There is no doubt that New Zealand has some of the most varied and dramatic landscapes in the world. Consisting of two main islands and a large number of smaller ones, this island nation in the South Pacific has been formed by the forces of nature to delight and inspire. It is no wonder that it has been chosen for many movies, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Read More: New Zealand Regional Maps
North Island Geography
The North Island is the warmer of the two main islands with a temperate and sometimes subtropical climate, and it contains around three quarters of the country's population. The land is generally hilly and mountainous, largely the result of extensive volcanic activity over millions of years.
The east coast is sheltered by the mountains from the prevailing westerly winds and there are magnificent beaches and islands down the entire length of the North Island. The west coast is rugged and wild.
The center of the island is marked by a large and active volcanic ridge, which includes the Rotorua geothermal area, the active volcanoes of Mt Ruapehu, Mt Ngaurahoe and White Island, and Tongariro National Park. Lake Taupo, New Zealand's largest lake is also in this area and was the result of several volcanic eruptions, the last of which was only nearly 1800 years ago.
Originally most of the North Island was covered in native forest. However, much of this was cleared for farming by European settlers since their arrival in the late 1700s. Timber from the native trees, especially the magnificent kauri, was also highly valued and much of it was exported during this time. Many areas of native forest do remain, particularly in Northland and the central areas of the island.
Read More: North Island Highlights
South Island Geography
The South Island is slightly larger than the North Island, although only a quarter of the country's population lives here. The most distinctive feature of the South Island is the Southern Alps, a mountain range running north to south along the entire length of the island.
As a result, the South Island landscape is very dramatic with huge networks of glaciers (including the Fox and Franz Josef), lakes and rivers feeding off the mountains. New Zealand's highest mountain, Aoraki/Mt Cook (12,316 ft/3754 meters) is one of 18 peaks which are above 3000 meters.
The west coast of the South Island, like the same coast on the North Island, is wild and battered by the winds and seas of the Tasman Sea which separates New Zealand from Australia.
The Canterbury Plains are a large and very flat area on the eastern side of the Alps, from just north of Christchurch down to the central Otago district.
New Zealand's best known region is Queenstown in Central Otago. This is a picture-perfect town, situated on the shore of Lake Wakatipu and sheltered by mountains on all sides.
Read More: Queenstown
The South Island is also notable for its deep fiords. At the top of the Island, the Marlborough Sounds are a popular sailing area and the departure point for the ferry between the South and North Islands (at Picton). The other area of fiords is in Fiordland, in the far south west. This was created by glacier activity over millions of years and is a very remote area. Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound are the two best-known and most accessible.
Before European arrival, the South Island was covered in either tussock grass or beech forests. Tussock is still found throughout the high country and there are magnificent beech forests throughout the National Parks in the southern half of the island.
Read More: South Island Highlights
Other Islands of New Zealand
The two main islands of New Zealand are surrounded by many smaller ones. The largest of these is Stewart Island/Rakiura at the bottom end of the South Island. Other prominent islands are Great Barrier and the islands of the Hauraki Gulf near Auckland, the Chatham Islands and the Auckland Islands.
Few countries in the world have as varied and spectacular landscapes and geography in New Zealand. Want to go skiing, surfing, diving, tramping and kayaking, all in one day? It's very possible to do in New Zealand.