New Zealand differs from other Pacific island destinations in that its north/south orientation means a vacation encompassing the whole island is likely to immerse you in weather which ranges from semi-tropical breezy to winter-chilled. This makes NZ unique as a Pacific Island because as a general rule, the other islands’ climates don’t venture outside the tropical or semi-tropical.
So if you’re planning to visit NZ from end-to-end be sure to pack everything from shorts to woollen underwear.
The appeal of NZ is not its cities but its natural attractions. In this way NZ is similar to most other Pacific islands where the cities hold little allure– unless the city in question is nestled up against a warm water beach.
Yes, tourist brochures may spruik NZ’s urban areas but while the main city of Auckland is pleasant enough, it does not offer anything unique that can’t be found in many other medium sized cities. Other NZ cities like Queenstown and Rotorua are basically service centres for the surrounding mountains and hot springs, respectively.
And then there’s the pleasant little city of Christchurch: well it should be telling that its main attractions are a church and its steeple. But even that is no longer a draw as the earthquake of 2011 toppled the steeple and made the church structurally unsound.
Other parts of Christchurch have also been devastated and there have been discussions about whether certain areas of the city should just be abandoned altogether.
I visited Christchurch two years before the earthquake so there was no wreckage for me to explore. Rather, the thing that most captivated me was the taxi ride from the airport to the city centre: Never before had I seen such a plethora of hookers inhabiting various doorways on the approach to the city centre.
Still in all, as can be seen from these series of photos, Christchurch is a pleasant enough city with some interesting diversions.
Even so, I preferred the New Zealand’s countryside where I would deeply inhale the fresh air and wonder whether NZ is the most pristine developed country left on this earth. Its rusticity is probably due to the economy’s reliance on tourism and agricultural products. Indeed, if there are any heavy industries in NZ they are kept hidden away.
In this type of unspoilt environment, white water rafting can feel, at times, like a throwback to an era of colonial exploration when rivers flowed wild and there was often a thick canopy of foliage shielding the explorers.
The occasional knock on the head notwithstanding.
Casual drives along NZ’s often-narrow roads throw up the occasional surprise volcano – a clue, if one was needed, that NZ is part of the Pacific’s Ring of Fire.
But the volcanoes do make for some great hiking, it must be said.
Which brings me to Rotorua and its thermal-heated hot springs. Some of Rotorua’s surrounds have a scorched “hell on earth” appearance as heat and sulphur make plant life impossible.
But there are also other areas, such as the Craters of the Moon Geothermal Walk where the ground temperatures are sufficiently moderate to create a healthy plant cover through which vents allow steam to escape, creating a surreal visual effect.
And, of course, Rotorua’s unique geographical nature has created a number of hot springs
and mud pools.
I’d be remiss here if I did not mention Rotorua’s “mud baths”. Perhaps a more apropos descriptor would be “oily dirt pools”. The baths do not have anything near the consistency of mud, they have the consistency of oily water with a seasoning of dirt. If you insist on having a mud bath, be sure to wear crappy old swimmers. You will probably want to throw them away afterwards because of the stench of oily mud that will infiltrate the material.
After seeing the North Island’s attractions it is necessary to make your way to the South Island by crossing Cook Strait. This can be done easily enough by domestic air travel but doing so robs you of the experience of the 3 hour ferry trip between Wellington and Picton.
The ferry trip can be chancy if Cook Strait is stormy on the day of your sailing. In this case, you will encounter the worst of the trip upon leaving Wellington harbour as the ferry enters the open waters of Cook Strait. But there is charm to be found in the South Island’s beautiful Marlborough Sounds. If the weather is fine this part of the trip should be spent either on the deck or next to a window while gazing at the passing beauty.
It’s on the South Island where NZ’s natural attractions veer from the merely scenic to the spectacular. In particular, the road trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound will take you from “tourist town”
to “tears-inducing beautiful”.
Travelling through the South Island very much reminded me of the times I have spent in Canada’s west. In fact, to put it in terms I have some familiarity with, New Zealand’s South Island is Canada’s two westernmost provinces of Alberta and British Columbia wrapped into a tight bundle. As with those two provinces, the South Island ranges from flatlands to glaciers and soaring peaks.
However, the South Island’s dangers can match those of the North Island; and because barriers can be pretty rudimentary and easily circumvented your safety will be dependent on your own common sense. So if you want to be a fool about placing your life in danger for a bit of reckless adventure, nobody and nothing much is going to stop you. A quick Google search regarding deaths at NZ’s glaciers should provide warning enough.
The jewel in the South Island’s crown is Milford Sound; a spectacular mountain-ringed bay that was formed when the sea flooded an excavated glacial trough once the ice had melted away.
As with most outside attractions, Milford Sound is best experienced under a brilliant blue sky. This can be problematic as rain falls on the Sound on about half of the days of the year, making the area one of the wettest places in the world.
It was our good fortune to arrive on a blue sky morning after rain had fallen on the Sound continuously for the previous ten days. Even though we visited in January – summer – the air was cold and crisp but so fresh.
Milford Sound marks the most southerly point I have ventured in the Pacific. And, truth be told, the coolness of southern NZ’s summer weather made me pine for warmer climes. However, if you want to experience beautiful, unspoilt country scenes and all four seasons within a two week vacation, then a north/south New Zealand drive should be on your travel list.