New Zealand North Island vs South Island: The Ultimate Showdown
When planning a New Zealand holiday, one of the first things you’ll soon realise is that while there’s lots to see and do, the best sights and activities are widely spread over New Zealand’s two islands, the North Island and the South Island. That’s fine if you’re visiting for a month or more, but if your budget or time off work only allows for two weeks or less, you may find yourself having to choose between the two.
So the obvious question is, which New Zealand island is better, North Island or South Island? Unfortunately this is not a straightforward question to answer. And we say this having done a number of road trips ourselves around both islands over the years. The truth is that there is no ‘best island’, there’s only what’s better for you based on things like:
- The time of year you’re visiting
- The kinds of things you’re interested in doing
- How you plan on getting to and around New Zealand
- How long you intend to stay
Even if you do have the time to visit both islands, you may still find that you’ll have to prioritise and will end up spending more time on one than the other. And then of course there’s the question of which island to explore first.
In this A to Z New Zealand North Island vs South Island guide, we’ll cover some of the things you should consider when planning your New Zealand holiday itinerary and we’ll give our highly subjective opinion on which island is best in each category. Hopefully, at the end of this article, you’ll have a good idea of where you’d like to go and what you’d like to do, and that should help you to decide which island is best for you. So let’s dive right in.
Accessibility (Getting to and around the country)
Getting to New Zealand
Auckland, on the North Island, has New Zealand’s largest international airport and is the main gateway to the country. Christchurch, on the east coast of the South Island has the second largest airport followed by Wellington (North), Queenstown (South) and Dunedin (South).
Many major airlines fly directly to New Zealand from Australia, USA, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Chile. Other airlines provide connecting flights via countries like Australia and Singapore. Overall, the majority of airlines fly into Auckland which means you’ll have more flight options to choose from when flying into the North Island.
Remember that you can fly into one international airport e.g. Auckland and out another e.g. Christchurch, which will give you some flexibility to explore more of both islands.
To read more on this topic, check out our guide to flights and flight times to New Zealand.
Getting around New Zealand
All of New Zealand’s international airports also service domestic routes, and there are many other domestic airports throughout both islands. One the whole, there are more domestic flight options to and from Auckland Airport which may be something to consider in your itinerary planning.
Overall, domestic flight times are relatively short. For example, a flight from Auckland in the middle of the North Island to Invercargill at the bottom of the South Island is only 3 hours 30 minutes.
As you would expect, the road infrastructure is most developed around the largest cities, particularly Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The North Island has a good network of roads that will let you easily crisscross or loop around the island. The South Island on the other hand is divided by the Southern Alps. Crossing from east to west and vice versa is limited to a number of mountain passes, some particularly steep and narrow. When planning a road trip around the South Island, you do need to take this into consideration. Overall, driving in the South Island is more challenging. Also bear in mind that at 150,437 sq km (58,084 sq mi), the South Island is larger than the North Island which has an area of 113,729 sq km (43,911 sq mi), so travel distances between major centres and scenic highlights are generally longer.
Both islands have good intercity bus services but again, the roads on the South Island have an impact on travel routes and distances.
New Zealand’s rail network is quite limited. The rugged terrain and low population, particularly on the South Island, has made investment in rail hard to justify. From a travel perspective there are three main rail routes, the Northern Explorer between Auckland and Wellington on the North Island, the Coastal Pacific along the east coast of the South Island, and the TranzAlpine which crosses the Southern Alps between Christchurch and Greymouth on the West Coast.
In summary, while with proper planning it’s easy to get around New Zealand as a whole, the North Island presents fewer challenges and more travel options.
Winner: North Island
Driving between islands
The North and South Islands are separated by the Cook Strait which connects the Tasman Sea in the northwest with the South Pacific Ocean in the southeast. At its narrowest point, the Cook Strait is just 22km (14 miles) across, and while this is a relatively short distance, there is no bridge or tunnel physically connecting the two islands so you can’t drive from one island to the other.
There are however roll-on/roll-off inter-island ferry services that allow cars, campervan/motorhomes and even train carriages to cross the strait. The approximately 95km (59 mile) ferry journey between Wellington on the North Island and Picton on the South Island takes around 3½ hours.
