South Island has more spectacular topography. There is a plate boundary down the middle which has caused the mountain range to form. Quite interesting to see the change from tall trees by the roadside to rolling plains as you drive across this plate boundary.
North Island is also very interesting, with towns like Rotorua, Hamilton, Taupo and so on. Interesting places include Lake Taupo, Bay of Plenty, Mt Egmont (Mt Taranaki) and the huge Kaori forests.
If I were in your shoes, I'd pick a self-drive trip in NZ without any hesitation. Lots more freedom afforded. Go anywhere, stop anywhere.
At higher elevations, you may need to be concerned with black ice causing loss of grip.
I have been to both North and South Island and even though the South is more photegenic with its mountains, lakes, fjords, etc. the North can offer beautiful seascapes and geothermal regions. Some of my best landscape photos have been taken in NZ. Here are 2 links to my North and South Island photos,
South Island is more scenic on all coasts, but if you want a more diverse then the West Coast of the South Island great.
1: Pancake Rocks
2: Fox or Franz Josef Glaciers
3: Lake Matherson
4: Haast Pass
5: Arthur's Pass
Some of the places I would recommend you to visit. If you self drive I would if you have the time, fly into Christchurch, rent a car, drive north to Blenheim, with stops at Kiakoura to where you can see seals, and they have whale sighting trips there.
When at Blenheim, visit some wineries, then you can travel to Picton and see the Marlborough Sounds, travel over to Nelson, goto Farewell Spit, travel down to Wesport via the Upper and Lower Buller Gorge Roads, then travel to the West Coast from Wesport by the Coast Road, via Charleston, then Greymouth, with stops at the Pancake Rocks etc ...
If you travel by bus you wont see much and its pretty much point to point.
If you rent a car, in Winter it will be especially dangerous driving in certain area's, especially inland from Christchurch to the West Coast, via Arthur's Pass (State Highway 76), while the scenery is spectactular, you will cross the Southern Alps, via Arthur's Pass and from Springfield to Greymouth depending on the time of day you could encounter snow on the roads, but in early mornings there will be frosts, which will create icy conditions which will require extra care.
Your biggest danger during the winter no matter where you drive in NZ, will be Black Ice, this is ice you dont see at all. This is usually found in shady sections of the road where the sun cant shine and melt the ice. This usually happens when there is a heavy frost during the night where temperatures can goto -15C and it literally freezes all moisture. When you walk on grass when their is a frost it will crunch below your feet.
Just becareful, and ask the local's what the road conditions are or check with the Automobile Association.
I have been to both north and south island last december and i must say the scenery in south island is alot better. Most memorable is arthur pass, fox glacier hike, queenstown, milford sound, mt cook, and many beautiful blue mirror lakes.
Definitely you must self drive as you can stop anytime and have more freedom.
I dont think its cheaper than hokkaido this way.
Also i dont advise you to go in winter. The daylight is short and you may not get to see much.
In summer the temperatures are still on the cool side and you can maximise the day to the fullest.
South Island depending on the time of year. Spring and Autumn are perfect with the varying colours of blooming trees or the changing colours in Autumn. Milford Sound, the Canterbury Plains and Southern Alps offer spectacular scenery. On the contrary the North Island offers amazing beaches, fantastic mountain ranges in the islands' centre, but for photography the abundance of green forests may not offer you the variety you are looking for.
Travel within NZ can be painful if you are not driving as internal air travel is expensive and there is only a single train line. However, there is a great bus concept call the Kiwi Experience where you can jump on and off as the bus travels the length of the country.
Wherever you choose to go, you will love New Zealand. It is an amazing country.
Been to North and South island about 7 to 8 times, personally prefer the South Island. But travel at
Winter time daylight are very short, sunrise at about 8 plus, began to turn dark at 4.30 pm,
also the dark side of the road may be cover by snow , more dangerous for driving.
I have been to South Island in December 2009 (Summer) and North Island in August 2011 (Winter). I definitely prefer South Island for its amazing landscapes. Here are some of my photos to share with you:
I've been to NZ for 6months last year for Work and Travel. I feel South Island is really much nicer than the North.
Cost of living is slightly more ex than Singapore so I would say its quite affordable. If you cook on your own, you can really save alot on meals. If you stay in Backpackers, it will cost you around SGD $20-25/night($30-$35 in Mt Cook Village). Pretty affordable.
South Island has more splendid and spell binding sceneries. I feel the best way to travel NZ is to go for walks or hikes and take in the sceneries. Best one day walk I would recommend is Tongariro Crossing, no park charges but you have to pay for transportation there. Having a car would definitely help alot or you can try hitching a hike. Tried it and certainly an awesome exp.
If you wanna hike, and see great landscapes, you have to go before or after winter(late June to around Sept). NZ is a place that i believe you can go all year round.
If you just wanna see sceneries, i think the place is pretty affordable. but if you wanna do some activities, the cost that add up might be quite a sum.