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New Zealand’s North Island vs. South Island: Top Reasons to Visit

If the “Land Down Under” is pulling you under its spell, a vacation to New Zealand is in order. But once you cross the pond to this stunningly beautiful country, you have one more harrowing decision to make. New Zealand’s North Island vs South Island?

In the never-ending battle of archipelagos, which will be your favorite? Let’s find out!

New Zealand North Island vs South Island

One country, two vastly different islands. Let’s take a look at the landscape, climate, and cultural differences between New Zealand’s north and south islands.

North Island – Officially Known as “Te Ika-a-Māui” in Māori

New Zealand North Island
The beaches on North Island are a must-see.

Landscape: With an area of almost 44,000 square miles, North Island’s spine is comprised of a central mountain range, with farmland on both sides that rolls down toward each coast. In the center of this most populated island is a volcanic plateau, offering geothermal wonders and active geologic regions.

Climate: North Island is known for its subtropical temperatures, where sandy beaches and pristine lakes can be enjoyed year-round. Because it is closer to the equator, the island is usually much warmer than its southern counterpart. This is why it has become known as the “winterless North.”

Culture: The Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand, first noted on the North Island more than 700 years ago. They originated in Polynesia, and more than 18% of today’s New Zealanders identify themselves as Māori. The tribe’s language, history, and traditions are central to the country’s identity. And a visit to North Island would not be complete without exploring this most unique tribe at one of their community meeting spaces or “maraes.”

South Island – Officially Known as “Te Waipounamu” in Māori

New Zealand South Island
South Island’s mountains are stunning.

Landscape: South Island may be larger than North, with more than 58,000 square miles of land. However, it is much less populated. It houses less than 25% of the country’s entire citizenry. The Southern Alps run the length of the island, providing distinctive mountainous landscapes, with glaciers and fjord-like coastlands.

Climate: Lying further away from Earth’s midline than its sibling, South Island has a more extreme climate, complete with snowfall and searing temperatures. Temps can range from 109 down to -7 degrees Fahrenheit, which gives the island its tagline, “Chill out in The South.”

Culture: Europeans first landed on the South Island in the 1600s. However, they did not settle there until 1823. This was most likely because of attacks by Māori who had immigrated from North Island earlier. In that same timeframe, the French, British and Scottish had made their mark on this rugged land. And by the 1860s, when gold was discovered here, South Island had become a more peaceful location, enjoying a bit of wealth in its myriad of cultural mixtures.

Top 5 Reasons to Visit New Zealand’s North Island

City Life: If the excitement of city life with all its hustle and bustle interests you, you’ll find endless big-city energy in twelve metropolitan areas, including Wellington and Auckland. Indulge yourself in pub crawls, sailing, world-class dining, national museums, and thriving art scenes.

Cait in New Zealand
If big-city adventures are your jam, you’ll love visiting North Island.

Nature: Geothermal pools, mud pots, geysers, and volcanic cinder cones will bring Mother Nature into focus for adventure lovers as they explore North Island.

Coastal Beaches: White sand beaches and ice-blue lakes are the perfect destinations for relaxation. Spend a luxurious day soaking up the sun’s rays on the coast or inland, with the knowledge that the further north you travel, the warmer it becomes!

Wineries: Chase exquisite bouquets along North Island’s Wine Trail. You’ll find over 80 wineries in one region alone, covering full-bodied, dry, savory, and crisp selections—all with a great finish!

The Lord of the Rings: If your fascination with New Zealand began with The Lord of the Rings movie empire, you’ll be excited to see 39 hobbit holes on the Hobbiton movie set near Matamata. And no film tour is complete without a trip to Weta Workshop, where all the special effects for these classic films were created.

Hobbiton movie set
Are you a Lord of the Rings fan? Be sure to visit the Hobbiton movie set.

Pro Tip: While RVing around New Zealand, you’ll love doing these 9 Unique Things to Do in New Zealand’s North Island.

Top 5 Reasons to Visit New Zealand’s South Island

Outdoor Getaways: The more rugged and rural South Island is the perfect destination for outdoor getaways that involve Mother Nature. Hiking and primitive camping can be done on mountains, in rain forests, or along the coast.

Pro Tip: If you’ve never tried primitive camping, make sure you know what to expect before you go. Find out: What Does Primitive Camping Mean?

Adventure Sports: If extreme adventure sports are enticing, Queenstown is the place to find them! Hop on a plane for some skydiving action, after you’ve bounced back from a heart-stopping bungee jump. Additionally, whitewater rafting and mountain biking are fun ways to see the South Island countryside.

Tom, Cait, and RV Geeks whitewater rafting in New Zealand
You’ll want to hold on tight when you go whitewater rafting on South Island.

Skiing: With mountains ranging in altitudes up to 12,000 feet and a wider variety of temperatures, it’s no wonder that Kiwis take powder turns in several different resort regions here. Join the locals as they heli-ski, attack downhill slopes, and cover flatlands on their cross country skis under the crystal blue skies of South Island.

Coastal Fjords: Water continues to shape New Zealand’s southern environments, allowing visitors to explore coastal fjords and sounds. Glaciers have cut away vast swaths of land as they retreat from the ocean. Plus, the constant tidal movements present daily surprises ripe for discovery on South Island shorelines.

Solace in Nature: Everything offered in this southernmost locale is grand in scale. From vast mountain ranges to meadows filled with endless wildflowers, South Island also provides serenity. Come for the adventure and leave with a renewed sense of peace!

New Zealand South Island
South Island also offers places for peace and quiet.

Pro Tip: Freedom Camping is a fantastic way to see both islands without paying hefty holiday park fees. Learn How to Enjoy Freedom Camping in New Zealand.

Which New Zealand Island Is Better? You Decide!

Any trip to New Zealand can be a dream come true. But your choice of islands can determine which dream you experience. So which island will it be for you, New Zealand’s North Island vs South Island?

If a fast-paced trip with some planned indoor and outdoor activities is your idea of heaven, then a visit to North Island is in order. It will have you dreaming of sailboats, lavish dining, and organized tours to popular destinations. But if you tend to travel by the seat of your pants and look for high-intensity experiences, South Island is calling your name.

Whichever location you choose, you’ll find a generous Kiwi welcome!

Trailer: 8th Continent - Coming May 9, 2024 - Mortons on the Move RV Travel New Zealand!

After visiting New Zealand you may get the urge to explore other far-off lands, like The Last Frontier. If so, this guide can help you decide the best way to travel: Alaska Cruise or Land Tour: Which Should You Do?

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About Tom and Caitlin Morton

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of “Go North” on Amazon Prime Video, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for and an Arizona travel guide.

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