South Island Travel Tips

South Island New Zealand Travel Guide

So, you’re planning a trip to New Zealand’s South Island? You’re lucky to have stumbled on this post, as I’m about to tell you everything you need to know (well, most things at least) about travelling around the South Island. From transport, accommodation, where to go and what to see, I’ve got you covered!

Getting to the South Island

While there are international flights to Christchurch and Queenstown (and a few to Dunedin), it’s likely you’ll start your South Island trip in Auckland, way up on the North Island. From there it’s a good idea to have a look around the area (check out Rotorua, the Coromandel Peninsula, Northland and Waitomo for quick getaways from Auckland) and then hop on a flight to either Queenstown or Christchurch. Queenstown is a great place to fly into as you’ll get heaps of views of the Southern Alps along the way.

From Auckland you could also fly to Nelson and then drive down the length of the South Island to Queenstown (so many routes though) or fly to Christchurch and go from there. Or, you might be driving, in which case you’ll need to cross between the two islands on the ferry (Wellington to Picton). If you’re planning on spending two weeks exploring the South Island, you’ll want to check out my itinerary post!

Beautiful view of Picton from the Tirohanga Track, New Zealand

NZeTA – From October 1st 2019 people from visa waiver countries need to get an NZeTA (like an electronic visa) and pay a small tourist levy before they come to New Zealand. Read more about it here.

What to See

The South Island of New Zealand is surely one of the world’s most beautiful islands. There is such a variety of landscapes and experiences on offer that it really does appeal to everyone. Love hiking? There are dozens of great tracks, ranging from easy 10-minute strolls to waterfalls and viewpoints to vigorous multi-day hikes. How about beaches? You’ll find plenty of those too, from rugged, rocky affairs to beaches that wouldn’t look out of place in Thailand or Indonesia. The South Island is also home to some nice towns and cities, lots of unique rock formations, beautiful rivers, lake and mountain vistas, wildlife and so much more.

Stunning view of Lake Wanaka from Roys Peak, New Zealand

Hikes

There is pretty much an endless supply of hikes on New Zealand’s South Island and you won’t go close to doing them all. Luckily, I’m here to help – below are some of my favourite hikes, divided up into length.

Less than 1 hour: Pancake Rocks, Hokitika Gorge, Castle Hill, Mirror Lakes, Kea Point, Karetai Road Track, Glenorchy Walkway, Lake Matheson, Moeraki Boulders, French Pass, Mount Sunday

The Mirror Lakes, South Island, New Zealand

1-3 hour hikes: Rakaia Gorge Walkway, Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway, Benmore Peninsula Walkway, Queenstown Hill, Rocky Mountain, Key Summit, Franz Josef Glacier, Mount Cargill, Heyward Point, Mount Robert Circuit, Cable Bay Walkway, Taylors Mistake to Goldey Head, Red Tarns, Tasman Glacier

Benmore Peninsula Walkway

Day Hikes: Roys Peak, Isthmus Peak, Totaranui Beach to Anapai Bay (Abel Tasman National Park), Ben Lomond, Lake Marian, Gertrude Saddle, St Arnaud Range Track, Mueller Hut, Alex Knob

Hiking the Gertrude Saddle Track, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

Multi-day Hikes (I haven’t done any of these in their entirety but have done sections of some of them): Milford Track, Routeburn Track, Kepler Track, Queen Charlotte Track, Abel Tasman Coastal Track, Humpridge Track, Travers Sabirne Circuit, Greenstone / Caples Track.

Key Summit, South Island, New Zealand

Beaches

You can expect to see some amazing South Island beaches, although I can’t guarantee it’ll be warm enough to swim! Some of the best beaches on the island are located in Abel Tasman National Park (Anapai Bay, Goat Bay, Anchorage Bay, Totaranui Beach). As you go further south the beaches tend to get a little rougher but they’re still nice to look at. Check out some of the scenic beaches in Dunedin and the Catlins (St Clair Beach, Allans Beach, Tautuku Bay, Cannibal Bay), Christchurch (Tumbledown Bay, Taylor’s Mistake, New Brighton Beach) and various other beaches scattered around the island, including Caroline Bay (Timaru), Gillespies Beach (West Coast) and Wharariki Beach (Golden Bay).

