Our New Zealand Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to New Zealand or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
The islands of New Zealand aren't affectionately nicknamed Godzone - 'God's own country' - for nothing. Anyone who has so much as walked past a cinema in the last decade will be aware of the country's extraordinary and diverse landscapes, used to great effect by its best-known cinematographer, Peter Jackson in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Thick native forests and towering mountains scarred with slow-flow glaciers, pristine-clear lakes and 80-mile beaches; New Zealand is the perfect setting for marathon quests, haunted forests and volcanistic epics or, indeed, spectacular holidays.
Though New Zealand is young in human-history years - just 1000 years old by most estimates - it's rich in culture and character, too. Pioneering Maoris and reformist European settlers have been through tough times but have united into the passionate force of proud and welcoming Kiwis you meet today. Perhaps nowhere is the pride of these multicultural attitudes better played out than on the rugby field where, a game introduced by European schoolmasters is now preceded by the haka, a traditional Maori war dance.
Alongside this proud nation of people live a list of biological oddities and one-of-a-kinds, the result of millennia of isolation. Birdlife stretches from the nationally beloved flightless Kiwis to the greatest flying birds, the royal albatross, which nest here and nowhere else in the world. Marine life includes countless species of dolphin, seal and whales, all of which are easily spotted.
New Zealand is truly special - rich in landscape, ecology, passion and tradition - and worth every second of the journey there, half a world away.
Culture & etiquette
Kiwis are a well-tempered, friendly, extroverted lot, with a deep passion for the outdoors. Generally meetings are informal - a reflection on the language, which is pickled with slang terms - and most people are more than happy to offer advice to travellers. Maori communities place a greater emphasis on hospitality and meetings can be generally more formal, especially if you are attending traditional Maori events or ceremonies.
Undoubtedly New Zealand's most famous drink export is wine. Sauvignon Blanc is the best known - and respected - with some wineries producing top-class wines that are giving the French a good run for their money. Superior Chardonnays and Rieslings are also easy to come by, though quality reds are thin on the ground and are usually imported from Australia. Some wineries are within easy access of Auckland, but getting out to Hawke's Bay or Marlborough on South Island, where top wineries and vineyards offering tastings are surrounded by stunning coastal scenery, is well worth the journey.
Beer is less for tasting and more for social lubrication in New Zealand. The local pub is a staple part of Kiwi culture - rural and urban - and there are fewer better places to have a chinwag with the locals. Lager is the order of the day - two of the most popular are Tui and Steinlager - however there are a number of microbreweries dotted across the North and South Islands offering more boutique and original hoppy drops.
Coffee has enjoyed a revolution in recent years and in many towns and cities dozens of small coffee shops have sprung up to cater for the increasing number of caffeine addicts. The creations of Kiwi baristas have quickly spread around the globe; they are credited with inventing the flat white, which is increasingly popular in the cafes of London and New York.
January - Auckland Anniversary Day Regatta, N Island
February - New Zealand Fringe Festival, Wellington, N Island
March - WOMAD, world music festival, New Plymouth, N Island
April - Arrowtown Autumn Festival, S Island
May - Auckland Triennial, art show, N Island
June - Fieldays, agricultural show, Hamilton, N Island
July - Taranaki International Festival of the Arts, New Plymouth, N Island
August - Visa Wellington on a Plate, culinary festival, N Island
September - Blossom Festival, Alexandra, S Island
November - Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular, New Plymouth, N Island
December - Rhythm and Vines, music festival, Gisborne, N Island
Food & drink
Thankfully for travellers and locals alike, there has been a serious revival of interest in making the most of the fresh, seasonal produce that is so bountiful in New Zealand, from vegetables to fish to meat. This forms the delicious basis for modern Kiwi cuisine, together with influences and ingredients from Asia, the Mediterranean and the Pacific Rim. This experimentation created 'fusion cooking', introduced to the UK by talented Kiwi chef Peter Gordon. It is possible in many New Zealand restaurants to have venison meatballs cooked Thai-style, fresh seafood pasta, and Vietnamese spring rolls alongside roast lamb served with couscous on the same menu. When it works, it works incredibly well, and on the whole diners are spoilt for choice.
The stellar quality of the ingredients helps. The lamb needs no introduction, but Kiwi beef and venison are just as flavoursome. The long coastline, lapped by clean waters, provides an abundance of fish and shellfish, and New Zealand especially excels in the latter, with the famous green-lipped mussels and Bluff oysters deserving their fine reputation. Whitebait is much loved and served as fritters when in season, and abalone, again served in fritters, is considered by locals to be a delicacy. Abalone fritters can be found at fish and chip shops, alongside standard (in New Zealand this is often shark) fish and chips, also known as 'greasies' and served in paper. It's still a favourite despite other eating habits changing, as are pies, but in the brave new world of Kiwi cuisine these are now more likely to enclose venison, or beef and oysters, or steak and cheese or bacon and egg than the old stalwart minced beef.
