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Should You Travel the North Island or South Island?

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North Island vs. South Island

Active volcanoes, bubbling mud pools, happening cities, hot beaches and a wealth of Maori culture or dramatic snowy mountains, fantastical fiords, every-changing glaciers, cheeky alpine parrots and the world’s darkest skies? You may have got yourself into the sorry situation of having to choose between the North Island and South Island of New Zealand. The two islands are extremely complimentary of each other yet offer very different things. It’s a no-brainer that if you are travelling to New Zealand for more than a couple of weeks, you should visit both islands! Yet, with limited time off work and/or a limited budget, you may have no other choice than to make the most of either the North Island or South Island.

One island isn’t “better” than the other. For this decision, you have to let your personality and your wanderlust decide. Do you prefer learning about different cultures? Do you like to escape to the wilderness? Are you fascinated by geothermal wonders or are icy glaciers more your thing?

Once you have made your decision, have a browse through our website for the offerings in the North Island Regions and the South Island Regions.

Unique Experiences in the North Island and South Island

Before we get onto our main comparison between the North Island and South Island, here are some experiences that you can only have on one island.

5 Things You Can Only Do in the North Island

  • Ski down an active volcano, Mt Ruapehu
  • Have an overnight stay in a Maori village, Rotorua
  • Explore Hobbit holes, Matamata
  • Go up the highest building in the Southern Hemisphere, Auckland
  • See the specimen of a colossal squid, Wellington.

5 Things You Can Only Do in the South Island

  • Stargaze in an International Dark Sky Reserve, MacKenzie Country
  • Bungy jump 134m (450ft), Queenstown
  • Swim with the world’s smallest species of dolphins, Akaroa
  • See the Southern Lights, the southern part of South Island
  • Cruise in majestic fiords, Fiordland National Park.

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Maori Culture

Winner: North Island

New Zealand’s first settlers were the Polynesian people called the Maori. They brought with them a compelling culture that you may have seen signs of in New Zealand sports teams performing “The Haka”. Fierce war chants, dancing and singing, intricate carvings and tattoos, delicious “Hangi”: you mostly learn about the Maori culture on the North Island.

Although both islands have a Maori history, the North Island was the first and most inhabited island in New Zealand to be settled by the Maori. For this reason, you can find a wide range of cultural experiences in the North Island, particularly in Rotorua. Check them all out in 10 Places to Experience Maori Culture in New Zealand.

For more information on the Maori culture in New Zealand, check out:

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Mountains and Glaciers

Winner: South Island

With the Southern Alps mountain range spanning across the centre of the South Island, there’s no doubt that the South Island has the most dramatic mountain scenery. New Zealand’s highest peaks are found in the Southern Alps, which are stunning in themselves if you manage to see them on a glacier hike or scenic flight. With alpine scenery comes a network of braided rivers – one of only two countries in the world with braided rivers, brilliant blue glacier-fed lakes, and some of the most accessible glaciers.

There’s no doubt that you will have heard of a little place called “Milford Sound”. Towering glacier-carved mountains stick out the inky black waters of 15 different fiords in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fiordland National Park.

So get yourself to the South Island and experience the alpine landscape like this:

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Vibrant Cities

Winner: North Island

Because more than three-quarters of New Zealand’s population lives in the North Island, there is a lot more “going on” in the North Island. Both New Zealand’s largest city Auckland and capital city Wellington are on the North Island offering heaps of events to go to, nights out to enjoy, bars and eateries to indulge at, and more! If you love city life then the North Island is where you need to be.

Make the most of New Zealand’s cities by checking these out:

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Winner: South Island

New Zealand’s wildlife is arguably one of the most intriguing. See what happens to the wildlife when it has been isolated for millions of years away from any land mammals! Although both islands have native birds and marine life, the South Island has the most variety and opportunities to interact with them. A trip into Fiordland or the Southern Alps rarely goes without seeing the extremely cheeky alpine parrot, the kea and listening to the unusual clicks and warbles of birds deep in the native forests give the feeling of being in another age of Earth.

The waters of Kaikoura and Akaroa are filled with wild dolphins that you can swim with and The Catlins coast is mostly occupied by giant sea lions, seals and penguins.

Find out more about New Zealand’s wildlife in these articles:

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Geothermal and Volcanic Activity

Winner: North Island

Most of the North Island was formed by volcanic activity, which is evident across its landscape. See the beautifully symmetrical cones of Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Taranaki and you can even ski down New Zealand’s largest volcano, Mt Ruapehu. White Island is a marine volcano forever smoking off the coast of the Bay of Plenty.

The power of the earth can be felt all around the North Island, from Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel where you can dig your own hot pool to the natural hot springs of Taupo. But Rotorua with its sulphuric smell, bubbling mud and colourful geothermal parks has to be the biggest “hot spot” for geothermal activity in New Zealand.

Find all the geothermal wonders of New Zealand in these articles:

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Adventure Activities

Winner: South Island

New Zealand might be a small country but it is a country that loves to live BIG! Skydiving, bungy jumping, jet boating, skiing, snowboarding, paragliding, parasailing, surfing, white water rafting, tubing, caving, canyoning, diving, and the list goes on. The most adventurous of these activities lie in the South Island with the countries highest skydive, highest bungy jump, the most rapid-filled rivers, and more jet boat rides than you can shake a stick at, just to give a few examples.

It’s not just about that quick adrenaline rush though. The South Island has some of the most popular multi-day wilderness hikes, taking you on a different kind of adventure.

For more adventure inspiration, check out:

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Beaches and Islands

Winner: North Island

Don’t get us wrong, both islands have paradise-like beaches, but the North Island has an edge with its warmer temperatures. If spending your time at the beach through summer sounds like heaven to you, then get yourself to the North Island. The sub-tropical climate of Auckland and Northland will keep you toasty throughout the year. Explore the islands and their beaches in the Hauraki Gulf or the Bay of Islands, sit under the native Pohutukawa trees on the beachfront of the East Cape, and take a road trip down the Surf Highway in Taranaki.

For more travel inspiration for beach bums, check out:

More Useful Information to Help Prepare Your Trip

Now that you have found out where you are going, figure out how you’re going about getting there with these articles:


Robin C.

This article was reviewed and published by Robin, the co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. He has lived, worked and travelled across 16 different countries before calling New Zealand home. He has now spent over a decade in the New Zealand tourism industry, clocking in more than 600 activities across the country. He is passionate about sharing those experiences and advice on NZ Pocket Guide and its YouTube channel. Robin is also the co-founder of several other South Pacific travel guides.

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