New Zealand is made up of two main islands which, together, constitute the overwhelming majority of the land mass and population of the country. The two main islands stretch for over 1,700 miles.
The North Island is dominant economically. The north half of the North Island contains around 52% of the total population, the southern half has 24% and the South Island 24%. Of the total population of 4.5 million, around 1.4 million live in Auckland and around 390,000 live in Wellington, the capital, situated right on the southern part of the North island.
Over half of all New Zealanders live in one of the four main urban areas, the other two being Hamilton, to the south of Auckland and Christchurch on the South island.
Auckland, the dominant city, is actually positioned on a narrow isthmus which is only 3km at its narrowest point. Home to over 200,000 peoples from the Pacific islands, Auckland is the largest Polynesian city in the world. It also attracts over half of all migrants to New Zealand, not surprising given its position at the heart of the country’s economy and the fact that some 70% of all international arrivals come through Auckland.
The local region is dotted with 48 volcanic cones which provide the city with a spectacular backdrop and the local region is famous for its beaches, islands, vineyards and sailing. All this has led Auckland to figure highly in a number of Quality of Life indices such as the Mercer index and the one produced by The Economist.
Other well-known parts of the North Island include:
Bay of Plenty – situated on the north coast, it is regarded as one of the most beautiful parts of the country with a sunny (the sunniest in the North Island), warm climate. It was named by Captain Cook because of the abundant resources he found – kiwifruit is the region’s largest export. It is a very popular holiday destination, with beautiful beaches that attract surfers all year round. The beaches in this region are voted the best in New Zealand by TripAdvisor. It is also known for the thermal springs around Rotorua which, along with it being a centre for native Maori culture, makes it a major tourist destination.
Hawkes Bay - broadly equidistant between Auckland and Wellington and situated on the east coast, it is famous for its sunny, almost Mediterranean lifestyle and has become well-known for its wines, in particular red wines based on cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, as well as fruit growing. The area suffered from a large earthquake in the 1931 and many buildings were rebuilt in the art deco style, for which the region has become famous (Napier has one of the highest concentrations of Art Deco buildings in the world).
Wellington – styled by Lonely Planet in 2011 as the world’s “coolest little capital”, it is some 8.5hrs drive from Auckland and the South Island is a pretty 3 hour ferry ride away. The cities position at the geographic heart of the country won it its role as capital city back in 1865. Hemmed in by steep hills, Wellington has a compact, vibrant feel to it as well as one of the largest deep water ports in the southern hemisphere.
When gold was discovered in South Island in the 1860’s, the population grew to such an extent that it was larger than the North Island. Despite being bigger than the North island, the population lagged behind that the North as the economic centre of gravity continued to shift north.
Perhaps reflecting the lower population growth, the South Island is less multi-cultural. More than 90% of people belong to a European ethnic group compared to 80% across the whole country.
The South Island has the reputation for being wild and rugged, being dominated by the Southern Alps which run down the spine of the island. The highest peak is Mt. Cook at 3,754m / 12,316ft though there are eighteen peaks over 3,000m / 9,800ft.
This dramatic scenery has made it a popular location for films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Some of the more famous areas include:
Marlborough Sounds – this region on the north-east coast is famous for the series of fjords, or Sounds, which dramatically indent the coastline and wine. It is the largest grape-growing and wine-making region in the country, with over 65 wineries and 290 grape growers. Most famous for Sauvignon Blanc, a number of other varieties are also highly acclaimed.
Queenstown – regarded as the best region for outdoor sports in the southern hemisphere, it is packed with activities such as skiing, white-water rafting and bungy-jumping and offers a wide variety of activities throughout the year.
Fjordland – regarded as one of the most dramatic and beautiful regions, it is located on the south-west coast. Its beauty has gained it World Heritage status and one of its most famous sights is Milford Sound where pristine forests drop into the sea and which Rudyard Kipling described as the eighth wonder of the world. Despite being the wettest inhabited place in the country, it is one of the most visited places in New Zealand.
Due to the rainfall and mountains, the South Island is also a major centre for the generation of hydro-electric power which contributes over 40% of the total output. Given the natural resources, it is not surprising that tourism is an important part of the economy as is agriculture and horticulture.