New Zealand's North Island or South Island: Which Should You Visit?

Upper Rangitata Basin, Canterbury, New Zealand
flissphil/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

One of the first decisions you're likely to face when planning a vacation in New Zealand is which island—North or South—you are going to spend most of your time visiting. It's actually not an easy question to answer as each has so much to offer. Still, unless you have a lot of time, it's best to focus your time on one or the other. Here are some things to consider to help you decide.

How Long You Intend to Spend in New Zealand

Obviously the longer you are going to spend in New Zealand the more you will be able to see. However, New Zealand is actually quite a large country. If you are going to be here for only one or two weeks and want to see both islands you are going to be spending a lot of your time traveling and what you get to see will be quite limited. In that case, you would be better to focus your time on only one island. After all, hopefully, you will come back another time!

If you have more than two weeks to spend in New Zealand, with some careful planning you could see a reasonable amount of both islands. However, the less distance you decide to cover the more you will be able to appreciate the areas that you do visit.

Where You Will Arrive and Depart From in New Zealand

Most international visitors arrive in Auckland in the North Island. If you wish to explore the North Island that makes things quite straightforward. However, if you want to go to the South Island, be aware that getting there by car will take you a couple of days (including the ferry crossing of Cook Strait between the North and South Islands).

By far the better option, if you arrive in Auckland and want to explore the South Island, is to take an ​internal flight to Christchurch. These can be very cheap (from as little as $49 per person one way) and quick. The flight time is only one hour and twenty minutes.​

What Time of Year You Will be in New Zealand

If you are going to be in New Zealand in the spring, summer or autumn (fall) months (from September to May), both islands offer good weather and you will enjoy time in the outdoors. However, the winter can be rather different between the islands. The North Island can be wet and stormy, although not necessarily that cold. The far north of the North Island can even be quite mild.

The South Island is generally colder and drier in the winter, with lots of snow about in the deep south.

What Types of Scenery You Enjoy

The scenery is quite different between the North and South Islands. In fact, you might be forgiven for thinking you are in different countries!

  • North Island: Mountainous; volcanic (including active volcanoes in the central part of the island); beaches and islands; forests and bush.
  • South Island: Southern Alps mountain range, snow (in the winter), glaciers and lakes.

What Sorts of Things You Want to do in New Zealand

Both islands offer a lot to do, and you can actually do pretty well anything in either. There's just more of some things on one island than the other.

  • North Island: ocean and water sports (swimming, sunbathing, sailing, diving, fishing, surfing), bushwalking, camping, city entertainment (nightlife, dining - especially in Auckland and Wellington).
  • South Island: alpine sports (skiing, snowboarding, mountain climbing), jet boating, rafting, kayaking, tramping and hiking.

It's not easy to decide which island to spend most of your time on. They are both wonderful!