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NZ: North Island vs South Island Showdown

Erin Dunn, Staff Writer

New Zealand is known the world over for its beautiful landscapes, but the appeal goes way beyond that. A country of adventure, culture and cosmopolitan charm, it all comes down to what you’re searching for. 

So, if you’re deciding between the North and South Island, let us help you choose.

Landscape 

Bestowed with unique and diverse landscapes, the North and South Islands both offer their fair share of natural splendour, spliced with vibrant cultural and culinary experiences.  

South – Fiords and mountains 

Image: Mt. Cook

Possessing serious wow factor, the South Island’s landscape feels completely disconnected from the rest of the world between its glaciers, fiords, mountains and lakes. The scenery appears even more photogenic from the slopes of the perennially snow-dusted Southern Alps, in the shadow of Mt. Cook’s overwhelming beauty, and atop Franz Josef Glacier.  

Further south, Queenstown, Wanaka and Te Anau — the most magical place to watch the sunset behind the mountains — are your gateway to Fiordland National Park, Arrowtown, Marlborough wine countryand Glenorchy 

North – Hot springs and beaches  

Image: Rotorua

The North Island has a thick concentration of bedazzling scenes too. In between Tongariro National Park’s volcanic spectacles, Rotorua’s healing hot springs, the Mediterranean beauty of the Bay of Islands, and cosmopolitan buzz of Auckland and Wellington, choosing an island can seem near impossible.  

Iyou’re short on time, the North Island has the game stitched up. Everything is much closer together, which means you can cover more ground in less time, making it ideal for a shorter stay.  

Climate  

Thanks to New Zealand’s maritime environment and majestic mountain ranges, it pays to expect ‘four seasons in one day’ anywhere, anytime. But that doesn’t mean that each island’s climate is identical.  

South – Pack plenty of layers  

You’ll need to pack plenty of layers when exploring the South Island, even in summer. The South Island’s weather is finicky and unpredictable, with temperatures plummeting to minus figures throughout winter.  

North – Warmer (but don’t forgo an umbrella) 

A hive of geothermal marvels and volcanic activity, it’s only fitting that the North Island is warmer and more tropical than its southern counterpart. It could be considered T-shirt weather even in winter when temperatures drop to 16°C, but an umbrella is advised.  

Cities  

From the world capital of adventure, Queenstown, in the South, to the foodie haven of Wellington in the North, New Zealand’s cities have something to offer every type of travellerSo which is calling your name?  

South – Cosmopolitan charm in Christchurch and adventure in Queenstown 

Image: Queenstown

Set against an ancient volcanic peninsula and Canterbury’s lush vines, Christchurch is renowned for its diversity. Soak up the city’s urban vibes with an artisanal cup of coffee, stroll the graffiti-covered laneways or ride the beautifully restored trams on a 17-stop loop, which will take you past Cathedral Square and New Regent Street 

Meanwhile, Queenstown is Disneyland for thrill seekers. Melt away in cedar-lined hot pools, explore New Zealand’s largest wine cave — Gibbston Valley Winery —  kayak across Lake Wakatipu, ski in winter, bungy jump off Kawarau Bridge, and cycle through Middleearth in Arrowtown and beyond.  

North – Diverse Auckland and one-stop-shop Wellington  

Image: Wellington City at sunset

Blessed with an incredible coast, two harbours, world-class vineyards, and an irresistible art scene, Auckland is a place where you can enjoy relaxed coastal living at Waiheke Island by day, and romantic restaurant dining in the Wynyard Quarter by night.  

Pleasingly walkable, Wellington is your one-stop-shop to get a dose of Māori culture. Find Academy Award-winning magic aWeta Workshop, travel on the bright red Wellington Cable Car and get lost among the nearby vines of Wairarapa. It is also quickly becoming the gourmet capital of New Zealand.  

Attractions  

While it would be near-impossible to list all of the incredible activities each island has to offer, we’ve rounded up some of the most unique experiences you can expect in the South and the North   

The South – Stargazing and sailing through fiords  

Image: Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve

Discover road-trip heaven in and around the Southern Alps with visits to the former gold mining village of Arrowtown, Hooker Valley at the base of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Glenorchy, the cinematic backdrop of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings 

For otherworldly views, witness the incredibly clear, star-studded night skies of Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve — one of eight dark sky reserves in the world — and explore the majestic Fiordland National Park. Travellers also head to the South Island for Lake Tekapo’s hot springs and Te Anau’s luminous glow worm caves 

North – Māori culture and island discovery  

Image: Lake Taupo

Get your dose of Māori culture with an evening in Mitai Māori Village and canoe across Lake Taupo to see the ancient Māori rock carvings of Mine BayDiscover awesome geothermal wonders clustered around Taupo and Rotorua, take a walk through one of the world’s last prehistoric forests in Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne Forest Park and experience natural phenomena at Hot Water Beach and the Mediterranean-worthy Bay of Islands. For an adrenaline kick, bungee jump off Auckland Harbour Bridge.  

Food and wine 

New Zealand has much to offer the culinary adventurer. From its diverse wine regions to slick city eateries and farmers’ markets, the South and North Islands both have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to gourmet indulgence 

South – Marlborough wineries and legendary burgers in Queenstown  

Image: Marlborough wine region in Autumn

If you’re looking for the ultimate post-ski feed in Queenstown, don’t look beyond Fergburger, affectionately known as ‘Ferg’s and dubbed ‘‘New Zealand’s or the planet’s best burger joint’ by CNN Travel. If wine-tasting nirvana is more your thing, you can’t pass Marlborough, a pretty picture of 20,000 hectares of vines with 30 cellar doors within a 10-minute drive; must visits include Cloudy Bay and Saint Clair. Just a 60-minute drive from Christchurch you’ll find Waipara Valley, home to fields of lavender, olive groves and over 60 vineyards. 

North – NZ’s foodie capital Wellington and Waiheke Island vineyards  

Image: Waiheke Island

New Zealand’s quirky little capital is renowned for its outstanding foodie scene, where you can taste artisanal peanut butter at Fix & Fogg on Hannah’s Laneway and sip the spoils of a thriving craft beer scene at Garage Project in Aro Valley.  

If enjoying a flight of wine sounds like the perfect afternoon, visit Hawke’s Bay, halfway between Auckland and Wellington with a line legacy dating back to 1851. A 35minute ferry ride from Aucklandyou can discover Waiheke Islanda haven of 20 wineries.  

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