Where the Silver Fern Grows

If you know someone who’s been to New Zealand, they probably never shut up about it, and I’ll wager that if you’ve been, you rave about it too. Everybody loves New Zealand. It’s beautiful and there’s a lot to do and it’s largely untouched by the rest of the world’s crap. Figuring out where to file New Zealand in my mental tabulation of all the places I’ve visited is tough; it’s tempting to lump it in with Australia just based on geography, and while there are definitely similarities, you would never mistake one for the other when you’re there.

New Zealand is a deceptively large country. It’s actually longer than the length of California (nearly 1,000 miles tip to tip, versus California’s 800 miles) and about 60 percent of the total land area, though I think it looks much smaller on a map given that it’s next to the enormity that is Australia and nothing else. Even so, the diversity of the landscape is pretty amazing, with everything from stunning beaches to 12,000-foot mountains, fjords and glaciers to hot springs and volcanoes. As such, there’s a lot you can see in what is still a relatively small area.

There’s not exactly a rivalry between the North and South Islands in New Zealand, but everyone inevitably compares them. When it comes to which has the better scenery, there’s a near unanimous consensus that the South Island is better. After a quick stop in Auckland, that’s where I spent the bulk of my time.

Auckland

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I’m only starting with Auckland because it’s the first place I visited in New Zealand, but you can definitely put it at the bottom of the list. New Zealand’s appeal is definitely not in its cities, and Auckland unfortunately drew the short stick of being the nation’s capital in a setting that is hardly unattractive, but is completely boring by New Zealand’s lofty standards.

The downtown area clusters around the harbor and they’ve built up a modern waterfront with the exception of the older ferry terminal. Nothing about this part of Auckland is objectionable, but it’s totally nondescript. Ponsonby Street is the city’s most interesting neighborhood with your token line-up funky boutiques and outdoor cafés. Honestly, you could put Ponsonby in any city anywhere and it would not look out of place. It’s not a place to fly halfway around the world for.

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Britomart neighborhood near the waterfront
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One of Auckland’s cultural highlights
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Mount Eden

Auckland is definitely New Zealand’s most “real” city, something one could never accuse Queenstown of being.

Queenstown 

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Shotover Canyon, just outside Queenstown

If there’s a town in New Zealand, that knows how to have a good time, it’s Queenstown. The city is like a giant brochure of fun things to do: parasailing, bungee jumping, sky diving, jet boating, hiking, luge, zip-lining, cruises, off-roading trips, mountain biking, helicopter rides, quad biking, paragliding. Queenstown is the absolute perfect place for adrenalin junkies and people trying to fool themselves into becoming one. For your après adventure enjoyment, the town is full of pizza restaurants, taco bars, brewpubs, burger joints, and a surprising range of Asian restaurants that serve predictably kind of gross, but totally delicious food. Queenstown is a backpackers’ paradise, but it’s managed to maintain a semblance of decency.

The setting couldn’t be much more spectacular. The city is at the base of a small mountain with the enormous Lake Wakatipu sprawling in front of it.

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Everyone has an opinion about the one thing you definitely can’t miss in Queenstown. The most obvious thing is a gondola ride to the top of Bob’s Peak, where you get the view overlooking the city in the picture above, but it would be basically impossible to come here and not do that. So I’m nominating the Shotover Jet.

A Kiwi I met in Australia told me about this and I apprehensively took his advice. When I showed up at the jetty about 15 minutes outside town, I was doubtful. The canyon is beautiful, but when I saw the jet boat go past at a relatively brisk pace, I wasn’t that impressed. As with a lot of things, I was totally wrong because this is genuinely mildly terrifying.

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The deal with this is you get into a jet boat and they drive like lunatics through a very narrow canyon, only missing the canyon walls by a few inches on powerslides into corners, with some 360-turns thrown in on the straightaways for good measure. This is sounding lamer and lamer the more I describe it, but it’s really good fun and the canyon itself is beautiful and worth seeing in its own right.

You would really have to try to run out of things to do and ways to be outside in Queenstown. There are tons of hiking trails you can access on foot in town, to say nothing of the surrounding area, and if you’re willing to be even mildly adventurous, this is the ultimate place to indulge.

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View of Queenstown from Bob’s Peak with two parasailers in flight

If I’m playing devil’s advocate, Queenstown is basically just Neverland. It’s where you can go to bum around outside all day and have a gig doing tandem parasailing or operating the chairlift on top of the Bob’s Peak and call it a career. Few places seem to take the “no worries” vibe more seriously. That said, the town is in such a beautiful spot it can feel like you’ve discovered a corner of heaven (you and 2 million other tourists). Queenstown is definitely not a serious city, but it doesn’t take itself seriously either. The whole point of it is to enjoy the amazing New Zealand scenery and on that front, it delivers in spades.

