Kiwi Cool: Saving Money While Traveling In New Zealand

Saving money in New Zealand - supermarket lamb
Last month, I spent three weeks traveling through New Zealand, focusing mainly on the cities and culture. After living in Istanbul for two years, it wasn’t the culture shock, the jet lag, or the seasonal switch that was hard to adjust to, it was the prices. While I knew New Zealand wasn’t cheap (though their dollar is slightly weaker than ours), I was unprepared for the sticker shock. Dinner and drinks can easily run $50 a head or more, city buses can cost more than a NYC subway ride, and $3.50 for a bottle of water seemed offensive. I did discover a few ways to save money and still enjoy the Kiwi cool.

1. Drink locally, eat globally – New Zealand is known for its excellent wines, and starting to get accolades for their craft beer as well. Whether you’re dining out or picking up a bottle in a supermarket, it’s hard to go wrong with anything made in New Zealand; even the cheapest glass of house “Sav” is likely to be pretty tasty. Also note that many pubs are likely to be “tied” houses (unlike the excellent Free House in Nelson, pictured in my first “Kiwi cool” post) and will carry a limited range of brands, giving you an incentive to stick to the “house” tap. In contrast, for cheap eats, look for foods with origins outside the country; Asian cuisine like sushi, Chinese noodles, and Indian curries are often the most budget-friendly options and given the country’s ethnic mix, just as authentic Kiwi as roast leg of lamb and Pavlova.

2. Rent a car – This is one area where I didn’t follow my own advice, preferring to explore the country on public transportation as my husband is the only driver in the family and my baby is not a fan of car rides (yet she’s perfect on planes). Generally, public transportation in New Zealand is not cheap – a day pass for the Auckland bus system is over $10, taxis from the airport can cost up to $100, and the cost of two bus or train tickets between cities often exceeds the daily rate for a budget rental car. Kiwi companies Jucy and Apex offer older model cars as low as $22 – 34 per day, if you don’t mind a less than sweet ride.

3. Book transportation online – If you do choose to go the public transportation route, it can pay to make your arrangements online rather than in person. By booking tickets for the Waiheke Island ferry online, I saved $7 on each adult fare, even for a same day ticket. As part of the promotion for the new Northern Explorer Auckland-Wellington train, Kiwi Rail was offering two-for-one tickets, check their website for current promotions.

4. Check out motels – In my European travels, I’ve been using AirBnB and other apartment sites to book accommodations, as it pays to have extra space, laundry and a kitchen when you are traveling with a baby. The AirBnB craze hasn’t quite hit New Zealand yet, though you may find luck with BookABach (a bach is a Kiwi word for a vacation home that might be more basic than a typical house). I was more surprised by the quality of motels and motor lodges in New Zealand, they are often modern in style and comfortably outfitted with nice amenities like heated towel racks, electric blankets, and real milk for your coffee standard (a small pleasure compared to the powdered creamer typical in most hotel rooms). Motel rooms range from modest studios to sprawling apartments with jacuzzis. I found a useful directory of accommodations on NewZealand.com, and you can filter for features such as laundry or pool and check for special deals. Golden Chain is a quality collection of independent motels spread over both islands.

5. Create your own Wi-Fi hotspot – Another surprise I found in New Zealand is the lack of free Wi-Fi. Even many coffee shops only offer Internet for a fee, and some accommodations will limit your free connection to 100 mb or so per day. The city of Wellington has set up free hotspots in the city center, but I found the signal hit or miss. A more reliable and affordable option is to make your own hotspot by purchasing a pre-paid SIM card with data. Consult this helpful wiki for rates; I bought a SIM through 2degrees with 1 GB of data for about $20. One other tip is to find the local iSite tourism office for a short period of Wi-Fi access if you need to check email or make travel plans (they can help with booking travel and accommodation too, of course).

6. Shop vintage – After a few days in Kiwi Land, you’ll feel an urge to buy lots of nice merino wool clothing and gifts. For a country with apparently more sheep than people, it is everywhere and you can easily spend hundreds of dollars on new sweaters. Another option is to try vintage and thrift shops. I found a lovely baby sweater probably knitted by a nice Kiwi grandmother for $8 in an antique store, just as quality as the $30 one I bought at a market, and both far cheaper than most retail shops. Auckland’s K Road and Wellington’s Newtown have lots of used and “opportunity” shops, often with proceeds going to charity. Eco-friendly fashion is also becoming more widespread, and “recycled” fashion shops can be found in most cities.

7. Stay in on public holidays – One upside to the high cost of a pint of beer is that tipping is unnecessary in New Zealand; the GST tax on goods includes service. However, you will note on many restaurant menus a surcharge for public holidays of 15%. This covers the owner’s cost of paying their employees more for the holidays. Try to avoid dining out on holidays or look at it as a special holiday gratuity.

