New Zealand has a very well trodden path for backpackers and holidaymakers alike. The landscape and natural beauty across the country is world class and it’s hard to argue with anyone when they say it’s the most picturesque country in the world. But when it comes to the North and South islands, which one is better? Which one has more to offer and which did I personally prefer?
The South island is what draws people to New Zealand. The majority of the island is mountainous and uninhabited, in fact only 1.03 million people live there, and they are largely scattered around very small towns on the loop that follows the coast. The only way I can describe it for those that haven’t been is that it has landscapes like Wales, only with an abundance of mountains, waterfalls, beaches and far less rain!
1) Franz Jospeh and Fox Glaciers
These two small towns are located within 30 minutes of each other on the West coast. Most of the activities around here are pricey and whilst we would have liked to do a glacier walk and helicopter ride, doing the Fox Glacier Skydive stretched our budget enough! It’s known as the 2nd best skydive (after Everest) in the world so if you dare, don’t miss it!
2) Milford Sounds
Milford Sounds was probably the highlight of the South island for us. Its not everyday you’re in a temperate rainforest surrounded by waterfalls and rainbows. We were literally driving through clouds on our way there, the views as you approach this place are magical and so different from the rest of the island.
3) Lake Tekapo
There’s not a great deal to do here but it’s renowned as being the best spot to see the night sky. There’s a trip you can take up to the observatory and if you get a clear night, you’ll be in for amazing views. Unfortunately for us the night we was there was really cloudy 🙁
If you follow the islands loop around the coast you’ll pass through dozens of small towns. To be honest, they’re all very similar, each has a few shops, a library, a supermarket and maybe a couple of restaurants. What Kaikoura has though that the other towns did not was seals, and lots of them!
4) Lake Wanaka
Wanaka was my favourite town in the South Island, I preferred it to Queenstown and Christchurch. It’s big enough to have some atmosphere to it (unlike a lot of the small towns along the coast) but small enough to have that quaint seaside feel. There’s loads to do there and plenty of nice restaurants but it’s the drive there that I’ll remember the most. The road to Wanaka hugs the lake for miles and miles and you can see nothing but a mountain edge to your left and the calm blue waters to the right.
5) Slopes Point
Ok so this one is literally a signpost on a cliff edge overlooking the sea. It may not sound that exciting but it’s actually the most Southern point in New Zealand and if, like us, you’re from the UK, it may well be the closest you’ll ever get to the South pole.
The North Island
The North is where the majority of New Zealand’s residents live (3.5 million). It’s home to the capital city of Wellington and the business hub of Auckland. Known for it’s volcanic activity and national parks, it’s still very popular with tourists.
Even if you made a trip to the North Island purely to do this one hike, it would be worth the trip. We’ve been on lots of walks across the world now and up until this one we thought Banff was unbeatable. We was wrong, this 19km trek through volcanic mountains wins!
2) Waitimo caves
Apparently glowworms only exist in New Zealand, Australia and in one state in America. So visiting these caves was a must for us. The glowworms are amazing, they looked so surreal that I was convinced they had just stuck thousands of white LED’s on the cave ceiling! Check out Nick’s post explaining exactly what these glow in the dark creatures are.
If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan you’ll love this. Or even if, like me, you haven’t even seen the films, you’ll still appreciate just how much hard work and detail went into the creation of the set. You’ll leave having visited Bilbo Baggins hobbit hole and will be able to say you had a beer in The Green Dragon.
4) Arai Te-Uru National Park and Waipoua Forest
These two sites are within a half hour drive of each other and are a great way to spend a day. The national park was home to the nicest beaches I saw in all of New Zealand. There’s loads of lovely walks along the cliff top overlooking the sea, sand dunes and tiny secluded beach coves. As for the tree, it’s the biggest in the whole of New Zealand and said to be around 2,500 years old. It has a girth of 13.7 meters which you really cant appreciate until you’re standing in front of it, it’s huuuge!
5) Wai-O-Tapu Geisers
This active geothermal site is said to be one of the best in New Zealand. The main feature, the champagne pool, was formed over 900 years ago, which in geothermal terms is very recent! You’ll be treated to dozens of pools of bubbling liquid and swaths of steam bellowing from pockets in the earth as you walk around. The sulphur is stinky but the views are well worth it 🙂
I know Auckland isn’t the capital, but we didn’t make it to Welington so I can’t put that on the list. I loved Auckland though, as an all rounder it’s close to the top of cities I’ve visited that I could see myself living in. After such a quiet time in New Zealand it was actually really nice to spend a few days back in a busy city.
What’s the difference?
I’m sure there are a million differences between the North and South Island but I don’t have time, or Wi-Fi, to research them. So instead, let’s go with some of the things that were most obvious to us:
1) The people
It was like landing in another country when we got to the North Island. The people looked completely different, they were darker skinned and wouldn’t have looked out of place in Hawaiian shirts. The South on the other hand seemed to be 99% populated by white people.
2) The landscape
Both islands are beautiful; they’re both full of greenery, wildlife, lakes and stunning walks. The South is full of dramatic mountains, many of which are snow capped where as in the North the mountains almost disappear and the landscape is replaced by never ending green hills and farms, with the odd volcano thrown in.
3) The weather
What a difference a few hundred miles makes. The chilly evenings from the South were replaced by long, hot, sunny days in the North Island. I swear there is something weird going on there, the sun felt hotter than anywhere we’ve been in the world, yet it never topped 30 degrees!
4) Pace of life
The south is very, very laid back. Towns are really, really small and you’ll be lucky to find anything open if you drive through after 6pm in many! It’s quaint, undeveloped and still has a very natural, untouched feel to it. The North was noticeably faster paced. Towns were bigger, more populated, had more amenities and generally felt more developed.
And the winner is…
I bet 90% of visitors to New Zealand would say the South. But for me personally, I have to say I enjoyed my time in the North more.
The South is great if you want peace and quiet and amazing views day in day out, you wont be disappointed. For me though, I did find the South got a little predictable and samesy towards the end of our stay. Every town felt identical and when you’ve been looking at mountains for 10 days they do unfortunately just become the norm.
The North was very pretty in a different way but in addition to it’s beauty I felt it had more to offer. Not more in terms of scenery, because the South will always win that one, but just more in terms of unique thingss places and experiences. When I think back to New Zealand most of my fondest memories (except the skydive!) will be from the North.