This question is often posed on travel forums by people planning a New Zealand trip with limited time. Of course, the first reply is to make time for both. The North and South islands are very different from each other in character and landscape. To get a true feeling for the country, three weeks allows time to enjoy the diverse scenery, activities and culture of both islands. However, if you only have a week to ten days, here are some things to consider in making your choice:
The scenic highlights of the North Island are its beaches and its volcanic landscape. The South Island is a showcase for alpine scenery, waterfalls and primordial forest.
The rugged, black sand beaches on the North Island's west coast offer dramatic scenery and surf. The more sheltered, white sand beaches of the east are ideal for swimming and relaxing. Some New Zealand activities that accentuate the North Island's beaches include a trip to 90 Mile Beach in the Far North, sailing in the Bay of Islands, visiting Piha's surf beach and gannet colony, and soaking at Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel.
Rotorua, in the central North Island, is the hub for volcanic and geothermal adventures. Its landscape features boiling mud pools, steaming lakes and geysers, as well as dormant and active volcanoes that can be explored on organized tours.
The South Island's landscape is dominated by the Southern Alps running down its length. The Alps bisect the island into two distinct zones: the West Coast, covered in lush beech and rainforest, and the more arid East Coast, with high country sheep stations and scenic tussock land.
The South Island's topography makes it the site of classic New Zealand adventures such as glacier hiking, bungy jumping, black water rafting, sea kayaking and world-class tramping / hiking.
The North Island is the seat of New Zealand's indigenous Maori culture, with Rotorua its cultural epicentre. Here, there are a number of opportunities to participate in traditional Maori customs and to learn their place in modern New Zealand life.
Wellington, New Zealand's capital, is located at the bottom of the North Island. Guided tours of its parliamentary buildings are available. The city is also home to Te Papa, the national museum that is a showcase of New Zealand art and natural history.
The history and culture of the South Island is more represented by the European settlers who were lured by the opportunity of land ownership and mineral riches. Central Otago and the West Coast have traces of a gold rush that took place in the late 1800s. Both regions have opportunities to learn about this era and to try your hand at finding 'the color'.
Flora & Fauna
The North Island's subtropical climate supports a wide range of flora. Northland features some of the few remaining stands of giant kauri trees that once dominated. In the Coromandel, small group tours can take you into remote temperate rainforests where guides educate you on the flora, fauna and history of the region.
The South Island is better known for accessibility to a range of native wildlife. In particular, Kaikoura is a Mecca for marine-life encounters, including whales, dolphins, fur seals, albatross and other pelagic species. Dunedin's Otago Peninsula is also home to penguins, royal albatross and sea lions.
If you intend to self-drive rather than take an organized tour, driving conditions may be a factor in your decision. The comparatively gentle terrain of the North Island means a straightforward driving experience as highways pass through undulating farmland and scenic plateaus.
The South Island's roads are shaped by its dramatic scenery. Two main highways, either side of the ranges, run its length. 'Highway' is a term used loosely on the West Coast: one-lane bridges and hairpin switchbacks are common as the road navigates the narrow space between mountain and sea. South Island driving requires full attention; however, the reward is great scenic 'bang for your buck' in the short time you are there. Alternatively, leave the driving to a New Zealand tour operator while you gawk at the views.
In the end, be satisfied by the news that whichever island you choose, you will find scenic scenery and experiences that will likely have you saving and planning for a return trip to see the rest.