. . . but healthy, as far as we know. Our 3-month trip to New Zealand ended prematurely and abruptly due to COVID-19. On March 28, we exited Auckland on one of the last Air New Zealand flights to the U.S. for the foreseeable future. We’re relieved to be back home in Colorado to ride out this global crisis over the coming weeks and months. Other travelers were unable to secure outbound flights before commercial air travel came to a standstill, so they are stranded. Likely for a long while.
As friends and family have noted, there are worse places than New Zealand to be marooned! The country is filled with amazing beauty and friendly people. We felt welcome and comfortable during our seven week stay. And safe.
New Zealand’s leaders took early and decisive action to interrupt the spread of the coronavirus. Early results suggest that it’s working, but too early to know for sure.
Here’s a look at the seven days leading up to our trip back to the U.S. that illustrates how quickly events unfolded in New Zealand.
Countdown Day 7 – Saturday, March 21
We departed Kaikoura as scheduled to spend three days in Blenheim – the heart of Marlborough wine country, known for its tasty sauvignon blanc wines.
The drive was uneventful until we arrived in Blenheim. The winery we had selected for lunch and a tasting was closed, with a COVID-19 message on the gate. It was our first “uh-oh” moment, but we located another option just down the road and enjoyed a nice lunch/wine tasting on the patio at Wither Hills.
After we checked into our Airbnb and shopped for provisions, we learned that the NZ government had just released a system of alert levels related to COVID-19 and that we were currently at Level 2 (out of 4).
Then we learned that the U.S. State Department had issued a Level 4: Do Not Travel advisory recommending U.S. citizens avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19. And Americans currently traveling internationally were urged to “arrange for immediate return to the U.S. unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.”
Based on our research, it appeared as though our scheduled flights for May were still OK – in fact, United was still selling tickets. Combined with the low number of COVID-19 cases in New Zealand, we decided to hold off changing travel plans just yet. Then we enjoyed a nice bottle of wine with dinner.
Countdown Day 6 – Sunday, March 22
A bombshell announcement in the early morning hours – United Airlines would be shutting down all flights to and from the Pacific region as of March 28. Even though we were scheduled to fly Air New Zealand (a United partner) back to the U.S. in May, we decided it was time to act. Bill and I quickly changed our travel plans to fly from Nelson (next stop on our itinerary) to Auckland to San Francisco on Saturday, March 28. Later we read that Air New Zealand was also discontinuing flights to the U.S. at the end of the month.
Meanwhile, Steve and Marlene considered their options and decided not to return to the U.S. immediately. Confident in the wisdom of our decisions, the four of us enjoyed a nice lunch and wine tasting at Hans Herzog Estate.
Countdown Day 5 – Monday, March 23
Happy birthday, Marlene! Not much of a celebration, because all but a handful of restaurants and wineries were closed, but we managed to find a nice place for lunch. Each of us had to sign in (name, address, phone number) in case COVID-19 case tracing became necessary at a later date.
Upon returning to our rental unit, we learned that the NZ government had moved to COVID-19 Alert Level 3 and would institute Alert Level 4 at midnight on Wednesday – a little more than 48 hours away.
Wow – we were in shock! The immediate priority was ensuring we had sufficient groceries for the days ahead, so we stocked up on a few items, then went for a nice long walk on the network of city trails.
It was only later that evening that the details of “travel severely limited” under Level 4 restrictions began to emerge. All domestic flights and ferry service between the islands would be shut down except for essential workers, which meant that we couldn’t travel from our current location on the South Island to Auckland (on the North Island) to catch our flight to the U.S. on Saturday! That’s when it all became real, and we had a moment of panic.
Flying to the North Island before the shutdown wasn’t an option, as flights for Tuesday and Wednesday were fully booked. We quickly came up with Plan B and booked ferry tickets for Wednesday (March 25) from Picton (South Island) to Wellington on the southern tip of the North Island. From there we could rent a car and drive to Auckland – a distance of about 400 miles.
Problem solved . . . or not.
Countdown Day 4 – Tuesday, March 24
A new day and yet more developments. We found out that renting a car to drive from Wellington to Auckland was not an option, as all rental car agencies were closing by the end of the day and would remain closed during the lockdown. The train was already shut down, and we didn’t trust that the bus would be operating either.
