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When you visit a country as beautiful and dramatic as New Zealand, it’s difficult to know where to start. Especially, if discovering this incredible destination for the first time. What’s even more difficult is to decide which Island to visit whilst in New Zealand, the North or South Island or both?
We’ve recently returned from our 4th trip to the “Land of the long white cloud”.
With our children currently living in the North Island, it’s a region that we’ve had plenty of time to explore. In a campervan, of course!
New Zealand is extremely campervan friendly. It top’s those countries where exploration by foot and motorhome, go together like tea and biscuits. Or if you’re reading this on a Friday night, Gin and Tonic!
We’ve spoken to people, who’ve taken the long journey from the UK to the opposite side of the globe. However, they seem to miss some of the most spectacular locations in the North Island.
Instead, many concentrate on the incredibly beautiful, but equally, bigger tourist sights of the South Island.
So, for those planning a trip, here’s our insight to get you in the mood into New Zealand the North or South Island.
If you’re flying in from the UK, the usual route is to arrive in Auckland. This leaves you positioned around 3/4 of the way up the North Island.
Some international airlines fly to Wellington, the capital, which is located in the very South of the North Island.
Internal flights between the two and to numerous other airports scattered around the North Island are plentiful.
If you’ve toured the South Island first, the popular route North is the Picton to Wellington ferry.
In fine weather, this route is simply stunning, however, done in reverse from North to South, it’s even more spectacular.
This is because of the approach into the beauty of the Marlborough Sounds. Which are ahead of you, rather than behind.
Sailing through the scenic inlets and surrounded by towering peaks as you head into Picton from the Cook Straits.
Here’s the deal…..there are no motorways like we have in the UK. Although there are highways, which sometimes have an overtaking lane. Generally, think an A-road with occasional passing places.
There are also far less roads in general, so driving around takes longer in the first place. Roads can be remote and narrow too, so taking your time is the order of the day!
There are still a few gravel roads. These can be dirty, dusty, rugged and often narrow.
Most motorhome and campervan hire companies will state in their terms and conditions that you can’t drive on gravel roads.
So, if you’re hiring, just read the small print and ask before you drive off into the sunset.
We’ve driven on gravel roads in our own self-build van conversion. They leave plumes of dust behind and inside the van, coated in a layer of dust debris! A mammoth task to clean!
New Zealand is an easy country to navigate and roads are good along main routes and around towns.
Take your time, don’t try and do too much and enjoy the drive, it’s a dreamy place to be.
New Zealand is the same size as the UK, but has a population of just 4.8 million. Compared to 66 million in the UK. Quite a difference!
The North Island is more populated than the South, with 77% of the New Zealand population living here.
So, that’s an idea of just how much space there is. However, don’t be fooled by a glimpse at the map, which can be deceptive.
Distances may look small, but don’t think you can do the whole lot in the space of a few days!
It does seem to take a long time between places. It’s not a country you can rush and who’d want to miss out on all that glorious scenery anyway?!
On our visit’s to New Zealand, we’ve toured on one island, rather than rushing to do both on one trip!
We had two, 3 week trips. Once to just the South Island, then on a separate year we did the North Island.
On a couple of longer trips, we’ve only done the North Island!
On our last trip, we spent 3 months in the North Island. We still didn’t get to everywhere that we thought we wanted!
If you have a time limit though, it’s really difficult to get round it all.
The North is warmer, the far North being sub-tropical.
It’s also more populated and more commercial in some ways. Being the hub for business, parliament, sports and big name events.
The North Island is also big on beaches, with miles of accessible coastline, ranging from surfing beaches to balmy coves.
There’s some incredibly beautiful areas. Think The Bay of Islands, The Bay of Plenty, The Coromandel and Hawkes Bay, just stunning.
There’s endless fishing in the ocean as well as lakes and rivers. Just about everyone here seems to own a boat, even if they don’t use it!
The centre of the North Island has one huge volcanic mass, around Rotorua and Lake Taupo, which itself was created by gigantic volcanic eruptions.
It’s a bubbling conundrum of mud and steam, a fascinating insight into the live earth beneath our feet!
There’s thick bush, forests and fabulous rivers and waterfalls throughout the North Island landscapes. With mountains and true volcanic peaks, such as Mount Taranaki on the West coast and Tongaririo National Park.
With some big towns and cities, there’s a good mix of exclusive restaurants, quirky bars. There’s an abundance of coffee shops, artisan food stores, breweries and cocktails.
Then there’s the vineyards, wow! These incredible wine growing regions bring some of the worlds best wines to the table.
Some are exclusive and upmarket to accompany a glass of the finest tipples.
Not forgetting the fruit growing regions, Kiwi fruits, orchards of apples, passionfruit, avocado, sweetcorn to name a few.
