New Zealand is often cited as the world’s friendliest country, and the locals we encountered did nothing to dispel this stereotype.
My mother and I stayed at a lot of independent hotels, where we were met with an almost overwhelming warmth, far different from the reserved professionalism I am accustomed to at hotels in the states.
Since we generally showed up without reservations, our hosts gave us tours to view the available rooms and other amenities. At Cook’s Lookout near Paihia, this meant a trip on Norm’s golf cart to the units up the hill, where he showed off the NZ invention “dome shower” and recommended coffee brands to use with the French press.
When we returned from our tour at the Broadway Motel in Matamata, our hostess cried, “Oh, I almost forgot your milk!” and handed us a fresh carton. Mom and I soon became used to this NZ tradition. Another hotel explained to us that the locals like taking milk in their coffee, so she always double checks with Americans since we find the habit unusual
We had another warm greeting by Wolfgang at the Executive Motel in Taupo. “Did you see the United States flag outside?” he asked eagerly. (We hadn’t.) “I put it up so some Americans coming in later today will feel at home.” He told me what felt like the whole life story of the previous residents as he showed me the room.
The 80-year-old owner of the Chantilly‘s met us in the parking lot to apologize for the fire alarm going off at 6am, when some unfortunate fellow burnt his toast. He then stayed with us while we packed up to impart all his life lessons, ranging from the waste of working to earn more money without ever enjoying life to the best exercise routine to recover from a stroke.
And of course, everyone was willing to play concierge without any prompting, giving suggestions of where to eat and what to do and drawing it all up on a map for you.
Even when things didn’t go so well, the locals were there to help.
Generally, the lack of reservations worked out great, giving us flexibility in our schedule and getting us discounts on rooms, but it all came crashing down when our train pulled into Christchurch a couple hours late.
I had tried calling a few places earlier, and we continued to do so off a board in the station. Everywhere was completely booked, since the bulk of hotels had been condemned after the 6.3 magnitude earthquake in 2011 (totally our fault for not thinking that through).
The station manager and a cab driver stayed around after hours to help us out, checking for places on their phones. One hotel I called also began to search around for available rooms.
The station manager told us about a budget place around the corner, so we walked there but were again turned away. I bought some time on the Internet and Mom called places out of a phone book.
I was getting ready to sleep on a park bench when Mom got through to the Elms Hotel and they agreed to hold a room. We called up the cab driver from earlier to take us there, as thanks for his help.
As we waited at the curb, the station manager, now out of uniform, pulled up to check on us and even offer a spot on his floor. He offered a ride to our hotel, but we declined and thanked him again.
We’d been warned our hotel room was right next to a bus stop, but the dark and partially boarded up place seemed like heaven compared to the streets.
New Zealand has quite a few international tourist, but everyone was still curious about where we were from and what we thought of their country.
“Oh, you spent the night in Auckland? Did you get any sleep?” one man asked with concern, “I’ve been told it is so loud, people partying at night and sirens going off.” (We found Auckland to be a small, quietish sort of city.)
A Maori convenience store (or “dairy”) cashier had to make sure we were also visiting South Island on our trip. “Dunedin, Invercargill, Queenstown…” he mused, “They are very beautiful.”
Sometimes we’d meet locals who were visiting famous parts of New Zealand for the first time. We were seeing more of their small country in several weeks than they’d seen in their entire lives. It was interesting to listen to them talk among each other about hobbies (like Scottish folk dancing), local politics, and so on.
The one anecdote my mom likes to tell is about this big rugby player who lifted our suitcases off the bus, one in each hand, before we even finished standing up. “Don’t tip him!” the bus driver teased. This was indeed an impressive feat – someone had asked my mom earlier if she had packed her boyfriend in there. (“Several,” she replied.)
There’s something about the small-town feel to the whole country that seems to make everyone more friendly to one another, and the slower paced lifestyle meant everyone had the time to chat. It felt like I couldn’t get away with buying a candy bar without making conversation with the cashier.
I am very faltering with my words and have always found small talk difficult, so this was a challenge. It made me realize how much I rush about with my head down, capable of feeling alone even in a crowd.
In parts of New Zealand, you can walk around for hours without encountering a soul, so when you finally do come across someone you’re bound to say hello!