The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for New Zealand: Jean-Michel Jefferson of Ahipara.
After a career with Price Waterhouse that spanned nearly a decade and ultimately took him to Moscow, Jean-Michel Jefferson and his wife, Karen, moved to her native New Zealand 13 years ago to start their family. They founded Ahipara shortly thereafter, to cater to travelers who want to “go further, deeper, and see things others do not see.” Following in-depth consultations with clients to discuss their timeframes, budgets, objectives and interests, Jean-Michel draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of New Zealand and his network of hundreds of guides, hoteliers, restaurateurs, private pilots, ship captains, and others to create itineraries that not only exceed expectations but leave clients wanting to come back for more. He prides himself on being able to modify an itinerary on the fly to work around uncooperative weather conditions or to satisfy a traveler’s desire to add an activity or destination or to slow down the pace.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
The Pen-y-bryn Lodge in Oamaru, on the South Island, is a sprawling, wood-frame single-story Victorian mansion filled with English oak and period pieces and an atmosphere that takes you back to another time. The breakfasts and dinners are excellent and include homegrown produce, and the rooms, which start at $450, are sun-filled and elegant and decorated true to the home’s history. We’re developing an insider tour of this region that will put it on the map. The very rare yellow-eyed penguin can be spotted at an area nearby.
Restaurant the locals love
The Depot in Auckland, which is fun, informal, and vibrant—much like the city. The menu is constantly changing and always reliable, so skip lunch to leave room for as many of the “shared plates” as you can manage to eat.
In Wellington, Logan Brown consistently serves some of the finest and most beautifully presented seafood in New Zealand in an elegant-yet-relaxed atmosphere. The paua (abalone) ravioli are a signature dish and beyond compare.
Saffron, in Arrowtown, is another superbly consistent restaurant that serves a mix of New Zealand and Asian-inspired dishes. Everything is good here—though I’m partial to the rabbit and the curry.
Meal worth the splurge
Our West Coast Picnic. It begins with a jetboat trip down the gin-clear waters of the Makarora and up the pristine Wilkin, with the Southern Alps as your backdrop. After some exploring, your driver will find a secluded spot, where he’ll tie the jetboat to a birch tree and spread out a feast of wild local specialties that would typically include crayfish (lobster), paua (abalone), whitebait and venison back steaks, all washed down with the best New Zealand wines. After the meal, if you’ve gone easy on the wine, you can try your hand at driving the jetboat yourself. At $2,100 for the day it’s a bit of a splurge, but worth every penny!
What to See and Do
With the enormous popularity of the South Island’s west coast, its east coast has long been overlooked. No more! Now it’s on the map, led by places like the lovely historic coastal town of Oamaru. Want to see some real New Zealand? This is it. From Oamaru, a drive through the wide-open landscapes of Central Otago is inspiring and well off the normal tourist tracks. Both areas now also have excellent places to stay.
We advise against the bus-and-cruise package tours to Milford Sound. The four-hour bus trip—each way—and crowded boat ride through the sound is not an enjoyable experience for most people. We fly our clients in by helicopter or have them stay someplace near the Sound so they can savor the stunning scenery and not have to spend eight hours on the road in one day.
The Lakes District Museum in Arrowtown is small and user-friendly. Its excellent and engaging displays provide a thorough history of the area and a fascinating look at the lives of the early settlers.
Without a doubt, the Ohau Stream Walkway, a ten-minute drive north of Kaikoura, where baby seals play in a pool under a waterfall. There can be up to 100 seals here at any one time. Try and get there before 9 in the morning to have it all to yourself, as it’s unfortunately been discovered by the bus tours. At the moment, it is not regulated and costs nothing.
New Zealand is well-known as an adventure Mecca. Experiences for adrenaline junkies abound throughout the country, but most are concentrated in the Queenstown region. This is the place, after all, that claims to have invented bungee jumping. If you’re eager to try it (and you should!), we recommend a leap at the Kawarau Bridge. You can also go hiking on one of the area’s many unknown trails or go jetboating, rafting, skydiving, gliding, mountain biking—whatever rocks your boat.
New Zealand is a true year-round destination, but each season has its advantages. February would be my pick for the best summer month, with the most reliable dry and warm weather. Temperatures begin dropping slightly in March, which is nice for hikers and cyclists. April and May bring beautiful autumn colors and cooler weather. August is the top month for skiing: We have some of the finest heli-skiing in the world, and combining this with a tropical island can be fun. If you’re not in search of great beach weather (it can be cool even in February and March), then any time is good for the vast majority of travelers, although some lodges do close for our winter.
The very peak season in New Zealand runs from mid-December to mid-January. Our advice is to avoid this if possible. Christmas surcharges, changeable weather, and sheer volumes of holiday travelers—visitors and New Zealanders alike—make this quite a harried time.
The main mistake travelers make is to underestimate the size of the country and how long it takes to get around. Our roads are small and winding and take time to navigate. Visitors also underestimate how much time they’ll want to spend at each stop. There is a lot to do here! Lucky backpackers and students with plenty of time on their hands manage to fill six months to a year in New Zealand and still come back for more, so schedule as much time as possible and plan to return. Don’t try to do it all in ten days!
Bus tours that promise to show you New Zealand but deliver nothing but long hours on a seat with the country’s splendor sealed off by a window.
Google Maps to help you navigate the roads, but make sure you’ve saved them offline. Much of the wilderness has no mobile coverage, so this is a good time to take a break from your smartphone!
When multiple flights arrive together, it can be quite busy. If you are arriving after a long flight and do not want to stand in line, we can arrange to have you escorted through priority exits.
Layers. Temperatures vary every day. Leave the high heels, smart coat, and cocktail dress at home—you won’t use them. Pack more layers. And a hat to protect you from the sun.
A photograph with acclaimed Maori carver Delani Brown in front of one of his remarkable pieces. Humble, spiritual, and a former Mr. Universe contender, Delani is now focused on helping Maori youth grow through interaction with traditional arts.
We provide a limitless array of extraordinary experiences based on individual interests. For instance, we’ve created a birthday party on a private island that was “attacked” by a Maori war party. The warriors arrived on a waka, or canoe, bearing birthday gifts that included museum-quality Maori artifacts. We’ve also arranged for a traveler to go windsurfing with an Olympic gold medalist, and for another to go spearfishing with a national champion. Depending on what the traveler is interested in doing, we can make it happen.
Greenstone—known in New Zealand as pounamu—is the soul stone of New Zealand and has great significance to the Maori, who pass carved pieces down from generation to generation. The best way to buy pounamu is from a carver, who will create an original piece based on who you are and what is important to you. Carvers frequently move, but we can arrange for travelers to meet them. If you’re on your own, there’s an excellent shop in Arrowtown called Jade Factory, and many others dotted around the country. Avoid buying pounamu at tourist shops or souvenir stands as these often sell jade imported from China.