I rarely wear shoes anymore.
There’s no need. If I’m not donning flippers or barefoot on the boat, I’m hoofing it hobbit style around the bush. There are no snakes, no venomous insects, and the island paths are carpeted with grass. It’s the Kiwi way. Even in stores and local establishments.
No shirt, no shoes, no problem.
My world has become very small; the daily tasks of sailing, cooking and showing visitors around the Bay of Islands consume my time here in New Zealand. The main theme of my New Zealand life is the ocean. Each day we explore the underwater world of kelp beds and friendly fish. Chasing eagle rays and searching for octopus gardens are daily events. We dive for green-lipped mussels and catch fresh fish for meals. My life has never been more in rhythm with the sea. I absolutely love it.
The Kiwi way of life has weaseled it’s way into my heart. I love the landscape, the laidback vibe, and the abundance of stars in the Milkway under the Southern night sky.
I love the culture.
The complex, heavy history with Maori land and colonial settlement is still very much a point of contention; you can feel how it boils under the landscape and through the veins of the people. I see many parallels between my island home of Hawaii and the Maori people; there is a feeling of angst among the locals toward the government but a great sense of pride throughout the land. The cultures are very similar and stem from the same Polynesian roots. Some iwi (tribes) can even recall which waka (canoes) they sailed from Hawaii to Aotearoa (New Zealand.) The immediate difference is that Maori culture is “legally” integrated into this nation. You see marae (tribal meeting places) as you drive through the country side, almost every sign is in English as well as Maori, and most Maori are actively involved in their culture. You are likely to see a haka somewhere along your travels (perhaps before an All Blacks rugby game); an intimidating traditional war chant and dance that will make your heartbeat quicken send chills down your spine. Without delving into politics, I can say I truly appreciate the presence of Maori culture. It makes this country come alive.
I’ve been lucky enough to befriend many locals and get a peek of the true Kiwi way of life. I’ve had the opportunity to do several farm stays and find beautiful places that are off the beaten path. This is the way to travel New Zealand. Zooming from point A to point B will leave you will a sweet taste of beauty but no real substance of the depth of this land. If you get to know the people, only then will your soul be satiated.
My advice? Throw away your guide book.
Most of the main tourist attractions in New Zealand are over-hyped, crowded and tainted by expectations. The really amazing places might not even be mentioned in the guidebooks. Talk to locals, explore and travel for the sake of discovery instead of checking destinations off your list. There are famous sights of New Zealand that are well worth checking out: the fjords of the South Island, Cape Reinga, the vast beaches of the Far North and the Great Walks throughout the country. These are amazing but get ready to elbow your way through bustling trails unless you avoid the summer busy season.
The real jems of Aotearoa are hidden falls up unnamed streams, desolate beaches that require a steep hike and farms that provide fresh spray-free fruit. Many travelers take part in WWOOFing or HelpX. These programs allow travelers room and board for working 4 hrs a day. Tasks range from feeding animals, gardening, cooking or cleaning. Most hosts are very generous and more enthusiastic about travelers having a good time than meeting their work quota. Depending on where you land, in my experience, accommodation has been incredible; sometimes you will have an entire house to yourself (in one case we had a studio apartment with a deck and a view AND a yoga studio.) The people who participate in opening up their home to travelers are generally very interesting. They will welcome you with open arms and warm hearts.
The more I travel and the less I focus on the magnetic pull of tourist traps, I realize there are so many wonderful opportunities to really get to know a place. There is something incredibly empowering and renewing about giving back to the land. Instead of traveling just so you can brag to your friends back home with the photos to prove it, you can collect stories and share personal tales about the people you met and connected with. There is so much beyond the lure of brochures and backpacker hostels.
Giving back is easy. Pay attention to the subtleties of the land of which you travel. Honor and respect the new soil on which you tread. This is the type of traveling that is truly good for your soul. If you travel in this manner, you will undoubtedly grow as a person.
As you pack for a magical journey in Aotearoa: toss your shoes and guidebook. Wander barefoot. Think outside the guidebook.
Travel with a lighter pack and a lighter heart.