New Zealand travel guide: Should you visit the North or South island?

The day will dawn when Jacinda Ardern will finally rescind her ban on travel across the ditch. The much-vaunted trans-Tasman travel bubble will be inflated at last and we'll be finally reunited with our close neighbours. But, as ever, a simple, if not perennial, dilemma for any New Zealand visit will present itself: North or South? 

Of course, if time allows you to take on both main islands, do it – they are equally packed with unforgettable experiences. But if it comes to a choice of one or the other, our guide will either help you decide or make a daunting but delightful task even harder.

AUCKLAND V CHRISTCHURCH

The contest  Of course, the main city rivalry in New Zealand exists between Auckland and Wellington (à la Sydney and Melbourne) but this is a contest between North and South. As Christchurch, the South Island's biggest city imbued with Anglo-Celtic heritage, continues to recover from the huge earthquake of 2011, it remains a pleasant place to visit. Meanwhile, Auckland's burgeoning Melbourne-style laneways and waterfront scene continues to expand with Hotel Britomart, the city's latest designer digs, opening earlier this month.  

The winner Auckland, as the country's biggest and most cosmopolitan city, pips Christchurch. However, the latter has a more people-friendly scale and remains the gateway to the endless wonders of the South Island.

WELLINGTON V QUEENSTOWN

Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu at sunset. sunoct20cover
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By Ben Groundwater
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Queenstown on the South Island. Photo: iStock

The contest  Despite being one of the Western world's smallest capital cities, Wellington on the North Island manages to eclipse Auckland as the epicurean epicentre of New Zealand But Queenstown on the South Island is a lot more than a mere adrenalin capital. In terms of culinary credentials, it benefits from being part of Central Otago, one of Australasia's finest wine regions, renowned for its pinot noir. This in turn encourages some outstanding fine and casual dining – we suggest Amisfield, Rãtã and The Grille by Eichardt's – both in and around Queenstown.

The winner Wellington surpasses Queenstown but, for its size, the latter is a worthy culinary contender. 

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BAY OF ISLANDS v FIORDLAND NATIONAL PARK 

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Bay of Islands

The North Island's Bay of Islands. Photo: Tourism NZ

The contest  Not many Australian travellers venture beyond Auckland to explore the northern extremities of the North Island. It's a pity since a region such as the semitropical Bay of Islands is not only the setting for beautiful land and seascapes, it's also the cradle of the country's colonial and Indigenous heritage. Fiordland National Park, by stark physical contrast, is one of the few places on the planet where visitors can witness and venture into magnificent fiords, namely Milford (pictured left), Doubtful and Dusky sounds. 

The winner It's hard to beat Fiordland for its extraordinary, powerful beauty but the Bay of Islands arguably offers more variety.

WAIHEKE ISLAND V STEWART ISLAND

The contest  Waiheke Island is New Zealand par excellence, all in one package and within an easy ferry ride of Auckland's CBD. Full of top places to stay, excellent restaurants and cafes and famed wineries, Waiheke encapsulates the Kiwi good life. Stewart Island, situated just south of the southernmost tip of the South Island is New Zealand's third-biggest land mass and just 30 kilometres from the mainland across the Foveaux Strait. It's one of the best places to spot kiwis (the birds, not the humans) in the wild. 

The winner Are we allowed a tie? Waiheke is a lot easier to get to but the more remote Stewart Island/Rakiura represents such an extraordinary and underrated natural wonder you won't regret the effort of getting there. 

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale October 25.

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