It’s important to note that while it’s possible to take a rental car from the North Island to the South Island or vice versa via ferry, in the past, some rental companies have in fact required you to switch cars before crossing. It’s worth confirming this in advance when you make your booking.
Queenstown makes no bones about, staking its claim as New Zealand’s adventure capital. Nearby Kawarau Bridge is after all the home of commercial bungy jumping (or is it bungee jumping?). There’s also no arguing the fact that Queenstown’s Nevis Bungy is New Zealand’s highest jump and the 300m Nevis Swing is arguably the world’s scariest swing.
But it’s not like the North Island doesn’t have anything to offer adrenalin junkies. Rotorua has its fair share of activities and Auckland, with its unique Sky Tower jump, is certainly up there in the adrenalin stakes. It’s just that Queenstown has so much energy crammed into one small town, it’s hard to beat.
Winner: South Island
Some beaches are wild and remote and should simply be admired from a distance. Other beaches are safe and inviting and have summer playground written all over them. What you want from your New Zealand beach experience may be different, but we’re drawn to the North Island’s beautiful white sand and warm water.
That’s not to say you should write off the South Island when it comes to fun and sun in the sea. The beautiful beaches and coves of the Marlborough Sounds are stunning and the palm-fringed beaches of Abel Tasman National Park are picture perfect. And it’s not like the South Island doesn’t get hot in summer.
Overall though, we think the North Island is best because there is so much to choose from. From the pure white sands of Rarawa Beach in the far north and the stunning Bay of Islands to Auckland’s many accessible east and west coast beaches, you’ll be spoilt for choice.
And then there’s the Coromandel, where we head every year to mark the beginning of summer. The Coromandel is also home to a surprisingly unique experience, Hot Water Beach. So yes, we may be a little biased, but when it comes to beaches and generally warmer weather all year round, the North Island is the place to be.
Winner: North Island
Located in the North Island with a population of around 1.6 million, Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and has everything you’d expect from a modern, bustling metropolis. Also located on the North Island, Wellington, the country’s capital, is the second largest city. While both cities are diverse and offer a good mix of world class experiences, we think Wellington takes it in the culture stakes.
On the South Island, Christchurch is the largest city with a population of around 400,000. By comparison to the hustle and bustle of Auckland, Christchurch feels relatively relaxed for want of a better word. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you specifically want to avoid big city life, the more sparsely populated South Island is where you want to head, the further south the better. There you will find characterful towns like Dunedin and Invercargill with their rich Scottish heritage and Victorian architecture.
But the reality is that both the North and South Island are filled with unique, character-filled cities and towns that are well worth visiting which is why it really wouldn’t be fair to declare an outright winner.
To read more on this topic, check out our visitor guide to the largest cities in New Zealand.
Climate and Weather
Being a relatively long and narrow country means that New Zealand has quite a diverse climate. In the far north, the climate is distinctly subtropical and temperatures stay relatively mild through much of the year. T-shirts well into Autumn (March to May) are the norm in what is often referred to as the ‘winterless north’.
But the further south you travel, the cooler it gets, not surprising when you consider that the bottom of the South Island is less than 3,000 km / 1,800 miles from the outer edge of Antarctica. There’s also the fact that much of the country is relatively close to the coast and the sea has a moderating effect. But head inland towards the alpine regions, particularly in the central South Island in winter, and it can get quite cold, down to -10°C / 14°F.
So if you’re wondering which New Zealand island is warmer, the answer is undoubtedly the North Island. Conversely, when it comes to which island is better in winter, assuming you’re thinking about skiing, the answer would have to be South Island. More about that in the Skiing and snowboarding section we’ll cover later. Obviously, deciding which island is better from a weather perspective comes down to what you plan on doing so we’ll call this one a draw.
To read more on this topic, check out our article Finding New Zealand’s Best Weather. We also cover New Zealand’s climate and weather more generally in this article, Choosing the best time to visit New Zealand.
Cycling & Mountain Biking
As with so many things in New Zealand, we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to cycling and mountain biking in particular. The sheer variety of trails is world class. From multi-day epic adventures to short, family-friendly routes that allow you to enjoy local cafes and cellar doors, the choice is yours.
After something a little more intense with some downhill action or even pro level trails? Rotorua, Taupo (our home town) and Queenstown are all known for their dedicated mountain bike parks which cater to all skill levels.
