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nz-south-aoraki mount cook- flowers
Nz marlborough sounds ferry crossing 1239 discoverpage header
Nz kawau island drone joshua mccormack discoverpage header

Should you visit the North Island or South Island?

Is New Zealand your dream holiday destination? Do you know which island you would prefer to visit? The adventurous North Island, the rugged South Island, or both?

This choice depends on the amount of time that you have. It is tempting to explore the whole of New Zealand in just four weeks, but make no mistake, the pace required to travel in such a short amount of time is high, and you won't have time to really discover the most beautiful highlights of the country.

That is why we recommend that you adopt a slower pace of travel style, which gives you enough time to explore the entire country or make a choice between the two islands. So, what will it be then? In order to make that choice a bit easier, we have outlined some of the differences.

Be enchanted by geothermal wonders on the North Island
Sea lion on the Otago Peninsula | New Zealand wildlife
Have close encounters with sea lions on the South Island
© TravelEssence

The differences between the North and South Island

The North Island

The North Island is perhaps smaller in size than the South Island, but it has a larger population. No fewer than three-quarters of New Zealanders live there, half of them in and around the city of Auckland.

You can also get acquainted with the indigenous culture. In the north, you will become acquainted with the Maori way of life. For example, visit the city of Rotorua, from where a few Maori tours are organised. Together with your Maori guide, you will prepare a traditional ‘Hangi’ dinner and listen to the stories about their ancestors. Near the town of Napier, you can even visit a Maori village. Here, the archaeological features have been preserved, and you will learn how the Maori used to live there.

Traditional Hangi | New Zealand holiday
Experience a traditional 'hangi'
Meeting the Maori | New Zealand holiday
Discover the Maori culture together with a local guide

Not only the culture, but nature is worth it! After all, this country is very diverse. You will find alluring coastlines, deserted bays and ancient rainforests in the subtropical northwest. Here, you will also find giant kauri trees that are thousands of years old. The central part is characterised by the volcanic landscape and the thermal springs, where you can relax in the hot springs and bubbling mud pools.

The most important characteristics of the North Island

Tip! You will need a minimum of 3 weeks to see the best of the North Island.

Soak in natural hot springs
View point of green forest and long stretch of beach | New Zealand nature
Swim at New Chums Beach
© TravelEssence

The highlights of the north

Escape to the protected Kapiti Island

Kapiti Island is a small paradise, measuring 2 by 10 kilometres, just off the coast of the North Island. The protected sanctuary is one of New Zealand's most important nature reserves to which only up to 50 people can visit per day. This is because very rare birds live on the island, such as Saddlebacks, the Takahe and the Red-Crowned parrot. A large part of Kapiti Island consists of unspoilt forest, where trees grow up to 30 metres high!

A green bird on a tree
Spot rare native birds on Kapiti Island
NZ holidays: A grey seal on a rock
Only 50 people can visit Kapiti Island per day

Planting Kauri trees at Whangarei Heads

Whangarei Heads is located in the east of the North Island and was one of the first areas in New Zealand where the Europeans settled. Here, the wood industry with Kauri trees was an important source of income. To preserve the natural heritage, and to reduce your ecological footprint, you will have the opportunity to plant a tree.

Discover the Maori culture in Te Urewera

Te Urewera is the largest nature reserve of the North Island and is home to the Tuhoe Maori tribe. Lake Waikaremoana is also located in this area, a lake that is surrounded by dense Te Urewera forest. There are various legends which include the lake. These stories come to life during one of the hikes through the historic Te Urewera area. A local Tuhoe guide tells stories about the history and culture of the Maoris from this region. Don't forget to bring your raincoat because it can suddenly rain heavily in this area!

Lush green rainforest with many gentle waterfalls | New Zealand nature
Te Urewera is the largest nature reserve of the North Island
© TravelEssence
Spotting Dolphins in Kaikoura | New Zealand wildlife

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The South Island

The South Island is larger than the North Island. The island also has a spectacular coastline and it is well known for its towering mountain peaks. Consider the Southern Alps with the impressive glaciers, Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. And of course Aoraki/Mount Cook, the largest mountain in New Zealand. Or, travel to Lake Wakatipu, where the rocky slopes of The Remarkables stand on the shores.

You will find more nature, peace and space in the south. Relatively few people live here. You can even drive half a day without meeting people! The distances are therefore somewhat larger than on the North Island, and on average, you will be driving approximately 5 hours in to reach your next destination. However, luckily along the way, you will be treated to the most beautiful views full of untouched landscapes.

Watch out for penguins on the Otago Peninsula!
Be welcomed by the friendly locals of the South Island
Rugged coastline in the Catlins | New Zealand holiday
Be enchanted by the peacefulness of the South Island

The largest city is Christchurch, where the English influences are clearly visible. The architecture is British influenced and interspersed with blooming botanical gardens.

Are you a wine enthusiast? Don't forget to stop into Marlborough, New Zealand's largest wine region. Here, you will find no fewer than 65 wineries and also where the best Sauvignon Blanc is grown and served.

Kayak, sail or hike in the Marlborough Sounds | New Zealand active holiday
Take a cruise through Marlborough Sounds
© TravelEssence
Cycle through the vines on the South Island

Important characteristics of the South Island

You will need a minimum of 3 weeks to see the best of the South Island

Conquer the Fox Glacier Heli-Hike | New Zealand active holiday
Conquer Fox Glacier
© TravelEssence

The highlights of the South

Travel to the very south of New Zealand

The Catlins is located in the extreme south of the South Island, divided between the regions of Otago and Southland. This beautiful, remote region is often forgotten by other tourists, so you can enjoy the beauty of New Zealand in peace.

In this region, you can discover rainforests, wild coastlines, cliffs, rock formations and sea caves. With a bit of luck, you will even see yellow-eyed penguins, sea lions and dolphins.

Stunning coast line | New Zealand holiday
Discover the natural beauty of the Catlins
© Barton Matthews
Yellow-eyed penguin | New Zealand wildlife
Spot yellow-eyed penguins

Spot dolphins in their natural habitat

If you want to be guaranteed a glimpse at dolphins, we recommend taking part in a special dolphin excursion. Hop on board a boat in Kaikoura and have a close encounter with dolphins. It is sometimes even possible to swim with these playful marine animals!

Swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura
Have close encounters with dolphins in Kaikoura
Kaikoura is a water wonderland filled with magnificent marine life

Do you have more time? Why not visit both islands!

In the most ideal situation, you will have enough time to visit both islands. For this, you should consider travelling for at least 6 to 8 weeks!

Top reasons to start your journey in the south and end in the north

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