If you’re planning a trip in New Zealand then look no further. Here you’ll find my best posts to get you started when planning your New Zealand trip.
My Experience Travelling In New Zealand
I have spent more than three years traveling around New Zealand. I lived in the North Island for 15 months from 2020 – 2021 and I lived in the South Island for 20 months from 2021 – 2023. I have explored both islands extensively and been almost everywhere!
I arrived in New Zealand on a Working Holiday Visa in March 2020. I was lucky enough to get to New Zealand just before the borders closed during the Covid-19 Pandemic. It was a surreal time to travel New Zealand as we had the place almost all to ourselves. We would hike a trail and not see a single other soul. We would stay overnight in our campervan and be the only van at the campsite. The borders were closed for more than two years. You can read about my experience being one of the only tourists in New Zealand while the borders were closed in this blog post here!
After an incredible 3 years travelling New Zealand, I decided it was time to move on and I left New Zealand in May 2023.
I am really grateful for all the experiences I had in New Zealand. It really is a unique place to travel with a lot to offer. I hope that by sharing my knowledge and experiences you can also have a magical trip and discover the real New Zealand.
Got any questions about travelling in New Zealand? Get in touch and I’ll be happy to answer them!
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New Zealand Travel Guide
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North Island Vs South Island
Both the North Island and the South Island are very different from eachother. Most people wonder which island they should visit. Honestly, I think you should visit both! But if you can only choose one, then it will depend on what interests you the most.
Each island can offer many similarities and differences in terms of the activities, sightseeing and climates they offer. New Zealand is mostly known for its amazing natural scenery, and that is very well deserved. But New Zealand also has interesting towns and cities. They may not be as big and as exciting as other cities around the world, but they do have their own charm about them.
I’ll explain the key differences between the North Island and the South Island below to give you an overview of what to expect on each island.
North Island Highlights
North Island Landscapes, Scenery & Top Sightseeing Activities
The North Island has a lot of natural wonders and beauty, from volcanoes and hot springs to waterfalls and forests. The landscapes and nature can be very diverse. I often think that a lot of people overlook the North Island because the South Island gets a lot of attention with regards to its scenery. However, there is a lot to be seen in the North Island, with a lot that you might not necessarily expect. It could surprise you!
There is also a lot of culture in the North Island, with New Zealand’s best museums and art galleries, as well as Maori culture to learn about. The cities in the North Island have the best museums and art galleries to visit and learn about New Zealand’s history and art. Hamilton, Whanganui, New Plymouth, Wellington, Auckland, Tauranga, Taupo and Napier all have excellent art galleries and history museums, for example. Many small towns will also have a regional museum with displays about the history and culture of the area. If you love street art, then check out this post for the best street art cities in the North Island.
The North Island is more populated in general than the South Island and has many of New Zealand’s biggest cities, including the largest – Auckland – and the capital city – Wellington. Maori (indigenous Polynesian) populations are more concentrated in the North Island than the South Island, particularly in Rotorua and the East Coast. If you’re keen on learning about New Zealand’s history, particularly between Maori and Pakeha (white New Zealander), you should definitely visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in Northland.
The coast of the west of the North Island is known for wild, black sand beaches with big surf. Raglan (near Nelson), Piha (near Auckland) and the coastline around Taranaki (near New Plymouth), for example, are top surfing destinations. That said, surfing is a popular activity in many of the beaches in the North Island, with Gisborne (near Hawkes Bay) in the east and Mount Maunganui (near Tauranga, Bay of Plenty) in the north also being popular places to catch a wave.
If you’re into beautiful golden sandy beaches, then Northland, Auckland, the Bay of Plenty and the Coromandel have the best beaches in the North Island. Swimming can be done year round in these locations. I loved having a wonderfully refreshing swim in the winter at Cathedral Cove and Papamoa Beach!
If you love hiking, there are plenty of wonderful walks and trails to keep you occupied. The most famous location to hikes is the Tongariro National Park in the centre of the North Island. Besides that, you’ll find interesting places to walk all across the North Island in many of the Forest, Regional and National Parks. Many of these walks are through the bush, to secret beaches, or to see waterfalls. There are so many waterfalls in the North Island, that I have written this post of the best waterfalls to see in the North Island.
