Not Australia

Just some stuff about New Zealand

The North Island vs. the South Island

New Zealand is a nation of two halves, but which is better for a holiday? Travelling around the North Island is very different from travelling around the South Island. Even within each island the landscape varies dramatically. It is impossible to experience both satisfactorily in your average two-week holiday, so which one do you choose? It’s a tough call, but let’s look at the facts…



The North Island wins on beaches. This is because the North Island is generally warmer than the South Island, so more pleasant for swimming and sunbathing. Plus the North Island’s Cathedral Cove has to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

Cathedral Cove

The South Island has some pretty darn beautiful beaches too, but if it’s a relaxing, tropical holiday you’re after then the North Island is for you. The South Island certainly isn’t tropical, but it can be glacial. In fact it’s about the only place in the world where you can walk right up to glaciers without having to climb a snowy mountain first. This photograph was taken by my father on our South Island campervan trip.

Fox Glacier

I was twelve years old at the time, and it was a short, easy walk to that spectacular place. So if you want readily accessible glaciers and icy lakes that literally take your breath away then the South Island is for you.

Lake Wanaka, an icy lake that literally takes your breath away

One of the biggest differences between the North Island and the South Island is population. New Zealand has a population of approximately 4.5 million people. Of that, 3.5 million live in the North Island, but only 1 million live in the South Island. The North Island has thirteen cities, whereas the South Island has five. This can make a huge difference to your holiday.

Auckland City at sunset

The North Island is a much more happening place. It has more civilisation and therefore more culture. It has both the largest city and the capital city – Auckland and Wellington are both vibrant metropolises well worth visiting. It also has far more Maori cultural experiences for tourists than the South Island does.

A Maori performance

When you’re driving around the South Island, the lack of civilisation can become somewhat disconcerting. You can go ages without encountering a supermarket. (You know things are bad when you’re glad to see a Foursquare.) However, the lack of civilisation is part of what makes the South Island so special. The North Island is home to three national parks; the South Island has ten. The natural beauty of the South Island is outstanding. If you want to experience New Zealand civilisation and Maori culture then the North Island is for you, but if you want to experience the pure, awesome power of nature then visit the South Island.

The South Island’s Abel Tasman National Park

That’s not to say that the North Island isn’t a great place to experience awesome forces of nature. One area in which it outshines the South Island is its volcanic activity. The North Island is home to the Volcanic Plateau, an enormous area that includes three active volcanoes, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. If you want to see the real Mordor, this is it. Also recommended is White Island, a colourful, steaming volcano out in the Bay of Plenty. Its otherworldly beauty fascinated me, but it was also an eerie place with a haunted history. If you want to see something different – something exciting – then head on a tour of New Zealand’s volcanic hotspots.

Ngauruhoe

So the North Island is the place to go for volcanoes, but the South Island has the Southern Alps, which are possibly even more beautiful than the European Alps. You don’t have to be a mountaineer to enjoy them. There is plenty of walking to be done around them, and even driving past them is a jaw-dropping experience. They include the highest mountain in New Zealand, the snow-capped peak of Aoraki, or Mount Cook.

Looking over Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook

So the South Island has the country’s tallest mountain, but the North Island has the country’s tallest building – the Southern Hemisphere’s tallest building, in fact. The Sky Tower is Auckland’s biggest attraction, one which tourists flock to. The elevator ride to the top is rather exhilarating, and the views once you get there are top-notch. There is no better way to get a feeling for scope of Auckland City, and of its distinctive island volcano, Rangitoto. As well as an observation deck and the thrilling opportunity to ‘SkyJump’ to the ground, the Sky Tower has at its top a revolving restaurant that does classy food, and for not as shockingly expensive as you’d think. Besides, the views while you dine make it worth it.

The Sky Tower

The North Island has another tourist gem in the geothermal city of Rotorua. If you want to see bubbling mud pools, steaming hot pools and spurting geysers then this is the destination for you. Be warned, though: many places in Rotorua will charge you extortionate prices for the privilege, even though there are places, such as my family’s favourite, Kuirau Park, where you can see them for free. Rotorua also has a compelling history, Maori cultural experiences and plenty of scope for adventure.

