The Ultimate New Zealand Travel Question: Do I go to the North Island or South Island?

March 24

One of the best things about planning a trip to New Zealand is that the decisions are always between great things. It’s like the positive version of a rock and a hard place. A sponge and a soft place. Or something like that. Do I do this world-class hike or visit this active volcano? Do I surf this gorgeous beach break or go to the adventure capital of the world?

Perhaps the biggest of these choices is the one between the North and South Island of New Zealand. Both gorgeous and full to the brim with adventure and wonder, but if you’re short on time, one’s gotta go.

So which is better: the North or South Island?

Like we said, they’re both brilliant, but if you’ve got two weeks and can only choose one, New Zealand’s South Island is simply mind blowing. Honestly, it’s a never-ending gawk-fest, with the landscape changing at every corner – people stopping their cars in the middle of the road to gape and take photos is an actual problem in New Zealand. From glacial lakes and snow capped mountains to ancient native rainforest and endless unspoiled coastline, New Zealand’s South Island puts it on, over and over again.

The South Island (or Te Waipounamu in Te Reo Māori), is home to nine of the national parks in New Zealand, and while there isn’t a huge number of people down here (they’re mostly up in the north), this makes it all the better to enjoy the glorious wild in peace and quiet.

Where is the South Island of New Zealand?

Funnily enough, New Zealand’s South Island is just south of the North Island.

Which NZ island is most populated?

While the South Island is bigger, most New Zealanders (Kiwis) are in the North Island of New Zealand.

What is the South Island known for?

The word that slips out of most people’s mouths as they muse longingly about a trip to New Zealand is Queenstown. The jewel of the south and the world’s adventure capital, Queenstown has life singing through its veins. F those with a hunger for adrenaline, there’s some of the world’s best mountain biking tracks, plenty of bungee jumping options and high speed jet boating to whet your appetite.

The awesome snow capped volcano Mt Ngauruhoe from Mt Ruapehu Whakapapa Ski Field Chair Lift New Zealand

For those inclined to take in the beautiful surrounds at a slower pace, never fear, there are options for you, too. Wander the cobbled streets of Queenstown and watch the light change over Lake Wakatipu as music and happy chatter fill the air, or explore one of the hundreds of hiking trails that snake through the stunning mountains and valleys that surround this alpine village.

Probably next on the list of famous things to do in the South Island would be Milford Sound, found deep in Fiordland National Park, New Zealand’s largest national park. There’s yet to a be a person to leave Milford Sound without their mind blown. With its glacier carved cliffs, plunging waterfalls, deep, dark fiords and a thick carpeting of native New Zealand rainforest, Milford Sound is pure magic. Dubbed the finest walk in the world, the Milford Sound track is one of the best ways to explore the sound. It’s easily accessed from Queenstown, too, with the gateway village of Te Anau only two and half hours away.

Then, of course, there’s the Southern Alps, the meeting point of the two tectonic plates which split Te Waipounamu down the middle in a glorious mountain range. The grandmaster of this glorious expanse of peaks is, of course, Aoraki Mt Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. To the east lie the Canterbury plains, and to the west, the coast, with its wild, black sand beaches and famous glaciers, Franz Josef and Fox. On a clear day, the scenic flights over Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are unbeatable.

The South Island is home to one of New Zealand’s most magnificent World Heritage Sites, Te Wahipounamu, of South Westland. It encompasses four national parks – Westland Tai Poutini, Aoraki Mt Cook, Mount Aspiring and Fiordland.

Further north is where the South Island changes flavor into a more tropical variety. With golden beaches, granite-carved cliffs, thick bush and coastal track, The Abel Tasman National Park at the top of the island can be explored by foot or kayak.

What should I not miss in the South Island of New Zealand?

