The Greenwood Guide to New Zealand
New Zealand

General Travel Information

When To Go :: Car hire :: Inter-island Ferries :: Rail Journeys :: Distances chart

When To Go

The weather is never so miserable that there's no point in going to New Zealand. Even in the colder winter months there is always plenty of sunshine to put a smile on your face and a spring in your step.

The warmer months (November to April) are the busiest, especially during the school holidays from just before Christmas to the end of January. Ski resort towns are obviously busier during the winter months: the season usually starts in mid-June and runs through to August. The most pleasant time to visit is before or after the hectic summer season, when the weather is still warm and the crowds have gone home. If you're planning to travel during peak periods, it is best to book ahead as accommodation fills up fast.

There are plenty of things to do and see all year round. Long sunny days and mild nights from December to February make summer an excellent time for most outdoor activities from tramping to swimming, to sunbathing and boating.

March to May are New Zealand's autumn months and, though a little cooler, the weather can be excellent. It is possible to swim in some places until April. Colourful changing leaves are spectacular, especially in Otago and Hawke's Bay.

The winter months of June to August bring colder weather to most of the country and more rain to the North Island. Snow covers mountain ranges on both islands at this time providing for postcard-perfect vistas and excellent skiing. As the South Island receives little rainfall during winter this is a great time to visit its glaciers and mountains.

From September to November springtime weather can range from cold and frosty to warm and hot. Spring buds and frolicking lambs begin to breathe life into the countryside. Both Alexandra in Otago and Hastings in Hawke's Bay celebrate the season with not-to-be-missed blossom festivals. If white-water rafting is your thing, this is the time when river water is excitingly high as spring snow melts.

You will certainly hear of, or even experience, New Zealand's famed 'four seasons in one day' weather phenomenon. Although the weather is rarely extreme, being a climate dominated by the mountains and the sea, it really can change very quickly. Make sure you are prepared for all eventualities if you're off hiking or doing other outdoor activities.

Another quick word of warning: because New Zealand experiences relatively little air pollution compared to other parts of the world, the UV rays in the sunlight are particularly strong during the summer months. Wear sunscreen, try to keep out of the midday sun and don't forget to take your hat and shades out with you.

Getting Around

The best way to see New Zealand is by car. One point worth making is that, although this is not the largest country in the world, you can easily underestimate how long it takes to get from A to B (and on to C). This is because: a) many NZ roads twist and wind their way around hills, volcanoes and other mountainous terrain and there's not much anyone can do about that; b) there is a culture of slow driving in NZ, a practice encouraged by conscientious traffic cops; and c) it seems impossible to overtake anyone, despite the small number of cars on the roads. So I recommend you leave lots of time to get where you're going, relax into it and enjoy the impossibly lovely scenery that seems to line every road in the country.

Car Hire

Most of our epic research period in New Zealand was spent behind the wheel of one of About New Zealand's rental cars. We always found them helpful, friendly and great value. They also have bases throughout the country, which is always handy when travelling from point A to point B.

About New Zealand - freephone 0800-45-55-65, phone +64 3 3666 094, fax +64 3 3666 069; email:

Inter-island Ferries

You can fly or ferry between the two islands; both methods are scenic treats. From Picton, Bluebridge and Interlander Ferries take their cargo of cars and passengers out into the Cook Strait, a bright strip of dolphin-filled sea, fringed by the intermittent islands and lush hilly fingers of The Marlborough Sounds. You'll be received at the other end by winking lights and the lively sweeping embrace of Wellington Harbour.

Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferry -; tel. 04-471-6188.

Interislander Ferry -; tel. 04-498-3302.

Rail Journeys

TranzScenic operate two scenic spectacles of train trips in and out of Christchurch.

Widely considered one of the world's greatest rail journeys, the TranzAlpine traverses the mighty Southern Alps between Christchurch and Greymouth, beginning at the Pacific Ocean and ending by the Tasman Sea. On the way, you'll pass through a truly bewildering variety of scenery. The journey begins by crossing the flat, alluvial plains of Canterbury that end at the foothills of the mountains. From here, a system of tunnels and three huge viaducts aid your ascent up through massive gorges and valleys to reach the broad Waimakariri and Bealey river valleys high above where beech forest eventually gives way to the snowcapped peaks of the Arthur's Pass National Park. Huge skies and even bigger mountains fill the surrounding panorama and are utterly astounding. From here you'll pass through the 8.5km tunnel at the small alpine village of Arthur's Pass before making the descent down the western side past yet more valley's, lakes and rivers into Greymouth. This journey is so spectacular that it really is a shame to a) forget you camera or b) do it when the weather and thus visibility is really bad, though chances are that if it's raining on one coast, it's probably fine on the other.

Another spectacularly scenic rail journey, the Tranzscenic, travels up the east coast from Christchurch to the port of Picton and vice versa. The journey travels through some of New Zealand's finest horticultural areas and farmland pastures. With impressive mountains to one side and the rough and rugged Pacific coastline on the other, the train passes through the seaside village of Kaikoura. If you have the time it is well worth a stop to go out onto the water and see the famous whales and dolphins close up. If time is short, chug on and you might see some of the amazing wildlife from the comfort of your own carriage. This journey is a brilliant way to cut out time on the road when arriving at or departing from ferries crossing over to the North Island.

Tranzsalpine: Christchurch - Greymouth from $109 pp rtn.
Tranzcoastal Christchurch - Picton from $99 pp rtn, (from $109 for single Christchurch - Wellington which includes Interislander ferry crossings).
Tel. 04-495-0775; fax. 04-472-8903;

It is a good idea to book your car hire, ferry rides and accommodation in advance. In peak season all can get booked up very quickly.

Distances chart

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