KidTripster Teen: 10 Things to know about visiting New Zealand’s North Island
Whenever my family and I travel, we learn things along the way. Sometimes we wish that we'd have gone to see something that we hear about later from a local; other times we visit a highly-rated attraction that really isn't ideal for kids. At KidTripster, we don't want you to waste your precious vacation time or money on vacation fails.
So I've compiled some lessons learned from a recent trip to New Zealand. It's a country totally worth visiting, especially if you're a teenager.
After a long flight to New Zealand, it’s a little daunting to jump in your rental car and have to drive on the left side of the road. It takes concentration, for sure, and constant reminders from your family to “stay left!” After only a few wayward turns into the right lane, my dad got the hang of it. After 800 miles, he was a pro! He even let me take a spin around the block, just to say that I’d done it.
Something else to know about driving in New Zealand? There are very few proper highways; only two on the North Island. Most of the time, you’ll find yourself driving on two-lane country roads. The average speed limit is 100 km per hour, or about 62 miles per hour, but with all the twists and turns through sheep-dotted hills, you’ll find yourself going far slower. Whatever your mapping app tells you, be prepared to add an extra 20 or 30 minutes.
KidTripster Tip: It’s worth paying for international coverage on your cell phone for the mapping app alone. Our rental car didn’t have a GPS nor was it available as an add-on. You could try reading a paper map, but the backroads can be tricky. With our cell plan, the international coverage cost $10/day. Or you could pay nothing and just download Google Maps for a particular region when you're connected to free WiFi.
One last note about driving: fuel is expensive. During our trip, it cost around $8NZD, or the equivalent of $5.75USD, per gallon. Opt for the most fuel-efficient vehicle possible.
About a 1-1/2-hour drive outside Auckland, you’ll find the very popular attraction, Hobbiton. The set for The Shire where the Hobbits lived in both the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies is here and has been saved. You can only see Hobbiton on a rather pricey tour. As you walk through with a group of 30+ people, your guide connects the locations to memorable moments from the movies. She also explains how the crew created parts of the set to make the Hobbits look short and other parts to make Gandalf appear tall. If you don’t have background knowledge from the books or movies, these insights will be of little interest to you. And even though I’ve seen the movies and read the books, it was of little interest to me. And if you were hoping to drop in on Bilbo Baggins and raid his cupboard, you’re out of luck, as the hobbit holes are just facades with no finished interiors. Save yourself some money and time and skip it.
3/Share your adventures with friends at home
Most the adventure companies in New Zealand are set up to take photos and videos of you and your family. For example, if you’re abseiling into a glowworm cave or rolling downhill in a giant inflatable ball, you can purchase photos or video after the experience. This service is convenient; you don’t have to worry about breaking an expensive camera or taking time away from enjoying the trip to take photos. Check with vendors in advance to see what they provide and for how much.
Other vendors make it easy for you to use your own GoPro camera. For example, when we went whitewater rafting with Tongariro River Rafting, the guides had helmets with the camera mounts already fixed for you to use. I saw the same thing on the luge helmets at Skyline Rotorua. So again, check with your tour operator, so that you come prepared.
4/Pack your patience
To enjoy some of New Zealand’s outdoor wonders, it’s necessary to book a guided tour. I found that these tours are slow due to number of people in the group and their varying skill levels. Unfortunately, it’s the price you pay for access to places not open to the general public.
KidTripster Tip: As a rule of thumb, pick the shortest tour, especially when traveling with kids. If you can you go caving for four hours or seven, choose four. If you can raft for two hours or half of a day, pick two hours.
If you’re visiting New Zealand from the USA, the food options will be fairly familiar, though they’re not always referred to in the same way. For example, a "bap" is a bread roll. And the food presentations can be zany with sandwiches without proper buns or foot-tall burgers. Speaking of burgers, if you’re a fan of the American classic, don’t order a burger in New Zealand! The meat texture is mushy and not at all appetizing. Wait and have a burger when you get home! However, I did really like the fries.
6/Blow pass geysers & geothermal features
New Zealand is the result of two colliding tectonic plates that then pushed up from the sea. The North Island, especially, is a hotbed of seismic, volcanic, and geothermal activity. In Rotorua, where my family focused our vacation, there are three attractions that feature geysers, geothermal pools, mud pots, and steam vents. Honestly, they’re not that impressive and certainly not worthy of a multi-hour visit. Especially if you’ve been to Yellowstone National Park, you’ll be sorely disappointed with the offerings here.
The thermo pool pictured above, called the Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, is probably the best one. But still, I don't think it alone warrants the ticket price. My brother and I were really bored at these sites.
7/Stay in an Airbnb or campervan
Again, our family based ourselves in Rotorua. While there’s certainly a lot of properties in town, I’d describe them as 3-star hotels or maybe even motels. If you’re staying for extended period, you’ll likely want something less rundown with more space. We opted to rent a condo on the lake through Airbnb. It was nice to have a place to ourselves. We also saved money by eating breakfast in.
Another popular option in New Zealand: campervans. In the USA, we call them campers or motorhomes. They’re on the small side, because frankly, the roads aren’t all that wide. If you’re looking for a 40-foot motorhome in New Zealand, you won’t find it nor would it be practical.
The country has quite a vibrant campervan culture. Campgrounds are plentiful, and every attraction has designated campervan parking. Especially if you want to explore both the North and the South Islands, camping is the way to go. Again, you'll get the hang of driving on the left.
8/Credit is king
Even though we withdrew a small amount of cash from the ATM machine at the Auckland Airport, we could have gone the entire week without it. Every place takes credit cards for payment. Just make sure, you’re using a credit card that doesn’t charge you extra for currency conversion.
KidTripster Tip: Why isn't there a tip line on your credit card receipt? Because tipping isn't customary in New Zealand.
9/Bring your sense of adventure
New Zealanders love adventure. As one guide explained to us, it’s a small island. When they run out of things to do, they just make crazy stuff up! So while you’re here, get a good dose of adrenaline! New Zealand is home to the first commercial bungy jump (A.J. Hatchet in Queenstown) and many more that followed. It’s the first place where they thought it would be cool to roll down a hill in a giant inflatable ball, which you can do at OGO Rotorua. Or luge downhill (without ice) at Skyline Rotoura or Skyline Queenstown. Even jet boats were first invented here, so why not take a ride with New Zealand Riverjet down the Tutukau Gorge.
10/Kiwis are easy-going
New Zealanders, also known as Kiwis, are a fun-loving, laid-back lot, which makes a vacation here all the more relaxing. For example, shoes and shirts are mandatory in restaurants and businesses in the USA but not so in New Zealand. We saw lots of locals walk into stores without any shoes. I guess New Zealand really is the land of Hobbits!
Nathan Shah is a high school senior from Portland, Oregon. With six continents under his belt, he hopes that his next big adventure will be to Antarctica!