Travel and Adventure

A welcome beyond words

5 ways locals will enhance your New Zealand adventure

By Carrie Miller
New Zealand’s welcoming ways inspired Berlin-based artist Christoph Niemann.

The welcome I received on my second day has continued for 15 years. It’s generous without being over-the-top and friendly without being in your face.

On my second day in New Zealand, I wandered aimlessly down Wellington’s Ghuznee Street on a busy weekday morning, shopping list in hand, feeling disoriented and overwhelmed. I had moved to this country without knowing a soul, leaving my stateside home behind, and at this moment I was questioning why.

“Hi there. You look a bit lost. Is there anything I can help you with?” A middle-aged woman, dressed for the office, had stopped me in the street. Her kind offer was sunlight piercing a cloud. I explained I was looking for household supplies—sponges, a broom, sheets—to set up my new home.

“That’s easy,” she said. “We’ll have you squared away in no time.” She told me the names of the shops I was looking for (different from U.S. chains) and where to find them, then dismissed my effusive thanks with a wave of her hand.

“No worries,” she said. “And welcome to New Zealand.”

One hour later, shopping trolley stacked to the rafters, I stood in the checkout line as a young man rang up my extensive purchases. “Moving flats?” he asked.

“Flats?”

“Flat. House. Place to live,” he translated. “Are you new here?”

I had barely said “yes” when he started jotting down a list of all the things I should do and see, starting with a concert that night at a local bar.

“You couldn’t ask for a better welcome to New Zealand than some Kiwi music,” he said. “You should definitely go. You won’t regret it.” I did, and I didn’t. Nor do I regret moving to this remarkable country. The welcome I received on my second day has continued for 15 years. It’s generous without being over-the-top and friendly without being in your face. It’s a welcome beyond words, a feeling of being looked after, that manifests itself in little day-to-day details. Here are five ways to experience the warmth:

1. Say hello to your seatmate: Regional flights around New Zealand are wonderful places to strike up conversations, as well as a great way to view the diverse landscape. Kiwis take these short hops frequently, for business and pleasure, and usually enjoy a good chat with their seatmate. The local joke is that New Zealanders have to be mindful about onboard conversations. In a country of 4.9 million, it’s likely you and your fellow passenger will know people in common—something that’s happened to me many times.

2. Order coffee: Kiwis love their cafés, and being a part of that café culture is a great way to meet the locals, be they shop owners, staff, or other flat white enthusiasts. Wellington is café central, and you’ll be spoiled for choice here. Try the eclectic Fidel’s on Cuba Street, or the newer Flight Coffee Hangar on Dixon Street. Other favourites include Shelly Bay’s Chocolate Fish and the café at the Maranui Surf Life Saving Club with its uninterrupted views of Lyall Bay. In Auckland, the Britomart area, tucked in between Waitemata Harbour and Auckland’s lower CBD, is a revitalised neighbourhood of mixed-use and heritage buildings. Try the little French café L’Assiette or—for serious coffee lovers—Espresso Workshop. But you can always find a good cuppa in any town, and asking Kiwis for a café recommendation is a great way to get a conversation started. Here’s mine: Kai Whakapai, in Wanaka on the South Island, is a great place for meeting an interesting mix of locals and visitors.

3. Cheer a team: New Zealanders are sports mad. A sporting event is never too far away, be it grassroots rugby, an indoor netball tournament, or a cricket match. It’s an enjoyable (and surprisingly affordable) outing for travellers, and it’s another great conversation starter. No matter which town you’re visiting, the locals will know what’s on. If you can’t catch something live, drop by a neighbourhood pub to watch the game on TV—especially an All Blacks rugby match. Even if it’s a 3 a.m. broadcast from Europe, the pubs will be packed with Kiwis cheering on New Zealand’s national team.

4. Meet the makers: New Zealanders are resourceful people who love making things, from honey to cheese to wine to jams. And they love sharing these delicacies with guests. Visiting a market (like the Motueka Sunday Market), a winery (like Fromm in the Marlborough region or Chard Farm in Queenstown’s Gibbston Valley), or a local shop (like Fix & Fogg in Wellington, makers of divine peanut butter) is a delicious way to learn more about the region and the people who put their hearts and souls into their products.

5. Sample Māori spirit: The culture of New Zealand’s first inhabitants is living and ever-evolving, and the Māori people are understandably protective of it. The best way to encounter it is with experiences cultivated for visitors. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds in the Bay of Islands is one of New Zealand’s most important historical sites, and one of the best places to learn about Māori history, protocol, and culture. Other places, like the Whakarewarewa geothermal area, offer overnights at maraes, traditional meeting grounds that are the focal point of Māori communities. Such visits are a wonderful way to meet community members, ask questions, and enjoy a deeper cultural experience. But don’t enter or take photographs at a marae without an invitation. Introduce yourself, ask questions, and let things evolve from there.

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Carrie Miller is a National Geographic Travel writer living in New Zealand. Follow her @carriemiller_writer.