#20 New Zealand: The North & West of the South Island, December 11 - January 5, 2006
Mention of the Wellington to Picton ferry began upon our arrival in New Zealand in November as it is the primary mode for traveling between the North and South Islands. Wellington is the capital city of the country and somehow that pairing with Picton suggested to me that Picton was on a similar scale as Wellington. But "Oh my no," Picton is but a seaside village of 3,000 people.
We'd been through some mighty meager villages in New Zealand and held our breath as we arrived, but Picton was charming. Unlike some ferry-docking villages in Greece that wither an hour after the folks debarking from the ferry disperse, Picton had some substance. Its beautiful sheltered harbor banked by steep, wooded fjord-like slopes was enchanting. And the town itself apparently had enough regional traffic through it to keep it vital. The food market was disproportionately large for the size of the community, which was a huge relief to us, and there were enough other services to keep us content. At least we weren't instantly thrown into deprivation on the less populated South Island.
The Queen Charlotte Sound & Track
Walking "The Track"
We used Picton as our staging point for walking the Queen Charlotte Track--The Track being the other feature besides the port that energizes Picton. We walked over half of the 44 mile Queen Charlotte Track in 2 days and weren't bowled over with enthusiasm as we were supposed to be. We were repeatedly told how lovely it was but we were mighty glad that we weren't burdened with heavy backpacks like some of the overnight hikers--it wasn't worth the expenditure of that much effort to us.
There were occasional panoramas, but most of the walking time
wasn't spent in sight of the water. It was instead a glimpse of the shoreline now and then. And
though the views were pretty, they were generally a repeat on the same theme of
steep-sided, low hills blanketed with forests that intersected with the sea
forming an unusually convoluted coastline. But disappointingly, one view wasn't
that different from the next. And the trail included expanses through farmers fields and
unremarkable shrubby growth that left me longing to be doing something more
interesting than watching my footing through the occasional muddy stretches.
Though usually captivated by coastal panoramas and bored by yet another tree on a forest walk, I was more intrigued when walking on the deeper forest trails of The Track because of the occasionally abundant tree ferns. Now that was something different, from the quality of the sun-filtered light through the canopy (when the sun was out), to the curious textures and shapes of the 'bark' and drooping old fronds, to the unexpected debris that accumulated on the trail bed. The jungle-like quality of the tree fern sections of the forest were by far the most engaging sight on the walk.
And like we'd enjoyed everywhere in New
Zealand, including the Auckland airport, the sounds of the birds in the
background were a delight. As usual, most were unseen and we made no progress at
all in matching up the birds we saw with the calls heard.
Paying the Price
But the experience of walking The Track and enjoying the several tree fern canopies came at a hefty price. On the cheaper of the 2 days, we paid $90NZ or about $62US for a round trip water taxi service for the 2 of us: we were dropped off at 1 end of trail section and picked up 7 hours later at another end. It's a fun system allowing 'trampers' to walk only 1 direction instead of an 'out and back'. But the price for a total of about 20 minutes of riding time in a regularly scheduled shuttle boat seemed steep.
My grumbling about the water taxi costs melted away with a bonus on one return trip with of the sighting of 5 or 6 bottle-nosed dolphins. Our water shuttle driver indulged us all by slowing so we could admire the sight. He pulled along side them for a while, then speeded up. I assumed our visit was over but he knew better. Going just a bit faster coaxed the dolphins into drafting the boat in its wake and they followed there for a number of minutes.
Unfortunately Bill filled the camera's memory card about half
way through the non-stop photo session without noticing, so some prized shots
were lost, but we were thrilled to have seen the dolphins at all and to have some photos to
enliven our memories of the experience. We'd never been keen on
paying for whale or other sea life excursions as they are hit-and-miss as to
whether you'll see anything, so this was a delightful opportunity we never expected to have.
Hiking in General
The walking experience on The Track clarified for me what I prefer in a hiking venue. I've known that I wasn't a hiker at heart as in general the stimulation level is too low and that is why cycling is a better match for me. With cycling, the world goes by at least twice as fast as fast walking, which about the speed at which my brain processes the experience.
