Maori legend tells of Kupe the navigator, who led the first expedition of Maori people to New Zealand from their home of Hawaiki in Polynesia in around 1350. They saw the narrow islands which were to become their land as a long white cloud and name them Aotearoa…”the land of the long white cloud”.
Centuries later, visitors from all over the world arrive to see the beauty of New Zealand for themselves. In many ways, this small nation’s isolation is becoming an integral part of its charm in a crowded world.
New Zealand is made up of three main islands – the North Island, South Island and Stewart Island.
Most visitors to New Zealand land in Auckland, the largest city and major gateway. They then head south, and in doing so often miss out on one of the loveliest areas of the country, Northland. Disclaimer: I’m a Northlander, born and bred, and try to get back there at least once a year.
The major city in Northland is Whangarei. About an hour’s drive north of there is the historic Bay of Islands, where golden beaches are lined with pohutukawa trees, also sometimes called the New Zealand Christmas tree, for its scarlet summertime blossoms. It was in the Bay of Islands, at Waitangi, that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed to end the wars between the Maori population and European settlers in 1840.
The best way to appreciate the Bay of Islands’ beauty is from the sea and charter boats operate from the resort town of Paihia – either for fishing or sightseeing around the islands.
Further north, at Kaitaia, take a bus tour along the sweeping emptiness of Ninety Mile Beach to the northern-most tip of New Zealand, Cape Reinga, where the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea crash together.
Returning south to Auckland, the Twin Coast Discovery touring route takes you along the west coast of Northland, through the Waipoua State Forest, where giant kauri trees dominate. Stop to see the most accessible, Tane Mahuta, which is around 1200 years old and measures 51 metres high and 41 metres around its trunk.
New Zealand’s natural beauty is complemented by its attractive and sometimes quirky cities. Heading south from Auckland, the next region to spend time in is Rotorua, which has a strong Maori culture and is famous for its thermal activity. The wonders of the bubbling mud pools and geysers make up for the strong smell of sulphur that sometimes wafts through the town. Rotorua is also home to the Maori village of Whakarewarewa, where more than 500 hot springs bubble and spurt.
Trout farms are also an attraction at Rotorua and nearby Lake Taupo, also renowned for its thermal activity and bidding for the title of New Zealand’s adventure capital (watch out, Queenstown!).
The North Island has many national parks but the most spectacular is Egmont National Park which is dominated by the dormant volcano, Mount Egmont, standing 2518 metres, just outside the city of New Plymouth in Taranaki. Egmont is one of New Zealand’s most-climbed mountains, but for the less adventurous there are plenty of walking tracks around its base. Tongariro National Park, nearby, is the major North Island ski resort area.
On the east coast of the central North Island is Cape Kidnappers, near Napier in Hawke’s Bay. Cape Kidnappers is the only mainland colony of Australasian gannets, with around 4500 birds.
Also on the east coast, Gisborne is a gateway to the rugged East Cape and a base for discovering the area’s beautiful surf beaches and the well-established wine industry. The Tairawhiti Museum in town is considered to be one of New Zealand’s best regional museums.
New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, is a delightful and very hip city, with narrow hilly streets and a character all its own. Built on a lovely harbour, it is the centre of New Zealand’s thriving arts culture. It is also the seat of government and Parliament House (known as “The Beehive” for its architecture) is one of the city’s landmarks.
Only a little over a quarter of New Zealand’s population of four million lives in the South Island, which is separated from the North Island by Cook Strait. Ferries ply the strait regularly between Wellington and Picton. At the top of the South Island, you’ll find the wonderful wine region of Marlborough, home of crisp Sauvignon Blancs and other delights.
The West Coast of the South Island is studded with historic old gold-mining towns and leads to the wonders of Fiordland and the Southern Lakes district. Sitting below towering mountains, Lake Wanaka is a winter resort where skiers flock for superb skiing and snowboarding at Cardrona and Treble Cone, cross-country skiing and heli-skiing. The nearby towns of Cromwell and Alexandra are also worth visiting.
Queenstown sits on the shore of Lake Wakatipu among dramatic alpine ranges. This is New Zealand’s “adventure capital”, with skiing, bungy jumping, sky diving, canyon swinging, jet boating, horse trekking, mountain biking and cycling and river rafting all on offer depending on the season.