There’s plenty of geothermal activity going on in the North Island, with the most interesting attractions to be found between Rotorua and Taupo. You can see bubbling mud pools, steam rising from the each, silica deposits, and enjoy relaxing in a natural hot spring.
If you’re a fan of Hobbiton and Lord of the Rings, then you’ll be able to visit the Hobbiton Movie Set and Weta Workshop in the North Island. This was the filming location and visual effects company for the films. Much like Hobbiton, the North Island has a lot of hilly landscapes, with rolling hills of grassy farmland.
Glowworms are found all over New Zealand but they are most abundant in the North Island. Famous glowworm caves such as the Waitomo Glowworm Caves and huge tourist destinations in the North Island. I highly recommend visiting them, but there are also many places you can see glowworms for free, including in the South Island. Check out this post for the top places to see glowworms for free in the North Island. I also have other recommendations and blog posts about where to find and see glowworms which you can check out by clicking here.
I’ve written a blog post about my recommendations for 10 unmissable experiences for your first visit to New Zealand – check it out here.
For all my blog posts about the North Island, see below.
North Island Climate & Weather
The climate in the North Island varies wildly, from the subtropical, warm climate of the north to the wetter, windier and cooler south.
I found that there is not much definition between the seasons in the North Island as there is in the South Island.
Winter In The North Island
The far north has a subtropical climate and even in the winter months you can wear shorts and a t-shirt!
Similarly, in areas such as the Bay of Plenty, the Coromandel, and Hawkes Bay, you can experience wonderful sunny weather even in the winter.
The south of the North Island (Wellington) will get cooler temperatures and more rain in the winter.
If you don’t like the cold, then I would recommend spending winter in the North Island (rather than the South Island) as snow is almost non-existent in the North Island other than high up in the mountains. The mountains in the centre of the North Island, in Tongariro National Park, experience an alpine environment.
Summer In The North Island
In the summer, the days can be hot and sunny all over the North Island but there can be rain (sometimes a lot of it), so it can be humid, especially in the bush.
North Island Blog Posts
Don’t stop chasing waterfalls! Discover 28 beautiful waterfalls to visit in the North Island of New Zealand. Map, accommodation and experiences included.
South Island Highlights
South Island Landscapes, Scenery & Top Sightseeing Activities
The South Island is famous for its spectacular mountains and lakes, with wonderful scenery that will take your breath away. There are heaps of National Parks in the South Island, with lots of opportunities to delve deep into nature. Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, featuring New Zealand’s highest mountain Mt Cook at 3724m, is accessible for most people. Fiordland National Park is the largest of all the National Parks in New Zealand and is home to the stunning and very famous Milford Sound which you can cruise along to admire the scenery. If you want to do a cruise in Milford Sound, I have written this blog post comparing all the different Milford Sound cruise companies and how to choose the best cruise for you.
The population of the South Island is much less than the North Island, so the cities are smaller. The island is home to a lot more rural and isolated communities, and the driving distances between the towns and cities is much longer compared with the North Island.
There are vast landscapes of fields, mountains and lakes on the South Island, as well as beautiful coastal roads. The highest roads in New Zealand are in the South Island, with many passes going through some of New Zealand’s most dramatic landscapes, for example Arthur’s Pass, Burkes Pass, Lewis Pass and the Cardrona Road.
There are fewer cultural activities such as museums and art galleries on the South Island. Many small towns will have a regional history museum, but the best cultural destinations in the South Island are in Nelson, Christchurch and Dunedin. These bigger cities have museums and art galleries to visit as well as historical buildings, sculptures, parks and botanical gardens.
Outdoor activities are abundant in the South Island. Watersports are incredibly popular on the lakes, especially in Twizel (Mackenzie) and the Ashburton Lakes (near Christchurch). There are a lot of fishing opportunities on the lakes and the canals too around Twizel. Salmon farming is popular in this area too and you can visit the farms, feed the fish, buy/eat the fish, or even try to catch one that has escaped! Hunting is also popular in the forests and bush of Fiordland where there are a lot of roaming deer.
If you love hiking then there are heaps of trails and walks to enjoy. Many of these walks are along the edges of the lakes or up into the mountains. Multi-day treks can be done with lots of mountain huts to stay in in remote destinations. There are many glaciers to visit and see in the South Island as well as glacial lakes with huge floating icebergs! Of course, being very mountainous, hiking in the South Island will reward you with spectacular scenery.
