Lakes so beautiful they could make your eyes water, snow-capped mountains and sparkling glacial valleys are just a taste of what the South Island of New Zealand offers. The addition of golden beaches, abundant wildlife and more adventures than you ever thought possible makes the South Island undoubtedly one of the most incredible destinations in the world.
Known as New Zealand’s ‘mainland’, like most of the country the South Island is anything but crowded. Just over a million people call the South Island home, which means there’s a slice of wilderness for everyone on this 151,215 square-kilometre island. The only trouble you might have is choosing which of the South Island’s diverse landscapes to cover; even natives who have called the island home their whole life are still struggling to tick off all its top spots.
When it comes to adventure, the South Island excels. Known as the world’s adventure capital, the South Island presents endless adrenaline-pumping possibilities including hiking, skiing, bungee jumping, heli-skiing, skydiving and even more for hardcore thrill-seekers.
Between the beautiful covers of the Marlborough Sounds, the endless trails of the Abel Tasman National Park, several accessible glaciers and of course, the capital of it all, Queenstown, the South Island has it all.
Between the adventures, the island doesn’t fall flat. With a tantalising smorgasbord of cuisines, local produce and artisanal delights, New Zealand’s South Island’s regions combine for an epic food scene. On a self-drive New Zealand tour, it’s not uncommon to stop off at the roadside stalls to pick up local delights, from homemade relishes to fresh seafood and more, as you pass through each region. Add world-class restaurants and some of the world’s best wines to the mix and you’re set!
With respect for the outdoors like no other country, the South Island’s jaw-dropping beauty has been appreciated since the Maori first settled around the 13th century. Maori culture and history are honoured with recognition and preservation through national parks established for their spiritual significance to indigenous people and school programmes to educate each generation. The South Island’s wildly diverse and distinctive inhabitants also come in the form of whales, dolphins, rare penguins, fur seals, parrots and of course, the shy kiwi.
If you’re ready for your jaw to drop at every turn, then continue reading this guide to plan the ultimate New Zealand South Island tour;
- The Best Time to Visit New Zealand’s South Island
- Places to See & Things to Do in New Zealand’s South Island
- How to Get Around on Your South Island Itinerary
- Where to Stay & Accommodation on New Zealand’s South Island
- Must-Try Food & Drink on Your New Zealand South Island Tour
- Hangi – Traditional Maori Cooking Method
- Green-Lipped Mussels
- Kumara – More than Just a Sweet Potato
- Roast Lamb – A Must for Your New Zealand South Island Itinerary
- Meat Pies – Another ‘Meat Must’
- Kina – Another Seafood Delicacy
- Manuka Honey – The Perfect Edible Souvenir
- Lolly Cake – Back to Your Childhood We Go!
- South Island Wine – Need We Say More?
- The Cost of a Trip to South Island New Zealand
- Ready to Embark on a New Zealand South Island Tour?
The Best Time to Visit New Zealand’s South Island
It is clear from the fact that you can find almost every activity on the South Island that it is a year-round destination. From skiing in one of the many resorts in Queenstown in winter to kayaking in the Abel Tasman National Park in summer and everything in between, the seasons rarely stop you from doing anything in New Zealand.
However, if you’re looking for a particular New Zealand South Island trip, then you’ll want to pay attention to the seasons.
Winter spans June to September with temperatures that can range from below freezing to 10 degrees celsius. In summer, from December to March, the average temperature is between 15 and 25 degrees celsius. Long summer days see the sun setting around 9 pm, but winter can steal the sunlight at 5 pm.
Interestingly, New Zealand’s Maori name is Aotearoa which means ‘land of the long white cloud’. When you’re in New Zealand, you’ll understand this as there are often long periods of cloud interspersed with bouts of sunshine and rain. The weather is variable at any time of the year.