Some of New Zealand’s most spectactular scenery can be seen from Arthur’s Pass in the Southern Alps, which crosses the Great Divide at 930 metres. Continuing through the alps, the road leads to Christchurch, the South Island’s largest city. Two major earthquakes shattered the heart of this lovely city in 2014 and 2015, but the rebuilding continues and our Bindu itineraries will show you the best of everything it has to offer. Kiwi innovation has made sure that Christchurch rises better than ever before!
Further south, Dunedin reflects a strong Scottish influence (yep, there’s a lot of tartan to be seen) but there’s nothing stuffy about it. As a university town, Dunedin is full of fun and quirky events and places. Nude rugby, anyone?
Check our Where to Go for prime destinations we are covering or will cover.
Queenstown and the Southern Lakes
National Holidays include:
January 1: New Year’s Day
January 2: Day After New Year
February 6: Waitangi Day
March/April: Good Friday and Easter Monday
April 25: Anzac Day
June 6: Queen’s Birthday
October 24: Labour Day
December 25: Christmas Day
December 26: Boxing Day
Additional holidays are observed if a public holiday falls on a weekend, usually on the next Monday. On national public holidays, banks, post offices and liquor outlets may be closed or open for limited hours. There are also additional holidays in regional areas, including provincial anniversary days.
To check the local time in New Zealand, click here.
New Zealand keeps it simple: the whole country is on the same time zone! The time zone is called New Zealand Standard Time, and in summer the whole country also observes New Zealand Daylight Time. Daylight Saving begins on the last Sunday in September, when 2am becomes 3am, and ends on the first Sunday in April, when 3am becomes 2am.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $NZ.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $20 per person
$$ => Tickets $20-70 per person
$$$ => Tickets $70 per person
$ => Rooms less than $200 for a double
$$ => Rooms $205-300 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => $1-$35 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $35-$80 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $80 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $20 per person
$$ => Tickets $20-$50 per person
$$$ => Tickets $50 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping, and the major companies like Hertz, Budget, Avis and Europcar all operate around New Zealand, alongside smaller local companies that are worth investigating.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Ride-sharing company Uber is relatively new to New Zealand, operating only in Auckland and Wellington. In New Zealand, Uber drivers must pass a police background check and work with partners who are fully licensed by the New Zealand Transport Association to operate as a Private Hire service.
Uber rides are ordered through a smart phone app, it’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Hopefully, your trip to New Zealand will go without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical —Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. Standard medical and travel insurance is advisable for travel to New Zealand.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework — check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
New Zealand dollars come in $1 and $2 coins, and $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 notes. Each is a different colour, so they are easy to tell apart. Other coins are 10 cents, 20 cents and 50 cents. The $1 and $2 coins are gold, all the others are silver.
Prices sometimes end in a variant of 1, 2 or 5 cents (for example, 52 cents or $1.71), a relic from the days before 1-cent, 2-cent and 5-cent pieces were phased out. In these cases, prices ending in 1 to 4 cents are usually rounded down to the closest 10 cents and prices ending in 6 to 9 cents are rounded up. For prices ending in 5 cents, it is up to the retailer which way to round!
Tipping is always appreciated, but is not widely practiced or expected in New Zealand. It is usual to tip around 10% to 15% or round up to the nearest A$10 for a substantial meal in a restaurant, but certainly not mandatory. Some taxi passengers round up to the nearest round figure in a cab, but it’s okay to insist on every bit of change back. Tipping hotel porters and housemaids is sometimes done, but no one tips bar staff, barbers, massage therapists and spa employees or hairdressers.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and chemist shops (pharmacies/drugstores) will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
It is believed that the first Polynesian people to arrive in New Zealand came by canoe around the year 750. These were the days of the giant moa, a flightless bird which became an important food source and was eventually hunted to extinction. The legendary Polynesian navigator Kupe arrived a few hundred years later, giving the land a name which has stuck and become the alternative to New Zealand – Aotearoa, the “land of the long white cloud”. Some days, you’ll see why.
Kupe’s discovery of Aotearoa led to a migration from his native Hawaiki (believed to be present day French Polynesia) and by the 1300s the ancestors of today’s Maori people had displaced the moa hunters and made the new land their home.
It was not until about three centuries later, in 1642, that the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sighted the island he called Nieuw Zeeland. After some of his crew were killed by Maori, he sailed away without landing. In 1769, Captain James Cook made landfall and claimed New Zealand for the British.