Barbeques remain an institution too, though nowadays feature more than bangers and burgers, with shellfish, and marinated meats finding a regular place above the hot coals. It's worth trying to get an invitation to another New Zealand institution - the traditional Maori hangi. Pronounced hungi, this centuries-old method of cooking in the ground was designed for large gatherings and important social occasions.
The men would light a large fire in which to heat river stones, and use the hot stones to line a deep hole in the ground. The women would prepare the meat and vegetables including kumara, the local sweet potato. Smaller items were wrapped in leaves, and everything packed in a flax basket before being placed on wet sacking on the hot stones. The whole affair would be buried in earth for a few hours, leaving everyone plenty of time for a beer or two while the food steamed into succulence. It's harder to find a traditional hangi now as health and safety concerns take control of the world, so most visitors opt for the commercial versions in Rotorua or Christchurch, which may not be as distinctively flavoured, but still turn out tender and tasty meat, generally wild pig or lamb (in the past moa, pigeon and seafood were commonly used).
Main meals aside, New Zealand produces some fine cheese and dairy products, and excellent fruit, including of course the Chinese Gooseberry, or kiwi, as well as feijoa and tamarillo. Combinations of the delicious fruit and dairy produce form the basis of many of New Zealand's preferred puddings, from ice-cream to cheese cake to the pavlova, an extravagant medley of meringue, whipped cream and fruit. Arguments rage to this day about whether this frothy affair was first created in Australia or New Zealand, but this does nothing to hinder its status as the national dessert.
New Zealand is roughly the same size of the UK, covering an area of 268,201km2 but has a population of under 4.4million, 6% of the UK total. The country is made up of two main islands, North and South, and a number of smaller islands including Stewart Island, Chatham Island and the Great Barrier Island.
The summit of Aoraki or Mount Cook, at 3,754 metres, is the highest point. It is a part of the Southern Alps which lie along nearly the entire western edge of South Island. The Waikato River is the longest river and the largest lake is Lake Taupo, which lies in the caldera created by a super volcano that erupted some 26,000 years ago.
Public transport links, by bus and air, are good in New Zealand. National bus routes are extensive and well organised and numerous shuttle companies operate on both main islands. Ask a WEXAS consultant about flexi-travel passes - these offer a range of hop-on, hop-off routes and cover buses, trains and ferries and, if you're planning on using public transport a lot, could work out cheaper than pay-as-you-go.
Domestic airlines operate good services between the three main international airports and a bunch of smaller domestic airports, including those on outlying islands. Ask your WEXAS consultant to book early to guarantee a discounted fare.
Hiring a campervan or car is a popular option and gives added flexibility. The distances are not huge and most hire companies will offer the option of leaving your vehicle somewhere other than where you picked it up. New Zealand is well geared up to campervan holidays with plenty of stops available, many offering electricity (for a price). Driving is on the left hand side of the road, and when driving on rural roads, watch out for livestock and hidden potholes, carry a mobile phone, up to date map and tell someone where you're going.
If you're feeling energetic, then touring New Zealand by bicycle is a superb way to see this beautiful country at a slower, go-your-own-pace fashion.
Modern historians speculate that the ancestors of modern Maoris arrived at New Zealand between 1000 and 1200 AD, travelling by double-hulled canoe from Polynesia. Considering that aborigines had been freely settling swathes of Australia for nearly 50,000 years by this point, the first (known) human discovery of New Zealand is extraordinarily late.
By the 1300s these settlers had set up communities around the coast of New Zealand. The early settlers had come prepared, bringing with them plants such as gourd, yams and kumara - sweet potatoes - as well as dogs and rats, which along with hunters soon decimated the South Island's resident flightless bird population. This, coupled with an unfavourable climate, pushed settlers north and by the time Europeans arrived in the mid 1600s, is it estimated that 95% of the population lived in the North Island.
The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and his crew were the first Europeans to spot New Zealand and they anchored in Golden Bay at the tip of South Island in 1964. Their visit was short lived as some confusion resulted in a hostile reception from a nearby Maori community. Europeans wouldn't return for over a century but this new and distant land was christened Nieuw Zeeland and appeared on European maps for the first time.
Trusty old Yorkshireman Captain James Cook was the next to visit and spent many months accurately mapping, naming and falling in love with the many coves and bays of New Zealand's coastline. He also did something that Tasman was unable to do; made friends with Maori locals.
Tales of this distant land from Cook's and other European expeditions soon attracted whalers, sealers and missionaries, and by the 1830s there were some 2,000 British subjects living on the islands, which were under the jurisdiction of New South Wales in Australia.