A place that many people visit, but at far too quick a pace, is the west coast of the South Island. It’s where some of the densest bush in New Zealand meets the crashing Tasman Sea at driftwood-strewn, black sand beaches. It’s weird, it’s wonderful, and it’s home to the kind of interesting folk that prefer a life of relative seclusion – also known as ‘coasters’. Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are west coast favorites (both the glaciers and the little villages that sit next to them), but explore a bit deeper and find some lesser known gems. Okarito is a seaside village with plenty of character, or, further up in Westport, Charleston and Karamea, chilled vibes, great surf and New Zealand native nikau palms abound.

From where the road ends north of Karamea, ditch the wheels and don the hiking boots for the Heaphy Track, which weaves through the native palms, incredible beaches and limestone formations of the Kahurangi National Park.

Of course, no trip to the South Island of New Zealand is complete without visiting the mystical Fiordland National Park, and the aforementioned prize jewel, Milford Sound. From the village of Te Anau, hit the Milford Sound track, or jump on one of the Milford Sound cruises and glide, slack-jawed, through the fiords.

For a totally different kind of coast, the Abel Tasman National Park is definitely a not-to-be-missed. The Abel Tasman track is one of the New Zealand Great Walks, but could also be called a Great Paddle, as you can hike it or kayak it – or a bit of both, with visits from dolphins, seals and penguins along the way.

Speaking of friendly sea creatures, Akaroa on Canterbury’s Banks Peninsula offers a chance to see (or swim with) the tiny, rare Hector’s dolphins who call the peninsula home. If you’re in the area, the whole coastline to the north of Christchurch is spectacular, with Kaikoura on everybody’s bucket list for good reason. Christchurch itself, whilst usually a place people fly into and drive quickly out of, has actually got a fair bit going on, too. The seaside neighborhoods of Lyttleton and Sumner are vibey and charming, and if you’re visiting in winter, the Canterbury club ski fields are a quintessentially New Zealand experience. Since the major earthquakes, the Christchurch city centre has been gradually rebuilt, with many innovative uses of space and creative new business bringing it back to life with a whole new character.

And then, of course, there’s Queenstown, which, whilst smack bang in the middle of the New Zealand beaten track and loved by many, has well and truly earnt its reputation. It sits nestled in the shadows of great giants, with the striking Remarkables range as a backdrop, and whatever your pace, there’s something for everyone in New Zealand’s favorite alpine village.

What are the most beautiful parts of South Island?

Aside from the many obvious ones, be that bungee jumping in Queenstown, a scenic flight over Mount Cook or hiking the Milford Sound, there are also plenty of unsung heroes tucked away. The Catlins, for one, in the southeast corner of the country, has some of the most beautiful beaches in New Zealand – not to mention world class surf. It’s cold, which means there’s barely anyone down these ways, and that means you’ll almost always have the place to yourself – except for the penguins, of course.

Even further south sits Stewart Island, the third official island of New Zealand and also one of the country’s most charming spots. The island could be described as sleepy, were it not for the wild weather and the deafening native birdlife. It’s one of the best places to see kiwi so make sure to bring a headtorch and a bit of patience – watch out for the many weka. though (also referred to as bush chickens), who do a great impersonation. Stewart Island is home to another of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the three day Rakirua track, as well as the (alleged) best fish and chips in the country.

As far as Jurassic beauty goes, Mt Aspiring National Park is up there with some of New Zealand’s finest wilderness. Part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site, Aspiring National Park is accessible both from Lake Wanaka and Glenorchy. On the Lake Wanaka side, access is via the Matukituki valley, which is home to many incredible hiking tracks and backcountry huts perched high in the mountains. On the Glenorchy side, the Routeburn Track is probably the park’s most famous walk, linking it with the Fiordland National Park.

In the north of the island lies the Marlborough Sounds, 1500kms of ancient sunken river valleys filled in with the pristine waters of the Pacific Ocean. Marlborough Sounds is made up of four main sounds, with Queen Charlotte Sound being where Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s ship first saw land – before setting off a not-so-peaceful encounter with local Māori and hightailing it. We reckon the best way to experience the Marlborough Sounds is by kayak.