Hiking to Goat Bay, Abel Tasman National ParkTautuku Bay, one of the South Islands best beachesTaylors Mistake, Christchurch, New Zealand

Waterfalls

You’re never too far away from a waterfall in New Zealand and some of them are located only a few minutes’ walk from the road. Some of my favourites include Devil’s Punchbowl Falls, Nicols Falls, Wainui Falls, Thunder Creek Falls, McLean Falls and Whiskey Falls.

Devil's Punchbowl Falls, one of the South Island's best waterfallsThunder Creek Falls, Haast Pass, New Zealand

Wildlife

If you’re hiking in mountainous areas you’re likely to eventually see a kea, a native New Zealand parrot. They’re always entertaining (unless they’re chewing on your car). You can also see penguins in quite a few places (Oamaru, Dunedin and the Catlins are good places to see them) as well as kiwis, other native birds, plus dolphins, whales and sea lions.

A kea, one of the coolest South Island birdsA yellow-eyed penguin in the Catlins, New Zealand

Natural Wonders

From gorges, rivers and lakes surrounded by mountains to glaciers and weird rock formations, New Zealand’s South Island is full of unique pieces of nature. Some of my favourite natural wonders include the Moeraki Boulders, Castle Hill, the Pancake Rocks, Rob Roy Glacier, the Organ Pipes, the scenery on the drive to Anatori, Wharariki Beach and Mount Sunday.

Sunrise at Moeraki Boulders, Coastal Otago, New ZealandSunset at the Pancake Rocks, West Coast, New ZealandThe Organ Pipes, one of the most surreal South Island natural wonders

When to Visit

The South Island is a good place to visit at any time of year, but the time you choose will have an impact on your trip. Summer is the logical option and is by far the most popular time for tourists to visit New Zealand. The weather is generally decent, the days are long (it doesn’t get dark until after 9 pm) and small holiday towns are buzzing with both international visitors and local holidaymakers. The crowds can get a bit much at times (only at the popular places though) and some areas are infested with sandflies, but apart from that summer is a great time to visit.

Visiting the South Island, New Zealand in summer

Autumn and spring are good options too. In spring (September – November) there should still be plenty of snow on the mountains, which makes the views on hikes that much better. The weather can be a bit temperamental in spring but it kind of is at any time of year. In autumn you get the colourful leaves and slightly more settled weather. Travelling in either spring or autumn means the crowds won’t be at their most severe and the days are long enough.

Visiting the South Island in autumnVisiting the South Island in spring

Winter is also a good time of year to visit the South Island, but it does have its challenges. It obviously gets very cold, which can make early morning hikes (or just early morning activity in general) a little unpleasant. It snows occasionally, especially in mountainous areas like Queenstown, but you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting around. The days in winter are very short (it’ll be getting dark by about 5 pm) which means you’ll have less time to do things in the outdoors.

Hiking on the South Island in winter

So, what’s the best time? I’d go for October – there should still be a decent amount of snow on the mountains, the days are getting longer (and warmer) and the summer crowds haven’t quite hit yet.

Getting Around the South Island

One of the biggest decisions you’ll need to make when planning a trip to New Zealand’s South Island is how you’re going to get around. Hiring a car is popular option, as is buying one and selling it when you leave. It depends on how long you’ll be travelling for – if you’re in the country for a month or less it’s probably best to hire one, but if you’re there for a few months you should look into buying one and then selling it when you leave.

Driving around the South Island, New Zealand

If hiring a vehicle, you’ll need to decide between a van and a car (or I guess you could hire a motorbike or a hovercraft – unlikely though). Vans will cost you more, but you can freedom camp in a lot of areas (if it’s a self-contained van) which will keep the costs down. You can freedom camp in some places without a self-contained vehicle, but the options become fewer. Vans also cost more to run (petrol is expensive in New Zealand). It really depends how you want to travel. There are few better experiences than waking up next to some amazing scenery far from civilization, but I also love being out in the wilderness all day and then going back to a nice, warm, comfortable hotel room. So, your best bets are a van (which you’ll sleep in most nights) or a small car to get around in and then staying at hotels etc.

