It will be summer in New Zealand within a few weeks and there are plenty of reasons why now is the perfect time to travel way down under. Here are our top ten:
1. The Sheer Beauty and Majesty of the Landscape
Filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy in New Zealand introduced people around the world to the country's extraordinary beauty and pristine environment, but you really need to experience this landscape in person. Mountains, rugged coastlines, lakes, fjords, alpine glaciers, geysers, volcanoes, seemingly endless green valleys, and offshore islands are just some of the natural attractions that await you.
2. The Weather
While we are preparing for the onslaught of winter and the prospect of short frigid days, shoveling snow, darkness when we wake up and darkness when get home from work, catching colds and flus, and perpetually pulling those coats on and off, New Zealand is at the threshold of its southern hemisphere summer. Daytime temperatures can range from the mid-70s on the coast and plains to the low 60s in the mountains. The water temperature is quite comfortable considering how far south in the Pacific it is (next stop south is Antarctica), with swimming in the north island and the north of the south island the warmest. There is sunshine/daylight for about 15 hours a day and evenings are mild, with only a light jacket required.
3. The Value of the U.S. Dollar
There aren't too many places where the U.S. dollar is still king, but New Zealand just happens to be one very dollar-friendly destination. Right now (according to www.xe.com) the U.S. dollar buys approximately NZ$1.7, and one New Zealand dollar equals $0.59 cents. Which ever way you look at it, your dollar will go a lot further there and even if your greedy credit card company charges you a 2% foreign exchange fee on each transaction, you'll still consider New Zealand an inexpensive destination.
4. The Ease of Getting Around
New Zealand is a compact country, albeit divided into two islands (north and south). Once there, getting around is relatively easy. You can fly between major cities on the national carrier Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.com) or use a regional company like Air2there (www.air2there.com). There are hop-on/hop-off budget bus services through companies like Stray Travel (www.straytravel.com) or you can choose to rent a car through a major international agency or a local provider. Hiring a motor home through companies like Camper Travel NZ (www.campertravel.co.nz) is another economical option with rates as low as NZ$60 a day for a van that sleeps two people. (Just keep in mind that in New Zealand, they don't use the term RV -- motor home or caravan are the accepted terms.) Obviously there are some differences when driving, the major ones being the fact that they drive on the other side of the road, distances are measured in kilometers not miles, and gas is sold in liters not gallons.
5. The Wine
Actually, this is my personal #1 reason to visit, as New Zealand's famed Marlborough region happens to produce what I consider to be the world's finest Sauvignon Blancs. The dry, passionfruit infused flavors of the wine, served very chilled, are perfect with fresh seafood or simply on their own, and most vineyards are open to the public with wine tastings, cellar door sales, and dining opportunities. Just remember, if you are driving, drink responsibly or designate a non-drinking driver. The Marlborough region is located a four-hour drive from Christchurch, a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride from Wellington and roughly half an hour from Blenheim airport, in the northeast corner of the south island. There are day tours, you can easily rent a car, or use bicycles to get around. With over 100 vineyards, you can certainly spend a few days getting lost and found again in Marlborough. Visit the Wine Marlborough website (www.wine-marlborough.co.nz) for links to individual wineries but don't miss Cloudy Bay (www.cloudybay.co.nz), Framingham (www.framingham.co.nz) and Kim Crawford Wines (www.kimcrawfordwines.co.nz).
6. The Marine Life
The cool South Pacific Ocean encircling the islands of New Zealand provides some of the finest whale watching in the world plus an opportunity to view a variety of other marine mammals and birds. Whale Watch (tel. +64/3-319-6767; www.whalewatch.co.nz) runs tours throughout the year and although sightings are not guaranteed, there's a good chance you will encounter Giant Sperm Whales, pods of Dusky dolphins, Wandering Albatross, New Zealand fur seals, and, depending on the season, you may also see migrating Pilot Whales, Blue Whales, Humpback Whales and Southern Right Whales. In the unlikely event that you do not see a whale on the two-and-a-half hour tour, the company will give you an 80% refund. Dress warmly as it can get rather chilly out on the water, even in the summer months (December to March). The tour costs NZ$140 for adults and NZ$60 for children three to 15 years of age. Children under the age of three are not permitted.
