OK, we acknowledge not everyone realizes New Zealand is even made up of two main islands (actually three, but our little brother, Stewart Island, is a bit of an outlier—if an adorable one). To New Zealanders, however, there is quite a strong difference between the two in identity. Where you should spend your time will largely depend on your interests. To help you decide, we’ve cast our vote on which island best showcases a particular feature and have provided links to some of our most popular trips so you can learn more from their itineraries.

 


 

WILDLIFE

 

Our Vote: South Island

 

Because of its isolation, New Zealand has developed a unique eco-system and is home to rare species found nowhere else in the world. With no native land-based mammals, birds have thrived and the South Island is home to a wonderful array—including the cheeky alpine parrot, the kea, and a wacky orchestral ensemble of songbirds. Kaikoura, Akaroa, Otago Peninsula and the Catlins are particular Mecca’s for oceanic wildlife, with the chance to encounter whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, albatross, penguins and more. The South Island is also the jumping off point to Stewart Island, the only place in the world where kiwis outnumber humans.

 

RECOMMENDED TRIP: Wild South Experience Small Group Tour

Rare hoiho/yellow-eyed penguin, Dunedin © Penguin Place
Rare hoiho/yellow-eyed penguin, Dunedin © Penguin Place

MAORI CULTURE

 

Our Vote: North Island

 

New Zealand’s first settlers were the Maori from Polynesia, who first landed in the North Island. While Maori history can be found in both islands and their cultural influence is everywhere in place names, art, language, sporting traditions and more, the North Island remains the center for Maoridom. Rotorua in particular has a wide range of ways to experience Maori culture. The Bay of Islands, the cradle of New Zealand as a nation, is also an apt starting point for a cultural journey.

 

RECOMMENDED TRIP: North Island Experience Small Group Tour

Ta Moko, Traditional Maori Tattooing © James Heremaia
Ta Moko, Traditional Maori Tattooing © James Heremaia

PHOTOGRAPHIC SPLENDOUR

 

Our Vote: South Island

 

If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit movie series, you’ve basically seen a commercial for New Zealand’s South Island (Hobbiton in the North Island aside). The Southern Alps form the backbone of the South Island and there’s a variety of ways to take in this spectacular alpine scenery including glacier hikes, scenic flights, jet boating, skiing, heli biking, the TranzAlpine train ride, or just driving beneath its snowcapped peaks. In this fairytale world of scenic splendour, Fiordland may well be the fairest of them all: mountains rising directly from the sea, waterfalls around every corner, mirror lakes, ancient forests and, thank goodness, not a dragon nor orc in site.

 

RECOMMENDED TRIP: Southern Scenic Self Drive Tour

A Photographer's Dream, Fiordland National Park © Black Sheep Touring Co.
A Photographer's Dream, Fiordland National Park © Black Sheep Touring Co.

 

BEACHES

 

Our Vote: North Island

 

We may be a tiny nation, but we have 15,000 km (9,300 mi) of coastline, making ours the 9th longest in the world. That’s a lot of beaches, and while both islands have spectacular ones, the North Island has our vote with its warmer temperatures and its quaint resort towns dotted along the sheltered eastern shoreline. Particularly notable are those in the Bay of Islands in subtropical Northland, the eastern side of the Coromandel Peninsula, and northern Bay of Plenty, southeast of Auckland. Remember, unlike the northern hemisphere, it gets colder as you head south. If you want to spread your towel in the South Island, the Nelson/Tasman region is the place.

 

RECOMMENDED TRIP: New Zealand Wanderer Self Drive Tour

Sandstone Shelter, Cathedral Cove, New Zealand © Black Sheep Touring Co.
Sandstone Shelter, Cathedral Cove, New Zealand © Black Sheep Touring Co.

