South Island, New Zealand – Natural, Untouched Beauty!
Natural, untouched beauty! That’s what New Zealand’s South Island is all about. The South Island is home to the Southern Alps and some great skiing and snow boarding opportunities.
Most cities in the South Island are well connected by Trans Rail and that’s perhaps the most convenient way to travel. Alternately, rental cars can also be booked and a drive along the West Coast is highly recommended. Getting to the South Island from the North Island is possible by either catching the Interislander ferry from Wellington or a Sounds Air flight from Wellington airport. Domestic flights run by Air New Zealand and other airlines also connect most other cities in the South Island to Wellington.
As an introduction to first timers, the South Island is a land of splendid isolation. Fewer people, fewer cars, fewer distractions and interruptions…unless you call the sound of the many unique native birds calling distracting! The South Island is dominated by the massive Southern Alps and is home to not just the highest mountain in New Zealand but the thirty highest peaks are all there. The Southern Alps can be crossed at only four points and these “passes” Haast, Lewis, Arthurs and the Mackinnon form some of New Zealand’s famed driving trails.
The most popular of all holiday destinations in the South Island is Queenstown, base for skiing and all manner of adventure tourism, including the famous New Zealand invention of bungee jumping. The South Island is also home to six of the nine Department of Conservation “Great Walks” including the stunning Heaphy and Milford Tracks. Accommodation on these trails is in the form of large bunkhouses which sleep 40-50 and must be booked in advance.
South Island Has Something For Everyone
The South Island has two major cities, Christchurch and Dunedin. Christchurch is the second largest city in New Zealand and Dunedin is relatively small with a population of around 120,000 and is very much considered a university town. The South Island offers completely different scenery to the North Island. Everything from rugged coastlines, to majestic mountain ranges, fjords, glaciers, and stunning lakes.
Just over the Cook Strait (the stretch of water between the bottom of the North and the tip of the South Island) from Wellington lies a gourmet paradise. The area is called Marlbourough and comprises a number of small towns including Picton, a picturesque town which is the transit point for the inter-island ferry from Wellington. The Marlborough Sounds through which the ferry sails are a maze of deep channels, sheltered waterways and secluded bays offering a wealth of activities from fishing to walking the Queen Charlotte Track. Just down the road from Picton lies Blenheim. Blenheim is estimated to have an average of 2,438 hours of sunshine every year and as such holds the title of the sunniest town in New Zealand. Blenheim is also the home to over 50 wineries and the Sauvignon Blanc produced in Marlbourough is considered to be amongst the finest in the world.
Many awards have been won from wines produced in this area. As well as the famous Sauvignon Blanc; Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Semillon are also produced so there will be something to suit most palates. In February of each year the largest Food and Wine Festival in New Zealand is held in Marlbourough. It is a great occasion offering the opportunity to try the wines and gourmet foods produced in the area.
Nelson is located at the top northwest corner of the South Island. Nelson offers enormous diversity in both scenery and activities. There are three National Parks which may be accessed easily from Nelson. The Abel Tasman National Park which runs along the coast offers fabulous views and great beaches. On the other hand the Nelson Lakes National Park located south of Nelson is set amongst mountains and 2 gorgeous lakes. The Kahurangi National Park contains the famous Heaphy Walking Track which takes between 4 – 6 days to complete through stunning and diverse terrain. Nelson is also a wine growing area and has several world class brewmasters producing boutique beers.
The West Coast runs 600 km along the coastline and is not wider than 70 km at any one point. The population of the West Coast is only about 31,000 people and they have a reputation for being extremely friendly and hospitable. This area is an adventure and outdoor wonderland offering forest and beach walks, caving, all sorts of boating experiences, glacier walks, scenic flights, mountain biking, horse treks, fishing, exploring old gold mines and ghost towns and gold panning to name a few.
Kaikoura is located on the West Coast of the South Island approximately half way between Picton and Christchurch. It is a rugged area flanked by the majestic mountains. Kaikoura is famous for whale watching and crayfish (lobster). The name Kaikoura literally translates to meal of crayfish from the Maori language. The focus in Kaikoura is on the preservation of the abundant marine life which is a stark contrast from the days of the mid 1800’s through to 1964 when whaling was the major income source for the area.
Hanmer Springs is a small alpine village approximately an hour’s drive from Christchurch perfect for a weekend getaway. Hanmer Springs is a thermal area and is famous for its therapeutic hot pools. Various spa treatments are on offer so a visit here is guaranteed to unwind the weariest traveller. Hanmer Springs has a quiet and peaceful atmosphere but offers something for all tastes, from numerous short walks, golf and dining, to thrill seeking adventures in jet boats or on mountain bikes. In winter you can also ski and it is possible to sit in the therapeutic pools and be surrounded by snow!