Te Anau

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Lake Te Anau

As a town, Te Anau is so much nothing it’s almost funny. This is the nearest town to Milford Sound, easily New Zealand’s most famous attraction, and a major takeout point for people doing the famous multi-day hiking tracks in Fiordland National Park. And the place is just a joke. The only decent place to get anything to eat in town is the coffee shop and I don’t even really know how to describe the convenience store and the “clothing” store in town. If you watch Parks and Recreation and you’ve seen the episode where Ron goes to Food and Stuff, that is exactly what these places look like. Essentially someone just got some wire racks from the Salvation Army, stuck some loaves of bread or stacks of shirts on them, and called it a store.

I don’t actually mean this to be such a scathing review to Te Anau because what matters is the national park it’s in and that does not disappoint, so the comedic badness of Te Anau is almost charming. When you get to this part of New Zealand, you face the ultimate conundrum about which sound to visit. Te Anau is located near two very famous sounds within Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. The former is the big man on campus. Milford is the most famous spot in New Zealand and as such, everyone visits it. Doubtful Sound is, first of all, much harder to get to, so that of course cuts down on the crowds. The name comes from Captain Cook because he doubted whether if he entered the sound, he would be able to sail out. For Mensa members keeping score at home, both Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound are not actually sounds, but technically fjords.

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Milford Sound

I agonized a lot about this decision, so here’s the basic gist. Milford Sound isn’t the big kahuna for nothing. It’s so dramatic, just given the size of the cliffs relative to where you are in the boat. It’s about a two-hour drive from Te Anau along a beautiful and utterly scenic drive, so it’s relatively easy to access. Obviously this means more crowds.

There’s no easy way to get to Doubtful Sound. From Te Anau, it’s a shorter drive, but you then have to take an hour boat ride, a bus ride over a mountain pass (you can’t take your own car), and then another boat out into the sound itself. Doubtful Sound is actually much larger than Milford, but because the cliffs are smaller and more spread out, the effect as a passenger in the boat is less imposing. The perk, of course, is the isolation. Aside from the small handful of boats in the sound, there is no one and nothing else there. One description I read that compared the two raved about Milford, but then went onto say that visiting Doubtful Sound made you feel like “one of the chosen few.”

Just because of the convenience factor, I decided on Milford Sound but I was super wary about this decision. I kept having flashbacks to the nightmare that is Ha Long Bay and pictured an army of boats belching through the Sound and obliterating any sense of serenity. Good thing the Kiwis have their shit together, because that is absolutely not the case.

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Milford has its reputation for a reason. You’d be very lucky to visit on a sunny day—it rains practically always—but the cloudy weather throws the sound into stunning relief. A two-hour cruise is the standard deal here and that’s ample time to feel like you’ve seen it without rushing through the experience. Are there other boats on the water? Of course, but I was really pleasantly surprised by how empty it felt. There’s probably no moment on the cruise when you won’t be able to see another boat, but they still feel sparse in the enormous sound and they do a good job spacing them out. I never had any trouble getting a picture without another boat in the shot, something that could not be said of the traffic-logged hellscape in Ha Long Bay. As for avoiding crowds, just be logical. Get up early to get on the first cruise and absolutely spring for the smaller, slightly more expensive boat with Mitre Peak Cruises.

I can’t comment first hand on Doubtful Sound, but I think if you have enough time in Te Anau, it’s absolutely worth it. From what I’ve read, just the silence you experience there is unlike almost anywhere else. The good news is if you’re pressed for time and/or not up for the trek to get to Doubtful Sound, Milford absolutely does not disappoint.

Another thing that makes Milford Sound attractive is the drive. The road between Te Anau and the sound is long and winding, with a very scary tunnel in the middle, but there’s a lot to see along the way and some pretty incredible hikes for stretching your legs.

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Key Summit
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Key Summit
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The Chasm
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Mirror Lakes
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Lake Manapouri, about 20 minutes outside Te Anau
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Fiordland National Park
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Fiordland National Park

Te Anau isn’t quite as action-packed a place as Queenstown, but this is another great spot to base out of to see the Southland. Te Anau is for the AARP crowd and Queenstown is for frat stars. Pick your poison. 

Dunedin

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Lighthouses at Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula outside Dunedin

I decided to go to Dunedin on a last-minute whim when I was planning this trip and it turned out to be a really lovely surprise. The city of 128,000 has a strong Scottish vibe, though they’re trying a little too hard to cultivate it. In the center of downtown is a statute of Robert Burns. He never lived in Dunedin, nor did he ever set foot in New Zealand (almost positive on that one), but Burns’ nephew was one of the founders of the city. So naturally they put a statue of his more famous uncle in the middle of town to honor him.

