The other day I was on a mission of hike near Wanaka when I made friends with a Canadian at the summit.
We ended up climbing down the track together for a couple of hours chatting away about New Zealand, travel, and life, you know, the usual. It’s so easy to meet people in New Zealand, I love it!
One place we had in common was Iceland – he was there recently and I was there last summer with Tiny Iceland. Talking about our favorite spots, he eventually took the words out of my mouth telling me that sometimes New Zealand reminds him of Iceland.
I had been thinking the same exact thing for the past year!
While of course many things are different, like we don’t believe in elves here in New Zealand or have the midnight sun and I’m sure Icelanders think hobbits are weird and wouldn’t know what to make of a moa, in fact, New Zealand and Iceland have a lot of things in common, like a lot.
But in spite of being located on complete opposite sides of the planet, I’ve started to wonder – are New Zealand and Iceland actually the same place?
I had jotted down here and there in my notebooks whenever I would notice something similar but I was savoring my “profound” discovery and waiting until I finished my Iceland Challenge posts before sharing it with you all.
1. Crazy landscapes
Probably the most obvious of them all, it’s a bit freaky how similar Iceland and New Zealand look. In some ways. In others, they are wildly different.
I think it comes from the fact that they are both so remote, both islands and literally at opposite ends of the world, and have been less effected by people and development but also have become so dramatically shaped due to crazy weather and climates.
Jagged peaks, enormous glaciers, volcanic steam, Iceland and New Zealand have them all.
I think I first starting noticing similarities with all of the geothermal activity in both places. Iceland has volcanoes, New Zealand has volcanoes. They both have freaky colored steamy lakes and geysers and of course a sense of impending doom and devastation if one of the many volcanoes blows its tops.
They are both countries filled with big views and more waterfalls than you could ever want and every landscape is a postcard.
Actually, I think that’s why I love them both so much. Beautiful and volatile.
2. No people
I’m just throwing this out there but I think that both Iceland and New Zealand are so unpopulated because they are literally at the end of the world.
While Iceland is actually quite close to Europe and the US (3 hours to London or 4 hours to Boston) it’s basically at the North Pole with very extreme long winters and just a quick summer. New Zealand has a more balanced climate but it’s literally a bajillion hours of hellish flying to get to unless you live in Australia. Of course I am speaking from an American perspective.
If you come to either, it’s because you really, really want to.
This is great for 2 reasons – both countries are seriously unpopulated and both are pretty much the best-kept secrets in the entire world.
Iceland population – 323,000. New Zealand population – 4 million. (New Zealand is a lot bigger than Iceland though so it evens out a bit).
In both countries you oftentimes feel like you have the place to yourself, touristy sites are usually uncrowded and on road trips you can drive for a long time and not see anyone. It’s awesome!
3. They are universally loved
There are only two countries in the world where I never (or rarely) hear a negative comment about – New Zealand and Iceland.
In fact, both places usually rank extremely high on people’s bucketlists or travel dream destinations of places to visit, especially if you are into visiting countries with wicked landscapes.
But the best part? Iceland and New Zealand are the only two countries where I’ve met travelers who not only love them wholeheartedly, but they also go back to them! I find that the most impressive statistic of them all considering how remote, expensive and challenging to get to that they are. That to me speaks volumes of how awesome New Zealand and Iceland are.
4. Expensive as hell
Of course, perfection and beauty come at a price.
New Zealand and Iceland can be horrendously expensive. I have a running joke here that my bank account balance just drops and drops for no reason – where does it go?
No matter what I buy at the grocery store, it’s $100 (cherry tomatoes were $7.99 today!) and I’ve gotten used to spending $5 for a cup of a coffee and I don’t blink an eye at a $90 for a private room in a hostel. Every little thing costs so much more than it does anywhere else in the world.
Yeah I get that a lot of things are imported or are out of season, but NZ does a great job of jacking up prices of things they have in abundance like lamb, wine and fish.
Same goes for Iceland. On my road trip I think we ate 3 proper meals in restaurants and then lived off of $3 gas station hot dogs for the rest of the trip.
That being said, if you want to come, don’t be deterred, there are plenty of ways to visit NZ or Iceland on the cheap. Hitchhiking is safe and common in both places, there are cheap buses, old car rentals and campervan relocation options, couchsurfing and AirBnB. Camping or cooking your own meals is common and working on farms or HelpX are the norm.
I meet broke backpackers making it work all the time – it goes back to the old adage, if you want it bad enough, work for it. But that’s a story for another day.
5. Northern and Southern Lights
While many people have learned that while winter in Iceland isn’t the most ideal time to visit, if you are intrepid enough to journey over during the dark long months, you might be rewarded with seeing the Northern Lights.
How cool is that?
While New Zealand doesn’t have the same level of long dark winters (thank god) on the bottom of the South Island you can get glimpses of the Southern Lights in winter, and not too infrequently either – it’s actually pretty common! Nobody really talks about it that much because, because let’s face it, nobody goes down there.
