New Zealand is kind of mid.
After spending 26 days driving from New Zealand’s north island to the south island (1,600 miles), I can confidently say I don’t think I’d go back, nor would I particularly recommend it to most people. New Zealand is full of beautiful places with loads of activities, a curious culture that doesn’t like outsiders, an interesting relationship with animals, and an entitled take on “paradise.”
Popularized by “Lord of the Rings” and then renowned for its handling of COVID-19, New Zealand can appear like an island utopia from afar, especially when thinking about all the various political and violence-related issues at home. But up close, it’s just like any other place inhabited by humans: full of quirks, cultural norms that differ from our own, an ecological mess, and not immune to the political pendulum that puts conservative tyrants in charge of removing freedoms and progress.
To justify my, likely shocking, hot take on Middle Earth® I’m going to start with a primer on our trip format, add some beautiful photos, and then break down the good, bad, and ugly of our experience. I expect people to disagree with my opinions because there’s only so much one can experience with such a fast-paced road trip.
And that’s good, I hope that people will have and have had different experiences. I would love to hear about them.
Around the country in 26 days
Annie and I went to New Zealand with our Aunt Lisa for a 3.5-week-long road trip designed to visit and do as much as possible. We worked with a local travel agency that built our itinerary. Our hope was that it would give us a local perspective and save time. Unfortunately, it created a more stressful high-speed death race around the country (see maps).
We all enjoy a more organic local experience, so we avoid curated tours, buses, and cruises, for the most part, to have a more lived-in experience, mix with the locals, learn about the culture, and deep dive into the local scene. Also, it’s a bit more economical at times.
However, as we get older, I think we might opt for the curated trips in the future.
The problem we always run into when doing this, is that inevitable hijinks ensue, between crashing an Airstream on Highway 1 in 2020 to getting stuck in a blizzard in northern Iceland in 2014.
Shit happens. We get it. Travel is chaotic, especially the longer you stay somewhere and the more you move around.
But it seemed that New Zealand had an abundance of shit happening and, as I’ll talk about later, the people in New Zealand are not keen on helping when things go wrong, which ultimately led to a lot of frustration.
To be clear, there were also really amazing things, we learned a LOT about the country, the people, the history, and it feels worth sharing all that and remembering it all for future travel.
Lesson 1: New Zealand food is excellent quality even if it’s not very diverse
Traveling for the sake of eating something new is the No. 1 reason to go somewhere. Food is life.
The quality of the food in New Zealand was exceptional across the board. From the tiny hole-in-the-wall fish and chip shop to the five-star hotel restaurant, to the pubs serving crayfish and Italian restaurants flinging kangaroo pizza. Every restaurant made excellent food, served hot, with near-perfect freshness and flavor.
Venison, steak, lamb, and pork were particularly outstanding. The Kiwi chefs and, obviously farmers, squeezed more flavor out of simple dishes than I could imagine. I will dream of the bacon for years to come.
The gin is phenomenal, I dunno what else to say here. The UK and NZ know what’s up with gin. I wish we had more imported gin from these wonderful juniper-rich countries. Sigh.
Spicy Indian food
In particular, we had an amazing experience on my birthday dinner at an Indian restaurant in Napier, North Island. The owner and restaurant namesake was our waiter, who led me to try his excellent lamb chops. I challenged him to continue making it more spicy until he finally brought out a small bowl of his unique Indian spice mix. I then met his challenge, finished the entire meal, and ate all of the spices, too.
He was impressed. It wasn’t as spicy as Indian food I’ve eaten in an Indian household or even as spicy as a maxed-out Thai dish. Which I’m fine with; flavor is better than spice. But I think there’s a reason he was impressed I finished the bowl.
Lack of variety
He was likely impressed because Kiwis and by extension, Brits, are not particularly adventurous eaters and generally don’t like spice. It’s a wonder they colonized India in the first place.
Outside of Indian, East Asian, and British dishes made from venison, steak, or fish, New Zealand restaurants don’t offer much variety, diversity, or excitement. Most menus were small and repetitive across the board, with the same six dishes in every city. Their sushi was quite dismal, only offering salmon, tuna, cooked squid, and cooked chicken.
If you don’t want fish and chips or some kind of red meat, you are largely out of luck.
These Kiwi Redditors said it best: “Ordinary food for extraordinary prices.”
Another said, “Cuisine? What cuisine?”
The lack of variety coupled with the high quality likely means most ingredients come from local and regional farms. One taxi driver in Christchurch excitedly told us this was the case. To be sure, we saw many small-scale sheep, deer, and cow farms everywhere in the country, which explained most of the menus.