Of course, there’s a reason the popular spots of New Zealand are popular – they’re insanely beautiful and you’d be mad not to take advantage of them while you’re here. The Mount Cook area, for example, is simply spectacular, and a great place for any mountain-lover, whether you’re a hiker, climber, or enjoy-the-view-with-a-flat-white kind of person. There’s the mighty Mount Cook itself, of course, but Mt Cook Village and the Hooker Valley are a great base for day trips and scenic flights.

Lake Tekapo, a popular stop on the route from Christchurch to Queenstown, is one of the South Island’s unmissable gems. With its bright glacial lake, lupin lined lake shores and world-class thermal hot pools, Lake Tekapo is worth more than a quick stop-off and loo break, that’s for sure. The whole area is actually a night sky reserve, and the Lake Tekapo observatory is a great way to see and get a guided tour of the mysterious constellations up yonder.

The next stop on the road from Christchurch to Queenstown is Lake Pukaki. On a clear day, see across to Mount Cook and its reflection with screensaver-esque views that’ll have you pinching yourself.

What is the best time to visit South Island?

For ski bunnies, winter is undoubtedly the best. Queenstown, Wanaka and Canterbury are all home to some epic ski fields, and whether you ski or not, to see the mountains with their winter coats is to see them at their best. Bungy jumping, fortunately, you can do whenever the urge strikes you – but prepare for a cold face in the winter months.

For hiking and swimming and surfing, summer’s the time to come.

What is the weather like in the South Island?

Summer sees plenty of sunshine, and long, dry days. Winter can get as cold as -10ºC, so pack your woolies. For spots on the west coast, like Milford Sound, Fox and Franz Josef glacier, be prepared for wet – whenever you visit. The coast is known to get a sunny day or two, but it’s one of the rainiest places in the world, so trust us when we say pack your raincoat.

What is the temperature in South Island?

In summer, temperatures can get up to 30ºC during the day, whilst in winter, it can get down to below zero in plenty of places, especially around the mountains.

How do I plan a trip to South Island?

That’s easy. Finish this article, book your flights to New Zealand, and decide on a mode of transport. Then, follow your nose. It’s hard to go wrong.

How do you get to the South Island?

Christchurch has an international airport, so lots of people fly in here. It makes a great base for exploring, especially if you hire a camper and make a loop of the South Island. Otherwise, the ferry from Wellington will drop you in the heart of the Marlborough Sounds.

How do you get from the North Island to the South Island of New Zealand?

There are plenty of cheap domestic flights linking the north with the south, or, if you prefer the sea breeze in your hair, jump on the ferry across the Cook Strait.

What is the distance between the North and South Island?

At its narrowest point, the Cook Strait is just 22km wide.

How long is the ferry between the North and South Island?

The ferry takes about 3 and a half hours, depending on the conditions – it’s a notoriously treacherous stretch of water.

How much is the ferry from the North to South Island?

The prices vary depending on the season, but generally you can expect to pay around $60 to walk on, or $160 with a vehicle for a one way fare.

How do I get from Wellington to the South Island?

Jump on the ferry or, if you’re aiming for further south, grab a cheap flight to Christchurch.

Can you see the South Island from Wellington?

On a good day (and ask any Wellingtonian, you simply can’t beat Welly on a good day), you can see the South Island’s inland Kaikoura Ranges from any high vantage point.

How far is Auckland from the South Island?

A flight from Auckland to Christchurch takes about an hour and a half, but to see more of the country (c’mon, give the North Island a chance), the drive down to Wellington from Auckland takes about 8 hours.

Can you bring a rental car from the North Island to South Island?

Hell yes. The ferry is packed with them! The most popular way to see New Zealand is by road trip, and the country is well set up for it.

How long does it take to drive around the South Island?

That depends how much you want to see, savor and enjoy. The longer the better, really, but if you must cut it short, two weeks is a realistic time to hit at least a decent chunk of the good spots.


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