I’ve got a confession to make: I make a terrible backpacker.
No, it’s true! I don’t party, I have never taken a trip longer than 2 weeks, and I don’t even own a proper backpacker’s backpack.
And you know what else? I don’t like hostels.
I like the idea of hostels — safe, cheap places for travelers to stay that offer all the amenities of home and are conducive to meeting other like-minded travelers. That’s great. But what I don’t like about hostels is sleeping with strangers (at least one of whom will always snore), having to lock up my belongings, and feeling daunted by the task of trying to force my friendship on other people by inviting myself into their groups.
I’ve said before that I’m a bit of a weenie when it comes to solo travel. One-on-one, I’m great with meeting new people. But when it’s me against a gaggle of 20-something travelers who are already BFFs and who may also already be slightly tipsy by the time I see them in the hostel lounge? That, my friends, is not my forte.
So call me a snob if you like, but I do not love hostels. Never have, and probably never will.
But that’s not to say I can’t compromise. I am a mildly budget-conscious traveler, and hostels do often offer the best bargains. But those bargains don’t necessarily have to be found in the dorm rooms.
On my recent trip to New Zealand, I was offered complimentary stays at a handful of hostels as part of my Blog4NZ prize package. Never one to turn down something free that I can later blog about, I knew I couldn’t pass the offers up. Luckily for me, my stays were all in private rooms, which meant I got to check a lot of hostels out without having to deal with those awkward dorm room moments that I dread.
Here’s a round-up of the hostels I stayed in in New Zealand:
Greymouth — Noah’s Ark Backpackers
This one was not a freebie, but I feel the $50NZD (roughly $38USD) I spent on a private room at Noah’s Ark Backpackers was well worth it. The hostel has a slight safari theme, with each of the rooms decorated with paintings and photos of some large African animal or other. I stayed in the “Elephant Room.”
The hostel itself, located inside a 100-year-old building that used to house a monastery, was clean and cozy with just the right amount of rustic kitsch. My ground-floor room was warm (with TWO heaters!), my bed was comfy, and there was a shared bathroom one door over. I even got a free hour or so worth of wi-fi access with my room. The dorm rooms were upstairs, and the hostel also had a nice dining room/lounge with a fireplace, a TV room, laundry for a reasonable price, and even a hottub outside.
For those with allergies, note, though, that Noah’s Ark is also home to a dog and cat, as well as chickens that roam the fenced-in yard outside.
Franz Josef — Rainforest Retreat
In Franz Josef, I was put up at the Rainforest Retreat, which is approximately a 5-minute walk from town and the handful of popular hostels there. The Retreat offers up a variety of accommodation options, from cabins to dorm rooms. I was assigned a motel-style room that could have slept 3. The room itself wasn’t anything special (though the space heater was much appreciated after spending a wet and chilly day out on the Franz Josef Glacier), but the bed was comfy and the water was hot.
I also got a coupon at check-in for a $12 “backpacker dinner” at Monsoon, the bar/restaurant on the Retreat property. The price may not seem like a bargain, but I assure you it was. I ordered a massive cheeseburger with a generous helping of fries, and enjoyed people-watching at the bar.
I’ll also note that this was the only place where I was able to pick up free wi-fi Internet access, though the signal was admittedly very weak.
Queenstown — Nomads
Nomads Queenstown is definitely what most people would call a “flashpackers.” Nearly brand-new, Nomads Queenstown was named Best Hostel in New Zealand in both 2010 and 2011. And I’ll admit that it was definitely one of the nicer places I stayed in one of the best locations — right in the heart of Queenstown, the country’s adventure capital.
Nomads put me up in one of their single rooms, which usually goes for a rate comparable to (or more expensive than) rooms at a lot of nearby hotels. I had a king-sized bed all to myself, a fancy bathroom, a flat-screen TV, and a huge balcony that offered up views of the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu. While the bed was probably the least comfortable one I slept in in NZ, I felt like a rockstar in this room for 2 nights.
The hostel itself is part of a large chain, meaning you can expect things like a bustling kitchen and common area, an Internet café, luggage storage, and a whole lotta dorm rooms in a setting just oozing with 20-something backpackers. If you were a social butterfly, Nomads would be the perfect place for you. As for me, I almost had a panic attack when I walked into the absolutely packed dining room one evening.
Wellington — Downtown Backpackers
For 2 nights in Wellington, I had the chance to stay at Downtown Backpackers, a hostel set up in the historic Hotel Waterloo. This hostel definitely isn’t as “flash” as some of the others on offer in Wellington, but it certainly has character. With old elevators, grand staircases, intricately tiled bathrooms and a café in the old ballroom, Downtown Backpackers is definitely worth checking out.
They put me up in one of their single rooms, which was basically just an old hotel room. I found the hostel to be quiet (except for some noisy pipes), the reception staff to be friendly, and all the amenities to be reasonable. There’s both a bar and café in the hostel, as well as a tour desk and lockers to store small luggage.
Downtown Backpackers is conveniently located directly across the street from the Wellington Railway Station, too. It’s clearly in a good spot, because the Queen and her entourage even stayed here back when it was the Hotel Waterloo on her coronation tour in 1953.
Paraparaumu — Barnacles Seaside Inn
The only YHA hostel I stayed in in New Zealand, Barnacles Seaside Inn was perhaps my favorite. But it wasn’t the doily-covered, antique-laden private room I had, or the squashy couches, or the courtyard, or the great coastal views that made it my favorite — it was the people. Run by a lovely couple, Aorangi and Bill, Barnacles just felt like home.
I was greeted with hugs, treated like a celebrity, and introduced to anyone and everyone Aorangi could find hanging about the place. When I returned from an afternoon spent hiking on Kapiti Island, Aorangi insisted that I go have a sit-down in my room, and then she proceeded to bring me a tray with coffee, cheese and crackers.
This hostel may be older, but it is very well looked-after, and offers a variety of rooms. Many of the others staying there were living there indefinitely as they looked for jobs, and it was clear that Aorangi treated many of them like her own children.
If you ever find yourself in Paraparaumu on NZ’s Kapiti Coast, Barnacles is the place to stay.
So would I do it all over again if I had the chance? Yes, probably. Even though this is one solo girl who doesn’t love hostels, I was able to enjoy my stays in the right ones.
And that’s really what travel is all about — discovering your own style and learning how to work with it.
Are you the hostel-going type? Tell me about some of your favorite (or least-favorite) experiences.
Note: I realize I do a lot of stereotyping in this post — namely suggesting that people who stay in hostels are young and like to party. I know this is not always the case, but it is often the norm in many New Zealand hostels, especially the really flash chain ones. Please excuse my blatant over-generalizations.
Disclaimer: As mentioned, Rainforest Retreat, Nomad’s Queenstown, Downtown Backpackers and Barnacles all offered me complimentary stays. But this in no way influenced my experiences or opinions. And, in most cases, I still had to pay for my Internet access — come on NZ, where’s the free wi-fi??