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South Island New Zealand Adventure Travel Guide

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Welcome to our adventure travel guide to one of our favourite islands in the entire world – the South Island of New Zealand! From the majestic peaks of the Southern Alps to the pristine fjords of Milford Sound, this far way island paradise is a playground for adventurers.

 

We’ll share valuable tips for each season, ensuring you make the most of your visit whether you’re skiing in the winter wonderland or hiking in the vibrant spring. We’ll also provide insights into the cost of travel, helping you plan a budget-friendly expedition to this beautiful half of the country.

 

So get ready to immerse yourself in the breath-taking landscapes, adrenaline-pumping activities, and rich cultural experiences that make the South Island of New Zealand so special!

Good to know

Currency

New Zealand Dollar (NZD)

Language

English, Māori 

Plug Type

Type I

Time Zone

GMT+12

What to see and do in South Island, New Zealand

The South Island of New Zealand is a land of untamed beauty and rural escapes, with natural wonders and adventure activities at every turn. Here are some must-see attractions and exhilarating experiences to include in your South Island adventure:

 

Explore the National Parks

Immerse yourself in the pristine wilderness of South Island’s national parks. Discover the rugged beauty of Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound, with its majestic fjords and powerful waterfalls, marvel at the towering peaks and glaciers of Mount Cook National Park or take a hike through Abel Tasman National Park, where golden beaches meet lush green forests.

Fiordland National park bridge

Fiordland National Park

Sunset at Sealy Tarns with Mount Cook reflection

Mt Cook Aoraki National Park

Camper Van Road Trip

Hit the open road and embark on a camper van adventure from the coastal highways to the mountain passes in undoubtedly on of the best places in the world for it! We have explored the South Island by camper 3 times now and there is nothing quite like spending nights under the starry southern skies and waking up to alpine views – more often than not for free!

 

Hiking Trails

Lace up your hiking boots and tackle some of South Island’s rewarding world famous trails. Challenge yourself with the iconic multi-day hikes of the Kepler and Milford Tracks for the adventure of a lifetime, or keep it casual with a countless number of short walks and day hikes such as the Hooker Valley Track, where you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of glaciers and mountains in the heart of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park.

Bridge with Mount Cook in the background on Hooker Valley Track, New Zealand

Hooker Valley

View over mountains from Breast Hill hike in Wanaka, New Zealand

Breast Hill

Visit the Adventure Capital

Brace yourself for an adrenaline-fueled escape in Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand. Take the plunge with the worlds first commercial bungee jump, feel the rush of jet boating on the Shotover River, or witness the town’s panoramic beauty from above form a scenic helicopter flight. For such a relatively small place, Queenstown offers an incredible array of adventure activities all year round that is sure to leave you exhilarated and wanting more!

View from helicopter tour over Queenstown
Earnslaw Burn Helicopter tour landing

Explore the Coasts

Dive into the ocean wonders of the South Island’s stunning coast lines where you can exploring hidden coves and secluded beaches by kayak in the Abel Tasman, embark on a whale and dolphin watching tour in Kaikoura or take a trip down the West Coast to witness some of the most unique landscapes and photo opportunities New Zealand has to offer.

Sand dunes at Wharaiki beach during sunset in Golden Bay, New Zealand

Wharariki Beach

Drone shot above florence hill look out beach in The Catlins, New Zealand

Florence Hill Lookout

Book your adventure

When is the best time of year to visit South Island, New Zealand

The South Island of New Zealand offers distinct experiences throughout the year, each season showcasing its own unique charm, so here’s a breakdown of what you can expect from each season to help you decide which time is right for you:

 

Spring (September-November)

Spring is a delightful time to visit the South Island, as nature awakens with vibrant blooms and lush greenery. The temperatures start to rise, and the crowds are relatively smaller compared to the peak season, making it an excellent time for hiking, with clearer skies and less snow on the trails. Witness the cherry blossoms in full bloom at Hagley Park in Christchurch or catch the start of the famous Lupin season at Lake Tekapo.

 

Summer (December-February)

Summer is the peak tourist season in South Island, and for a good reason, the days are long, the weather is warm, and the country comes alive with festivals and outdoor activities.