The Southern Lights by Trey Ratcliff via Stuck in Customs
The Northern Lights via Tiny Iceland
6. Hardy folk
Sometimes I like to think both New Zealand and Iceland are the last frontiers of the world, both originally empty lands settled by adventurous seafaring people.
Neither place are easy to live in so the people there have become strong, and for lack of a better word, hardy.
I feel so happy I have gotten to live in New Zealand for many reasons, but mostly because I know it’s made me tougher and stronger, even when I didn’t want it to.
Same goes for Iceland. You gotta want it to love it.
If there was ever a zombie apocalypse, I’d want to be in Iceland or New Zealand.
7. Still not super touristy
One of my favorite things about New Zealand and Iceland are that they are still not super touristy places to explore. It is really easy to get off the beaten path, have unique experiences and get lost and explore without running into huge tour buses or massive groups of people.
However, that is changing, and it’s changing fast.
One thing I’ve noticed in both places is that tourism has boomed over the past 5 years, like seriously boomed, thanks in part to Game of Thrones and the Lord of the Rings showing off both locations, but also they’ve just become more popular spots to visit. That inherently means more people coming.
However, I’ve noticed an alarming trend in both New Zealand and Iceland. Despite the fact that more people are coming every year, the tourism infrastructure around it hasn’t really been growing or been developed enough to keep up with it.
In fact, I’ve noticed especially in New Zealand a kind of attitude that they aren’t going to change things because A. it’s what’s worked in the past and B. because they don’t want to make it easier for tourists in certain places.
While I want both spots to remain a secret more than anyone, that is a really stupid way to look at things, and it is going to cause a lot of accidents in the future because right now both places are operating off of the whole “don’t be a dumbass and everything will ok” mentality.
I think there are plenty of ways to make things safer without blowing up the beautiful landscape or bringing in boatloads more tourists.
I wish both countries would improve their roads now that they are being trafficked a lot more, especially by big cumbersome campervans, and I really wish there were more designated pull off areas for photos with clear signs in advance so people just don’t pull over on the side of the highway. And don’t even get me started on the landslides in New Zealand, so terrifying.
Usually it takes an accident for people to start paying attention, like kids crossing behind a warning sign and getting killed by falling ice at Fox Glacier or falling off a waterfall at Milford Sound. I remember visiting popular Dettifoss in Iceland, the scariest waterfall in the world and there wasn’t even a fence or barricade on the edge. That is a major accident waiting to happen.
My point is just that if more people are going to be coming to these places then there needs to be a more solid infrastructure around it IMO.
Another obvious tie between New Zealand and Iceland is sheep! Oh how I love sheep!
While they are fenced in on the farms in New Zealand, in Iceland in summer they are left free to roam the lands until they are herded up in the autumn.
So cute and great wool!
9. Drinking culture
I don’t know how to phrase this in a politically correct way (which doesn’t usually stop me) so I’ll say it anyway. Iceland and New Zealand drink a fuckton of alcohol.
I know I am being a bit taboo talking about this, but like with all things, that doesn’t usually stop me so I’ll share anyways. While I grew up thinking the US has a serious drinking culture, let me just put it out there, NZ and Iceland put us to shame.
Like neither place really has the casual beer or two with friends, it’s more like drinking into oblivion, even on a Tuesday. They can and WILL drink you under the table.
So why on earth do kiwis and Icelanders drink like college freshmen?
Beer was banned in Iceland until 1989 – which meant they grew up drinking the strong stuff. Why waste your time with beer when you can have brennivín aka the Black Death? Because beer was banned for so long Iceland didn’t really have a bar or casual pub culture which meant drinking was taken seriously on the weekends. Probably the long dark winters didn’t help much, after all what else is there to do? Who knows.
Same but different here in New Zealand.
Likewise there is a serious drinking culture here in New Zealand but one that is being actively addressed. I remember first noticing it when I moved to Wellington and I was out with friends at a nice bar. One of the girls wanted to order two drinks at once or something, and the bartender said no.
Um, isn’t that the point of a bar? Seriously confused, my friends then explained that New Zealand has a binge drinking problem, so there have been a lot of laws that have come out trying to fix it including monitoring drunk people and closing bars earlier and earlier.
One of which is that bars seriously watch and limit how much alcohol people consume AND have no qualms about throwing drunk people out or letting tipsy people in. I have yet to figure out why exactly people drink heaps here, but trust me, I’ll get to the bottom of it soon. Any ideas?
10. Friendliest people
As if New Zealand and Iceland weren’t such fascinating places already with the most beautiful landscapes in the world, they are both also home to the friendliest, nicest people in the world.
I am not exaggerating.
They are places where everyone says hello and everyone is willing to lend a hand if you’re in help, it certainly makes for a great atmosphere. They are also very safe places to travel with little to no crime, making them perfect spots for solo travelers like me. Small town mentality nationwide. I love it!
So now I guess the question is how do I figure out how to split my time between New Zealand and Iceland?
What do you think? Am I crazy? Have you ever noticed that two very different countries are strikingly similar? Would you like to visit New Zealand or Iceland one day?