Good morning New Zealand! I'm thrilled! I feel a zing from head to toe, and I'm ready for an adventure. It's a beautiful day too, isn't it? Chilly air, blue skies. Absolutely perfect.
Just to backtrack a bit, after a nine-hour direct flight from Honolulu to Auckland on Hawaiian Airlines, an all-around pleasant flight, I might add, we landed on the tarmac to the captain's voice telling us we would be fumigated. Huh? Seems New Zealand is really keen on keeping out all sorts of bugs. Not to worry if you're concerned about asthma or any such condition; such passengers were allowed to wait just outside the plane's doors leaving their belongings at their seats.
I found it fascinating. So in come two officers and they start at the front and back of the plane, spraying the contents of a can into the air above us. Sniff, sniff. No funny smells. No hacking. No clutching of throats. All good.
We're soon allowed to disembark into a nearly empty airport. After walking for miles to baggage claim (I imagine), waiting to get through an exiting checkpoint and answering questions as to the purpose of my stay — "Yes, I'm here on vacation from Hawaii. Yes, I know it's winter. No, I'm not crazy." — we're finally released into the country.
I did my research. First thing's first before leaving the airport: check on getting a SIM card and some kind of data plan. NZ has three companies similar to our Verizon or T-Mobile. They are Vodaphone, Telecom and 2degrees. All three have similar packages at about the same cost; you'll need to research on your own for details. The first two have shops right outside baggage claim. I went to Telecom and the salesperson said my Samsung Galaxy II wasn't compatible with their equipment. Went to Vodaphone next door and didn't especially like the salesperson's attitude. So I walked to the i-Site center to ask for assistance; it's located at the far left when you exit baggage claim and they're open till about 1 or 2 a.m. The staff mentioned I could get a 2degrees SIM card and plan at the Relay store a few doors down. It's not an official 2degrees store, but they sell the SIM card and plan. Chris at Relay helped me out big time. Though busy with other customers, he asked what I was looking for (calling from NZ to Hawaii, 2GB, etc.) and set me up with a card that he put in my phone and even called the number for me to register so I could get started. $10 SIM, $20 plan, 90 minutes. I was really thankful for his friendly attitude and above-and-beyond assistance. He even ran after me to return my laptop after I'd inadvertently left it in his store.
A note on i-Site: These visitor help centers are located throughout the North and South Islands of New Zealand, similiar to visitor information centers in the U.S. They will do their best to answer the questions you have about everything from when does the public bus leave for Auckland to what's the best activity for a family to making reservations at an attraction. You can also find lots informational pamphlets and books too, though I didn't find the type of driving map I was looking for by kiwimaps. One last thing, i-Site offers a free SIM card that you can pick up at two of their locations in Auckland; it's the minimum plan, but it's free.
Anyway, after a 20-minute delay at the hotel shuttle pick-up site and a wait to check in at the hotel, I finally rolled into bed at about 2 a.m. I was beat.
This is the outlet needed for your electrical hookups. I purchased two separate power plugs from Magellans.com that were adequate for my hair dryer, laptop, smartphone and camera battery. The buttons above the outlets are the on/off switches for electricity. In the morning, I momentarily panicked when my hair dryer wouldn't turn on before I finally figured it out.
A side note for my fellow solo female travelers: I stayed at the Ibis Budget Auckland Airport, which is a nice budget hotel near the airport (ie. spare amenities). Free airport shuttle is always top of mind for me, plus the atmosphere of the surrounding area. One feature that was a first for me and made me feel super safe — use of the elevator requires a room card, and it only goes to the floor on which your room is located. Read my review of the Ibis here.