Photo by Peter Hammer

Autumn (March-May)

Autumn in South Island is a treat for nature lovers and photographers as the weather remains pleasant for the most part, making it an ideal time for outdoor exploration. Autumn is also a fantastic time for wildlife encounters, such as spotting seals and dolphins along the coastline.

 

Winter (June-August)

Winter blankets the mountainous regions of South Island in a snowy wonderland, offering a completely different experience to the summer months. The crowds disperse and the mountains become a haven for winter sports enthusiasts, with world-class ski fields in Queenstown and Wanaka. It can be cold but don’t count it out, for me the wintery mountain landscapes and quiet roads make it one of the best times of year for a road trip!

Snowy mountain views over Lake Tekapo from Mount John Observatory in Winter

Lake Tekapo

View from Roy's Peak hike in Wanaka, New Zealand during winter

Roy's Peak

How expensive is South Island, New Zealand

New Zealand, including the South Island, can be pretty expensive all round, but with proper planning and budgeting, you can make the most of your adventure on a budget without breaking the bank. Here’s an overview of the expenses you can expect during your visit:

 

Accommodation

As always, accommodation prices vary depending on the type and location. In major hot spots like Christchurch and Queenstown, hotel rates can be higher, especially during peak seasons but budget-friendly options include backpacker hostels, holiday parks and campsites (including free sites) are plentiful. Renting out a self-contained camper van can be one of the cheapest way to provide both accommodation and transportation.

 

Transportation

Although renting a car or camper van gives you the freedom to explore at your own pace, it still comes with added costs such as fuel expenses, daily rental charges and insurance cover. If you want to reduce you’re spending to a minimum, public transportation, such as buses and trains are available but are very limited outside of the cities.

Camper van under the night sky in Takaka, New Zealand

Dining and Food

Eating out in New Zealand can be pricey, if you’re on a budget, consider trying local takeaway options, food courts, or grocery stores for self-catering meals – the cheapest is Pack’nSave. Sampling New Zealand’s renowned fish and chips or experiencing a traditional Kiwi barbecue can be affordable and delicious options for eating out.

 

Activities and Attractions

Adventure activities, such as bungee jumping, skydiving, and jet boating tend to be expensive at full price but we managed to secure last minute deals for almost every activity we did using sites like Bookme. If you can be somewhat flexible with your dates and times I would highly recommend checking them out for the cheapest rates. Luckily exploring nature and hiking in national parks are usually free or only have minimal charges or donations – on our most recent tour of the south we barely spent a penny on activities!

 

Whenever we travel we use our Wise international bank account and debit card to spend and withdraw cash at the true exchange rate –  it’s such an easy way to save time and money when you travel!

Is South Island, New Zealand safe?

New Zealand, including the South Island, is generally considered a safe destination for travellers, boasting a reputation for being one of the safest places in the world to visit. However, it’s important to be aware of a few considerations to ensure a safe and stress free trip:

 

Personal Safety

Exercise the same level of caution you would in any other destination – take basic safety precautions such as being aware of your surroundings, securing your belongings, and avoiding isolated or poorly lit areas, particularly at night and in the cities.

 

Natural Hazards

New Zealand is known for its geothermal activity, which can and has lead to significant hazards such as earthquakes and landslides. Stay informed about any potential risks and follow advice from local authorities, if you’re planning to visit areas prone to natural hazards, make sure to check the latest updates and take necessary precautions. Always stay informed about weather forecasts, particularly if you’re planning outdoor activities and be prepared for sudden weather shifts by packing appropriate clothing and equipment.

 

Road Safety

If you plan on driving or renting a vehicle, familiarize yourself with New Zealand’s road rules and conditions as roads can be narrow, winding, and often unsealed or uneven.

The Great Coast Road from a drone at sunset on the West Coast of New Zealand

Great Coast Road

Outdoor Activities

New Zealand’s stunning natural landscapes offer various adventure activities. While these activities are generally safe, it’s essential to follow signs and safety guidelines, use qualified guides for specialized activities, and check weather conditions before embarking on outdoor adventures. Always be cautious and well-prepared, especially for activities like hiking in remote areas.

 

Overall, New Zealand’s commitment to safety and the friendliness of its residents make it a particularly welcoming and secure destination. By staying aware, following safety guidelines, and just using your common sense, you can enjoy a worry-free adventure in the South Island’s stunning landscapes.

