Australia vs New Zealand | Which is Best?

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By Claire Todd

9 minute read

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Australia and New Zealand have long enjoyed a good-natured rivalry, with little brother New Zealand often playing second fiddle to the big and bold Australia. As with many sibling rivalries, we tend to argue over somewhat petty issues – who has the better rugby team (New Zealand), which country is home to more sheep (Australia), who invented the pavlova (read on for the answer), who can claim Russell Crowe as their countryman (Australia, he’s all yours) and who’s better looking (I’ll let you decide that one).

It’s hard to pick a favourite, but if you’re planning a vacation Down Under and you’re somewhat short on time, you might have to make the choice between Australia and New Zealand. What should I do, I hear you ask? It’s a good question and one we get asked regularly here at New Zealand Trails. Read on and I’ll give you a little insight into what makes Australia and New Zealand different and hopefully help make that decision a little easier.

Size matters

Contrary to some opinions, Australia and New Zealand aren’t part of the same country and you can’t get a train from one to the other. There are 2,200km (1,367 miles) of ocean between the two, a fact that New Zealander Scott Donaldson can attest to after his recent successful solo kayak across the Tasman Sea, a feat that took him 62 days. Scott has proven that it is possible to paddle between Australia and New Zealand if you’d like to, but if time is of the essence then your best bet is a quick international flight. A flight between Sydney and Auckland takes about three hours and there are a few different carriers to choose from offering regular daily flights between all the main centres.

Abel Tasman kayaking adventure

Channel your inner Scott Donaldson at one of our favourite sea kayaking spots – Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand.

One factor that will vary that flight time is the sheer size of Australia – it’s huge. I mean truly a behemoth. With a land area of just over 7.5 million square kilometres (2.97 million square miles), it’s the sixth largest country in the world. It would take you two months of walking solidly for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week to get from one side to the other. A flight from Perth on the West Coast, to Sydney on the East, takes almost 5 hours. It’s more than just a country, it’s a continent!

New Zealand, on the other hand, is dramatically smaller with a land area of 268,021 kilometres squared (103,483 square miles). It’s a long thin country, aptly named ‘Aotearoa’ in the native Maori language, meaning ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’. The country is divided into two islands, North and South, separated by the notoriously choppy Cook Strait. If you were to walk from the very top of the North Island to the bottom of the South, it would take around a month, including a scenic ferry crossing (or swim if you’re so inclined). Alternatively, a three-hour flight would get you from Auckland at the top end of the North Island, to Invercargill at the bottom of the South. You could fit the whole of New Zealand into Australia almost 29 times over!

Australia is certainly the big brother in terms of sheer size, so you’ll need a lot longer to explore it than New Zealand. To fully experience Australia, I’d recommend that you have at least six weeks up your sleeve. Because of its relatively petite dimensions, you can properly explore the incredible views and beautiful scenery of New Zealand in about two weeks.

Two very different landscapes

Whilst they vary greatly in size, both Australia and New Zealand are well known for their stunning scenery and impressive landscapes. The diversity of vistas on offer is what always surprises me. Australia is essentially a red desert with green edges, but that doesn’t adequately describe the wealth of natural beauty you’ll find there. There are some 19 UNESCO World Heritage listed sites within Australia. From the tropical rainforests of Far North Queensland to the mesmerising Great Barrier Reef, down to the Blue Mountains and across to the rugged coastlines of Western Australia, there’s so much to see and experience. As you travel inland to the dry hinterland, you’ll eventually come to the significant and famous Uluru (Ayers Rock), a huge rock monolith in the ‘Red Centre’ of the Northern Territory. Be warned though, it’s a long drive to get there – two-thirds of the country is desert.

If Australia is top of your list but you don’t have time to see it all, then I would recommend picking maybe two or three places that particularly appeal and spending your vacation there.

New Zealand may be more compact, but it punches above its weight as far as natural beauty and breath-taking scenery goes. The differences between the two islands that make up New Zealand are quite astonishing. The North Island is lush, green and volcanic with pristine (and largely empty) white sand beaches framing the edges. Three-quarters of New Zealand’s 4.6 million population call the North Island home, but despite that, you’ll find plenty of quiet spots to soak up the views.

When it comes to the South Island, prepare to have your socks knocked off! Those photographs that you’ve seen of New Zealand . . . the South Island is where most of those were taken. From the sun-drenched Marlborough Sounds and golden bays at the top of the island to the vast peaks, valleys and fiords of the deep south - if you can imagine a view, then you’ll find it here. Perhaps most stunning of all is the famous Milford Sound, a deep inlet with imposing mountains rising up from the sea and a silence only broken by the splash of a cheeky dolphin or seal stopping by to say hello. If you’re lucky enough to be there when it’s raining, you’ll witness waterfalls cascading off the vast rock faces towering around you. And that’s just a small taste of what’s on offer down here. New Zealand is one of those places that needs to be seen to be believed.

Milford Sound, Fiordland New Zealand

Is there anywhere truly as iconic as Milford Sound? The geology around here is as stunning as Australia's Uluru, but it's far more temperate by the Kiwi coast than it is in the middle of the Aussie desert.

Whatever the weather

Here’s where things start to heat up! Chances are, you already know that Australia is hot. Its position in the Southern Hemisphere means that the seasons are reversed, so summer is winter and vice versa for those of you residing in the Northern Hemisphere. I use the word ‘seasons’ lightly as there’s not a lot of difference between them in Australia, depending on whereabouts in the country you are. Over summer (December to February), temperatures are reliably warm with regular heatwaves in excess of 40°C (104°F). There are a few places where things cool down a little, but to go into detail would be a whole other blog post! Make sure that you research the individual climate of the area you’d like to explore, to ensure that you pick the best time to go. As a general guideline, if you enjoy warm weather and you’re keen to dip your toe in the ocean, then I’d recommend planning your Australian trip sometime between November and March.

