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Southland Travel Guide: Tips for a Fun Trip to Southland

Southland Travel Guide: Tips for a Fun Trip to Southland

Our Southland Travel Guide will give you a good overview of the region. If you’re looking for posts about a particular area click on one of these links: Invercargill + Bluff | The Catlins | Stewart Island | Fiordland | Milford Sound.

The bottom-tip of an island as eye-catching as the South Island is bound to be full of views you’d pay good money to see. Luckily, you don’t often have to, with dozens of free trails and roadside viewpoints to choose from. You can go from watching penguins, dolphins and sea lions at Curio Bay to Milford Sound in five hours, but if you’re keen to go a little slower I’ll show you everything you need to know.

Southland Travel Guide

This Southland travel guide will give you an insight into the towns and regions of Southland as well as plenty of tips on how to make the most of your trip. If you’re planning a trip to Southland this post is for you!

Regions | Towns | Cities

Southland is divided into four main regions. The Catlins, Invercargill / Western Southland, Stewart Island and Fiordland. The coastal areas are full of beaches and short coastal walks, while Fiordland is home to some of the most impressive mountain scenery in the country. There are also some inland towns such as Gore and Mataura, but there isn’t too much there for tourists.

Mores Scenic Reserve, Riverton, New Zealand

The Catlins

The main reasons to visit The Catlins (some of which is part of Otago) are to see waterfalls and some of the best beaches in the South Island. Curio Bay is perhaps the most interesting to visit — it’s great for surfing and wildlife spotting (dolphins, penguins, sea lions) as well as long walks on the beach. Further south from there you’ve got Slope Point, the southern-most point on the South Island. Mclean Falls and Waipohatu Falls are fun waterfalls to visit on the Southland side, with Purakaunui Falls (on the Otago side) the most popular in the region.

READ MORE: 10 of the Best Beaches in the Catlins

The towns of the Catlins are tiny! Owaka is the biggest and has the most tourist infrastructure, making it the obvious option to spend the night. There’s also Kaka Point nearby (cute little beach village), which is a great place to stay if you’re keen to visit Nugget Point at sunrise. Papatowai is also a good option. All of those towns are on the Otago side — if you’re keen to stay closer to Invercargill then Curio Bay is probably your best bet.

READ MORE: Catlins Itinerary: Day Trip From Dunedin + Longer Stays

Invercargill + Western Southland

Invercargill, with 55,000 people, is the only city in Southland. It’s an OK place to spend a night or two but there are other options closer to the best sights (Owaka, Kaka Point or Curio Bay for the Catlins, Riverton for the southern coast, Te Anau or Manapouri for Fiordland).

There aren’t many cities in the South Island so sometimes it’s good to spend a night in a place like Invercargill and enjoy the big city comforts for a while (which I’m sure is laughable for anyone from Auckland to hear). Bluff is right next to Invercargill and has a rustic, small-town atmosphere — it could be a good alternative if Invercargill doesn’t get your pulse racing.

From Invercargill you can drive along the southern coast (known as Western Southland) to Riverton and beyond. There are lots of places to stop along this route (which leads to Tuatapere and then Fiordland), including Cosy Nook, Monkey Island and Gemstone Beach. Riverton is one of our favourite small towns in New Zealand — some interesting short walks and viewpoints and a nice beach right in town. Tuatapere is the base for the Humpridge Track, which will soon become a Great Walk.

Stewart Island

Stewart Island, accessed via boat from Bluff (or Invercargill if flying), is a place we highly recommend visiting. It’s a large island with a tiny population and very few roads. It’s a special place if you’re into hiking but there are also lots of short and easy walks starting from Oban, the main village. 

READ MORE: 17 of the Best Things to Do on Stewart Island

Oban is a lovely little village, with several places to eat and drink and a decent range of accommodation. You can walk to beaches, viewpoints and scenic spots pretty easily, which is good as there aren’t many transport options. Highlights in and around Oban include Bathing Beach, Observation Rock and the various walks starting from town (Ackers Point Lighthouse, Horseshoe Point).

Bathing Beach, Stewart Island, New ZealandObservation Rock lookout, Stewart Island, New Zealand

The Rakiura Track, a three-day Great Walk, draws a lot of people to Stewart Island. If you’re not keen to do the whole thing you can do what we did and catch a boat to Port William and then walk back to town from there via stunning beaches and coastal views. It seems like the best section of the track, and doing it as a day walk means you have more time to explore the shorter tracks closer to Oban.

