Edited for 2017
Of course, if you’re paying a visit to New Zealand, seeing absolutely all of it would be ideal. But let’s be honest, it’s not a realistic option for many people. It’s more likely you’ll only have time to squeeze some of it in.
So, you may be asking – What even is the difference between the North and South islands of New Zealand?
Here are the answers, so you can decide what would suit you best!
How hot do you want it?
Probably the most obvious difference – and so the best to kick off with – is the climate.
Although New Zealand weather can be pretty unpredictable on a given day (it’s often said you can experience all 4 seasons within just one), it’s a safe bet how the two islands compare climatically.
As a rule of thumb, the North is warmer than the South.
This goes for all seasons however it should be said NZ is void of any real extremes. The North Island typically maintains a mild temperature throughout the year (20-30°C in summer), with the warmer region being near the top of the island (as it’s closer to the equator). The air is slightly muggier in the North, so consider this if humidity is an issue for you! In winter, the temperature is a moderate 14-22°C. The great thing about the North Island is that it’s basically not too hot, not too cold – no matter what the time of year.
The South Island is a bit different, in that it has the capability to reach the extremes – if you can call 1°C an extreme. Down South, the winter has a bit more of a bite (with temperatures between 1-12°C). In saying that, this provides a whole lot more opportunities when it comes to activities (see the following section). In the summer, the average temperature of the South Island is 16-22°C.
Again, a comfortable range – and with the added bonus of clearer, much less muggy air.
What do you feel like doing?
For the most part, you can essentially do the same things in the North and South Islands. The only activities that really differ are those that depend on the a) climate, and b) landscape (for b, see the following section). In both islands, there are thick native forests, snowy peaks, rolling green hills, bustling cities and more – so visually, there’s always a whole lot to enjoy.
With that in mind, here are the things that you can (or should) only do in the North or South Islands.
If you take to the ocean like… well… a fish, the North Island is your best bet. Hit the surf at one of the golden beaches in the Bay of Islands, ride the tumultuous waves of the Waitakeres, or relax in the serene coves of the Coromandel. Because of the warmer climate, the ocean is much balmier and the sand silky. There are certain spots to surf in the South, but these are the exception – and every kiwi will vouch that the best boarding is around the tippy-top of NZ.
Surfboarding that is. If you prefer the boarding of the snowy variety, the South Island is for you. Because (generally speaking) winter takes a bit more of a toll in the lower sections of NZ, snow falls pretty frequently – particularly in regions like Otago. You’ve probably heard of the famous snow-bunny cities Queenstown and Wanaka.
For our modest size, NZ boasts a surprising number of ski-parks and ski-fields. With 28 options (5 in the North, 23 in the South), you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to hitting the slopes.
Clearly, there are skiing and boarding opportunities in the North too, but what the South has over its brother are the jaw-dropping views that await you from the top of the mountains. The fields in Queenstown and Wanaka are lucky enough to be situated in a region covered in jagged mountain ranges and with the lakes sprawled out below – it just can’t be beat. These views combined with great snow conditions make for a perfect snow-sports recipe.
Landscapes you’ll love.
As we’ve said, the North and South Islands bare many similarities when it comes to the landscape, but like with the activities, there are differences worth mentioning.
To reiterate, the tip of the North Island is all about the beach. Working our way down, we hit Auckland – NZ’s biggest city. If you love getting among the hustle and bustle of a happening urban centre – this is where you should be. Auckland is also the starting point for many of our tours (and where you almost always fly into first if you’re arriving in NZ). As it so happens, this city is also home to a range of dormant volcanoes on and off shore – many of which can be climbed to spectacular views.
Moving further down again, it becomes apparent that the North Island is all about the geothermal activity, and the effects said activity has on the landscape. Popular tourist destination Rotorua is a town that literally sits on restless ground, with hot steam billowing from the drains on the street. This town is also home to the mesmerising Champagne Pools, which display an array of brightly coloured mud pools, bubbling away and filling the air with the smell of sulphur.
Further South still, there are the neighbouring Tongariro and Ngauruhoe mountains (also volcanoes) smack bang in the middle of the island. These can also be trekked.
Right at the bottom of the North Island is our modest capital Wellington, the cultural and political hub of New Zealand. This is where you want to be if you like art, music and coffee (see the following section).
Now to the South Island, arguably the more striking of the two. This time it’s less about volcanoes, and more about the Southern Alps, which span almost the entire length of the island. The mixture of vast open plains, golden tussocks, thick forest, gorgeous coastlines, snowy peaks and enormous glaciers makes for a truly remarkable drive. NZ seems to host every kind of terrain, and with such little distance between each one, which means you’re treated to a taster of all the diverse landscape NZ has to offer at once. At the end of the day, this is one thing the South has over the North.
From the hilly east coast (which is home to whale and dolphin watching by the way), head inland to the Mackenzie District. This is an area dotted with some of the bluest, clearest, most striking glacial lakes in the world. Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki are particularly blue, and the former is home to the recognisable Church of the Good Shepherd – i.e. it’s a very Instagrammable spot.
At last, head down to the Otago region. This is not only home to an array of world-renowned vineyards, but tourist-hubs Queenstown and Wanaka. There are infinite things to do in this area, check out this blog on what you can get up to!
West of this region is the Milford Sound which absolutely cannot be missed. We won’t go into too much detail, but just know it was almost an 8th Wonder of the World!
When it comes to the most important section of all – food – there isn’t a whole lot of difference geographically, so we’ll keep this brief.
Auckland loves to be a little big city, so we like to do things New York style. Killer bagels (thank you Best Ugly Bagels), and superb coffee. Wellington takes the cake for best coffee though, and impressively places quite high on the world-coffee quality rankings.
As for the South Island? Cheese rolls.
There you have it.
Hopefully, these differences have painted a clearer picture about what the North and South Islands are like, and which tickles your fancy more.
Like the sound of the North Island? Take a look at our:
Bay of Islands Winterless North Tour
North Island Adventure Tour
The South Island sounds more up your alley? Have a squiz at our:
South Island Lick Tour
South Island Adrenalin Junkie Tour
Selection of Snow Tours
“I want both!” you say? Then you should look at our:
Amplified NZ Tour
Epic NZ Tour