It is worth bearing in mind that in winter in some parts of the island, restaurants, accommodation and tour operators close down. For skiers, Queenstown’s slopes are perfect in July and August. New Zealanders, like Australians, love to travel in their own country, so it is best to avoid the school holidays (December and January) when it gets very busy.
Ultimately, the best time to take a New Zealand South Island trip is from March to May when the days are still long; tour operators are open, rates are lower than peak summer and the scenery springs to life.
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Places to See & Things to Do in New Zealand’s South Island
Often regarded as one of the most beautiful places on earth, there’s so much to see and do on the South Island.
It wasn’t an easy task, but we’ve narrowed it down to these ten New Zealand South Island must-see destinations;
The largest winegrowing region in New Zealand and arguably one of the best in the world, Marlborough is where the famous New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is produced. Not only that, but this region is also known for its fresh seafood, fine dining and diverse landscapes that give way to the sheltered Marlborough Sounds.
What to do in Marlborough? Explore the vineyards, visit cellar doors and taste award-winning wines as you go, just like on this 8-day South Island tour.
Abel Tasman National Park & Nelson
New Zealand at its finest, the Abel Tasman National Park is known for its stunning natural landscapes, diverse geography and beautifully lengthy golden beaches fringed by untouched forest and jagged mountains.
Drawn by the postcard-perfect beauty of the region, Nelson Tasman within the park has long been a magnet for creative people with the largest numbers of art galleries than anywhere else in the country, celebrating contemporary, traditional and Maori cultures.
Besides strolling through weekend markets and art galleries, you’ll find an endless number of activities here: kayaking, swimming, hiking and more.
The West Coast
An untamed wilderness of coastline, rivers, rainforests and geological treasures, the West Coast of the South Island is a 600-kilometre-long stretch of untouched beauty. Wet and wild, the West Coast lives up to its reputation as one of the wettest places on the island, but that only fuels its lush surroundings!
Most people often just drive through the West Coast en route to the Fox and Franz Josef Glacier, but if you spend a little more time there like on this 12-day New Zealand self-drive tour, then you’ll realise what it has to offer.
Twin Glaciers of Fox & Franz Josef
Sitting in the Tai Westland Poutini National Park, the twin glaciers, Fox and Franz Josef, are a highlight of any NZ South Island tour package, just 45 minutes from each other.
Spectacular ice flows, dramatic valleys and beautiful mirror lakes define these two geological masterpieces. Of the two, Fox Glacier is less frequented so if you’re looking for a more secluded experience, head to this glacier. On the flip side, because of its popularity, Franz Josef Glacier offers an abundance of activities and different ways to see the glacier, including heli-hiking and glacier walks!
You can explore both glaciers on an active trip like this 8-day New Zealand South Island tour from Christchurch.
Central Otago & Otago Peninsula
Like a little slice of Ireland, the Otago Peninsula is often disregarded as a place to visit in New Zealand. Still, its sheer coastal walls, circling albatrosses, wild-blown dunes and curious penguins present the dose of nature you never knew you needed.
Central Otago is known for its weathered mountains, alpine fields and fast-flowing rivers. Hire a bicycle and hit the Otago Central Rail Trail, stopping for a pint in a countryside pub or a wine tasting in one of the many cellar doors. Spend a night and day exploring Otago on this 10-day South Island tour.
Tucked away in New Zealand’s Deep South, the Fiordland National Park is home to many natural treasures – Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound and Mitre Peak are just a few of the many worth a mention. In Southland, you’re also within reach of the caves filled with glow worms in Te Anau that are certainly worth a stop.
Milford Sound is a mass expanse of dark water which reflects the verdant cliffs and collage of waterfalls which surround its shores. Whether it’s a clear or a misty day when you encounter the Milford Sound on a cruise like on this New Zealand South Island road trip, it will still be incredibly special.
Queenstown & Surrounds
The adventure capital of New Zealand, you’ll never run out of things to do in Queenstown. Known as the origin of bungee jumping, Queenstown not only offers an abundance of adrenaline-fuelled activities but it sits amid jaw-dropping scenery including the Remarkables mountain range, Lake Wakatipu and the Shotover River.
