New Zealand North Island vs South Island

Wanaka Tree, Intro Travel, New Zealand Adventure Tour

New Zealand North Island vs South Island.
Is South Island or North Island better in New Zealand? Which part of New Zealand is most beautiful? Is the South Island colder than the North Island NZ?

If traveling to New Zealand is on your mind, you may want to add on a visit to both islands (make it a two-island adventure). Whether visiting for a holiday or a business trip, check out my guide below for some suggestions of how you could spend your time and which island is more suited for what you’re looking for! 

Below, we’ll explain in detail the differences between North and South Island travel. The islands are so different that it really is worth going around both island to get the full experience.

There are two distinctly different islands in New Zealand: North Island, which is also called Te Ika-a-Māui (“fish of Māui”) for the legend about the shape of its heart-like outline, and South Island, or Te Waipounamu (“the waters of greenstone”).

If you want to engage with city culture or explore Maori history, the North Island is for you. If you want to deep-dive into nature, the South Island has plenty of lakes, mountains, fjords, and glaciers to discover.

As you prepare for your New Zealand vacation, the first thing you will find yourself asking is; ‘where should I go first?’

This two-island country offers a multitude of opportunities for extreme sports or leisurely sightseeing, from sea kayaking around the Bay of Islands – where the Maori first settled in Aotearoa – to bungee jumping off New Zealand’s highest bridge.

“First thing you will find yourself asking is; ‘where should I go first?’”

Real Adventure Group

Why the South Island is better.

We already discussed some differences between the North and South Island in a previous article, here we take a more unbalanced view. Yes, we are all about the South Island!

The South Island is the place to go if you want to experience some of New Zealand’s most impressive natural wonders.

If you only have a short time to travel in New Zealand 10 days- 2 weeks then we would advise you to choose an island. Its a hard choice we know. But its better than not enjoying either as you are trying to rush your time in New Zealand. 

NZ is all about taking it slow, stopping to smell the roses (ok maybe not roses but flowers, ferns, and sheep?) In our opinion that island you pick should be the South. New Zealand north vs south island, its the South for us! Flying in and out of Christchurch would make the most sense, as most of our tours would start and finish there.

Disclaimer: We do really like the North Island, its great for beaches, bush and culture. Read more about it below.

However, we think the South Island has everything you would expect to see in New Zealand; snow-capped mountains, glaciers, lakes, fjords. It’s just so typically New Zealand it would be a shame to miss it. You can tick off all your must see’s in just a few days.

Queenstown Skyline on our small group tour New Zealand

Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit

The South Island also has every iconic image you have seen in Lord of the Rings. The trilogy was filmed in New Zealand and so was The Hobbit, thanks to Kiwi director Peter Jackson. Every day you will look out of the window as you drive along and see filming sites from Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit

Although the North Island is the home to some of middle earth including Hobbiton, there are many natural sites on the South Island that were used in the movie. Ask your tour guide to point out the mountains near Nelson where the fellowship journey along in the movie, or Mount Gunn near Franz Josef Glacier which was used as The White Mountains of Gondor.

Native New Zealand Wildlife

We think the native wildlife that you will see in the South Island is also something that gives this island more appeal for those on a shorter time frame. So many outdoor activities to do in the South island of New Zealand. 

The extremely endangered yellow-eyed Penguins you can find on the Otago Peninsula, the rarest penguin in the world. The Seal colonies at Kaikoura, as well as the Dolphin and Whale spotting there. Plus the birdlife in the south such as Albatrosses, Kea Parrot and the Kakapo. This island has a lot to offer in the way of native birds and animals in New Zealand.Find out more in our previous article on Native Wildlife in New Zealand.

Adventure activities

Queenstown, in the South Island is well known as being the adventure capital of New Zealand. If you enjoy adrenalin activities Queenstown has them in abundance. The home of the Bungy jump with the ledge, Nevis and Kawarau Bridge you have plenty of choice if you want to Bungy. 