The north, east and south beaches of the South Island are the best for swimming. Abel Tasman National Park has the best beaches on the South Island. Like the North Island, the beaches on the west coast of the South Island are wild, black beaches but they can be very dangerous for swimming in. Only in places such as Westport, you can experience surfing on the west coast. Dunedin (east), Invercargill (south) and Christchurch (east) are popular surfing destinations in the South Island.
There are plenty of lakes in the South Island and they are beautiful for swimming in, camping by or walking around. Lake Manapouri is the gateway to the Doubtful Sound in Fiordland and it is one of my favourite spots in the South Island. The scenery is absolutely stunning and the lake is so clear for swimming. It is also one of the deepest lakes in the world and makes for quite a spooky experience as you see nothing but a black void beneath you! Lake Wanaka, Lake Hawea and Lake Whakatipu are equally as gorgeous and wonderful for swimming in. There are also many hiking trails nearby to these lakes to admire the scenery. Ashburton Lakes and Nelson Lakes National Park have lots of camping options and as they are remote they are both nice spots to spend a few days. Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo are glacial lakes located near Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. They are absolutely beautiful and bright turquoise blue in colour, but they are absolutely freezing to swim in at any time of the year!
There are hot springs on the South Island. My favourites are Hanmer Springs and Lake Tekapo.
Glowworms can also been seen in the South Island, with my top spots being the Hokitika Glowworm Cave (free), Whites Bay Glowworm Dell (free – best glowworms in the South Island) and the Te Anau Glowworm Cave (paid tour, similar to Waitomo Glowworm Caves).
For all my blog posts about the South Island, click here.
South Island Climate & Weather
Autumn & Winter In The South Island
The South Island has a cooler climate and bigger mountains, therefore is a key winter sport destination. There are many ski resorts, primarily near Christchurch, Queenstown and Lake Tekapo.
It can rain a lot in the winter in the South Island, particularly in the south and on the west coast.
Queenstown, Wanaka, Cromwell and Arrowtown experience wonderful autumnal weather and scenery, and the winters there can be pretty cold with snow on the ground.
In the winter, the lakes can be freezing cold, however I did go for a dip in Lake Hawea in the winter so it can be done. Many people swim in Lake Wanaka at all times of the year. Glacial lakes, such as Lake Tekapo, are gorgeous to look at, but they are FREEZING COLD, even in the summer. That’s because the water is coming right from the glaciers and the mountains. I went swimming in Lake Tekapo a couple of times but I couldn’t last more than a minute!
If you are not a fan of the cold, then sticking to the coastline or in the north of the South Island you will experience the best weather. Nelson is known as “Sunny Nelson” due to its high sunshine hours throughout the year. I spent a winter in Nelson and it was dry and cool with a lot of sunny days!
Summer & Spring In The South Island
The summers in the South Island can be very hot and dry, with the Mackenzie and Central Otago regions resembling deserts in the summer months. It can go many weeks without raining in the centre of the South Island.
Closer to the ocean, you’ll find wonderfully hot and sunny days with pleasant breezes to cool you down.
The sea and the lakes in the South Island are wonderful for swimming in the summer months, although those not used to outdoor swimming may still find the water temperature too cool.
The main beast in the South Island summer is the sandflies – small black flying insects that will bite you and leave an incredibly itchy spot on your skin.
Many of the hiking trails do not have shade, so you are exposed to the sun. Make sure you travel with sun protection as the UV is very strong in New Zealand!
South Island Blog Posts
This post compares Milford Sound cruises to help you know which Milford Sound cruise company to choose for your trip.
Discover the best things to do in Oneroa on beautiful Waiheke Island, Auckland, New Zealand – wineries, beaches, walks, food & more!
Discover the best things to see and do in Onetangi, Auckland – wineries, walks, stunning Onetangi Beach, award-winning restaurants and more!
Travelling to Waiheke Island without a car or by using public transport? Check out this list of the best things to do & how to get there.
Best beaches on Waiheke Island and the best activities for each beach. Discover the best beach for swimming, snorkelling, surfing and more!
Poukaraka Flats Campground is the best spot for camping on Waiheke Island that offers basic facilities for an affordable price.