New Zealand has a maritime climate, which means that it’s temperate and often enjoys four seasons in one day! There’s a marked difference between the seasons, but each brings with it something unique and beautiful. My favourite time of year is Autumn (March-May). The fresh mornings turn to mild, blue-sky days and the changing colours of the leaves make for a spectacular backdrop.

Autumn in Arrowtown, Otago New Zealand

Arrowtown is the place to be in Autumn (Fall). With so many beautiful old trees bursting into colour, it's truly an inspiring scene.

There is a difference in climate between the North and South Islands of New Zealand. Being closer to the equator, the North Island is a little warmer, particularly the further north you head. Over the summer months, you can look forward to temperatures in the high 20s and low 30s (75-85°F). You very rarely get frosts up north, so winter is still a good time to get out and about. The South Island has a more varied climate but it’s still relatively mild and even on the coldest winter day, it’s not much below freezing. What’s most appealing about New Zealand’s climate is that it’s not humid, so that means that you’re able to explore and get out walking without feeling too sticky. Plus, you’re never too far from the ocean, so there’s usually a fresh breeze to cool you down on your way.

As with Australia, the most popular time to visit New Zealand is during the summer months. But really, there’s never a bad time to head down our way. Make sure you pack for every eventuality (bring your sunglasses and your wool hat!) and you won’t go far wrong.

Culinary highlights

I could talk for days and days about food, but I’ll be brief! Both Australia and New Zealand have a fresh and varied cuisine. I genuinely couldn’t pick between the two. Australia is known for its delicious seafood and tropical fruit. In the larger cities, you’ll find a wealth of world-class restaurants serving mouth-watering dishes. And if there’s one thing Australians know how to do, it’s barbeque! Enjoy a cold beer and fresh grilled seafood as you watch the sunset over the water for a quintessential Australian dining experience.

New Zealand has no shortage of tasty food and top-notch eateries, with spots such as Auckland and Queenstown earning themselves recognition from foodies around the world. Fresh venison, salmon and seafood are abundant. We’re also famous for our wines, which pair beautifully with the local fare. My top tipple would be a crisp, clean Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. If you enjoy a red wine, then be sure to sample the renowned Central Otago Pinot Noir.

Coffee is our national drink and we take pride in our ‘Flat White’ – a double shot of coffee with lightly textured hot milk. Match that with a homemade blueberry muffin and you’re ready for anything. Coffee culture is big in New Zealand, so make time in your journey to nestle into a cosy corner at a local café and soak up the kiwi atmosphere.

Cafe culture New Zealand vs Australia

A good café is a tried-and-true Kiwi tradition – step back from everything for a moment and enjoy a strong brew. It's even better with company!

I do have to mention pavlova. Meringue, cream and fresh fruit – the perfect summer dessert. In a battle that’s been raging for decades, both Australia and New Zealand have claimed that they invented this mouth-watering morsel. However, after exhaustive research and taste testing, I’m declaring New Zealand the winner. If in doubt, try pavlova in both Australia and New Zealand and decide for yourself which you prefer!

Animal attraction

When you think of Australia, you might immediately be reminded of kangaroos and koalas - iconic marsupials that photograph well. You’ll also find wombats, platypuses, echidna, emus and crocodiles, to mention but a few. Below the water, you’ll discover an abundance of tropical fish, sting-rays and sharks. People often ask about the spiders and yes, there are a lot of spiders in Australia, many of which are poisonous. But if you’re sensible and chat to the locals about any precautions required, then chances are that both you and the spider can go about your business unharmed.

New Zealand is home to some strange looking wildlife and scores of birds that can be found only here. Our national emblem is the kiwi, a flightless nocturnal bird with a shy nature and long curved beak. If you’re lucky enough to spot one in the wild, it’s an experience that’s hard to forget. You’ll almost certainly meet the unusual alpine parrot, the Kea, during your time on the South Island. Keas like to chew rubber, so watch out for the window trim on your car if you stop to take a picture of this cheeky chap! New Zealand is a haven for many species of native bird. Enjoy the company of a friendly Fantail darting through the trees and listen to the beautiful song of the Tui as you walk on the trail. It’s worth noting that nothing in New Zealand wants to eat you. We have no poisonous critters and our native wildlife is about as dangerous as a soggy tissue, so you can just relax and enjoy the landscape.

Kea playing with boots, Otira lookout New Zealand

With so many New Zealand birds to choose from, the Kea is still one of our favourites for its notoriously cheeky and wickedly intelligent approach to... pretty much anything.

In conclusion

So, there you have it, the best of Australia and New Zealand. In an ideal world, you would take a sabbatical for six months and explore both countries top to toe. But that’s not an option for everyone and with your hard-earned vacation time crying out to be used to the full, making the choice between Australia and New Zealand is always going to be hard.

Both countries have something unique to offer to travellers and you won’t regret a vacation to either. But if this is your one chance to head Down Under, then New Zealand would be my choice. It’s a small, but perfectly formed destination that can be fully enjoyed in just a couple of weeks. You’ll soak up incredible scenery, enjoy mild weather, eat delicious local cuisine and get up close and personal with our unique flora and fauna. What more could you ask for from an incredible Antipodean vacation!

If you'd like more information on taking an all-inclusive, fully-guided trip to New Zealand, request your free New Zealand Trails brochure here for stories, maps and information on our 5 trip options.

Updated: 3/1/19

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