So how do we choose which island is best in this category? It’s a tough one. The Department of Conservation which manages our National Parks and Nature Reserves lists over 200 mountain biking tracks, with the majority of them being on the South Island.
Spread across both islands, New Zealand also has 23 cycling trails officially designated as “Great Rides” which showcase some of our most spectacular scenery. 13 of these trails are on the South Island.
Based purely on the numbers then, the South Island takes this one. But even if the numbers didn’t stack up, personally we would still choose the South Island based on the island’s stunning scenery and natural beauty.
Winner: South Island
Diving & Snorkeling
One of our favourite diving sites, and one we’ve visited several times, is the Poor Knights Islands, located off the east coast of the North Island. Based on our experiences there alone, we would give this category to the North Island. After all, if someone as renowned as Jacques Cousteau included it in his list of top 10 dives in the world, you know that it’s got to be amazing.
That’s not to say that the South Island doesn’t have great diving locations like the Marlborough Sounds or Milford Sound. It’s just that these locations are less easily accessible. There’s also the fact that the further south you go, the colder the water.
So yes, based on the Poor Knights Island and numerous other easily accessible North Island dive sites like the Bay of Islands, the Coromandel Peninsula and our favourite snorkeling spot north of Auckland, Goat Island, we think it’s pretty much a no-brainer.
Winner: North Island
Fjords (or fiords as it’s spelt here in New Zealand) are unique to the South Island so that pretty much decides the winner right there. But in case you don’t know much about fiords, here’s what you can expect.
Towering cliffs that rise straight out of the ocean, dense green rainforest in every direction and more jaw-dropping waterfalls than you can imagine. Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound are our two most famous fiords. Doubtful Sound is a little more off the beaten path and has a more rugged and remote feel to it.
Milford Sound on the other hand is more developed and geared towards tourism so you can expect more crowds. But don’t let that put you off. If you’re going to visit the South Island and have enough time in your itinerary to head that far south, the fiords are a must-see destination.
Winner: South Island
Food, Beer & Wine
After a good day’s exploring and adventuring, we all need to refuel and unwind. Well the good news is that New Zealand’s food, beer and wine scene is top-notch.
As you would expect, in our major cities you’ll have a wide range of restaurants to choose from, from fine dining to casual eateries and quaint cafes, each with their own unique charm.
If you’re a carnivore, you’ll definitely want to try a steak or a lamb chop. Fun fact – did you know that there are more sheep per person in New Zealand than anywhere else in the world (sorry Wales)?
Then there’s our fresh, abundant seafood with Kaikoura being a must-visit destination for crayfish lovers, while Southland is home to some of the best Bluff oysters. And what goes well with delicious fresh oysters? Wine of course, and in that department New Zealand’s got you covered with Sauvignon Blanc from iconic Marlborough (the country’s largest wine region) and Pinot Noir from Central Otago being just two of the many local varietals.
New Zealand also has a thriving craft beer scene, with plenty of local breweries to choose from. From pale ales to stouts, there’s a beer for every palate with interesting names like Stone Hammer, Dirty Boots and 5 o’clock Somewhere.
And let’s not forget a traditional Māori hangi, a method of cooking food using heated rocks buried in a pit oven. It’s both a feast and a cultural experience that you won’t forget.
We could go on but we think you get the point, New Zealand is a foodie’s paradise. So how do we choose a winner? Frankly, we can’t so we’re calling this one a draw.
This is another category where the South Island takes it without a doubt. It’s not that the North Island doesn’t have glaciers, it’s just the fact that they’re not as easily accessible or, to be honest, as spectacular as those in the South Island.
So what does the South Island have to offer when it comes to glaciers? First off there’s Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. These two beauties, located on the west coast of the South Island are fairly unique in that they are some of the only glaciers in the world that flow almost down to sea level.
Also on the South Island and located in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is Tasman Glacier, the largest glacier in New Zealand. It’s about 27 kilometres (17 miles) long and covers an area of approximately 101 square kilometres (39 square miles). The nearby Hooker Valley Track is also a must-do for unparalleled view of Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak.
