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Is New Zealand Just California South?

How easy would it be to fake an international flight? You step into a big metal tube, it shakes around a bit — not unlike a ride at Disneyland — and 12 hours later, the door opens. Besides all the people speaking with accents, cars driving on the other side of the road, toilets draining the other way, colorful, plastic-y money, football with no pads, and basketball with no backboards (seriously, it’s a thing), the place you’ve arrived in is not all that different from the place you left. The differences are both subtle and glaring, but the verdict remains: New Zealand looks and feels so much like California.

Exhibit A: The landscape. As discussed recently, New Zealand — at least in Northland — does a fantastic impression of Marin County. The small, shrubby islands look exactly like those found in my home waters of San Rafael Bay.

A rocky headland near Russell, New Zealand, looking a bit like Angel Island . . . If Angel Island had a big, bright swimming pool in front of it.
© 2020 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

But there’s a tropical vibration humming through everything. The water is turquoise, jade, or royal blue compared to the Bay Area’s muddy chocolate latte that we’ve come to love (or endure). Most New Zealanders will tell you that the water, even in the north, can be chilly, but if you’ve ever ‘trunked it’ in the Bay, then you’ll find the temperature quite tolerable, even perfect.

That tropical vibe permeates the seemingly-identical landscape, too. There are large ferns — the ubiquitous symbol of New Zealand — and alien-looking trees mixed in with that California-esque flora, and there are strange sounds croaking from the depths of the foliage.

Completely on theme with this ‘LectronicCalifornia Kiwi sailed into my life as I was writing, with a rolling, green/brown, Marin-esque landscape in the background.
© 2020 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

Exhibit B: The culture.

“The two-lane highway across the North Island wound through a green and pleasant land of sheep-covered hills, deep forest, and cozy cafés offering ‘Devon Tea,’ a pot of Earl Grey and scones filled with jam and clotted cream,” wrote Tony Horwitz in Blue Latitudes. “This is the stock image of New Zealand: the Britain of the Southern Hemisphere, more English than England, a wooly colonial throwback.”

After exactly 18 hours of research, I was prepared to respectfully disagree with Mr. Horwitz. New Zealand’s boating centers, upon first and cursory glance, are more Californian than California. Everyone is super laid-back and listening to classic rock, and there are lots of young Americans working at the shoreside businesses. (I would have assumed that New Zealand’s English colonial vestiges would more closely resemble the East Coast. Not so . . . so far.)

The continuing case for the New Zealand/Marin parallel.
© 2020 Latitude 38 Media LLC /

In Northland, there’s a tight-knit cruising community — many members of which are Puddle Jump veterans — whom you’re constantly running into around parking lots and shoreside hangouts. You know people by their boat’s name as much as their first names. Everyone discusses their cruising plans, although everyone’s cruising plans are in constant flux with the weather, boat work, parts, and injuries (it turns out being on land can be more dangerous than being at sea). After arriving from the far reaches of the Pacific and being strangers in a strange town, foreign cruisers are suddenly more at home than they would be in the bustling megalopolises from which they came.

There’s a difference in cultures, though. As I exited a bus with a bulky suitcase on an empty road in Northland, a car stopped in less than a minute. “Get in,” said a shirtless Kiwi man, issuing a command more than making a request. He and his wife said they’d been sanding their boat all day, and were on their way to “watch the rugby” (football with no pads). They insisted on giving me a ride.

Can you imagine this happening in the Bay Area? Not bloody likely.

Sunsets are universal, and transcend borders.
© 2020 Latitude 38 Media LLC /

It’s a little strange to get off a long flight without a dramatically foreign culture meeting you at the terminal, or at least, a serious case of jet lag. (New Zealand is only three to four hours behind the Bay Area, but a day ahead.) To be sure, the country’s landscape is guaranteed to change with one’s change in latitude, but so far, it’s been a surprisingly charming — and at times head-scratching — experience to see a place that so closely resembles home.

