A tried-and-true way to find the most memorable spots

How a breakfast conversation led to two spectacular day trips in New Zealand

When I first visited New Zealand almost fifteen years ago, I placed my trust in three printed materials: a Lonely Planet guidebook, a map from the rental-car company, and a book of Lord of the Rings filming locations, which I purchased at Auckland Airport within minutes of my arrival. As I traveled both the North and South Islands for nearly a month, I frequently found myself putting my travel literature aside to embark on a detour or to dilly-dally on account of a roadside sign or somebody I met along the way who shared a personal tip.

This time around, Cathlin and I have three weeks to spend across both islands, but without a physical guidebook and with a bit less receptivity toward adding extra distance to our drives since we’re thinking about how long Eliza spends in her car seat. And, of course, now we have our phones. Even the rental car agent seemed surprised when I asked for a paper map to serve as a backup.

Before our plane reached its gate in Christchurch, a mobile alert informed me of the baggage carousel where we could find our checked luggage. The directions from the rental-car pickup area to our motel were perfectly mapped and automatically narrated. When the front desk was closed for the night, a single click in our email booking reached an after-hours contact. And before falling asleep I looked up the closest coffee shop with good reviews for our walk the following morning.

That’s probably the biggest change in the past 15 years, not only for me and not only in New Zealand: how entirely discoverable almost everywhere can feel before even getting there.

Which is why Cathlin and I set aside our phones once we reached that exact coffee shop in the morning. We sat on a cozy couch with sunlight streaming through wraparound windows. Eliza slept in her stroller. Classic ‘90s rock songs played on the stereo. And we had plenty to chat about, especially with it being our first day in a country Cathlin had long dreamt of visiting.

When we placed our order for flat white and long black coffees accompanied by an avocado toast and falafel wrap, the cashier asked where we were from. Without any rush, she told us how much she’d love to visit New York, that her sister had been there a few years ago while traveling around North America and Europe. She called her sister over, which was easy since her sister also worked at the café, to tell us firsthand about her travels. When our conversation turned to New Zealand, both sisters mentioned their favorite places for walks: Corsair Bay near Christchurch and Mt. John Observatory overlooking Lake Tekapo.

One of my first thoughts was to look up both locations online to see precisely where they were and what other visitors had to say, but we kept our phones out of site for a while longer and planned our next few days. We agreed that after a long walk around Christchurch, it would be nice to get out of the city but without going too far, so we wasted no time before following the first recommendation.

Wandering Christchurch while sleeping

About 20 minutes south by car from the center of Christchurch, Corsair Bay is near the harborside town of Lyttelton. Quite hidden but well sign-marked, ours was amongst only a few cars in the parking lot about an hour before sunset. A few other visitors walked dogs, sat on benches, and took photos from a small pier extending into the water, but we were almost entirely alone while wandering unhurriedly along several marked trails.

Eliza giggled away and kicked with excitement during our walk—I think at the sight of the trees and flowers around us, or else from our silly songs. Cathlin and I were in awe of the peacefulness and beauty around us. Whether there were more popular hikes in the vicinity or not, we never bothered to check. Corsair Bay was exactly what we were hoping to find, and we found it not because of our own research or the wisdom of the collective crowds online, but because we listened to one person.

Cathlin arriving at Corsair Bay
An inlet beside a former powder magazine building
Squinting into the sun for quite a tranquil view

And yes, we listened to her sister too: a couple of days later, we arrived in the village of Lake Tekapo wondering whether we would be able to find the path up to Mt. John Observatory. We had no reason to worry, because the local maps and trail listings featured two variations quite prominently, but instead of comparing choices, we again followed the advice we’d heard over breakfast in Christchurch.

The views from our hike were utterly captivating, vast expanses of land dappled with lakes and surrounded by snow-capped peaks every direction. As Cathlin and I were in awe after our descent at sunset, we realized we would have felt similarly after any number of trails. There’s unbelievable beauty across New Zealand, yet any single vantage stands on its own.

Lake Tekapo visible through the grasps of wispy branches

Daddy and daughter climbing together
Before sunset on the Mt. John Observatory trail overlooking Lake Alexandrina, near Lake Tekapo

Of course, our phones make it easy to find directions, learn about our surroundings, check the weather, and stay in touch, especially while far from home. The tools and technologies we now have at our disposal make it possible to learn more, dig deeper, and feel inspired before, during, and after any travels, but it’s important not to lose our sense of spontaneity and awe while there.

But Cathlin rightfully notes a nostalgic tone when she hears me reminisce about that first New Zealand visit as I found my way without always knowing where I was going. Being open to advice and willing to change directions can still be just as revealing. Nobody needs a guidebook or Internet connection to remind them that not all those who wander are lost.

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