But what became much clearer to both of us was that we prefer a rocky terrain over a wooded one. Cruising by crags, jags, jutting edges, and crumbly surfaces is more likely to have our brains dancing with excitement that a forest setting whether on foot or on a bike. As we walked for hours each day, I dredged deeper to learn what it was that I'd rather be seeing and it clearly was the rocky coastlines of Oregon, California, Corsica, Italy, Greece and Turkey that came to mind. And then inland rocks like those of the Dolomites in the Italian Alps came on the screen, confirming that the sea wasn't a requisite, it was the exposed rocks that I enjoyed.
But walking is what's done in these parts of New Zealand,
so even though it's not the 'main event' for us as it is many tourists to the
country, we'd sign on for more miles when we got a little farther west
past Nelson. In the mean time, I thought I'd start asking other tourists about
the "Wow factor" for them on the route. Interestingly, the first person I dared to
mention our disappointment was a local who spilled the beans.
This local Kiwi said that the Queen Charlotte Track was designed as a 'traffic diverter'--it was built solely for the purpose of relieving pressure on the Abel Tasman hiking track to the west. It wasn't established because the area was so, so special but because it worked from a tourism stand point. He advised us to be wary of other heavily promoted areas, though unfortunately, he didn't name names.
View From the Water's Edge
Our disappointment in walking the Marlborough Sound/Queen Charlotte Track area was overshadowed by our half day tandem kayaking experience at Anawika on the day we left Picton. It was Bill's first experience in a canoe or kayak and it revived long forgotten canoeing skills from my teens at Outward Bound and then in my college days. After being a bit overwhelmed by the instructions regarding the complexities of the sea and Sound winds, the tidal current, and what to do in various emergencies, we had a great time. For us, seeing the area by hugging the coastline for a few hours exceeded what we'd experienced hiking or being in the water taxis.
Kayaking let us peer at the exposed layers of rock at the water's edge; to get closer to herons and shags sitting on branches overhanging the water; and to see the interesting mix of salt resistant vegetation that ventures to the water's edge. It was a fascinating look though we lacked confidence in our kayaking skills to risk pulling our camera out of the dry bag while on the often rough water. As suspected, a 4 hour excursion was more than enough for our untrained shoulder muscles and we were content to return the kayak on schedule.
This was our second attempt at sea kayaking from Picton, with
the first being scuttled by the 3 different operators for different reasons. We
wanted a test run to see if Bill's old shoulder injury (rotator cuff)
would tolerate the repetitive use of paddling and to see how our ageing bodies would
withstand the activity in general. If it went well, then we'd pursue a
kayak-tramping combo in the next hiking area, the Abel Tasman National Park.
Doing a half day of each activity seemed like the best of both worlds for us--an
option available in this area of New Zealand.
Being in Rotorua early in our visit to the North Island provoked cynicism about the tourism industry with the excessive charging by what we termed "Maori Inc." Being in the Queen Charlotte Sound consolidated our skepticism about New Zealand's activities being over-hyped and over-priced in general.
We felt duped in The Sound. It was presented as a spectacular hiking track and we found it ho-hum for the price to access it. We would have thought it just us but then learned it indeed had been manufactured as a tourist event to spread out the traffic, not because of its inherent beauty or charm. We thought about the many hikes at the 8,000-10,000' level of the Italian Alps which can be accessed by cable cars in the summer for $15US per person and they looked like an even better bargain--a lot more "wow" for phenomenally less money.
We had noticed that until now only once in our 6 week stay
in New Zealand had any local stated that any tourist site was less than magnificent,
and those low marks were for the competing kiwi bird house in another city. The
Kiwis we talked to had been consistent in promoting the joys to be had in visiting their country,
that everything was so beautiful, so, wonderful, so clean.
Before coming to the country we had seen the TV marketing campaign for New Zealand being "100% Pure" and were intrigued one night as we heard a local TV commentator expound on the absurdity the promotion. They said it was far from the truth and that the country had better either downgrade their claim or live up to it before the tourist's figured it out. But we had already noticed that aspect of the country was over-hyped too.