Kumara, or sweet potatoes, are the most abundant vegetable. Other produce certainly grows there, but many others may also be imported either at great cost or not at all. This is a major plus agriculturally as it almost certainly guarantees a better experience than the United States’ industrial farming and shipping. The food was more like the quality you would get from a local co-op grocer.
Lesson 2: New Zealand’s scenery is beautiful but at a relatively high cost of entry
In a relatively small space (New Zealand’s square mileage totals less than Nevada), you can encounter rolling farmland with perfectly manicured treescapes, topographically interesting islands, lakes, geothermal wonderland (that’s a real name), granite mountains, rain forest, fiords, glaciers, terrifying beaches and more.
West coast, best coast
The south island’s west coast is, as always, the best coast. Stunning 12,000-foot Alps tower over the land. What is most unique about that elevation, is we are used to seeing much higher elevation mountains in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, but we usually see them from halfway up. Reno starts at 4,000 feet and Interstate 70 starts around 6,000 to 7,000 feet (the Eisenhower Tunnel is at 11,000 feet). We don’t often get to see the austere beauty of a mountain range from the actual bottom of the mountain.
Austere but not diverse
The scenery is in general the highlight of the country and in large part why many visit. “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies also helped the rest of the world recognize that. As non-LOTR fans, we avoided some of those tourist traps, but it was often brought up by Kiwis and friends back home.
But growing up in the western United States has me spoiled. Being able to travel with my father at a young age allowed me to see a glimpse of the beauty and diversity available throughout the U.S. I also learned to strongly dislike green fields because they reminded me of the boring days driving through Nebraska (sorry, not sorry, Nebraska).
New Zealand looks similar to a drive from Sacramento to Portland or Portland to Seattle (it’s on the opposing latitude in the southern hemisphere). Living in the United States gives us access to superb National Parks, the uniquely red Arizona, Utah and Southern Nevadan deserts, the geothermal wonderment of Yellowstone National Park, the glaciers of Alaska, volcanic Hawaii, the farmlands and sprawling greenery of the Midwest, the swampy South, the wooded East, the snowy North and so much more with relative ease.
All you need is the time to see it and the means to get there, for far cheaper than a 13-hour flight across the world.
Access is costly
While most of the scenery is free to view and drive through, hike through, etc., much of New Zealand has monetized its natural wonders. Building visitor centers and fences around a geyser and setting fees starting at $90 to enjoy it certainly proves that point. National Parks require commercial tours to enter, instead of a nominal visitor or camping fee, too. Going to Fiordland National Park, requires a bus to a boat to a bus to a boat in order to enjoy a three-hour tour before returning to your hotel on a boat then a bus, then a boat and a bus.
This is not uncommon across the world, but it is very off-putting. The price of admission, some Kiwis lament, makes it difficult for them to enjoy their own country.
Lesson 3: New Zealand has a fascinating and somewhat grim relationship with animals and its history
Uniquely defenseless birds and reptiles
While most land masses, including Australia, are about 1 to 3 billion years old, New Zealand’s land masses are only 545 to 370 million years old. For that reason, it has no natural land mammals due to its formation after the continents floated apart. Instead, the island of New Zealand attracted flying animals, sea animals, bugs, and frog/lizard/reptile species (see the famous Tuatara and others above).
“Tuatara are a rare reptile found only in New Zealand. They are the last survivors of an order of reptiles that thrived in the age of the dinosaurs,” according to the New Zealand Department of Conservation.
Because these animals, birds, in particular, evolved completely free of predators, they developed no natural defenses. Which presented problems once humans arrived.
Humans kinda fucked things up
The Māori (pronounced Mow-ree, NOT May-oree), who arrived 600 years ago, hunted a large Ostrich-sized bird called the Moa, to extinction—a fact that racists like to call upon derisively, we learned. Later, the Europeans arrived in the 17th century, bringing with them “pests” that thrived on the predator-free island by eating even more unique birds and their habitat.
Today, everything in New Zealand is endangered, including the Māori (not unlike our Indigenous people). You will not likely see any of these animals in the wild unless hiking or backpacking deep into the bush. We stopped at a famous lookout point known for Kea and unfortunately did not see any. The tour guide said this is the way of things. I did, however, see a swarm of Piwakawaka (fantail) surrounding me while climbing a granite rockface in Kingston (a special treat, the guide said).
In the 1800s and 1900s, Britain and the United States shipped sheep and cows for livestock. But more ridiculously, Europeans shipped red deer to New Zealand for sport hunting (I shit you not). The deer thrived on the lush ecology. When it was discovered the deer consumed bird habitat and farmland, the government started to pay thousands of dollars to hunters to kill them from helicopters.
To this day, helicopter hunting is still something you can do (similarly to Alaska).
