This Sunday we have a World Cup match between two tourism heavyweights. We’ve got the glossy magazine travel staple Italy versus the long-flight adventure destination of New Zealand. Instead of spending hours of your time on a football match that can be summed up in a 30-second highlights video, we’re going to pit the two teams against each other on the tourism field. Which will come out the victor for travelers—including those on a budget?
Representing Italy is Donald Strachan, author of the Frommer’s guides Florence and Tuscany Day by Day and Tuscany and Umbria With Your Family. Taking New Zealand’s side is real live Kiwi Graham Reid: music guru, frequent contributor to Perceptive Travel, and author of The Idiot Boy Who Flew.
Where should I go on vacation, Italy or New Zealand?
Donald for Italy – There’s the obvious, of course. Like culture: Italy pretty much was the Renaissance, and its art and architectural heritage is without parallel. Italy is the home of the Slow Food movement, and spectacular eating opportunities can vary (literally) from town to town. Italy also has some of Europe’s great wildernesses: discover Alpine flora and the protected ibex up in the Gran Paradiso National Park; learn ice-climbing in the shadow of Europe’s tallest mountain; hike the silent wilds of the Stelvio; raft your way down the white waters of Umbria’s Valnerina. And I’m only scratching the surface here.
Graham for New Zealand – Well, why not? This is the country that gave the world a flightless bird (the kiwi), ugly orcs (Lord of the Rings), bungy-jumping and Flight of the Conchords (“New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo”). So we have a sense of humour, if nothing else.
New Zealand—which didn’t need CGI for those scenes of dramatic mountains in Lord of the Rings, they really are that spectacular —may seem a long way from the rest of the world (a plus sometimes) but it is cosmopolitan, sophisticated, lateral-thinking and small enough to be manageable. We all speak English and if you get lost you just ask in dairy (corner store) or service station (gas station).
Despite great geographical diversity—white sand beaches, magnificent snow-topped mountains, hot mineral pools, beautiful harbours and dense forests—we are compact. Because of a population of about 4.4 million in about two-thirds the area of California, a new mobile phone network established itself playing off the fact that there are just two degrees of separation between most Kiwis. It is a country that offers high adventure as well as multi-cultural cities like Auckland (the biggest Polynesian city in the world), world class vineyards and great coffee, fine dining . . . or fish’n’chips wrapped in a newspaper on deserted beach.
What can I do for free or cheap?
Italy – Walking and hiking are free almost anywhere, and local tourist offices will usually mark up a recommended trail for you (also free). Just about every city, town and village has a public festival or two spread throughout the year (usually on the local saint’s day, for starters). Even Siena’s famous Palio is free, as long as you don’t mind cramming into the middle of the Campo and waiting. Architecture is always on show, in Palladio’s Vicenza and Bramante’s Rome, in the industrial modernism of the Fiat factory in Lingotto, Turin, and everywhere else. Then there’s the art, only a fraction of which is stored behind museum paywalls. The treasures of Florence’s churches, for example, are mostly free, and the rest of Tuscany on a budget isn’t an impossible dream.
New Zealand – The great outdoors: from huge, black-sand surf beaches on the West Coast just 90 minutes from downtown Auckland to white sand Pacific beaches on the east, through bush walks and hiking trails (of various duration and difficulty), we have great places to escape to, or take the kids. Beaches and parks are free. New Zealand styles itself clean and green—and from the air it is green and brown everywhere! Parkland in the middle of cities, dense bush weaving through suburbs and massive National Parks (be guided by a ranger though, the weather can catch you out) are all there to be enjoyed and explored.
Art galleries and many museums (national and local) also have either free entry or a nominal fee for special exhibitions, you can hire a bike and use a cycle trail, or simply commute by bus between destinations. The distances aren’t that far. Small towns and big cities have farmers’ markets, there are always free talks in galleries and at universities, and a beer in bar overlooking a beach or yachts on a harbour will set you back next to nothing, as we say.
What can I get for lunch for $10 or less?
Italy – The currency’s general strength hasn’t helped, obviously, but a pizza Margherita won’t set you back more than a few euros anywhere. If you find yourself without a recommendation, walk a couple of streets back from the main piazza for better food and better value. For regional flavours, hunt out lunch stops offering a pranzo di lavoro (or “worker’s lunch”). You won’t get much choice (perhaps 3 starters or pastas, 3 mains), but the food will be fresh and authentic, and the total including wine, coffee and service should come in around 10 euros. More generally, try to understand what’s local and eat that when you can. Risotto is a staple food on the plains of the River Po, but really isn’t a local dish further south. Pizza is an institution in Naples. And so on. Katie Parla’s food blog is one place to start your Italian regional (especially Southern) food education.