Christchurch has quite often been referred to as the most English city outside of England. The River Avon runs through the middle of the city and provides a stunning and relaxing backdrop to a bustling city centre. Christchurch is famous for its beautiful gardens for which it has won international awards. There really is something for everyone in this city. Shopping is great, restaurants are many and varied, there are numerous activities to undertake and accommodation options are plentiful.
Akaroa is a stunning village unlike anywhere else within New Zealand. The economy of Akaroa is very much geared up for tourism. Akaroa is about 1.5 hours drive from Christchurch out on Banks Peninsula. The most stunning views are on offer as you near the village which make it well worth the journey. Akaroa is an historic French/British settlement nestled in the heart of an ancient volcanic crater. There is a real French flavour to the village with all street names being French eg rue Lavaud and rue Jolie, the main streets. Akaroa is an absolutely charming and beautiful area with wonderful restaurants, plenty of accommodation options and many activities which predominantly focus around the harbour. There are both seal and penguin colonies close to the village which you may visit by boat or 4 wheel drive.
Dunedin has a strong Scottish heritage which is evident in the early architecture. It has some of the best preserved Victorian and Edwardian architecture in the Southern Hemisphere. It had New Zealand’s first university and is very much a university town to this day. Dunedin is home to the steepest street in the world – Baldwin St. There is a shop at the bottom of the street where you can get a certificate after climbing to the top. Larnach Castle is a must see whilst in Dunedin. It was originally the home of an early politician. Building commenced in 1871 and was completed 12 years later. These days it is has been restored and offers upmarket accommodation. Organised harbour cruises on the Otago Harbour offer the opportunity to view albatross, fur seals, penguins, nesting birds and dolphins.
Queenstown is perhaps the best known town in the area of the Southern Lakes. It is a small town situated on the beautiful Lake Wakatipu. It is a spectacular town in a spectacular area of the country. Queenstown offers an incredible range of activities for the tourist and is referred to quite deservedly as the adventure capital of the world. The bungy jump originated in Queenstown and there are numerous other adventure activities. Shopping is excellent and there are numerous restaurants and styles of accommodation to suit all tastes. This area has four very distinct seasons and offers some of the best skiing and snowboarding conditions in winter and early spring (June to September).
Wanaka is located approximately one hours drive from Queenstown on the shores of yet another lake, Lake Wanaka. Although many of the same types of activities are on offer, the pace is far more sedate and less hectic than Queenstown. If you prefer a quieter and more secluded atmosphere still offering the stunning vistas, Wanaka may be the place for you.
Fiordland is the largest national park in New Zealand covering almost 3 million acres. Milford Sound is one of the not to be missed locations in Fiordland. There are many day trips which can be taken from Queenstown. It is an unspoilt area offering lush vegetation, majestic mountain peaks and dramatic waterfalls.
A Sample 15 Days Itinerary To Benchmark For Your South Island Holidays
Arrive in Christchurch, ready to begin your South Island Sun and Snow New Zealand itinerary. Head to your accommodation.
Today you are free to explore Christchurch. Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island, and there is plenty to see and do in this lovely city.
Christchurch has a very “English” feel, which is reflected in the architecture, and the Avon river, which runs through the city centre.
Suggested activities are a punt ride on the Avon, a tram ride through the city, a gondola ride, or perhaps a drive to Akaroa, a French settlement located seaside on Bank’s Peninsula.
Time to hit the road on your New Zealand itinerary. Today you are off to the beautiful village of Hanmer Springs, known for its thermal pools and water park. The drive takes around 1.5 hours. On arrival, check into your motel then head to the pools for a relaxing soak. There are a variety of pools of varying temperatures. And for the kids (or the young at heart) there is also the water park, with a variety of slides.
Today your New Zealand itinerary tour takes you to the spectacular seaside township of Kaikoura.
Kaikoura is famous for fresh seafood, whale watching, local seal colonies, and amazing scenery.
Please note-the best time to go whale watching is in the morning before the wind and the seas pick up.
The mountains touch the sea in Kaikoura, and in winter are snow capped, making for wonderful photo opportunities.
There is a wide range of accommodation in Kaikoura, with something for all budgets.
Days 5, 6 & 7
Today your New Zealand itinerary takes you to the bustling city of Nelson (3 hours drive).