Many areas of the country are green, green, green but most of the visible forests in many areas are tree farms with miles and miles of uninterrupted clear-cutting scars. Giardia contaminates the mountain streams, just like back home and many other places. And the Kiwis are surprisingly behind the times when it comes to environmental issues. Weatherizing homes with double glazed windows and insulation is just being talked about and we've seen (or felt) little evidence of the upgrading. Recycling hasn't really caught on. Our hostess in Picton commented that in the winter most of the residents heated with wood but that luckily the smoke all blew away from their area. Sacks of coal were sold in the grocery store for home use. And they are just beginning to get organized about their energy consumption.
But these unresolved larger conflicts about the country's image and ethics haven't slowed the press for the tourism dollar on the local level which continued to turn our heads. We had the impression that the Kiwi's have brainstorming sessions just to create new ways to relieve tourists of their money. Some activities looked so expensive and left us wondering "Why bother?" One new-looking venue hosts overnight stays in a tee-pee with a dirt floor for $200NZ for 2 ($135 US). That does include a bed and toilet facilities but at more than double the price of standard lodging in the area, it seemed like a bad joke, especially in the frequent rain. But after paying the same establishment $850NZ (about $580US) for 1 person to go boar hunting for a day, the rustic tee-pee might look like a bargain. Driving a genuine American monster truck on an obstacle course and over cars for $250NZ for a few minutes seemed like another reach for the tourism industry.
The Abel Tasman National Park
After hiking and kayaking in the Queen Charlotte Sound area, we biked west to the small city of Nelson where we stayed a few days and then it was on to the little town of Motueka. Like in the nearby Sound area on this northern tip of the South Island, we had to sift through the choices of the tiny towns from which to base and what mix of activities would best support our sampling of the wildly popular recreational area. We crossed our fingers and hoped that the hype factor would fade into the background at this raved about Park.
After conferring with the ever-helpful tourist info office folks in Nelson, we decided to do an overnight outing at Abel Tasman--an option we'd bypassed in Queen Charlotte Sound because of the expense. Our centerpiece activity would be a 1 day guided kayak trip along the coast, with the night spent in spare accommodations on a houseboat hostel, and then return to our starting point by hiking back on the trails. We'd have to pack conservatively, as we'd be carrying out everything we needed for the 2 day outing.
Unfortunately, Abel Tasman National Park wasn't able to dazzle us either. We were very disappointed that the group kayaking event was in the open water rather than along the shoreline as it was the close-up shore view that we enjoyed on our first kayak outing. We were also anticipating some kayaking instruction in the full-day event, which didn't materialize as the young guide was apparently charged with functioning more as an entertainer than as a teacher. We did get close to some fur seals and 2 little blue penguins--something we enjoyed repeating 2 days later on a water taxi. Despite the unusual rough water, we did sleep fairly well on the houseboat though the 2 meals included with the lodging were mighty mediocre. And tramping on the primer track the next day didn't enthrall us any more than the newer Queen Charlotte Sound Track.
We had left a third day open in Motueka, hoping for an outdoor climbing experience
but it didn't come together. We instead filled the day with our own outing on another
segment of the Abel Tasman Park track using the readily available (though
expensive) water taxis. Though not entirely free from rain, we were
pleased to have
experienced the characteristically better weather for which this northwestern corner of the
South Island is noted.
We launched ourselves from Motueka and the northern coastal National Parks area south towards Nelson Lakes on Christmas morning and had a peaceful and joyous day. Our "peace & joy" on Christmas Day came in an unusual form, which was relief from truck traffic on New Zealand's South Island's highways. December 25th is the only day of the year when almost everything shuts down in New Zealand. It is the single day that all of the tourist info offices are closed and the only day when the major supermarkets are dark. Although we had to plan for the absence of those critical services, the resulting closures created bliss on the road.
