Sunday, July 10, 2011

How to Visit New Zealand

"Don't leave town without seeing the country" was the advice I got from Shawn, one of the anesthetic technicians at the hospital.

Everywhere I've ever visited before coming here was about visiting the place - Paris, Miami, Hong Kong, the Greek Islands ... Even destinations that are renowned for their landscapes and vistas rather than their monuments and cafes still surround a place name such as Banff or Honolulu or Mykonos.

When planning your visit to New Zealand, with one significant exception, you should rent a car and as quickly as possible distance yourself from anything resembling civilization. If you come to New Zealand to visit the cities and towns, you'll be sorely disappointed.

To be brutally honest, there is only one city or town in New Zealand that will "wow" North American or European visitors. This is Queenstown which can't be missed. There are many nice places such as Napier, Wellington, Taupo, Nelson and unfortunately the former Christchurch, but there is unlikely to be anything there that you haven't seen before. You will enjoy your visit to them, but they don't have anything that you need to travel 15 000 km to see.

Don't forget that NZ only has 4 millions inhabitants of which 1/3 live in Auckland (which has all the appeal of Cleveland), so there a great many tiny places. And even more with no name at all.

In New Zealand, the magic is in the tiny places and the spots between the tiny places.

Highway 1 ... the traffic was craaazy!
The number one recommendation about visiting New Zealand is to get off the beaten track and take in the scenery.  Head out onto the country roads (well ... they're pretty well all country roads) and just look around. Go on a hike. Get out on the water.

The Baldrys on a hike next to Queen Charlotte Sound
In my final days here in New Zealand, I've been polling Kiwis about how to see the best of their country in a short period of time. One of the anesthetic registrars (Kiwi for anesthesia resident) Clare Smith put it most concisely in recommending that visitors rent a car and spend their time in New Zealand driving the circumference of the South Island. The South Island encompasses nearly 2/3 of New Zealand's total land mass but only 1/3 of the population. Realistically, you would have to spend a lot of hours on the road to accomplish this enjoyably in under two weeks, but the message is that you'll need to get out of town to see the greatness.

How does Canada compare to New Zealand? After all, Canada is well endowed in natural beauty. Most Kiwis are enamored with Canada whether they have visited or not.  I understand why. Our outlook on life is quite similar. Kiwis and Canadians are generally mild mannered and laid back. Our societies are both overshadowed somewhat by a much more populous neighbor. And while the US and Europe feature fantastic cities, Canada and New Zealand impress with raw natural beauty.

However, Canada is huge and New Zealand is quite small, so the impression is that every curve in the road promises to reveal some new wonder that will yet again urge me to suddenly pull over the car to take pictures despite the eye-rolling and whines of complaint from the other passengers in our car. With it's small population, the landscape is unspoilt and accessible. Outside of a 50km radius from the 3 major cities, highways are 2 lanes and undivided, so you simply don't go flying by at 120 km/hr.  New Zealand roads encourage you to take your time.

And it's well worth it.

This will likely be my last blog post from New Zealand. We have loved our time here and are sad to leave. I'll try to post from Bali, Singapore and Australia but bandwidth at hotels in this part of the world is generally quite limited and expensive, so uploading photos will be difficult.

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