June 17, 2024

16 Things to Know Before Your First Trip to New Zealand

I arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand, in February 2020. I planned to stay for three to four weeks on my way around the world. Instead, I decided to stay away from the pandemic and spent almost 2 years there. During that time, I learned a lot about the culture.

Here are 17 things you should know before coming to this wonderful country.

Milford Sound in New Zealand

Photo credit: Heather Markel

1. It’s Not ‘Down Under’

I realized while living there that I was as insulting as a Kiwi when someone pointed out that I was “Down Under.” I know New Zealand is a small country, but no, it’s not part of Australia. If you imply that this beautiful nation is part of Oz, or if you confuse the two, don’t be surprised if you offend the locals.

2. There are only Two Kinds of Kiwi

Unless you’re from New Zealand, you probably think there are three types of kiwi: bird, New Zealand, and fruit. In fact, the fruit is called kiwifruit. When you are here, if you say, “I ate a delicious kiwi!” you are saying you are a cannibal or have eaten a protected species. Because of your speech, you will probably be forgiven.

3. Cussing is a lot

Coming from America, where we are more sensitive to cuss words, you might be surprised to learn that these beauties have a strong sailor mouth. It takes some getting used to, and no offense is meant. Kiwis (the people) are amazing, and they also throw expletives like nothing else. Don’t take it personally.

This is one of the most surprising – and delightful – things I’ve seen around the country. Traveling the globe, and growing up in New York City, I never touched poverty or beach time. In New Zealand, it’s how people connect with nature. From the time they can walk, they do so without shoes. You will see people walking barefoot in supermarkets and around town, but mostly, you will see them in nature. They don’t have thick skin, but I enjoyed nature walks in my bare feet, and wearing my shoes to go grocery shopping felt really awkward. It’s a connection I haven’t had much in my life, and I’m so grateful for it. When you get here, try to ditch your shoes as much as possible.

Marsden Cross Nature Reserve

Marsden Cross Nature Reserve

Photo credit: Heather Markel

5. They take Nature seriously

When it comes to nature, New Zealand has more respect for it than most places I’ve been. Plastic bags are long gone. (If you forget to bring a tote to the supermarket, you can just buy paper or cloth bags.) Almost every house has a compost, recycling is essential, and most people I’ve met have at least a small garden where they grow their own food. In fact, if you don’t treat the land with respect, you could be expelled — like these tourists which was for littering, among other offences.

Maori statue

Maori statue

Photo credit: Heather Markel

6. Maori are an integral part of the Culture

I would love to meet the Maori of New Zealand. The first things you will notice, perhaps, are their beautiful tattoos. Sometimes women have one on their chin, and sometimes a full face tattoo called a you are. The designs are specific to the tribes they come from and represent their ancestors as well as their current families.

I highly recommend talking to the Maori to learn about their culture. Think about progress Waitangi to learn about how New Zealand came to be. The country is in the process of doing justice to the true founders of New Zealand, and although not everything is perfect, I think that New Zealand is far ahead of the world in their efforts and sensitivities.

7. Locking the Doors The Opposite Way

You probably realize that people drive on the left side of the road in New Zealand. You may not know that doors lock in the opposite direction than they do in the United States. This seems unimportant until you’re in a public restroom, where you can’t get out because you can’t unlock the door. You’ll thank me, after you’re done panicking, when you remember to turn the lock in the opposite direction to make your way out.

8. People Are Amazingly Nice and Helpful…

All over New Zealand, I’ve found that strangers make eye contact and say hello. I also found that they go out of their way to be helpful. Whether in the supermarket, the drugstore, or immigration, the staff I encountered were never disrespectful. Instead, they have spent up to 20 minutes on the phone or in person trying to exhaust all the resources they can think of to help me. It is very desire. If you get locked in a public restroom, I’m sure anyone who hears your plea for help will get you.

Street signs in New Zealand

Street signs in New Zealand

Photo credit: Heather Markel

9. …Unless You’re A Pedestrian, And They’re Driving

In sharp contrast to their kindness is the driving spirit of the average kiwi. I was shocked to realize, time and time again, that if I hadn’t been running, a driver would have hit me, because they showed no sign of slowing down. I strongly recommend that you use the marked intersections, and, even then, check to make sure that the traffic is delayed for you.

10. The North Island is worth your attention

All the marketing will drive you to the South Island of New Zealand. It is very beautiful. And it is also very touristy during peak season. I spent most of my time on the North Island. It’s a little less touristy, more Maori live, and has some beautiful spots as well. If you only have a little time, you might focus on Auckland, Wellington, and Rotorua. But if you’re here longer, consider going to some less touristy spots.

11. The Sun is Heavy

You may know that there is a hole in the ozone layer. I had never burned so quickly in the sun in my life. In the summer, even a few minutes under the sun after 5 pm left me with a mild sunburn. There are many cases of skin cancer here because the sun is so intense. I learned to cover myself from head to toe, even in hot weather. Definitely bring sun clothes, or plan to slather on lots of sunscreen.

Heather on the beach

Heather on the beach

Photo credit: Heather Markel

12. You’ll need a Good Hat

Another part of your experience will be gusty breezes throughout the year. If your hat is not secured to your head, it will fly off on a boat, on a walk, or in traffic. They sell hats here that tie or strap under the chin. They are not the most glamorous, but you will quickly realize how sensible they are.

13. You Pay For Meals At The Counter, And You Don’t Tip

My first few weeks in New Zealand left me thinking I didn’t like the servers. Every time I ate at a restaurant, no one came over to ask if I wanted more, and no one ever asked if I wanted the bill. Finally, I looked at the fact that you go to the counter and pay when you’re done eating. Whether you order and pay in advance, or sit down and place your order on your table, you always pay at the counter, and never get a bill. I believe part of the logic is that you don’t save much paper if you don’t print all those bills.

The other scary and wonderful thing about all the services in New Zealand is that there is no hassle. Instead, people are paid a decent wage, so they don’t rely on tips to make up for the lack of a decent paycheck.

14. You Could Experience an Earthquake

Earthquakes happen every day, so chances are you’ll experience one. You may feel your bed shake for a few seconds. I was in Napier for the big one recently with tsunami warnings. It was a moving experience.

A heather erupting with a cow

A heather erupting with a cow

Photo credit: Heather Markel

15. You will see a lot of cows

There are a lot of cows in New Zealand. In fact, there are more cows than people. Everyone talks about the sheep, but the cows deserve your attention. There are beautiful crossbreeds that I have never seen before. A few vacation rentals will let you stay on a working farm and milk the cows – a great experience. Also, the beef is grass fed and the hamburgers and steaks taste very different back in America. It’s better for you, but you’ll have to get used to the taste.

Wood pigeon

Wood pigeon

Photo credit: Heather Markel

16. Birds Will Be A Big Part Of Your Trip

New Zealand’s native birds are beautiful — and they’ll probably wake you up every morning, if you’re only staying in big cities. I found out about the call of the tui; enjoyed the chattering visits of the fantails that, several times, almost landed on my hand; and the kereru, or wood pigeon, was at a loss, as it is better to land in bushes and on branches too small for its size.

My favorite birding experience, however, is seeing a kiwi in nature, at night. Instead of going to a bird sanctuary and seeing them in a glass box, go out to a reserve, give them a red light (they will run from a bright, bright lantern), and watch this amazing bird walk free. Their gaits and bodies seem prehistoric, and I felt like I was being transported back in time.

New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Breathtaking landscapes await at every turn. Smiling people who love their country will show you around. Whether you come for adventure, touring, camping or culture, you’ll love your time in New Zealand.

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