Only 2 truck-trailer rigs whizzed by us all day and luckily, we were stopped at a roadside picnic table when each made its appearance. What a thrill to have low traffic volume and no trucks--it delivered what we have come to love about cyclotouring but hadn't been experiencing in New Zealand. And better yet, it was one of the prettiest days since we arrived in the country almost 2 months earlier. The temperature made an unpredicted jump into the mid-70's, the unusually minimal winds were at our backs, and it didn't even threaten to rain until we were in for the day. It had us reminiscing about blissful cycling days of the past instead of Christmas's past.
Aside from the calm and satisfaction we felt, there was little else that looked like Christmas to us on this day. Coming on the heels of longest day of the year on December 21st was the first un-Christmas-y aspect of the day. It should be getting dark at 4:30 or 5 on Christmas Day, not at 9 or 9:30pm. Then there were all the TV commercials for the last several weeks of people in their new Christmas outfits of shorts and T-shirts that didn't register for us. The talk on TV and with the locals about the traditional Christmas backyard barbeque also didn't smack of the snowball season. The few artificial trees and Christmas lights here and there definitely looked like a "Christmas in July" scheme to us and not the real thing. As a consequence, it didn't feel like we were missing Christmas at home--it still felt like it was 6 months away.
Though the Christmas spirit hadn't kicked in, the valley we dropped into for the night at Tapawera instantly made us feel like we were at home in the Willamette Valley. Being surrounded by the lush fields of hops and other crops; the low hills framing the fields; and the higher mountains in the background flooded us with sensations of our home. Unfortunately, minutes later Bill was immersed in another authentic reminder of late June at home when his hay fever kicked in. We hoped our brief stay in the valley would mean that he would only have a brief bout with his hankie to his nose.
Boxing Day, the day after Christmas for the Brit's and some of their friends, is the official kick-off for New Zealand summer vacations. We were warned that the Kiwis would hit the roads in droves and absorb all of the budget-priced lodging. Our lodging expense did notch up about 20%, though we weren't sure that it was a reflection of the Christmas/summer vacation or just moving into a more expensive region (I inquired, but didn't get a clear answer).
The Kiwi presence on the roads was however, hard to miss. There was an immediate and dramatic shift in the nature of the vehicles on the road. Before Boxing Day, foreign travelers were easily spotted by their rented vehicles, either white camper vans and mobile homes, or 4-door, gray economy cars. After Boxing Day cars that we'd seen little of, like the Volvo and Subaru station wagons and SUV's, were out in force and almost every non-commercial vehicle was towing a trailer. The station wagons and cars were often stuffed until the rear windows on 3 sides were obscured with gear. We knew they had to be Kiwi's as the severe baggage restrictions meant that no foreign visitor could fill a car with belongings.
Some trailers were completely consumed with stacks of bicycles, others were weighted down with quad motorbike rigs, and many were overflowing with assorted camping and sports gear. Bicycles were strapped on the front ends of trucks, the backs of cars, and on top of anything else big enough. Occasionally a half-dozen bikes would occupy 2 areas of the car. Motor boats of all sizes were on the move, as were too-wide, boxy trailer houses that occasionally crowded us on the road. Pairs of sleek yellow or red plastic kayaks pierced the air in advance of the front end of their transporting cars while surfboards were neatly tucked away in padded cases strapped to the rooftops.
A minor past time during this press of holiday-makers was casually glancing into parked vans and cars to see just what was in them. More bikes were a common sight, as were towels trying to be dried and jumbles of overflowing boxes of food and cooking supplies. Camping is very popular with the Kiwi's, both car camping and backpacking, as was evident by the collection of outdoor gear poised around any grocery store. One van in front of a motel even had a folding bed stowed, though not in position for being used in the van. Perhaps it was for the toddler when suitable furnishings weren't available.
Nelson Lakes National Park
Outdoors activities, especially walking/hiking/tramping (I think they are all the same), are the big draw on the South Island so we vowed to do a fair sampling in each of the touted areas. The Nelson Lakes south of the Sound area however will be remembered by us for the cozy, second story room we had with the big window that looked out onto a miniature wetlands--it was a great escape from the torrents of rain.