Addendum: Let’s talk about the elephant in the self-isolation room. When I arrived in New Zealand in early March, I waltzed through customs. Just a few days ago, the Kiwis imposed a 14-day self-isolation policy for incoming visitors. Yesterday on the radio, I heard that New Zealand had seen its biggest one-day spike in coronavirus cases. Also, Cyclone Gretel passed the North Island of New Zealand on Monday. The storm barely registered in local media, but there was a buzz in the cruising community. After some forecasts called for a direct-ish hit with 50-knot winds and 30-ft waves, the storm passed to the north, bringing rain and some gusts, but nothing crazy. Regardless of your sense of impending doom, one must go with the flow. 

5 Comments

  1. Stanton Stanton 1 year ago

    What a beautiful spot. I lived ten years in San Rafael, and it could be the same place. Tiburon, Paradise Cay Yacht Harbor. Special! The water flows backwards, in NZ!

    This is for all you older sailors, out there. I held a 50 ton ticket, and chartered my 38′ Phoenix for many years, on the Bay. Cut my teeth at OCSC, when it just Started. After more then 30 years, I’ve hung up my foulies. Sold the San Rafael home and the boat, and move to Santa Fe, New Mexico. What a spiritual , cultural Meca. You have to first be finished with your sailing life, then an AMAZING adventure unfolds. What a place! Beauty everywhere. Santa Fe is surrounded by amazing Mountains. Four seasons. 7,000 feet of elevation. FRIENDLY people, who make eye contact. Smart, interesting, and friendly! Sold the 911S, and purchased a new 4Runner. Filled her up today, and gas was $1.88 a gallon. Sold the Marin County for $1.2 M. Purchased an amazing large, newish Santa Fe Adobe, in an amazing community for $580,000. Google “ALDEA de Santa Fe”. Property taxes are roughly, 50% less.

    You get the drift. There are wonderful delights, after sailing. Santa Fe has certainly checked all the boxes for us. I could go on and on, but all I was after was to plant the seed. Go online and check out this place. You won’t be disappointed. It will be a joyous, virtual adventure. We’re blown away. Been here since June, 2019, and love the vibe and calmness. Fair winds and following seas, Mate……..

  2. Dennis 1 year ago

    Not to disparage the New Zealanders, but after spending two weeks in NZ last November, it is just like CA – only upside-down… We checked out the south island first. Camper van in Queenstown and off to Doubtful Sound – where is snowed on us. It got warmer the further north we drove and warmer still on the north island – while surfing in Raglan (like Santa Cruz used to be in the 70-80s).
    So – they got beaches, we got beaches. They got sheep, we got sheep. They got snowy mountains – check. Volcanos, check (thoough theirs are more active). The similarities go on. Except, they do not have deserts. Thinking CA has them there. They do have penguins so they have us there I guess. Definitely a chill vibe north to south, that might not be the same here in CA.
    Was a fun trip. Recommend it.
    Cheers/Dennis

  3. Gus 1 year ago

    What a wonderful article!!!! I so enjoyed it.

    A very welcome reprieve from the minute by minute depressing chatter about the virus pandemic by people most of whom don’t have a clue what they are talking about. And very few, if any, who are knowledgeable enough to have any solutions. Just endless, repetitive regurgitation.

  4. Barry Spanier 1 year ago

    when i lost my boat on Rakitu Island (220 acres) in 1978, there was nothing but helpful people to make sure I made my way out of my predicament. With officials in government to the general boating community (it seems everyone has a boat or loves them) there was nothing but good vibes.
    When I went to the US Consulate in Auckland however I was greeted by bullet proof glass and a really bad attitude, like I was a criminal because I had lost my passport in a shipwreck. Mocking laughter even. A sad way to re-enter the world after surviving near death.
    Might not be like that now, but needless to say, it was disappointing then.
    New Zealand… I could live there and did for nine months making so many wonderful friends and enjjoying such a magical place. But smartly, and rightly so, they don’t let yanks in so easy. Actually they were pushing me off the dock when it was time to go. No way around it. On yer way, mate.
    Loved it even though the tough reality of sailing there took my boat and changed my life.
    Aloha
    Barry Spanier RIP SEMINOLE, currently CORNELIA / Lahaina, and soon to be ROSIE G under construction at BMC

  5. Fernando Pedretti 1 year ago

    NZ seems to be the best place to live in the whole world.

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