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North Island or South Island - or Both?

Interislander ferry in Picton Harbour

New Zealand has an amazing diversity in landscapes in a relatively small land area, which makes for a fascinating and varied driving holiday. 

We always recommend that if you have the time you visit both the North and South Islands as they differ so much in climate, geography and scenery that it’s almost like visiting two different countries.  For those with less time for their New Zealand holiday, you’ll find it more rewarding if you concentrate on one of the islands instead of trying to fit a tour of the entire country into one week. 

Below we have listed the highlights of the two islands to help you decide which island to visit, if you can’t visit both.  Our experienced travel consultants will also be able to help you make a decision based on your interests.

North Island

Maori Culture – The North Island Maori population has always been significantly larger than the South Island and with this the ability to explore and interact with Maori culture and traditions is readily accessible.  Two key destinations to discover the songs, cuisine and arts of Maori people are Rotorua and Waitangi.  Rotorua is often considered the heartland of Maori culture and there are a number of options to enjoy a night of song and dance performances and a hangi feast.  Te Puia in Rotorua is the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, which is open to the public and gives you the opportunity to observe younger generations learning the traditional crafts.  Waitangi in the Bay of Islands is the birthplace of the nation, important to all New Zealanders as it is where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by Maori Chiefs and British Colonists.

Lord of the Rings/Hobbit – The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies were filmed throughout the country, but the North Island is home to two of the must-visit locations for any fan.  The life-like Hobbiton Village Movie Set is as you saw it in the movies, complete with the Green Dragon Inn where you can sample the local Hobbiton Brew.  The capital city of Wellington has very strong links to both movie trilogies as much of the filming and production and digital affects were done here.  As well as a range of Lord of the Rings Tours, you can also visit the Weta Cave and tour the workshop, the home of the creative genius behind both films.

Volcanoes – New Zealand sits on what is known as the ‘Ring of Fire’, testament to the volcanic nature of our lands.  When you visit Auckland, all the large ‘mountains’ you can see are actually extinct volcanoes.  A trip to Rangitoto Island, the youngest Auckland volcano, is a popular activity and for fantastic city views be sure to climb Mt Eden.  Further south is the spectacular Tongariro National Park.  This stark landscape is home to three active volcanoes, Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, the latter was made famous in the Lord of the Rings movie as it depicted Mt Doom.  Even though this is an active volcanic region, it is still safe to hike in the park and the Tongariro Crossing which takes you through this surreal landscape is considered one of the world’s greatest one day walks.  Another volcanic destination is White Island located off the East Coast.  This active marine volcano can be explored on day trips that depart from Whakatane or Rotorua and makes for a fascinating encounter.

Beaches and Bays- White sandy beaches and coves are synonymous with the Coromandel Peninsula and the Bay of Islands/Northland region and at certain times of year you can easily have one of these pohutakawa fringed beaches to yourself.   In the Coromandel, highlights include Cathedral Cove which is definitely worth the walk and New Chums Beach, which is often voted New Zealand’s best beach.  At Hot Water Beach time your visit for low tide and you can dig your own personal hot pool in the sand.  Northland’s most famous beach, 90 Mile Beach (actually only 55 miles long) is an official highway taking you to Cape Reinga, unfortunately rental cars aren’t allowed, but there are day trips that will take you along this highway in large 4WD vehicles.

Vibrant Cities – New Zealand’s two largest cities are in the North Island.  Wellington, the ‘coolest little capital in the world’ and Auckland the ‘City of Sails’ both offer fantastic dining and a vibrant cosmopolitan atmosphere while having remarkable natural wonders right on their backdoor.  Smaller Wellington is a great walking city, home to funky cafes and Te Papa, New Zealand’s National Museum.  Auckland sits on two harbours and one of the best ways to experience the city is on a yacht or ferry on the Waitemata Harbour.   Also worth visiting, especially for architect buffs is the Art-Deco city of Napier.  The city was almost completely rebuilt in the 1930s after suffering a major earthquake in 1931.  From this disaster, the resulting transformation has resulted in a city full of beautiful Art Deco buildings.

Wineries and Vineyards – The Hawke’s Bay is home to New Zealand’s oldest vineyards and is the second largest wine region in the country with over 80 wineries, many of which are open to the public for tastings.  A number of the vineyards are also home to award winning restaurants, where you can sample the delicious reds that the area is famous for, matched to locally grown and prepared artisan produce.  The Wairarapa which is about an hour’s drive from Wellington is home to many small boutique wineries.  Base yourself in the village of Martinborough to explore the nearby vineyards.  Surrounding Auckland are a number of small wine regions (Matakana, Waiheke Island and Kumeu) that make for a delightful day trip or overnight visit with each offering its own unique style of wine.  North of Auckland is Matakana, home to a number of family owned vineyards and a fantastic weekend farmers market.  North West of Auckland you’ll find Kumeu, whose grapes were first planted by early Croatian settlers.  During your visit take the short drive to the wild west coast beaches including Muriwai, home to a gannet colony.  Waiheke Island is in the Hauraki Gulf, a short scenic ferry boat ride from downtown Auckland and is home to boutique vineyards and olive groves – a paradise for foodies.