Nelson is located on the shores of Tasman Bay, and is the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park, one of the South Island’s prime attractions. The Abel Tasman is located around 1 hours drive from Nelson and is accessed via the bay side village of Marahau. The Park offers a wide range of walks and activities such as kayak trips, guided tours, and water taxi rides.
Further west from the Abel Tasman is Golden Bay, another idyllic coastal location. Farewell Spit is the north western edge of the South Island and is a popular location for bird and seal watching. Another popular attraction is Pupu Springs, a freshwater spring with water so cold that divers are only permitted to stay submerged for limited periods.
Nelson also has many other attractions such as a selection of vineyards, the World of Wearable Art, and a large arts and cultural community.
Your accommodation options are many and varied.
Today our 3.5 hour drive takes us to Punakaiki on the rugged west coast.
Punakaiki is famous for the unusual limestone rock formations known as the Pancake Rocks. These formations resemble stacks of pancakes, and they are complemented by the famous blowholes, which really blow during a big ocean swell.
Accommodation options in Punakaiki are limited, but don’t despair. My favourite is the beautiful Rocks resort. The resort is absolute beachfront offering stunning ocean views. The snow capped alps are also visible across the bay, and the resort restaurant offers the perfect location to sit and watch the sunset over the ocean.
Today is a 2.5 hour drive to the amazing west coast glaciers, Franz Josef and Fox.
There are numerous accommodation options in Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. My pick is Franz Josef because the village has more shopping and dining options.
There are several ways to see the glaciers up close. A walk from the car park to the glacier’s face at Franz Josef will take around 1.5 to 2 hours return.
Guided glacier walks are also available, but my pick (if your budget allows) is a
helicopter flight and snow landing. You will be stunned by the views and thrill of the ride. A “must do” if funds permit. Please note though that flights are weather dependent. Conditions change quickly on the west coast, so bookings are essential.
Your South Island Sun and Snow New Zealand itinerary now takes you to the beautiful lake side town of Wanaka.
Wanaka is well known as the service town for two world class ski fields, Cardrona and Treble Cone, and in the ski season the town buzzes with activity.
The town centre is located on the lake edge, and offers numerous dining and accommodation options. A lake view motel or apartment is well worth the extra money, as the views year round are stunning.
There is much to see and do in Wanaka, including 4wd tours, scenic flights, winery tours, golf, and the quirky Puzzling World and maze.
Days 11 & 12
Today on your South Island Sun and Snow New Zealand itinerary, you head to what many consider to be one of the most spectacular locations in the world. Queenstown is known as the “Adventure Capital” of New Zealand, and for good reason. The variety of adventure activities is huge, with everything from bungy jumping (several locations), jet boating, para-sailing, para-gliding, 4wd tours, rafting, luge rides high above the town, and of course skiing and snowboarding at the two nearby ski fields, Coronet Peak and The Remarkables.
And if you are looking for something a little more sedate, a winery tour, a game of golf at one of several superb courses, or a trip on Lake Wakatipu on the historis steamship, the TSS Earnslaw may be to your liking.
But if there is one thing that the region is world famous for, it’s Milford Sound. Referred to as the Eigth Wonder of the World, Milford Sound is the number one attraction in New Zealand, and with very good reason. Towering peaks and sheer cliffs that seem to disappear into the clouds, waterfalls, and the deep dark waters of Milford Sound all combine to make this one of the most amazing places you will ever visit.
Milford Sound is around 4 hours drive each way from Queenstown, which makes for a very long and tiring day. A better alternative is to take a bus tour and cruise and let someone else worry about the driving.
I have no doubt that you will talk about Milford Sound for many years. Enjoy.
Today your South Island Sun and Snow New Zealand itinerary takes you to the World Heritage area of Mt Cook (3.5 hours drive).
At 3,754 metres, Mt Cook is New Zealand’s tallest mountain. The mountain is popular with climbers from around the world, and is home to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, which showcases the region’s history, and contains a 3D movie theatre, planetarium, and museum.
Your accommodation options are limited in Mt Cook, but there is no shortage of things to do in this beautiful spot.
Today on your South Island Sun and Snow tour, you take the 4 hour drive from Mt Cook to Christchurch.
Along the way, stop off at Lake Tekapo for a break, and take in the stunning views across the turquoise waters towards the alps. One of the most famous photo opportunities in New Zealand, is through the window of the Church of the Good Shepherd.
Unfortunately all good things must end, and today you fly home.
Hopefully you have a taste of what is on offer in New Zealand. It really is the most beautiful country and truly does have something for everyone.
Visit the New Zealand destinations category to learn more about other places to visit in New Zealand!