New Zealand – Many of New Zealand’s larger cities are very culturally diverse, especially Auckland where there is a significant Asian population. That means cheap but excellent Korean, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Malaysian food in small cafes and restaurants, or food halls. Remember US$10 gets you NZ$14!
Or you can go for the Kiwi staple: a meat, chicken or seafood pie for a couple of bucks. With our dollar always lower than that of Australia (we call it “the Pacific peso”), we are a very economic destination for travelers from Europe and the States.
These are two good wine countries. What/where are the best wine bargains for cheapo travelers?
Italy – Italians know their wine and, to be frank, the best stuff is rarely cheap. One trick I use in some of the great wine regions (like Tuscany and Piedmont) is to go one grade down from the marquee name. So, take a “Rosso di Montalcino” at 10 euros rather than a “Brunello di Montalcino” at 50 (same grape, same growing zone, different maturation rules). The same maneuver works in nearby Montepulciano. In Piedmont, drink Nebbiolo for the exact grape used in the fine wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. Remember, though: wine villages and wineries tend to be the priciest places to stock up. Don’t, whatever you do, be tempted by foreign wines: French and Chilean are easily found in supermarkets, but always overpriced for their quality. If you want to go really cheap, the local red is almost always enjoyable; cheap whites can be horrible. The reverse applies in the mountainous bits of the North. Wine Travel Guides has fantastic (and free) online wine-trip planning content for Tuscany.
New Zealand – This country has seen a massive growth in the number and quality of its vineyards and now whole regions (Martinborough, Nelson, Marlborough, Waiheke Island in Auckland’s beautiful Waitemata Harbour) are known for the quality of their wines. We make excellent whites (Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc) but don’t ignore our reds (Merlots and Pinot Noirs especially). And believe it or not, these go for as little as NZ$12 in supermarkets and wine shops.
Look for name labels like Kim Crawford, Oyster Bay, Villa Maria, Matua Valley, Cloudy Bay and Craggy Range. We also have dozens of boutique wineries worth exploring. (see NZwines.com). Note also, most restaurants are BYO (bring your own wine) and it is common practice that if you are invited to someone’s home for dinner—as you will be—then you bring a bottle.
What are the best bets for finding cheap places to sleep?
Italy – Italians tend to vacation en masse, so your first task is to ask yourself: where aren’t people going right now? The 15 days (quindici giorni) in summer, always around Italy’s Ferragosto holiday on August 15th, sends everyone to the seaside or the hills. Cities can be spectacular value around then; August is low-season in Florence hotels, for example. Similarly, I’ve bagged massive deals in May, and even June, on holiday islands like Elba and on the shores of Lago Maggiore. Apartments and agriturismo (farm-stay) properties tend to be better value than hotels for longer stays; email the tourist office wherever you’re headed to ask for the details of a good local agent. Also, haggle wherever you enquire: it’s unlikely you’ll be offered the best deal right away.
New Zealand – New Zealand has a strong backpacker/hostel and youth hostel network (see backpackerboard.co.nz) and budget adventure packages. But there is also a well-established “freedom traveler” ethic and van-hire companies can point you in the direction of cheap campsites on Department of Conservation land or privately owned sites. Many national parks have cheap cabins, and motels can very reasonable also. B&Bs tend to be a little more expensive but the boutique versions can offer a wonderful experience as they are often in historic old homes.
New Zealand may be economic (financially and size-wise) for the international traveler, but it always impresses with its diversity—the indigenous Maori are a very visible and important part of our culture—and style. We have world-acclaimed fashion designers, musicians and artists, Oscar-winning movie makers and beaches where you can be the only person in sight. What can I say? I’ve been around a bit, and this is the place I always come back to and call home. Says it all really, doesn’t it?
Donald Strachan is a London- and Italy-based writer and travel journalist. His recent guidebooks include Florence and Tuscany Day by Day and Tuscany and Umbria With Your Family. He also authored the iPhone app guides Instant Florence and Instant Turin. For a sample of his eye for the unusual, see Where Queens Come for a Fight. You can follow him on Twitter @hackneye.
Graham Reid is an Auckland-based journalist, writer and author. He has won numerous journalism and travel writing awards, hosts his own music/trave/arts website elsewhere,co.nz. His first travel book Postcards from Elsewhere won the 2006 Whitcoulls Travel Book of the Year Award (available from elsewhere.co.nz) and most recent book The Idiot Boy Who Flew recently won the Whitcoulls’ Readers Choice Award.