Letters from New Zealand: 10 tips for planning the best trip

METHVEN, N.Z. – Mike Johnstone has penetrating blue eyes, a face like leather and a head full of numbers.

He can tell you that he and his son work 1,800 acres of the rich pastureland in the shadow of Mt. Hutt; that it’s broken into 56 different paddocks, or fields; that he spends $4 each for the tags that allow him to record the weight of his lambs electronically and that the heaviest of the 2,000 lambs he’s weighing this bright Friday morning tips the scale at 35 kilograms, or 77 pounds.

He can tell you how many Japanese eat in the steak houses where he sends his premium beef, how long the lamb he sends to England can be chilled without being refrigerated, and how much money he can have on the line with the bank at any given time (it’s in the millions of dollars).

The son of a newspaper editor who died young of a massive heart attack, Johnstone chose farming instead. He’s now 60, and clearly loves his work. But his background is evident in his love for detail, his ease with visitors and his gift for telling stories.

“It’s a chess game, really,” he says of farming the spread he now shares with his son, Tony.

We met Mike; his wife, Helen, who cooked the best breakfast we ate (hands down); his son Tony, and Tony’s wife and two children at Glenview Farm Stays, the family home. It was one of our last, perhaps our best, and certainly our most economical night in this country (about $125 for a room, a huge steak dinner, a farm breakfast and evening drinks on the patio for two).  The priceless part was Mike’s tour and a spontaneous hug from Helen when we said goodbye (Mike’s not the hugging type).

Which leads to the first of  ten tips on planning the best trip possible to New Zealand, or at least its South Island, where we spent our 20 days here: Stay on a farm. Remember: There are nine times more sheep than people in New Zealand. Farming drives the economy. And, judging from the Johnstones, you’ll not only learn lots about the country and its main livelihood. You’ll make new friends.

An excellent source of farm stays and B&B’S is the New Zealand Bed & Breakfast Book, published by Moonshine Press (www.bnb.co.nz).

2. Slow down

Even before we set foot in New Zealand, we had decided to visit only its South Island.  A week into our vacation we shed about a third of our itinerary so we could drive less, walk and wander more, and stay a few nights at most destinations.

It’s impossible to see all of New Zealand, or even most of it.  This country is sprawling and spectacular, and deciding what to give up ranks as the biggest challenge for the traveler.  By slowing down we stayed at the Johnstone’s farm, cheered our favorites fillies at the annual Hokitika horse races, and sailed with the dolphins in Akaroa.  And we relaxed.

New Zealand has two types of roads – two-lane, narrow and winding, and two lane narrowing to one-lane bridges (for two-way traffic).  Don’t plan on getting anywhere fast.

3. Know your budget

It’s possible to travel around New Zealand at “backpacker accomodations” found in any good-sized town for as little as $15 or $20 a night.  Or you can spend $325 per person per night for a room, dinner, breakfast and naturalists’ walks at the magnificent Wilderness Lodge, set off the road against a dramatic backdrop on Arthur’s Pass.

We chose a middle course, typically staying in motel units, which always come with at least a small fridge and microwave and cost roughly $90 to $115 a night. Two reliable chains are Bella Vista and Host.

For the early planner, bed and breakfasts and farm stays offer a good alternative, especially if you’re keen on swapping stories and places to visit with fellow vacationers. We loved our last two nights at La Belle Villa B&B on the Banks Peninsula town of Akaroa near Christchurch.  (Another excellent book for the traveler is Charming Places to Stay in New Zealand, published by Travelwise Publications.)

4. Rent a car – or camper van

No. Driving on the left, hanging over the ocean on a road with no shoulder is not easy.  Yes, you really have to do it.

New Zealand has a pretty comprehensive bus system. It’s rail lines are more limited. But in the end, unless you’re planning to stick out your thumb and hope for the best, you’ll need a car to poke.  Rentals are expensive (about $225 a week unlimited miles) and gas is too – a bit more than $6 a gallon. Still, there’s really only one alternative: to make your car your home by renting a minivan or camper, many of which are painted with scenes of the country and sprayed with cheeky New Zealand turns of phrase.

5. Watch the weather

Wireless is everywhere and many hotels have kiosks at which you can pay for the Internet in 10-minute increments.  Ignore the news and blogosphere. But use cyberspace to check the weather at your next destination. It changes often.  We adjusted our itinerary so that we arrived at the Milford Sound fiord and Lake Matheson in the shadows of the Southern Alps on perfect days.  Even in summer, such days come sporadically to the wild Westlands, where annual rainfall is measured in double-digit feet.

There’s a reason New Zealand is called “land of the long white cloud.”  Like everything else, the clouds are spectacular, but not when they cover something else you came to see.

6. Ask a local

We found New Zealanders to be refreshingly friendly, no-nonsense folk.  Ask where to eat, and they’ll tell you.  Ask where to go, and they’ll offer an opinion about that as well.

Our two best meals, at Ma Maison in Akaroa and The Bunker in Queenstown, were recommended by the proprietors of our B&B and motel, respectively.  And our best local place, McGregor’s in Wanaka, also came recommended.

7. Use your feet

This is a land to walk.  Don’t be frightened by all the books and articles about five-day treks and Great Walks.  New Zealand has a well-planned hut system, and if I were 10 or 20 years younger I’d have been sorely tempted to spend a week in the back country. Day hikes, however, are plentiful as well, from five minutes to a few hours. And they’ll likely take you through a rain forest to a cascading waterfall or to an overlook with 360-degree views.  Stop along the way to listen to the birds. They’re everywhere.

8. Read everything

New Zealand has invested in tourism and is proud of its heritage. The country’s Department of Conservation posts clear and sometimes elegant descriptions of the country’s flora, fauna, geological history and people at dozens of overlooks and viewpoints. They are worth reading.  So is the material available at the many “i’s” or information centers around the country.  Make them a first stop when you enter a new town. And be sure to get good maps.  There are lots of back roads.

9. Bring binoculars

We didn’t, and wish we had.  New Zealand teems with wildlife where it should be – in the wild.  We were so smitten by the syncopated song of the bellbird that I’ll be looking for a natural wildlife CD soon. The green birds are small, however, and blend into the forest. We only saw one.  Sea lions lounge on rocks and beaches, and, at night, several varieties of penguin make their way across them after a hard day of fishing. We’d have loved a closer look.

10. Bring flashlights (or torches, as they’re called here)

We did, and used them regularly.  At no time did they prove more useful then when the power went out on a pitch-black night on the Johnstone’s farm.

The bathroom was down the hall.

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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