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North vs South: which island to choose for your New Zealand adventure

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New Zealand is a dream destination for many travellers – with good reason. Divided into two main islands, it boasts some of the most incredible natural scenery on the planet. Like the icing on top of an already delicious cake, New Zealand is also known for its friendly locals, vibrant Māori culture, and epic outdoor adventures.

Choosing between New Zealand’s North and South Islands is a delightful dilemma, as you’ll find a wealth of natural wonders, must-see attractions, and jaw-dropping scenery on both. But which island in New Zealand is best for you? Is it the North Island with its stunning white-sand beaches, volcanic landscapes, and geothermal wonders? Or will the South Island’s snow-capped mountains, hiking trails, and pristine lakes lure you in? Even for savvy travellers, this can be a tough call.

I was lucky enough to live in New Zealand for some time and explore “The Land of the Long White Cloud”. If there’s one thing that I learned, it’s that there are seemingly endless options for exploration in this tiny island country. This guide to New Zealand’s North and South Islands highlights the best of both so you can create your perfect holiday itinerary.

Iconic landscape of Queenstown in New Zealand

Highlights of New Zealand’s North Island

Visiting New Zealand’s North Island offers a world of possibilities – from exploring lively cities and enticing wine regions to seeing geothermal gems like bubbling mud pools. Most travellers will start their journey on the North Island in the country’s largest city Auckland, a multicultural urban oasis home to some of the best shopping and dining destinations in the country.

You can learn more about New Zealand’s art and culture scene at the Auckland Gallery Toi o Tāmaki or dive deeper into Māori history and traditions at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Thrill-seekers looking for a surge of adrenaline can test their bravery atop the iconic Sky Tower, while the Harbour Bridge Experience has transformed the city’s most recognisable landmark into an exciting adventure destination.

Wine enthusiasts will want to add a trip to Waiheke Island to their North Island itinerary. Just a 40-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland, this “island of wine” is beloved for its collection of boutique wineries. Join a wine tasting tour and savour the picturesque vineyard views.

Just south of Auckland, the Waikato region is famous for its rolling green hills and Hobbiton movie set tours. Marvel at the Hobbit-sized village, then stop and smell the roses at Hamilton Gardens or surf one of the longest left-hand breaks in the world in Raglan.

One of the most incredible experiences the North Island offers is a chance to go underground and explore Waitomo Cave‘s labyrinth of limestone caves. Guided boat tours allow you to get up close to the stalagmites, stalactites, and galaxies of glowworms.

Scenic view of Waiheke Island's coastline and bobbing boats in New Zealand

Nestled at the southern end of the North Island is Wellington, New Zealand’s bustling capital city. Nicknamed the “coolest little capital”, this compact city is known for its sparkling harbour, creative culture, and award-winning restaurants.

Lord of the Rings fans can learn about costumes and special effects at Wētā Workshop, while the Museum of New Zealand te Papa Tongarewa is considered a must-see cultural attraction in New Zealand. Say hello to a native kiwi bird at the nature reserve Zealandia, then wrap up your visit with a ride on the Wellington Cable Car for panoramic views of the city and harbour.

If you explore by car, you can’t beat the beautiful beach vistas along the Twin Coast Highway. Highlights include swimming with dolphins in the Bay of Islands, and exploring where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean at Cape Reinga.

Outdoor adventures on the North Island are endless. You can snorkel and dive around Poor Knights Islands, then hike the trail to the plunging cascade of Huka Falls. For a full-day adventure, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing takes in the highlights of Tongariro National Park with its dramatic volcanic landscapes.

For relaxation, you can unwind with a soak in Rotorua’s bubbling hot pools and thermal waters, which are known for their healing properties. Coromandel is beloved for its golden beaches, and famous sites like Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach are considered a must-see.

Wellington Cable Car and surrounding landscape, New Zealand

The best reasons to visit New Zealand’s South Island

If you’re looking for show-stopping landscapes, New Zealand’s South Island has it in spades. Home to 14 national parks, it boasts glacial lakes, snow-capped mountains, and a city famous for its abundance of adrenaline-pumping excursions. The South Island offers adventure in all forms, from unforgettable hikes to fun wildlife-watching experiences.

You’d be remiss to visit the South Island and not see Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. There are a few ways to capture a glimpse of the majestic wonder – on foot, on a scenic flight, or on a boat trip. You can even join a glacier helicopter tour to land right in the middle of the icy landscapes.

Another must-see is the UNESCO-listed Fiordland National Park, which is home to the iconic Milford and Doubtful Sounds. Alternatively, you can marvel at New Zealand’s stunning coastline with a paddling adventure or nature cruise through the Marlborough Sounds to see its bays, marine reserves, and island sanctuaries up close.

