Last week someone asked me which of the countries I’ve visited have been my favorites. New Zealand is toward the top of that list. When I tried to describe the quirky-cool energy of New Zealand, however, I didn’t explain it very well. Later that day, I was strolling through Trader Joe’s to pick up Beet Hummus (because it’s a thing) and Cookie Butter (because it gives life meaning) when it hit me. If Trader Joe’s was a country, it might be New Zealand.
You know that Trader Joe’s feeling, right? It’s more than a tingle of organic vegetable enlightenment, a buzzy sensation of almond-butter awareness or enhanced couscous consciousness. When you’re browsing at Trader Joe’s, you feel like you’ve stepped slightly out of the ordinary – like you’re part of something hip and smart that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s as if you’ve moved beyond the snobby Whole Foods guys you used to date, and now you’re out with their cooler friend who plays in a band. Well, that’s what it feels like to visit New Zealand.
New Zealand is a long way from anywhere.
Even its closest neighbor, Australia, is a three-hour flight away. Not surprisingly, the two-island nation has an independent vibe. It’s a funky and friendly place, shared by people who treasure the rare and diverse natural resources of their islands.
New Zealanders are fierce about protecting their environment, and for good reason. The native animals and plants of New Zealand are unique because they evolved in relative isolation. Looking for spooky ferns big enough for a dinosaur movie? They’ve got them in New Zealand.
Or maybe you’re interested in miniature, white-bellied dolphins? Check.
How about some glorious, evergreen pohutukawa trees that boast crimson flowers each year around Christmastime? Coming right up.
Guarding New Zealand’s native flora and fauna from pesky foreign parasites and invasive alien weeds is a big deal. The list of things you can’t bring into the country for conservation and environmental reasons is detailed and long – no Patagonian toothfish, no chewing tobacco and no children’s crayons. (You also can’t bring in “multipurpose ladders.” But whatever.) Don’t even think about wearing your dirty hiking boots into New Zealand, or sneaking a banana through customs in your backpack. If the border protection agents don’t catch you, the dogs will sniff you out.
Because New Zealand has been careful to safeguard its food supply, the selection of fresh and seasonal food is spectacular. On most menus, local specialties are headliners. The Marlborough region’s green-lipped mussels are world-famous, and they’re rumored to have anti-inflammatory properties. (This is a handy bonus if you’re trekking around the Marlborough Wine Trail or hiking the Queen Charlotte Track.) Simply prepared, the green-lipped mussels are tasty, but shockingly large.
This guy ate a whole bowl.
Just kidding. That’s an indigenous New Zealand Maori warrior. But you’re going to want a bottle of local Sauvignon blanc to wash down the mussels.
If mussels aren’t your thing, you can still enjoy fish and chips like a local. Order the hoki, which is a moist and slightly sweet whitefish.
New Zealand hoki is plentiful, and it’s certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. You’ll find hoki on high-end restaurant menus, and also in casual fish and chips shops, most of which are open until late in the evening.
You can drink a local beer with your fish and chips, or branch out and ask for apple cider. But first, forget everything you think you know about apple cider, because the New Zealand version is nothing like what you sip at home around the holidays. Monteith’s Brewing Co. makes a cider from New Zealand apples that’s clear, bubbly and delicious. If you’re lucky, you may even find Monteith’s cider on tap.
Enjoying a “flat white” coffee at a local café should be on the top of your to-do list. (You can get one at Starbucks now, too, but an original New Zealand flat white is the real deal.)
Essentially, a New Zealand flat white is steamed milk and a double-shot of espresso. Some of the milk is folded into the espresso, and some of it floats in a thin “flat” layer on top. Chances are good that your flat white will be served to you overlooking a pristine New Zealand harbour…
by an easygoing, pink-haired local with supercool tattoos. You know, it will be just like checking out at Trader Joe’s.
When it comes to eating well and enjoying life, New Zealanders just get it. They know what’s good – like Bacon Good (and they’ve been curing that for more than 150 years.)
Their celebration of food continues today, from clever café bakeries…
New Zealanders eat the local foods that they love, and they don’t shy away from a little indulgence now and then.
From a practical standpoint, New Zealanders offer their regional food specialties with confidence, because protecting the natural food supply there is serious business. How serious? Well, New Zealand is on the cutting edge of environmental management policy worldwide. In fact, sustainable management of natural resources has been the law of the land in New Zealand since 1991. Literally. New Zealand’s Resource Management Act provides a framework for allowing communities to use and develop the native environment while simultaneously safeguarding it for future generations. (Click here to read more if you’re a legal geek like me.) It’s a bold concept, and it makes sense that this isolated, island nation would be on the forefront of embracing it. Perhaps it’s fitting that New Zealand is governed, in part, by officials who work in the distinctively modern wing of parliament buildings known as the “Beehive.”
So if you’re a fan of Trader Joe’s, or if you’re just interested in exploring a quirky-cool country with an independent vibe, check out New Zealand. You’ll meet a whole nation of people who appreciate and celebrate the benefits of a funky and friendly way of life. And you’ll be able to taste the freshest and purest local ingredients in both restaurants and markets. Just don’t forget to bring your own reusable shopping bags.