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:

4 thoughts on “New Zealand: The Good, The Bad, and the Beautiful

  1. Interesting comments! My husband and I lived in Singapore for 4 years and our 2 trips to NZ was sweet relief in terms of food. Although we love Asian food – going to NZ where service was great and produce was so FRESH (everything in Singapore was imported) was just such a pleasantry. We did splurge on a few meals – and ended up having some of the best food of our lives. But even just going to the grocery store and having a decent cheese selection was a real treat!

    • Good to hear about your awesome food experiences in NZ. I’m just bummed we missed out on them. 😉 But… good to know they exist! Coming from Singapore where food is ridiculously expensive (save for hawker centers), I can see how NZ would seem refreshing. Our Asian comparison was to countries like Vietnam, Thailand, and Taiwan, where the produce was excellent, local, and unbelievably cheap. Do you remember the names of the splurge restaurants you loved? Would love to share them with our readers.

  2. Two wineries immediately come to mind – Cable Bay and Mission Estates. Craggy Range Winery also has a good menu but I can’t remember what I ordered!

    There is also a seafood restaurant in Nelson called The Boatshed which was fab – the owner actually brought over a bottle of scotch from her house to share with my Scottish friend who wanted a try!

    We had amazing pasta in Christchurch – but I imagine the restaurant no longer exists due to the earthquake.

    Sticking to seafood in NZ is usually a safe bet since you are usually looking at water wherever you are 🙂 I have very fond memories of NZ and wish I could go back regularly, I feel like the food is just so authentic because it’s extremely local, fresh and pleasantly simple.

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