New Zealand: South Island vs North Island

Published 03 August 2016

Round the World Experts blogger Helen Winter

Helen Winter

New Zealand has gradually been climbing its way up the ranks of one of the most desired travel destinations. But there’s usually one dilemma which every pre-New Zealand holidayer is faced with: North or South.

This guide highlights what you can find in each part of the Islands, from the views, cities and atmosphere to help you choose the right side for your trip.

The South Island

Te Waipounamu, more commonly known as the South Island, is the larger Island out of the two. Home to flourishing cities, scenic towns and one of the world’s most stunning National Parks, there are a lot of intriguing attractions to tempt a New Zealand South Island break.


Christchurch is the largest city in the South Island; established by English settlers in 1850 you’ll have no trouble feeling at home here. By taking a stroll down Worcester Boulevard and or a boat trip down the River Avon which flows through the centre of the city, it’s not only the older buildings which will remind you of historic Britain.

Staying true to its reputation as the ‘Garden City’, Christchurch is full of beautiful parks and green suburbs. The Christchurch Botanic Gardens and Hagley Park are among the top contenders for the most stunning locations in the city, decorated with exotic flowers, lakes, and huge plains of flourishing grass. To get great views of the city and the Canterbury vista framed by the Southern Alps, you can take a cable car up to Mt Cavendish. The Gondola Shuttle runs daily transfer from central Christchurch.


Sitting on the edge of Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by the Remarkables mountains, Queenstown is one of the most scenic locations in New Zealand.  This peculiar town attracts a range of different travellers, from the budget backpacker to the luxury traveller, but there are enough neighbourhoods to tend to each visitors' needs. The centre of Queenstown is where the nightlife hub is, and is often full of partygoers until the early hours of the morning. For a quieter stop-over, travellers can choose between Wanaka, a small tranquil town which is a about an hour’s drive away, or Arrow town, a peaceful spot with a range of luxurious hotels.

For a day of exercise and the reward of an incredible view, strap your boots on and hike the Queenstown hill. This trail is probably best for the moderately fit as it can be quite steep, but it’s definitely worth taking your camera with you when you reach the top. Queenstown is also the place to spot the iconic New Zealand mascot at the Kiwi Birdlife Park. This five acre sanctuary is home to range of bird and plant life, but the most popular attraction is the Kiwi talk and feeding show where you get to see these notoriously shy birds up close in a safe environment.


Meaning ‘eat crayfish’ in Maori, Kaikoura is an appropriate title for this small coastal town which is famed for its seafood. Lying on the Pacific Ocean, Kaikoura is a top spot for whale watching trips, dolphin spotting and seal snorkelling, although if you’d rather not swim with the seals, you can see colonies sleeping along the Peninsula walkway.


New Zealand’s Fiordland sounds and looks like a lost land. This great expanse of natural landscapes will make you feel intimidated by the beauty of planet earth, and there are plenty of ways to enjoy it.

Milford Sounds is one of the most popular locations in the Fiordland National Park, home to looming mountains, great lakes and rivers. You can take a ferry ride, or kayak, across the waters and hike remote trails, crossing waterfalls, rainforests, and foggy peaks, as well as spotting seals and penguins.

Other incredible trails shouldn’t be shadowed by the well-known Milford Sounds though. The sandy Hollyford track takes you across flat bridges and rocking rope bridges, on the Routeburn hike you’ll pass the bluest lagoons and still lakes, and last but not least is the Kepler track in the Eastern Fiordlands which take you high into the mountains.

The North Island

Although smaller than its Southern counterpart, the North Island is home to a higher population of people and warmer weather.


Hosting over a million people, the so-called ‘The City of Sails’ is the largest metropolitan area in New Zealand. To explore a taste of independent and chic boutiques then Ponsonby is the place to go. Filled with quirky restaurants and shops, it’s a great place for people watching and browsing. If the weather is aching to be enjoyed, take a ferry to Devonport and hire a bike to go on a cycle tour across dormant volcanoes. There’s also plenty of shopping to do and a choice of cuisines to choose from all over Auckland, so make sure to your stay includes at least a couple of days.

Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands is one of the most stunning locations in New Zealand’s North Island, and is a popular place for locals and travellers alike. The Bay of Islands is made up of 144 Islands, the largest of which is called Urupukapuka, meaning ‘a group of puka trees’ after all the brightly coloured pohutukawa trees. Urupukapuka is home to beautiful green landscapes, hidden coves, and is a popular stopover on boats and ferry rides.

On the Kerikeri inslet, a popular place to hike is along the River Track. Here you can find the mystical sounding Rainbow falls, a large waterfall offering a clear pool of water to cool down from your hike, and a shore to enjoy a picnic within the New Zealand’s rainforest. For a warmer dip, soak in the natural hot springs at the Ginns Ngawha Spa in Kaikohe. Here you can mask your body in the naturally benefiting mud. Although the spa may look less impressive than other worldly spa, the hot waters and New Zealand experience is a fair exchange for sweet smells and fluffy robes.


A trip to the North Island wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the phenomenon of the Waitomo glow worm caves. Unique to New Zealand, these dark caves are illuminated by the bodies of thousands upon thousands of glow worms, creating an alien-like night sky within the depths of dark, stone caverns. The incredible sight can be seen on a boat ride through the cave system, or for a more adrenaline fuelled trip you can go black water rafting through the darkness, with only the lights of the worms to guide you. Whilst you’re in the area, don’t miss out on exploring the Ruakuri and Aranui caves as well.

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