South IslandNew Zealand is characterised by grand, open landscapes and a great sense of freedom in the sparsely populated areas away from the Christchurch and Dunedin conurbations of the east coast. Divided by the backbone of mountain ranges aptly called the Southern Alps, the South Island is renowned for spectacular snow-topped peaks, fiords, large beech forests, golden sand beaches and fertile, broad plains. There are no active volcanoes – but hot pools abound. The South Island is more than just stunning scenery though. Go hiking (or tramping, as the locals say) through unspoiled valleys, lay down fresh tracks at the many ski fields, get your adrenaline going at a bungee jump or kayak to golden sand beaches. Your visit to the South Island can be as tame or as adventurous as you want.
The biggest cities and some smaller towns of particular interest to travellers, listed from north to south:
- – sunshine city with gold medal winning wineries and craft breweries
- – gateway to the Marlborough Sounds
- – sauvignon blanc central
- – whales and beautiful scenery
- – see a city being rebuilt after the earthquake
- – lakeside town with skiing and scenery
- – stunning setting between lake and mountains
- – little blue penguins and a Victorian streetscape of limestone buildings
- – proud of their Scots heritage, beer, rugby and student shenanigans
- – stunning beaches
- – New Zealand's highest mountains
- – sea lions, largest east coast native forest meets the sea
- – several great hikes and Milford Sound
- – the largest land snails in the world and some of the deepest and most extensive cave systems in the southern hemisphere
- – scenic drowned river valleys, a boaties' paradise
- – vintage boat regattas on Lake Rotoroa, easy to moderate tramping
- – ice, luscious bush and the wild sea
Christchurch, Dunedin, Invercargill and Nelson are the main settlements, but many attractions are outside the cities. All four cities are very different. Christchurch is the largest and had a certain English feel to it until earthquakes and shopping malls took their toll. Nowadays it is definitely a New World city. Dunedin was settled by Scottish Presbyterians and is very proud of those roots. It also feels older than other cities in NZ because it was built by gold rush money in the late 19th century but has since been surpassed by bigger and brasher cities to the north. Invercargill has been steadily losing population for many years but the warmth of that southern welcome will astound you. Nelson is still very young by European standards (although it was the second founded city in New Zealand) but still has its own symphony orchestra and a fine collection of Victorian stately homes. It has a very South Pacific feel with palm trees and a huge and beautiful white sand beach. However, beautiful beaches are a dime a dozen in the South Island and some of the best do not average even one visitor per day.
The sea and the Southern Alps are the main contributors to the island's climate. The moist westerly air flow from the Tasman Sea rises as it hits the mountains. This causes orthographic rain which is dumped on the West Coast of the island; most areas receive over 2000 mm of rain per year here. This rain does have its benefits though, supporting the lush, temperate rain forests of Fiordland.
With very little moisture left in the air after crossing the Southern Alps, eastern areas of the South Island are generally dry, with the Pacific Ocean the only main influence on the moisture. Coastal Christchurch receive only 620 mm of rain per year, while Alexandra, over 100 km away from the ocean in central Otago, receives just 360 mm of rain per year.
Temperatures generally become cooler the further south you go – but you can still experience the classic New Zealand "four seasons in one day" in any part of the island. Coastal regions are generally milder because the sea buffers temperatures. The hot and dry northwesterly winds off the Southern Alps can push temperatures in Canterbury into the mid-to-high 30s and even the low 40s during summer. Rangiora, 25 km north of Christchurch, holds the national record with a high of 42.4 °C (108.3 °F) on 7 February 1973. Elevated regions in the centre of the island have a more alpine climate, being cooler in winter and hotter in summer. Many of the mountains themselves are permanently capped with snow.
In winter, snowfalls are common in central, elevated regions (occasionally leading to the temporary closure of roads). During winter, snow also occasionally falls down to sea level and even coastal region temperatures can often drop below zero overnight (32°F) – although rarely by much.
