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Kia ora tatou! With a fabulous $225 round trip fare from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Auckland all the buzz, TPG’s Special Correspondent (and almost honorary Kiwi) John Walton suggests a few choice spots to visit while you’re in New Zealand. (All photos are by the author).
Whether it’s your first trip to New Zealand or your fifth, the Land of the Long White Cloud has so much more to offer than the main drag tourist route. If you managed to snag one of this morning’s epic fares, you’re probably going in the fall — and seasons are the opposite from those in the US — so you’ll want to be prepared for chilly spring weather anywhere south of Auckland or Napier, although you might be surprised with some gloriously sunny days! Here are some tips for planning your Kiwi adventure, plus some must-see places to visit.
Where to Stay
On arrival in Auckland (AKL), if you want to stop traveling for a little while, the best airport hotel for my dollar (Kiwi or otherwise) is Hotel Novotel Auckland Airport, located right outside the international terminal — it’s part of AccorHotels and much nicer than other Novotels I’ve visited. If you’re keeping an eye on your wallet, the cheap-and-cheerful Ibis Budget Auckland Airport fits its name and is just a 15-minute walk from the international terminal. Note that, with a few exceptions, international hotel chains with points-earning opportunities are rare in New Zealand, but Airbnb is popular and Kiwi motels offering lots of space, very squishy beds and occasionally a whirlpool spa tub, are an institution.
Keeping in Touch
Local SIM cards can be bought from the shops in the international arrivals area. I tend to recommend Spark because it’s only slightly more expensive than other options but has a better network outside the major cities. Data bundles range from 100MB over seven days for $3 NZ (~$2) to 5GB over 90 days for $90 NZ (~$62). Note that topping up a prepaid account can be tricky with a foreign credit card, so check with the network and get instructions — sometimes it’s as simple as getting a voucher from a gas station. Credit cards work fine in most places, so make sure you bring one that doesn’t charge foreign exchange fees.
Driving in New Zealand
Kiwis drive on the left and 100km/h (roughly 62mph) is the national limit, so make sure you leave plenty of time to get around — I find Google Maps’ timings are pretty reliable. Major car rental brands like Hertz and Avis both operate in New Zealand at most airports, offer both manual and automatic cars and honor their upgrade obligations. Most travelers will find a four-door Toyota Corolla hatch or Toyota Camry sedan will meet their needs, but sportier and larger Holden Commodore or Ford Falcon rear-wheel drive cars can be a fun option for road trips as well. Many larger companies ban taking their cars between islands — insisting you drop them off at the ports in Wellington and Picton and pick up a new one on the other side — which can be a pain, especially if you have lots of luggage.
Fantastic Spots on the North Island
A four-hour drive (or 45-minute flight) from Auckland, lovely Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands is ideal if you’re looking for a bit of warm weather during New Zealand’s chilly spring months. This sub-tropical area has all kinds of beaches to discover, as well as some quirky hot-climate wines you’re unlikely to find anywhere else.
The Coromandel Peninsula, located about a three-hour drive to the east of Auckland, is known for being a gorgeous weekend escape for Aucklanders, full of glorious beaches, outdoor pursuits and cute B&Bs. This is a great place for a relaxing or romantic day or two by car before moving on.
Surfer types and the more relaxed will get a lot out of Raglan. This funky little seaside town has some great surf, a chilled out vibe and is just two hours south of Auckland by car.
Lord of the Rings fans should make sure they swing east when driving south from Auckland and stop at Matamata, where the Hobbiton Movie Set is located — the façades and landscaping have been left in place and it’s a great spot for movie buffs and Tolkien fans to geek out.
Napier is the place to be in the Hawke’s Bay region if you’re a fan of art deco and wine. The area is home to some of New Zealand’s most delicious Syrahs, Bordeaux Blends and Viogniers — wines from the Gimblett Gravels sub-region will beat the pants off anything but a $200 Bordeaux. Craggy Range Vineyard, Trinity Hill Limited and Moana Park Winery are three of my favorites, but plane nerds totally have to check out Alpha Domus, a vineyard by the old airfield that features wines with aviation-themed names.
If you’re looking for mountains, cliffs and isolation, the east coast from Whakatane to Gisborne will deliver, although you’ll want to be confident on unsealed (graded gravel) roads and take the usual precautions if you want to explore. Gisborne is also one of the country’s up and coming wine regions, known especially for white grapes.
The Wairarapa region sits just north of Wellington over the mountainous Rimutaka Range, comprising a few towns and a whole lot of wineries that make some of the world’s best Pinot Noir. Martinborough is the most well-known, but outlying wineries like Johner Estate and Gladstone Vineyards are well worth a visit, too.
My love for windy, hilly, cultured and coffee-crazy Wellington, located on the tip of the South Island, remains unabated even after seven years of visiting, so if you like small cities that feel like a less-precious San Francisco, less-weird Portland or less-Canadian Vancouver, this is it. Wellington also has a well-regarded InterContinental for IHG fiends and there are ferries across the windy Cook Strait through the beautiful Marlborough Sounds to Picton on the South Island.
Secluded — and Buzzing — Places on the South Island
Nelson sits in a beautiful (and often sunny) spot on the northwest end of the South Island, with a relaxed and happy seaside feel combined with a renowned arts and crafts scene. It also makes some great wine — hit Neudorf Vineyards and then go exploring.
If you’ve drunk one New Zealand wine, chances are it’s a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from the northeastern tip of the South Island. Known for sunny weather and an increasingly upmarket dining scene, Blenheim is the center of this small wine region — and the location of its surprisingly well-served airport.
An hour’s drive from its better known cousin Queenstown, mountainous Wanaka and its beautiful lake are increasingly popular areas to visit. Consider basing yourself here if there’s some late-falling snow or head out for a tour of the nearby wine region — my favorites include Chard Farm Vineyard, Peregrine Wines, Mount Difficulty Wines Limited and Aurum Wines Limited.
Christchurch is on the up and up five years after its major earthquake and this fascinating city is having a great time rediscovering itself. With New Zealand’s second largest international airport (CHC), it’s also a great place to base yourself for the TranzAlpine Train — a full day takes you across to Westport and back — or for an afternoon around the scenic Banks Peninsula.
The little-known Waipara Valley, located just north of Christchurch, is one of my favorite haunts, filled with small family wineries, amazing local food and beautiful hillsides. This is a Riesling and Pinot Noir region in particular, and I reckon it rivals anywhere else in the world. Check out Pegasus Bay Winery & Restaurant for a beautiful meal — just make sure you book in advance!
Did you snag one of those epic $225 round-trip fares this morning? Tell us about it below.
Featured image is of Wanaka, New Zealand. Photo courtesy of the author.
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