By Adam Smith
Senior Sales Consultant at Travel Nation
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Most people visiting New Zealand will try to plan a trip that combines both islands. However, if you’re short on time, it sometimes pays to choose either the North of South Island, rather than hurrying through both.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the South Island in all its glory. I can honestly say, there is certainly enough to keep you busy, and the variety of the South Island is out of this world.
The South Island is an incredible mix of Maori culture, stunning landscapes that defy the imagination, and delicious wine. The transition from rolling hills and vineyards to the Southern Alps is breathtaking, and the West Coast has all the rugged beauty you’d expect from the Pacific Rim. The South is also home to the incredible Fiordland, and Nelson boasts beautiful beaches and national parks. This is an island that shouldn’t be rushed.
I headed to the South Island in October, which is springtime in New Zealand. It’s a brilliant time to visit, as the weather is warming up and the season is only just getting started, which also means fewer tourists.
The temperature was a steady 18-19 degrees, and we were lucky enough to have clear skies throughout our trip. However, if you do visit in spring, it’s best to be prepared for the odd spot of rainfall, especially on the West Coast! If you want to see the iconic New Zealand lupins in bloom around Lake Tekapo, it’s best to travel in mid-November, when masses of pastel flower spikes stretch as far as the eye can see.
The busier months tend to be between December and February when the weather is hottest, but Spring is easily as breathtaking with a crisper climate too. Spring brings blossoming trees and flowers, fresh mornings and clear blue skies, so October really is a great time to travel.
I’d always recommend at least two weeks in the South Island alone, as the contrast in scenery is so impressive. Even better, if you can give yourself more than two weeks here, you’ll have a chance to get off the beaten track and see some of the more secluded areas.
The route I took was a grand loop of the island, starting in Christchurch. It’s the perfect place to arrive, as many international carriers use the city as an entry point into New Zealand. Christchurch is flourishing after the disastrous earthquakes it suffered, making it a great place to explore.
The streets are lined with quirky coffee shops, arcades and walkways, and many of the damaged areas have been renovated into green spaces, giving the city an airy and open feel. Tramways wind through the centre, and you can easily spend a pleasant day or two recovering from jet lag here!
After Christchurch, I recommend a little trip up to Kaikoura. It’s best known for whale watching, and it’s do-able in a day from Christchurch. The most enjoyable to make the journey is on the scenic Coastal Explorer train. The railway meanders along the rocky coast, with amazing views of penguins and seals, and ends up at Kaikoura. The whale watching is definitely worth it – we managed to see humpback whales breaching the waves as well as dolphins and other magnificent marine life.
Heading south from Christchurch, the road takes you inland to spectacular Lake Tekapo. At a little over two hours drive from Christchurch, you can happily get here in one morning with plenty of time to explore. It’s a wonderful place to spend a couple of days drinking in the scenery, walking the shores of the milky blue lake and signing up for a few adventures.
Tekapo has some great attractions. For the best views in town, take a helicopter ride up to the snowfields of Mt. Cook – it’s simply unforgettable! Another one of my favourite activities at Tekapo was the Dark Sky Experience. The centre itself is home to an excellent exhibition, and you can take a night-trip into the valley and see some of the best views of the milky way in the world.
After time soaking in the views of Tekapo, we headed to our next stop of Wanaka. It’s a little more secluded and off the beaten path than Tekapo. Perched on the shore of Lake Wanaka, the town itself has an authentic charm and a fun, light-hearted atmosphere. The food here is fantastic – try the local crayfish in orange butter!
If you’re eager to get your pulse racing, Wanaka has some amazing opportunities for adrenaline junkies. You can go jet-boating on the lake, or, if you’re feeling brave, try the Wildwire Wanaka for a day. I harnessed up and scaled the cliffs, getting close to some beautiful waterfalls. It was an unforgettable day.
From Wanaka, you can head towards one of the South Island’s most famous areas – Queenstown. Before you roll into the busy and vibrant town, make a pit stop at Gibbston Winery, which produces some of the best pinot noirs the country has to offer. The nearby settlement of Arrowtown is another beautiful haven, with colonial buildings and picturesque streets.
Queenstown itself is famous for adventure sports and access into the amazing Milford Sounds. If you’re in the market for adventure, you can try an extreme jet boat ride on the Shotover River or go bungee jumping off Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge. For panoramic views, don’t miss a trip on the Sky Gondola up to Bob’s Peak, where you can see for miles over the lakes and valleys.
