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TRAVELING IN STYLE : Perfect Strangers : So They took the America's Cup. As a Yankee Discovers During a Motor-Home Trek on the Kiwis' Home Turf, It Couldn't Have Gone to a Nicer Bunch.

October 15, 1995|Tom Bodett | Humorist Bodett is the author of four books and the audio series "American Odyssey" (Brilliance Corp.).

New Zealand is just south of my Homer, Alaska, home by half a world and one wholeday. The question I most often hear when I tell people this is where I went on vacation is, "Why?" Good question. It's green and gorgeous like 3,000 other green and gorgeous places 3,000 miles closer and, frankly, you can go to Yosemite and do about everything there is to do in New Zealand. So why go there? Well, if truth be told, half a world and one whole day is just far enough from Homer, Alaska.

My friend Bill and I needed no other reason to go there than that it was gettingpretty ugly around here. When your own country is gripped by intramural terrorism and free-lance paranoia, a journey to one of the most far-flung placeson earth suddenly seems completely logical.

The plan was simple: Throw our bikes on a jet airplane and fly at high speed to a place where it is summer in January--New Zealand, for example. Once there, we would rent a camper and gallivant around the two islands of this extreme southern outpost of the English language exploring, biking and generally not being in Homer, Alaska. We would spend two weeks on the North Island, cross on the ferry from Wellington to Picton and spend another two weeks exploring the more rugged and remote quarters of the South Island. That was the plan anyway.

Bill and I arrived at Auckland airport in the early morning--nerves still jangledfrom nine hours of flying. While trying to get our heads around losing a whole day crossing the international date line, we piled the mountain bikes into the galley of an enormous Mitsubishi motor home. For only $10 more per day, Maui Campa, the nationwide camper rental agency, upgraded us from a four-berth camperthe size of a small house to a six-berth model the size of a small barn. The little bit of truck driving experience I brought with me was of no use here.

New Zealand roads and vehicles are the mirror image of our own. So you pretty much take everything you know about driving and try to do it backward. I careened through the traffic arteries of Auckland using wipers for blinkers and door handles for gear shifts but soon got the hang of driving on the wrong side of the road from the wrong side of a vehicle with the aerodynamics of a chest freezer. It was quite some time before I even ran into anybody. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We achieved escape velocity from Auckland and relaxed into the drive north to the Bay of Islands, one of the North Island's premier vacation playgrounds. As soon as I was comfortable enough with the helm to actually look at the countryside, my first thought was, "This looks just like Marin County." Bill opened his eyes finally. "No, more like Puget Sound--Friday Harbor maybe."

And so it went. Every bend in the road brought a new comparison: Big Sur, Coos Bay, British Columbia. It became clear there was very little new about New Zealand. Actually the whole place feels like a subtropical Canada. Imagine life in California if Canadians ran the place. No, that's too frightening. Just imagine New Zealand as a conglomeration of about every nice little place you've ever been to. Immediately familiar. Instantly at home.

It was quickly apparent that the biggest attraction New Zealand offers is the people themselves. Having arrived from far-off America locked in the dead of winter, in weather and in spirit, the people of New Zealand refreshed and surprised me in ways the landscape and food never did. I don't think there is a better way to describe the New Zealand character than to tell you how they reactwhen you back over their car with a six-berth camper.

It happened in Whangarei, a squared-away little community tucked away in the hills below the Bay of Islands. I was totally at fault. I'd backed up at a stoplight to change lanes for a turn I'd missed and hadn't seen the other six cars already lined up behind me. The unfortunate driver of the first car in line, an understandably incensed woman, leaned over the broken glass and twistedgrille of her nice white car.

"I'm really sorry," I said.

"You're not sorry," she replied with a good amount of Commonwealth pith. "You'restupid."

I had no argument with the observation, and loved the accent, so I allowed her to elaborate.

"You are an imbecile. Only an idiot would do such a thing. You are a very stupidperson, do you know that? Don't tell me you're sorry when what you are is stupid!"

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