Winner: South Island
Glow worms are probably the most unusual and mesmerising natural wonders you’ll come across in New Zealand. These little critters are the larvae of a species of fungus gnat (a flying insect) called Arachnocampa luminosa. They live in caves and native forests and emit a blue-green bioluminescent light to attract their prey.
You really should make time to see glow worms and the best and most accessible spot is Waitomo Caves on the North Island. These limestone caves are home to literally thousands of glow worms, and there are a number of different guided tour options that will take you deep into the caves to see them up close.
There are of course a number of other places throughout New Zealand where you can get up close and personal with glow worms including one of our favourite spots, Waipu Caves, north of Auckland. But none of them come close to Waitomo Caves in terms of the overall experience and the choice of options to choose from which is why we’re giving this category to New Zealand’s North Island.
Winner: North Island
Besides the two main islands, New Zealand has many offshore islands that are worth exploring. From tiny islands like Tiritiri Matangi, an unpopulated bird sanctuary, to Waiheke Island, with its stunning beaches, outstanding wine and a permanent population of around 9,000 people, there’s an island to suit every taste.
Then of course there’s Stewart Island / Rakiura, New Zealand’s third largest island. Located approximately 30 kilometres (19 miles) off the bottom of the South Island, it covers an area of 1,746 sq km (674 sq mi) but has a permanent population of just 440. Known for its remote feel and wild terrain, Rakiura is home to one of New Zealand’s officially designated Great Walks.
So how do we choose a winner is this category? For us it comes down to choice and ease of access for visitors, and in that regard, we think the North Island takes. Most visitors to the country will arrive in Auckland, which means they have the islands of the Hauraki Gulf right on their doorstep. That includes the previously mentioned islands of Tiritiri Matangi and Waiheke which are just a short ferry ride away. There’s also Great Barrier Island which has a similar remote feel to Rakiura and like Rakiura, is an officially recognised Dark Sky Sanctuary despite being just a short hop away from Auckland.
Winner: North Island
Lakes & Rivers
We’re going to play open cards from the start here and say that this is another one of those categories where we just can’t choose an outright winner. From both a scenery and an activity perspective, both islands have got a lot to offer when it comes to lakes and rivers.
The South Island is of course home to New Zealand’s spectacular alpine lakes, from the Nelson Lakes near the top of the South Island to Lake Pukaki with it’s distinctive blue glacier fed water and on down to Lake Te Anau on the eastern border of Fiordland National Park.
The North Island on the other hand does have relatively fewer large lakes but it is home to Lake Taupo which is our home and also the largest lake in New Zealand. Plus of course there’s one of our favourite summertime spots, the rather unique Kai Iwi Lakes in the coastal dunes of the far north.
New Zealand’s rivers are also quite varied with the South Island having more wide braided rivers whereas the North Island tends to have deeper, faster flowing rivers including the Waikato, New Zealand’s longest river. The North Island is also home to the Whanganui Journey, a spectacular multi-day canoe/kayak river adventure.
So regardless of which island you’re on, with activities like kayaking, jet boating, white-water rafting and canyoning widely available, you won’t be short of things to do.
Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit
We would love to have been the location scouts for the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies but honestly, whoever the scouts were, they did an amazing job of choosing locations that highlight some of the best scenery in New Zealand.
Principle filming for LOTR took place between October 1999 and December 2000 and scenes were shot at over 150 locations spread across both the North and South Islands, many of them within our national parks and nature reserves. While not all of these locations are easily accessible, if you’re both an outdoor lover and a Lord of the Rings fan, you’ll want to head to places like Glenorchy (Isengard), Mount Sunday (Edoras) and of course, our backyard, The Tongariro National Park.
The Tongariro National Park is home to Mt Ruapehu, the North Island’s highest peak, and the rocky slopes of this active volcano were perfect as Mordor. Then there’s nearby Mt Ngauruhoe which, with some CGI magic, did a great job as Mount Doom.
But without a doubt, probably the most unique Lord of the Ring and The Hobbit experience is to visit the Hobbiton movie set near Matamata on the North Island. Used for the filming of LOTR and then renovated and reused for The Hobbit, this ‘living village’ is a true mecca for fans.
So how do we choose a winner in this category? There’s no denying the epic scale of the South Island’s locations compared to those on the North Island. But the Hobbiton experience is unmatched by anything on the South Island, which means we’ll have to call this one yet another draw.
Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand who arrived here from Polynesia between 1200 and 1300 AD, some 400 years before the islands were first ‘discovered’ by Europeans. While the Māori people did explore and eventually settle on both islands, early settlement happened in the north which is why today, Māori culture is most represented in the Northland, Gisborne/Tairawhiti and Bay of Plenty regions of the North Island.
No visit to New Zealand would be complete without experiencing Māori culture and the best way to do this is by visiting a traditional Māori village, with Rotorua being a particular hotspot for this, both literally and figuratively thanks to its hot springs and bubbling mud pools.
These traditional villages are a great way to learn about Māori customs, history, and art, and most offer cultural performances such as the haka, a Māori war dance. These can be powerful and moving experiences, and if you’re a rugby fan you’ll already know what we’re talking about.
Then of course there’s the hangi, a traditional Māori method of cooking food using heated rocks buried in a pit oven. The food is placed in baskets that are lined with leaves and then placed on top of the rocks and covered with earth. This is left to cook for several hours and the result is some seriously delicious food, and a great way to experience a slice of Māori culture.
Finally, there’s Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, north of Auckland. Waitangi was the location for the signing of the Waitangi Treaty, New Zealand’s founding document. Visiting the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is a great way to learn about New Zealand’s history and the important events that shaped our nation.
Winner: North Island
If you base your assessment of a mountain purely on its height, in the North versus South battle it’s pretty much a no-brainer since Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain, takes pride of place on the South Island.
But some mountains have their own unique wow factor, regardless of height, and that was certainly the case when we first saw the crater remains of the North Island’s Mount Tarawera, a dormant volcano that literally tore itself apart in 1886.
Then of course the North Island has it’s ‘movie star’ mountains. First there’s Mount Taranaki which did a good impression of Japan’s Mount Fuji in the Tom Cruise movie, The Last Samurai. And who can forget Mount Ngauruhoe for its breakthrough performance as Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings.
Not forgetting Mount Ruapehu, the North Island’s highest peak. Not as high as Mount Cook, what it lacks in height it makes up for with one of the countries largest ski fields, Whakapapa.
But when all is said and done, the South Island has the Southern Alps which run almost the entire length of the island and in terms of overall scenic splendour is hard to beat. That’s why in this battle, we think the South takes it.
Winner: South Island
To read more on this topic, check out our visitor guide to mountains in New Zealand.
We’re going to go by the numbers on this one since, not having personally visited all of New Zealand’s National Parks, we can’t give you an honest comparison. Plus there’s the fact that they’re all uniquely beautiful in their own way so how could we possibly choose? It would be like having to choose a favourite child in front of the whole family.
New Zealand has 13 National Parks, and of those, 10 of them are in the South Island. New Zealand’s first and oldest National Park is the North Island’s Tongariro National Park, a dual World Heritage area. The park is home to Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, arguably the country’s most popular day walk.
New Zealand’s largest park is Fiordland National Park, located in the southwest corner of the South Island. Covering an area of over 1.2 million hectares, it was declared a World Heritage Area in 1986 and is home to towering peaks, waterfalls and, unsurprisingly, fiords/fjords.
Based purely on the number of parks and the diversity and choice they give you when visiting New Zealand, the South Island takes this round.
Winner: South Island
Skiing and Snowboarding
Located approximately four and a half hours drive south of Auckland, Mount Ruapehu is the North Island’s highest peak and home to three popular ski fields, Turoa, Tukino (a club operated ski field) and Whakapapa which is actually New Zealand’s largest ski field. It’s also worth mentioning that Mt Ruapehu is an active volcano so if you’re after a unique skiing experience, it’s the place to go.
But when it comes to skiing, snowboarding and winter activities generally, there’s no denying that the South Island is the place to be.
The South Island has more to offer with Queenstown and nearby Wanaka (about a one hour drive) providing easy access to four ski fields:
- The Remarkables
- Coronet Peak
- Treble Cone
These four resorts provide a mix of terrain for all skill levels, epic scenery and of course, importantly, a lively après-ski scene.
In addition, being located further south than Mt Ruapehu, the South Island ski fields tend to have more consistent snow and longer seasons. So as much as we’d love to give this one to Ruapehu (our backyard) and the North Island, the south takes it.
