South Island vs. Tasmania – How to Choose Your Next Travel Destination

Tasmania and the South Island of New Zealand – two islands at the bottom of the world. Even though there are many similarities between the two, there are also a lot of differences when it comes choosing a vacation destination. If you aren’t sure which one is a better choice for your next trip, read this quick outline to give you a better overview and what to expect. Which one do I prefer (and which one won the coveting position as cover image)? Read on to find out!

Before diving into the seeing and doing however, let’s get some details out of the way.

Fast Facts

At 151,215 km², the South Island is the largest of New Zealand’s islands and encompasses several geographical regions. It’s population in 2017 was 1.1 million people, which is only about one quarter of the total population of New Zealand.

Tasmania, on the other hand, is a state in Australia with an area of 68,401 km² and population of 519,000. So at first glance, we see that South Island, New Zealand is just over twice the size of Tasmania, both in area and population.

Both are located in the Roaring Forties, meaning their positions between latitudes 40 and 50 degrees South cause them to experience significant westerly winds; this means the South Island’s and Tasmania’s west coasts are wet and cloudy rainforests. See examples of wet and cloudy (but still beautiful):

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Fog and clouds along the Milford Sound-Te Anau Road (New Zealand, 2018)

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Rain, clouds and even a little snow at Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park (Tasmania, 2018)

Both are islands with beautiful coastlines and expansive oceans views:

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Kaikoura, New Zealand (2018)

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Wineglass Bay, Tasmania (2018)

But considering all their similarities, there are still some differences between the South Island and Tasmania. So how do you go about deciding which one you’d like to visit? There are a few considerations to keep in mind, the first being the length of your trip.

Trip Duration

South Island: 10-21 days

The South Island has enough to fill a working holiday twice over – it’s just so big and versatile. At a minimum, to see all the highlights I think you’d need 10 days, but could easily spend much more. If you’re already planning a trip to New Zealand specifically, spend 2/3 on the South Island and 1/3 on the North Island.

Tasmania: 4-8 days

I’d recommend between four and eight days in Tasmania. I spent eight days there and I think that was perfect, though my friends have done four day trips and been satisfied. With four days you can see a lot of the popular sights located along the east coast, but to visit Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park or the West Coast, you’d need more like eight days.

While length of trip is important, what you ultimately want to spend your vacation doing plays a big role in deciding between Tasmania and South Island. In the following sections, I’ve outlined what there is to do and see on the South Island and in Tasmania. Read through both to get an idea of which one you’d prefer.

South Island

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Views along the Hooker Valley Track in New Zealand (2018)

Part of the reason I’d recommend so much more time on the South Island is that there’s much more to do. The range of adventure sports and outdoor activities is unmatched – I’d highly recommend going on some tramps and spending at least a half day kayaking.

Tramping: The tramping here is unparalleled. There are so many fantastic half-day, full-day and overnight hikes, plus the 9 Great Walks. The Department of Conservation has an extensive list of almost every walk in New Zealand, so you’re sure to find some matching your abilities and time constraints. I’d recommend Roy’s Peak (near Wanaka) and Mueller Hut (Aoreki/Mount Cook National Park).

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One of the best sunrises of my life atop Roy’s Peak (New Zealand, 2018)

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The trail to Nugget Point Lighthouse is an easy walk even for beginners (New Zealand, 2018)

Kayaking: With so much coastline, there are tons of places to go kayaking. I’d recommend paddling in Milford Sound and Abel Tasman National Park.

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A wonderful day kayaking the coastline in Abel Tasman National Park (New Zealand, 2018)

Skydiving: This is a great activity for any daredevils visiting the island. Queenstown, Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier are popular destinations. You can do it elsewhere, but I’d definitely recommend one of these spots because you get fantastic views of the Southern Alps.

Surfing: The east coast is a gem for surfing. I’d you’re a beginner, head to St. Clair beach in Dunedin for a surf lesson. If you’re more experienced, there are some amazing locations for surfing in and around the Dunedin area. The very best surf spots are local secrets, so head somewhere like Purakaunui beach or Smail’s beach and talk to the surfers there for some tips on other spots.