Fiordland

Fiordland is the most famous of Southland’s regions, thanks mostly to Milford Sound. Fiordland is so much more than Milford Sound though — so many world-class hikes and the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound passes through some of the most spectacular scenery in New Zealand. Check out Key Summit, Lake Marian, Mirror Lakes and the Chasm for an example of the kinds of places you can see on this road.

Milford Sound, New Zealand

Te Anau is the main town in Fiordland and is well set up for tourists. It’s a good base for exploring the region, with the Doubtful Sound cruise and Te Anau Glow Worms tours leaving close to the town (Manapouri for Doubtful Sound). Milford Sound is around two hours away and so is Queenstown (in the opposite direction).

The two cruises — Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound — are highlights of Fiordland. Seeing this incredible scenery from the comfort of a boat should be done at least once, but do them both if you can!

Hikes are the other big reason for visiting Fiordland. There are three Great Walks in Fiordland (Milford Track, Routeburn Track and Kepler Track) and it’s on these tracks that you’ll see some of the grandest views. The Milford Track is our favourite of the three — some really iconic views and there’s a scenic boat ride at either end of the track. There are also heaps of short walks — check out our post about the best walks in Fiordland!

Getting Around

Southland is the perfect road trip destination — you’ll see heaps from the road and there’s always another walk to do or some kind of attractive piece of nature to see.

If you aren’t driving you can still have a fun trip around Southland. There are buses running between Invercargill and Te Anau and you can see quite a bit in Te Anau without access to a vehicle (+ tours to Milford / Doubtful Sound). You can also bus to Bluff, and if you’re visiting Stewart Island you won’t need transport as there are hardly any roads.

 

Where to Stay

There are places to stay throughout Southland, including Airbnbs in some remote locations. You’ll find motels in most small towns, and places like Te Anau and Invercargill have quality hotels. If you want to stay close to Milford Sound check out Milford Sound Lodge. There are lots of camping grounds scattered around Southland, from freedom camping spots like Monkey Island to proper paid camping grounds in the main towns.

 

Tours

There are so many free things to do in New Zealand that it can be a little jarring when you’re expected to pay for something. Tours in New Zealand aren’t cheap but they do allow you to see places you otherwise wouldn’t. Our top tours mostly involve boat rides — Doubtful Sound cruise, Te Anau Glow Worm Cave and the boat ride to Port William, Stewart Island (which allowed us to walk the best section of the Rakiura Track in one day).

Eating and Drinking

Cheese rolls are a famous Southland delicacy, you’ll find them at cafés throughout the region. It’s like a toasted cheese sandwich rolled up – delicious with lots of butter! Seafood is big business in Southland, and Bluff, Invercargill, Oban and Riverton are the best places to try it. Look out for Bluff Oysters – I’m not a fan but people go crazy over them in the south. We really like the Bao Now food truck in Te Anau — we get it every time we’re there if it’s open! 

Southland Itinerary

I’ve written (or will do soon) far more detailed itineraries for the different sections in here, so this Southland itinerary will be pretty basic. Assuming you’re arriving in Invercargill I’d consider either the Catlins / Invercargill  or Stewart Island first. So, two-three nights in Invercargill and the Catlins, three nights on Stewart Island, a night or two on the road between Invercargill and Te Anau and three nights in Fiordland.

That’ll be around 10 nights, but if you have longer I’d advise spending more time on Stewart Island (we spent five nights there), in Fiordland (especially if you’re doing a multi-day walk) and maybe another night in the Catlins (especially if you’re exploring the Otago side too). If you only have a few nights in Southland it’d probably be best to stick to the Invercargill to Te Anau route and spend most of your time in Fiordland.

More Information

If you’ve read this far you’ll have a good idea of what Southland has to offer. If you need any more tips send us an email or ask a question in the comments below. Also, if you think we’ve missed any important information, or know of a place that deserves more attention, let us know!

Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? Check out our South Island travel guide!

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Jon Algie

I'm a South Island local -- born in Timaru and raised in Dunedin. I left the island in 2006 and returned 10 years later. Having seen a good chunk of the world I realised how special this place is -- the most beautiful island in the world! Seven years (and almost 400 posts) later I'm still helping locals and tourists alike plan their trips around the South Island.