I arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand, on February 21, 2020. I had planned to stay for three to four weeks on my way around the world. Instead, I decided to wait out the pandemic here, and, almost 15 months later, I’ve learned a lot about the culture.
Here are 17 things you should know before coming to this wonderful country.
1. It’s Not ‘Down Under’
I realized this past week that I’ve become as insulted as a Kiwi when someone suggests that I am “Down Under.” I know that New Zealand is a small country, but no, it’s not part of Australia. If you imply that this beautiful nation is part of Oz, or confuse the two, don’t be surprised to find that you’ve offended the locals.
2. There Are Only Two Types Of Kiwi
If you’re not from New Zealand, you most likely think there are three types of kiwi: a bird, a New Zealander, and a fruit. In fact, the fruit is called a kiwifruit. When you’re here, if you say, “I ate a delicious kiwi!” you’re either saying that you’re a cannibal or that you’ve eaten a protected species. Due to your accent, you’ll probably be forgiven.
3. There’s A Lot Of Cussing
Coming from America, where we’re more sensitive to cuss words, you might be surprised to find that these lovely people have the potty mouths of sailors. It takes some getting used to, and it’s not meant to offend. Kiwis (the people) are wonderful, and they also throw around expletives like nothing else. Don’t take it personally.
4. Many People Walk Barefoot
This is one of the most surprising — and delightful — things I’ve seen around the country. Traveling the globe, and growing up in New York City, I associated bare feet with poverty or beach time. In New Zealand, it’s how people connect with nature. From the time they can walk, they do so without shoes. You’ll see people walking barefoot in supermarkets and around town, but mostly, you’ll see them in nature. I don’t have the thick skin they do, but I have enjoyed nature walks in my bare feet, and it felt superbly scandalous shedding my shoes to buy groceries. It’s a connection I haven’t had a lot in my life, and I am so grateful for it. When you come here, try to ditch your shoes as much as possible.
5. They Take Nature Seriously
On the subject of nature, New Zealand respects it more than most places I’ve been. Plastic bags have been gone for ages. (If you forget to bring a tote to the supermarket, you can buy paper or cloth bags only.) Almost every home has compost, recycling is essential, and most people I’ve met have at least a small garden where they grow their own food. In fact, if you don’t treat the land with respect, you could be expelled — like these tourists were for littering, among other offenses.
6. Maori Are An Integral Part Of The Culture
I have loved meeting the Maori of New Zealand. The first things you’ll notice, perhaps, are their beautiful tattoos. Women sometimes have one on their chin, and men sometimes have a full-face tattoo known as a ta moko. The designs are specific to the tribes they descend from and represent their ancestry as well as their present families.
I highly recommend speaking with the Maori to learn about their culture. Consider venturing to Waitangi to learn about how New Zealand came to be. The country is in the process of making amends to the true founders of New Zealand, and while not everything is perfect, I think New Zealand is far ahead of the world in their efforts and sensitivities.
7. Doors Lock The Opposite Way
You’re probably aware that people drive on the left side of the road in New Zealand. What you may not know is that doors lock in the opposite direction than they do in the United States. This will seem an unimportant detail until you find yourself in a public restroom, unable to get out because you can’t unlock the door. You’ll thank me, after you finish panicking, when you remember to turn the lock in the other direction to make your exit.
8. People Are Unbelievably Nice And Helpful…
All over New Zealand, I’ve found that strangers make eye contact and say hello. I’ve also found that they go out of their way to be helpful. Whether at the supermarket, the drugstore, or immigration, the staff I’ve encountered have never been dismissive. Instead, they’ve spent up to 20 minutes on the phone or in person trying to exhaust all the resources they can think of to help me. It is very endearing. If you do end up getting locked in a public restroom, I’m certain that anyone who hears your plea for help will get you out of there.
9. …Except If You’re A Pedestrian, And They’re Driving
In sharp contrast to their kindness is the driving temperament of the average Kiwi. I’ve been shocked to realize, several times, that if I hadn’t run, a driver would have hit me, because they showed no sign of slowing down. I strongly suggest that you use the marked crosswalks, and, even then, check to be sure the oncoming traffic has slowed for you.
10. The North Island Is Worth Your Attention
All the marketing will drive you to the South Island of New Zealand. It is spectacularly beautiful. And it’s also very touristy during peak season. I’ve spent most of my time on the North Island. It’s a bit less touristy, is home to more Maori, and boasts some beautiful spots as well. If you only have a short time, you might focus on Auckland, Wellington, and Rotorua. But if you’ll be here longer, consider going to a few places less frequented by tourists.
11. The Sun Is Severe
You may know that there’s a hole in the ozone layer. I’ve never been burned so quickly by the sun in my life. In the summer, even a few minutes under the sun after 5 p.m. left me with a light sunburn. There are many cases of skin cancer here because the sun is so severe. I now cover myself from head to toe, even in hot weather. Definitely bring sun clothing, or plan to slather on a lot of sunscreen.
12. You’ll Need A Good Hat
Another part of your experience will be gusty breezes all year round. If your hat isn’t secured to your head, it will fly off on a boat, on a hike, or in the middle of traffic. They sell hats here that tie or strap beneath the chin. They aren’t the most glamorous, but you’ll quickly realize how sensible they are.
13. You Pay For Meals At The Counter, And You Don’t Tip
My first few weeks in New Zealand left me thinking that the waitresses didn’t like me. Every time I ate at a restaurant, no one came by to ask if I wanted more, and nobody ever asked if I wanted the bill. Eventually, I wizened up to the fact that when you’re done eating, you go to the counter and pay. Whether you order and pay up front, or whether you sit down and place your order at your table, you’ll always pay at the counter, and you’ll never get a bill. I believe part of the logic is that not printing all those bills saves a lot of paper.
The other shocking and wonderful thing about all services in New Zealand is that there’s no tipping. Instead, people are paid a decent wage, so they don’t depend on tips to make up for the lack of a decent paycheck.
14. You Might Experience An Earthquake
There are earthquakes every day, so chances are you’ll experience one. You might feel your bed shake for a few seconds. I was in Napier for the recent big one with tsunami warnings. It was quite a moving experience.
15. You’ll See A Lot Of Cows
There are a lot of cows in New Zealand. In fact, there are more cows than people. Everyone talks about the sheep, but the cows are worthy of your attention. There are beautiful crossbreeds that I’ve never seen before. A few vacation rentals will let you stay on a working farm and milk the cows — a great experience. Also, the beef is grass fed and tastes very different from the hamburgers and steak back in America. It’s better for you, but you’ll have to get used to the taste.
16. Birds Will Be A Big Part Of Your Trip
The native birds of New Zealand are beautiful — and likely to wake you up each morning, unless you’re only staying in large cities. I’ve gotten familiar with the call of the tui; enjoyed the chattering visits of fantails who, several times, have nearly landed on my hand; and been amused by the kereru, or wood pigeon, who prefers landing in bushes and on branches much too small for its size.
My favorite bird experience, however, was seeing kiwi in nature, at night. Instead of going to a bird sanctuary and seeing them in a glass box, get out to a reserve, bring a red light (they’ll run away from bright white flashlights), and treat yourself to the sight of this amazing bird walking free. Their gait and body seem prehistoric, and I felt that I had been transported back in time.
New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Landscapes that will take your breath away await at every turn. Smiling people who love their homeland will proudly show you around. Whether you come for adventure, touring, camping, or culture, you will love your time in New Zealand.