10 things to know about New Zealand before you go

I have recently returned from two and a half weeks in magical middle earth - New Zealand. Truly one of the most beautiful countries I've visited, I'll be documenting my time there in a few different ways. To kick things off, here are some fun tidbits I picked while on the ground in the country - things that were not main focuses of the guidebooks or blogs I read online before I left. Some of these things are curious, others useful, and most of all, hopefully a hook to entice you to add this incredible place to your bucket list!

1. Kiwis (that is what New Zealanders call themselves), drive on the left side of the road. Keep this in mind if you plan to rent a car. From my experience, it takes about a day to get used to the differences. The one thing worth keeping in mind is where you are in relationship to the center of the road – if you are used to sitting on the left-hand side of the vehicle, your orientation to the center can feel a bit strange.

2. Food is expensive, as a lot of it is imported from the rest of the world. Depending on your budget, consider bringing some food with you from home (though check customs regulations first) or plan to shop for groceries and cook some of your own meals. One food you can reliably find everywhere is meat pies. In general, food in New Zealand is similar to British food (fish and chips, meats). However, I'm predominantly vegetarian and found a lot of good options in the many Asian cuisines that can be found throughout the country. Other island must-tries include hokey pokey ice cream, real fruit ice cream, and Maori cuisine.

From left to right: tacos in Queenstown; kiwifruit; hangi, a classic Maori dish; eggs benedict. We ate well despite not being meat eaters!

3. Kiwi birds (the ones that locals call themselves by) are actually nocturnal and endangered! If you want to see one, your best bet is at a bird sanctuary or zoo, not actually wandering around the countryside. There are a number of these sanctuaries scattered throughout the country (we visited the Otorohanga Kiwi House in the North Island). In general, birds are very special in New Zealand as they are the main native animal population on the island. If you visit, take a moment to listen and enjoy the birdsong when you hear it – it’s precious and much work is being done to conserve it and protect the many endangered species – many birds that live nowhere else on the planet. You can donate to a number of non-profits in New Zealand which are doing important work to conserve these populations, such as the Routeburn Dart Wildlife Trust

The adorable Kiwi bird!

The adorable Kiwi bird!

4. Espresso coffee drinks are very popular and available nearly everywhere - every convenient store, McDonalds, and gas station too! So if you are not into regular black coffee, this is the country for you. 

Coffee in New Zealand. Always sprinkled with chocolate or cinnamon!

5. Maori culture, an indigenous Polynesian culture, is heavily present throughout the country. There are many Maori television stations, signs translated in both English and Maori, and in general an obvious reverence to Maori history. New Zealand has not always been good about this, and I'm sure there are many social issues at play still today, but comparably to the United States, it seemed that things were looking up. Check out New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team Haka, world renown, to get a piece of the culture!

6. When hiking in New Zealand, or planning for an overnight trip, there are some distinct advantages to keep in mind. First, as there are no large land mammals, you don’t have to worry about bears (and special food storage). Second, water is plentiful year round on many trails. In addition, the water is often safe to drink straight out of the waterfalls! At huts in the backcountry, rainwater is untreated but also often safe to drink.

One of the backcountry huts scattered throughout New Zealand. In this photo you can see one of the water tanks used to collect rainwater for consumption.

7. Bungy (or Bungee) Jumping was invented in Queenstown, New Zealand. Try it for a fun and exhilarating experience. You’re crazy if you do, but you’re crazy if you don’t (or so says A.J. Hackett!).

Take the plunge from a bridge like this one - the Kawarau Suspension Bridge outside of Queenstown, where bungy was first invented!

8. The most overrated thing to see in New Zealand is #thatwanakatree. Wanaka is a beautiful town to see in its own right, even if you don't go for the 'gram. Skip the tourist centers and hike in nearby Mt. Aspiring National Park!

Don't go to Wanaka for the tree on the left; go for the hike on the right (Rob Roy Glacier Track).

9. Make sure to bring a lot of food and a full tank of gas if visiting Milford Sound, the "8th wonder of the world". Though a major tourist attraction in New Zealand, there is very little infrastructure there. Also, make sure to arrive in Milford Sound before 6pm and after 8am in the summer. Between those hours, the one-way tunnel through the mountains is not metered (making driving quite dangerous!).

World Heritage Site Milford Sound on a gorgeous late summer day.

10. The best way to see the country is by hiking it. So much is only reachable by trails or helicopter. And because the country does such a good job of maintaining trails (tracks) and huts, access to the outdoors is very attainable even for less advanced campers.

I’ll be posting a separate article about the specific hikes I recommend in New Zealand soon. In the meantime hopefully this gives a little taste of some of the things to expect on a journey to Aotearoa.