Walk over a steaming lake in Rotorua

But where the North Island has Rotorua, the South Island has Queenstown. Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand, as well as being nestled on the edge of a lake in impossibly beautiful surroundings. All the adventurous activities, unfortunately, can take a real toll on your wallet. Best to just do one or two of the big thrill-seeking things and spend the rest of your time exploring the surrounding countryside.

Jet boating is always fun…

You can find adventure pretty much all over New Zealand, though. Take Lake Taupo. It’s that huge, blue splotch in the middle of the North Island. My family had a lot of fun jet boating around Lake Taupo, but you can also kayak and fish, enjoying rapids, waterfalls, natural hot pools and cool Maori rock carvings. Yes, the North Island has the largest lake in New Zealand, but if you want to see the world’s only breeding colony of royal albatrosses on an inhabited mainland, you must head to the South Island’s Otago Peninsula. I loved the Otago Peninsula, and not just for the majestic seabirds. It was so beautiful.

The Otago Peninsula

Many of the most beautiful spots in the country were used by Sir Peter Jackson in The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. I’ve been to quite a few of New Zealand’s Middle-earth locations, but the most magical of all was Hobbiton itself. That’s in the North Island, and it’s an absolute must if you’re as Lord of Rings mad as I am. The South Island, however, is home to such places as Rohan, Lake-town, the Anduin, the river where the dwarves ride in the barrels, the Ford of Bruinen and, most spectacularly picturesque of all, the Wizard’s Vale. That was one of the best sights I’ve ever seen.

Hobbiton

Speaking of the best sights I’ve ever seen, the North Island has the Waitomo Caves. What makes them so special is a gentle boat ride inside one of the caves: as you drift along in the silent darkness, millions of glowworms twinkle like blue stars in an endless, velvet night above your head. It feels, quite literally, enchanting. But as wondrous as the Waitomo Caves are, the South Island has somewhere so wondrous that Rudyard Kipling called it the Eighth Wonder of the World: Milford Sound.

Milford Sound

The water of Milford Sound, though tempting, is cold all year round. If you want somewhere warm to swim, the North Island has the Coromandel, home to a beach upon which you can dig your own private hot pool. (It’s also where you’ll find Cathedral Cove.) Oh, but the South Island has Kaikoura, a haven for eating crayfish, watching whales and kayaking with dolphins and seals, within sight of snow-capped mountains.

The Coromandel

It’s so hard to decide which island is the best. The North Island has the Windy City, otherwise known as Wellington. It’s New Zealand’s capital city, home of Weta Workshop, Mount Victoria and a really cool harbour front. The South Island has the Garden City, otherwise known as Christchurch. I haven’t visited it since the earthquakes, but my favourite part of Christchurch is still there, the Botanic Gardens, cradled by the Avon River, upon which you can punt and kayak to your heart’s content.

Windy Wellington

The North Island has Mount Maunganui, a fashionable beach resort with one very impressive landmark, but the South Island has the Marlborough Sounds, which are like the sounds around Milford, but with warmth and wine. It’s… it’s almost impossible to choose. I suppose it depends entirely upon what YOU want out of your holiday. What I’ve learned from travelling around both islands of New Zealand is that the best way to see the country is to either hire a car – and carry a tent to save money – or hire a campervan. (Our public transport isn’t the best.) You can take a vehicle between the North Island and the South Island, as you can book an Interislander ferry, but you’d need to be on an especially long holiday to attempt a tour of both. You could always buy a campervan in New Zealand.

Mount Maunganui

For me, I think the South Island wins. The North Island has volcanoes and Waitomo and Hobbiton, but the South Island is just more breathtakingly beautiful more often. Plus, it has kea. They’re fun.

Kea in a South Island café

But what do you think? Cast your vote below!

Which is better – the North Island or the South Island?

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Article by Abigail Simpson, author of POMS AWAY! A British Immigrant’s View of New Zealand

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