A bonus tip that may or may not be relevant in the future: follow the rugby fan trail. Started for the Rugby World Cup in 2011 to ease traffic congestion and crowding on public transport, Auckland’s Fan Trail was revived for a match against Australia last month. The trail stretches two miles from downtown to the stadium and is lined with entertainment, food and drinks, and other activities, most of which are free. Even if you aren’t headed to a game, it’s fun to watch both the performers and the fans dressed up to cheer on their team. If you happen to be in Auckland during a future big rugby match, find out if the city plans to run the fan trail again.

Stay tuned for more “Kiwi Cool: New Zealand for the Un-adventurous.”

‘Guam: The New Maldives’ and other Chinese tourism trends

guam chinese tourismIn 2012, trips originating from China will comprise an estimated 8 percent of total world travel. The China Tourism Academy estimates that 80 million Chinese residents will travel overseas, spending an estimated US$80 billion. That’s a significant chunk of the market.

In a recent article, CNNGo’s Shanghai editor Tracy You set out to demystify the Chinese traveler and predict the future of Chinese outbound tourism. Among her observations:

Many of the newer Chinese tourists are middle class. Travel is no longer reserved for the wealthy; more students and people from the working class are now venturing abroad. You predicts packed economy-class hotels in major tourism markets during traditional Chinese holidays like Spring Festival, summer vacations and early October.

Shopping is important, but so is nature. While Chinese tourists have a reputation for being shopaholics, most actually express a desire to explore natural settings and island escapes.

Cameras and Chinese menus are must-haves. A top priority for Chinese travelers is to photograph and be photographed, You reports. And while many stick to food they’re familiar with, many are willing to try local food if given ordering advice and menus in Chinese.

More Chinese are traveling independently. While tour groups are still the most convenient and common way for Chinese people to travel, more people are venturing out on their own or in small groups. You predicts that more Chinese will join the traditional backpacking routes of Europe, the United States and Southeast Asia.

Guam is the next big Chinese tourism destination. The United States island territory is already a popular getaway for Japanese and Korean tourists, and it has the natural beauty, shopping and island atmosphere that many Chinese tourists crave. You says that with the right infrastructure, it could join the Maldives as a top destination in the coming years.

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Video of the Day: Vintage Hong Kong revealed


Want to take a slow boat to China? Get lost in vintage Hong Kong in this 1938 video of the gateway to China. The harbor city was still under British rule, and you can watch men in linen suits and pith helmets stroll alongside rickshaw drivers. Some of the narration is a bit, uh, politically incorrect by modern standards but the footage is priceless.

Have more time for nostalgic travel? The Travel Film Archive has hundreds of videos from around the world from 1900 to 1970. Find a cool travel video from this decade? Leave us a tip in the comments for a future Video of the Day.

Dim sum has a little somethin’-somethin’ for everyone

dim sumI realize that Chinese New Year ended on February 6th, but in an effort to establish that there’s no bad time to visit Hong Kong or eat Cantonese food, I decided that now would be a good time to write about dim sum (also, I’m a terrible procrastinator. Is it really almost St. Paddy’s Day?).

Hong Kong means different things to different people. Some go for the bargains on everything from cameras to couture, others for the booming nightlife and easy access to other parts of Asia. Others just…really like Jackie Chan movies. Whatever your reason, this former British colony is faring well since it’s 1997 return to China (technically the city and environs are considered a Special Administrative Region–SAR–of the mainland). While not as cheap as other Asian cities or destinations, Hong Kong offers plenty of attractions, food and travel options to suit all budgets.

To a little piglet such as myself, Hong Kong means dim sum. In a city positively obsessed with eating, dim sum is perhaps Hong Kong’s most beloved culinary ritual. Dim sum, which is variously translated as “touching or pointing to the heart,” refers to a variety of steamed or fried dumplings, rice flour rolls, and other small savory or sweet snacks. While Westerners have openly embraced dim sum where dumplings are concerned, some traditional dishes such as braised chicken feet (foong jow) and steamed beef tripe with black bean and chili sauce (ngow pahk yeep) aren’t quite the hits they are in China.

Although dim sum is Cantonese (regionally now referred to as Gaungzhou) in origin, today it reflects the multi-regional influences of Hunan, Shanghai, Beijing, and other provinces in various ingredients and styles, such as the inclusion of Hunan ham in a pan-fried root vegetable dish such as taro cake. There are over 2,000 types of dim sum; in addition to the aforementioned dumplings and rice flour rolls, there are spring rolls, pan-fried cakes, baked or steamed buns, crepes, steamed rice dishes wrapped in lotus leaves, bite-size meat dishes such as spare ribs or duck feet, soups, or sweet puddings of tofu with sauces ranging from black sesame to mango.

[Photo credit: Flickr user LifeSupercharger]dim sumStandard dim sum ingredients include dried Chinese mushrooms; sweet lotus seed or bean paste; water chestnuts; bamboo shoots; rice or wheat flour; glutinous rice; Chinese sausage (lop cheong); preserved pork belly; dried shrimp; chives; ginger; garlic; seafood; poultry; beef, and pork, although the Cantonese are widely known for eating “everything under the sun,” so few bits and pieces are off limits.

