If we were to ask a hundred people what intrigues them about visiting New Zealand, we'd probably get a hundred different answers. There are those looking to see the myriad locations and landscapes that have come to represent the mythological Middle Earth. There are those who'd like to see firsthand examples of Maori art and custom. There are those of us just itching to stare down into the still-fuming maw of a gigantic, volcanic crater. There are those of intrigued by indigenous birds like the Kiwi, the creature from which the people of New Zealand have proudly taken their name. And then there are those of us whose main intention is to stalk indie-pop darling, Lorde, around the streets of Auckland and anything else is just gravy. Whatever your intention (hopefully not that super-creepy last choice), New Zealand is an island nation with nothing but options for the adventurous traveler.
With only a single city of over a million people (and only four over 200,000), New Zealand is hardly a densely urban monstrosity; even visitors to the largest city, Auckland, will find that innumerable adventure opportunities await within a few hours travel time. Spread over two large islands, the North Island and South Island, there may be no other country in the world with such a wealth and variety of natural beauty married to a pure volume of adventure activities. The small, South Island resort city of Queenstown is probably the most telling encapsulation of this. It is home to over two hundred adventure tour options that include hang-gliding, skydiving, bungee jumping, skiing, heli-biking, whitewater rafting, jet-boating, off-roading, and mountaineering. Then again, instead of trying to squeeze two hundred exhilarating feats into one itinerary, we suggest putting time aside to more thoroughly enjoy the truly unique landscapes available in the fourteen regions that have achieved national park status. The Department of Conservation maintains a high number of tramping tracks, including the challenging, fulfilling journeys of the "Great Walks", and associated lodgings. You may trek alpine passes, gaseous swamp lands, rainforests, grumbling volcanoes, icy fjords, sheep-penned meadows, Mediterranean-style beaches, and all terrain in between; the hard part is in choosing where to start. Check out our New Zealand Adventure page for more specific information and the full range of adventure activities.
As for culture, the Maori are well represented, whether you are one to visit one of the tourist villages in Rotorua or to catch one of the tourist shows that occur in major tourist areas like Christchurch or Queenstown. As far as legitimate Maori interactions, you'll have to realize that many of the Maori people have integrated into modern society, so a simple "kia ora" (the basic expression of greeting) may be your best chance of honoring this culture. New Zealand's history also lies in the art and artifacts of those who settled here from Europe, whether you are one to visit the major museums of Te Papa in Wellington or the Auckland Museum or the national art available in locations like the Christchurch Art Gallery or the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. The gold mining history is also incredibly relevant in the ghost towns and artifacts available in the Queenstown area.
With numerous cities that rank high in international livability, a bucket list of gorgeous, often untouched wilderness areas, and enough adventure activities to shame the tourism offices of other countries into silence, New Zealand is an embark-approved adventure destination worthy of your time.
Travelers from a short list of approved countries (including Brazil, Canada, and the United States) may visit New Zealand for up to three months without having to apply for a visa, although a return flight ticket and proof that you have enough money for your travels (about $1000 NZD per month) may also be requested. If you have a circumstance not covered in the aforementioned, then you may seek further visa information here.
Find the most up-to-date exchange rates for the New Zealand dollar here.
Like many of the nations under the figurative rule of Her Majesty, the Queen, New Zealand is a representative democratic monarchy. The Governor-General is the queen's representative in government and serves as the head of state, while the Prime Minister is the indirectly elected head of government that heads a cabinet made up of various departmental heads. The Parliament is the single legislative body, while the highest level of judiciary is the Supreme Court.
In an ongoing act of civil rights reparation, seats are reserved in Parliament for Maori natives, although a person of Maori ethnicity may run for any position. Social and economic inequality are still issues in present society, but New Zealand still proves to be (after being the first modern nation to allow women's suffrage in the 19th century) one of the most egalitarian countries on the map and does not compare to the level of poverty and lack of opportunity present in many large American cities.
