Kiwis have a great sense of humor (or humour) about their country, the little double-island nation floating somewhere to the southeast of Australia. They’ll gleefully point out that New Zealand is often left off maps—not official ones of course, but next time you see a map in a movie or check out a friend’s world map tattoo, keep an eye out for an absent New Zealand. But even for the geographically savvy, New Zealand tends to boil down to just a few things: kiwi the fruit, the All Blacks rugby team, Lord of the Rings, and kiwi the bird, in that order. Maybe also sheep.
The reason that New Zealanders are perfectly content to let the world continue underestimating their country is because they know the truth: New Zealand is not just spectacular, but surprisingly so. Yes, you may have read the travel guides and seen every movie based on a Tolkien book twice, but none of that exactly captures the countryside. I thought I knew what I was getting into, but after a recent trip to New Zealand, I looked around to find most of my preconceptions shattered at my feet and a strong need to plan a return trip. Here are a few of the biggest surprises.
Seeing New Zealand by road isn’t just a good idea, it’s an experience unto itself. The country is so driver friendly: well-maintained roads, abundant and beautiful rest stops and campsites, and easy access to RVs and camper vans. Sure, domestic flights might be cheap and easy, but New Zealand is hidden in its endlessly winding roads. And while a road trip is not the most efficient way to check off every activity on your list, you’ll miss the some of the most awe-inspiring vistas hidden behind those innumerable blind turns unless you join the legions of foreign road warriors cruising the highways of NZ.
2. …but it’s a lot bigger than you’d expect.
Somehow, we’ve all been tricked into thinking that New Zealand is small. It is not. Sure, the population is a scant 4.5 million, but it’s not a small country. In fact, with 103,000 square miles, New Zealand is bigger than England and the nation's apparent distain for straight roads means that it can take a long time to drive from point A to point B.
You may have heard that there are almost no land mammals in New Zealand, and while this is true, the animals that do call NZ home more than make up for the mammal deficit. Not only can you find over half of the world’s dolphin and whale species around the islands, from sperm whales to the tiny and elusive Hector’s dolphin, but there are also almost 200 different species of wonderfully weird birds, most of which can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Best of all, nothing in New Zealand is poised to kill you; there are no snakes to step on, no bears to disturb, no poisonous creepy-crawlies sleeping in your hiking boots.
4. Kiwis are shy
Not the people, the birds. The people of New Zealand are friendly in a way that gives the American South’s “southern hospitality” a run for its money. In fact, if you’re camping or on a bus tour, it’s absolutely worth it to take a few nights off and book into an Airbnb. But the birds? Unless you’re specifically on the lookout, there’s a good chance you won’t see a single one.
Queenstown is indisputably the adventure capital of New Zealand and maybe even the world. Those remarkable mountains (aptly named The Remarkables) aren’t just sitting there looking pretty—they’re playing host to bungee jumping, skiing, climbing, white water rafting, and glacier hiking. While a helicopter sight-seeing tour might seem like a luxury, recent changes to New Zealand’s major glaciers has made normal hiking access no longer possible and a glacier heli-hike is actually the only way to set foot on that ancient ice.
6. The food is outstanding
I had my fingers crossed that New Zealand would be a never-ending feast of lamb and seafood, but because those two delicacies are largely exported, they can be just as expensive domestically as they are internationally. The good news is that, while nothing beats a big bowl of fresh giant greenshell mussels, New Zealand food really shines in the fresh and local: fruit and veggies straight from the garden, locally-made honey harvested from one of the hundreds of roadside apiaries, crawfish just plucked from the water, and out-of-this-world dairy. What’s that? You’re gluten-free? Well you’re in luck, NZ does gluten-free better than the States with restaurant menus readily adaptable to dietary needs, affordable and available GF products in all supermarkets, and plenty of crisp local New Zealand cider.
Lastly, in New Zealand, a single “z” is pronounced “zed.” So if you’re going to give it a nickname, it isn’t “en-zee,” it’s “en-zed!”