If you’re planning a great Antipodean adventure, Australia and New Zealand tempt in equal measure.

Yet since that year-long sabbatical that will allow you to travel slowly across both countries may be a long time coming, you’ll likely have to make the tough decision to visit one over the other.

How do you tackle such a choice? Let two of our travel experts help.

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Awesome Oz

Australian travel writer and Lonely Planet contributor Sarah Reid has collected more than 130 passport stamps. But she has yet to visit another country that ticks as many boxes as her homeland.

So our mountains might not be as dramatic, our airline safety not as funny and our rugby team...well, let’s not get into that. But while I have a deep affection for our neighbor across the Tasman Sea, there’s really no beating what Australia has to offer visitors.

Crowds look at Uluru at dusk, Red Centre, Northern Territory, Australia
Sites of spiritual significance like Uluru let visitors get close to the world’s oldest living cultures © marcobrivio.photography / Shutterstock

Cultural cachet

Let’s start with the world’s oldest living cultures. Every corner of the country forms part of the traditional lands of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander group with its own language, customs, traditions and stories. And there have never been more opportunities to experience this rich cultural legacy, from being dazzled by Wintjiri Wiru, a new state-of-the-art cultural storytelling experience at Uluru, to climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge with an Indigenous storyteller guide.

Speaking of Sydney: what a showstopper! I lived in the New South Wales capital for nearly a decade and I still get misty-eyed at the sight of the Sydney Opera House sticking out into the sparkling Sydney Harbor. With regard to new food frontiers, did you know the flat white was invented in Sydney? We realize that might hard for Kiwis to accept. And while New Zealand might have made the first pavlova, its culinary scene doesn’t hold a candle to Australia’s, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, which both lie within easy striking distance of top wine regions. And let’s not forget our other cool capital cities: Canberra and Hobart, to name two, can get literally as cold as Auckland or Wellington, but rarely as windy.

Kids on a walking path looking at wild echidna with beach in the background, Portland, Victoria, Australia
Only-in-Australia creatures like echidnas never fail to delight © caseyjadew / Shutterstock

A world of wildlife

The magical island of Tasmania is home to five of Australia’s 12 Great Walks. And while we won’t deny the Lord of the Rings landscapes experienced on New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks are pretty special, they’re generally lacking one thing Australia has no shortage of: wildlife. (Sheep don’t count.) It never gets old spotting a koala dozing in a gum tree, an echidna waddling across your path or a kangaroo bounding through the bush. And how amazing are Australia’s birds? There are few sounds as joyous as a family of kookaburras erupting into laughter.

I will say that New Zealand’s small size makes for easier and less carbon-intensive trips within the country. Yet across its great girth, Australia is blessed with astounding and unrivaled diversity, best experienced on a road trip to destinations like Cairns and Far North Queensland, where the world’s oldest living tropical rainforest meets the world’s largest coral reef (the Great Barrier Reef is still incredible, by the way). Or the wild and rugged Top End of the Northern Territory, where red-dirt trails lead to Aboriginal rock art and serene swimming holes.

You could spend a lifetime exploring the highlights of mainland Australia. But our territory also encompasses more than 8000 islands. From the colonial heritage of Norfolk Island to the otherworldly natural beauty of Lord Howe Island, many of these spots are bucket-list destinations unto themselves.

It helps, of course, that Australia has an ideal climate for exploring outdoors. For what good is a gorgeous beach that’s usually too cold for a dip? At any given time of the year, it’s the perfect time to be somewhere Down Under. Just ask the 15 percent of New Zealand’s population who call Australia home.

The zing of New Zealand

Travel writer and editor Tasmin Waby has explored almost all of New Zealand, from Cape Reinga to Stewart Island (where seeing kiwis under the Milky Way was a life highlight). 

While some of the world’s wealthiest preppers may have chosen New Zealand as the place to move in the face of a global apocalypse, New Zealanders are busy making the world a better place so that those billionaire bunkers won’t be needed after all.

New Zealand is the home of my extended family – my whānau – and I honestly can’t believe I haven’t moved there yet. I have vivid childhood memories of the South Island: eating my first ripe peach straight from an Otago orchard, smelling lanolin on my hands after petting a lamb, following a cousin into the frigid ocean at St Clair’s beach in Dunedin in winter.

Travelers ride horses in lupine flower field, overlooking the beautiful landscape of Mt Cook National Park in New Zealand
Within its relatively small borders, New Zealand contains an extraordinary range of landscapes and ecosystems © Getty Images / iStockphoto

Small but mighty

One of the best things about going to New Zealand is that you can easily tour its highlights in a week or two. (Honestly, though, if you’re going to go all the way there, take your time and do it properly.) You can’t say the same for Australia – which is really a continent of nations. Despite what your Mercator map might suggest, you need to narrow it down to one region (and deal with your FOMO later). 

While New Zealand is small, it doesn’t feel so when you’ve pitched your tent in a campground by an almost-empty beach that fades into a distant mist of sea spray. Nor when you’re hiking otherworldly volcanic landscapes at Tongariro National Park, or rainforested valleys with only the local wildlife for company. 

And New Zealand’s native animals? Well, at least they’re not trying to kill you…

On the North Island, you can cycle from one coast to the other in just one day. Down on the South Island, you can test your own limits by skiing, bungee-jumping, mountain-biking, jet boating and tackling a via ferrata in Queenstown and Wanaka.

New Zealand is the country for lovers of nature, who also value a proper coffee (whether Australia or NZ invented the “flat white” is a point of hot contention) or a quality drop of wine  – ideally sampled at a cellar door restaurant with views of the ocean.

When sailing the turquoise waters of the Bay of Islands in the tropical “winterless north,” New Zealand is very much a Pacific paradise. Down south, where chiseled mountains plunge into an ocean of marine life, Fiordland could double for Scandinavia.

A red cable car ascends with a view of Wellington and the ocean in the distance, Wellington, New Zeland
New Zealand cities like Wellington have all the pleasures of urban living – with nature never far away © Victor Maschek / Shutterstock

Sophisticated cities (plus penguins)

New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland is a thriving metropolis with harborside restaurants, open-air festivals, and muggy summer nights, comparable to Sydney – but without the parking problems. Pocket-sized Dunedin and Wellington tick all the “city” boxes, with destination hotels, cocktail bars and fine dining. Then you only need to drive a mere 10 minutes to spot penguins or migrating whales.

Yet you shouldn’t just travel here merely to immerse yourself in incredible landscapes. You’re here to experience the world anew.

Australia may be making strides toward reconciliation with its First Nations, but in New Zealand Māori language, worldview and the traditional values of guardianship of the land, sea and sky are all very much a part of what it means to be a New Zealander. Here, the cultural and spiritual significance of a river is already enshrined in law.

You’ll find New Zealanders are progressive, friendly, and good natured. Even though – incredibly – not all of them were extras in Lord of the Rings, feel free to ask them anyway: Kiwis also have a wry sense of humor. Get over there and find out.

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