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7 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Went to New Zealand

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Cathedral Cove is a popularly visited spot along the Coromandel Peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island.

Photo by Sarah Buder, Design by Emily Blevins

Cathedral Cove is a popularly visited spot along the Coromandel Peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island.

What to bring, what not to bring, the local lingo to master—here’s what you need to know before visiting New Zealand.

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The uncrowded landscapes of New Zealand’s North and South Islands lure visitors with their peaks, fjords, glaciers, farmland, volcanoes, and long stretches of coast. I recently took my first trip to the country on a nine-day adventure with Cox & Kings, a luxury travel company that offers small-group and customized, private tours worldwide. Here are a few tips I wish I’d known before traveling to New Zealand.

To really explore both the North and South Islands, you should allow at least two weeks for each.

Don’t try to see it all

When I travel, I usually prefer to plan longer stays in fewer places rather than hustle from one “must-see” to the next. But it was hard for me to stomach the thought of making the 20-hour trip from New York City to New Zealand and not setting my eyes on as much of the country as I could, so I made more stops. The Cox & Kings specialists told me that for my nine-day trip I shouldn’t try visit more than Wellington, Queenstown, Wanaka, the Coromandel Peninsula, Rotorua, Te Urewera, and Great Barrier Island. To really explore both the North and South Islands, you should allow at least two weeks for each—especially if you decide to embark on one of the country’s hut-to-hut hikes, known as the Great Walks, which you’ll want to set aside a few days to complete.

Baboon’s Go-Bag features adjustable straps that convert the duffle bag into a backpack.

Pack for every kind of weather

New Zealand’s climate varies greatly, from the South Island’s semi-arid, mountainous Central Otago wine region to the North Island’s forested, subtropical Northland coast. Wherever you are in the country, the weather will likely change multiple times within a day. It’ll be colder if you visit New Zealand during its winter (June-August) and warmer during summer (December-February), but expect a combination of warm, cold, windy, and wet weather no matter what season it is. Pack a protective rain jacket and comfortable clothing that you can easily layer and remove. You’ll need a light T-shirt, a long-sleeve shirt, a warm hat, a hardy jacket, a pair of breathable pants, and possibly some comfortable shorts. (At certain points, you might wear all of these items at once.)

The Best Waterproof and Water-Resistant Backpacks for Travel

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I recommend traveling with gear that’s waterproof too, such as a water-resistant day pack. I brought a Baboon Go-Bag (60L), an easy-to-carry duffle bag with adjustable straps that convert the bag into a backpack. When I got caught in a rainstorm in Queenstown during my journey from the airport to my hotel, the bag’s waterproof shell protected my belongings.

Buy it: $179, baboontothemoon.com

Hiking trails in New Zealand, such as the 15-mile Aotea Track on Great Barrier Island, are well-maintained by the country’s Department of Conversation (DOC).

Leave the food at home

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) has strict biosecurity procedures to prevent the introduction of pests and diseases. International travelers need to declare all food in their luggage before going through immigration and should be prepared to throw out most edible items—especially fruits, nuts, and plants. If you’re bringing hiking boots, tents, or any other adventure products that you’ve already used elsewhere, you’ll need to clean each item carefully (before packing) and declare it at customs. Hikers will also notice that many of the country’s DOC-maintained tracks (hiking trails) have boot sanitizing stations.

For a comprehensive list of items you can’t bring into the country, check New Zealand’s customs website. And if you’re planning to fly within the country, note that Air New Zealand’s checked luggage weight limit for domestic flights is 23 kg (approximately 51 lbs)—anything above that, you’ll have to fork over extra cash.

Wilderness in New Zealand lacks poisonous insects, but it is home to many sheep and horses.

Don’t worry about poisonous predators

There are no snakes, large predatory animals, or poisonous insects (except for the Katipo spider) in all of New Zealand. You don’t have to worry about running into bears or mountain lions while hiking on the North or South Islands (even on a multiday Great Walk). You will, however, see a lot of sheep.

When in doubt, look for the Qualmark symbol

The silver fern Qualmark logo is like a seal of approval for the best hotels, tour operators, and transportation and rental services across the country. The accreditation signifies that a business has met standards for sustainability, professionalism, business ethics, and safety. Approved businesses are listed on Qualmark’s website and often display a plaque in their office.

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Seeking out Qualmark-approved accommodations led me to memorable stays at the QT Wellington, a design-driven art hotel on the harborfront in the capital, and Eichardt’s Private Hotel, a five-star haven in a historic Queenstown building on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. I took two helicopter rides, one above Mount Aspiring National Park with Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters and another with Kahu NZ to White Island, an active stratovolcano off the coast of the North Island’s Bay of Plenty. Knowing that both companies were Qualmark-approved made me slightly less nervous.

Located approximately 30 miles off the coast of the Bay of Plenty, White Island (or “Whakaari”) is the most active cone volcano in New Zealand.

Learn some local lingo

New Zealanders have distinctive accents and slang. Several phrases are similar to popular Australian slang words, but there are some specific sayings in New Zealand that might catch you off guard. Here’s a sample of local lingo that will help you keep up in conversations with Kiwis. (Start with this: Kiwi can refer to either a New Zealander or the country’s national bird. For the fruit, locals say kiwifruit.)

  • The wops (or “the wop wops”)— The middle of nowhere, a place far from civilization
    • Example: “She lives out in the wops.”
  • Togs—Bathing suit, swimwear
    • Example: “Grab your togs; we’re going in the hot springs.” 
  • Jandals— Flip-flops, thongs, or sandals
    • Example: “Don’t wear your jandals on the hike.”
  • Boot— Trunk (of a car)
    • Example: “Can you nab my bag? It’s in the boot!”
  • Bach (pronounced “batch”)— Beach house, holiday home
    • Example: “Our family has a bach in Hahei on the Coromandel Peninsula; come visit!”
  • Tramping (or “bushwalking”)—Hiking, backpacking
    • Example: “New Zealand has an incredible array of tramping options for people at different skill levels.”

It’s also helpful to study up on a few key Māori words and phrases. As the language (and name) of New Zealand’s indigenous people, Māori plays an integral role in shaping New Zealand’s identity. You’ll want to know basic greetings such as kia ora (hello) and morena (good morning). Aotearoa (long white cloud) is the Māori name for New Zealand. It’s not just individuals of Māori descent who you’ll hear use this word—pākehā (New Zealanders of European descent) often refer to the country by this name as well. If you visit Wellington, don’t miss the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. This free museum has some incredibly comprehensive exhibits that summarize New Zealand’s Māori history.

You Can Catapult Yourself Across a New Zealand Valley at 62 Miles per Hour

Don’t forget the new tourist tax

As of October 1, 2019, all international travelers except Australian citizens must obtain a New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority (NZeTA) and pay a tourist tax before entering the country. (People from visa waiver countries can still visit New Zealand temporarily without obtaining a visa, but the NZeTA is required from all travelers to New Zealand who are noncitizens or don’t hold an Australian passport.) The NZeTA can take up to 72 hours to get approved and costs NZD$9 (approximately US$6) if you register via the free mobile app (available on iOS and Android) or NZD$12 (about US$8) through the Immigration NZ website. When you apply for an NZeTA, the new tourist tax known as the International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy (IVL) of NZD$35 (about US$22) per person will also be collected. Both the NZeTA and the IVL are valid for two years and multiple visits to the country. New Zealand’s government says it plans to use the tax to fund infrastructure and conservation projects.

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to New Zealand

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