New Zealand: The Good, The Bad, and the Beautiful

New Zealand is stunningly beautiful. Patten proclaims (on Radio New Zealand) that it’s the most beautiful country he’s ever seen. I’d argue that our own USA wins the beauty prize, but there’s no denying that New Zealand is gorgeous: pristine white-sand beaches, craggy coastlines against turquoise waters, other-wordly volcanic landscapes, isolated fiords, idyllic prairies, rolling hills planted with vines, snow-capped peaks, and placid lakes abound. New Zealand is the super model of terrain. Pure, natural eye candy.

But be warned: Land this beautiful doesn’t come cheap or easy. And if you’re starving for culture, unique flavors, coddling hosts, or a great value, you may want to consider a different country. Here’s a breakdown of what we loved, what we didn’t love, and what we saw… because the main reason to go to NZ is to see ridiculously pretty natural things.

What we loved:

    • The well-kept hiking paths: Any visit to New Zealand should include a lot of walking, hiking, or tramping, as locals like to call it. The Department of Conservation has done an incredible job of maintaining hundreds of walking paths throughout the country: This means you’ll have clearly marked routes, well-packed trails, and knowledgeable staff in a plethora of DOC offices. We wrote about our lovely experience on the Kepler Track (one of the 9 Great Walks), but we also hiked a dozen other shorter paths/sections of longer tracks during our travels throughout the country. We tried to squeeze in a walk of some sort just about every day. If you come to NZ, you must hike. This is the main attraction.
    • Delicious Pinot Gris in the Marlborough Region, South Island

      The white wine: We’ve been drinking NZ Sauvignon blancs for years — they’re good and cheap. One of our favorite non-hiking days was spent white-wine tasting in the Marlborough Region in the South Island. We had almost every winery to ourselves, tastings were free, and the landscape was intoxicating: rolling vineyards, puffy clouds, and blue sky. Our two favorite places: Auntsfield Estate (for its gorgeous views and outdoor tasting) and Gibson Bridge (for the tastiest Pinot Gris’ on the planet).

    • Gourmet Instant Coffee: Traveling on a budget in New Zealand does not include $6 frothy lattes from the wonderfully hip coffee shops you’ll find everywhere. Instead, you’ll be introduced to the instant coffee section in your local New World supermarket, where you’ll find numerous brand names alongside Nescafe (which I’ve admittedly come to actually like too.) But the gourmet stuff is better. For $10, we bought a small bottle of Jed’s Brewing Co. medium roast, which has provided us 20+ mornings of what-tastes-like-freshly-brewed coffee. Can’t drink it black? Buy powdered milk, something we’ve also learned to like. Another NZ plus: Every motel and hostel comes with an electric kettle — great for that instant coffee and for boiling eggs.
    • Eden’s Edge Backpacker’s Lodge: What a dream! We paid $24/person for a comfortable bed in a 4-person dorm, which was really like a cute cabin set amid an apple orchard. The facilities are new, modern, and filled with light: Believe me, after you’ve been cooking in dingy window-less kitchens in other hostels, you will absolutely adore the huge sunlit dream kitchen at Eden’s Edge. Uncork a bottle of that delicious white wine and eat Patten’s spaghetti bolognese on the deck at sunset. (If you’re on a long trip, you’ll also appreciate the owner’s giant DVD collection and the cushy leather couches in the video room. A little taste of home!)

Best accomodation: Eden’s Edge Backpacker Lodge

What we didn’t love:

    • Paying for WiFi. If you’re staying in budget accommodations, you can expect to pay $5 for 24 hours of internet usage. We haven’t experienced this in any other country and it’s annoying, to say the least. Don’t expect restaurants or cafes to have WiFi either. Actually, many may actually have a signal, but after you’ve paid for your $7 cupcake and ask your waiter for the network password, he’ll tell you “it’s not working today.”
    • Paying $80/night for a very basic room or two beds in a hostel. Budget accommodation is expensive and not nearly as nice as what we’ve stayed in elsewhere. We’d always heard about how great NZ hostels were, but many seemed to be past their prime. For visitors 15-20 years ago, maybe these hostels seemed palatial next to their European counterparts? Most of the YHAs and BBHs we stayed in were pretty darn run-down.
    • Green-shell mussels from the Mussel Pot in Havelock. North Island.

      The food. You will likely be disappointed in your overall eating experience in NZ if you’re coming from Asia, where you were spoiled with complex, new, and beautiful foods. Sure, the lamb here might taste better than what you get at home (though your local Costco probably sells New Zealand lamb for a better price). The dairy is decidedly creamier (eat lots of yogurt!). And the massive green-shell mussels are as tasty as they look. But overall, the food we ate in NZ was forgettable. I should qualify that statement with the fact we ate affordable food here. I’m sure you can be wowed with plenty of new tastes at gourmet restaurants, but the middle-class fare (a la fish & chips, burgers, and Indian curries) just weren’t as wonderful as we’d hoped or as good as what you’ll get in the Motherland. The exception: An incredibly juicy $19 steak from Atlas Beer Cafe in Queenstown.

