Among the first questions people ask when planning a visit to New Zealand: should I go to the North island or the South? For how long in each? This guide may help answer those questions.
The North island is where most of the locals live. Nicknamed ‘Kiwis’, they seem adamant the North is more beautiful (though most tourists will say the South). The North is marked by volcanoes, particularly around the centre of the island. Here you will find geothermal parks (free and paid) that come with geysers, hot springs and bubbling mud pools. One of those parks is Orakei Korako, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Three of the active volcanoes are located within Tongariro National Park; an area of breathtaking wilderness. I drove past this area and if given another chance, I would stay at least 2 or 3 days for a hike.
For the movie fans of ‘Lord of the Rings’, a tour around the film locations is a must. The most notable is at Matamata, where they built the set for Hobbiton.
Another ‘Lord of the Rings’ tour I did was in Wellington, where we visited several sites of interest. Here is the tour group posing as hobbits in the forest featured in the first movie (I’m in the background).
Between the two islands, the South is more picturesque – marked by mountains, lakes, rolling hills and sheep farms.
It is also the more touristy. Most visitors will make the same stops on a loop around the island. If you are driving, I recommend going clockwise because you will be on the left lane, directly next to the coastline. This offers the better views and it is easier to stop for photos.
My favourite area is Karamea and its surrounds on the north western coast of the island. Buses do not service this region so it can only be reached by private vehicle. There is not much in Karamea itself – aside from the beach - but I loved its quietude, serenity and remoteness.
Karamea is also a good base for exploring nearby attractions such as the Oparara Basin. This is an area of beautiful forests and natural rock arches.
My second favourite area is the central part of the island, around Arthur's Pass and Otira. This is a beautiful region for mountains and hikes.
The major stop is Queenstown - home to adventure sports and enthusiasts. I tried at least one, tandem hang gliding, which involved:
- Running off a cliff;
- Flying over mountains;
- Landing on my stomach.
For anyone taking in this town, Queenstown offers a variety of shops, restaurants, activities and walks. It is pleasant to stay several days here and include a visit to nearby Arrowtown.
New Zealand has a low population and regarded as safe. Crime is low and there are no dangerous animals. The likely danger may come from a road accident. Roads are very winding and traffic is almost non-existent outside the towns’ vicinity. The temptation to drive fast (100+ km/h) is very high.
Another possible danger is when visiting some of the natural attractions. Conditions can be unpredictable. Stay on the path. Don’t ignore the safety signs.
Accommodation in New Zealand is plentiful and high quality. They range from backpacker hostels to guesthouses, motels and campsites. Many are located within walking distance from the bus or an easy drive off the main road. Prices range from NZ$20 for a dorm bed to NZ$100 for a motel room. Mostly, it is not necessary to book ahead. However, a phone call will not go astray.
The best way to see New Zealand is driving your own vehicle – car, campervan or motorhome. This offers the most freedom, flexibility and value for money (especially if renting as a group or buying second-hand). While the bus takes you to the main tourist towns – with lunch stops in between - many attractions are not within town but 5km, 10km or 20km away. You will need to hitchhike or find other means of transport. The bus schedule is not the best with usually one arrival and one departure per day.
If you are renting, consider a relocation vehicle that costs almost nothing (check terms and conditions). These are the vehicles that rental companies need to move from one place to another. By driving one, you help relocate the vehicle. The main drawback is that these rentals are one way, and for one week or less.
Finally, allow for a minimum of two weeks to truly see New Zealand. I stayed for three weeks (two in the South, one in the North) and that was a good period. This is a beautiful country with friendly people. Enjoy the scenery, tramping, long calm drives, and most of all, the freedom. Kia ora!