Drinking and Driving in New Zealand

Don't worry, not at the same time. New Zealand has both an amazing craft beer scene and a funky driving situation. They obviously don't go together, but are both are in my wheelhouse.

The Driving – Wait, the steering wheel is on the right?

One of the big challenges we faced when planning our time in New Zealand was transportation around the country. Should we rent a car, an RV, or take the bus? After doing lots of research we settled on renting a car since that gave us flexibility while still being fairly affordable. The main problem with renting a car, however, was the “driving it” part. They drive on the left here. We were nervous to tackle this aspect but figured that most of the world drove on the right, and people rent cars here all the time – how hard could it be? Answer – not too hard, but really freaky.

First off, the driver sits on the right hand side of the car. This means (obviously) everything is reversed. Need to check your rearview mirror? Look to the upper-left. Need to put the car in reverse? Shift on your left side. Need to talk to your passenger, look left. And the biggest problem with this reverse setup – the left/right blinkers and windshield wipers are reversed and on the “wrong” side of the steering wheel. Many times when I need to turn, instinct takes over and I flip on the wipers rather than actually indicate my turn. Hooray for safety!

OK, so after some practice I got the hang of the interior of the car. But letting instincts take over and accidentally driving on the incorrect side of the road is much more dangerous than activating the wipers on a dry windshield.

Making turns are interesting, too. When turning left, there's no need to check my right side or travel across traffic – you just pull out onto the road. Of course, the right turn is opposite – you need to check the traffic coming from the right, cross the left-hand lane, and make the right turn. In the beginning, my brain hurt, and I felt like I had no idea where the traffic was going to come from without thinking first.

But practice helps, and slowly I became more comfortable with this left-hand side driving. But there were certain aspects of driving on the opposite side that don't seem to ever get comfortable. First off, every time a car comes around a turn heading towards us, my gut reaction is to FREAK OUT since it seems like that car is on “my side” of the road. Even though I know the traffic is on the correct side of the road, it doesn't matter, it still feels like that truck barreling toward me is on the wrong side of the road and we're about to collide. Instinct is hard to shake.

Roundabout incoming!

Roundabout incoming!

There are also many idiosyncrasies about NZ driving that are a bit strange. First off, they LOVE their roundabouts/traffic circles. Love them. There are very few traffic lights or stop signs outside of the major cities like Auckland and Wellington. Instead of lights and stop signs they make you drive around in a little circle until you head in the direction you intend to go. At first I really disliked these things. Wait, which direction do I yield to? Where do I look for other cars? How do I exit? I imagined getting stuck in a traffic circle repeating “hey look kids, Big Ben...Parliament” as we went 'round and 'round the circle. But thankfully that never happened. The traffic circles are actually pretty awesome. They're much more efficient than lights/stop signs and once you get the hang of them are really useful. Need to make a u-turn – find a traffic circle and just go around! Need to make a right turn across a busy intersection – just drop into the flow of the circle and wait until your road comes up! The US needs to get on the stick with these things ASAP. And now all you Jersey people can feel good (for once), because you guys are the American masters of the roundabout.

The roads themselves are challenging (read: fun) to drive because they are so curvy. Twisting along the coast around banked roads next to mountains and seaside cliffs makes for some white-knuckled driving. Then add one of those logging trucks coming in the opposite lane and you have a recipe for some crazy conditions. But it's fun, and I think all those years of playing car racing video games prepared me well for driving down here.

Lastly, in line with the overwhelming nice vibe of the Kiwis, the traffic signs politely remind you to be a good driver. Sprinkled all along their two lane “highways” are pink signs stating facts like “Think about the road conditions ahead” or “Please consider the other drivers on this road”, and “Carefully control your following distance”. Very polite reminders about not being a jerk behind the wheel. Again, the US should take note.

Overall, driving in NZ isn't exactly hard, but it does mess with your sense of the “right” way to drive. I think the next challenge will be when we get back to the US and I drive back on the right side of the road....

The Drinking – Enough craft beers to last a lifetime

New Zealand is currently experiencing an explosion in craft beer-ness. Everywhere we turn we've been able to find craft beer, and it's really great! From the breweries and brewpubs scattered all over the big cities to the small craft beer scene even in tiny towns, it seems like every time we looked for good beer we were able to EASILY find it. Just like in the US, some in-the-know restaurants have added taps with craft beer while others still serve gross mass-market beers. We avoided the latter. The one place where we couldn't find good craft beer was in the supermarket. It seems like most of these craft breweries don't have extensive bottle distribution yet, but I'm sure that's coming soon.

The beer tastes in NZ are a little different than those in the US. While in the US the predominant craft beer style is IPA, here they really like their pilsners and pale ales. Interestingly, though, their pale ales and pilsners are hoppier than what you'd find in the US, so they end up kind of being a blend between an IPA and a pale ale. Rather than being very light yellow in color, they have more of an amber hue. So, they certainly do like hops down here, they just aren't as hop-crazy as the US is. Additionally, we haven't seen many dark beers. We're not sure if that's just due to the fact that it's summer here and nobody wants a heavy stout at the beach, or they just don't have a taste for it. One of the breweries we visited did say they were planning on putting some darker beers on tap in a couple of weeks, but that type of beer was definitely the exception rather than the rule.

I'm not going to go into lots of detail on all the great beers we tried across the country so far, but rest assured we've been tracking every beer we've tried and plan to post a list with some notes soon. There were some standouts, however. The best breweries on the North Island are Brothers Brewing in Auckland, Good George Brewery in Hamilton, and Garage Project Brewing in Wellington.

Brothers Brewing has a cool vibe – it feels like you're sitting on the set of That 70s Show, with mismatched plaid couches and vintage toys scattered around the bar. Their beers were excellent, though they only had a few of their own beers for us to taste test. They fill the rest of their taps with other craft brewers from NZ, which we really appreciated since we had just arrived in NZ and wanted to try a variety of breweries.

Good George brews from and runs a great little restaurant out of an old abandoned church in Hamilton (just south of Auckland). They make some very interesting beers, including a sparkling pale ale, which is kinda like a mix between champagne and beer, and plum cider. Everyone there was really nice, they had great food – it really felt like a brewpub back home.

And last, but certainly not least, Garage Project. These guys opened a brewery in an old gas station in Wellington – the tanks are stored in the former auto repair bays. Coincidentally, the day we visited they had just been named the best brewery in NZ and were justifiably excited. We tasted all their beers on tap and they were all excellent. The standout in my mind was their elderflower and honey wheat beer called Touch Wood. It was a sweet version of a Belgian Tripel and it was pretty amazing. It's worth it to go to Wellington just check out what they are serving that day. They rotate the taps really frequently and all tastings are free. I know if I lived nearby I'd be a regular there.

Garage Project goodness here....I'll have another.

Garage Project goodness here....I'll have another.

We're excited to see what craft beer the South Island has to offer. If it's anywhere near as good as the North Island we're going to be very spoiled.