TIPS FOR DRIVING
Do it: Driving on the left-hand side of the road can be intimidating, but relax! Driving is the way to go if you want to see a lot of this little country. Driving gives you a unique view not seen by most tourists, and also puts you in control of your destination. A current U.S. driver’s license — and a sense of adventure — are all you need.
Focus on the environment: If you’ve never driven on the left side of the road before, the mantra we kept repeating to ourselves was “wide on right, wide on right.” When turning right, go wide. Going left? Keep it tight. Apart from the surrounding areas of more major cities such as Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, almost all highways are two lanes, and the lanes are narrower than in the United States. Keep an eye on your right side; I can’t tell you how many times my husband and I had to tell each other we were perilously close to scraping a barrier.
Take breaks: There’s a real cafe culture in New Zealand. Even on more remote roads, you’re bound to find a place that’s not only cozy, but stylish and hip. One gorgeous cafe we encountered, called simply the Store, had blankets for sale from Minnesota heritage manufacturer Faribault Woolen Mills. Two Rivers Cafe, another charming cafe we came across, doubled — or tripled — as a gallery and wine bar. Another, Farm Barn Cafe, was a welcome cozy retreat from the brutally rainy roads en route to Aoraki/Mount Cook. A lot of places will have you covered for delicious coffee drinks and tasty meat pies. Absolutely get a flat white — or 10 — while you’re down under. The Kiwis invented them. Pro tip: If you’re a black coffee drinker, order a “long black” and pretend like you’re in the know.
Keep in mind: The gas prices are in liters and the turn signal indicator is on the right-hand side. You might accidentally turn on the windshield wipers too many times.
Good to know: The New Zealand government has a website that simulates situations you might encounter on the road while there. I recommend giving it a go: roadcodepractice.co.nz.
WHERE TO STAY
A travel agent knocked out a killer itinerary for us, and put us up in some incredible accommodations. A few we recommend:
Hotel DeBrett, Auckland (hoteldebrett.com): We stayed here for only a night, but this little boutique hotel just a few minutes from the pier was a mix of classy, cozy and modern. The hotel’s restaurant served up a great continental breakfast, too. A minute’s walk away is Melba (melba.nz), a hip cafe that made my favorite flat white of the trip.
InterContinental, Wellington (intercontinental.com): An incredibly posh establishment, located in one of the real cultural hot spots of New Zealand.
The Hermitage, Mount Cook (hermitage.co.nz): Our time in Aoraki/Mount Cook was kind of a bust. But the Hermitage offers a lot even if you’re snowed in. They have a movie theater (showing mostly a range of nature documentaries and movies on Sir Edmund Hillary) that doubles as a planetarium; a cafe; and a beautiful panorama dining room that, like most of its rooms, boasts great mountain views. And, by far, the most comfortable bed of any place we stayed.
Riverrun, Wanaka (riverrun.co.nz): A rustic luxury lodge perched atop a sprawling pastoral farm in one of New Zealand’s most photographed places. Only two other guests were staying there; we got to know them over evening appetizers and delicious brunch home-cooked by proprietor Meg. If you go to one place in New Zealand, make it this place.
Peppers Beacon, Queenstown (peppers.co.nz/beacon): If the cozy and sleek apartment feel weren’t enough, or the fact that it’s just a five-minute walk from the city center, the stunning view of Lake Wakatipu and the iconic Remarkables mountain range makes this spot worth a stay.