Visiting New Zealand: What’s the Difference Between North and South Island?

Queenstown New Zealand Mountains - Silver Fern Holidays

There’s no question about it – New Zealand is one of the most fantastic places to visit. Some people may not even be aware that there are two quite different islands to visit: North Island and South Island.

Which island do you visit? Which is best? We’ve set about detailing the best points for each island. The information is broken down by the holy trinity of holiday clinchers – the weather, what there is to see and what there is to do.

Let’s start with….

New Zealand Weather

The weather across New Zealand as a whole can vary and generally has a wet and temperate maritime climate. But, the question on most travellers’ lips is… which island is warmer in NZ?…

The northernmost part of the North Island has a subtropical climate, though both islands have beautiful coastline and beaches. The further south you travel, the cooler the temperature gets (as you are in the southern hemisphere). The South Island has mountainous regions (inland) and a glacier – these areas will obviously be cooler.

Which is warmer, North or South New Zealand?

North Island: Slap on the sun cream.

South Island: Maybe bring a cardigan…

North or South New Zealand in the summer?

North Island is the place to be in the Summer. Beautiful beaches and harbours are suited to the wonderfully warm weather.

North or South New Zealand in the winter?

It has to be South Island in the winter. Skiing is at its best in the mountains. You can even enjoy a dip in the natural hot pools afterwards at Lake Tekapo or Hanmer Springs.

New Zealand Landscape & Landmarks

In New Zealand, it seems you are faced with beautiful scenery and landmarks in every direction. The North Island has stretches of idyllic bays (Bay of Islands) and harbours (such as the twin harbours of Auckland). The coastline also boasts the pristine Coromandel Peninsula

The North Island is also home to the vast majority of New Zealand’s Maori people – mainly in Rotorua. Here, you can experience cultural performances and dinners unlike anywhere else in the world. You can head to the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute where Maori guides will show you around geysers and the land of their ancestors. 

Geysers are common on the North Island and are an incredible spectacle to behold – Auckland has 22 volcanoes alone! North Island is better than South Island for geothermal activity…

South Island is the rugged sister of the North Island. Fjords, lakes and mountains set the scene and the Southern Alps (the highest mountain range in Australasia) are home to Mt Cook. This iconic mountain is snow-capped all year round.

Though, if vast mountains are not enough for you, how about taking in some of the amazing waterfalls such as Purakaunui and Mclean Falls? How about a Glacier? The Franz Josef Glacier is an incredible sight. Further ruggedness, caves and rocks dotted about the sea, can be found at Nugget Point. Nugget Point is on the Caitlins Coast, the South Island’s southernmost point.

Which is more beautiful, North or South New Zealand?

North Island Beauty: Panoramic bays and crystal clear harbours.
North Island Drama: You can’t get more dramatic than actual volcanoes!

South Island Beauty: Snow capped mountains and breathtaking waterfalls.
South Island Drama: Mountains and Glaciers, everything is giant-sized.

Activities and Adventure in New Zealand

If you’re a water baby and a culture vulture, then the North Island is for you. It has a reputation for having ‘more going on’ in terms of organised activities, trips and excursions, with life-affirming landscapes and geology. The capital, Wellington, is also an amazing bustling city full of character, creativity, great food and wine. Lonely Planet recently named Wellington “the coolest little capital in the world”.

However, if you’re a seasoned adventurer and thrill-seeker, exploring the Cathedral caves and scaling glaciers and mountains may be more your kind of thing. Spotting dolphins, kayaking under waterfalls, skydiving, bungee jumping, heli-skiing and zip-lining – phew! South Island is definitely the place for you. Queenstown is an adventurer’s paradise!

So which is best, North or South Island?

We’re going to have to call it a draw here, folks – both Islands are very different experiences, but each has so much to offer! If you’re lucky enough to be travelling all the way over here you might as well visit both islands, right? That’s the only way to take in New Zealand – as a whole.

So we’ve established you’ll HAVE to visit both islands, but let’s look at how…

How to Travel from North to South Island

Here’s a quick bit of geography to help with orientation…

Is Auckland North or South Island?

Auckland (Māori: Tāmaki Makaurau) is a city in the North Island of New Zealand, and the country’s largest city.

Is Wellington North or South Island?

Wellington is the capital and second most populous city of New Zealand, located at the south-western tip of the North Island.

Is Christchurch North or South Island?

Christchurch is the largest city in the South Island of New Zealand, located on the east coast.

Is Queenstown North or South Island?

Queenstown, New Zealand, sits on the shores of the South Island’s Lake Wakatipu.

How far apart are North and South Island?

So what connects the North and South Islands? Nothing, but the Cook Strait separates them. At the narrowest point, there is a distance of 22km (13.67 miles). Swimmable you ask? Not likely. The Cook Strait is one of the toughest and most challenging stretches of water in the world. Not that it’s impossible, but you’re looking at a good 8-12 hours of swimming… 

Can you drive from North to South in New Zealand?

Fancy a road trip between islands? Unfortunately, there is no bridge or tunnel connecting the islands, the distance is too great. However, there is an Interislander Ferry or Bluebridge Cook Strait car ferry that you can hop aboard. The journey is incredibly scenic, taking approximately 3/3.5 hours to travel 92km, with a single ticket costing between $50-100. However if you are hiring a car, you will need to make arrangements for separate cars at each island. Rental cars are not allowed on the ferry.

Flights between Islands:

Your flight from North Island to South Island is likely to start from Auckland Airport. The main airport on South Island is Christchurch Airport and flights between the two are regular, taking around 35 minutes. If you are arriving in New Zealand from Australia you are likely to land on the South Island. It is possible that you could land at one of the smaller airports such as Dunedin or Queenstown.

Now, I think we’ve established that both North Island and South Island are worth visiting. Experience both to guarantee the best holiday of your life! 

Where else in the world can you experience pristine water and beaches, volcanoes and geysers, caves, dolphins, extreme sports, glaciers and mountains, vibrant and creative cities, rural ruggedness and ancient cultural centres, all in the same country? 

We’ve even detailed how to travel from North to South New Zealand – so there’s no excuse! See you at the Glacier…

Haerenga haumaru.

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