The most aggressive pest control I’ve ever heard of
For the above reasons, the Department of Conservation created the first “Predator Free 2050” program in the world. The program aims to…kill all invasive land animals—namely stoats/ermine/mink, possums (used widely in clothing), rats, stray cats and dogs, and deer. Pretty much any land mammal that isn’t livestock.
They will do this by systematically “eradicating” all of these animals by poisoning them, hunting them, running them over with their cars, trapping them, and drone striking them…I am not even remotely joking.
The kiwi is fascinating
I posted a large gallery of animal images above because access to animals across the country is so much easier than in the U.S. They don’t have “zoos,” instead they have conservatories and reservations. All of them allow you to walk right up to most animals and either feed them, pet them, or stand inside their enclosures, with few exceptions.
All the land animals above come from some other country, but you’ll note the lack of bars blocking the image in all photos except the gibbons. Some of the photos above were also seen in nature, including the whales and seals.
Which brings me to the Kiwi. The namesake of the countrymen, shoe polish, and brown fruit. You’re not allowed to photograph kiwis because they live in the dark and are sensitive to light. But here’s a picture of one. Their enclosures give you the ability to see them up close—close enough to snatch one and take it home…which I definitely did not do.
They have the longest beak-to-body ratio. Their sense of smell is only rivaled by vultures. They cannot fly. And they are endangered, just like everything else. And, of course, are a delectable treat to the above “Enemy #1,” which drives the predator elimination program.
Lesson 4: Kiwis don’t care about your experience
The unfortunate reality of this message from Reddit cannot be overstated. Everywhere we went, we were met with rude, unhelpful hospitality workers. Our bad time was either our fault, unavoidable, or “the cost of living in paradise.” To say that Kiwis lack an interest in problem-solving would be underselling the intellectual laziness we encountered when any problem arose. We were often left to ourselves to solve everything, even when it was caused by poor planning or technical issues (see planes, trains and automobiles below).
And this is the crux of the “New Zealand is mid” comment I started with. Lack of food and art can be overlooked, but outright rudeness for 26 straight days is more difficult to forget. I found another blogger who wrote of very similar experiences in 2018.
Tipping culture isn’t everything
While it’s true that tax and tip are included in all pricing, tipping culture isn’t the only reason Americans are nicer, as the above Reddit comment suggests. While tipping certainly greases the palm of friendliness in some instances and some major cities, many service-industry workers without tip-based jobs are also willing to help you in the United States, whereas most in New Zealand couldn’t care less.
Americans are simply more willing to embrace the suck of life and help each other out when life gets tough. It’s considered a significant faux paz when customer service is bad, and many business owners are willing to remedy bad service with small tokens or comps to ensure goodwill and/or alleviate inconvenience.
Maybe Americans do it out of fear of stress or reprisal or because we are fake, but I’m happy to live in that collective delusion together with all of you.
Americans are proud of their innovative spirit and often community-minded approach even if it often feels we are at each other’s throats over politics and petty differences. Both can be true.
Other travelers often say they can tell someone is an American by how much we smile, how much we chat with strangers, and how hopeful we sound. And I take all of those as a compliment.
But no, it’s not just tipping that makes people nice. Scotland also has no tips and the people are incredible. Iceland has no tips, and they are willing to go out of their way for you. Japan has no tips, yet their culture venerates service. To me, the tip is not the difference between someone being nice or helpful and being an asshole; that’s a cultural choice, and Kiwis choose asshole most of the time.
What puts the icing on the cake, and the reason the Reddit comment is wrong, is that, as a whole, New Zealand hotels and restaurants nickel and dime you for every single convenience. Even at the most expensive hotels, breakfast is an additional $30 per person. Tartar sauce at fish and chip shops is $2.50 (vs. 25¢ ranch here), and as I mentioned before, every natural wonder is monetized. I find it hard to believe that in a hospitality industry with built-in tax and tip, a 15% holiday surcharge, and $2.50 tartar sauce, they can’t manage to help people with their luggage from time to time.
Exclusionary, isolationist, and racist
The unfortunate truth of New Zealand is its history of excluding Asians, people with disabilities, and Jews. They really dislike outsiders and they even dislike people from Auckland (kind of like how Nevadans dislike Californians except I think they’re a little meaner about it). Rural residents will go so far as to assume anyone is from Auckland (including us) and then call you a JAFA (just another fucking Auckland) under their breath. So nice.
A Department of External Affairs memorandum in 1953 stated: “Our immigration is based firmly on the principle that we are and intend to remain a country of European development. It is inevitably discriminatory against Asians—indeed against all persons who are not wholly of European race and colour. Whereas we have done much to encourage immigration from Europe, we do everything to discourage it from Asia.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_to_New_Zealand
This unfortunate point of view permeates today. The Asian racism was frequent and direct. The new conservative party has taken to eliminating their version of Affirmative Action and excluded Māori and other “Pacific people” from being included in wage gap legislation. And they are also trying to strip Māori place names away and replace them with the midcentury English names again.