You could spend your whole trip here, just like this 7-day Queenstown tour. The ski fields of Coronet Peak, Cardrona and the Remarkables make Queenstown the perfect year-round destination. If you’re looking to explore beyond the town, popular tours from Queenstown include Glenorchy, a beautiful slice of scenic New Zealand, and Arrowtown, a historic gold mining town.
One of the most memorable places to visit in New Zealand’s South Island, Kaikoura is one of the few places in the world where giant sperm whales can be spotted year-round, just metres from the shore just like on this 15-day New Zealand tour.
First settled by the Maori, Kaikoura, which comes from the term meaning ‘eat crayfish’, has long had a reputation as New Zealand’s best spot to both see marine life and consume it! Of course, said-spotted whales, seals and dolphins are off the menu, but on a fishing tour, you can discover the edible wonders of the Kaikoura Canyon.
New Zealand’s very own taste of France, Akaroa was established in 1849 by the French and still today, the smell of freshly baked baguettes and the crackle of bubbling champagne is a part of everyday life here. The town itself sits in a pretty harbour on the Banks Peninsula.
No stranger to superb wildlife, the Akaroa Harbour is home to Hector’s Dolphins, a rare species only found in New Zealand, as well as cute little penguins. Just like on this 21-day New Zealand self-drive itinerary, you can spend your time here kayaking amid the pristine seascapes, hiking through lush headlands and native forests and spotting the dolphins on a cruise in the harbour.
Less of a destination and more of a must-do journey, the TranzAlpine is a five-hour scenic rail crossing from the Pacific Ocean to the Tasman Sea. Leaving from Christchurch, the train travels across the Canterbury Plains through the foothills of the Southern Alps with a stop at the scenic Arthur’s Pass, and finally past Lake Brunner before arriving into the sleepy town of Greymouth.
It is one of the world’s most scenic train journeys, the dramatic landscapes as you cross 223 kilometres of New Zealand’s South Island’s most stunning scenery are simply unforgettable. This New Zealand South Island itinerary of 10 days is the perfect opportunity to experience this adventure.
How to Get Around on Your South Island Itinerary
Whichever way you plan to navigate the South Island, Christchurch, the largest city on the island, makes for the perfect jumping-off point for your New Zealand tour. International flights into Christchurch are a lot more affordable than those into Queenstown or Dunedin, so it’s best to plan your trip around arriving into this airport.
As for getting around the South Island, there are many ways;
Flying Around New Zealand
If you’re short on time, the 16 regional airports across the South Island and inexpensive tickets accommodate those that want to cover lots of destinations in a short amount of time perfectly. Whilst this is an easy option, if you want to make the most of New Zealand’s South Island impeccable beauty, then you’re better travelling on the ground.
Public Transport in New Zealand’s South Island
The service InterCity runs bus services throughout the South Island to all the major destinations. However, if you are looking to explore the backcountry areas or travel in winter, travelling by bus may limit you as there is often a limited schedule in the winter months.
Of course, if you want to spend all of your time in the ‘adventure capital’ of the island, then taking the bus from Queenstown to Christchurch and back is easy at the beginning and end of your trip.
New Zealand by Train
Trains are one of the best ways to travel between New Zealand’s major cities – Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington, with help from the Interislander Ferry, of course. Different to domestic flights, trains take you through superb scenery that otherwise wouldn’t be seen from the road. Even if you’re travelling from one destination to the other side of the island, you’ll still see more of New Zealand.
If you’re keen on rail transport, catching the train from Picton to Christchurch on your South Island tour will enable you to tick off one of the great scenic journeys of New Zealand.
Self-Drive New Zealand Holidays
If you’re planning to truly see New Zealand and want the freedom to stop when you like, change your itinerary and get off the beaten path, then driving yourself is the perfect option.
