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Southern Alps, New Zealand

New Zealand: North vs South

Which island is best for you?

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9 May 2023 by Keely Roberts

They’re so close they’re almost touching, but New Zealand’s North and South islands can feel worlds apart. From golden beaches to colossal glaciers, Wexas specialist Keely Roberts takes a look at their varying appeals.

North Island

If you’re seeking sandy beaches, sub-tropical temperatures and a more relaxed feel, New Zealand’s North Island is for you. Most journeys begin in what is the country’s largest city, Auckland, dotted with volcanic cones and fronted by the sparkling waters of the Huraki Gulf. Just off the Auckland coast is Waiheke Island, a haven of vineyards, olive groves and pristine white sandy beaches. A short ferry ride from the mainland, it’s ideal for leisurely nature walks, kayaking, fishing and laid-back afternoons in the sun. If it’s island idyll you’re after though, the Bay of Islands is a real highlight. More than 140 subtropical islets make up this micro-region, surrounded by warm turquoise waters teeming with marine life.

Aerial shot of Urupukapuka Island, Bay of Islands
Urupukapuka Island, Bay of Islands

It’s not all about the coast, however. The North Island is also a hotbed of geothermal activity. And, while hot springs can be found right across New Zealand, it’s the area between Rotorua and Taupo that has the highest density of geysers, bubbling mud pools and geothermal waters. Located 27 kilometres south of Rotorua, Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is arguably the best place to see it all in action, with the Champagne Pool, pictured below, attracting the most camera clicks.

Champagne Pool, Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Champagne Pool, Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

The North Island is also home to New Zealand’s oldest wine region, Hawkes Bay. There are some 90 wineries here, producing world- class chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons in particular. The wines here are perhaps rivalled only by the South Island’s Marlborough region – proving once again that New Zealand’s main competition is itself.

South Island

New Zealand’s South Island is the more dramatic of the two. This is a land of glaciers and fjords where, aside from the golden sands of Abel Tasman, the landscape is one of cragged coastlines and lake-dotted alpine ranges. It’s an adventurer’s utopia, tailor-made for hiking, jet boating and white-water rafting.

People Kayaking in Milford Sound
Kayaking in Milford Sound

For a spot of culture, a visit to New Zealand’s most ‘English’ city Christchurch, is a must. Constantly evolving and regenerating, there’s everything from cutting-edge architecture to punting on the River Avon. And, just along the coast is Kaikoura, New Zealand’s whale-watching capital, where guided boat trips head offshore to seek out sperm whales, humpbacks or orcas, depending on the season.

Humpback Whale breaching in water at Kaikoura
Humpback Whale, Kaikoura

It’s the mountains, though, that offer the greatest adventures; heli-hiking on the blue-tinged Fox or Franz Josef Glaciers, snow-shoeing at the foot of Mt. Cook, or simply exploring the trails between snowy peaks. The spectacular TranzAlpine Train takes you from the Canterbury Plains to the heart of it all. And, from Queenstown on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, there’s the chance to set out among the Southern Alps, perhaps adding on a walk along the Hollyford Track, following the river through lush forests to the coast and Fiordland National Park.

Franz Josef Glacier, South Island
Franz Josef Glacier

Indeed, no visit to the South Island would be complete without seeing the fjords. My tip? Take an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound to see fur seals and penguins thriving among breathtaking, glacier-carved landscapes. This is really the South Island’s claim to fame – the awe-inspiring beauty of nature.

Highlights of New Zealand

Lake Wanaka on South Island, New Zealand
Lake Wanaka, South Island

If you still can’t decide between North and South, experience the best of both on an ultra-scenic road trip. You’ll be treated to everything from the giant glaciers and snow-capped mountains of the South to Rotorua’s explosive geysers in the North. There’s also plenty of time to take things easy, with wine tastings, city sightseeing and golden beaches showcased between stays in hand-picked boutique hotels. And, of course, our tailor-made travel specialists are always on hand to design your perfect holiday, so enquire or give us a call today.

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