    • Cooking that food. Okay, maybe it was actually refreshing to take a break from restaurants for a while, but I like to eat out (!!!) and that simply isn’t possible to do on a budget in NZ. We caved a few times and shared $20 hamburgers at pubs, but for the most part, we cooked. If cooking is a vacation for you, you’ll enjoy traveling here.
    • $9/gallon gas. We’ve complained enough about prices, so we’ll just let this one speak for itself.

What we saw:

Yes, we got a little heated over the price of things, but we both feel like our 4 weeks in New Zealand were totally worth it. Why? This:

Ocean Beach, Whangerei Heads, North Island.

Mount Ngauruhoe (aka Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings), Tongariro Alpine Crossing, North Island

Emerald Lakes, Tongariro Alpine Crossing, North Island

Marlborough Wine Region, South Island

Waikawa Bay, Picton, South Island

Torrent Bay, Abel Tasman National Park, South Island

Tinline Bay, Abel Tasman National Park, South Island

View of Mount Cook from Lake Matheson, West Coast, South Island

Fox Glacier, South Island

Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki, West Coast, South Island

Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki, West Coast, South Island

Pororari River Track, Punakaiki, West Coast, South Island

Lake Tekapo, South Island

Lake Tekapo, South Island

Lake Hawea, South Island

Road to Moke Lake, Queenstown, South Island

Kepler Track, South Island

For more pictures, check out our Flickr albums here:

Hiking the Kepler Track in New Zealand

New Zealand is unquestionably one of the most beautiful countries we’ve seen, especially the South Island, where every turn seems to uncover yet another postcard-worthy shot. Our favorite spectacular-scenery experience in New Zealand — or anywhere else in the world for that matter — was hiking the 60-kilometer (37-mile) Kepler Track. If you’re headed to NZ, do this walk. It’s breathtaking… and surprisingly underrated.

One of many spectacular vistas on the Kepler Track

We reserved (and paid for) our 4-day, 3-night Kepler Track walk six weeks before we arrived – and because there’s very little information about the walk online, I spent much of that time worried about the experience. As we told people we’d chosen the Kepler, they seemed confused: “The Kepler? Why not Milford or Abel Tasman?” The latter two were fully booked. We chose Kepler entirely based on the advice of our friend, Maia, who’d be joining us on the walk. We trusted her advice, but it did seem weird that a) those familiar with New Zealand questioned our decision, and b) there was very little information about the walk online, other than the short description on the NZ Department of Conservation website. (Lonely Planet dedicates just a few words to the walk, with phrases like “can be treacherous” and “requires a good level of fitness,” neither of which helped my anxiety or proved to be true. And they included absolutely no commentary about the walk’s beauty!)

The goal of this post, then, is to give the Kepler Track some much-deserved online love and toss in a few tips/suggestions that will help enhance your experience. Read this as a supplement to info on the DOC site, which lists all the tactical stuff.

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Our candlelight dinner inside Moturau Hut

What to expect:

  • Unbelievable scenery. Like seriously amazing, mind-blowing vistas and colorful, never-seen-before flora.
  • Well-groomed trails with just a few scary sections. Most of the trail is pretty wide, but there are a few narrow passes on steep “if-you-slipped-you-could-die” slopes. I’m a wuss with heights, but I did this without freaking out. You’ll be fine.
  • Very basic accommodation. The term “alpine hut” conjures up something luxurious, right? While set in amazing locations, these huts are not fancy despite the hefty nightly rate, $54NZD/person. You’ll be sleeping (in a sleeping bag) on a plastic mattress right next to a stranger. There are no showers. There is no hot water. There is no food. There are no lamps or lights. Come prepared.
  • Some physical pain: You are probably walking 10 times the distance you walk in a normal day. You’re legs will hurt, but you’ll be fine. Take two ibuprofen when you end for the day, or when you start. I found the latter actually worked the best for me. Also, my skin was rubbed raw on my hips and collarbone from the heavy pack. I slapped on some Vaseline and kept going.
  • Unpredictable weather: We hiked the track in late February. We had absolutely no rain, some wind, and lots of sun. However, the day after we crossed the alpine pass, it snowed. Again, just be prepared.
  • Spotty cell service: I was pleasantly surprised to have cell service about 30% of the time. Point here is… it’s probably worth bringing along your phone for emergency’s (Instagram’s) sake. Plus, you can use your phone as a flashlight when you’re trying to find the loo in the pitch black at 2 a.m.

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What to expect… in pictures:

Day 1: Beech forest, giant limestone rocks, a constant butt-burning incline, and an alpine meadow.

Beech forest and a steady incline

Gargantuan limestone rocks.

A lovely alpine meadow…

And an even better alpine hut. (Luxmore Hut after sunset)

Day 2: INCREDIBLE vistas that GET.BETTER.EVERY.HOUR.