The Shotover jet boat ride will take you speeding through the Shotover river canyons. There is also White water rafting, hiking and biking and of course skiing and snowboarding in the winter months (May- September).

New Zealand North island vs South island, we think it should be the south!! So there are some of the reasons we think if you can only visit one island in New Zealand make it the South.

Stunning scenary

With the Mountainous regions of the Southern Alps. The South Island has world-class scenery. 

South Island Weather

Temperatures are cooler on the South Island, with mountain regions obviously being the coolest. You can go skiing in the Southern Alps in winter, test your limits by ice climbing Aoraki/Mt. Cook or helicopter into Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier and hike along their icy surfaces.

Wine in the South Island

The South Island outdoes the North Island in terms of wine, mostly due to the country’s largest wine region, Marlborough. Located near the Marlborough Sounds, this region has around 65 wineries producing some of the best Sauvignon Blanc you’ll find anywhere in the world. Canterbury and the lake country around Queenstown also have plenty of wineries to explore and enjoy, although if you can only head to one winery during your trip, make sure it’s in Marlborough!

Here are the tours that will take you to the South Island if you have a short time limit to travel.

9 Day South Island

11 Day South Island Tour

Why the North Island is better than the South.

For those who love to explore the earth, the North Island is the place to go. Whether you’re looking to get in touch with Maori culture or want to explore the Waitomo Caves on a spelunking tour, there’s no shortage of things to do in New Zealand’s north island.

Matamata has the Hobbiton Movie Set from Lord of the Rings and Rotorua has Maori culture at every turn.

If you’re looking for a place to get in touch with nature, the North Island is the place for you.

With its subtropical climate and geothermal activity, it’s easy to immerse yourself in the beauty and bounty of New Zealand’s natural world.

While the South Island has its own unique wonders, if you want to experience New Zealand at its best, head north—and don’t forget your swimsuit!

North island has largest city. Auckland! 

Moari culture in the North Island. 

Hot Springs and mud pools of Rotorua. More accessible Geothermal activity on the North Island. 

The North Island is where the Pacific Plate slid underneath the Indo-Australian Plate. This means there are many volcanoes, geysers and hot springs.

Stunning Beaches

White Sandy Beaches on the North Island in the Coromandel Peninsula. Or the Bay of Islands. Both places serve up the goods when it comes to stunning beaches. 

The North Island is warmer than the South Island.

The Bay of Islands is classed as a subtropical zone, and known as the “winterless north

What to pack for your NZ Winter Tour, New Zealand Tours

Where to go first, New Zealand or the South Island?

Let’s explore the two islands.

While most of the country’s natural sites are found on the South Island, New Zealanders like to share that the North Island outshines it’s southern counterpart! If traveling to New Zealand is on your mind, you may want to add on a visit to both islands (make it a two-island adventure)

On paper, the South Island of New Zealand can seem to have a higher concentration of attractions. But there’s a special feeling to being in the North Island that is hard to describe. It is a rugged and somewhat wilder feeling.

You’ll get to explore both of these on our trips:

Explore Both Islands in New Zealand as a Backpacker

Short time frame? This North and South tour includes the world’s best scenic train ride – TranzAlpine.
11 Day South Island tour
Full south Island adventure loop, get off the beaten track to find the best locations in New Zealand.

Explore both North and South on our  tours for over 50’s in New Zealand

Our most popular tour for seniors wanting to explore New Zealand solo is our 16-Day Ultimate New Zealand Tour.

North Island only?: 7 Day North Island Explorer Tour.

The best South Island tour is our 9 day South Island.

Camping tours in New Zealand for both North and South Island.

Join one of our camping tours which are perfect for those who like to get out in nature and want to experience NZ up close.

15 Day Traverse New Zealand Tour

Real Kiwi Recommendations

  • North or South Island for wine?You’ll find the best wine in the second and third largest wine regions in the country, Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne in the North Island.

  • As far as oysters go, they don’t get better than Bluff oysters in Southland!

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