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16 Things We Love About New Zealand That Surprised Us

Auckland pohutukawasI know my posts lately have been a little whiney. But while we’ve been feeling a bit homesick and have been missing our lazy, warm tropical island days (I know, cry me a river) there still is at least one moment of each day where I feel a sudden giddiness that we’re in New Zealand, indefinitely. There is so much to love here and I’m sure you know all about the good wine, scenery, famous movies and friendly people. Here are a few things that have surprised us about our adopted land that we’ve grown to love, in no particular order.

1. Pohutukawas are quiet green bushy trees most of the year, scattered throughout the country in city parks and on beaches alike. But then in early December, a few weeks before Christmas, KAPOW! They burst forth with bright red fluffy flowers all over, just in time to celebrate the season. The New Zealand Christmas trees are certainly the prettiest we’ve ever seen.

2. Christmas at the beach Despite retailer’s continued efforts, Christmas here is still less about the stuff and more about spending time with your family, usually at the beach and followed with a sausage sizzling on the grill. The Christmases of my childhood were always a huge affair with decorations everywhere, elaborate meals, parties, piles of gifts and my mother no doubt took years off her life preparing for it all. Not me: I love the simplicity of a few basic decorations (see “Pohutukawa” or “Look girls! A Christmas tree!”), a couple of gifts for the girls from Santa and a day of just being with friends and family with sandy toes under the sun and time to enjoy it all. It helps that the school summer break starts a few days before Christmas, a time of year so good that it even has the best name ever: Silly Season.

We Love Sand

3. Bare feet Apparently, even in the city and at primary school, shoes are completely optional.

4. Jandals If they are not barefoot then Kiwis protect their piggies with a pair of jandals, otherwise known as flip-flops or thongs. Even in winter here on the North Island. Which brings me to….

5. Winter in Auckland No snow. No frost. Lots of sunny days between rain and wind and thunderstorms (which keep it interesting). Just right.

Our Auckland slip on a sunny day last winter. Locals tell us it's *never* this nice usually.

Our Auckland slip on a sunny day last winter. Locals tell us it’s never this nice, usually.

A mid-winter hike in the Waitakere. The hats are just for fun and show, it's really not that cold out.

A mid-winter hike in the Waitakere. The hats are just for fun and show, it’s really not that cold out. Muddy and wet, yes.

6. Legends Aotearoa is a land of myth and legend: the taniwhas, Tāne Mahuta, Maui, Kupe, the first wakas to sail to NZ from Hawaiki. Maori stories live rich in this land and are interwoven into life everywhere. When you walk through a great forest, or gaze out at the Tasman from a clifftop, the spirit of the land is omnipresent and it’s easy to feel why this is the land of story.

The gannet colony at Muriwai beach. Amazing.

The gannet colony at Muriwai beach looking over the Tasman. Amazing.

Tāne Mahuta. Lord of the Forest.

Tāne Mahuta. Lord of the Forest.

7. Language On a planet where languages are disappearing at an alarming rate, it’s so refreshing to see Te Reo Māori, the original language of New Zealand, being studied and celebrated and respected here. The girls learn Māori words and songs at school, Universities offer tuition-free classes, there is even an entire TV station broadcast mainly in Te Reo Māori. Coming from a place where people are denigrated for speaking languages other than English, it’s incredibly hopeful to hear the words of the ancients freely spoken.

Holly learns about Maori traditions at Kindy during Matariki, celebration of the Maori new year which occurs in May/June.

Holly learns about Maori traditions at Kindy during Matariki, celebration of the Maori new year which occurs in May/June.

8. A Land of immigrants In Auckland at least, in addition to hearing Māori being spoken you are just as likely to hear Hindi, Bengali, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, Tongan, French, Spanish, German…you get the idea. Auckland is the most international city we’ve ever been to with residents coming from literally around the world. The girls’ central city school is a true united nations of students and we’ve got friends from South Africa, Pakistan, India, Philippines, Ireland, China. I’ll have to write more on this later because it’s the aspect that has had such a positive impact on the girl’s view of the world as well as really feeling what it is to be an American.

Leah and favorite school friends

Leah and favorite school friends

9. The schools It took a while for me to get used to just handing the girls over to others to teach each day but thankfully the excellent schools here have made the transition easy. New Zealand schools are not bogged down in standards and testing and constant evaluations like US schools are. While they do have general guidelines to follow, schools here are free to experiment, adjust their teaching plans to suit their students’ specific needs and take on new ideas at a rapid pace. What this means for us is that both girls have learned a whole lot this past year, but more importantly they love school and think it is great fun which is the best lesson they could learn there.

Leah hated homework - or homelearning as they like to call it here - at the beginning of the year but now she thinks it's fun. Win! She turns in her last sheet tomorrow, summer break is coming!

Leah hated homework – or homelearning as they like to call it here – at the beginning of the year but now she thinks it’s fun. Win! She turns in her last sheet tomorrow, summer break is coming!

Holly's Kindy class visited a climbing gym this year for a field trip. Adventure sports starts early here.