But then, some good news! We found this exception to domestic plane travel in the fine print of the lockdown rules:
“After Wednesday, the only internal flights available will be for freight or for people working in essential services. Visitors and tourists will also be able to fly domestically, if required, to reach an international airport.”
We hadn’t yet cancelled our tickets to fly from Nelson to Auckland on Saturday, March 28, so the original plan (Plan A) was back on. A sigh of relief!
The next task for the day was securing places to stay in Nelson – three nights for us and 30 days for Steve and Marlene, who would be there for the duration of the lockdown. They rented a cottage through Airbnb, and we found a condo downtown. Unfortunately, the owner of our place cancelled a couple of hours later, so we signed up for a different unit. Also cancelled. Finally, we were able to book a motel room with a kitchenette and were hopeful that it would stick.
And once again, we savored a nice bottle of wine with our cheese, crackers and fruit dinner, and enjoyed a few games of Farkle and Sparkle Kitty to observe our last evening together in New Zealand.
Countdown Day 3 – Wednesday, March 25
Today was a travel day – Blenheim to Nelson, which commenced after another trip to the grocery store. The Countdown supermarket in Blenheim had already instituted a strict protocol for visitors – only one household member in the store at a time, a limit of 50 visitors at any one time, use of hand sanitizer required upon entry to the store, and customers must stay 2 meters apart and bag their own groceries. The shelves were well-stocked, and we made room in the Highlander.
It was a picture-perfect day, so we opted for the longer, more scenic route to Nelson.
The highlight of the journey was stunning views of Queen Charlotte Sound.
After arriving in Nelson, we reluctantly parted ways with Steve and Marlene and checked into our lodging for the next three nights.
Countdown Day 2 – Thursday, March 26
First day of the nation-wide lockdown. A quiet and peaceful day with no curve balls. We went for a walk on the Maitai River Walkway adjacent to the motel.
Countdown Day 1 – Friday, March 27
Another morning, another bombshell announcement. We received an email around 9:30 that the exemption for domestic air travel allowing us to fly from Nelson to Auckland tomorrow had been cancelled by the New Zealand government. If we couldn’t get to Auckland by midnight tonight, we were not going home.
Time to spring into action . . . again. Plan C. No problem booking an evening flight from Nelson to Wellington, then another flight to Auckland. Finding a place to spend the night in Auckland, however, was another story. The list of lodging options provided by the NZ government was useless – all were either already booked or not answering the phone. We ended up with a last minute on-line reservation at the Hilton. Overpriced and far from the airport, but we were thankful to have it.
We arrived at the mostly deserted Nelson airport with plenty of time to spare and boarded the mostly empty flight to Wellington.
We arrived in Auckland without incident. Getting a taxi to transport us to the hotel, however, was the next challenge, as they were few and far between. Finally, it was our turn, and we made it to the Hilton around 11:30 p.m. Other than the front desk staff, there wasn’t a soul in sight. Before receiving our room key, we were required to provide documentation of a confirmed flight out of the country tomorrow.
Countdown Day 0 – Saturday, March 28
A beautiful day in Auckland, and time to say goodbye to New Zealand, for now.
Our flight to San Francisco wasn’t scheduled to leave until 7:45 p.m., so we had time to kill. Since there was no food at the Hilton, we walked about a mile to the closest grocery store and picked up provisions for a picnic lunch, of sorts, as well as snacks for the long trip home.
We breathed a sigh of relief when the shuttle van taking us to the airport showed up, more or less on time. Another sigh of relief after successfully checking in for our flight. And when we saw the plane sitting at our gate.
The journey from Auckland to San Francisco to Denver to Fort Collins went smoothly, and 22 hours after climbing into the airport shuttle in Auckland, we unlocked the door to our condo in Colorado. We were home, and it was still Saturday.
The Maori words engraved on the wall near our gate at the Auckland airport seemed appropriate and comforting:
Update: Sunday, April 5
We’re still healthy and self-quarantining for another week. And thankful to be home.
Kudos to the New Zealand government for its early and aggressive intervention strategy. Although unnerving for us and others trying to exit the country, the leaders have had a singular focus of containing the virus. I wish I could say the same for the U.S. Perhaps we wouldn’t be experiencing the tragedy that is now unfolding.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We must keep our wanderlust in check for the foreseeable future. However, I have copious amounts of material from our travels in New Zealand prior to the lockdown, so stay tuned!
And stay healthy . . . .