 

Make sure you’re covered with travel insurance – it’s a small investment that could make a big difference if something goes wrong!

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where to stay in South Island, New Zealand

Whether you seek vibrant city life, tranquil lakeside retreats, or secluded mountain hideaways, the South Island of New Zealand offers a diverse range of places to stay, each with its own unique charm and attractions. Here are some of our recommended areas to consider for your itinerary:

 

Queenstown and Wanaka

Immerse yourself in the adventure capital of Queenstown or the serene beauty of Wanaka. Queenstown offers a bustling atmosphere, luxury resorts, and budget-friendly hostels, while Wanaka provides a more laid-back vibe with lakeside lodges and charming B&Bs.

 

Fiordland 

Experience the breath-taking wonders of Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound from the gateway town of Te Anau or escape reality with a stay in the heart of the Fiordland National Park at the Milford Lodge, one of the only places offering accommodation with Milford Sound right at your doorstep.

Fiordland National Park orange grass with mountain view

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The Milford Lodge is located in the heart of the Fiordland National Park, less than 5 minutes from Milford Sound. It’s the best way to experience the eighth wonder of the world from sunrise to sunset! 

Christchurch and Canterbury

Discover the vibrant city of Christchurch with its artsy vibes, innovative architecture, and a range of accommodation options, including boutique hotels and serviced apartments. Alternatively, explore the picturesque Canterbury region and stay in charming towns like Akaroa, Hanmer Springs, or Methven.

 

Nelson

Often overlooked, Nelson is the gateway city to adventure in the South Island and if you’re coming from the North, one of your first stops. It’s only a short drive from the Abel Tasman National Park and serves as your entry point to the picturesque hidden gem of Golden Bay, where you can explore one of my favourite beaches in the world – the spectacular Wharariki Beach!

Wharariki beach arch at sunset in Golden Bay, New Zealand
Wharariki Beach drone view, Golden Bay, New Zealand

Wharariki Beach

Photo by Peter Hammer

West Coast and Franz Josef/Fox Glacier

Experience the untamed wilderness of the West Coast with its rugged coastline, lush rainforests, and majestic glaciers. Stay in towns like Franz Josef or Fox Glacier, offering a range of accommodations and once in a lifetime activities from glacier walking to heli-hiking.

how to get to and around South Island, New Zealand

Flights

Most international travellers arrive in New Zealand by flying into one of the major international airports such as Auckland Airport (AKL) on the North Island and Christchurch Airport (CHC) on the South Island, both have direct connections to numerous destinations worldwide. If you’re already in New Zealand or arriving from another city within the country, domestic flights offer convenient connections to destinations across the country. Domestic airlines like Air New Zealand and Jetstar operate frequent flights between major cities and regional airports.

Find the cheapest flights

Rental Cars and Campervans

Renting a car or campervan is the most popular choice for exploring New Zealand at your own pace. Campervans provide both transportation and accommodation, giving you the freedom to explore scenic routes and remote areas – New Zealand’s unique freedom camping laws makes this one of the best camper van destinations in the world!

Camper van parked along Milford Road in Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

Ferries

To travel between the North Island and South Island, you can take a scenic ferry ride across the Cook Strait. Interislander and Bluebridge are the two major ferry operators, providing regular services between Wellington on the North Island and Picton on the South Island. The journey takes approximately 3 hours and offers breathtaking views of the Marlborough Sounds.

Sunset view from the ferry in Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

Public Transport

New Zealand has a public transportation network consisting of buses and trains, although they are more limited in some areas. Intercity buses connect major cities and towns, while regional buses offer transportation within specific areas. Trains operate between certain cities, providing scenic journeys. However, due to the remote nature of the South Island, public transportation options may not be as frequent or comprehensive as you are probably used to.

 

Guided Tours and Transfers

If you prefer a hassle-free experience, guided tours are available for various regions and attractions, often including transportation, accommodation, and guided activities. Additionally, shuttle services operate in popular tourist areas, offering convenient transfers between locations and attractions.

 

It’s important to note that distances between destinations in New Zealand can be significant, with journeys often taking much longer than expected, so plan your itinerary accordingly and allow ample travel time. Always check for road closures, weather conditions and any travel advisories before you set off.