This past March and April my wife and I spent 19 glorious days in beautiful New Zealand. The trip was a whirlwind adventure and every day was packed with fun activities, jaw-dropping sites, and lots and lots of driving. When we travel we don’t really stay in one place for long and tend to pack in a lot during our vacation trips. With so much to see in New Zealand we were constantly on the move with plenty of hiking (tramping as the Kiwis call it), kayaking, and did I mention driving? This was by far one of the best trips I’ve had with enough nature-loving eye-candy to reflect upon and cherish for years and years to come. New Zealand definitely ranks up there as one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.
At 103, 482 square miles, New Zealand is only about 2/3 the size of California but in its small area it has as many natural wonders as all the United States including the beaches and volcanoes of Hawaii and the Glaciers of Alaska! This is a land formed by the crashing of the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates, which means that it is volcanic, mountainous, and filled with rugged and ever changing terrain. Prior to choosing where to focus our travels on this trip we spoke with several friends that had visited NZ before us to get an idea about the the best of the best sites to visit. After talking to our friends we picked up some guide books and began searching driving distance (and time) on google maps: we quickly felt overwhelmed by the amount of options available to us.
The entire country is practically a giant national park with numerous sites to see around every corner. One could easily spend two to three months visiting New Zealand and only hit the top sites. Our trip, though long in relation to most trips, was limited in time at just under three weeks. During our planning we discovered that we had to make some hard decisions about what we could see and which regions we would have to cut from our itinerary. We browsed our local bookstores to try to pick up some good guide books and chose Lonely Planet’s “Discover New Zealand” as our aid in picking the top sites and Scott Cook’s South Island focused “NZ Frenzy” to help us find lesser known sites in the areas near our top sites.
At the suggestion of several of our friends we decided to invest the majority of out time on the South Island and limit the North Island to just a few days focused on the cities of Auckland and Wellington in addition to the more touristy draws such as the Lord of the Rings focused Hobbiton Shire movie set, the black-water rafting in the Waitomo glowworm caves, and some hiking near the volcanic alpine park of Tongariro. Our South Island leg of the trip was closer to two weeks and in the planning we decided to build our trip around the top sites of Abel Tasman, Franz Joseph Glacier, and Milford Sound. These three sites cover the northern most, western and southwest regions of the South Island. Although there were several great sites on the eastern and southern part of the South Island, we decided that our theme for the trip would be “you can’t see it all” since we had to simply exclude the area surrounding Christchurch on the east and Dunedin to the far south.
In using the Guide Books, the Lonely Planet did its intended job in giving suggestions for the top sites to see, it had beautiful pictures that helped us add in some great highlights such as the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Hot Springs, the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, and the Punakaki Pancake Rocks in addition to giving us plenty of reason to see our already selected top sites of Abel Tasman, Franz Joseph Glacier, and Milford Sound. However, when it came to using the Lonely Planet while actually in New Zealand we found the book nearly useless. The maps it provided were either too zoomed out or too zoomed in to provide any help in navigation. When we were in regions looking for additional activities, the Lonely Planet’s suggestions were very vague and confusing. Its only merit were the restaurant suggestions in the cities and towns we stopped through. The city maps were helpful for finding restaurants, but little else. Thankfully there was plenty of wifi available throughout the country to assist us in mapping our on-the-fly explorations throughout the trip.
The Lonely Planet included 10 pages dedicated to top itineraries based on length of visit anywhere from 5 days to 2 weeks and we had used these to give us a general idea for the trip when planning. However, once we were actually in the country and taking a look at these itinerary suggestions we laughed at how vague they were in direction and activity suggestions. Probably the biggest disappointment in the Lonely Planet layout was the 42 pages devoted to Auckland and the surrounding region. We left the final two days of our trip to explore Auckland and enjoy some city dining. The food was good in Auckland but when we arrived in the country’s largest city we found that the Lonely Planet’s discussion of Auckland activities were overly zealous with praise but deficient in any clear direction of actually what to do. The Lonely Planet lumps the Coromandel Peninsula with the Auckland region, but this would be equivalent to including a summary of Sacramento in a San Francisco guidebook – the two are so far apart and separated by long distances of driving that they really should be accurately identified as separate regions. The Lonely Planet fails to prepare the traveler for the distance and time of travel between regions.
Thankfully we didn’t rely soley on the Lonely Planet during our travels. Scott Cook’s South Island focused NZ Frenzy was a guidebook of a totally different sort. Written by an Oregon traveler that visited New Zealand over 5 consecutive summers, NZ Frenzy doesn’t pretend to be an all inclusive guidebook. NZ Frenzy is a straightforward, no-nonsense summary of outdoor activities both popular and obscure with detailed summaries why one should visit each spot described. Each location has explicitly clear directions that prompt the driver to follow km markers and also includes GPS coordinates to include in a google map for easy reference.
Without NZ Frenzy we would never have included Wharariki beach in our itinerary after our time in Abel Tasman because it was two hours out the way, but NZ Frenzy intrigued our interests with its description stating “Abel’s beaches are like a pretty cheerleader, whereas Wharariki’s beaches beckon like a moody, tattooed and tempestuous woman.” Not only was that description spot on, but NZ Frenzy was totally accurate in letting us know where to look to see the baby seal pups that were frolicking in the waves – a total ooh and ah cutesy moment that was totally pleasing. Without NZ Frenzy we would never have known about Motukiekie Beach and its crazy starfish tide-pools, because the beach has no signs and is totally inaccessible unless visited at low tide. Again, only through the suggestion of NZ Frenzy did we find ourselves tramping straight up hill through the mud to reach the jaw dropping mouth of the Rawhiti caves and NZ Frenzy directed us to the best hike/tramp of the entire trip, the Rob Roy Glacier Amphitheater.
I think I’ve made my point, that NZ Frenzy was a great guidebook to discover off the beaten path natural wonders. The book was stacked with great sites and we planned our trip around fitting in as much as we could and in some cases we had to forego a few of our planned stops simply because we were too tired from our busy travels. What I haven’t hit upon yet, is what a pleasure it was to read NZ Frenzy’s text – never have I read a guidebook full of snarky, tongue-in-cheek humor and we enjoyed reading aloud the humorous descriptions during our drives to each location. Additionally, NZ Frenzy was accurately explicit in preparing us for the horror of the South Island: the sand-flies. The Lonely Planet made absolutely zero mention of this prolific pest, but NZ Frenzy realistically provides detailed mention of the presence or celebrated absence of this annoyance at each of NZ Frenzy’s suggested locations. That forewarning in itself made our trip more pleasurable as we more prepared with proper clothing and protection at the more sand-fly prone areas. My only regret with the NZ Frenzy during our trip was that we didn’t have a copy of the North Island edition with us too, because it would have exponentially added to the enjoyment of our already wonderful trip.