North vs South Island | Which To Visit?
Why choose one or the other? If you have the time, explore both islands. If that’s not an option for you and you have to choose between visiting either the North Island or the South Island, then this guide will help you come to a decision. In our opinion, both islands are incredible on their own merit, but they are also very different. Even if you are short on time during your visit to New Zealand, it is possible to experience all that New Zealand has to offer on both islands.
The North Island was formed volcanically, with a plateau that boasts numerous, still active volcanoes. There are hundreds of islands offshore to explore, making it a sailor's delight. The majority of Māori people settled in the North Island making it the heart of Māori culture. The warm and settled weather (particularly in summer) in the North Island makes it a popular place to live, so lively cities are dotted across the landscape, including our largest city, Auckland.
The South Island offers up dramatic landscapes formed through tectonic uplift, creating sheer mountains, deep fiords, quiet places to escape the crowds and epic walking tracks. With New Zealand’s only International Dark Sky Reserve, seeing the night sky come to life is a given. The South Island is a major drawcard for hikers and climbers alike, offering a menu of trails of varying difficulty, cliffs to scramble up and mountains to conquer. And who can go past the ‘Adrenaline Capital of the World’ – Queenstown, with its seemingly endless variety of adventure activities.
We can take the stress out of deciding where to visit in New Zealand for your walking or hiking trip by combining our 5-day Sweet North tour with any of our South Island Tours you can hit the hotspots in a shorter time at a pace which suits you. And as a bonus, you will save 10% off the cost of the Sweet North in the process – sweet as!
What are the benefits of each island?
There are unique reasons to visit both islands from the Māori Culture found predominantly in the North Island, with Rotorua being the heart of Māoridom, to unique wildlife found throughout the South Island, such as the cheeky kea or Hector’s dolphins. These are major drawcards and a must if you wish to experience everything New Zealand has to offer.
Below are some of the most interesting and unique aspects of each island, it would be a shame to miss out on any of these.
Mountains and Scenery
Mountains dominate the South Island landscape, with approx. 60% of the island covered by peaks over 1,500m (4,921ft). The lion’s share is located in the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, named after our highest peak standing at 3,724m (12,218ft). The South Island of New Zealand is home to beautiful braided rivers, bright blue glacier-fed lakes, golden sand beaches, wild coastal terrain and a network of hiking trails to access some of the most incredible scenery you could imagine.
All our tours make the most of the mountains, but if you really want to get to the heart of the Southern Alps and are willing to work for it, then the Kiwi Classic tour will reward you with stunning alpine vistas from up high. Team the Kiwi Classic with our Sweet North for incredible access to New Zealand’s alpine environment, combining alpine trekking in the Southern Alps with the volcanic landscape of the Tongariro Crossing for the ultimate mountain adventure.
WINNER – SOUTH ISLAND
Vibrant Cities and Nightlife
More than three-quarters of New Zealand’s population lives in the North Island, so it’s fair to say there is a lot more going on. The North Island hosts seven of the top 10 largest cities in New Zealand, with the top two being Auckland and capital city, Wellington. For live shows, plays, bars and eateries, clubs and pubs you can’t go past the cities of the North Island!
Our Sweet North takes in the vibrant al fresco dining atmosphere of the Wynyard Quarter in Auckland city. A pre or post-dinner stroll along the waterfront will reward with art installations, super yachts to tempt you into buying a lottery ticket and a plethora of restaurants and bars to relax with a local beer or wine and watch the world drift lazily by.
WINNER - NORTH ISLAND
Glaciers and Fiords
Streaks ahead of the North Island, the South Island's mountainous landscape plays host to over 3,000 glaciers that cover an area of at least one hectare (2.5 acres). To top this off, in the last ice age giant glaciers carved out beautiful valleys along the south-western coast of the South Island, allowing the ocean to fill them in, creating stunning fiords, accessible today. Our most famous being Milford Sound. With some of the most accessible glaciers in the world, New Zealand is one of the few places where you can walk on a glacier, trek through a rainforest and chill at the beach all in one day.
