New Zealand’s borders are opening up right in the middle of autumn, so answering the perennial question of whether to explore the North Island or the South Island may come down to how much you embrace the colder months.

The northern end of the North Island has a subtropical climate in summer and is generally the warmest part of the country no matter when you visit, while the further south you go the more bracing are the winters. 

The smaller North Island is also home to around three-quarters of resident New Zealanders, including the majority of the Maori population. The island boasts a lake the size of Singapore – Lake Taupo – as well as beach-lined bays, the hot springs and Maori culture of Rotorua, volcanoes and fabled wine regions like coastal Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa, near the national capital of Wellington. 

Auckland openings

The North Island is also where you’ll find Auckland, the most cosmopolitan of Kiwi cities. There has been a swag of hotel openings here since the pandemic began, most notably the sustainably built Hotel Britomart. New Zealand’s greenest hotel takes pride of place in the reinvigorated Britomart waterfront warehouse precinct and offers designer luxury rooms and romantic suites featuring certified-organic cotton bed linen and towels. 

Also new on the waterfront are the five-star Park Hyatt Auckland, overlooking the yachts of Waitemata Harbour; the funky boutique hotel Ohtel Auckland; and QT Auckland, bringing the signature QT brand of quirky design to Viaduct Harbour. Check out the Rooftop at QT bar for harbour views with a side order of Mediterranean-inspired mezze.

A few blocks inland from the water, the centrally located Sudima Auckland City hotel features “u-rooms” designed to be your personal sanctuary – think muted colours, timber floors, yoga equipment and a bed standing in the middle of the room so you can look out the window without lifting your head from the pillow.

There has been a cluster of notable restaurant openings in the Britomart precinct, including Mr Morris, creating modern Pacific and New Zealand fare using ethical and sustainable produce; Kingi, which heroes local, sustainably caught seafood right next door to the Hotel Britomart; and Ahi, where chef Ben Bayly is on a mission to define New Zealand cuisine as both laidback and sophisticated.

A stone’s throw from Ahi, the buzzy bar Ghost Donkey serves up 40 styles of mezcal as well as tequila-laced Mexican sodas, a mole negroni and an ominous-sounding “stealth margarita”. 

The rooftop at the QT.

Away from Auckland

Once you’ve explored New Zealand’s premier city, grab a rental car or motorhome and hit the road to discover some of the highlights of the North Island. A classic self-drive itinerary is the five-day road trip from Auckland to Napier, taking in the beach town of Whakatane before rocking up to the hot springs of Rotorua. Here you can take an exfoliating geothermal mud bath followed by a soaking in sulphur-infused waters at the town’s Hell’s Gate mud spa, before retiring to a spacious room at the new Pullman hotel overlooking Lake Rotorua.

From Rotorua, it’s about a 50-minute drive to more geothermal spa treatments at Wairakei Terraces, near Lake Taupo. Be sure to check out the extensive Maori rock carvings at nearby Mine Bay, on the shore of Lake Taupo.

Another two hours in the car and you’ll hit the coast at Napier, a city smashed by a massive earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt in the then-favoured Art Deco style. Make the most of your time in the fascinating city centre by taking a guided walk with Art Deco Trust.

The rugged South 

Where the North Island has the bigger cities and a vibrant Maori culture, the more lightly populated South Island is an adventure traveller’s paradise, with the fjords, glaciers, alpine lakes and snow-covered mountains of the Southern Alps all waiting to be explored. 

The South Island is also home to the country’s largest wine region, Marlborough, with some 65 wineries producing excellent sauvignon blanc, and the smaller but diverse Central Otago wine region, known for its pinot noirs and a thriving organic and biodynamic wine scene.

Queenstown and surrounds

The lakeside town of Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of the world for good reason. Bungy jumping was popularised here: you can take the plunge where it all started, the AJ Hackett Kawarau Bungy Centre, a 25-minute drive from Queenstown. You can also sign up for white-water rafting, jet-boating and zip lining with tour operators in town, or hit the brand-new Coronet Loop mountain biking trail through previously inaccessible backcountry around Coronet Peak. 