If you’re planning on an extended trip, then it is most cost-effective to buy a second-hand car or van and then sell it again when you leave. The South Island is big, so it’s important to plan for the fact that drives could take up to twice as long as you think. As you get deeper into the backcountry, the roads become narrow and winding, and you’ll find yourself stopping more often to admire the views.
If you’re looking for the perfect New Zealand South Island tour that is self-drive but without the hassle then let one of our Local Designers in New Zealand plan it all for you. From the rental car arrangement and hotel reservations to airport pick up, all your tours and local guides, our experts can arrange all of this for you. This Christchurch to Queenstown road trip is an epic example of a South Island self-drive tour.
Private Tour of New Zealand’s South Island
If you want the freedom that driving affords you, but you don’t feel confident hiring a car and driving yourself then a private tour of New Zealand is perfect for you. Designed by our Local Designers, you can customise the trip to your liking just like this 8-day New Zealand tour with a private driver.
Taking a tour with a private driver affords you the freedom of travelling to more remote areas not usually reached by public transport and the ability to stop when you like or deviate from the path.
Where to Stay & Accommodation on New Zealand’s South Island
With its spectacular scenery and range of activities to keep you busy, it’s not surprising that the South Island offers a range of accommodation types to suit every traveller. From boutique country hotels and winery stays to city hotels, backpacker spots and remote eco-lodges, you’ll find something for everyone here.
Here’s a breakdown of the top places to stay in New Zealand;
At the very top of the South Island, you’ll find the city of Blenheim, a short distance from where the ferries arrive into Picton. If you plan to catch the ferry from the North Island, from Wellington to the South Island, Blenheim is a great spot to stop off. From here, you can easily visit the Nelson Lakes National Park and Marlborough Sounds.
You can get a taste of Blenheim on this 21-day South Island self-drive adventure.
The centre of the action, adrenaline junkies should look nowhere else to stay but Queenstown. Having grown in popularity over the years, Queenstown plays host to a wide array of accommodation options.
It is perfect if you are looking to explore Wanaka, Central Otago, Glenorchy or even to base yourself for a skiing holiday like this 3-day Queenstown ski package.
The largest city on the South Island, Christchurch is well and truly set up for accommodating travellers. Following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes which devastated much of the region, Christchurch has built itself back up to be a thriving hub of activity.
If you’re looking to explore Kaikoura, Canterbury, Arthur’s Pass or the Banks Peninsula, these are all within easy driving distance of Christchurch. Likewise, if you’re looking to make the drive from Christchurch to Queenstown, then it is the perfect place to stock up.
To explore the rugged West Coast, visit the Fox Glacier or hike the Franz Josef Glacier, then towns like Greymouth are perfect for staying in. Accessible by both land and rail, Greymouth is also the beginning or the end of the TranzAlpine scenic rail journey that you can do on this 10-day fiords, glaciers and mountains self-drive tour.
Must-Try Food & Drink on Your New Zealand South Island Tour
It’s a given that food isn’t high on the list when you dream about visiting New Zealand. The country’s extreme natural beauty, rugged wilderness and outdoor lifestyle top the list. However, this densely rich country offers a unique meld of flavours arising from its indigenous Maori culture, the arrival of European settlers and the more recent Asian arrivals.
As a result, New Zealand’s food scene is varied, diverse and intriguing, just like its landscapes. Here’s a selection of the must-try foods on your South Island trip;
Hangi – Traditional Maori Cooking Method
A New Zealand South Island must-do, enjoying hangi food is as traditional and local as it gets. Hangi is a traditional cooking method that steam-cooks meat and vegetables wrapped in leaves in deep pits of fire surrounded by stones, often taking as long as seven hours. It has a unique smoky taste when served and remains an important part of the food scene here.
Larger, fattier and more nutrient-dense than their European counterparts, green-lipped mussels are a coral-coloured shellfish native to New Zealand. Green-lipped mussels are often served as chowder in restaurants across the country. While they can be found in other parts of the world, no one does them quite like the Kiwis!