Dubbed the “adventure capital of the world”, Queenstown is a lakeside resort known for its action-packed activities. Get your heart racing as you try bungy jumping, jet boating, white water rafting, sky diving, or canyon swings! If you prefer to stay on solid ground, Mount Aspiring National Park is a haven for hikers with its scenic trails that showcase turquoise lakes, glaciers, and towering mountains.

Panoramic view of Queenstown in New Zealand

Near Queenstown is one of New Zealand’s top skiing destinations, Coronet Peak. You can also hit the slopes at The Remarkables mountain range or the family-friendly Cardrona. For advanced skiers, Treble Cone is a favourite.

A journey to the South Island is also perfect for marvelling at the region’s photogenic lakes. Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki are the most famous, boasting bright turquoise-blue waters that look straight out of a postcard. If you visit in November, you can see the landscapes around the lakes blanketed in vibrant pink and purple lupin flowers.

Break up your outdoor adventures with a walk through the Victorian-style gardens at Larnach Castle in Dunedin, or stroll the streets of Christchurch to admire its colourful collection of street murals. You can also tour the world-renowned wineries in Central Otago for the perfect pairing of the region’s undulating landscapes with New Zealand’s famed Pinot Noir.

With striking turquoise water, white limestone cliffs and a scenic rainforest hike, Hokitika Gorge puts New Zealand’s natural beauty on full display. Birdwatchers will also want to include a trip to Stewart Island, where beaches and rainforests are home to kākā, albatross, penguins, weka, and even kiwis.

Field of lupin flowers against Lake Tekapo in New Zealand

Which one is right for you?

Choosing which island to visit in New Zealand is an admittedly difficult task. Thankfully, there are no wrong answers here. While both the North Island and South Island are similar in terms of incredible natural landscapes and outdoor experiences, there are a few differences between the two.

When it comes to climate and weather, the North Island is warm and humid, while the South Island tends to be cooler and drier throughout the year. In terms of packing, wet weather gear is recommended for the North, whereas warm layers are a necessity in the South.

If you can only visit in winter (June to August), keep in mind that the North Island is often wet and gray compared to the South Island’s cold and snowy days.

For beachside adventures, the North Island comes out on top with its white-sand beaches in the Bay of Islands and Coromandel Peninsula. Geothermal activity is also more diverse in the North Island with its boiling mud pools and volcanic landscapes, while Auckland and Wellington are best for big-city escapes.

Wildlife-watching, wine culture, and outdoor activities are impressive on both islands, but if you’re a hiking enthusiast, you’ll find the South Island has more in terms of variety with its renowned trails winding through the Southern Alps, Marlborough Sounds, and Abel Tasman beaches.

The South Island is also a top choice for skiing and extreme adventure sports. Skydiving, bungy jumping, and white water rafting are popular in Queenstown, while nearby ski and snowboarding resorts are hotspots in winter.

Family walking across a suspension bridge along the Hooker Valley Track in Mount Cook, New Zealand

How to plan an itinerary: practical advice and travelling between islands

If you want to travel between the North and South Islands in New Zealand, take the ferry. Considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful sailing trips, this is more than just a boat ride.

Connecting Wellington in the North Island to Picton in the South Island, this scenic journey takes around 3.5 hours to complete. Along the way, keep your eyes peeled for dolphins, whales, orcas, and New Zealand fur seals frolicking in the water.

Often referred to as “crossing the Cook Strait”, there are two main ferry companies to pick from: Bluebridge and the Interislander. It’s a perfect option if you’re travelling through New Zealand by car, as each of the ferries is able to transfer vehicles from one island to the next.

The number of sailings per day increases in the summer (from December to February), and amenities include comfy seating, lounge areas with Wi-Fi, and on-site dining. If you want extra privacy, there are private (and dog-friendly) cabin options.

It’s also easy to get around New Zealand via domestic flights, with airports found in many of the major cities in both the North and South Island. Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Queenstown, and Wellington are all home to popular airports.

Budget-conscious travellers can opt for bus travel, while train travel is perfect for taking in the incredible views. There are three popular train trips in New Zealand: the Northern Explorer in the North Island, and the Coastal Pacific and TranzAlpine on the South Island.

While New Zealand is a compact country, the amount days you plan to explore depends on how much you want to see. You could spend at least 10 days seeing the entire country, although you might feel rushed. As a general rule, you’ll need at least two weeks to hit the highlights. For a chance to truly immerse yourself in the culture and explore some of the off-the-beaten-path destinations, three weeks or more is best.

View of Picton port town in New Zealand

Make it happen

If you’re looking to plan your next big break to New Zealand, speak to one of our local experts today. Whether you’re heading northbound or south, they’ll tailor-make an itinerary that’s perfect for you.

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