We’ve done some research to help you answer an age-old question: New Zealand’s North Island vs South Island. Which is better? Both islands are full of amazing sights, fun activities, and beautiful landscapes. Here is our guide to comparing NZ’s North Island and South Island.
Round #1: The Weather
Broadly speaking, the further north you are, the warmer it is. So, if you’re a beach bum or afraid of a cold nip, the North Island is more likely to suit your taste. However, it’s not as easy to define as all that. If you want pure sunshine, then you can’t beat the top of the South Island. The Marlborough and Nelson/Tasman districts see more of it every year than anywhere else in New Zealand. And in terms of heat, the South Island – in particular the high country of the Mackenzie district and Central Otago – is regularly home to the country’s hottest day of the year, nearing 40 degrees celsius (however, this region also usually has the coldest day of the year, too, in the middle of winter).
Round #2: Beaches vs Mountains
With that weather and climate in mind, it’s worth thinking about what activities you actually want to do. The North Island is undoubtedly home to New Zealand’s best surf towns. Places like Raglan, Piha, Whangamata, and Taranaki’s Surf Highway 45 towns combine beautiful beaches, reliable breaks, cool vibes, and plenty of bars, cafes, and buzz around town. Think Hawaii or Australia, with long sandy stretches for beautiful swimming and sunbathing. Conversely, if you’re really serious about surfing, the South Island has a few immense surf breaks that the North Island cannot match. The wild swells that hit the Catlins and the deep waves that dig out of Kaikoura’s ocean trench should not be attempted by beginners. The cold water will keep you in your wetsuit (and also keep away many pretending paraders and social sunbathers). If you come here, you come here to surf. Often having to walk or drive a while to reach the best breaks. But, if you want some wild waves, it’s more than worth the effort.
In a similar way, there’s a difference between North and South during the winter ski season – but the other way around. The South Island is home to all the famous ski towns and world-renowned resorts. Especially those around Queenstown and Wanaka in Central Otago. Yet, like North Island surf towns, there are dozens of other ski fields and heli-ski locations stretching all the way up the Southern Alps almost to Nelson. You can find whatever suits you, from small, quiet family club fields, to back-country powder slopes or large resorts with pumping nightlife that host international events.
In the North Island, your options are more limited – but arguably more rewarding. Skiing in the North Island basically revolves around Mt Ruapehu, right in the middle, which is home to New Zealand’s two biggest ski resorts: Whakapapa and Turoa. Beyond that, North Island ski options are basically limited to the small field of Manganui at Mt Taranaki. But with over 65km of ski trails, constant snow above 2,300m, and panoramic views of the World Heritage landscape chosen by Sir Peter Jackson to film Mt Doom and Mordor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Mt Ruapehu ski option may just be too hard to pass up.
Round #3: Unique activities and experiences
New Zealand is known for those once-in-a-lifetime kind of experiences. So it should be no surprise that both the North Island and South Island have plenty. That said, there are some things that you can only do in one and not the other. So, it might be time to make some tough choices.
Activities and Experiences in New Zealand's South Island
The South Island is pretty hard to beat for unforgettable, one-off experiences. It has the world-renowned adventure tourism hub of Queenstown, and its iconic bungy jump off a bridge in the stunning Kawarau gorge. Nearby is the pristine beauty of UNESCO-listed Milford and Doubtful sounds, where an overnight boat cruise provides you with about the most memorable scene to wake up to you’ll ever have. Entering the Southern Alps and exploring the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers on foot, digging into crevasses and ice shelves without taking more than a few hours out of your day, is a unique experience hard to come across anywhere in the world. In Marlborough, you can kayak New Zealand’s most beautiful river down a stretch of water used to film the famous barrel-escape scene in Sir Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, a quintessentially kiwi experience in a quintessentially gorgeous location. And the dramatic Kaikoura coastline is home to some of the best whale- and wildlife-watching in the world. As good as anything you’ll find without venturing to Antarctica.
Activities and Experiences in New Zealand's North Island
But the North Island certainly won’t go down without a fight. It can deliver one heckuva haymaker to the South Island’s collection of great hiking trails with one of the best one-day walks in the world: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which traces the extraterrestrial landscapes surrounding the UNESCO-protected Tongariro, Ruapehu, and Ngauruhoe volcanoes. Some other unique activities are not too far away, either. Like kayaking Waitomo’s glow-worm caves, or cruising up to the cascading Huka Falls on the Waikato river. The incredible, colourful geothermal curiosities of Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland in Rotorua will certainly stick with you for a lifetime, too. And the semi-tropical Bay of Islands is littered with idyllic beaches and opportunities to explore unique geographical formations by boat or kayak, above all the iconic Hole in the Rock.
So, if you’re looking for unique experiences in New Zealand and trying to narrow it down to one island or the other, choosing which is best basically comes down to personal preference. While each has its own distinctive characteristics, you’ll never be too far from an unforgettable experience no matter which island you’re on, or when you visit.