New Zealand places to visit: North Island or South Island? Depends what you're after

New Zealand may be packed with attractions and activities to squeeze into a holiday, but there are two islands to choose from – or at least divide your time between. So which – North Island or South Island – deserves most of your attention? We picked 10 criteria to assess them on, to see which island is best at what.

City life

Christchurch tries hard, bless it, while Dunedin has some handsome architecture. But Auckland on the North Island is the only NZ city that feels like an urban area capable of competing on the world stage (indeed it was named the world's best city for 2022 by Lonely Planet). It's sprawling, multicultural and multi-faceted. Buzzy Wellington, at the southern end of the North Island, is different, but naturally beautiful, walkable, and fuelled by cool coffee roasters and restaurants.

Winner: North Island

Weather

No-one who has endured Wellington's blustery winds would jump to crown the North Island as having paradise weather, but it's generally warmer and sunnier in the north. The Bay of Plenty and Taranaki frequently squabble over which is sunniest, but they're comfortably ahead of the bottom of the South Island. Make sure you've got some warm clothes and a rain mac if venturing near Invercargill…

Winner: North Island

Beaches

Cathedral Cove, near Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula, North Island, New Zealand. This is a major tourist attraction of the area and is situated in a Marine Reserve. traxxkiwicover
iStock
TRAVELLER
reuse permitted for print and online

Cathedral Cove, near Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula. Photo: iStock

The water's a fair bit chillier in the South Island, although there are some lovely beaches around Nelson and the Abel Tasman National Park. The North Island has the range of options, though. On the west coast, you've got black sand beaches such as Karekare and Piha, plus quality surf breaks in Raglan. Then come the more conventionally attractive, sun-blessed beaches in the Bay of Islands, Coromandel Peninsula and Bay Of Plenty.

Winner: North Island

Coastline

New Zealand - Milford Sound mountains satoct5cover
iStock
TRAVELLER greenlands story by louise southerden
reuse permitted for print and online

Milford Sound. Photo: iStock

Advertisement

But the coast isn't all about the beaches, and the South Island's coast is 90 per cent drama. In the north of the South Island, the Marlborough Sounds offer idyllic bays and inlets. But Fiordland in the south offers mountains rising out of the sea, with tumbling waterfalls down the rock faces. Milford Sound is the most famous boat trip destination, but Doubtful Sound is arguably even more staggering.

Winner: South Island

Maori culture

xxMaoriNZ Maori tourism Wellington New Zealand ; text by Kerry van der Jagt ; SUPPLIED via journalist ; Te Papa Tongarewa Museum exterior - credit WellingtonNZ

Te Papa Tongarewa museum, Wellington.  Photo: WellingtonNZ

There is a much larger Maori population on the North Island. This means several more Maori cultural experiences. The East Cape is where you'll see the meeting houses and everyday Maori life. Rotorua gives the extremely touristy version with cultural performances and feasts cooked in earth ovens. The Auckland Museum and Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington are the best museums for understanding Maori history and culture. And several Maori-owned tour companies put an indigenous slant on tours to hotspots such as Waiheke Island. See maoritourism.co.nz

Winner: North Island

Wildlife

A kiwi chick.

A kiwi chick. Photo: iStock

New Zealand's best island for wildlife is arguably the often forgotten third member of the trio – Stewart Island. Here, the birdlife – including kiwis - feels comfortable enough to saunter around in the day without worrying about predators.

But otherwise, the South Island tends to offer more opportunities to see native creatures. Fiordland and the Catlins are bird-heavy, while Kaikoura is the country's most fabled spot for whale-watching. The Otago Peninsula near Dunedin is the most accessible wildlife hotspot, though, with seals on the rocks, a penguin colony and a remarkably rare albatross breeding site. See wildlife.co.nz

Winner: South Island

Wine

Marlborough Wine Fields, agriculture; Blenheim; cloudy bay; grape; grape vine; gree; grow; harvest; Marlborough; New Zealand; NZ; renwick; riesling; sauvignon blanc; stoneleigh; vineyard; wine

The Marlborough region is famous for sauvignon blanc. Photo: iStock

The North Island has got some excellent wine regions, with Hawkes Bay being a strong all-rounder, and Martinborough known for its premium reds. But the most famous New Zealand wines come from the South Island. Those ubiquitous sauvignon blancs usually come from Marlborough around Blenheim, while the pinot noirs of Central Otago are world class.

Winner: South Island

Volcanoes

Tongariro Alpine, New Zealand - October 13, 2013: Hikers hiking the Tongariri Alpine Crossing in New Zealand. In the background the emerald colored lakes tra1-NZ-natural New Zealand nature: the highlights most people miss ; text by Ute Junker

cr: iStock
Image reuse permitted

Photo: iStock

New Zealand has a notoriously rumbly tummy, but most of the geological tumult is on the North Island. There are several volcanic islands a short boat trip from Auckland, of which Rangitoto looks the most like a lava field. Mt Taranaki soars up in a near perfect cone on the west coast, while the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (pictured above) is a day walk across remarkable lava fields, craters, steam vents and eerie volcanic lakes.

Winner: North Island

Mountains

iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

Franz Josef Glacier. Photo: iStock

The peaks on the South Island aren't as prone to spurting lava out, but they're definitely higher. New Zealand's top ski fields cluster around Queenstown and Wanaka on the South Island. Meanwhile, the most impressive mountain hiking can be tackled around Mt Cook, and the glacier heli-hikes on the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are another level.

Winner: South Island

Adventure

Buzzing Queenstown from Above with Lake and mountains 17AprBubble
Qiueenstown, New Zealand, one of four main destinations with airports receiving Australian visitors from April 19.
Photo: iStock

Adventure capital Queenstown on the South Island. Photo: iStock

Those glacier hikes go on the South Island's ledger for adventure activities, too. The North Island isn't exactly short on these – you can bungy jump in Taupo or do the world's highest rafted waterfall near Rotorua. But the settings in the South Island tend to be more spectacular, with the mountains and gorges around Queenstown making it the prime hub for bungy, skydives, rafting and a zillion other ways to test your nerve.

Winner: South Island

Final score

Well, would you believe it? The result is a suspiciously convenient draw. But while a 5-5 scoreline might look like a cop-out, it shows off the key point when booking a New Zealand holiday. Both islands are great, but they offer significantly different experiences. Bear that in mind when putting an itinerary together.

The writer has travelled as a guest of Tourism New Zealand.