English-speaking visitors will have little trouble parsing the Kiwi accent. You'll see when traveling in New Zealand that the Maori names of places and native plants and animals have been preserved, while popular Maori phrases have become basic staples of New Zealand conversations; "kia ora" is a typical greeting that you'll hear used universally. For a very basic understanding of Maori pronunciation and a list of greetings, go here.
Crime and Safety:
According to numerous international indexes and polls, New Zealand is seen as one of the safest places to travel in the world. Rates of crime on a national level have been steadily decreasing over the past few decades, while violent crime toward foreign travelers is next to nonexistent. This isn't to say that you should disregard common sense measures of safe travel. You still shouldn't walk alone in seedier areas of large cities at night or leave your belongings unattended in public places and you should only carry a copy of your passport on your person. This goes for any place you go, even if you've somehow stumbled into a utopia. One last note: an inordinate number of crimes committed in New Zealand are perpetrated by citizens of Maori descent in poor townships or urban areas. This is a socio-economic issue much like that facing African-Americans in the United States, where crimes are less an issue of race and more an issue of poverty and disadvantage. Again, this is no cause for concern for anyone who is just visiting the country.
Modes of Transportation:
The main population hubs of New Zealand are well-connected by state highways and the majority of urban areas can be reached by car, long-distance buses or by domestic flights. Being that many of New Zealand's more worthwhile destinations are a bit more off-the-beaten-path (the Southern Alps or the wilderness of the eastern North Island, for instance), you'll find that travel times may be much longer than expected and roads less direct. Also, despite biking being a popular recreational activity, it is surprisingly unheard of in a practical capacity due to a high rate of accidents and vehicular deaths on the roadways. Rail lines service the major cities and can be a leisurely way of viewing the country's natural beauty; this link provides information on the three railway companies, as well as regional busing options. Also of note, ferry services connect the North and South Islands at Picton and Wellington at about a three hour ride; this is the only regular water route between the two islands.
At the local level, most urban areas have reliable transit services and most activities that you'll be enjoying can often be accessed via shuttle vans that run fixed routes. For more on individual areas and activities, check out our dedicated pages.
Although New Zealand's climate is generally temperate, there are an interesting number of micro-climates found throughout the country that vary with latitude, topography, and coastal proximity, even in areas that are merely dozens of miles apart. Rainfall is moderately high year round throughout the country, while snowfall occurs on the South Island, the southern portion of the North Island, and at higher elevations elsewhere. Generally speaking, the North Island usually possesses higher temperatures than the South Island, although both will have average highs over 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer; the South Island, especially inland, will be closer to 45 degrees and the North Island will be around 50 during the winter.
Natural events that affect New Zealand include volcanic activity and earthquakes. Although the majority of volcanoes on the islands are dormant, there are a chain of active volcanoes on the North Island from Ruapehu to White Island. The good news here is that they aren't close enough to civilization to cause much damage, while those who prefer to climb them will have plenty of warning if one is going to go off. The bad news is that New Zealand's position in the Ring of Fire has made it susceptible to damaging earthquakes, with much recent devastation occurring in 2011 in Christchurch that the city is still in the process of rebuilding from.
Eating and Tipping:
When dining in New Zealand, you'll find that the Kiwi eat their biggest meal in the evening (sometimes called "tea" in the British tradition). Despite this, you'll find plenty of options for eating during the whole day, especially since fast food and cafes are as quick and common as they are in the United States. Traditional Maori meal-time gatherings will have their own customary etiquette that includes the cooking of meat and vegetables in an oven in the ground called a hangi. You'll often need to know someone to be invited to an authentic Maori meal, so chances are that you'll find yourself dining out in whatever city you may find yourself with an international array of food choices on hand.
In New Zealand restaurants, tipping is merit-based, meaning that 10% gratuity on top of your bill is fine if you've received good service, although it isn't of necessity. Many other service personnel (hotel workers, for one) could use the small tip for carrying bags, cleaning your room, giving an interesting tour, or something of the like. Taxi drivers aren't usually tipped, although it's okay to round up your fare.
