New Zealand Is Once Again Open to Visitors—Here's What It's Like to Visit Now

I visited the country just days after it dropped the last of its restrictions

Auckland New Zealand

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After over two years of closed borders and some of the world's strictest reopening policies, New Zealand officially began letting international travelers visit again in May and announced the end of all pandemic-related restrictions on Sept. 13. As a Kiwi enthusiast who already had New Zealand very high up on my bucket list, I was delighted to finally be able to travel to the country that gave us "Lord of the Rings," Manuka honey, "Flight of the Conchords," Taika Waititi, and more.

When the opportunity arose to fly Air New Zealand's historic direct route from New York City to Auckland, I jumped at the chance, even if it meant spending almost an entire day in the sky. After landing in Auckland and recharging after the long trip, I spent the next week traveling around the country to get a feel for how New Zealand has reacclimated after over two years of isolation from the rest of the world.

Along with experiencing heart-pounding adventure, some of the world's most stunning vistas, and fantastic food and wine, I was fully embraced by Kiwis who were excited to welcome international travelers back with open arms. If you're planning a trip to New Zealand this year, read on to see what my time in the country was like.

Auckland New Zealand Airport

Courtesy of Astrid Taran

Arrival and Experience in Auckland

Getting through customs at Auckland International Airport was quick, and I was able to make my way out of the airport in record time. Before landing, I was asked to fill out a New Zealand Passenger Arrival Card, on which I was asked to list my contact information and any of the countries I've visited in the last month. At the airport, I handed it over, put my bag on a conveyor belt to be scanned, and was on my way—no need to show either test results or my vaccination card. It felt like a far cry from the strict protocols the country had in place the previous year, including mandatory isolation upon arrival for all citizens. The only pandemic-related sign I spotted was one placed over a bin of at-home testing kits: travelers were encouraged to take one, but few people did.

I hopped in a cab and headed to Hotel Britomart, where I stayed for the first two evenings of my trip. The eco-friendly hotel, which features such green perks as compostable slippers, is located in the center of the newly constructed nine-block Britomart precinct near Auckland's waterfront, a recently revitalized neighborhood with high-end dining and shopping destinations. Some shops here include a boutique by heralded New Zealand clothing designer Karen Walker and a brick-and-mortar location of the country's popular leather handbag brand Deadly Ponies.

Hotel Britomart

Courtesy of Hotel Britomart

While it was a chilly day, the neighborhood was filled with Aucklanders laughing loudly while eating outside or taking a lunchtime stroll along the Viaduct Harbor. I took the opportunity to walk over to the famous Sky Tower, where I sipped a much-needed flat white and admired city views. Later that evening, desperately trying to stay awake but still rallying, I enjoyed dinner at the hotel's bustling Kingi restaurant next to Hotel Britomart. Whispers made their way around the table that several members of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's cabinet—and, at another table, the English actress Minnie Driver—were seated nearby, cementing Kingi as a place to see and be seen.

During my time in Auckland, I was fortunate enough to spend an evening at the Park Hyatt Auckland, which opened its doors in September 2020. The stately property is particularly great for art lovers. It highlights works like a recreation of a traditional wooden waka (canoe) of New Zealand's indigenous Maori people at its entrance to the 36-foot-wide painting by Kiwi artist Peata Larkin that dominates its soaring atrium. My balcony room had direct views of the Sky Tower outside, and my bathroom was filled with Le Labo toiletries (great toiletries are my favorite part of any hotel stay, and the Le Labo brand is top-notch). While I couldn't enjoy the hotel's restaurants due to their closure for the Queen's funeral, I spent an afternoon at the property's full-service spa, sauna, and outdoor infinity pool, making for a truly perfect day.

Waiheke Island

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Wine Tasting on Waiheke Island

On a free day in Auckland, I took a 45-minute ferry to Waiheke Island, an island on the Hauraki Gulf best known for its wine production. There are over 30 wineries on the small island alone, and Auckland's warm and sunny weather was luring me towards the vineyards. After arriving on the morning ferry, I stopped by Akito Cafe for a flat white, then wandered down the main drag of the island's largest village, Oneroa.

