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North Island V.S. South Island

New Zealand is made up of two islands: the North island and the South island. Actually, there are thousands of 1-3 acre islands all along the coasts, but most of those are wildlife preservers you can’t go to. So for all practical purposes, New Zealand is made up of two islands separated by 90 kilometers of angry ocean. If you’re planning on moving to New Zealand you’re going to have to pick which island you want to move to. Neither island is objectively better or worse than the other. Which island you should move to depends on what kind of lifestyle you’re looking for and more importantly, where you can find a job. Having said that, there are some differences between the North and South worth talking about, but it’s hard to point out those differences without making overgeneralizations that someone might find exception and take offence to. Lucky for you, I’m going to go ahead and make those overgeneralizations anyway to help familiarize you with New Zealand.

The difference between the North and South island stem mainly from the fact that Auckland is on the North island.  That alone puts 1/3 of the country’s population in the North island. Auckland is also the country’s main point of entry for goods, people and money. Even though Wellington (which is also on the North Island) is the political capital of New Zealand, Auckland is functionally the center of New Zealand. The farther away from Auckland you get the less money there is. The less money there is the less infrastructure there is. The less infrastructure there is the lower the quality of life is by material standards; towns have fewer stores, and the stores stock fewer products…and the internet connectivity is much worse.

This phenomenon is as true in Texas as it is in New Zealand. The world is divided into big cities and backwoods with degrees in between them. In Texas though, when you leave the big city you lose the conveniences of modern life and you end up living in a place that looks like this:

New Zealand is already relatively disconnected from the rest of the world by the fact that it’s at the bottom of the world. The South island is a little more disconnected since it’s geographically separated from Auckland. Granted, it still has big cities, airports and maritime ports that bring in a constant stream of goods, people and money, but it still feels disconnected from the rest of the world. You feel like you’re taking a step back in time when you go there. If the South island looked like West Texas this would be a bad thing, but the effect is more romantic since the South island looks like this:

As many modern conveniences as Auckland has there are a lot of Kiwis who would never live there and who say that Auckland isn’t “the real New Zealand.” If there is such a thing as “the real New Zealand” then it must be the South island. The South island is just absurdly beautiful, tranquil and homespun. It would be the most visited, most celebrated paradise on earth if it weren’t for the apocalyptic swarms of mosquitoes and the arctic cold ocean water.

This isn’t to say that the North Island is ugly. It’s got plenty of scenery that’s so amazing a photo can’t do it justice, and it’s certainly got the most inviting hot springs and beaches in the country, but the South island has more mountains,  waterfalls, glaciers, lakes, seals, penguins and fjords. Traveling around the North island is likely to make you think, “Man, I’d really like to live here.” Travelling around the South island is likely to make you think, “Man, I never want to leave here.” But you will have to leave because even if you had a visa you’d have a harder time finding a job on the South Island than you would on the North Island.

That’s the difference between the North and South islands in a nutshell, but the issue is more complicated than that because each island is made up of its own diverse sub-regions, which I’ll explain to you. The maps below were divided up by me. They don’t necessarily represent states or provinces. It’s mainly just how I see New Zealand.

Everything not included in a box on both of the maps below are either empty farm land, national parks or cities so isolated by farm lands and national parks that they don’t constitute a major, unique region. That and/or I haven’t been there and don’t know enough about the place to describe it.

Now let’s take a look at the North Island.

1. This area is known as “The North Land.” I didn’t make that up. This area is full of rolling hills, sheep farms, gentle beaches, small towns and old white people. It doesn’t have majestic peaks and wild night life.

2. Auckland is a region in and of itself. It’s a major city with 1.4 million people. In earlier posts I said it had 1.3 million people, and at the time I wrote those posts it did. Auckland has the largest concentration of Pacific Islanders in the world. It’s very culturally diverse, but at the same time it suffers a little from the soullessness that comes with sprawling suburbs and office buildings.