During our stay in Queenstown, we took a trip on the TSS Earnslaw, a vintage steamship taking you over Lake Wakatipu to a nearby island, giving you a taste of colonial farming and more pastoral times. It was a wonderfully relaxing experience, and I can highly recommend it. Back on solid ground, Queenstown is home to a huge range of top-notch restaurants, bars and cafes, so there’s zero chance of getting bored.
Arguably New Zealand’s most stunning natural attraction, Milford Sound is a narrow fiord carved by glaciers flanked with cliffs and waterfalls. It’s nothing short of stunning. No wonder Rudyard Kipling called it the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. You can take a day trip to the Milford Sound from Queenstown, going by either coach, plane or helicopter, and take a cruise of the Sounds itself too.
If you have more time to spare, you can even stay overnight, giving you more time to soak up the dramatic scenery. For a less touristy experience, you can opt to explore Doubtful Sound instead. It’s equal in beauty to Milford, but more difficult to reach, so fewer travellers make the journey. If you’re struggling to decide where to visit, read our blog ‘Doubtful Sound or Milford Sound? How to experience NZ's Fiordland’.
After time in Queenstown, you can then begin to set your sights on the West Coast of the island. Passing back through Fiordland with Mt. Cook on your right, you can swing up towards the rugged coast. This area can be a little more changeable with the weather, but it’s certainly worth it, as the scenery is awe-inspiring.
We stopped off at Franz Joseph Glacier, where we took part in a valley walk. Giving us incredible views of the glacier itself and ending in the town's hot pools was just sublime! There are a few nice bars and restaurants in town too, and you can book helicopter trips over both Franz Josef and Fox Glacier.
The drive up from Franz Joseph to Greymouth is famous for its winding road and stunning scenery, making it one of the most spectacular drives in the world. Be sure to stop off regularly along the way for photo opportunities and also to rest yourself, as the drive can be more demanding than the usual roads back home!
After making your way up the coast, I recommend stopping at Hokitika. It’s a town very closely linked with Maori culture and greenstone. The town is relaxed with a lovely little beach perfect for a picnic break. Jade and greenstone wares can be found here, so a store with a workshop is well worth a visit.
As you head past Greymouth, another highlight I recommend is Punakaiki Beach. It’s known for the ancient limestone Pancake Rocks and blowholes, that can be quite impressive when the waves are rough. Bring your camera and prepare to feel the sea spray on your face.
Coming back inland from the West Coast is easy, and the next destination on your hitlist should be Nelson. Not everyone makes up here, but I have to say that it was one of my favourite spots! The bohemian town has a wonderful beach and it’s lively enough to spend a few days. On top of that, it also gives you the best access to Abel Tasman National Park.
You can take day trip into the park to hike through some incredible forests and coastline or stay within the park itself. Abel Tasman is scattered with golden beaches, inlets and lodges, making it a nature-lovers dream. It’s home to an abundance of wildlife, so it’s a brilliant place to spot some of the rarer birdlife in New Zealand.
We stayed at the incredible Awaroa Lodge, a beautiful property situated right in the park. The level of service is impeccable, and the wine list is very tempting after a long hike in the park.
From Nelson, we headed away from the coast and into wine country. Blenheim and Marlborough are famous in the South Island for their wines, and there are dozens of vineyards and eateries. You can easily finish off a loop of the South Island here, taking in the sights, smells and Sauvignon Blancs of the region with gusto.
In conclusion, taking more time to see the South Island is something I will always recommend to my customers. The South Island caters for all kind of travellers, from families to adrenaline seekers and travellers looking to unwind in more remote areas.
When you’re planning a trip to New Zealand, be sure to put time aside to take in the full glory of the South Island. Hiring a campervan or a car makes it incredibly easy to get around and putting together a self-drive itinerary with us means you’ll see the best that the island has to offer.
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Senior Sales Consultant
Adam’s university days studying Geography set the scene for his early travel plans. Leaving the UK behind for three and a half years, he travelled through the Americas and spent a year living in Costa Rica before heading to the South Pacific islands. A passion for water sports including surfing and sailing encouraged him to undertake his greatest endeavour; a 2-man crossing of the Pacific Ocean which took 8 months and visited 6 countries including Fiji, French Polynesia and Tonga. He joined Travel Nation in 2012 as a round the world specialist and is now one of our Air Product Experts.