A winding road in the Ashrburton Lakes region, New Zealand

Towns and Cities

Chances are you aren’t planning a trip to the South Island just to spend all your time in towns and cities. They certainly aren’t what makes this place special, but there are some that you’ll want to spend some time in. Dunedin is hard to look past in terms of the South Islands’ cities – it’s got some great scenery, lots of short walks, a couple of waterfalls and New Zealand’s most appealing central city area. Queenstown is also a cool place to stay for a few days. You’ll find lots of delicious food (don’t leave without trying a Fergburger) and stunning mountain views all around. Christchurch is good for a day or two (you’ll most likely end up there after flying to or from the South Island) and Nelson also has its charms. For small towns, I’d recommend checking Oamaru, Wanaka, Punakaiki, Cromwell, Takaka and Lake Tekapo. They’re all nice towns and are close to some iconic nature spots.

George Street, DunedinQueenstown, New Zealand from aboveNew Regent Street, ChristchurchThings to do in Oamaru, New Zealand

Where to Stay

If you’re staying in hotels, you’ll find plenty of options – there’s likely to be a town with a hotel / motel reasonably close to where you want to go. So, if you’re exploring Golden Bay, I’d suggest staying in Takaka. For Central Otago, Cromwell is a great option. Nelson is the ideal base for exploring the general area, Hokitika is nicely located on the West Coast and Twizel or Lake Tekapo are good places to stay while exploring Mount Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin.

Lake Tekapo, South Island, New Zealand

Prices vary a lot but for a private room for two you’re looking at $60 minimum, more likely reaching the $70 – $80 mark. These cheaper rooms often won’t have private bathrooms and are generally in hostels, which may or may not be your kind of thing. If you up your budget to $100+ a night, you’ll find good rooms in most places.

Camping is the other main option. There are DOC (Department of Conservation) camps in heaps of places. They cost between $6 and $13 per person per night and are often located in especially scenic places. You can also opt for some freedom camping (although many locals will hate you for it) or stay in proper camping grounds. These will often cost $30 – $40 per night, which adds up when you look at the cost of the van and petrol. Most camping grounds also have cabins (usually $50 – $80) which can be good if you’re interested in using the facilities (cooking areas, playgrounds etc).

Freedom camping on the South Island, New Zealand

Eating

New Zealand isn’t the best country in the world for food, but you’ll still find good things to eat pretty much everywhere you go. Pies are everywhere and are the perfect snack / quick meal. You’ll probably buy more than one at a petrol station, which can be hit or miss. I always go for a Jimmy’s Mince and Cheese pie, which in my opinion is the South Island’s best “common” pie. There are some good burger places  scattered around (Fergburer, Reburger, Burgerfuel) and small fish and chip shops in almost every town. Fish and chips is always an easy option (sometimes your only option) and supermarkets are good for things like cooked chickens and salads. You may not have the healthiest diet in New Zealand but at least the food will be good!

Eating Fergburger in Queenstown, New Zealand

Ferburger, Queesntown

Little Things

  • Sim Cards: I’d go for a Skinny prepaid sim card – you can sign up for monthly deals or just pay as you use. You could go on the cheapest plan ($9 per month) which will give you all the texts and calls you’ll need as well as a little bit of mobile data. The good thing about Skinny is you can do a “data binge”, meaning you pay a dollar or two for a few hours of unlimited internet (assuming you sign up for a prepaid monthly plan).
  • Travel Insurance: I’m not one of those bloggers who will guilt trip you into buying insurance – only you can make that decision! If you do want insurance though I highly recommend World Nomads. It’s what I’ve always used when travelling overseas.
  • Driving: New Zealand roads can be treacherous and its drivers not entirely sympathetic to slow moving tourist vans. Don’t speed up for them but do let them pass. New Zealand is probably quite different to places you’ve previously driven so make sure to take your time, drive to the conditions and don’t get too distracted by the scenery.

Did you enjoy our South Island travel guide? Share it with your friends on Facebook! If you have any questions or need help planning your trip get in touch with me via my contact page.

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who has just returned home after 6 years abroad. Join me as I see as much of the South Island as I can.

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