By: Terry Gardner, visit Terry’s Farm stays, backpacker and hostel guide
In my 20’s, I heard about youth hostels, and thought: “That’s the way I’ll explore Europe.” But my parents didn’t have the dough to send me backpacking through Europe after high school or college, so that trip never happened.
And I wound up staying in traditional hotels and motels until 2009, when an Air New Zealand employee recommended I stay in hostels and farms on a trip to New Zealand. I said: “Aren’t hostels called ‘youth hostels’ because guests are under 30?”
“No,” Cathy replied. “Most are called “International Hostels” these days. They dropped “youth” years ago, because people of all ages stay there.”
But I was still uncertain whether I would be welcome as I checked into the Little Earth Lodge in Whangarei, New Zealand. I had just turned 50. And I was checking into a backpacker lodge without even toting a backpack. But I was welcome, and the price was certainly right. I paid about $35 NZD for the one night stay in a single room with a shared bath.
I have not only been welcomed at each backpacker lodge, hostel and farm that I’ve visited since 2009, my trips have been enriched by the locals and fellow travelers that I’ve met. And I quickly discovered that Cathy was right. Guests usually range in age from about 18 to 70 (at least in New Zealand and Alaska).
Lessons from Backpacker lodges, farm stays and hostels
Most backpacker accommodations offer private, shared or dorm type rooms (with up to six beds). After a couple of trips down the hall to use the toilet and to shower, I realized I was no longer cut out for dorm life. I definitely preferred having my own bathroom.
- Lesson One: Unless you miss dorm life, book a private room that’s ensuite, so you have a private bath.
- With only 12 rooms and three baths, no ensuite option was available at the Little Earth Lodge, but I was able to get a private, ensuite room at Peppertree Backpackers in Paihia, Kahoe Farms in Kaeo and at Tahi Beach Resort in Whangarei.
- Lesson Two: Whenever you have a chance to stay at a farm, seize the opportunity. Kahoe Farms and Tahi Beach Resort were two of my favorite stays, and not just because breakfast was included.
- Tahi Beach Resort is closer to a vacation rental, so I didn’t meet any other travelers. But I was able to learn a bit about sustainability from owner operators, John and Anne Craig. They are gradually restoring the property to create an eco-friendly oasis for travelers. Guests also leave with a jar of honey made by Tahi’s honeybees.
- Kahoe Farms is off the beaten track too, but it’s convenient to bays where you can kayak or go sailing. My second night, I shared a dinner with four German travelers. We all wanted to have a meal at the farm after we learned that Stefano, our host, had previously worked as a chef in London. I never expected an opportunity to have a gourmet meal during a farm stay, but the reality is that farm stays give you a chance to connect with locals and to meet other travelers. I hadn’t realized that Germans also drive on the right side of the road, so we bonded over our experiences driving on the left hand side of the road in New Zealand. Our rental cars had the windshield wiper switch where we expected the turn signal to be, so both of our cars had very shiny windshields. Every time we attempted to signal a turn, we accidentally washed our windshields.
- Lesson Three: If you are staying in a hostel and can’t get a private room, arrive early.
- If it’s summertime and you’re sharing a room with bunk beds, grab the lower bunk or you’ll cook during the night.When I stayed at City Garden Lodge in Auckland, my room only cost $20 NZD cash for the night, but I had to share with five other women. I arrived late in the day, and all the bottom bunks were already taken. I was so hot in the top bunk that I barely got any sleep.
- Lesson Four: If you’re exploring Alaska, consider staying in a hostel. I was able to pay for more activities by sleeping several nights in a bunk bed at the Juneau Hostel. I met two sisters from Pennsylvania, both in their early 60’s, who were spending the summer traveling from Southeast Alaska up to Anchorage. They were staying at hostels so that they could afford to travel all summer long.
Wwoofing and other offbeat lodging options:
Wwoof stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and there are several separate Wwoof organizations around the world, including wwoofusa.org (USA), wwoofhawaii.org (Hawaii), wwoof.ca (Canada) and wwoof.com.au (Australia). Travelers pay an annual fee to the Wwoof organization they want to join. If you wanted to work on a farm on the mainland and in Hawaii, you would need to join two separate organizations. Most have an annual fee of $25-$30 per person.
Wwoofers have to pay to get themselves to and from the farms, but your lodging and meals are provided in exchange for your working 4-6 hours a day for 5 to 5 ½ days on the farm. Arrangements are worked out prior to committing to an assignment. Although I have yet to Wwoof, it is high on my bucket list.
Other offbeat lodging options include staying in a Kibbutz or a Bedouin tent in Israel or volunteering abroad through organizations such as Workaway.