7. Events, Festivals and Gatherings
New Zealanders know how to throw a party. It seems that the entire year is full of festivals and events, from sport to art, food and wine to music. Here is just a small sampling of what's on during the summer months:
- Festival of Lights (www.festivaloflights.co.nz) -- December 14, 2008 to February 8, 2009
- Rhythm & Vines Festival at Waiohika Estate (www.rhythmandvines.co.nz) -- December 29, 2008 to January 1, 2009
- Wellington Cup Racing Carnival (www.trentham.co.nz) -- January 17 to 24, 2009
- Auckland Anniversary Day Regatta (www.regatta.org.nz) -- January 26, 2009
- New Zealand International Sevens Tournament (www.nzisevens.co.nz) -- February 6 to 7, 2009
- The Louis Vuitton Pacific Sailing Series, Auckland -- January 31 to February 14, 2009
- World Buskers' Festival (www.worldbuskersfestival.com) -- January 22 to February 1, 2009
- Fringe Festival (www.fringe.org.nz) -- February, 2009
- Auckland Hero Festival (www.hero.org.nz) -- February, 2009
- Rippon Open Air Festival (www.ripponfestival.co.nz) -- February, 2009
- The Marlborough Wine Festival (www.wine-marlborough-festival.co.nz) -- February 14, 2009
8. The Friendly Locals
New Zealanders, or as they are commonly referred to, Kiwis, are a friendly and inviting bunch. Being among the world's most prolific travelers (you'll always come across Kiwis traveling in the most remote spots on the planet) they understand how important it is to be hospitable. Stand on a street corner in Auckland with a map in hand and you'll be inundated with locals asking if you need help. Stop at a remote gas station in the country side and the proprietor will be more than happy to show you the way. The NZ accent is an interesting one -- some people describe it as a mix between an Australian and a South African one, but keep in mind that certain vowels are pronounced a little differently -- so don't be alarmed if you think you hear "sex" when a local says the word "six."
9. The Adrenalin and the Relaxation
Bungy jumping (www.bungy.co.nz) was invented in New Zealand but it is only one of the many action-packed, adrenalin-pumping activities you can experience there. Try jet-boating (www.riverjet.co.nz), cave abseiling (www.waitomo.co.nz), hot air ballooning (www.ballooning.co.nz), handgliding (www.hanggliding.co.nz) or skydiving (www.skydivingnz.com) and then recover with a dip in a hot spring (www.nzhotpools.co.nz) or a soothing soak in a volcanic mud pool (www.hellsgate.co.nz).
10. The Airfares are Still Affordable
I won't sugar coat it: New Zealand is far away. It will take you a minimum of 13 hours to fly there and that is if you are flying from California. From the East Coast, it can take 20 hours with the requisite stop over in California, but it is definitely worth it. Considering the distance, the airfare prices are quite reasonable, in fact it is probably cheaper to fly to New Zealand now than it was a decade ago. You can grab shoulder season airfares that let you enjoy the New Zealand in early or late summer and even during the high season (mid December to mid February) Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.com) has discounted airfares including:
- From Los Angeles of San Francisco to Auckland between February 16 and March 31, 2009 from $1,257
- From Los Angeles of San Francisco to Auckland between November 16 and December 16, 2008 from $1,370
- From Los Angeles of San Francisco to Auckland between December 9 and February 15, 2009 from $1,821
These flights need to be booked by November 23, 2008 to secure these discounted prices. Prices include fuel surcharge but exclude government fees and taxes of up to $82 encompassing the Passenger Facility Charge and the September 11 Security Fee. For an additional $50, you can visit one of Air New Zealand's other 25 destinations in the Pacific, plus you can stop in Christchurch or Wellington at no additional cost. Stopovers at other New Zealand points are permitted at an additional $150 per stop. These airfares also allow stops to or from New Zealand at one South Pacific Island destination when traveling from or via Los Angeles. Choose from the Cook Islands, Samoa, or Tonga at no additional cost.