OPINION: Congratulations South Islanders you live in a truly world-class destination. North Islanders you can go take a hike. Preferably up Roy’s Peak which, unlike your home island, offers the kind of Lord of the Rings-epic scenery people come to this country to see.
At least that seems to be the consensus of the more than 800 travel journalists, editors, agencies and bloggers who helped compile travel site Flight Network’s World’s Ultimate Bucket List for 2018.
New Zealand made it to the top 30 (just) but only thanks to the South Island, which was described as a “sweeping untouched landscape” that is surely “one of the most spectacular on the planet”. The North Island didn’t get a mention.
Aside from scaling Roy’s Peak before sunrise, visitors to the South Island are advised to tackle one of its six Great Walks, go rafting down “the raging Rangitata River”, kayak in Abel-Tasman National Park, ski in Wanaka and get their adrenaline on in Queenstown with a bungy jump, skydive or paragliding session. Nothing much new there then.
The experience every serious traveller should have at the top of their bucket list, according to this list, is to take a wildlife safari in Africa (the country doesn’t seem to matter much as long as you have a decent chance of spotting the Big Five). Ticked that box? Embark on an expedition to Antarctica, seek out the Northern Lights wherever you think you’re most likely to find them, trek to Machu Picchu and sail the Galapagos Islands. In that order.
As a born and bred North Islander, I have to admit to feeling slightly dissed by the list. Yes, the South Island is a stunner. But in a conventional snow-capped mountain, glistening lake, no one around to hear you scream if you lose your footing on said mountain kind of way. If you want to experience the mud-boiling, steam-venting, (warm) beach-going multicultural melting pot that encapsulates New Zealand for many of us, you can’t go past the North Island.
I don’t want to get into an “anything the South Island can do, the North Island can do better” debate, because we might just lose. But the North Island does offer some epic experiences that really should be on every traveller’s bucket list, New Zealander or otherwise.
Who can truthfully say they have seen the country, after all, without visiting the subtropical and Māori cultural paradise that is the Bay of Islands, trying not to gag as they explore the sulphurous delights of Rotorua and Taupō and hiking through the barren but somehow still sublimely beautiful dual Tongariro National Park, the first in the world to receive cultural World Heritage status.
The North Island boasts multiple experience which can fairly be described not only as world-class but as out of this world. Abseiling into the Waitomo Glowworm Caves to find yourself in a subterranean Milky Way, scuba diving amid the remnants of ancient volcanoes at Poor Knights Island and visiting White Island, New Zealand’s only active marine volcano… White Island Tours may make it sound a bit like hell on earth in describing it as a place of “roaring steam vents, bubbling pits of mud, hot volcanic streams and… [a] lake of steaming acid”, but it’s actually an adventurer and photographer’s paradise.
And then there are the cities which, while lacking the entertainment value of the likes of London or New York, offer an important insight into Kiwi culture. Shopping at Otara Market in the Polynesian capital of the world, visiting the cafes, craft breweries and hipster boutiques that make Wellington the “coolest little capital in the world”, getting a glimpse of the New Zealand retirement dream in Tauranga… And let’s not forget that the North Island is also home to Masterton, officially New Zealand’s most beautiful city, even if the locals themselves are a bit bemused by the honour.
For the intrepid travellers the Flight Network list seems to be aimed at, travel is not just about seeking out a destination’s famously beautiful – or adrenaline-inducing – attractions, but also the quirky and (for the locals) quotidian experiences that help lend its special identity. Just because a place wasn’t on Lord of the Rings doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting. But remember that even Frodo and co were North Islanders. And their lives were one never-ending adventure.