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Dunedin put itself on the map in the 1800s when gold was discovered in Gabriel’s Gully in 1861, kicking off a gold rush and a building boom during the 19th century, during which decadent Edwardian and Victorian mansions and public buildings sprung up around town. As a result, several of the buildings around town have a very similar aesthetic with this slate colored stone and white accents.

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St. Paul’s Cathedral
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Otago Boys’ High School, where I like to hang out in the afternoon
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The well-parked bus really makes this picture

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If you like chocolate and beer, you’ve come to the right place. When you do the tour at Speight’s Brewery in Dunedin, they’ll be sure to tell you about what a BFD they are, but they have a point. They own practically every beer on a standard bar menu in the country and have a license to produce many popular overseas beers in New Zealand. They haven’t exactly reinvented the wheel here when it comes to brewery tours, but it’s entertaining enough, particularly if you have the (mis)fortune of getting Keith, the tour guide who thinks he’s a comedian.

On the other side of downtown near the water is Cadbury World, which threw me into a state of mild bewilderment. In England, Cadbury is literally everywhere and the British act like they are God’s messengers for delivering this amazing chocolate unto the world. So when I saw the Cadbury factory in Dunedin, I was totally alarmed, thinking those damn Brits had yet again stolen something from someone else and sold it to the rest of the world as their own. Scandal!

Well, no, Cadbury is in fact British—it’s based in Uxbridge—so what gives, Dunedin? Next thing they’ll be opening a Guinness brewery in Nebraska and then what will become of the world? Additionally, the store at Cadbury World doesn’t even have the Cadbury Oreo bar, which if you are a Cadbury aficionado, you know this means it’s essentially useless. If you’ve never had a Cadbury Oreo bar, you should tread carefully before trying one because it will be a watershed moment in your life and you’ll never be able to go back to the state of Cadbury Oreo ignorance that you exist in now. Once you open that Pandora’s box, you’ll never be sated by any other chocolate bar ever again. 

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Towers of deception

Also in Dunedin I discovered the most elusive thing in all of New Zealand: a restaurant with good service. I’ll gripe about this more later, but No. 7 Balmac in Maori Hill in Dunedin is the best meal I had in the entire country and the wait staff actually appeared to be conscious for the entire evening.

For what seems like a sleepy town, Dunedin doesn’t lack in substance. There are actual people in actual suits who appear to be doing actual business, another rare sighting in New Zealand. There’s not nearly as much to do here as there is in the towns further south, but its proximity to the Otago Peninsula—a good place for bird-watching, hiking, etc.—and some interesting sights around town will keep you busy when you want a change of pace. 

Christchurch

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Christchurch Botanic Gardens

To put it mildly, Christchurch has had a rough go of it the last several years. New Zealand as a whole is a very seismically active country, but the South Island’s largest city is in a particularly vulnerable spot. Christchurch was hit with a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in the fall of 2010 followed by a 6.3 quake in February 2011.

The effect was devastating. Seventy percent of the buildings in the central downtown district suffered moderate to severe damage and because they were primarily made of stone and brick, Christchurch’s oldest and most historic buildings were damaged the most. The quake lasted for only 10 seconds, but there were 185 causalities as a result of the February quake.

Five years after the fact, I was astounded by how broken the city still is. Every block in the downtown area has several boarded up buildings, many with mostly broken windows and walls leaning at alarming angles, all in various states of disrepair waiting to be renovated or demolished. The church in the center of town, Christchurch Cathedral, is held up on all sides by enormous metal scaffolding, with sections of stonewall slumped against the pylons, with the entire nave of the church exposed at one side. Even small statues and gazebos in parks are still encircled with rusting metal support beams, awaiting repair.

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Christchurch Cathedral
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Christchurch Cathedral

Which isn’t to say that they’ve given up. On otherwise empty and desolate blocks, restaurants have taken over the lone in-tact building, adorned the exposed brick walls with murals, and continued to operate. The cleverly named re:START Mall is an outdoor shopping area with cafes and boutiques housed in brightly colored shipping containers (Shipping containers are the omnipresent means of structural support for damaged buildings in Christchurch. They are literally everywhere.)

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Re:START Mall
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Re:START Mall
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Musicians playing in the square outside the Cathedral

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Cardboard Cathedral. The main support structure is made of cardboard tubes. Opened a year after the ’11 quake
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185 Chairs Memorial for the victims of the 2011 quake

The silver lining of this is that Christchurch has a really unique opportunity as a city. Though the city’s basic infrastructure was damaged in the quake, Christchurch has the chance to build a completely modern city in 2016 from the ground up, with most of the infrastructural necessities already in place. There’s basically nowhere else on earth where that potential exists and the reconstruction plans sound interesting and exciting. The downside is Christchurch is in a really crappy location.

