I just met a couple of young women who are making their first trip to New Zealand next week. Their enthusiasm is wonderful; I can almost guarantee that they will have a trip of a lifetime. When I tell some people that I just got back from New Zealand they get a wistful look and say, “Someday.” Or “It’s so far.” Then they tell you they have gone to Europe countless times. Obviously the American lack of geographic knowledge is getting in the way. So here is a quick primer.
New Zealand is two islands–North Island and South Island–in the Pacific Ocean with the Tasman Sea between it and Australia. The most common mistake is to think New Zealand is Tasmania–the smaller island on the southern Australian coast. Or to think that there is little distance between Australia and New Zealand when it is another 5 hours of flying to get to Sydney. (In spite of this, it is worth the extra effort to visit Australia). The British refer to Australia and New Zealand as the antipodes–meaning the far opposite end of the world. Technically the Iberian Peninsula is the antipode of New Zealand. People feel a little less like they are at the end of the world with modern communication technology, but there is still a sense of isolation.
If you live in California the good news is the time required to fly to New Zealand is about the same as to London. Last time we flew from San Francisco to Auckland it took just over 11 hours. Usually it takes about 12 to fly out, and a little over 11 hours to fly back. Okay, so it is not a quick trip, but it is a heck of lot less painful than flying to Cambodia or South Africa. Plus Air New Zealand schedules their flights so you board, mess around watching videos and eating dinner, then turn out the lights and (hopefully) sleep for 6-8 hours. Then they bring up the cabin lights and you hear coffee being made in the galley kitchen. Stretch, eat breakfast and voila! You are at your destination. Or alternatively, watch a marathon of movies.
My friend UK Sarah has a much longer journey from England. She has to fly 24 hours either through Hong Kong or through California. We now have a tradition where she breaks her return journey to New Zealand in either San Francisco or Los Angeles and we play for 2-3 days in my home state before she finishes her flight home. I wish I could make that offer to all of you. Of course California welcomes all visitors even if my guest room is not available.
There is one go-to airline: Air New Zealand. It is not the only airline. Quantas also flies to New Zealand. Air New Zealand is a member of the Star Alliance for you point seeking travellers. Air NZ does not beat the Asian airlines for service to the individual flier; however, Air NZ comes out on top when you consider the terrific customer service on the website or on the phone, the humorous safety videos, the friendly staff at check in and on board the plane, the more than adequate in flight entertainment service, and free New Zealand wine.
The time difference also confuses people. I cannot claim to understand how the International Dateline works. Everytime I think I get it I look at the map with the crazy line and lose the thread again. I actually have two clocks in my house to keep track for Skype calls. If you are on Pacific Standard Time then today you are three hours ahead and a day behind. In other words, if it is 3:00 p.m. here on Monday, it is 12 noon on Tuesday in Auckland. It gets tricky because they are on opposite seasons and also practice Daylight Savings. New Zealand will “fall back” on April 6 and “spring forward” on September 28. While most parts of the US will spring forward on March 9 and fall back on November 2. If this is all too much math for your brain, there is always Google.
Once you get to New Zealand it is easy to fly from city to city via Air New Zealand or the Australian carrier Jet Star. Driving is an option; however the roads are not as fast as interstates in the USA and you have to weigh time and money. Also getting between North and South island is a challenge for people like me who get seasick in a bathtub. I have gone on road trips from Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin and it is worth renting a car to see more of the countryside. They drive on the left (please do not say “the wrong side of the road”). I actually find it easier and inexplicably more intuitive to drive on the left. Automatic (non stick shift or manual) cars may be harder to come by in New Zealand.
If you take a deep breath when you arrive in Auckland, listen to the Maori greeting as you enter the terminal, and allow yourself to adjust to “middle earth” time, you will be richly rewarded.