And while Whakapapa on the North Island is the country’s largest ski area, most Aussie skiers and snowboarders head to the ski fields around Queenstown. Nearby Cardrona Alpine Resort will be the first to open this year, with its family-friendly slopes welcoming skiers from June 11. The wide-open runs of Coronet Peak and the expansive Remarkables open a week later, while Treble Cone, with its long groomed trails and extensive free riding terrain, opens on June 25 this year. 

Coronet Peak celebrates its 75th anniversary this year: come to ski between August 17 and 21 to join in the five-day party. Or fly in for the four-day Snow Machine festival, from September 7 to 10, where acts such as the Avalanches, Hot Dub Time Machine and Sneaky Sound System play on stages at Coronet Peak, the Remarkables and in Queenstown’s town centre. 

Given the lack of international visitors in the past two years, Queenstown has seen a remarkable number of hotel openings. Sudima Queenstown Five Mile, Quest Queenstown and Holiday Inn Queenstown Remarkables Park all opened near the airport late last year. Also near the airport, Driftaway Queenstown, a lakeside holiday park catering to motorhomes as well as offering self-contained villas, opened for business on March 5. 

If your budget extends into the stratosphere, check in to the luxury boutique Carlin Hotel, a five-minute walk from town on Queenstown Hill. The Carlin, which opened this month, offers a private jet option so you can skip the commercial carriers and fly from Australia to Queenstown Airport in style.

The Carlin’s Oro restaurant, overseen by Gordon Ramsay-trained chef Thomas Barta, promises to be a dazzling addition to an already sophisticated Queenstown dining scene. And if you didn’t get enough of the cold stuff on your day on the slopes, you can always head to the Minus 5 Ice Bar, which opened in February in Queenstown’s Upper Village precinct. 

In nearby Arrowtown, family-friendly trattoria Little Aosta just launched its northern Italian offering, while the brand-new Royalburn Farm Shop, owned by a former MasterChef New Zealand winner, is a great spot to pick up picnic supplies.

A stunning summit.

Forays from Christchurch

The largest city on the South Island, Christchurch is a mix of uber-modern architecture and venerable buildings reflecting its English heritage. It’s also a great base for road trips and epic bike rides exploring the wild Arthur’s Pass National Park, the Waipara wine region, the thermal pools of Hanmer Springs and the little towns dotting the west coast.

Since the first of the border closures there’s been two major hotel openings in central Christchurch: the Muse Art Hotel and the Carnmore Hotel. The five storeys of the 40-room Muse boutique hotel have been decorated by five Christchurch artists, who’ve each taken over one floor to create large murals on the walls in the public areas as well as produce a series of framed artworks in the guest rooms. 

And New Zealand’s first modular hotel, the Carnmore, launched in late 2020 as the Hotel Cosa, before rebranding late last year. Each room in the five-storey hotel was built as a container-style module in Vietnam and shipped to Christchurch before being stacked and assembled at its central city location. 

Getting there

Fly: At the moment you have the choice of flying from Australia with Air New Zealand or Qantas, with limited (and pricey) services in April. Whichever airline you select, if you can hang on and take your long-delayed holiday in May, you’ll have a much wider choice of flights, and they’ll be significantly cheaper, too. 

Air New Zealand currently flies direct to Auckland and Christchurch, with onward flights to other domestic destinations, including Queenstown and Wellington. One-way flights to Queenstown from Sydney in late April start from $518 for a ‘The Works’ ticket, including checked bags and meals, with a return flight in early May costing just over $400. 

Qantas also offers a mix of direct flights to Queenstown and flights via Auckland with Jetstar, with very few services in April. From the first week of May the fares drop dramatically, with Saver fares from Sydney to Queenstown starting from about $770 return.

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