Adventure – The North Island has plenty of adventure and adrenalin rush activities for those of you seeking thrills and speed.  Top of your list for adventure must be Rotorua – home to some quirky Kiwi inventions including the Zorb.  Rotorua is also the place to satisfy your need for flying through the air with the Rotorua Forest Canopy Tours, or try white water rafting on the Kaituna River, which takes you on the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world.  In Taupo the Huka Jet Boat Ride takes you right up to the base of the foaming Huka Falls.  Auckland is the North Island destination for bungy jumping or for those wanting a slightly tamer adventure there’s the Auckland Harbour Bridge Climb.  Nearby Waitakere Ranges and the West Coast beaches offer great walking and hiking as well as canyoning in the rainforest at Piha, an exhilarating excursion.  Any visit to Auckland must include an adventure on the Waitemata Harbour, and what could be better than sailing an Americas Cup Yacht in the ‘City of Sails’.

Bird Wildlife – New Zealand’s birdlife evolved in isolation from predators, resulting in many unique adaptations, most notable being the flightless bird of which the kiwi is our most famous.   Eco-sanctuaries are great places to experience New Zealand’s wildlife and Auckland and Wellington are home to two of the best.  Zealandia in Wellington is on the city fringe and is open daily, they also run night tours which are a fantastic encounter with the bush and nocturnal wildlife.  In Auckland you can catch a ferry to the predator free island of Tiritiri Matangi, here you can walk the well-formed tracks encountering flocks of Hihi and the rare flightless Takahe.  Being surrounded by oceans, New Zealand is also an important destination for sea birds and migratory birds.  Miranda located one hour south of Auckland is an important wintering ground for migratory birds and breeding ground for native shorebirds.  Closer to Auckland at Muriwai Beach you can visit a mainland gannet colony, or head to Cape Kidnappers in the Hawkes Bay, home to the largest mainland gannet colony in the world.

South Island

Mountains – The Southern landscape is dominated by mountains, with the Southern Alps stretching 500 kilometres down the spine of the South Island from Nelson Lakes National Park to Milford Sound.  The highest mountain in New Zealand, Mt Cook, lies in the midst of the Southern Alps in Mt Cook National Park.  Mt Cook was where Sir Edmund Hillary trained in preparation for conquering Mt Everest and there is a great museum located at the Hermitage where you can learn more of this amazing achievement. You can also do some adventuring of your own with a fantastic range of short walks, great activities including a boat ride on the Tasman Glacier Lake and a range of scenic helicopter and ski plane flights that can get you up close to the magnificent mountains.  The Hermitage Hotel offers the only accommodation within the park boundary where you can wake with spectacular mountain views.

Fiords and Sounds – The South Island is home to a number of impressive fiords and sounds, though they are all called sounds just to confuse you.  The Marlborough Sounds at the top of the South Island are true sounds formed from sea covered valleys.  The most visited of the beautiful Marlborough Sounds is Queen Charlotte Sound which is the highlight of the Interislander Ferry Journey as you approach Picton.  There is a fantastic multi day walk along the edge of Queen Charlotte Sound and you can explore the other sounds by kayaking and boat trips.  The fiords are located at the opposite end of the South Island, in the aptly named Fiordland National Park.  The most famous of the fiords is Milford Sound, which is a glacier carved fiord located at the terminus of the spectacular Milford Road.  Allow plenty of time for the drive, as there are many breath-taking places to stop for photos.  Ways to explore Milford Sound include nature cruises, kayaking, scenic flights and an overnight cruise.  The more remote and less visited Doubtful Sound is a true hidden gem which you can experience during either a day cruise or overnight cruise.  The journey to Doubtful Sound is all part of the adventure with a boat ride across Lake Manapouri, followed by a coach journey over the Wilmot Pass before you descend into the untouched wilderness of Doubtful Sound.  If you have time in your itinerary an overnight cruise on either of the fiords is highly recommended; you may never experience such remote isolation again – it’s wonderful.  For more information on the fiords read our Doubtful Sound vs Milford Sound article

Southern Lakes - New Zealand is a land of lakes and these can be found throughout the country, the largest is actually Lake Taupo in the North Island, yet the South Island is home to 8 of the 10 biggest lakes in New Zealand.  These stunning features are integral to some of the most popular tourist destinations in the south including Te Anau and Queenstown.  Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki, two of the glacial lakes in the MacKenzie Country have a remarkable turquoise colour that has to be seen to be believed.  This is due to minute particles of glacial rock that are suspended in the waters.  In Queenstown one of the highlights is a cruise across Lake Wakatipu to one of the surrounding high country stations.  Visiting Wanaka, a stroll along the shores of Lake Wanaka rewards you with spectacular lake and mountain views.  Alternatively take a trip to Mou Waho Island revealing the unusual phenomenon of an island within a lake (Arethusa Pool), within an island (Mou Waho), within a lake (Lake Wanaka), within an island (South Island).