We had one taxi driver celebrate that we were not from the recently landed China Air flight because Asians are “dirty and carry disease,” he said. We learned from one liquor store owner in Auckland that he would never return home to Christchurch because the racism was so constant, even amongst his friends.
This is not to say that Americans are not racist, obviously, we live in a glass house in this regard. But I would say that these are not comments I hear casually tossed around from day to day. So this is a good place to check my privilege while also condemning all racism of any kind anywhere.
The lack of elevators and overabundance of stairs without ramps was also astonishing. We take for granted how much the Americans with Disabilities Act has done for access, even though people in wheelchairs still fight for basic, thoughtful design to this day. But in New Zealand, most hotels had either no elevator at all or the elevator led to floors that required lugging luggage up additional stairs.
It’s possible people could make requests for some accommodations, such as staying on the ground floor, but we still found several new places with no ground floor rooms at all and bafflingly difficult hallways and stairs to traverse. Normally, I wouldn’t think much of this, but it just felt like another slight against people with disabilities. It wasn’t until two years ago that New Zealand decided to address access for disabilities. It’s not like it’s a new concept worldwide, and it’s also not an old country with particularly old architecture, either.
Lesson 5: Planes, trains, and automobiles break often
Travel was oddly difficult and I don’t even want to get into it much beyond a few points. Their ferry system is trash, according to them, so we avoided it. One of our airplanes turned around in midair due to damaged landing gear and narrowly avoided a crash landing. They refused to rebook the flight until the following day, so we diverted entirely, which forced us to reschedule an entire week of travel. One of our trains was canceled because it was setting brush fires earlier that week. Our first rental car company delayed an entire day of travel because we waited in line for 2.5 hours in a parking garage and then got diverted around a closed bridge, taking another four hours of our drive. And, as I said above, every time we ran into these issues, we were met with ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ from the people running those companies.
But left-side driving is fun and the road signs are great. So let’s move on…
Lesson 6: Paradise is a mindset
On the final day, we careened down unimaginably windy single-lane, exposed-cliff roads on a coach bus that replaced the TranzAlpine train that started brush fires earlier in the week. About halfway into the four-hour drive, the bus pulled over due to an unknown check engine light on the dashboard. After inspecting a few things, the driver said, “Let’s pray we make it!” and forged ahead.
Sensing our discomfort, the bus tour guide struck up a conversation with me about the condition of New Zealand’s roads. She mentioned that they eat tires faster than normal, kick up gravel, have no shoulders, and make people car sick, to name a few issues. We had experienced all of that, and other than the motion sickness, we didn’t find them much worse than some county roads in the windy mountains of the U.S. (somewhat like driving around Lake Tahoe but for 1,600 miles).
But at the end of our trip, after experiencing other frustrations mentioned above, it just seemed kind of par for the course.
Then she said, “But that’s just the cost of living in paradise!” with apparently no sense of irony. It was just such an enormously brazen comment to make at that particular moment. It took me for a whirl, honestly.
What is paradise?
But on further reflection, maybe paradise is a mindset, not a place or a thing. Maybe looking for paradise as a utopia in the form of a good road system, a flawless political system, bubbly people, abundant food choices, or something else is a completely wrong approach.
To me, New Zealand cannot be a paradise because marijuana and pseudoephedrine are illegal (haha but no for real, c’mon). But, certainly, the U.S. has plenty of problems as well (i.e. guns, healthcare, poverty), that could easily be complained about by any visitor. I mean FFS that guy complained that a waiter in New York was too nice!
But to the tour guide, the beauty, the independence, the realness of her fellow Kiwis, the go-with-the-flow attitude, the food, the socialized healthcare, and everything else about New Zealand that she loves was enough to overcome the inconvenience of bouncing down the bad roads in a bus that day.
So does that mean “paradise” is not just island life but instead represents a set of shared values, comfort, risk tolerance, and threshold for bullshit? Does it maybe also include your own circumstances, expectations, and the company you keep?
Yes, I think it does.
To me, the United States, Reno, and Lake Tahoe can be a paradise on a good day. Las Vegas, New York, Montana, Hawaii (definitely Hawaii), and Yosemite National Park can be, too, if you’re sharing it with loved ones, doing the things you enjoy.
Hell, even Michigan can be paradise if the Lions finally win the Super Bowl someday.
Paradise is wherever you think it is. And perhaps that’s New Zealand’s biggest secret.