Fact: New Zealand is incredible. But, where should you start your adventure? Is the North Island calling your name? Or is the South Island more aligned with your travel preferences?
No matter where you travel in New Zealand, you should be prepared to spend plenty of time on your feet exploring the country’s rugged wilderness and trendy cities. While both islands are fundamentally similar when it comes to currency, power voltage, and general customs, the array of experiences to be had definitely differ. One thing is for sure though, the locals (both north and south) are among some of the friendliest people you’ll get the chance to meet.
Travel to: New Zealand
Keen to immerse yourself in unrivalled adventure sports? How about setting out on ridiculously scenic hikes or keeping cool at remote beaches? This is your ultimate guide to the South Island Vs the North Island of New Zealand so you can plan your New Zealand getaway.
|South Island||North Island|
|Most popular destination||Queenstown||Taupo|
|Natural attraction||Milford Sound||Tongariro National Park|
|Beach destination||Abel Tasman National Park||Hot Water Beach|
New Zealand’s South Island is defined by its mountains, lakes, and glaciers. They not only give way to fantastic hiking terrain, but they invite you to embark on some adventure sports that have been perfected here. As for its more developed cities, you can bet on them being hip, exciting, and full of experiences calling to be explored.
Travel to: South Island
Getting around the South Island
- Plane: Taking a plane between the North Island and the South Island can be extremely cost-effective and a time-saver, but flying within the island itself is quite expensive.
- Train: The TranzAlpine does more than just get you from Greymouth to Christchurch. It’s one of the most scenic train rides to embark on! Other than running between the two aforementioned destinations, it also takes you up to the port where ferries depart for the North Island.
- Bus: The main way to get around is via bus and there are multiple operators running between major cities. They are moderately priced and won’t typically eat up an entire day for travel.
- Car: Rental prices can run pretty high, same goes for fuel. Be prepared to drive on the left side of the road and leave room for scenic pit stops along the route. The downside to the island’s remoteness is that you may not find stores or gas stations for miles. Also, if you’re driving in the winter months you may confront snowy driving conditions.
- Ferry: The ferry is a great way to get between the South and North Islands and perhaps spot some whales and fur seals along the way.
South Island highlights
The adventure capital of the world sits on the edge of Lake Wakatipu with the Southern Alps as its backdrop. This is the place to be for adrenaline junkies. Because where else can you go bungee jumping at the birthplace of the thrilling sport, heli-skiing, whitewater rafting or jet boating all in the same vicinity?
Abel Tasman National Park
This coastal park hosts a series of remarkable hiking routes weaving through and around the range of marble and limestone hills. The Coast Track is the main attraction here and is one of the most recognized of the Great Walks in the country. Kayaking into hidden coves and exploring the park’s beaches are equally as exciting.
Fiordland National Park
As its name states, this national park is known for its extravagant glacier-formed fiords, most notably Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. While at Milford Sound you can see colonies of seals and penguins, both are prime hiking points to track down some glowing waterfalls among the mountains.
The sunny city of Nelson is an artist hub with its many crafty shops, galleries, and studios to wander through. The dense forests and snow-capped peaks that border the city are no less impressive than the pinot noir grapes growing in its vineyards (Nelson has been coined as the Naples of the southern hemisphere).
This city known for its English heritage is on the mends following a series of earthquakes that took with them many of the striking colonial buildings. Despite all of that, Christchurch has been moving forward and you notice this in its redesign. Vibrant new bars in the city centre, bike paths, and the very green and urban Hagley Park are a just a few of the cities gems to explore.
Lake Wanaka and Mount Aspiring National Park capture the town of Wanaka’s rugged and tranquil appeal. Be sure to soak in the wonders of Wanaka on hikes and ski outings, and if you’re feeling more adventurous there’s some phenomenal parachuting. For some man-made fun, Puzzling World is a cool attraction with a whimsical outdoor maze and optical illusion rooms.
What to eat and drink in the South Island
- Chocolate: Try out some delicious chocolate at the Cadbury Chocolate Factory in Dunedin.
- Fergburger: This burger-joint located in Queenstown offers gourmet burgers with a variety of exotic protein like lamb or a swine-and-chicken mix.
- Wine: Follow the wine trail in the countries five different wine regions. The Marlborough region is known for its crisp Sauvignon Blanc while the Martinborough boasts a lovely Pinot Noir.
- Greenshell Mussels: Fresh mussels are drawn from the sea in Marlborough.
- Jaffa: These sugar-coated chocolate balls have an orange flavour to them. You can find them rolling down Baldwin Street in Dunedin (the steepest residential street in the world) during the annual Jaffa Race.
