English-speaking travelers are at an advantage here: because no matter how hard you try to speak the local language and adapt to regional customs, it’s so difficult to make the connections we desire.

There is so much about New Zealand that I find so hard to express in words. I’m not a very emotional person, but walking down Cuba Street in downtown Wellington, or hiking the Franz Joseph glacier, or strolling around the little ski town of Wanaka makes me feel feelings few other things have ever made me feel.

The country is very friendly, free, and independent. The first time I took a domestic flight, I was surprised to find out that you don’t have to go through oppressive security to fly within the country…it’s just like using the bus system or the metro. It’s safe, respectful, and progressive.

After a exploring a few new destinations during the last six weeks of my round-the-world trip, I’ve now had the pleasure of visiting 33 countries across the world. While I love many of them, New Zealand holds a very special place in my rankings that no other country can come close to upsetting (a few get pretty close, like Italy or Iceland). Part of it is my preference for the ice and rock and high-latitude locations. Another part is just that it’s so darn beautiful. And even another part is that the people are so ridiculously approachable.

Does anyone else want to move to New Zealand with me? I’m not sure when, or where, but I’ll be heading that way soon enough on a one-way ticket.

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