We dutifully encased ourselves in all of our water-shedding gear and walked part way around the lake on our rainy layover day. However, we decided to do a short out-and-back rather than the planned circumnavigation of the lake as the downpour required a 3 hour detour be added to the normally 6 hour hike--the ritual flooding of an intersecting stream being the cause. Two and a half hours in the rain and fog met our exercise needs and was sufficient to appreciate the charm of the beech forest trail.
The high point of the walk was snapping a photo of the anal tubes of the scale that embeds itself in the bark of the native beech trees. Anal tubes aren't normally part of polite conversation, but they are all the buzz in New Zealand's national park display boards. These insects (the "scales") burrow into the bark and then excrete "honeydew" as a waste product from the beech sap they extract and digest. The droplets of this sugary "honeydew" (scale excrement) at the tips of the tubes are the lifeline for a healthy beech forest in New Zealand as is the honeydew is the favored food of many insects and birds. We'd seen the blackened surfaces of the beech trees many times and were very familiar with the slightly sicky-sweet smell of the honeydew, but we hadn't really seen the tubes before.
The few glimpses of the slopes plunging down into the lake during our walk suggested we weren't missing a lot in terms of views, so after our walk we contented ourselves with watching the social behavior of the mallards from our warm room. We spent the afternoon reading and catching-up on deferred chores and occasionally checking on the ducks. The need to make lodging reservations days in advance during the holiday period meant that we, like others, had to stay on schedule rather than linger hoping for better hiking weather the next day.
The Denniston Incline near Westport
We biked southwest from the Nelson Lakes area to the sleepy coastal town of Westport, which took its turn as being one of New Zealand's big boom towns. The town's economy was variously fueled by timber, gold, and coal and at one time was New Zealand’s biggest coal producer. .
The most treasured remnants of the area's past relate to the Denniston Incline. On the 2 separate stages of the incline, empty cars were hauled up the 45° grade to the 600m (2000') level with the weight of the descending cars loaded with coal. The same loaded cars were then hooked to an engine and taken by rail into Westport for shipping out. Amazingly, the same incline technology was used for the entire life of the coal operation, which was from 1880 until 1967. Quite by chance we rode near the base of the Lower Incline on a day ride so made the detour to visit the humble relics.
Punakaiki or Pancake Rocks
Disappointingly, the road along the west coast of the South Island didn't spend much time in view of the ocean even though it often wasn't far away. We did park our bikes and take the hike to view some of the most photographed rocks on the west coast. The uplifted limestone was laid down as ocean bottom some 30-35 million years ago in unusually distinctive layers that have eroded spectacularly.
Even though little of the coast line was a show stopper, there were things that had us taking a second look, just like at home or anywhere else. Here are a few of our head-turners on New Zealand's South Island:
It was only with the help of our inquisitive neighbor that we understood that there was no lock on either door between our adjoining rooms in our better quality motel in Nelson.
The Gala apples imported from the US were the cheapest apples in the Nelson supermarket and the California oranges were a real bargain at half that price.
The highly prevalent "New Zealand Death" suffered by the early European's in New Zealand in the 1800's wasn't some exotic contagion but it was death from drowning in crossing rain swollen rivers.
The rain issue was underscored by reports of a flash flood in Rotorua 2 days before Summer Solstice this year that resulted in a sudden torrent of waist deep water in town. And a couple of weeks after we left Nelson, which typically has the country's nicest weather, it was one of several places predicted to get up to 4" of rain in the next 24 hours.
"Merino & Possum" showed up on the billboards
and on garment tags. Yup, possum fur is a hot item in New
Zealand. That cute little sweater with possum fur in it ran a cool $400US.
Slightly more souvenir-priced mittens and hats were available too.
New Zealand and Iceland are the only countries where we have regularly encountered one way bridges on the main highway, but only in New Zealand have we seen a one lane bridge set-up to be shared with two-way car traffic and a train. We crossed a couple of these bridges and could only imagine what happened when a train came along. There were no signal lights to aid in cars sharing the bridge with oncoming traffic nor to alert cars (and bikes) to an approaching train. We learned that trains are still using the tracks and assume they only come through during daylight hours.
