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Should I travel to New Zealand North or South Island?

New Zealand is one of the most stunning places on Earth but many travelers ask, “should I visit the North or South Island?” Here’s my honest opinion. 

New Zealand North or South Island
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Whenever someone asks me about my travels around New Zealand, they immediately ask me, “should I go to the North Island or South Island?”

That’s a good question and it honestly depends upon what you want to see, your traveling style, and even the time of year. Whether you go to the North or South Island, you have a lot to consider. 

My first trip to New Zealand was surprisingly harder to plan than most of my other trips. I knew nothing specifically about New Zealand, or any of the differences between the North or South Island. I used a South Island map to familiarize myself with the landscape.

I must have spent hours upon hours reading at least two different guidebooks and flipping through every resource on the internet before I figured out precisely where we wanted to travel.

New Zealand North or South Island
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One of the popular New Zealand North Island Tours is Hobbiton

My Simple Advice

But after spending nearly a month traveling around New Zealand, I can tell you one thing is for certain: an entire month is not even long enough to explore this beautiful piece of Earth. I vow to one day rent a car or a camper and spend at least a good three months exploring New Zealand, hiking all of its incredible trails and photographing its landscape. The islands in New Zealand are magical.

But, few things in the travel world get under my skin faster than hearing travelers say, “Oooh I’ve been to New Zealand, but I just stayed in Auckland!” This makes me cringe, it really does.

Ok, I admit, I am casting judgment on these certain travelers who fly to the bottom of the world to visit a county with a landscape that’s so jaw-droopingly beautiful it’s hard to comprehend. But going to New Zealand and only staying in Auckland is kinda like going to Italy and opting to eat only McDonald’s for your entire trip. If that makes you happy, fine. But it makes no sense to me.

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Auckland is a neat little city, but it reminds me a lot of Seattle and well in the end, it’s just another city to me. So when people ask me if they should travel to New Zealand’s North or South Island, I simply have one major recommendation: don’t devote more than 10% of your trip to staying in Auckland (The North Island). 

New Zealand North or South Island
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Visiting geothermal parks on the North Island is a blast

I’m sure for everyone who agrees with me, there’s a few who don’t, but in comparison to the rest of my trip, it was pretty underwhelming in comparison to everything else I saw.

With that said, there is a TON to see on both islands, but choosing between the North Island or the South Island can be a little difficult if you don’t have more than 10 days at the minimum. Because you’ll most likely be driving around the country, it’s best to not spread your time too thin.

New Zealand South Island 

There are plenty of New Zealand South Island attractions. Honestly, I prefer the South Island because the landscape is much more dramatic with the mountains and Fiordland.  Road tripping around The South Island is utterly magical. The South Island has Queenstown and Milford Sound, as well as Christchurch which is an international Antarctic portal. You can fly south to Dunedin, although this isn’t recommended in the winter. Lake Tekapo is simply stunning, and you can also view the aurora Australis there or further south at Stewart Island.

We went to New Zealand both times in the winter and traveling so the South Island wasn’t a problem. Queenstown, Wanaka, Milford Sound and Tekapo were all beautiful this time of year and not too cold.

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New Zealand North or South Island
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The Church of the Good Shepherd on Lake Tekapo

Getting to the South Island is easy. You can fly from Auckland or take the ferry from Wellington.

If you’re a fan of The Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth is essentially the South Island whereas Hobbiton is located on the North Island. If you’re wondering “North or South Island?” I definitely recommend at least stopping at Hobbiton if you’re a fan of the movies and then exploring Middle Earth.

New Zealand North or South Island
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New Zealand South Island weather can vary dramatically in the winter and major parks like Milford Sound stop running tours around the middle of July. Because the seasons are opposite down under, and the South Island offers such a varied climate, it’s important to understand the varied climates beforehand. Understanding the weather patterns plays a large part in deciding between traveling to North or South Island.

New Zealand North Island 

Most people travel to the North Island because it’s easier to get around from Auckland or they want to just see Hobbiton. Hobbiton is a couple of hours from Auckland. The drive to Hobbiton is also very scenic and the green rolling hillside is pretty surreal. But, the North Island offers an array of stunning scenes as well, but it lacks the South Island’s dramatic landscape.

New Zealand North or South Island
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Driving through the lush rolling hills of the North Island

You can drive over to Rotorua and see Waiotapu, the famous geothermal park or experience the hub of Maori culture. The North Island is slightly more tropical too and has more culture. But both islands are so different and have a bunch to offer.

So for anyone wondering New Zealand North Island or South Island,  I hope this helps!

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9 Comments

  1. Andy Chua
    April 24, 2018 at 12:48 am — Reply

    Hi Stephanie,

    Nice review that you had written for New Zealand. I am planning for 10-14days trip in NZ. Main interest would be Aurora, Hobbiton, Stargazing,and skydiving in Queenstown whereas others would be a plus. We will be landing in Auckland though.

    Mind if i get your suggestion on the kind of transport should i get for this instance. Right now i am still struggling to confirm my flight dates due to budget issue and accommodation wise for the interest above.

    Looking forward to hear your suggestion based on your experiences.

    Thank you.

    Best,
    Andy

  2. Judith Blair
    September 14, 2017 at 3:28 am — Reply

    We’ve been three times – 9 weeks, 9 weeks and 4 weeks. My advice is visit the less well-known places – the Catlins, Taranaki, the Akaroa peninsular, walks on Arthur’s Pass, Motueka, Arrowtown, Gisborne. All interesting places. Stay in one places for a few days and really get to know the area. We stayed on a farm near Fairlie for a few days and got to know the farmer and his business – we learnt about Deer farming and we were able to walk the land

  3. January 21, 2017 at 3:55 pm — Reply

    Hi Steph, I am just reading your blog on New Zealand, I am a New Zealander and enjoyed the reading,I think we have a beautiful country, I have also traveled and think the places I have been are beautiful, but am always glad to get home.We as NZ,RS have a lot to offer here in NZ. From the very hot to the very cold, whether it be north and south it is all beautiful, South can get very cold with skiing etc, North is more mild although in the middle of the north island we do get snow, there are ski fields there. Please do come to our beautiful country and experience our way of life which is very laid back and the people are very friendly and caring.

    • February 9, 2017 at 8:13 pm — Reply

      Hi Raewyn,

      Thank you for your lovely comment! I can’t wait to come back to New Zealand. It’s honestly the most beautiful place I have EVER been too! It has touched my soul. You’re so lucky that you live there!!

  4. October 4, 2016 at 11:51 pm — Reply

    Hey Steph,
    In December we’re hiring a campervan and driving from Christchurch to Queenstown in 11 days. Oh how I wish I could take 3 months off work and do it all…
    Thanks for the tips!
    Cheers,
    Milly

    • October 5, 2016 at 8:04 pm — Reply

      That sounds too good! What I wouldn’t give to take 3 months off to explore beautiful New Zealand. That sounds like a fantastic trip, you won’t be disappointed!

  5. Ira
    July 16, 2015 at 8:29 am — Reply

    Amazing post dear!

  6. Matthew
    July 13, 2015 at 10:01 pm — Reply

    Really beautiful photographs. I want to get over to New Zealand one day, but it takes a full day and I don’t have the time now. The Milford Track has always been on my bucket list.

    • July 14, 2015 at 9:40 am — Reply

      Thanks! I really want to go back to hike The Milford Track too.

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