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Purakaunui beach – no surfers this early in the morning, just a great sunrise! (New Zealand, 2018)

Wildlife: Whale watching and swimming with dolphins are popular in Kaikoura. I found whale watching underwhelming, but for dolphins I went with Dolphin Encounter and I’d highly recommend them. One of the best experiences of my trip and operated in a sustainable way. There are a few places along the coast that you can go penguin viewing. You’ll see some species of birds in the wild, or head to Orokonui Ecosanctuary near Dunedin. There’s also a lot of places to see seals and sea lions.

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Baby seals in Abel Tasman National Park (New Zealand, 2018)

Food & Drink: There are a lot of places for great wines on the South Island; the Marlborough region is one of the best locations for wine tasting, in addition to the Queenstown/Wanaka area, though Central Otago is good too. Near Abel Tasman National Park lies the town of Motueka which has one of the highest concentrations of craft breweries in the world. There’s good food all around the island and where to go depends on where you are.

Culture & History: Otago Museum, located in Dunedin, is a fantastic museum for learning about the history of the Pacific Islands. Ko Tane, near Christchurch, holds traditional Moari dinners and performances.

Bonus: South Island has the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Check out my list of the best places to watch them in the South Island.

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Nugget Point in the early hours of the morning (New Zealand, 2018)

Tasmania

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Colourful rock formations in the Bay of Fires (Tasmania, 2018)

Tramping: Some tramping in Tasmania, though not nearly as much as the South Island. There are some nice ones around Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park and Freycinet National Park (if possible, I’d recommend Mt. Amos hike over simply going to the Wineglass Bay lookout). I’d also recommend walking along the beach at the Bay of Fires.

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Hiking to see Cradle Mountain. Unfortunately, the peak of the mountain never fully came into sight but still a beautiful walk nonetheless (Tasmania, 2018)

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View of Wineglass Bay from the top of Mt. Amos. This was a challenging hike because it’s so steep in sections, but the views were stunning. (Tasmania, 2018)

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Orange lichen covers the rocks at the Bay of Fires (though to my surprise this isn’t how the bay got it’s name) and contrasts beautifully with the blue ocean water. (Tasmania, 2018)

Wildlife: Just about everywhere you go you’re sure to see a wombat or two. You can go to a wildlife reserve to see the Tasmanian devil and wallabies, though I didn’t like it the way the animals were becoming so accustomed to begging for food and following humans. On the hikes you can see tons of beautifully colourful birds too.

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Wallabies on the east coast of Tasmania (2018)

Food & Drink: I found the food to be very mediocre in Tasmania, but Bruny Island is a popular place for local food and wines.

Culture & History: The Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart is very informative and a good way to spend two or three hours. The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is world renowned, however I was thoroughly disappointed with it (I don’t like contemporary art though, so don’t let me stop you). Just don’t get a cocktail in the main bar area – they’re insanely expensive for a small glass and half of my drink was one massive ice cube! Port Arthur was previously a location for convicts and is an interesting day trip from Hobart.

I’d highly recommend taking a boat tour with World Heritage Cruises; you get a tour of Sarah Island (a location for a convict camp) which is so interesting and was one of my favourite parts of my entire Tasmania trip (Ingrid, the guide, is so theatrical in her explanation that you can see the whole story playing out as she takes you through the grounds). You can also see Hell’s Gate and the Franklin-Gordon River, which satisfies the most criteria for World Heritage Status of anywhere in the world apparently!

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The remains of a facility for experimenting with solitary confinement on Sarah Island (Tasmania, 2018)

Bonus: If you’re interested in seeing the (disputably) tallest trees in the world, take a walk through Mount Field National Park.

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Located in Mount Field National Park, the Eucalyptus regnans trees grow to nearly 100 m. They’re the fastest growing trees in the world and should be taller than the California Redwoods, but the tallest were cut down for logging before being measured. (Tasmania, 2018)

What do you think?

My preference? Without further ado, my favourite destination (drum roll please): South Island! The cover photo is from the Pancake Rocks on the West Coast.

Anyways, if you have at least two weeks to travel, I’d highly recommend going to the South Island of New Zealand. Not that Tasmania isn’t great – I just preferred New Zealand. However, if you’ll already be in Australia and have a few days or even a week to spare, Tasmania makes for an amazing trip too. It all comes down to what you want out of your trip and how much time you have to dedicate to it.

Between South Island, New Zealand and Tasmania, which has piqued your interest more? Or if you’ve been to either or both, which did you prefer and why? As always, feel free to get in touch or leave a comment below!

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