Dim sum is thought to have originated during the Sun Dynasty of 960-1280 AD, when drinking tea at teahouses became a popular custom after a day of labor in the fields. The term yum cha, or “to drink tea,” came to be synonymous with the supplementation of small snacks, or dim sum. Today, teahouses still abound throughout China, and Hong Kong has it’s fair share. These are gathering places where locals can gossip, drink, eat, and relax, although some teahouses–often in five-star hotels– cater to a more upscale clientele, or tourists.

Dim sum is meant to be consumed communally; diners pick what interests them from passing waiters who push carts loaded with bamboo steamers or domed platters- the serving dish will then be placed upon the table, and waiters will tally up the bill according to how many you accumulate. It’s not considered bad form to pick morsels communally from the central plate, although you should place your individual choices into your own bowl or plate to catch any drips, or break apart large items using your chopsticks. Dipping bowls of sweet soy sauce, hot mustard (guy lath) and chili sauce (lath ju yow) are used communally as well, although it’s also common to spoon some condiments onto your plate for personal use.

For an authentic teahouse experience in Hong Kong, although perhaps not the best dim sum, 79-year-old Luk Yu Teahouse in the city’s Central District is a historic landmark. Fiercely crotchety, white-smocked old woman bustle about the small, marble-floored teahouse, carrying battered aluminum trays filled with assorted buns and dumplings around their necks. Over the din of dining Cantonese businessmen and families, ceiling fans lazily circulate and hazy sunlight filters through stained glass windows. Don’t expect to know what you’re eating, however. During my visit, I was the only Westerner there, and as is the way with most dim sum restaurants, selection of dishes comes down to point and choose. My winning pick was a giant, fluffy cha sui bao, or steamed bun, stuffed with sweet barbecued pork.
dim sum
The dim sum from the immensely popular Super Star Seafood Restaurant in Kowloon, known for it’s whimsical, animal-shaped dumplings is generally excellent. Super Star also offers hands-on dim sum cooking classes by arrangement, and it was there that I (in theory) learned how to pleat my har gow and sek tau yu (rockfish) dumplings. The shaping of dim sum dumplings is an art form that requires skill and dexterity, and the number and style of pleats or shape are specific to each type of dumpling; in the case of har gow, the “shark fin” pleat is said to replicate the shape of a gold ingot. Although my sek tau yu resembled malignant tumors rather than the goldfish they were meant to represent, the instructor was kind, and they tasted wonderful; the airy filling redolent of ginger and garlic, the dough tender and whisper-thin.

My favorite dim sum came from a much-loved Cantonese restaurant chain in Hong Kong called Tai Woo. At the Tsim Sha Tsui location, my meal began with several dim sum-style dishes, including a sweet, moist, steamed turnip cake (loh baak gao) studded with lop cheong and cheung fun, delicate, chewy rice noodle sheets rolled around pungent dried shrimp and chives, both accompanied by both peanut and hoisin sauces for dipping. Cheung fun can also be stuffed with whole shrimp, beef, or barbecued pork, and is often favored as a breakfast treat.

For the adventurous eater, Hong Kong has no shortage of culinary treasures to enjoy, be they in back alley eateries, near street markets, or in high-end restaurants. Explore them all, or enjoy the experience right here at home: every major North American city has its fair share of dim sum restaurants. Most notable for the quality of their dim sum are Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. Check out this site; I can’t vouch for every restaurant on it, but I’ll stand by the Bay Area selections.

For more information on visiting Hong Kong, click here.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Chopsticks Using Tips

10 places to celebrate Chinese New Year

Chinese New YearChinese New Year occurs in the early months of our calendar year, typically January or February and this year falls on January 23rd. This is the first of 15 days of celebration and the start of the Year of the Dragon.

Chinese New Year (also called the Lunar New Year) is the longest and most important festivity in the Chinese calendar and a time to welcome longevity, wealth and prosperity and to eliminate any negative chi from the past.

The origin of Chinese New Year taps several myths and traditions and is officially celebrated in countries and territories such as Mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and also in Chinatowns elsewhere. Chinese New Year is considered a major holiday for the Chinese and has had influence on the lunar new year celebrations of its geographic neighbors.

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Chinese New Year is also celebrated just about anywhere there are significant Chinese populations too.

In the UK, many shops, bars and restaurants in London will be participating in the celebrations, with big events held in Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square and most importantly, Chinatown.

In the United States, the San Francisco Chinese New Year celebration is now the largest Asian event in North America as well as the largest general market event in Northern California. The celebration includes two major fairs, the Chinese New Year Flower Fair and Chinatown Community Street Fair. All the festivities culminate with Chinese New Year Parade.

Flickr photo by xiquinhosilva


Chinese New Year in Bangkok