What comes to mind for you when you hear ‘New Zealand’? Probably hobbits.
Well, before flying off to New Zealand I was clueless on most everything Kiwi, except knowing it was in fact its own country and that its people may or may not have gotten their nickname from a fruit. Needless to say, I was exceedingly well versed and not remotely over-packed.
The story of how I ended up in one of the most strikingly beautiful places on earth actually starts serendipitously 6 months before arriving, with a mix of aimless wandering seasoned with a healthy helping of 'going-with-the-flow'. I was working at Aspen in Colorado and as the ski bum season progressed, I realized that winter’s melt was fast approaching. I needed more cold to embrace. Knowing I wanted more snow, there were limited options to countries I knew would have winter while we had summer. New Zealand quickly became the country of choice for everyone.
So booked up, sorted my paperwork and flew into Auckland with a snowboard bag, a suitcase and the vaguely unsettling sense that the plane may have dropped me off in the wrong country.
New Zealand...I had arrived.
I stepped off the plane, over-packed, alone and extremely anxious. However…the transition from America to New Zealand was a piece of cake. Made exceptionally easy by the fact that New Zealanders are some of the nicest people in the universe; hilarious, hospitable, helpful and happy. Second only to Fijians, who for somewhat obvious reasons are a touch more carefree.
The loneliness and apprehension quickly melted away like snow in the spring. But on the off chance that you do find yourself in an awkward, soul crushing kind of silence with the Kiwi’s then just point in any direction and say, ‘hey, wasn’t Lord of the Rings shot there?’. Conversation will start up again in a jiffy since the entirety of NZ was pretty much a set for LOTR.
The first thing I found is that they’re not named after a hairy green fruit. Infact the fruit isn’t even native to the country! Their ‘kiwi’ is a flightless bird, native to New Zealand. The second thing I noticed after arriving in Auckland, aside from the fact that it’s an exquisitely pretty city, is that New Zealanders and Aussie’s do not have the same accent.
If you’re in the States, maybe at a restaurant, getting waited on by someone who has what sounds like a funny Australian accent, don’t ask, ‘what part of Australia are you from?’. They’ll say, ‘the New Zealand part’ and you’ll feel like horrible for not knowing the difference. Not that that happened to me or anything....
The first thing I noticed when leaving Auckland, was just how breathtakingly gorgeous the country is and you get upset, almost immediately, that you didn’t show up there sooner. The second thing I noticed was that Auckland is as representative of New Zealand as New York City is of the United States. Not very.
You very quickly learn that there are endless things do and see throughout the North Island, none of which are particularly difficult or expensive to get to. Things like; Cape Reinga, the northernmost point and confluence of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific, the Coromandel region and Cathedral Cove (look it up), The stunning 12 mile (19.4 km) Tongariro crossing containing Mt. Ngauruhoe (aka Mt Doom), the geothermal hot spots that are everywhere and over to wine country in Napier/Hawkes Bay.
The bus system is immense and affordable, allowing you to get to your destination and count sheep to pass the time. Either figuratively by sleeping or literally counting the roughly 40 million sheep that populate the country. That equates to about 10 per person.
Then you hit the capital, Wellington, one of the coolest cities you’ll ever find. It’s the southernmost capital on the planet, making it the coolest on multiple levels… I sincerely apologize for that extremely terrible pun, but seriously, the city is amazing. It’s full of great venues, cafes, restaurants and bars all anchored around Wellington Harbor. You may see Peter Jackson given that Weta Studio is there. Can you tell I like LOTR?
Then you have the crown jewel of the south, Queenstown, the sister city of Aspen (and we come full circle). One of the most well located and scenic ski towns around, sitting at the foot of the Remarkables mountain range on Lake Wakatipu. Talk about sensational views, not to mention the immense nightlife and chic boutiques. Make sure to visit Fergburger when you’re there. It literally has the greatest burger ever.
New Zealand offers so much more. Too much more to list, but at the very least, by the time I had left, I realized I was most definitely in the right place. It’s a welcoming country that instantly feels like home, creating a permanent place in your heart and mind.
Ultimately, you find one thing out very quickly when traveling solo, you’re never alone. You’re not nearly as shy as you think you are and you meet great people along the way who will make the experience truly special.