Located on the western side of Waiheke Island, Oneroa is a great central base for exploring what the island offers. With its colorful and bright streets overlooking Oneroa Beach, the island was lively and buzzing, with Aucklanders and Waiheke locals alike popping into the many shops, cafes, and restaurants that line the village's Ocean View Road.

After some shopping, I spent the afternoon sipping chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon at Goldie Estate and Batch Winery, where I also had one of the most amazing meals of my trip. With great food, wine, shopping, and scenery, it made sense that Waiheke Island is widely considered "the Hamptons of Auckland." At the end of the day, I vowed to one day come back and spend an entire weekend exploring the rest of the wineries on the island, especially after I learned Taika Waititi and Rita Ora were spotted lunching at Mudbrick Vineyard just days after my visit.

The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, New Zealand

Courtesy of The Farm at Cape Kidnappers

Nature in Hawke's Bay

Hawke's Bay was high on the list of destinations I was dying to visit on my trip, so I was thrilled when I touched down at Napier Airport and checked in to the much-heralded Farm at Cape Kidnappers. A modern take on the traditional farmhouse, the 6,000-acre working farm (I passed by dozens of sheep on my drive) is nestled among the rolling green hills of the North Island's South Pacific coast. My lodge suite featured a private deck and a two-person bath with perfect views of the surrounding greenery. The farm is also home to miles of hiking and biking trails and plenty of wildlife.

While I didn't see a tuatara (a reptile endemic to New Zealand) or a kiwi bird (despite being the face of the country, most New Zealanders have never seen one in the wild), my visit to the farm's colony of gannets left me speechless. I watched in awe as they swooped and dove for fish over the ocean, then retreated to the lodge's dining room for a dinner of lamb and chardonnay.

Days into my trip to New Zealand, I quickly learned how many great wine-producing regions could be found in this country. My tastings on Waiheke Island were just the beginning—Hawke's Bay is known for its excellent syrah and merlot. During my time there, I enjoyed some fantastic red blends at wineries such as Clearview Estate and Craggy Range. As soon as I left, I made a mental note of the many places I couldn't wait to recommend to my foodie friends.

Queenstown New Zealand

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Adventure in Queenstown

If you've always dreamed of being in a movie, a trip to Queenstown will make you feel like you walked right into "The Lord of the Rings." This South Island gem is known for its outstanding beauty, from its snow-capped mountains to its ice-blue freshwater lakes and swoon-worthy pink and purple sunsets. After spending a few days there towards the end of my trip, I can confirm that its praise is not hyperbole. Without seeing it for yourself, it isn't easy to describe just how beautiful Queenstown is.

Queenstown is all about the views, and I spent my days there soaking in as many as possible, from a helicopter ride over glaciers and waterfalls to an afternoon spent jet boating down the Shotover River. My stay coincided with an Australian holiday, and many from New Zealand's neighboring country had hopped across the Tasman that week to enjoy the sights. Walking into Queenstown favorite Altitude Brewing after my boat ride, I could barely find a seat amidst all the chattering patrons who had come to sit outside, enjoying brews and views of Lake Wakatipu. Even though ski season was petering out, the town felt lively, vibrant, and energetic.

On my last day in the country, while having a soak at Queenstown's Onsen Hot Pools, I took in the mountain vistas in front of me and shook my head in disbelief. It seemed like just a year ago that visiting New Zealand felt impossible. Now, surrounded by welcoming faces, I felt embraced by a country that had seemed so unfeasible for so long.


Departure and Final Thoughts

For many, traveling to New Zealand can be a significant undertaking that requires a serious time commitment. A non-stop flight from the West Coast will run you about 13 hours, and, as I documented for this trip, my non-stop trip on Air New Zealand from New York City clocked in at a cool 17 hours (the route currently only runs three times a week). Even in business class, that's a long time.

But for those with their hearts set on New Zealand, rest assured that your endurance will be rewarded. The country is back in business: neighborhood cafes are teeming with chatter, shops are brimming with visitors, hotels are open, and many remainders of the last two years are almost entirely gone—I can count the number of masks I saw being worn throughout the entirety of my trip on one hand.

It didn't seem like the day would ever come when the world would start to feel connected again, but with New Zealand's return, that day is finally here.