Kumara – More than Just a Sweet Potato
A sweet potato, but better. Kumara, the name given to New Zealand sweet potatoes, have been adopted into the diet here as snacks, chips and ideal health food with their high-fibre and low-fat content. You’ll often find them served in hangi.
Roast Lamb – A Must for Your New Zealand South Island Itinerary
You’d be hard-pushed to find a restaurant in New Zealand’s South Island that doesn’t serve lamb. After all, lambs significantly outnumber people here. Usually roasted with garlic and rosemary, this succulent meat is undeniably more affordable here than in many other countries across the world.
Meat Pies – Another ‘Meat Must’
If you’re a meat-eater, you’re going to have a lot of fun indulging in New Zealand. Next up on the menu is the famous Kiwi meat pie. While they may have originated in England, New Zealand has taken this savoury pastry and made it into its own delicacy. We are already drooling at the thought.
Kina – Another Seafood Delicacy
A country made up of islands surrounded by waters filled with marine-rich ecosystems; it’s no wonder New Zealanders are mad for seafood. The local name for sea urchin, kina have a spiky outer shell and a delicious fleshy inside best eaten raw.
Manuka Honey – The Perfect Edible Souvenir
Made from the pollen of the manuka tree which are found all over the country, manuka honey is heavier and carries a more distinct flavour than any other honey you will have tried. Believed to be the cure for many a sickness by locals, manuka honey is the perfect take-home gift.
Lolly Cake – Back to Your Childhood We Go!
Upon first sighting of lolly cake, you are sure to feel like a kid in a candy store. A classic New Zealand dessert made with candy, marshmallows, butter, condensed milk and crushed biscuits and then rolled in desiccated coconut, lolly cake is a must-try on the side of a coffee.
South Island Wine – Need We Say More?
It wasn’t likely that we’d get through a whole list of must-try dishes in New Zealand without a mention of the perfect pairing, was it?
Perfectly paired with green-lipped mussels, pavlova (another Kiwi must-try dessert), or even enjoyed on its own at sunset, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is rumoured to be some of the best in the world. Head to Marlborough on a romantic getaway on the South Island to indulge in numerous wine tastings.
The Cost of a Trip to South Island New Zealand
When planning a trip, keeping within budget is often the most headache-inducing part. Your trip to New Zealand’s South Island can be affected by several variables, including:
- Trip length
- Accommodation type
- Places you visit
- Dining and shopping expenses
Luckily, there’s a way to make sure that this isn’t as overwhelming as it seems. With Designer Journeys, it’s as simple as letting one of our Local Designers on the ground in New Zealand know your budget, desired trip duration, activity preferences and how you like to travel. Even if you have every detail down or you just have the basics and would like the rest planned for you by an expert, our locals can make it happen.
Taking care of everything, our Local Designers will make sure the trip delivered to you is everything you’re looking for. If not, they’ll work on it with you until it is. It makes planning a trip to New Zealand’s South Island, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, simple!
Here an idea of what a custom-made trip looks like. This 10-day South Island traditional highlights trip costs US$2,871 per person and includes:
- Nine nights of 4-star accommodation
- Six activities
- Nine breakfasts
- Rental car
- Entrance fees
- English-speaking guides on tours
Simple adjustments to the above can result in a more budget-friendly trip or a more luxury trip, depending on what you are looking for. We know everyone has different interests and travel styles, and that’s why we know that each trip should be tailored to you.
Ready to Embark on a New Zealand South Island Tour?
Travelling as a couple, alone or as a family, a private tour tailored to you affords you a wealth of opportunities that your typical package tours don’t. Designed by a local, your trip will be packed to the brim with unique tours and activities and you’ll be invited to experience this country through the eyes of a local. Browse our gallery of fully-customisable New Zealand tours and connect with a Local Designer in New Zealand to design your ultimate trip!