The minimum age to purchase alcohol in New Zealand is 18 years old, although minors may drink if they are with a guardian or have expressed permission from a guardian. Recent laws have actually become more restrictive in recent times because (much like the United States) the drinking culture, particularly amongst the younger generations, is highly social and may quite often lead to excess. Cities like Wellington, Auckland, Queenstown are known for having abundant and lively nightlife areas that promote the social consumption of alcohol. The type of alcohol preferred is beer, the large majority of which is produced domestically by powerhouse breweries like Lion Nathan and DB, although there has been a surge of craft beer brewing and demand in recent years that has provided a number of quality options to the usual lagers. Surprisingly, New Zealand wine is valuable on the international scene and there are ten wine regions in the country where travelers may taste local vintage and stroll the vineyards. Waiheke Island near Auckland, Martinborough near Wellington, and Wairau Valley are some of the more notable destinations for connoisseurs and dabblers alike.
Interesting Cultural Fact:
Although you wouldn't know by the its calm waters, popular tourist destination Lake Taupo was the site of the largest volcanic eruption in the last seventy thousand years. Also of interest is New Zealand's ban on not only nuclear weapons, but the use of nuclear power as a source of energy: this means that there are NO nuclear power stations.
Peak season:December through February (summer), July and August (winter)
Currency:New Zealand Dollar
Held every day on February 6th, Waitangi Day is a celebration of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, which gave New Zealand rights as a British colony and gave the Maori ownership of lands and "equal" rights in 1840. It is considered the founding document of the nation, on par with the Declaration of Independence in the United States. Waitangi Day itself is not a festival, but a number of popular Maori festivals are held annually on this day that highlight customary cuisine and culture. In the city of Hamilton, the Kāwhia Kai Festival is one of the largest of its kind in New Zealand, providing food cooked in the traditional hangi, Maori dances and greetings for a range of visitors. Believe it or not, mud snails are just as frequently cooked and eaten as more widely available dishes like pork. Te Ra o Waitangi, which takes place in the capital city of Wellington, is a similar sampling of Maori foods and activities, punctuated by a playing of the game of Ki o Rahi rugby. Lastly, the International Kai Festival in Nelson is another celebration of Maori food, performance, and music to be enjoyed if you're in the area. Most cities in New Zealand will hold some sort of function that will often include the aforementioned activities, as well as a ceremonial welcome known as a powhiri. For more information, check out the included websites.
Rhythm and Vines Music Festival
One of the largest music festivals in New Zealand, the Rhythm and Vines Music Festival is a 3-day, outdoor event held on the west coast of the North Island in the town of Gisborne. Drawing international acts that largely bring the dance and crowds around 30,000, this is quite possibly one of the most exhilarating ways to bring in the New Year (December 29-31st). Plenty of camping is available, while tickets for the 2013 event (including camping) started at a minimum of $369 NZD. Also, the smaller, sister festival, Rhythm and Alps, occurs during the same time in the South Island's Cardrona Valley; it's not as big, but it's also a great time.
Auckland's nod to the international music festival (although Melbourne did it first), the Laneway Festival is unquestionably the best event in the Kiwi nation if you're looking to expose yourself to an eclectic mixture of independent, acclaimed musicians, from homegrown product Lorde to acclaimed acts like Florence and the Machine and Alt-J. Located in the Wynnar Quarter's Silo Park and happening annually on Auckland Anniversary Day (end of January), tickets costed $140 NZD for 2014's day-long event. Check the included link for the most up-to-date info on this year's festival.
Queenstown Winter Festival
Known as "New Zealand's biggest winter party," you can expect that the city that also bears the tag of "adventure capital" will really live up to such a billing. The question is how. You've got fireworks displays over Lake Wakatipu to racing events on the ski resort slopes that even include a dog derby and snow mountain biking. You've even got a massive team dodgeball competition. The energy in Queenstown during these ten days of festivities (June 20-29 in 2014) is electric, and while there are family-oriented activities like the parade to be had, the adult-style party is over-the-top and worth the price of visiting New Zealand in winter alone. For more on the event, check out their official website.