By planeChristchurch has the island's biggest international airport, with flights from all around the Pacific Rim. Dunedin and Queenstown have flights from Australia.
Many airports have scheduled flights into the South Island, including Picton, Blenheim, Nelson, Takaka, Westport, Kaikoura, Greymouth, Christchurch, Timaru, Dunedin and Queenstown.
Invercargill airport has flights to Stewart Island. Christchurch airport has flights to the Chatham Islands.
Bluebridge and the Interislander ferry companies sail across Cook Strait from Wellington to Picton through the Marlborough Sounds. They take bikes, cars, buses and trains, and the scenery on a good day is spectacular. The ferries are substantial ships designed for the sometimes rough conditions and the journey takes between 3 and 3.5 hours.
By busBuses are a cheap way to get around the main centres. There are a range of types of services, from a luxury coach service to minivan shuttles. Shuttles that service a local area can be found in the articles for the regions and towns that they service.
phone: +64 9 623-1503High quality coaches and extensive network.
phone: +64 9 623-1504High quality tourist coach linking Christchurch, Queenstown and the West Coast glaciers.
phone: +64 3 349-0697Lower cost shuttles.
phone: +64 3 342-8055 or +64 21 781 852Evening/night bus service from Christchurch to Invercargill via Dunedin.
phone: +64 3 434-7370Dunedin, Catlins, Invercargill, Te Anau, Milford Sound.
phone: +64 3 768-0028 or +64 27 492 7000Daily service departs Greymouth 08:00 via Arthur's Pass and Christchurch airport to Christchurch city centre. Departs Christchurch at 15:00 and airport about 15.15 via Arthurs Pass to Greymouth. Comfortable travel at affordable prices. Coaches have on-board toilets.
The South Island has a vast and varying road network. Having less traffic than the North Island, there are very few motorway-standard roads (just in the whole island) so most inter-city driving is done on two-lane undivided highways. The road network also has a large number of single-lane bridges.
Rental cars are available in most sizeable towns. The best range (and hence lowest prices) are in Picton (just off the Cook Strait ferries) and Christchurch.
Internet based rideshare and carpooling systems are growing in New Zealand as fuel prices rise and people recognise the social and environmental benefit of sharing vehicles and travelling with others. While some systems are quite informal, others have trust systems which give greater security when choosing a ride.
- Jayride is a New Zealand ridesharing and hitch hiking website. Their focus is on providing a variety of ride options, for flexibility and cost savings.
By trainThe South Island has two outstanding train services. The daily TranzAlpine runs across the island from Christchurch to Greymouth and back, crossing the Southern Alps at Arthur's Pass, and is one of the most scenic train journeys in the world. The Christchurch–Picton Coastal Pacific crosses the Canterbury Plains before hugging the Kaikoura Coast then travelling through the Marlborough wine region and returning daily (from Oct–Apr only).
- The forest-lined shores of the Marlborough Sounds
- Abel Tasman National Park with its warm weather and sandy bays
- Kaikoura with its rugged coast and mountains dropping almost straight into the sea
- The vast open spaces of the Canterbury Plains with the backdrop of the snow-capped Alps
- The beautiful and sparse Mackenzie Country, with Mount Cook (the tallest mountain in New Zealand) and picturesque lakes
- The dry, open landscapes of Central Otago
- The popular towns of Queenstown and Wanaka, nestled beside lakes among stunning mountain scenery and offering some of the best hiking, kayaking, skiing, jet boating and mountain biking in the country.
- Milford Sound, the most popular and accessible of the many glacial fiords in Fiordland — the highway to get there was voted one of the 10 most scenically stunning road journeys on the planet
- The wild and wet West Coast, complete with easily accessible glaciers
- Wildlife – including seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, penguins, albatrosses and other unique native birds
CyclingThe South Island is a great cycling destination, featuring on road, off-road, and serious downhill mountain biking tracks. Cycling is a popular way to explore both the whole island and individual regions. For some it can be the method of choice for getting around the island and it's not uncommon to see intrepid travellers cycling on South Island highways.
