A southern view of Mount Taranaki, located on the west coast of the north island.

I’ve rarely uttered the name “New Zealand” without those two little words eliciting from my listener a yearning groan followed by “Oh, I wanna go there!” From the southern mountain range aptly named “The Remarkables,” to the northern Bay of Islands and Bay of Plenty, New Zealand is quite possibly one of the world’s most desirable travel destinations.

Every year loads of travelers, at long last, saddle up and venture to enchanting New Zealand. And yet, after so much time longing to make the trip, they often miss the very best that this little pair of islands has to offer.

Now, I don’t know everything, and I haven’t seen it all. And one thing I definitely learned from my own year and a half in the Land of the Long White Cloud is that New Zealand means something a little different to everyone.

So more than prescribing a point-by-point TripTik, I want to share the mindsets and travel objectives that were most beneficial to me and that brought me some of my most treasured New Zealand days.

And with that, here are a few of my own navigational stars to guide you on your way through these islands and bring that New Zealand gleam into your eyes as you plan your journey to what is rightly referred to as “God’s Own Country.”

It’s All in the In-Between

Sheep graze on top of Te Mata Peak in Hastings, NZ

The greatest mindset that you can take with you is this: with New Zealand, the very best things are in the “in-betweens.” The best of New Zealand is not in the cities or tourist attractions. As you travel from place to place, recognize that this, the gloriously green in between, is what you came to see.

Between every city, village, and hole-in-the-wall are the most beautiful and varied landscapes you may have ever seen in your life. Take your time. Don’t rush. Look around you because it’s in the getting there, in the moving from place to place, that you really see New Zealand. Remember that you are not merely en route to somewhere else—this is it! Plan plenty of time for your in-betweens and soak it up.


Travel the Old-Fashioned Way: By Road or Rail

Milford Sound, a prime road trip destination located on the southern tip of the south island.

Typically when we think road trip, we think California, Vegas, or Chicago. Very few who plan a New Zealand trip think to themselves, “You know, maybe we should road trip around New Zealand.” But believe me when I say this is a wonderful way to go.

If you’re concerned about your lack of  familiarity with the geography, don’t worry. There are entire guide books devoted to helping you find the perfect route. Even a quick Google search for New Zealand road trips will help you find great routes. A road trip gives you the optimal freedom to go where you want to go, stop where you want to stop, and detour to where you want to detour. Make at least one leg of your trip a road trip.

A fierce (but oh so desirable) competitor with the road trip option is the train route. Some of the most beautiful landscapes I saw during my time in New Zealand were framed by a train window. Train routes can get you into the more rural, more rugged, and therefore more breathtaking parts of New Zealand—places a car just can’t get you to. The train ride from the top of the south island at Picton to Christchurch halfway down the east coast is beyond words, even for an English major like me.

You can find routes and schedules for all the scenic train routes at  π http://railnewzealand.com. You can’t go wrong with any of these memorable routes. Speaking from experience, I’d say that these wheeled journeys through the Paradise of the Pacific may stay in your memory deeper and clearer than any other thing you do on your entire trip.

Travel South to North
Of all the tips I could give you, this one may be the most valuable. The international airport hub for New Zealand is located in Auckland, at the very northern tip of New Zealand. As a result, most tourists start north and travel south. Don’t make this mistake! Tourists who travel north to south are just getting to the good stuff as they get farther and farther south. But at this terminal point, their trip time is short and they’re left wishing they had planned more time for the unrivaled south island.

A coastal view taken near Waimarama, NZ

So here’s the secret: the farther south you go in New Zealand, the more jaw-dropping beauty you’ll see. As you move south, it’s less populated and more rugged—and therefore more gorgeous. The great mountain ranges, fjords, sounds, glaciers, and plains of New Zealand are proudly—yet quietly—held by the south island. So start with the best! Book a cheap flight from Auckland at the very north, to Invercargill, Dunedin, or Queenstown at the very south.

Like I said, I won’t prescribe specific destinations. I wouldn’t deprive you of the thrill of researching them and choosing them for yourself. I merely hope to point you in the right direction.

Forget Fancy: Kiwis Are Simple
New Zealanders, who proudly call themselves Kiwis after their national bird, are all about doing things easier, better, cheaper. They call it the Kiwi-can-do attitude. They don’t splurge, they don’t contract out work they can do themselves, and they don’t spend more when they could spend less. It’s all about sensibility.

Keep this desire for simplicity in mind as you look for places to eat. The best places to taste New Zealand are in the corner store shops (called dairies) and little fish-and-chips shops. You won’t find authentic New Zealand fare and spirit in fine dining establishments and certainly not in McDonald’s! Plus, the hometown shops are unrivaled for low prices and filling portions.

A little-known New Zealand fact is that this little country has one of the world’s highest immigrant populations per capita. This means New Zealand boasts some of the most authentic foreign cuisine. Most of these little gems are quiet little corner shops or dimly lit restaurants, but hidden inside are foreign delectable delights. The best Indian, Turkish, Greek, and Polynesian food I’ve ever had was in New Zealand. Don’t miss the chance to savor flavors from many foreign lands during your time on the small islands of New Zealand.

Go to a Rugby Game
Going to New Zealand and not going to a rugby game is like going to Rome and not seeing the Colosseum. Seriously. A simple internet search on rugby schedules will help you find tickets before you go. The tickets are cheap and the games are awesome. Too few people make this a part of their New Zealand experience. Don’t be among these sadly uninformed. Get a little rugby in your life.

Don’t Miss the Maori

The author shares a hongi (a Maori greeting and farewell) with a dear friend.

It’s not all about trying to avoid being a typical New Zealand tourist, and Maori culture demonstrations are some of the best tourist attractions that New Zealand has to offer. The Maori music, dance, lifestyle, language, and art are unique, beautiful, deeply symbolic, and very moving. If you’ll do a little research, these types of tours of Maori villages and meeting places (marae) or dance performances are easy to find. You’ll have better luck with this farther north, where the Maori culture is a bit more concentrated. (See the opposite page for a cultural note on a beautiful aspect of Maori culture.)

The Experience of a Real Winter Wonderland
Don’t be afraid to visit New Zealand during its winter season. It’ll be a bit chillier, but when you come from your hot American summer, the chill will be a relief. Airfare is also less expensive because the peak tourist season is in our winter, when New Zealand enjoys summer. Besides, New Zealand’s winter is the rainy season, so the country is in its best, greenest, and most breathtaking splendor. But don’t go during August! August is the worst, coldest, and wettest part of winter. The best winter month is June; things aren’t too cold and wet yet, but the green will be greening.

Last but Not Least
Once you are finally there, once all the planning and fretting, considering and decision-making are over, soak in every moment of your time there. Don’t worry about whether you’re getting the most out of your trip or about what places you might be missing. Be confident in the plan you have made. Then take some unplanned detours along your way. Explore and discover. The fact is that this country’s splendor will speak for itself. You won’t have to go searching for it. For it will surely find you.

-Eve German