So, it's now Sunday, the first day of my two-week vacation. Just around the corner is a pleasant Jamaica Blue coffee shop where I enjoy a bite to eat and a delicious hot mocha in a ceramic cup. Yum! Down the road is Countdown Supermarket, similar to WalMart, that sells fresh produce, ready-to-eat meals, and all sorts of necessities and accessories. Prices are higher than in the U.S. I head there before leaving to pick up my rental car to get an alarm clock, of all things. I had planned on using my smartphone as an alarm clock, however, because I was leaving it in airplane mode during the entire trip so as not to incur any mobile charges, I couldn't use the alarm clock. DUH.
Back at Auckland Airport, the nicest and sweetest grandfatherly gentleman picks me up. He's actually the shuttle driver for NZ Discount Car Rentals. On our way to the rental lot, we have a lovely conversation. Seems he's been to Oahu once before more than 10 years ago, and would really like to return to visit Pearl Harbor. I ask him about New Zealand, the driving, the country, its people, etc. It's a very nice start to my trip and indicative of the many residents who call this place home.
Once the paperwork is done, I'm matched with my rental vehicle. It's on the older side (as reviews had mentioned), but you cannot beat the price when compared with the U.S.-based car rental companies. HUGE savings when you opt for the locally owned companies. My priorities are that it is an automatic, runs smoothly and has a large trunk. Check! Visit www.rankers.co.nz for online NZ travel reviews on activities, attractions, accommodations and transportation. It's a great resource with reviews from people around the world, similar to Tripadvisor.com.
This is it. My moment of truce. Hallelujah! Gas and brake are the same (I did wonder). Gears and hand brake are now on the left. Blinkers and windshield wipers are on opposite sides. Little blessings: it's not raining today! After sitting in the car to adjust the mirrors and confirm what's what, I'm off! Remember—LEFT side!
After leaving the lot, I encounter the first of many roundabouts. No traffic. No problem! It DOES go counterclockwise. Thank goodness there are blue arrows pointing right at the spot where the car should be. In busy areas, it does get hairy so it's nice to have something that indicates, "You—HERE." There is a protocol for entering and leaving a roundabout. Check out the NZ Transport Agency or NewZealand.com for general driving guidelines in NZ that are pretty common sense.
I had decided on a Sunday vehicle pick up for a reason. Though the area around the airport was still fairly busy, I'm sure it would have been far busier on a weekday. I did get lost and drove around every which way, then eventually stopped at a gas station for directions. A friendly limo driver dug out his handy kiwimaps, showed me the road and I was on my way. The spiral-bound kiwimaps book pictured above on the left was a great help in tracking the roads from one location to the next because of its detail. The other maps showed the general area, but aren't big on details. If there's one map you should get, it's the kiwimaps. It's available online at Amazon.com, but I had looked it up too late, so ended up purchasing mine at a gas station. Note that it's not available at every gas station.
A general rule I learned on this trip: a drive time of 1.5 hours on googlemaps.com took me at least 3 hours, if not more. People in NZ drive fast; out of necessity I guess, since distances are great. The drive speed on general roads is 100 km = 60 mph. I figure I drove at about 50 mph because the surrounding scenery was just too much of a distraction. There are many areas where the road splits and slower drivers stick to the left lane, fast drivers to the right—that made all of us happier!
I love to drive, so being behind the wheel in NZ is a wonderful experience. Pastoral is the one word that best describes the North Island with pastureland that surrounds the roads on both sides and seem to go on forever. Along the way, sheep, cows of all varieties, horses, goats and llamas dot the hillsides. As cars speed past, I gawk at the scenery, just amazed by its beauty and by the dramatic, windswept trees, which I eventually learn are called radiating pines. Simply gorgeous.
Well, my destination for today—Hamilton. Googlemaps indicates a 2-hour drive time, but, of course, I take nearly 4 hours. That's okay by me. After all, I'm here to enjoy the journey since I've already reached my destination. For a review of my stay at Fountain City Motor Inn in Hamilton, click here.
Stick with me on my travels throughout New Zealand's North Island and let me know if you have any questions about planning your own NZ adventure (I'm excited for you already!). Sign up for upcoming blog entries and please share if you like this as well. Cheers!