There's no doubt that the silver lining of having our borders closed this year has been the incentive to see more of New Zealand.
While places such as Rotorua and Queenstown dominate the front pages of most Kiwi tourism brochures, my interest in lesser known towns and their people has drawn me to places much less often thought of as destinations for a weekend away.
One such place is Invercargill. It's not somewhere I really had on my radar as a future holiday destination.
But I was given the opportunity to visit the city at the invitation of Booking.com, as part of their local marketing campaign.
First thing's first: getting to Invercargill is now a whole lot easier and faster with Air New Zealand's non-stop service between Auckland and Waihōpai.
Previously, getting to the southernmost city from Auckland would involve stopping in Wellington or Christchurch to swap into a smaller, slower aircraft. The new direct service turns all that into a single flight of about two hours.
However, two hours is really stretching the limit of how long it's suitable to only serve cookies and tea.
As with many places around New Zealand, a car is a must for this part of the country, especially if you want to see what, for me, were the absolute highlights of my brief visit to Southland.
You won't need anything fancy, unless you plan on going in winter. But hiring a car is the best option unless you want to spend thousands on taxi fares.
As I'll explain more soon, most of the highlights for me involved smaller towns within the region. But there are some places in Invercargill itself that are well worth spending time.
First off, Bill Richardson's Transport World is a must. Don't be fooled by the name of this place, it's more than an exhibition about cars.
I mean, the majority of this massive museum is all about motoring, but the team have found a way to intertwine stories and memories from the times these vehicles were a daily sight on New Zealand's roads.
A highlight was sitting in a bus stop next to an old school bus that I imagine was from the late '60s. Hidden speakers play the sounds of people passing by and the bus pulling up at the stop. As well as the ambient noise, the conversations being had by children of that era and people who shared their memories of catching that exact bus to and from school. This particular part really struck a chord with me and my interest in the 'old days' of Aotearoa.
The staff were amazingly friendly, and the gift shop has a great range of items - I can guarantee there will be something there that you'll want to purchase as a souvenir.
And, before I move on, it's also worth mentioning that Transport World also has a display of previous entries into the World of Wearable Art Awards.
Take a roadie:
Just 25 minutes south of Invercargill is the infamous Bluff. Yes, it's a must visit spot due to that sign post you see all over Instagram, but it's also a lovely little place all on its own.
Being a weekend, there wasn't much happening, apart from a small fruit and vege market. An older gentleman selling produce there told me he had lived in Bluff since leaving Hastings. He preferred the quieter life. Just about everyone I spoke to was friendly, even after they had worked out I was an Aucklander - they have JAFA identifying down to a fine art, so it took them just seconds.
Meanwhile, 35 minutes north-west of Invercargill is, I think, one of Southlands hidden gems: Riverton, a small harbourside town - or rather, well estuary-side town to be more precise.
I remain amazed that this beautiful little spot hasn't been used as a location in TV shows or movies. The main street running alongside the Pourakino River into Jacobs River Estuary, the bridge and scattered housing on the surrounding hills would have made a perfect Cabot Cove for Angela Landsbury.
Move over Dawson's Creek, Jacobs River is here.
The main street has more antique stores than it does people. There were some pretty unique items in all of these stores and just like Bluff, when you were in one of these shops you felt like you were a visiting friend, rather than a stranger doing some shopping.
At one store, the entire family were camped out behind the counter. Dad had a beer in his hand and their dog snuggled in with the young children. They talked about fishing, family and the fun they have. You couldn't help but be a bit jealous of the life these Riverton locals were living.
Before leaving, it was time to refuel with coffee and a bit of lunch. Jacobs River Bakehouse puts some Auckland establishments to shame when it comes to their vegan and vegetarian options. That's something else I noticed about Invercargill too - if you're expecting every eatery to serve mostly meat, you'll be surprised. And, if you like a certain kind of coffee and perhaps thought they may only have the instant stuff down there, you're in for an even bigger surprise.
I asked at one cafe what types of milk they had on offer for their coffees. I was probably hoping for an answer like "blue and light blue", but instead got quite the opposite.
"You name it, we have it. Almond, oat, coconut... just not the cow stuff. We don't like that."
And that's the best way to sum up this brief visit to the Invercargill region, and why we should do something new.
I went somewhere that I had never planned to visit, discovered some parts of it were unlike anywhere else I'd been before and the people were exactly how I'd like to think every New Zealander is seen internationally.
Warm, inviting, friendly, but not too shy to stick their tongue in their cheek and have a go at a visiting Aucklander.
Note: The excitement didn't end there. Just after leaving Invercargill, my flight was struck by lightning. You can read about that here.
Newshub Travel was invited to Invercargill as a guest of Booking.com.