When it comes to New Zealand, time and time again travellers find themselves pondering whether the North Island or South Island is better. Of course, we couldn’t possibly choose a favourite. So we’ve put together a guide to help you decide which side of New Zealand you’re looking to explore. Blessed with a smorgasbord of natural eye-candy, from soaring mountains and caves to glacier-fed lakes and volcanoes, as well as many beautiful towns and bustling cosmopolitan cities, we’ll leave it to you to make the tough call!
There are three times as many people living on the North Island than the South Island. Why? Probably because it’s warmer! The island is graced with flat farming plains and a largely hilly and mountainous countryside, thanks to the island’s volcanic history. The volcanos aren’t all extinct though! You can walk on New Zealand’s only active marine volcano as it rumbles and hisses, bathe in hot springs across the island, and even ski or hike the slopes of the extinct Mt Ruapehu.
But aside from geothermal wonders, you’ll also find incredibly beautiful lakes, world-class wineries in famous wine regions, and beautiful limestone and lava caves like Waitomo, which is filled with stalactites, stalagmites and glow worms. If you’re a beachgoer you’ll love the stunning coastline packed with top-notch beaches, including warmer waters and better surf, which come in a variety of colours from unique black-sand shores to pure white sands that back onto lush forest.
The North Island is also richer in Maori history if you’re interested in traditional legends, history and culture, and is where you’ll find the real life Hobbiton village – for the Lord of the Rings fans out there. The cities are also fantastic and offer a bustling, cosmopolitan atmosphere complete with the usual big city delights. Hit the compact and trendy capital city Wellington for some cool vibes, or check out New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. They’re both set on a striking harbour and are the place to go for fabulous food, nightlife, modern culture and great shopping.
Heading South? 8 Top Stops on a New Zealand South Island Drive
While the South Island is only slightly bigger, its landscapes are much more dramatic. Dominated by the Southern Alps, this incredible mountain range runs the entire length of the island, from top to bottom, and spectacular glacially-fed lakes and rivers feed off the mountains. There’s also a huge network of glaciers, including the renowned Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, which you can explore even in the midst of summer with a guided trek across the icy wonderland. Over 100,000 years ago these glaciers also carved out spectacular fjords, where rainforest meets sheer drop-offs, including the famous Milford Sound.
Another legendary piece of the South Island is Aoraki/Mt Cook, the country’s highest peak at 3754 metres. Here, and at various hotspots across the island, you’ll find world-class ski fields for amazing ski holidays every winter, and in the summer, they make for equally amazing tramping spots with views of the snow-capped peaks above you. Queenstown in particular is famous as a ski destination, but also as the adventure capital of New Zealand – it’s where bungee jumping started, after all. But you’ll also discover renowned and upcoming wine regions, gorgeous bays and beaches (particularly in the north), fabulous hot springs, and the unique boulder country of Central Otago.
For unique animal encounters, the South Island is also fantastic considering its location reaching south towards Antarctica. Have amazing encounters with penguins, seals, sea lions and other wildlife across the island, or get to know the newer locals in the many beautiful towns and cities. Dunedin is a wonderful and relaxed seaside city on the wilderness-rich Otago Peninsula, and Christchurch is fascinating and ever-changing, a city in the midst of regeneration fuelled by creativity and entrepreneurial ideas.
New Zealand may be small but it sure packs a punch. Make sure you’ve got at least three weeks because, as you can see, there’s just so much to do in them both!
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