Holly’s kindy class visited a climbing gym this year for a field trip. Adventure sports starts early here.

10. Swimming Knowing how to swim here is akin to knowing how to add 2 + 2. Starting at age 5 at primary school all kids spend two days a week during the summer/fall terms working on their swimming skills. Most primary schools have their own pools. The Auckland swimming pools even let kids in for free to swim anytime up to the age of 16. Makes sense when you are surrounded by ocean.

Holly at the Tepid Baths, Auckland

11. An unarmed society Want to know the most shocking thing we learned after arriving in NZ? Not even the police carry handguns. No kidding. Cops walking down the street in Auckland are noticeably firearm-free; they have to call in the special armed-force for any serious crimes. This is not a land of guns, but it’s not gun-free: there is a rigorous application, education and interview process to gain a firearms licence and the guns themselves are tightly controlled and monitored. As a result, gun crime is extremely rare. 2007 data shows that for every 100,000 New Zealanders there were 0.16 homicides by firearm. For every 100,000 Americans? Nearly 3.

12. Awesome signs

Stay Sober - Get the Boys Home

Kiwisaver? Or work 'till you die.


Cheese, Kindergarten or Timber?

13. Southernmost Polynesia Just like the islands of Hawaii are the northernmost Polynesian islands, the islands of New Zealand are the most southern. For some reason we thought when we left Tonga we were leaving Polynesia largely behind but were happily surprised to find that is definitely not the case. Maori culture is very similar to that of the Marquesans (some believe the Maori came from eastern Polynesia originally). They say Auckland is the largest Polynesian city with not only a large Maori population but people from Tahiti, the Cooks, Tonga, Samoa, Niue, Fiji also have made their home here now. While it’s regretful that they are unable to make a good living back in their home islands, we love the vibrant culture that Pacific islanders have added to the already Polynesian New Zealand: the food, music, art, tattoos and color of Polynesia is all around us here and we love it.

Maori carving at the Arataki Visitor Center, Waitakere Ranges

Maori carving at the Arataki Visitor Center, Waitakere Ranges

14. Panelbeaters Our first car here was a late-90s model Subaru station wagon, just like the many others we had back in Washington but with the steering wheel on the wrong side. Well, one day Michael was turning into the parking lot at our marina and the car behind him neglected to stop and dented the trunk fairly badly. Since the car was only worth about $2000 we thought for sure the insurance company would total the car and just give us the cash. Nope. They paid nearly $2500 to fix and repaint the whole aft end of the car by a local “panelbeater” shop. (We sold that car not long after for $1800. Sigh). The whole point of this is to illustrate that New Zealanders are loathe to just throw perfectly good things out if they can be fixed. Since we are stuck on two tiny islands thousands of kilometers from anywhere, people here don’t abandon things that are broken, they fix them. Or beat them back into shape, apparently.

15. Cussing and boobs If you are offended by hearing f-bombs on the radio in the middle of the day or nekked boobies on your television after the kids are in bed, well, you should probably keep your radio and TV off here because no one else seems to mind. We get Hell Pizza delivered right to our boat on a regular basis and I nearly neglected to stop my own car on Ponsonby road one day when I looked up and saw this billboard:

Traffic Stopping Billboard

16. Kids in bars The first time we visited the local sailors pub to grab a pint and a bite to eat we tentatively stepped into the dusty dim room and asked if kids could eat inside. “Sure,” the barkeep said, “As long as they don’t drink or smoke!” Yeah, I think we’ll stay for a while.

The can get their own drinks.

They can get their own drinks.


  1. Very enlightening post! The only one of your 16 that wasn’t a surprise was Jandals, and that’s only because I read about them first from s/v Bella Star. I had no idea Auckland was so international…a true melting pot!

  2. Melissa says:

    I’m a lurker — a cruising wannabe also hailing from Seattle. This post really, really, really made we want to cruise the south Pacific. I’m curious — how long are you allowed to stay in New Zealand? Were visas difficult to get for an extended stay?

    1. Sara says:

      Hi Melissa, You should absolutely cruise to the South Pacific. It is truly amazing! We are residents now and can stay in NZ forever if we choose. Our post a few months ago How to Move to New Zealand in 31 Easy Steps (http://www.svwondertime.com/2013/07/03/how-to-move-to-new-zealand-in-31-easy-steps/) describes how we were able to get visas. Check it out and if you have any other questions just let me know! ~Sara

  3. Michelle says:

    Wow looks so beautiful. Love your pictures!

  4. Jenna says:

    I have been following your blog for over 2 years and just love your posts. You were one of my inspirations for offshore cruising! We are also from Seattle and departed the USA about a year ago cruising the Pacific and are now in NZ. We’re planning to be in Auckland for the holidays and would love to connect.

  5. Livia says:

    Wow. Gina did good.

    Great to hear. And inspiring photo of the coastline.

    We may end up there in – who knows – and the only thing that we found super exciting about the idea (a lot sounds…well…quite nice, but not exciting) was the climbing on South Island. Castle Hills sounds amazing.

  6. What a lovely place to visit….
    Nice post.
    Many thanks from greece