The Fish and shellfish are just awesome, the choice is crazily good, the Kiwi’s won’t ever go hungry!
If you fancy a bit of ski time, Mt Ruapheu has winter ski season to dust off those ski’s. So, all is not lost in the North is you fancy gliding down a mountain side in your ski gear.
Last but not least, the North Island has lots of grazing land! Rolling humps resemble Telytubby land, it’s no wonder it’s home to Middle Earth and all that Lord of The Rings stuff!
So what about the South Island?
Think raw, dramatic landscapes, incredible scenery, isolation coupled with the best adventure tourism in the world and some of the biggest and largest choice of “Great Walks” anywhere on earth.
This is outdoor heaven, a place to ditch the posh frocks. Tie the laces on those hiking boots and get out the rucksack, for some serious back to nature hiking. Biking too and just about anything else where you get wet, muddy, sweaty and exhausted!
There’s the Alps, the glorious and majestic mountains that dominate the South Island. There’s also brilliant skiing in Winter and a bustling all year season at Queenstown, the adventure capital of NZ.
Tourists flock by boat, rail, road, plane and just about any other form of transport, to the busy hot spots of the South Island.
It may be less on population, but visiting numbers are great and places get busy.
The phenomenal sights of the fjords of the Milford Sound, are one of the major highlights. One of those not to be missed natural attractions. Infact, the South Island is full of natural beauty, if the rain stays away, there is no better place.
Glaciers, whale watching and miles of unspoilt countryside between locations, bring the natural beauty to the forefront. The distances here seem huge at times due to a limited road network and few towns between. It’s almost as if you’re going back in time in a good way.
Christchurch is the main hub for the South. Devastated though by the major earthquake in 2011, it’s still recovering and re-building. With the latest horrific terror attack, it’s been a tough time for this lovely city.
The North Island has plenty of hostels, campsites, lodges, b&b’s and motels. The big pull, if you’re in a motorhome, is the Freedom Camping. A system similar to the Aires in France. It is, as the name suggests, Free!
Download an app, such as Campermate. The locations of all the campgrounds and freedom camping spots will be at your fingertips.
Campsites are well equipped and most have the brilliant, down under system of a “camp kitchen”. It’s a room to cook, socialise and wash up, they’ll usually have bbq’s too.
Freedom Camping is for motorhomes that are fully self-contained with an on board toilet and water tanks with running water.
Rangers monitor the parking, so park within the marked areas (they’ll be signs to show you) to avoid a warning or a fine.
Parking places can be in beautiful locations. Beside the ocean, lakes and rivers, or they may be in the centre of towns, there could be just a couple of spaces or dozens, each place is different.
As with Europe, motorhome dump/filling areas are provided by the local council. So there is no problem in emptying and filling those tanks and toilets!
Supermarkets are excellent, as good as, or better than the UK. With lots of fresh produce and plenty of choice.
There’s Pack n’Save (similar to our old Kwik Save), Countdown and New World and they are in all main towns, so you won’t go short!
There’s small individual grocers, bakers and butchers, but usually a bakery will sell more take away fast food than fancy cakes and breads.
Overall, things are perhaps slightly more expensive than the UK, but quality is good where food and drink is concerned.
In summer, many smaller towns have community swimming pools that are free to use, or just a couple of dollars. They open for the public when schools aren’t using them.
There are some great outdoor pools, so if you enjoy swimming, it’s a great way to get some free exercise and a shower combined.
Other fee-paying pools are great. Pay just a few dollars for a hot shower, if you don’t want the swim.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that New Zealand is a similar Summer to the UK!
It’s far hotter and much more settled, with sunburn times being super quick, due to the lack of pollution in the atmosphere, less ozone in the Southern Hemisphere and the closeness to the sun.
Don’t forget that Factor 50 and a sun parasol, oh and that sun hat, you’ll need it!
The Kiwi’s are laid back, welcoming and super friendly people. They love their lifestyle, the land that they call home and they are quite happy to share it with us. As long as we don’t spoil the surroundings and treat it with respect.
The North Island has plenty of hot stuff!
Hot water beaches, thermal waters in lakes, rivers, streams and inevitably, some awesome man-made thermal pools, where relaxation is the order of the day or night, for that matter.
Soak yourself in hot minerals, pools of various temperatures and steamy outdoor tubs, where it’s just you and the stars for company!
Wellington, The Capital of New Zealand is located in the very South of the North Island.
It’s one chirpy, arty, cool city that gets under your skin and has you wanting for more!
Auckland, is more well known in many respects. This hub of business, shopping and boating bears title to “City of Sails” for a reason.
It’s two harbours, the iconic harbour bridge and boats galore, are an impressive addition to the tourist hub of the North Island.
It’s also the gateway to the whole of New Zealand from it’s busy international airport.
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With so many people touring the North Island for just one week, here’s our top picks of places to see