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The Rough Guides became my guide book of choice when traveling in Europe. They are invariably well written and they strike a right balance (for this traveler) between budget, backpacker, roughing-it approach and more up-market travel. They also have a little bit more European focus in their audience than Lonely Planet and particularly Let's Go. Additionally, Rough Guides are usually opinionated - not stupidly so, but opinionated enough to make judgments on tourist traps and pseudo-attractions - without being sanctimonious about anything.
And thus, when choosing guidebooks for our New World trip, we also always tried to choose Rough Guides too, but I have to say the results were much more mixed.
The Rough Guide to New Zealand shares a lot of positive features with other Rough Guides. The background texts and the intro are, as usual, readable, informative, well researched and yet opinionated in the way we like.
The coverage of the country is pretty good, too. One can argue with the ordering or layout but a lot of places, even small and obscure places, are covered in The Rough Guide to New Zealand.
A huge advantage of this guide is its excellent coverage of outdoor pursuits, unprecedented for the Rough Guides I have so far had a chance of using. Hiking (tramping, bushwalking, hill-walking, trekking) is covered very reasonably for a general guide and many of long-distance as well as shorter paths are described.
However, there is one aspect of The Rough Guide to New Zealand that made me increasingly more and more annoyed as our journey progressed, and at some point I simply decided not to use the book anymore as I started to question any credibility the guide might have. Instead, it seems to be written to large extent to advertise commercial tours' and activities' operators. I have not found A SINGLE INSTANT (caveat: I didn't use the North Island sections) where the authors would say "do it yourself, the tour is unnecessary".
I do realize added value tourist industry is a huge thing in New Zealand, but this pushing of commercial operations defies the concept of independent travel that lies at the roots of the Rough Guides' success.
After all, we are not talking about a developing country where visitors' dollars are snatched by multinational travel businesses, but a wealthy nation inhabiting a land colonized (and largely turned into a sheep and cattle pasture) by Europeans. I do understand concerns about the environment in conservation areas and would not suggest the Rough Guide encouraged freedom camping instead of using DoC huts for example (even where it's allowed). But in this book, the number of tours recommended is staggering and pretty much every one of them is introduced along the lines of "but you will learn so much more/it will be more fun/it's well worth paying for/it will be altogether better for everybody concerned if you paid your money and took your seat on the bus".
If I wanted to know what organized tours can be taken in the area, I could learn that very easily from many brochures available all over the place and from the local travel agents and tourist information offices (which - more than the RG - also provide a lot of information about free activities). One of the roles of a independent travel guide is to make it less necessary to participate in commercial, organized tours, and although The Rough Guide to New Zealand does it to some extent, it seems a bit half-heated and most of the enthusiasm is devoted to recommending tours.
To be fair, this actually varies by section, so I suspect that some of the authors are more in thrall to tour operators than others. Still, this perceived pro-tour bias is the main reason I am giving The Rough Guide to New Zealand three stars out of five here. It's a pity, really, because the rest of the content is up to the usual Rough Guide standards. If you think it wouldn't bother you, by all means buy this one. Otherwise, at least be prepared and know what to expect.
I found this book invaluable not only when planning our 'once in a lifetime' trip but also during the four weeks we were there. I also used it to help with giving more depth to the scrapbook and photo album afterwards!
The book gives an excellent indepth knowledge about almost everywhere you could possibly think of going. The history as well as the practical tips are incredibly useful.
The book has the standard 'rough guide' look inside which when familiar with it you can't change to an alternative type.
The layout is as follows:
Introduction with ther where to go and when to go details, and the usual temperature guides for the varying cities.
There is then a 35 things not to miss section covering 5 topics: Activities, consume, events, nature and sights.
The Basics chapter covers the usual getting there, insurace, health, getting around, food and drink, work, travellers with disbailities, public holiday information etc.
The rest of the book is split into 14 areas around New Zealand to help you identify individual places of interest and places to stay.
The mini maps are basic but show important places to stay or eat if you are unsure of where to go.
All in all I genuinely found this book invaluable and would buy it again.