Travelling to Waiheke on a budget? Thinking of staying at Waiheke Backpackers Hostel? Know everything before you go with this review.
Everything you need to know about how to get around Waiheke Island, Auckland. From driving, walking, cycling, using the bus & more.
Everything you need to know about travelling by ferry from Auckland to Waiheke Island as a foot passenger or with a bike or a vehicle.
Is the Forgotten World Highway worth your time? Discover the truth about this “must do” road trip, plus all the best things to see and do.
Hikes & Walks
Your complete guide to the Paekakariki Escarpment Track – a thrilling adventure on the Kapiti Coast. Find out everything you need to know!
My Van Life Experience In New Zealand
I travelled around New Zealand in a self-converted campervan with my partner, Fiachra, and we lived the #Vanlife dream!
We bought our campervan in Auckland within a couple of weeks of arriving in New Zealand and had it for the entire duration of our time in New Zealand. Over 3 years, we travelled around 40,000km across the entire country, all the way from Cape Reinga in the far north to Bluff in the south, and everywhere in between!
After buying the campervan, we worked hard to improve the inside and essentially converted the whole thing, including insulating the van, installing a floor, making curtains, building and painting shelving and furniture, installing a second battery system, lighting, and more! It was the first time we had ever done anything like this and it was a huge learning experience! We didn’t know what we were doing and just learned as we went along!
We are so glad that we had the chance to experience living full-time in a campervan on the road. It was a very fun and exciting way of life, to wake up in new destinations every day, to spend much of our lives living outside (as our van was pretty small) and learning how to live very minimally (there’s only so much stuff you can fit in a campervan!).
If you’re keen on living the vanlife, then New Zealand is a great destination to do it in. Campervanning and RVing is very popular in New Zealand. There are loads of great free facilities to help you on your van life journey, including free campsites, free public facilities (including toilets), free dump stations and water, and sometimes even free hot showers!
New Zealand is a very safe country to travel in, so we never felt scared to sleep in our campervan. There are also lots of people living this kind of lifestyle in New Zealand, so you will easily blend in and have the opportunity to meet and talk to others about their experiences.
I’ve written blog posts about the process of starting your van journey in New Zealand, including on how to buy a campervan, essential things you need to know and tips and tools for how to have a good experience. Check out all my campervan in New Zealand posts below.
Want to live the #vanlife? Read this first! Find out all the important things you need to know before you buy a campervan in New Zealand.
Discover the best freedom camping spots in Wellington City. Find out where you can park and sleep in your campervan overnight.
This post shares 16 essential apps to help you on your van journey in New Zealand – from finding campsites to getting to cheapest fuel prices.
Your ultimate guide on how to see glowworms for free in the North Island. Discover 9 best spots to see glowworms and where to find them.
McLaren Falls Park is a well known spot to see glowworms for free in the Bay Of Plenty. Find out everything you need to know in this guide.
The Waipu Caves are one of the best FREE spots to see glowworms in New Zealand. This guide will tell you everything you need to know.
My Working Holiday Experience In New Zealand
During my Working Holiday Visa in New Zealand, I worked in different industries, from kiwifruit picking and packing, to running front of house at a restaurant, to managing campsites and motels.
Having the opportunity to do many different tasks helped me to develop lots of different skills as well as explore much of New Zealand by working in different destinations across the country.
I went from working in a very remote lodge in a wild and ancient forest in the heart of the North Island to working in an accommodation near a ski resort in the South Island at one of the busiest tourist destinations in the country.
Working in the kiwifruit industry gave me insight into how food goes from the farm to the table and all the hardwork in between.
My last role was working on wild West Coast of the South Island in a very small and remote community but full of magic and wonder!
Doing a Working Holiday in New Zealand was a chance to spend a longer period of time in the country than I would have had if I had simply gone on a holiday for a few weeks. I was able to learn the Kiwi way of life, the good, the bad and the ugly of it all! I could gain a deeper understanding of the country, its history and its values. I could travel for longer because I could work along the way and save money for my next adventure.
If you’re keen or thinking about doing a Working Holiday in New Zealand, check out my posts on the topic below.
Find a job on your Working Holiday Visa in New Zealand with this list of the best websites and other methods to look for work.