Winner: South Island
Stargazing and the Southern Lights
New Zealand is widely recognised as a stargazer’s paradise, something we can personally attest to having spent many nights camping under the stars. Our national parks and wild open spaces are known for having clear skies and minimal light pollution so it should come us no surprise that New Zealand has four officially recognised Dark Sky areas:
- Great Barrier Island Dark Sky Sanctuary in the Hauraki Gulf off the coast of Auckland
- The Wairarapa Dark Sky Reserve located in the Wairarapa Valley of the North Island
- The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve comprised of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin on the South island
- Stewart Island / Rakiura Dark Sky Sanctuary located off the southernmost tip of the South Island
All of these locations offer some spectacular star gazing but the South Island has the added bonus of being home to the Mt John Observatory near Tekapo in the Mackenzie Basin. If you’re into stars then a visit to this observatory is a must-do.
Then of course there’s the Southern Lights, Aurora Australis, the southern hemisphere answer to the Northern Lights. This spectacular display is best experienced from late autumn (May) to early spring (September) and, as the name suggests, the further south you go, the better your chances of seeing them. That makes Stewart Island a prime location for star gazing and in our view, gives the South Island the win.
Winner: South Island
New Zealand has a rich and long-established surfing culture. That’s not surprising given that we’re an island nation with a coastline of around 15,000 km / 9,320 miles. Summers spent at the seaside bach (holiday house) are a kiwi tradition and surfing is all part of the experience.
And we’re quite protective over our surf breaks, perhaps a little too protective at times. The Wavetrack New Zealand Surfing Guide records over 470 surf breaks throughout New Zealand, 22 of which are recognised as nationally significant and specifically protected by the Government’s Coastal Policy Statement.
Of the 22 significant breaks, the vast majority are on the North Island. Plus there’s the fact that the North Island is home to Raglan’s Manu Bay which is said to have one of the world’s longest left-hand breaks. You know where we’re going with this right – the North Island wins.
Winner: North Island
Volcanoes and Geothermal Attractions
GeoNet, which operates New Zealand’s geological hazard monitoring system officially monitors 12 volcanoes. That’s not to say that these volcanoes are actively erupting. Each volcano is rated on an alert level scale from 0 (no volcanic unrest) to 5 (major volcanic eruption) and of the 12, 9 are at level 0 and we certainly haven’t seen any change in these since arriving in New Zealand in 2013.
The other 3 volcanoes however, are definitely alive and kicking and we know this first hand since we live on the edge of one. Taupo, or more specifically Lake Taupo is actually a supervolcano that last erupted about 1,800 years ago. While there hasn’t been an eruption since, we’re regularly woken by tremors, a ‘gentle’ reminder of where we live. But don’t let that put you off visiting, Taupo is a beautiful lakeside town with lots to see and do.
Taupo is also the gateway to one of New Zealand’s most active volcanoes, Mount Ruapehu, which sits within the Tongariro National Park, home to two other volcanoes, Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro. This park and the surrounding area is a must-do if you want to experience our incredible volcanic landscape firsthand.
Of course we have to mention Whakaari/White Island, a popular tourist attraction until the tragic events of December 2019 when this volcanic island erupted killing 22 people. White Island is now closed to the public but we were fortunate enough to visit many years previously and you can read about our visit here.
An added ‘bonus’ of having volcanoes in your backyard is the geothermal activity associated with them. Think natural hot springs like our personal favourite, Wairakei Terraces, or attractions like the spectacularly colourful Orakei Korako geothermal park.
As far as a winner for this category then, since the South Island doesn’t have any active volcanoes, it’s pretty much a no-brainer.
Winner: North Island
Walking & Hiking
Hiking is one of our favourite activities and over the years we’ve walked countless tracks, from the coastal cliffs of Cape Reinga in the far north to the stunning beaches of Abel Tasman, from the unique volcanic landscape of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing to the mind blowing karst landscape around Mt Owen… you get the picture.
We’ve still only just scratched the surface of what this amazing country has to offer in terms of walking & hiking trails, but what we have learnt is that both islands offer unique experiences and a world of choice to suit all skills and fitness levels. With that in mind, we don’t think it makes sense to choose an outright winner in this category.