You can’t beat our Masterpiece trip to really embrace glaciers and fiords! Really get to know Milford Sound (our most well-known fiord), with a boat cruise through its mesmerizing landscape and a spectacular day hike on one of Fiordland's best hikes - the Routeburn Track to Key Summit. Top this with a boat trip to the terminal face of the Tasman Glacier (New Zealand’s longest glacier) and the opportunity to explore the rest of the glacier on a glacier hike or a walk to the Hooker Glacier with incredible views up to Aoraki/Mt Cook.
WINNER - SOUTH ISLAND
Islands and Beaches
Fun fact – New Zealand is made up of an estimated 600 islands! With the large majority off the coast of the North Island, it’s a sailor's dream. Jump on a ferry and explore the islands of the Hauraki Gulf, with beautiful beaches, wineries and wildlife reserves.
One of the most well-known stretches of coastline in the North Island is the Coromandel Peninsula. Boasting over 400km of white sand beaches, this is the place to go if you want to relax in style. One of our favourite spots to explore along the Coromandel Coast is the stunning Cathedral Cove. Accessible only by water or on foot, it's a true gem.
Both the North and South Islands have paradise-like beaches, but the North Island trumps the South with its warmer temperatures and sub-tropical environment. Auckland has many beaches dotted around, which make it a popular destination for visitors - but if you prefer having a beach to yourself, you may just prefer the South Island!
WINNER - NORTH ISLAND
Wine and Food
New Zealand has plenty of delicious fare for you to sample and it doesn’t matter which island you are on – there are great options, with fresh seafood, dairy and produce available throughout the country. Try some famous New Zealand lamb, stuff your face with deliciously juicy stone fruit in the South Island, or add creamy North Island avocados to your meal. We have some of the best dairy produce in the world; so while in New Zealand, make sure to try our local favourites like hokey pokey ice cream, or the variety of artisanal cheeses produced here.
Wine and beer are also produced here, with distinctive hops grown in the Nelson Marlborough region of the South Island. Different wine types are produced in different regions, from the multitude of wines produced on Waiheke Island, a short ferry ride from Auckland, and Chardonnay produced in the Hawkes Bay region, to the famous Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blancs produced in the picturesque South Island vineyards. New Zealand has plenty of choices to tickle the taste buds of even the finest connoisseurs.
Tasting our local delicacies is a priority on all of our tours, but the Masterpiece tour really hits the spot. Explore the Marlborough wine regions, taste some fresh local seafood, travel through the stone fruit capital of New Zealand (and taste some of its fare), this is a great tour to taste what New Zealand has to offer. And, combining this tour with our Sweet North will give you the opportunity to try a hangi (traditional food cooked underground).
TIE - BOTH ISLANDS OFFER GREAT OPTIONS
Volcanoes and Geothermal Springs
With its sulphuric smell, bubbling mud and spouting geysers, Rotorua is the ‘hot spot’ of geothermal activity in New Zealand. With the earth’s crust at its shallowest, you can find hot pools to soak in, mud to heal with and colourful geothermal wonderlands to explore. It’s easy to see why early Māori flocked to this region.
Having been formed mainly by volcanic activity, the North Island is a place where it’s easy to explore volcanoes. Just by visiting Auckland you have hit the jackpot, with around 50 volcanoes dotted throughout the city, one of the most famous being Rangitoto (a short ferry ride and hike offers beautiful 360-degree views from the top). Check out the beautifully symmetrical cones of Ngauruhoe (aka Mt Doom) or Taranaki, immerse yourself on an otherworldly hike through the Tongariro National Park or hike up/ski down New Zealand’s largest volcano, Mt Ruapehu. Whakaari/White Island is an active volcano off the coast of the Bay of Plenty. This volcano allows more intrepid travellers the chance to explore our most active volcano, and experience roaring fumaroles and amazing colours.
Fully experience this region from visiting the Pohutu Geyser to hiking the Tongariro Crossing, our Sweet North tour makes the most of this geothermal wonderland.
WINNER - NORTH ISLAND
Skiing and Snowboarding
How many of us can say we have skied down a volcano? Well, you can in New Zealand. We have an eclectic selection of skiing in New Zealand, from commercial ski fields in both the North and South Islands to fun club fields dotted from Arthur's Pass to the Mackenzie Country. Our ski fields are very different to those in the Northern Hemisphere, with shorter runs, icier snow due to a lack of trees and plenty of sun, and the need to be transported to the snow. However, we offer arguably the best ski fields in the Southern Hemisphere making it a great destination for snow bunnies or those seeking an endless winter.
