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New Zealand Travel Guide

10 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting New Zealand

You’ll be a regular Kiwi in no time.

Between the lush forests of its national parks, glaciated mountains, intimidating volcanoes, and vibrant arts scenes, New Zealand can be distractingly stunning–emphasis on the “distracting.” Here are a few things to keep in mind if/when you find yourself overwhelmed or out of sorts in a place so ethereal.

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They Drive on the Left Side of the Road

Don’t forget that New Zealand was colonized by the British and because of that, you drive on the left side of the road (which is, of course, the opposite of the United States and most of Europe), and the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. The learning curve isn’t too steep if you’re a savvy driver, but try not to be overconfident. There are also many roundabouts, or rotaries, on the main roads, and driving through cities can be tricky if your instincts are to look right instead of left. Renting a car is fairly easy and a great way to see the country, but always practice looking both ways.

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Get to Know Some Vocabulary/Pronunciation

The last thing you want to do is offend someone, so it can be helpful to look up a list of slang locals use, so you don’t get your verbs and nouns mixed up. People often refer to getting drunk as getting “pissed,” so it doesn’t always mean someone is angry. New Zealanders refer to dinner as “tea,” and afternoon as “arvo.” Things are also often pronounced differently here. When traveling around, you’ll see signs for cities and small towns that have a “wh” in the word; it’s actually pronounced with an “F” sound: for example, Kaiwharawhara is pronounced “kai-futuh-futuh” when you add a Kiwi twang to it.

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Don’t Mix up New Zealand and Australia

You’ll find in your travels that many people don’t quite know the difference between Kiwis and Ozzies. Since New Zealand is close to Australia and does have several cultural aspects in common, the two can easily get mixed up. However, there are differences in the accents, and the indigenous cultures are drastically different. Be careful not to assume the two cultures are that much alike, as New Zealanders are a proud folk and appreciate when people realize that although they are small, they are still a distinct country ripe with great wine, mountain ranges, and an amazing rugby team.

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Know What to Do if an Earthquake Happens

It’s nothing to be super concerned about, safety-wise, but earthquakes do happen in this small country constantly. Because of the fault lines under the islands, engineers design tall buildings to sway with the fluctuations of the ground and not topple down when struck. There’s a chance you might experience a small earthquake while here at least once, so it’s important to know what safety precautions to take in the event one does occur. The biggest safety tips are to have an earthquake plan with your fellow travelers, stay indoors until the shaking stops and it’s safe to exit, take cover under a desk or table, and stay away from windows and bookcases or anything that can fall on you. If you’re outdoors, move to a clear spot away from buildings and trees and drop to the ground; if you’re in a car, drive to a clear place and stay inside the car. New Zealand’s most recent major earthquake was in Christchurch in 2011, which was quite devastating, but the country has not seen one as severe since.

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New Zealand Sun Is Stronger Than Most Places, so Bring Sunscreen

You won’t notice it at first, but once you stay out in the sun on a summer day in New Zealand, you’ll begin to feel just how much sharper the sun’s rays hit you. It’s also important to wear sunglasses (especially if your eyes are sensitive to sunlight). There isn’t a direct hole in the ozone layer over New Zealand, but the thinning layer does send pockets of ozone-depleted air over certain parts of the country starting in the spring. Certain days can hit you harder than others, so make sure you keep yourself protected at all times.

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Gratuity Is Not Necessary, but It’s Appreciated

The staff at restaurants and bars here are paid pretty well, so it’s not customary to leave a 20% tip everywhere you go like in the U.S. But bartenders definitely appreciate it, and if you happen to feel like rewarding exceptional service, your offer will not be rejected. Most travelers leave a small tip anyway, and it’s always appreciated.

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The Weather Is Temperamental so Pack Accordingly

New Zealand has a rather moderate climate where it never gets too hot or too cold. To properly prepare for any day the weather gods throw at you, always bring a raincoat and a change of clothes in case you get stuck in the rain on your travels. Especially if you go on a day-long bus tour–you may be covering several parts of terrain where the climate changes frequently throughout the day. Make sure you know which places have weather you must prepare for: for example, Wellington is very windy, and Stewart Island can be muddy!

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Be Respectful of Māori Culture

As New Zealand’s indigenous people, the culture of the Māori is embedded throughout the fabric of the country. The history between the native Māori and the European colonizers who settled New Zealand is long, and often fraught with violence. Recent years have seen a wonderful resurgence in Māori culture and pride, but there are still debates regarding the legal ownership of the land. Tourists especially should be respectful toward Māori history, culture, and tradition. If you don’t know anything about the Māori prior to your trip, it’s helpful to do some quick reading on the airplane before you land. For instance, the marae, the area in front of a Māori meeting house, should not be entered unless you are invited or unless it’s in use as a cultural center. Only use the traditional hongi (touching foreheads and nose in greeting) if someone else initiates it. You’re likely to see a lot of Māori culture on your trip; the Māori Haka is a ceremonial dance or challenge used to intimidate rivals or opponents with chants, the stomping of feet, and extreme facial expressions. The national rugby teams perform it before a game to assert their strength and power to the opposite team. It is also performed at funerals as a memorial to someone’s spirit.

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Know the Best Places to Go for Each Activity

Whether you love to drink wine, relax on the beach, jump out of planes, or mountain-bike, this country has it all for you. There is a near-unlimited amount of activities that take place in New Zealand and you can always find something to do. Create your itinerary based on which adventures you’d most like to experience. You also can just make an itinerary based on the most spectacular places to see and see what each place has to offer. Whichever you decide to do, this country has an endless amount of opportunities for fun, learning, and growth. Just remember that while it’s a small country, it can be difficult to see everything in one trip. A lot of travelers choose to focus on just one island (North or South) or decide on what activities are most important to them and go from there.

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Educate Yourself on Wine

New Zealand is known for its wine, and Kiwis are very proud of this fact. If you are a wine connoisseur, there are plenty of vineyards and wine trails to experience and expand on your wine knowledge. Not only do winemakers here grow the common grape varietals we all know and love, but they also create blends of their own based on what works best in this environment (the vineyard’s soil and the area’s temperature). If you can, bring back a bottle or two, or simply learn which grapes you like the best and find them at your local wine store at home.

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