Destination Guide

Stephen Bailey
New Zealand Introduction - North & South Islands
New Zealand Introduction - North & South Islands
Stephen Bailey

New Zealand is high on many people’s bucketlists — not only because it’s a wonderful country, but also because it’s such a difficult country to get to.

Wherever you are travelling from, New Zealand is on the edge of the world, a long way off. So, it’s easy for it to slip off. “Next year I’ll go there” — but then it’s just too far away, so many places are closer, and in the end there’s an easier trip to do.

It takes 24 hours to fly to New Zealand. Even if you find the very best flight connections, there’s massive jet lag. That’s going to make it more difficult, so of course, you need time. You can’t just go to New Zealand for a week.

It’s also easy for New Zealand to slip away because you don’t have the resources to make it out there to the edge of the world.

So, how do you make a trip to New Zealand happen?

Let me give you some basic info to help you understand what you want.

There are two main islands — the North Island and the South Island. The North Island is rolling volcanic hills, a couple of volcanoes, and breathtaking beaches (especially in the north). The climate is warmer, and in winter you don’t get freezing temperatures.

On the North Island, the main city is Auckland. That’s where New Zealand’s biggest airport is, so it’s most likely to be the city you fly into. That’s not the only major international airport, but Auckland is definitely the main transit hub on the North Island.

The North Island is where you’ll find 90% of the Maori population. It’s where the Maori lived after they moved there from other Pacific islands.

It’s also where you’ll find most of New Zealand’s population. It doesn’t mean it’s more built up. It’s just that there are more towns, villages, and a few more cities. The landscape is also more hospitable. The Hobbiton set in The Lord of the Rings is located on the North Island — in fact, a lot of the island looks like the Shire.

The South Island is only 90 minutes away by fast ferry. There are also a lot of good flight connections between different destinations on both the North and the South Island.

The landscape of the South Island is dramatic.

Snowy mountains on the South Island

One third of the island — the entire western side — is a World Heritage Site, spread across four different and distinct national parks. Here you’ll find mountains more than 4,000 meters high. You’ll find great glaciers. You’ll find the famous sounds and fjord, like Milford Sound.

You’ll find landscapes that are frozen. It is cold here, especially the south of the South Island in winter. That’s where you go skiing. It’s cold, it’s wild, it’s empty.

It’s a place of enormous adventure, including hiking trails and different types of experiences in national parks. It’s a little slower to get around because towns are further apart, but it’s more rewarding in the sense that it’s impossible not to be out in the middle of nature when you’re on the South Island.

Even when you’re staying in Queenstown or Christchurch, within half an hour you can be completely out in the middle of nature.

Christchurch was massively hit by an earthquake less than 10 years ago, and it’s quite inspiring to witness how it’s recovering from that. It’s also a major hub for flights. The other hub is Queenstown.

Queenstown is the major New Zealand destination, because there’s so much that you can do and experience while staying there. You can do a day trip to Milford Sound. You can go skiing for the day. You can go out to different national parks. You can set off on hikes. You can go out deeper into the wilderness. Or you can just walk 30 minutes above Queenstown and feel like you’re in the wilderness. Queenstown is also that area is where a lot of The Lord of the Rings — and other films — were recorded. So you can go out and see all those movie locations.

Queenstown on the South Island

If you’re travelling all the way to New Zealand, I’d recommend visiting both the North Island and the South Island.

You’re never going to have time to go around the whole area of either of the islands. There’s a lot to see and do. But I’d recommend getting a feel for both, because they are very different.

So, flight into Auckland, and fly out of Christchurch or Queenstown — or vice-versa. Try and experience both of them. You can do that in 12 days — experience both islands and get a good feel for the two contrasting experiences.

Another thing about visiting both islands is that you’ll get more diversity in terms of the climate. You’re going to spread your chances with the weather.

And the good thing about New Zealand is, if you do make it there, it is easy to get around. There are some great train routes that will give you an idea of the landscape as you travel through. The distances are not that big. And there are also great flight routes, so you can connect quite spread-out destinations and focus on those that are most closely aligned with what you want to experience.

Hobbiton on the North Island

When to go is really up to you. There is no ideal month.

If you go in New Zealand summer — December, January, February — that is the peak season, because it’s also local travelling time and school holidays. In February and March you still get ideal weather, but it’s not as busy.

If you travel in May, June, July, you’re travelling in winter, so it will be quite cold. You’re not going to spend time on the beaches — but you’ve got all the winter sports that you can do on the South Island. So if you are travelling in winter, take advantage of that and make sure you are on the South Island.

The two times I visited, I definitely preferred going towards the summer months, because the days are longer, which means I could do more in each day. So it’s not necessarily about the climate — although that was a highlight as well, because swapping the cold of home in the Northern Hemisphere for the warmth of New Zealand made it quite attractive.

But then again, December and January are peak season — it’s more expensive to travel, and more popular places are going to be crowded.

And bear in mind that a lot of experiences do need to be pre-booked.

I’m not saying this to scare you into pre-booking everything before you travel, especially if that’s not your normal way of travel. But a lot of things that happen in national parks are deliberately — and very strictly — limited, to preserve nature. Many of the hiking trails have caps on the number of visitors per day. So you need to get a permit — and the permits sell out. And if you don’t have a permit, you simply cannot go into that national park and go on that trail.

So it’s important that if you do want to go to the national parks — which you should, because they are the highlights of New Zealand — you either get the permits, or work with a local tour operator who knows how the permits work, and who can make sure that you have them so you can go there on the dates you want.

New Zealand offers an enormous variety experiences.

Hiking on a glacier. Climbing volcanoes. Kayaking in national parks. Meeting with the Maori. Going to beaches, wine tasting, being in cities, connecting with culture and history, staying on remote farms where you’re the only people for 50 miles, and you’ve got your own private beach on the edge of the world.

You need to speak with the locals to find out where to go and what to do.

I can tell you a little about places I’ve liked, things I’ve done, and itineraries — but I was just a traveller there. I don’t know that much about New Zealand — but the locals do, and they can help you turn your New Zealand dream trip into reality.

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