TIE - BOTH ISLANDS OFFER GREAT OPTIONS
What happens when wildlife is isolated from land mammals for millions of years? Come to New Zealand and find out!
The South Island of New Zealand is home to sea lions, penguins, alpine parrots, kiwi, fur seals, ancient lizards, and New Zealand’s only native land mammals, the long and short tail bats. With over 170 species of bird and 80% of those endemic (only found here) to New Zealand, it’s no wonder they call us the ‘Land of the Birds’. Due to the lack of predators, many of our birds have become flightless, and several still have no fear of humans. Come and enjoy the antics of the cheeky kea, studies have shown the intelligence level of a kea is up with that of primates! You can only find these delightful birds wreaking havoc on unsuspecting tourists in the alpine regions of the South Island.
Many of New Zealand's smaller offshore islands are protected wildlife sanctuaries, where predators are carefully monitored and controlled to allow our endangered native species to thrive. Ulva Island, found just a 5-minute water taxi ride from Stewart Island, is a nature enthusiast's paradise and the perfect spot to get up close and personal to New Zealand's unique wildlife. Take a trip across to Stewart Island from Bluff (at the very bottom of the South Island) or join us on The New Zealand Great Walk Adventure to combine a visit to Stewart Island with walks on four of New Zealand's Great Walks.
Want to swim with the smallest dolphin in the world? Keen to meet the infamously cheeky Kea? Or gaze upon the New Zealand Fur Seal, that was almost hunted to extinction? Our Pure South tour aims to please. This tour offers opportunities for wildlife spotting and interactions, from Milford Sound to our only French settlement – Akaroa. Teaming the Short South with the Sweet North offers up the best way to see New Zealand in a short time frame – this action-packed combo is designed to really experience the best of the best of New Zealand within 13 days. The ultimate 'Short and Sweet' tour of New Zealand.
WINNER - SOUTH ISLAND
The clear winner here is the North Island. Home to Rotorua, steeped in culture and the heart of Māoridom, you can experience all aspects of this wonderful culture here (which is why we included this stop on our Sweet North tour). Experience Māori cuisine, visit a living Māori village, paddle on Lake Rotorua in a beautifully carved waka (canoe) or witness the Māori Arts and Crafts Institute in action at Te Puia, where Māori can learn the sacred art of carving and weaving.
WINNER - NORTH ISLAND
Adrenaline and Adventure
New Zealand makes up for its small size by going BIG when it comes to adventure. Being a young country by international standards and far away from anywhere, we had to be creative to survive. That didn’t just stop at the more practical aspects of life – we used our ingenuity to create some of the craziest adventure sports like bungy jumping and zorbing. Jumping off a bridge with a rubber band attached to your feet or throwing yourself down a hill in a giant inflatable ball were invented by some crazy Kiwis!
The South Island is home to the first commercial Bungy jump, the country's highest Bungy jump, the world's biggest swing, the world’s highest tandem skydive, white water rafting, caving, canyoning, zip-lining, parasailing, paragliding, and more helicopter and jet-boat adventures than you can shake a stick at! And, most of this can be done in Queenstown – the small alpine town with a larger than life personality.
WINNER - SOUTH ISLAND
Maybe we're biased, but as locals, we adore both islands and just can't pick an outright winner, we love walking and hiking on both islands and each has so much to offer as seen above - it really depends on what you're looking to get out of your trip and what you value most. Whatever your interests and preferences are, both islands offer up an enormous amount of value, experiences and activities which you'll remember for a lifetime.
Thankfully, with us you don't have to pick a favourite. Our all-inclusive hiking and adventure tours cover both islands so you can experience all New Zealand has to offer. Have a chat with Jodi or Hollie to find out the best way to incorporate a visit to the North Island with your South Island tour... or if you're still mulling it over and want more information, request your FREE NEW ZEALAND TRAILS brochure for articles, stories and information on our fully guided New Zealand adventures.
Other articles you may like:
- Small Group Tours - The Unbeatable Way To See New Zealand
- What to pack for New Zealand
- Flights to New Zealand - how to get to here
- Hiking in New Zealand for your bucket list
- Take our quiz and find out which NZ tour is right for you!