There followed sealers and whalers, timber cutters, missionaries and soldiers, bringing with them guns, liquor and disease. In 1832, a British Resident, James Busby, was appointed by the Crown to foster trade and protect the Maori people. In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by Captain William Hobson (for the British Crown) and Maori chiefs. The original treaty hangs in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, but you can also visit the Treaty House and learn more about its history at Waitangi, in Northland.
But the treaty did not ensure peace. By the 1860s, the Maori people were determined to get their land back, and the Land Wars of the North Island were fierce and bloody. Despite some victories, the tribes were defeated and large areas of ancestral land were taken over by the colonists.
The New Zealand Constitution was passed into law in 1852, and in 1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the vote. It was the first step of many forward-thinking policies by New Zealand governments, including opposition to nuclear power and nuclear testing in the South Pacific, which resulted in its expulsion from the ANZUS alliance in 1985 and the bombing of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior Auckland Harbour by the French the same year.
New Zealand’s government is currently held by the conservative National Party, with John Key as prime minister.
The Maori people were the first to arrive in New Zealand, in several waves of Polynesian migration around 1000 years ago. They became the tangata whenua (people of the land) and are the indigenous people of the country they called Aotearoa (“The Land of the Long White Cloud”).
Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the next to sail into these waters, in 1642. He sailed up the west coast of the South Island, but did not linger after an encounter with fierce Maori tribes. Europeans did not venture to these shores again until 1769, when Captain James Cook and his crew became the first to land and claim New Zealand for Britain.
As increasing numbers of European settlers arrived, there was a need for a formal agreement between the parties. In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi (named for the place in which it was signed) was signed by more than 500 Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown. It is commemorated each year on February 6, Waitangi Day, now New Zealand’s national day.
New Zealand became a self-governing British colony in 1856 and was not independent until 1947. It is now a member of the British Commonwealth. It has a national Parliament of 120 seats, of which six are set aside for Maori MPs.
New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the vote, in 1893.
Maori culture is strong in New Zealand and is an integral part of everyday life.
About 15 per cent of New Zealand’s population of four million are of Maori descent.
Smoking is banned in many public places in New Zealand, including bars, restaurants, cafes, casinos, sports clubs, schools and workplaces. Fines apply, so make sure you check it’s okay before lighting up.
New Zealand is a bilingual country, with both English and Maori official languages. Maori is not spoken widely but Maori words are commonly used by all New Zealanders. About a quarter of the Maori population speaks Te reo Maori, which has been introduced to schools and revived in recent decades. It is a Polynesian language with a musical quality.
Maori trace their ancestors back through their whakapapa (genealogy) to the waka (canoe) which brought their ancestors across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand. This is a spiritual connection to both family and nature, which they identify through their mihi (greeting). This greeting involves naming their maunga (mountain), awa (river), marae (meeting place), waka (canoe), iwi (tribe) and tipuna (special ancestors). It is an important ritual.
A few commonly used Maori words:
Haere mai – welcome
Kia ora – Hello
Haere ra – goodbye
Kai – food
Ka pai – OK, good, well done
Pounamu – Greenstone
Powhiri – welcoming ceremony
Whanau – family
Tapu – sacred (and often this also means off-limits)
Pakeha – non-Maori New Zealanders or Europeans
New Zealand has a rich literary scene and diving into some books by local writers will give you a deeper understanding of the Kiwi culture.
A History of New Zealand by Michael King
The Bone People, by Keri Hulme (1985 Booker Prize winner)
Once Were Warriors, by Alan Duff
What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted, by Alan Duff (sequel to Once Were Warriors)
James K. Baxter
New Zealand is renowned for its quirky home-grown movie industry, and in recent years has become famous for its starring role in the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit movies. But there is much more to discover in the New Zealand movie scene. Look out for some of these for not only great scenery but an insight into the New Zealand psyche.
Goodbye Pork Pie (1981)
An Angel at My Table (1990)
The Piano (1993)
Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Once Were Warriors (1994)
What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted (1999)
Whale Rider (2002)
In My Father’s Den (2004)
River Queen (2005)
The World’s Fastest Indian (2005)
No. 2 (2006)
There are also many movie-themed tours that will take you to the locations of some of these movies, notably Lord of the Rings locations – and don’t forget that you can visit the recreated Hobbiton in the North Island.