There are a number of specially constructed cycle trails in the South Island and a national project to build a network of world class cycle trails is underway. Of the 18 "Great Rides" planned that will compose the New Zealand Cycle Trail (Nga Haerenga), ten are in the South Island.
Mountain bikingThe Dun Mountain Trail is especially popular for mountain biking. It's based on the line of New Zealand's very first railway - used to transport a variety of minerals from the eastern slopes of the beech forest shrouded 1129 m peak down to the waiting ships in Nelson's haven.
- Off-road - highlights include:
- The original Otago Central Rail Trail, begun in 1994, a 150 km trail on disused railway lines between Clyde, Alexandra and Middlemarch for walking, cycling and horse-riding.
- Tasman's Great Taste Trail
FishingFishing is another draw card. The South Island contains world famous fly fishing destinations such as the Buller, D'Urville, Goulter, Gowan, Karamea, Motueka, Owen, Mokihinui, Pelorus, Sabine, Wairau and Wangapeka Rivers in Nelson Bays using either local guides and accommodation or specialist luxury lodges . Sea fishing is particularly scenic and sheltered in the Marlborough Sounds but the choice is endless.
KayakingKayaking is rewarding in many areas throughout the island; it's a particularly popular and well organized tourist activity in the Abel Tasman National Park and Cable Bay in Nelson Bays
SkiingAll those mountains provide ample terrain for snow enthusiasts, so it's not surprising there are many ski fields in the South Island. While not as large as the resorts in North America or Europe, they provide a good mix of terrain. The largest and most commercially developed ski areas are near Queenstown, Wanaka and Methven. Small "club" fields – with fewer facilities but less crowds – can be found in the Mackenzie Country and Nelson Bays. "Top dollar" heli-skiing is also available in many locations
TrampingThe South Island is a renowned tramping (hiking) destination, with many tracks ranging in length from minutes to weeks. These include some of the finest walks in the world, the so-called "Great Walks": Abel Tasman Coastal Track and Heaphy Track in Nelson Bays, and the Kepler, Milford and Routeburn Tracks in Southland. Most tracks pass through public conservation land and are marked and graded in difficulty by DOC.
Although there are typically no entrance charges to National Parks for either NZ residents or overseas visitors, this is under discussion since some feel that NZ taxpayers are subsidising foreign tourists. Start planning your trip before admission charges kick in!
- Nevis Valley South of Cromwell in Central Otago you can drive on New Zealand's highest public road to this isolated valley which was once a hive of gold-mining activity. While a car is OK for the upper valley, a 4WD is recommended for the many fords further down the valley
- Nelson Bays and Queenstown are both hubs for adventure tourism. Canyoning, skydiving, bungie jumping, paragliding, rafting, jetboating and canyon swinging are just a few of the possibilities on offer
- Crayfish - from the sea around Kaikoura
- Lamb - most notably from Canterbury
- King salmon - farmed in the Marlborough Sounds, and in the Mackenzie Country
- Mussels - in the greenshell mussel capital of Havelock
- Oysters - from Bluff near Invercargill
- Scallops - from the seabed off Nelson
- Stonefruit - especially cherries, plums, apricots and nectarines from Otago
- Venison (deer meat) - farmed throughout the South Island
- Beer – Nelson grows all of the hops and has a thriving export business, so it's not surprising that it has both the pub that was voted "Best in New Zealand" but is also the craft brewing capital. Other regions all have local beers, and also feature their own smaller craft breweries.
- Fruit juice – in Central Otago or boysenberry spritzers in the Upper Moutere.
- Wine – the varied climate of the South Island provides for a number of different climates suitable for growing different varieties of wine. Although the most well known are the Sauvignon Blanc producing region of Marlborough and the Pinot Noir producing region of Central Otago, many of the Gold medals at national and international tasting competitions are often won by lesser known regions such as Nelson Bays and the Canterbury/Waipara regions.