Seeing the pakeha (British settlers) as a positive at first, a group of Maori chiefs petitioned the British monarch to become a 'friend and the guardian of these islands'. Soon after this arrived a bungling James Busby, the so-called founder of the Australian wine industry and the man with whom the British entrusted the draft of the Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand and the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, which established a British Governor, gave the Maori the rights of British Subjects and set rules for Maori ownership of land and property. Controversially however, some aspects of the English document were lost in the Maori translation.
The following decade left the Maori population feeling cheated. A proud and enigmatic chief called Hone Heke took matters into his own hands and cut down the flagpole bearing the Union Jack in Kororareka (later Russell) not once but four times. The Constitution act of 1852 went further, ruling out Maori representation in political decision. The Land Wars almost inevitably followed, resulting in heavy defeats for the Maoris and by 1881 the pakeha population was at nearly half a million, leaving a Maori population heavily outnumbered and seriously lacking in political or social representation.
Towards the end of the 1800s conditions had improved. By the turn of the century the Maori population had parliamentary representation and women had been given the vote - New Zealand was the first country to do so. Meanwhile the pakeha were enjoying some of the best living standards in the globe, thanks to mass exports of gold and timber.
By 1914 New Zealand was a Dominion of the British Crown rather than a self-governing colony, meaning it could make its own decisions about foreign policy. Even so, over 100,000 New Zealand troops fought in the First World War, roughly 10% of the population. 17,000 never returned.
After the war the economy boomed due to demand for food from Europe until the Great Depression cut demand for exports and forced many people out of work. Socially and politically this was another major turning point and soon the newly re-elected Labour government had developed the first and most comprehensive Welfare State in the world. Maori welfare was also put on the political agenda, with pushes for rises in Maori living standards and increased pensions and unemployment payments. The widely acclaimed efforts of the 28th Maori Battalion during WWII went further in improving political and societal standards for the Maori. Though Maori representation in government is at an all time high today, social cohesion remains a pressing issue.
The post-war years have seen big changes to New Zealand's ethnic and rural/urban populations. Immigration gates were flung open in the 50s, not just to 'ten pound poms' (thus called because of the cheap airfare offered by the government to encourage immigration) but also to Pacific Islanders and East Asians. At the same time the Maori population shifted from 20/80 urban/rural to 80/20.
New Zealand found a new voice on the international stage in the 80s by adopting an antinuclear policy. When the Greenpeace protest-ship the Rainbow Warrior was sunk up by French intelligence in Auckland harbour in 1985, Kiwis united behind their government and found a common cause in environmentalism.
The 21st century has brought renewed interest to the shores of this far off country as the arts - most prominently films - the export of quality Kiwi produce and the picture postcard scenery have become ingrained in the international consciousness.
Farmers' Markets are a national institution. If you're self catering - either in an apartment or campervan - these mini-local foodie festivals are the best place to pick up some fresh local produce to experiment with later. And even if you're being catered for, there's always a range of fineries which you can try whilst there - cheeses, chocolates - or souvenirs to pick up, from jars of manuka honey to locally crafted bottled beers.
The best North Island farmers' markets include Whangarei - the country's first - Bay of Islands, which sells interesting sub-tropical fruit jams and jellies and Parnell, right in the centre of Auckland.
On South Island head for Blenheim, which stocks greenshell mussels, wild game from the Marlborough ranges, salmon and locally-grown saffron, or New Zealand's most remote farmers' market, Riverton.
Otherwise, it's all about traditional arts and crafts, notably those of Maori or South Pacific origin or influence. Beautiful carvings inspired by myths and sculptures using native woods like rimu and kauri are a great souvenir as are tiki, traditional Maori jewelleries and pendants, carved from greenstone or whalebone. Traditionally, these are given as gifts, so if you want one yourself, get a friend or your partner to buy it for you.
Tipping is optional in New Zealand and up to the customer's discretion - though in some restaurants a service charge will be added to your bill. Bar and restaurant staff do not rely on tips for income, but it is always appreciated if a small tip is left at the end of a meal, or a added to the cost of a taxi ride - 10-15% should do.
Where to eat
There are restaurants, bars, cafés, brasseries, pubs, fast-food joints galore to choose from in New Zealand. Wellington is said to have more restaurants and cafés per capita than New York, and even the smaller towns are well served. While there's plenty of fine dining on offer, restaurants tend not to be overly formal. The range of ethnic restaurants continues to grow, with Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean, Japanese, Mexican and Indian all present and correct in most major cities. Vineyard restaurants are increasingly popular too, serving food that complements their house wine, and many offer outdoor seating, close to or under the vines, lending the experience some extra charm.