- Whitebait fritters: This young fish is cooked up into a delicious fritter. It’s a must-try on the south island!
Things to know before you visit the South Island
- The Hobbiton film set from The Lord of the Rings trilogy is located here.
- While remoteness is beautiful, you may not find a reliable internet connection everywhere you go.
- Cover your skin to prevent sandfly bites.
- Don’t underestimate the weather! Bring layers for those cold days and nights. Just as well, New Zealand’s sun is harsh, even on a cold day. Protect your skin, seriously.
- Travellers will need to use their passport as I.D. for going out to bars at night and often when purchasing alcohol.
- Tipping is not customary at restaurants. Also, it’s common to go up to the counter to pay your bill or even pay for it upon ordering rather than waiting for it to be brought to the table.
The North Island is a medley of incredible volcanoes, geothermal activity, and tranquil beaches and islands. While it absolutely delivers on being a wilderness escape, its diverse cities are also a huge reason to visit here.
Travel to: North Island
Getting around the North Island
- Plane: Yet again, taking a plane between the North Island and the South Island can be extremely cost-effective and a time-saver, but flying locally around the island is quite expensive.
- Train: Travelling between Auckland and Wellington by train is incredibly scenic, but otherwise there aren’t enough routes to use the train as your main method of transportation.
- Bus: The bus in the North Island is extensive and covers all of the cities worth seeing.
- Car: The roads on the North Island can be quite narrow and winding, but if you’re up for the challenge and have room in your budget you’ll be rewarded with remarkable off-the-beaten-path viewpoints.
- Ferry: The ferry is a reliable way to get between the South and North islands (roughly three-hour journey).
What to eat and drink in the North Island
- Kiwi flat white: This espresso-based coffee drink is fuel for most Kiwi’s and is best enjoyed at a trendy coffee shop in Auckland.
- Kumara (sweet potato): This root vegetable originated in the subtropical regions of the North Island.
- Māori Hāngī: This roast dinner of meat and veggies is cooked in the earth by hot rocks and is usually accompanied by a cultural performance or a welcome ceremony.
- Oysters, mussels, scallops: With so much coastline there are many different varieties of seafood to feast on like crayfish and abalone (known as Pāua).
- Wine: Gisborne on the North Island’s East coast is dubbed the “Chardonnay capital of New Zealand”.
- Kina: This local sea urchin is a delicacy and can be found in the Bay of Islands.
- Beer: There are some great local breweries to try out, especially in and around Auckland. Hallertau Brew Bar is the first of its kind in New Zealand and is a good place to start!
Auckland, also known as the “City of Sails” is the largest urban area in New Zealand and wraps around two harbours. The Sky Tower punctuates the skyline while other aspects of the city stay on theme with New Zealand’s outdoorsy vibe like the city’s oldest park, Auckland Domain, and the many hip breweries.
Tongariro National Park
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is not only recognized for its spiritual connection to Māori people, but for its incredible, volcano heavy landscape! Out of the three active volcanoes on the land, you may recognize Ngauruhoe, known as Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings films. Bike, hike, canoe or river raft your way through the park.
Renowned for its geothermal activity, Rotorua is dotted with steaming geysers and bubbling mud pools. Visit Te Puia geyser for a remarkable eruption that happens nearly 20 times a day, shooting hot water about 30 meters into the air! What more, Maori culture persists in the village through daily practices, but particularly in the arts carried out by the indigenous group with around 1000 years of roots in the country.
Bay of Islands
Right next to the North Island are over 140 subtropical islands. Rugged, undeveloped beaches aren’t hard to come by in these parts and the same goes for big-game fishing. Not only do the Bay of Islands submerged you into nature, but you’ll get to see first-hand the site of the country’s founding agreement and remnants of the colonial past along the 19th-century whaling port of Russell.
This town near the centre of the North Island is on Lake Taupo which occupies the caldera of Taupo Volcano. A hike or bike ride to the dramatic Huka Falls is unmissable, finished off by a soak in surrounding hot springs.
Things to know before you visit North Island New Zealand
- Three-quarters of New Zealand’s population lives on the North Island, but by no means does that mean you’ll feel crowded as the country is sparsely populated.
- The country’s capital city of Wellington is found on the North Island and is a magnet for creators and artists.
- Ever so slightly, it feels warmer on the North Island.
- Similarly to the South Island, tipping is not customary, the cold can creep up on you as can the sun and Wi-Fi may not be so constant.
- Nearly the entire East coast is covered in vineyards.
- The North Island is a perfect place to unwind, compared to the adventure activities that tend to dominate in experiences on the South Island.
Where will you go on your next adventure? Comment below!