 

GEOTHERMAL ACTIVITY

 

Our Vote: North Island

 

New Zealand rests on the Pacific ring of fire and as such, is a country used to volcanic and seismic activity. The North Island, born from a series of volcanic events, remains the literal hot bed of geothermal experiences. Rotorua is the place to view boiling mud pools, hot lakes, steaming streams and geysers. Take a guided tour of the active White Island volcano just offshore in the Bay of Plenty. Dig your own hot pool on the Coromandel Peninsula or count the cones on the Mars-like landscape of the Tongariro Crossing, described as one of the best day hikes in the world.

 

RECOMMENDED TRIP: New Zealand Experience Small Group Tour

Black Sheep visit White Island/Whakaari Volcano, New Zealand © Black Sheep Touring Co.
Black Sheep visit White Island/Whakaari Volcano, New Zealand © Black Sheep Touring Co.

WALKING + HIKING

 

Our Vote: South Island

 

Walking and hiking (tramping) are New Zealand’s favourite pastimes (outside of rugby season) and the South Island gets our vote here based on the quantity and quality of opportunities available. You can walk on a beach in the morning, a glacier in the afternoon, and beneath a rainforest canopy to view glowworms in the evening. And the South Island is home to six of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks, each one unique and absolutely stunning.

 

RECOMMENDED TRIP: Station to Station Private Tour

Feeling on top of the world on one of New Zealand's Great Walks, the Routeburn Track © Black Sheep Touring Co.
Feeling on top of the world on one of New Zealand's Great Walks, the Routeburn Track © Black Sheep Touring Co.

 

CITY LIFE

 

Our Vote: North Island

 

As a comparatively young nation, we don’t pretend that visitors come here to experience our architectural heritage. Yet two of our cities, both in the North Island, have enjoyed some pretty great accolades. Auckland is ranked as one of the world’s Top 10 Most Livable Cities* and Lonely Planet has described Wellington as “the coolest little capital in the world”. For those wanting an urban hit, both cities offer vibrant waterfront scenes, world-class dining, museums, galleries, events and more.

*in the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Ranking 2017

 

RECOMMENDED TRIP: New Zealand Sampler Small Group Tour

Auckland Nightscape © Chris McLennan
Auckland Nightscape © Chris McLennan

 

ADVENTURE ACTIVITIES

 

Our Vote: South Island

 

Ever since A J Hackett decided to tie rubber bands around peoples’ ankles and push them off a perfectly good bridge, Queenstown has been dubbed the adventure capital of the world. For adrenalin seekers, there’s a seemingly endless array of activities from the sublime to the ridiculous and everything in between. As well as in Queenstown, there’s a range of other adventures throughout the South Island, including sea kayaking, dolphin swimming, mountain biking, jet boating, white water and cave rafting, and much more. If you’re looking for a skiing holiday, both offer opportunities, though the South Island has more fields from which to choose.

 

RECOMMENDED TRIP: New Zealand Breakaway Private Tour

A Black Sheep Takes the Plunge, Queenstown © Black Sheep Touring Co.
A Black Sheep Takes the Plunge, Queenstown © Black Sheep Touring Co.

 

WINERIES

 

Our Vote: A Draw

 

Both the North and South Island have superb wine regions and we’re hardpressed to choose a favourite between the two. In the North Island, the boutique wineries of Waiheke Island off Auckland’s western shore, Hawke’s Bay’s wine and art deco trails and picturesque Martinborough, a popular day trip from Wellington, make for a superb North Island wine tour. As for the South, Marlborough is a must as the region that put New Zealand on the international wine stage. Sunny Nelson with its small yet thriving vineyards and arts community, Canterbury’s outstanding boutique producers and Central Otago’s world-class Pinot Noir’s poured against a backdrop of mountains and lakes create a great wine tour from the South Island’s top to its tail. Now just to sort out your designated driver!

 

RECOMMENDED TRIP: South Island Sampler Small Group Tour

Queenstown wine trail © Miles Holden
Queenstown wine trail © Miles Holden

 

Of course, we wholly recommend fitting both islands into your itinerary—and little brother Stewart, too. Still undecided? Talk to one of our Travel Shepherds about your interests and time frame and get expert advice about the best New Zealand itinerary for you.

 

 

Header Image © Chris McLennan