12 Things You Should Probably Know Before Going to New Zealand

New Zealand... it's like a whole different country! Unless you are from there. 

New Zealand... it's like a whole different country! Unless you are from there. 

The hubster and I just returned from our 16 day honeymoon in New Zealand and Australia. Lots of adventures, driving, wine and coffee and not a lot of Internet. I can't wait to tell you more about all the crazy stuff we did, but in the meantime, I feel compelled to share a few things we learned about traveling New Zealand that I wish we'd known before we left.

Good stuff, bad stuff, useful stuff.

Keep in mind that we only did the south island, which is much more remote than the north island. At any rate, I think this info would help anyone planning to go there.  

* * *

1. Customs

I've always ticked the "nothing to declare." I only once got in trouble for brining an unopened package of gummy bears back home from Germany (I mean, really. I was supposed to declare those?). However, the customs people in New Zealand take this stuff super seriously.

For example, I saw one customs officer tear a lady a new one for not declaring a wood carving she bought at the Sydney airport. The same one aggressively shamed Josh for not declaring his hiking boots, pointing out that he had signed a legally binding contract where he lied about carrying outdoor gear. She then inspected his boots and said it's a good thing they weren't dirty because it's a $400 fine

Not the warm welcome we'd expected, but I guess we'll know for next time and so will you!

2. Sandflies

My god, the sandflies.

As a Minnesotan, I am used to mosquito bites. Sandfly bites are a whole different thing. They are tiny and relentless. Josh and I each had about 30-40 bites on our ankles and nearly a week later, they still itched like crazy. Like can't sleep at night crazy, I don't know if I can even live one more second without cutting off my legs at the shin crazy. 

What's worse, we could only find "natural" repellent and "natural" anti-itch stuff. And we all know how well that stuff works. If you're going to New Zealand, do yourself a favor and bring DEET repellent and real AfterBite


3. Coffee!

Mark this one under pleasant surprises: Every bar, roadside stop, restaurant, hotel and many gas stations have a ridiculously nice espresso machine with amazing coffee beans. I had no idea Kiwis were so obsessed with coffee. Even in the most podunk of podunk towns, you can find a cup that outshines most hipster-filled urban coffee shops. It is great!


4. It's So Remote

The country's total population is about 4.5 million (though there are 70-some million sheep). In the south island, there were multiple times we drove for hours without seeing a gas station or a grocery store. So fill up on food and gas while you can. 


5. Freedom Camping

Gillespie Beach, New Zealand.

Gillespie Beach, New Zealand.

Unless it's posted otherwise, you can basically camp on any conservation land (which is almost everywhere) if you are in a self-contained unit aka campervan/RV. Which is a great thing when you're driving through the alps and haven't seen an open business for two hours. Plus, it allows you to stay in some stunning places, like the above Gillespie Beach, just outside Fox Glacier.


6. Rent a Campervan

A classy steak dinner while camping? We're in!

A classy steak dinner while camping? We're in!

Before we booked our trip, I was intrigued by traveling via campervan. It seemed so convenient to not unpack every night and have our hotel and car be the same thing. Plus, freedom camping! But would we look like absolute tools driving around New Zealand in an RV? We decided to go for it.

Fret not, potential New Zealand campervan travelers! Basically 25 percent of the vehicles on the road are campervans. We didn't stick out at all. Locals, tourists, everybody is into the car camping thing.

We went with Maui (fancier than we needed, but I am not complaining!) and lived in the lap of RV luxury for nine days. We could cook, eat, sleep, pee, brush our teeth, refrigerate food and drink wine out of real wine glasses. Barely camping, but still able to hang in the outdoors. 


7. Take Kiwi Advice with a Grain of Salt

Before heading to New Zealand, a Kiwi warned Josh and I that we should avoid Greymouth, where we'd intended to spend a night or two, because it's incredibly industrial and not scenic at all. Josh and I immediately thought of Gary, Indiana. No thanks!

Here's what Greymouth looks like:

Greymouth: It's like New Zealand's Detroit! Photo by Kelsi

Greymouth: It's like New Zealand's Detroit! Photo by Kelsi

I guess if you live in the most stunning place on earth, this might seem like an eyesore.

We were also told by Kiwis that Milford Sound, while beautiful, is terribly touristy. To me, that means a million trinket shops, a McDonald's and at least one Bubba Gump Shrimp equivalent. Milford Sound, while full of tourists, has a lone airstrip, two restaurants (one where you order at a counter), two small hotels and a few boats that will take you out on the sound and literally nothing else. So when a Kiwi says tourist-y, they're not talking Navy Pier. 

Hot pools? More like Wet-n-Wild.

Hot pools? More like Wet-n-Wild.

Oh and Kiwis love to recommend the hot pools, but be warned: these are not the outdoor, nature-y oasis they seem. We drove an hour and a half out of our way to visit Hanmer Springs, which turned out to be a water park with screaming kids, a lazy river, water slides and crappy burgers. Lesson learned!


8. This Place is run by 20-something Backpackers

Almost everywhere was staffed largely by 20-somethings from places other than New Zealand. It's pretty easy to apply for a year-long work visa and bum around the country, picking up odd jobs here and there. Restaurants, outdoorsy tours and hotels seem to employ a lot of college-aged kids who've only been working there for two weeks or a month and are probably moving on soon.

Why didn't I know about this ten years ago?


9. Internet

If it's even available, it's slow and it sucks. Just come to terms with that and you'll be fine.


10. Beware of the Weather 

It'll be hot one moment, then raining, then freezing cold, then hot. Just bring lots of layers, a rain coat and socks that cover your ankles (not only for the cold-- sandflies!). 


11. Few Things are Oversold, Merit-wise

The entire kitchen at the Cray Pot

The entire kitchen at the Cray Pot

The best fish & chips.

The best fish & chips.

I'm always skeptical of any restaurant recommended by any tourism company. The New Zealand tourism folks would not STFU about the Cray Pot in Jackson Bay, reportedly the best fish and chips in the land. For whatever reason, we decided to check it out anyway.

After a 40-minute drive along...wait for it... a road with no businesses, we landed at this postage stamp-sized restaurant. Three ladies cooking up fish and chips and cray fish (also known as lobster). 18-seats in the joint and every single one was taken. We waited 20 minutes for a table, and with my first bite, I knew this excursion was worth every bit of time and money, and just one of many examples of things that lived up to and surpassed expectations. 


12. Few Things are Oversold, Space-wise

We visited during high season and hardly booked anything in advance. Aside from Milford Sound (where we still got one of the last camping spots), most places had plenty of space if you arrived before 3pm. So don't worry about plotting out your every move before you go. You will probably be just fine. And if all else fails, freedom camping!

* * *

Any other travel advice for folks heading to New Zealand? Comment away! Josh and I also went hang gliding (amazing!) and bungy jumping (scary!) here. And PS here's another very different place I traveled recently and ADORE. Plus, 7 non-essential things that make travel better.



(plus a FREE copy of 107 Ways to Expand Your Comfort Zone)