Every society positions its government in a little different place in the affairs of individuals and businesses and the results of that process in New Zealand looks different than in the US. Compared with the US, New Zealanders and Europeans generally give the individual fewer rights and less recourse, or so it appears to us.
On one hand, we definitely feel that the US has become too litigious, and yet on the other hand, feel comforted by the legal recourse and protection our laws give us as individuals. Repeated we heard stories in the New Zealand news where there was essentially no consequence for seriously bad behavior, as in the power boat operator who sawed a manned kayak in half in a harbor. The clerk that was making his own debit account charges on the accounts of his customers after they left his gas station was fired--that was it. A woman who kidnapped an infant was asked via the media to return the child--that's it. And gosh, everyone was surprised when the guy sentenced to life in prison (and had an escape record) was paroled and then killed somebody a few weeks after his release. We were regularly stunned by the shoulder-shrugging attitude towards what we consider significantly criminal behavior.
We were equally aghast at the casual attitude towards
alcohol and drug abuse in New Zealand. Responsible, caring parents consider it a social necessity to
provide their under-aged teens with bottles of booze on their way to a
party--everybody else does so what choice to they have? And there is a raging
debate about outlawing a so-called herbal form of 'speed' with the proponents of
the drug considering recreational drugs a necessity for daily life. No where do
we see the equivalent of "Just say no to drugs" campaign. There doesn't seem to be any
effort to educate the public that it's normal to function on a day to day basis
without fortifying oneself with hefty doses of alcohol or uppers. There is a gutless
TV ad which has the slogan "It's not the drinking that's the problem,
it's the way we drink" and that's it.
And we found it a bit odd that the only sexual assaults reported on TV were those against overseas tourists. After initially feeling especially vulnerable as a tourist, I noticed the pattern and realized that it must be a peculiar reporting bias and not war on tourists. But it left me wondering what the bias was about.
The societal differences between our countries was interesting to notice, but the more immediately significant problem for us was the sand flies (black flies), which we finally encountered on the South Island. I got a few bites in Picton, a few more in the Motueka area where we hiked and kayaked, and even some inland at Tapawera on the way to Nelson Lakes. First, it was just when we were in the sandy or woodsy areas that we got nibbled upon; then it was on the lawn of the motels but not on the concrete pads. Then concrete was no longer a sufficient barrier but being indoors was. And then they started injecting their poisons when we were indoors. Fortunately any clothing was a barrier, but we had to abandon flip-flops in our room at night or use repellent on our feet, reapplying as we emerged from a shower.
Sand flies don't buzz like mosquitoes or house flies and didn't seem to seek us out the way mosquitoes do. Mosquitoes are on a mission and will fly for miles for a meal and seem to treat the smallest hole in a window screen like a superhighway. Sand flies seem more opportunistic and bite when the bump into you rather than go too far looking.
Part of what is irksome about the sand flies that there seems to be no pattern in their biting behavior. When asked, I was told that they bite as the humidity rises before it rains; others told me that they fed after it rained. And I discovered some of the little buggers thought during the rain was "bon appétit" time too. Sometimes opening a window in our room for a minute would draw a crowd of 20 or more, other times we could have a window open for an hour or 2 without any uninvited guests. And more amazing, window screens in this area notorious for sand flies seemed unheard of.
The sand flies got worse the farther south we headed on the
the west coast of the South Island, until we finally encountered them in small
swarms. They like dark clothing and so even our impenetrable rain pants were
crawling with 40 or 50 at the worst times. The low point was assembling our tuna
sandwiches while we ate and having the little guys get stuck in the tuna--it was
like a tar pit to them and they had to be individually extracted.