The five-year anniversary of the quake is coming up in about a week and everyone in Christchurch got a rude reminder about their volatile position over the weekend when a 5.8 earthquake hit just off the coast of the city. For some very strange reason, I actually didn’t even feel it. I was out hiking and heard a rumbling and someone scream and thought it sounded like someone zip-lining in their backyard (no one died or was seriously injured in the quake). When I got back to the carpark and someone told me what had happened, I felt like something of an idiot.

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The site of my obliviousness, the Rapaki Trail

There were moderate aftershocks for the rest of the day and through the night into the following morning—enough to knock books over on shelves, but quite enough to send you running for a doorway. I was following a geonet tracker and between the big quake on Sunday afternoon and when I flew out of Christchurch Monday evening, there were something like 50-60 earthquakes, though you could only feel a handful of them. I just looked at it again now and there were 13 quakes before 6 a.m. on February 18. If you’ve experienced an earthquake before, you’re obviously familiar with this feeling, but it is not a pleasant experience. This is the thing everyone always says about earthquakes, but it’s so mentally unsettling. The worst part is you then turn into the grandpa in Freaky Friday who thinks literally any movement is an earthquake.

So, I don’t know, I want to see Christchurch succeed and do well and there’s a lot about the city that’s really nice. But you have to also wonder about building a city in a place with so much seismic activity, even if you start over and build with all the necessary technology to try to withstand further quakes. At some point you have to ask whether it’s really worth it to keep rebuilding.

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Punting in Christchurch Botanic Gardens

In 2013, Lonely Planet called Christchurch a must-see for that year, which is laughably bad advice and borderline unprofessional. I’m rooting for Christchurch and I feel guilty turning anyone off to it because they could probably really use the tourism dollars, but you can’t call this a must-see because there’s nothing there to see; it’s all in a pile of rubble at the end of the block. That sounds harsh and of course it takes a long, long time to clean a city up and rebuild, so it’s not as if this is somehow the city’s fault. But a must-see? In New Zealand? No.

Of all the places I’ve been or am going, New Zealand is the one that garners unanimous agreement. Everyone who’s been here absolutely loves it. And I agree, for the most part; it definitely delivers on all the promises. The scenery is breathtaking and that’s what you come here for. Period.

Tourism is absolutely huge in New Zealand and they’ve done a great job managing the industry so that it doesn’t overrun the very country they’re trying to showcase. This was hands down my biggest complaint with a lot of the countries I visited in Asia, the way tourism has stripped so many places of any authenticity. That has absolutely not happened in New Zealand and you cannot put a price on that. When it comes to preserving their natural landscape and their cultural heritage, the Kiwis have done an amazing job. New Zealand is the only country I’ve been to where the native population is actually still very present, having not been decimated and completely shoved aside by European explorers. That’s huge and it makes it a much more enjoyable country to visit.

What I found a little wanting was some of the other stuff. No matter where I was, a bigger city or a tourist town, the service in restaurants was ubiquitously terrible, with very few exceptions. This sounds like a small gripe from a curmudgeon, but after two weeks of eating in restaurants multiple times a day, it can be really exhausting. People that work directly in the tourism industry—people at the Shotover Jet or operating the cruises in Milford Sound or whatever—tended to be better, but for a place with such a developed and sophisticated tourism industry, the service is pretty humdrum. Which makes no sense because Kiwis are very friendly people and seem to take a lot of pride in showing off their country, so I was continuously baffled by the apathetic service, and just looking around restaurants, I don’t think it was solely because I was a tourist that I was getting bad service. Obviously I didn’t come to New Zealand for fine dining and three-Michelin-star service, but I’m being completely serious when I say the service at your neighborhood Applebee’s is several clicks above the average level of service in New Zealand.

Overall, I enjoyed New Zealand a hell of a lot; bad service at restaurants isn’t enough to ruin a place, of course. For me, though, I never quite felt the magic that everyone seems to talk about, and that’s probably in large part due to unreasonably high expectations on my part. There was no one “Wow” moment for me, though nothing disappointed. But perhaps more than most places, I think New Zealand is a place that grows on you over time. I was talking to someone about it and he said what makes New Zealand special is that you see something really cool every single day, even if no one thing is going to completely change your life. For a country that’s about half the size of California, the geographic range is pretty incredible and you will never be bored by the scenery. That much is absolutely certain.

Now I think I am finally caught up and have just arrived in Cape Town. I’ll be touring around southern Africa for the next few weeks (you can see my itinerary here for exact dates and countries), so based on connectivity, my posting may be delayed.

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3 thoughts on “Where the Silver Fern Grows

  1. From a New Zealander who left for university in America in 1969 and has lived in CA, MO and CO since: a realistic and impressive account of the country. Yes, service in restaurants is not to an American standard, and I wonder if the lack of tipping for service, has an impact. I visit NZ almost annually, and would vote the top of the South Island at Farewell Spit and Coromandel Peninsular as the most impressive venues.

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