3. The Coromandel Peninsula is a cleaner, more home-town version of Cancun where everyone speaks English and there’s no good Mexican food or cheap beer.

4. This is where the Shire was filmed in “The Lord of the Rings.” You can think of this whole area as the Shire with its small towns and cozy green hills. You can also think of the city of Hamilton as Mordor….because its’ a shit box.

5. Lake Taupo is picturesque and has tons of adventure sports. Just South of Lake Taupo are two large mountains where you can go hiking, camping and skiing. There’s a lot of big adventure here, and in order to be ordained a true Kiwi you have to hike the Tongariro Crossing.

6. Hawkes Bay is warm and breezy. The good climate and good views have raised the property value. If you’re an old, affluent white person looking to wind down the clock with other old, affluent white people you might consider Hawkes Bay.

7. Ever been to Oregan or Washington State? Then you’ve been to the Southern tip of the North Island. It’s cold, rainy and liberal.

1. The Abel Tasman Peninsula is mostly rugged national park. It’s got great views and good weather. It’s isolated and full of hippies.

2. The Marlborough Sounds are the perfect place to ride out the apocalypse.    It’s a giant mash of peninsulas as crooked as the devil’s backbone. This means it takes a lot of gas to get nowhere, but 1 square kilometer of property could have 3 kilometers of coast line.

3. This is wine country….if you’re into that kind of thing. This area has the best weather in New Zealand, and it’s where the ferries between the North and South islands dock. So it’s pretty well connected to the world. This is where I want to move some day, and you should to.

4. There’s not much civilization on the West coast, but the scenery is very memorable.

5. Most of the South Island’s population resides along the East coast. There area  lot of great beach towns like Kaikoura. It’s also got the big towns like Christchurch and Dunedin. If you want to move to the South island then start at the top of the East coast and head south dropping off job applications in every town along the way.

6. This is lake country. Its’ cold but spectacularly beautiful. In a country full of picturesque views, the locals come here for the views.

7. This is Fjordland National Park. It’s the most beautiful place in New Zealand. People who live in lake country come here for the views. It’s pretty cold and  remote. Young children would probably be happier in Nelson, but if you want to escape the world and get back to nature then pick one of the towns on the edge of the fjordlands like Manapouri or Te Anau.

8. Spanning 6 and the bottom of 5 is the Otago region, which I didn’t have room to draw a box around. Where most of the South Island is rugged, beautiful mountains, Otago is rolling, peaceful hills. The whole area has an aura of peacefulness around it. It’s just far enough away from the world to feel left alone but close enough get what you want.

If you want to completely disappear from the world then pick one of the tiny towns in the middle of the South Island where I didn’t draw a box. Also, I didn’t draw a box around Invercargill because you don’t want to move there.

I should also mention that Stewart Island at the very bottom of the map is a nature preserve. So unless you’re a park ranger you’re probably not going to get to live there, but you should definitely visit….especially if you like birds.

If you liked this post you may like these:

What’s the best city in New Zealand to live in?

Intro to small town New Zealand


4 Responses

  1. What a great resource! Thanks! We’re moving to NZ in September; the job awaiting us is in Gisborne. However, this was inspiring to read. I’m imagining all the traveling we’ll be doing! Thanks again. Great post.

  2. I have been trying to get my wife to go to new Zealand for a few years now, but it’s expensive to travel there Hopefully we can make it soon before we get to old. Thanks nice article. Eddie White

    • The best time to visit is in Feb/March in my opinion. The summer rush is over, and so are most of the heighten summer rates for tourist things. But the weather is still amazing. Since my family is in the States Feb. has the cheapest flights anyway. Hope you make it here soon!

  3. “6. This is lake country. Its’ cold but…”

    I guess you went in winter 🙂 It is consistenly the hottest part of the country in summer. NZ’s hottest and coldest temperature were recorded in two places about a half hour drive from each other, in this region. Alexandra will hit the mid-30’s at the high point of a hot summer. So, not as stupidly hot as Australia can get, but too warm for my southern blood 🙂

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