The sand flies are only deterred by the most thorough applications of repellents, and the cranky bites they left were unimpressed with antihistamines or topical steroids. The problem for me was that I itched for 4 to 5 days after receiving a bite on my foot or hand. Those areas are strapped by tendons that confine the fluids accumulating from inflammation, making the swelling from the bites more painful. I had what looked like bruise marks on my feet for one to two weeks after some bites because of the damage to the skin from the trapped inflammation. Many a night I'd be awakened by the itching and have to soak my hand or foot in a basin of cold water to reduce the confined swelling so I could go back to sleep. A new low on biking days was mooning Bill to get a quick spritz of insect repellent on my bum so I could pee without accumulating a new batch of bites. The repellent was no guarantee of returning bite free, but it improved the odds.
Apparently locals become relatively immune to the injected toxins of their area's sand flies and so aren't really bothered by them. But if the Kiwi's stray too far from home, they are likely to suffer like any other tourist from the slightly different brew of poisons.
Differences of Opinion
Opinions about sand flies aside, we were acutely aware that we were the black sheep because of our reaction to traveling in New Zealand as the country had received rave reviews from all of the first and second hand reports we collected prior to traveling. Mention of Australian often provoked hesitation or "Yes, but..." but New Zealand always got top marks.
Everyone's perspective is always at least slightly different and ours is certainly skewed by being bike travelers and by being full-time travelers. Our impressions were definitely colored by the endlessly stormy, wet, windy weather we encountered and narrow roads and motorist hostility made it a hard cycling venue. But it was more than that, our disappointments went beyond the weather as I've been able to see past high winds and cold to appreciate other destinations, like Corsica and Croatia.
At this point, I think it is our sustained traveling mode that has jaded our perspective. New Zealand's tourism features make it an outstanding vacation but we're not on vacation. Traveling is our "job," our primary avocation, instead of being a holiday interval. And it seems to me that New Zealand is a dandy vacation destination for 3 main reasons: it's easy on the brain from a planning perspective; the days aren't stressful; and the lush, pastoral surroundings are soothing to the soul.
New Zealand is easy on the head in a number of ways. Like Iceland, it is a small country, making it fairly straightforward to come up with a trip plan--especially compared with bigger countries like the US or France. There aren't many roads to choose from or many junctions to navigate, so once you initiate your trip, you just keep following the white line. There aren't many cities and they too are small, making them quite accessible. And the list of "must sees" for the entire country is shorter than the list for many major cities, which takes the pressure off of high-achievers.
The day to day experiences as a traveler in New Zealand are much easier going than in many foreign countries. The fact that English is the first language and the Kiwi accent isn't much of a barrier to communication makes being a visitor infinitely less complicated than most other lands. The people are very friendly and definitely a huge plus factor for the tourist. The nice motels with kitchens makes it easy to unload luggage and settle in for the night. And the tourist info folks are incredibly helpful and will make weeks of lodging reservations for you at no charge--just tell them where you want to stop each night and what you want to pay and they do the rest. And of course, they'll help you decide where your stop-over places should be on your itinerary.
And to top it off, New Zealand is restoring for the spirit. The often lush countryside and low population density make it easy for everyone to unwind and must be a huge relief to visitors from densely packed urban spaces or dry lands. The Aussies who are in the midst of sustained heat waves and drought are flocking to New Zealand to refresh themselves in unrestricted water usage, the rain-rinsed air, and the greenery in general. The sounds of birds; the sight of lush vegetation; and glimpses of oceans, mountains, and lakes are all nourishing even if you don't immediately notice the effect. So, our conclusion is that New Zealand is an extremely easy and very agreeable place to travel, it's just a little low on content for us given the price of admission to the "must sees".
Where We Are Now: Queenstown on January 17, 2006
Our next major stops were at the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers on the west coast and then we turned east and inland with the bend in the road at Haast to claw our way over the Haast Pass. (Gates of Haast, Haast Bridge, Haast, Haast Pass....he was the first surveyor through the area.) From there we explored a bit of the interior sights at the buzzing metropolis's of Wanaka (3,000) and Queenstown (8,500). Next it's on to one of our last big-ticket activity stops, which is back into the sand flies for a day tour to the Milford Sound. Soon we will turn north to complete our loop of the South Island by traveling its east coast.