9 am

10 am: Much of the path over the meadow is a well-maintained foot bridge.

11 am

12 pm: Awww. Christmas-card quality vistas.

1 pm: A spectacular ridge — see the tiny hikers?

2 pm

photo 5

3 pm: A late lunch outside the 2nd emergency shelter

4 pm: The long descent begins. (That scree slide is one of the few scary sections)

5 pm: Back in the moss-covered beech forest

6 pm: Arrive at Iris Burn Hut for a good night’s sleep

Day 3: A low-key march through a valley, around a river, and in/out of lots of beech forest.

A few hours through a flat valley provides some leg relief.

A magical fern forest! Patten searches for a Hobbit.

A peaceful river that leads to…

…the third hut, Moturau Hut.

Day 4: A two-hour long walk to Rainbow Reach, where we cheated and took a shuttle back to our car.

After more beech forest, you walk through wetlands

….and over one of the several suspension bridges on the track.

Your reward for a long hike? A platter of fish & chips at Mainly Seafood in Te Anau

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What to bring:

(Nearly all tips came from our hiking companions, Maia and Dave. You campers out there may already know all this stuff, but this was all new to me!)

  • Hiking Pack: We are traveling with roller suitcases and day packs, so we needed to rent proper packs for the hike. You can rent packs, pots, and sleeping bags at Outside Sports in Te Anau. The packs were $30NZD/each for the 4-day hike. If you’re traveling with good pack, you definitely won’t want to carry all your stuff on the hike. We stored the rest of our belongings in a storage locker at Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park. It’s $5 (with an additional $10 refundable deposit) to store your stuff for the duration of the hike. (The lockers are huge — all four of us shared one).
  • Large Garbage Bag: Use this as a liner for your pack to keep your stuff dry when you get caught in the rain. White bags will make it easier to see your stuff as you dig for those snacks inside, but black bags are totally fine and may be your only option (which was the case for us).
  • Sleeping Bag: I assumed we’d have fresh linens on the beds inside the huts. I mean, we were paying $54/person/night! Luckily we were traveling with people who knew what they were doing and they made sure we each rented a sleeping bag.
  • Sleep Sack / Sleeping Bag Liner: Since you’re probably using a sleeping bag that some sweaty guy before you slept in naked… You may want to bring along your own sleep sack. I was sure glad I had mine.
  • All the food (and wine) you’ll need for 4 days of hiking: I assumed a “hut” would include a “chef” and “prepared meals.” Psych. What initially seemed like a terrible form of torture (carrying heavy veggies up a mountain) turned out to be one of the super fun experiences of the hike. Maia planned our four days of menus, then spent a few hours the night before our hike packing all the ingredients for each meal in big Ziplock bags. She labeled each bag — i.e. Lunch 1 — which made it easy to prepare each meal. (And since you have to carry out all your trash, you can just use the meal bag to fill it with the rubbish leftover from each meal). Both Maia and Dave insisted they carry 4 liters of boxed wine. Of course, I thought this was crazy. Of course, I drank it anyway and loved them both for it. Tip 1: We carried a bag of milk powder to add to our instant coffee and most of our meals. Sounds weird, but the powder made our cooked lentil dish and veggie/rice meal taste that much better. Tip 2: Bring a bag or two of spinach. It’s super lightweight and tastes great thrown into ramen or instant pasta dishes. You’ll be happy to have some greens.
  • Pot, Utensils, Mug, Plate: The huts have gas stoves, but no utensils, pans, pots, plates, etc. You can rent a small pot from Outside Sports ($15 for duration of hike) or buy one there for $20. The pot rental came with a mug — another essential item for your morning coffee and evening wine cocktail. We had sporks too and a few small Gladware containers to use as a plate or a bowl.
  • Wet Wipes: There are no showers in the hut. Again, our pro campers, Maia and Dave, came to the rescue with a box of wet wipes. It’s kind of amazing how clean you can feel after a thorough wipe down with wipes.
  • Matches or a lighter: There are gas stoves in all the huts, but usually no form of fire. Carry matches.
  • Rain gear: We lucked out with clear weather, but the hike can get quite miserable in the rain. Absolutely bring a rain jacket. I wore mine daily, not for rain but for wind. And if you don’t have rain pants, bring a poncho (or an extra garbage bag).
  • Hut shoes: You can’t wear your hiking shoes in the hut. So if you don’t bring along any other type of footwear, you’ll be doing what we did: Traipsing around in socks on cold (and sometimes wet) floors. This is disturbing in the bathrooms. Maia and Dave both brought along Crocs — a great, lightweight choice.
  • Head lamp: The huts have solar-powered lights that dimly light the main room from 8-10 pm. There are no lights in the bunk rooms. It is literally pitch black. A flash light or head lamp is a must. (Actually, if you just take along your iPhone, you’ll be fine.)

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If you have any Kepler-specific tips or general NZ hiking pointers, please add them to the comments!

And for more photos, check our Kepler Track Flickr set.