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  • Courtesy of John Lieswyn

    Dawn and John Lieswyn and their Doberman, Kaon, pose above Lyttelton Harbour, one of the nation's many scenic places, during a hike on New Zealand's South Island.

  • Betty Adams / Associated Press file

    If you're looking for a thrill in Queenstown, New Zealand , try the 154-foot drop from Ledge bungee jumping platform. The gondola ride up the mountain offers nice views.

Travel spotlight: New Zealand

Published: Sunday, Sep. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H

Welcome to Travel Insider, an occasional feature in which we get the inside scoop on common – and sometimes exotic – destinations from those who have lived or traveled often there.

The place: Christchurch, New Zealand

The expert: John Lieswyn, 44, a Pittsburgh native who lives in Davis, owns a home in Christchurch, New Zealand, (and another in Asheville, N.C.). He and his wife, Dawn, moved to New Zealand after visiting four times for bicycle racing; they lived there for six years. Dawn was offered a veterinary senior lecturer position at Massey University in Palmerston North (on the North Island).

The couple returned to the states after massive earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 destroyed more than 2,000 buildings and 40,000 homes in Christchurch.

What are the cultural differences between New Zealand and the United States? How should travelers react?

Urban New Zealand is similar to the U.S. New Zealanders (called Kiwis) are very dependent on cars for transport, and teenagers are even more car-crazy than Americans. This part of the car culture is termed "boy racers." Motorists do not respect pedestrians as they do in many American urban areas, so be careful at "zebra" crossings (Wellington is a notable exception).

Other cultural differences:

• You tip restaurant workers only if you received stellar service (although in touristy areas tipping is more common) and then just a "gold coin" ($1 or $2 denominations) or two is sufficient. You do not tip other service workers.

• Kiwi English is a little different than U.S. English. A sidewalk, for example, is called a footpath. Other U.S. words and their Kiwi trans-lations: parking lot/carpark, elementary school/primary school, downtown/central city, cafe latte/flat white, cafe Americano/long black, dinner/tea, morning break/ smoko.

Name a local delicacy tourists absolutely must try.

Meat pie. Ask any local about the story of McDonald's taking over Georgie Pie and you might get tears.

Do you have any tips on the least expensive ways to get to New Zealand?

American airline carriers partner with Air New Zealand for direct flights from San Francisco and Los Angeles into Auckland. Indirect flights may be available through Australia's Qantas or the UK's Virgin. Once in New Zealand, domestic airfares are really inexpensive (try booking separately on

If you are touring by bicycle, get some really good maps and try to stay off single-digit numbered state highways to the maximum extent possible.

If you are traveling by rented motor vehicle, prepare by learning the New Zealand road rules: resources/roadcode.

Do not leave key valuables in your motor vehicle, even if it's locked; vehicles that appear to be driven by tourists are often targeted for theft, and an alarm doesn't help in sparsely populated areas that you will likely visit.

How safe and efficient is the rapid transportation (bus, subway, taxi)?

All public transportation is comparatively safe in New Zealand, and certainly safer than driving yourself.

Rail is expensive, but some of the routes are spectacular (especially on the South Island). Commuter rail is quite good in Auckland and Wellington. Bus service is efficient nationwide, but the cheap carriers are definitely no-frills (you are often let out of the bus in less-than- convenient locations).

What are two places where one can you experience the real New Zealand, the non-touristy part?

Dunedin, Invercargill, and just about any small town except Queenstown, Rotorua and Taupo.

If your in-laws were to come visit you in New Zealand, where would you have taken them and why?

Kapiti Island (off the west coast of the North Island), because it is unspoiled and full of wildlife.

New Zealand is beautiful, but many tourists don't realize until they've been to Te Papa (the National Museum in Wellington) that it has been completely "terra-formed" by the British colonists.

How would you describe the locals' attitude toward tourists in their midst?

Kiwis are gregarious people and many will open their homes to visitors. They tend to view Americans as crass, but we often prove this misconception wrong.

What is the one place not to miss when in New Zealand?

It depends on your interests.

Chocolate lovers: Shoc Chocolate factory (it's a tiny house) in Greytown.

Thrill seekers: Queens- town bungie jumping and luge run.

Cultural elites and shop- aholics: Cuba Street and Courtenay Place.

Art and history buffs: Te Papa, National Museum of New Zealand, Wellington.

Walkers: The extensive walking routes around Wellington.

Casual but fit hikers (called "trampers"): The full-day Tongariro Crossing, starting at National Park village.

Very-fit hikers: Tararua Ranges, North Island – and only Kiwis know this. The travel agents will send you to the Southern Alps, but the Tararuas are better (but also more dangerous, so ensure that you are very well prepared).

What is the one overhyped place travelers should skip?

Milford Sound. Beautiful, but the insects will eat you alive and it is a lot of time and money to see it.

What is it that made you want to live in New Zealand?

The spectacular scenery and easy access to beaches.

Would you ever consider going back, either to visit or to live?

Absolutely, depending on job opportunities and the Christchurch rebuild.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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