So how does somebody visiting the country for the first time go about deciding where to go and what hikes or walks to do? If you’re visiting New Zealand with hiking specifically in mind, the best place to start your research is the Mountain Safety Council’s Plan My Walk website. You can browse their track map or search for tracks by time, distance and difficulty and each track listing provides a wealth of useful information as well as reviews and ratings from previous hikers.
If you’re simply interested in doing some of the top must-do walks, then visit the Department of Conservation website. Their walking and tramping (tramping is a kiwi word for hiking) page list highlights some of New Zealand’s best walks, organised as Short Walks, Day Hikes, Great Walks and Family-friendly Walks.
Need some more inspiration? Here are just a few of our favourite walks:
As you might expect, New Zealand has countless waterfalls. Some, like Huka Falls in our hometown of Taupo, are easily accessible and are very popular with tourists. But most require a little bit of effort to get to, usually no more than a short walk like, for example, Taranaki Falls.
But when we think about waterfalls, and we mean truly epic waterfalls, Fiordland National Park in the southwestern-most corner of the South Island is the undisputed champion.
To put this into perspective, the North Island’s highest waterfall, Wairere Falls is 153 metres (502 feet) high. Browne Falls in Fiordland has a total vertical drop of 836 metres (2,743 feet). Granted, it’s a cascading waterfall and not a single drop, but still, it’s one of several Fiordland waterfalls that are over 200 metres (660 feet) high.
So if waterfalls are your thing, a visit to Milford Sound and/or Doubtful Sound in Fiordland National Park should be high on your list.
Winner: South Island
New Zealand has many unique native birds, insects, lizards, frogs and fish, but did you know that our only native mammals are bats and marine mammals like whales and dolphins.
What this means is that all the land mammals you are likely to encounter have been introduced, from the obvious ones like cats, dogs, cows and sheep (so many sheep) to the not so obvious like deer and possum to name just a few.
When it comes to experiencing New Zealand’s unique native species, there are three in particular that are worth making an effort to see:
- Kiwi birds – an unusual choice but these flightless nocturnal birds are our national symbol. There are several species of kiwi with habitats across both islands but Stewart Island / Rakiura is generally considered the best place to see them in the wild.
- Hector’s dolphins – at around 1.2 to 1.5 metres (4 to 5 feet) long, they are among the shortest of the world’s dolphins. Classified as a vulnerable species, it’s a real privilege to see one and the biggest concentrations are off the West Coast and around Banks Peninsula off the South Island.
- Kea – found only in or near the mountains of the South Island, kea are New Zealand’s native alpine parrot. These highly intelligent birds are incredibly tame in the wild and very inquisitive so you can’t leave anything unattended when they’re around.
Winner: South Island
Which is better, North Island or South Island?
To sum up then, based on our entirely subjective and non-scientific analysis of twenty four different criteria, the ‘best’ New Zealand island is… the South Island.
The South Island is best for:
- Adrenalin activities
- Experiencing remote New Zealand
- Cooler temperatures and distinct seasons
- Multi-day mountain bike trails
- Epic fiords and glaciers
- Snowcapped mountain views
- National Parks
- Skiing and snowboarding
- Stargazing and the Southern Lights
- Unique wildlife encounters
- Waterfall spotting
But here’s the thing. There is no real ‘best island’. There’s only what’s best for you based on the kind of holiday you want and the experiences you want to have. So let’s give the North Island its dues.
The North Island is best for:
- Ease of getting around by car, bus and train
- Beautiful swimming beaches
- Island hopping
- Warmer temperatures
- World class diving & snorkeling
- Glow worm caves
- Experiencing Māori culture
- Volcanoes and geothermal wonders
North or South Island, which island should you visit first?
Again, this is one of those questions where there really isn’t a right or wrong answer. Ultimately it comes down to deciding which activities or experiences are more important to you and how you’d like to structure your holiday itinerary.
Hopefully, this article has given you lots of insight, ideas and inspiration and answered all of your New Zealand North Island or South Island questions. Have fun planning your trip and happy travels!
Best of New Zealand
If you’re looking for ideas and inspiration for your next holiday, you should definitely check out our New Zealand Travel Guide. We’ve got practical advice to help you plan your trip and region guides to help you decide where to go and what to do. We also share some of our favourite experiences from our own travels around the country. Click below to find out more.