Head to head: New Zealand
North Island VERSUS South island
North Island or South Island? Hip cities and the ‘world’s greatest day trek’ versus wild ‘tramping’, searching for kiwis and swimming with seals. You decide…
The North Island edges it when it comes to festivals, such as Napier’s evocative Art Deco Festival in February, or the riotous Pasifika Polynesian festival in Auckland in March. There are more places to grab a sense of Maori culture, too, especially around the ‘Sulphur City’ of Rotorua, where a third of the population are Maori. The North Island has some epic short walks, such as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing day trek, across a volcanic range lit with bright jade pools, or the overnight Cape Brett coastal walkway, ending at the lighthouse ( right) of the same name. There’s top beaches, too, such as Piha, a west-coast escape resembling a Hawaiian fantasy. You don’t have to leave Auckland’s waters to see whales and dolphins – the Hauraki Gulf is visited by over a third of all known marine mammals, including blue whales. To the south, the gloworm caves of Waitomo are remarkable, while the west-coast town of Port Waikato is a great spot to see rare Maui dolphins, the smallest of their kind. Of the eight Kiwi restaurants on La Liste’s 2017 rundown of the world’s 1,000 best eateries, seven were in Auckland, including Sid Sahrawat’s boundary-pushing Sidart. But it’s not all about the north’s fine-dining mecca – the hipster bars and night market food stalls on capital Wellington’s Cuba Street make just as strong an impression.
Cultural gems exist in the South Island, too, but largely stem from its mining past. The west coast is rich in ‘gold rush’ ghost towns such as Waiuta, while plenty more dot the Old Ghost Road cycling route at Lyell. Then there’s Paparoa National Park’s new ‘Great Walk’ ( left), which opens in 2019 and loops lush forest and the site of the Pike River Mine. But the South Island is one of the world’s great adventure spots, from adrenalinesoaked Queenstown to ‘tramping’ (hiking) the legendary Milford Track – 54km of fjords and peaks along Milford Sound. Whether climbing the Fox Glacier or taking on the five-day Otago Central Rail Trail cycle, you won’t be short of a wild escape. The South Island is known for its wildlife, from swimming with fur seals and dolphins in Kaikoura, to spotting sea lions and rare yellow-eyed penguins in the bays of the Otago Peninsula. Then there’s the kiwi birds ( left), with trips to Stewart Island, off the south coast, and visits to the nearby Ulva Island Bird Sanctuary a must for sightings. Lyttleton’s acclaimed Roots eatery sums up the South Island’s focus on fresh food, and while good wine exists across New Zealand, Marlborough sauvignon blancs and Otago pinot noirs and are arguably the most iconic. For local treats, don’t leave Stewart Island without tasting muttonbird, or Hokitika without some whitebait passing your lips.
If you want a mix of built-up towns, culture, food, beaches and volcanic landscapes, the North Island might be the one for you. If you want a pure hit of nature and the outdoors, with good local food along the way, go to the South Island. But both are incredible, plus it’s only a three-hour ferry ride between them. And guess what? The scenery from the Cook Strait ferry is amazing, too.