Marine Wildlife – New Zealand’s extensive coastline makes it a mecca for viewing marine wildlife in their natural habitat.  For whale watching you have to visit Kaikoura where giant sperm whale are present year round and 7 other whale species also visit regularly.  Kaikoura is home to a large variety of other marine wildlife including dolphins, albatross and seals.  The Ohau Stream walk north of Kaikoura is a hidden gem where during winter you’ll find seal pups playing while their parents are out at sea hunting.  The Otago Peninsula near Dunedin is another fantastic wildlife habitat, home to the rare yellow eyed penguin, little blue penguins and the world’s only mainland royal albatross breeding colony. In Abel Tasman National Park you can go sea kayaking with fur seals and in Akaroa you can swim with the rare hector’s dolphin.  If you have the time during your New Zealand holiday the coastal road from Dunedin to Fiordland which makes up part of the Southern Scenic Route is a must.  This takes you through The Catlins, home to rainforests, waterfalls and endless untouched coastline that’s home to dolphins, sea lions, penguins and fur seals.

Walking and Hiking – The majority of New Zealand’s Great Walks are in the South Island’s untouched wilderness.  The two most popular for international visitors are the Milford and Routeburn Tracks, which are multi day walks that can be walked as part of a guided trip or independently.  The Milford Track is considered one of the finest walks in the world and takes you deep into Fiordland National Park with its lush rainforests and cascading waterfalls.  The Routeburn is an alpine adventure with magnificent mountain views and crystal clear rivers.  The Abel Tasman Coast Track at the top of the South Island is unique in that it can be walked or kayaked as it follows the coastline; guided tours for both options are available.  You can also walk a short section of these tracks as part of a day walk and there are many more short walks located throughout the countryside.  In Mt Aspiring National Park there is a spectacular short walk to the Blue Pools or try the longer Rob Roy Glacier day walk.  Arthur’s Pass and Mt Cook National Parks and the West Coast all offer great walking tracks suitable for a range of abilities and experience. See our guide to walking and hiking in New Zealand for more information.

Glaciers – The South Island is home to over 3000 glaciers, though most of these are not easily accessible unless you take a scenic flight.  Luckily the exception to this is three of the most striking, the Tasman Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier.  The Tasman Glacier is located in Mt Cook National Park and is New Zealand’s longest and largest glacier.  At the Tasman Glacier terminus a lake has formed with many floating icebergs which you will cruise past on a Glacier Explorers Tour.  On the West Coast you’ll find Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers.  An amazing feature of these two glaciers is that both terminal face finish just a few hundred metres above sea level and the glaciers themselves pass through temperate rainforest – an unusual sight to behold.   There are a range of activities on offer to get you up close to the glaciers, from heli-hikes to scenic flights and so much more.

Adventure – Without a doubt, Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world.  If someone was crazy enough to think it up, you’ll find it here.  If you want to fly, float or spin your way through spectacular scenery then there is no better place to be. The list is endless, but for starters you can bungy, paraglide, skydive, jet boat, white water raft or 4WD through locations like Skippers Canyon, Shotover River, Kawarau River, Glenorchy, Macetown and Paradise to name a few.  There’s action to be had in other parts of the South Island as well.  On the West Coast glaciers you can helicopter to the top of the glacier for an amazing heli-hike experience.  In Wanaka the Ultimate Barnstormer Tiger Moth flight includes aerobatic skills that are not for the faint hearted.  The Siberia Experience in Mt Aspiring National Park combines a scenic flight, jet boat ride and hike in the pristine wilderness introduced to the world by Bear Grylls in Get Out Alive.

High Country Sheep Farms – The South Island was built on gold mining and sheep farming, the gold rush is long since over, but the sheep have remained.  Today as you travel through Canterbury, the Mackenzie Country and Otago you’ll see millions of sheep, a scattering of farm buildings and large expanses of dry hill country that make up high country farms and stations.  From Queenstown you can take scenic cruises to Mt Nic High Country Station and Walter Peak High Country Farm for a taste of this traditional way of farming that continues today.  In Wanaka and Glenorchy there are 4WD tours that will take you deep into a high country farm, where you can experience the magical views and learn the history and happenings on a New Zealand farm.

Still not sure which island to visit? Contact one of the team. They'll be happy to answer your questions.
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