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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.