Saturday, 26 January 2013

Top five New Zealand misses


Now, I'm going to be a bit tongue-in-cheek today. I'm going to talk about some of the flies in the New Zealand ointment. Actually, they were in some ways the bit of grit that made the oyster, if you know what I mean, but that didn't make them any less annoying for all that. It turns out that paradise isn't entirely perfect, and I'm going to be talking about some of the political economy and governance elements of that imperfection over the next few days. But, for now, here are five things that a tourist in that land at the edge of the world could really do without:

1. Rural Kiwi drivers. Honestly. Kiwis are the nicest, most polite, most formal, egalitarian people in the world. Put them in a series of bashed-up Hondas on rural roads, and they become devil drivers of a series of blacked-out 'chaser cars' that try to (a) climb up your own exhaust, and (b) run you off the road. It comes to something when you can't brake and let people past, because they're driving so close to you that you can't even see their headlights. Slow down, people.

2. Glacier towns. Fox Glacier? The Franz Josef Glacier? Extraordinary, blue-white monsters of ice that come down so close to ground level that you feel you can almost touch them from the road. Definitely worth a visit. The towns next to them on South Island's west coast? Erm, not so good. You know those ski towns that you can go to, out of season, full of expensive and not-so-atmospheric pubs? That's what you're looking at here. Go to the glaciers; then get out of town.

3. Food on the road. Kiwi cooking used to be notorious. Beef Wellington again, sir? Why not? Those Better Britons of the South Seas could afford to have meat and two veg every single day, and they were going to damn well make sure that they got them. These days, of course, there's a lot of Pacific and Asian-fusion food in city restaurants, and you can eat pretty well across the board (albeit expensively, if you've got a pocket full of weak old sterling). But on the road, and especially in rural areas, requests for, oh, I don't know, vegetarian food can be met with a blank stare. And fish 'n' chips are everywhere. I mean everywhere. I don't mind a fish supper, but honestly - some villages seem to live on the stuff. What a shame.

4. Auckland's Central Business District (above). Auckland, that city of sails, sits on a beautiful volcanic isthmus. It has stunning oceans on both sides, and a green walking route between the two shores. But cheap land and a drive to have one's own plot has seen the city sprawl, and its CBD take on the character of a small and very American city - a grid of anonymous office blocks broken up only by the pointy assertion of the Sky Tower. Another pity, I am afraid.

5. Queenstown Lakefront YHA. Most New Zealand backbacker hostels are wonderful - especially those run by BBH, the best of the hostel chains' umbrella booking groups. Lots of eccentric houses, wharehouses, factories and stately homes have been turned over to the quirky use of the travelling young (and poor, or thrifty). But Queenstown's second YHA is a sprawling labyrinth of tiny rooms, niggly little notes and a modernist monster of a cooking and living deck. Noisy, crowded and a bit claustrophic, it's one to be avoided. Nice staff: shame about the hostel itself.

Honourable mention/ near miss: sandflies. Yes, these guys bite you. Yes, it's itchy. But anyone who's ever had to live with the north of Scotland's plagues of midge knows that the odd slow-moving little guy isn't nearly as bad as the Highlands' curse of curses. So sandflies don't make it into the miss list. Sorry, but there you are.

Next week - New Zealand's political economy. Look, I could write about George Osborne's fiscal policy, but I might blow a fuse.

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