December 30, 2016

New Zealand: how to visit the South Island

If you want to know how long to spend in the South Island, this post should help you as I outline each city and region and give my suggestions for how many days to spend in each, as well as provide some options and alternatives if you don’t have a lot of time.

As a passionate Kiwi*, I love it when people email me about where they should visit when they come to New Zealand. Sometimes I reckon I should be a part-time travel agent and sell packages on the side! But I digress…

(* By the way, the kiwi is our national bird. It’s also a nickname for New Zealanders. We love it. It’s not derogatory at all. You’ll find sports teams referring to themselves as Kiwis, as well as just your normal Joe. But here’s the big lesson for Americans: a kiwi is NOT a fruit. A kiwifruit is a fruit. Think of it like grape vs grapefruit or dragon vs dragonfruit, passion vs passionfruit!)

Phew! Now that we’ve got that straightened out : welcome to New Zealand, the land of the kiwi, the Kiwi and the kiwifruit! 

I wrote this post as a basic travel guide to the South Island…

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How many days should I plan to spend in the South Island?

Two weeks is usually the amount of time people allow to see all of New Zealand! Not many have the luxury of two weeks just in the South Island, but for the sake of this post I’m going to assume you have time (or could come back), or that you’re not trying to see a country the size of Great Britain or California in a week!

I have written this post with a guide for how many days are the probably minimum to spend in each region or city, but if you want to see the South Island in two weeks, you can do that too, but bear in mind it’ll be very fast with only a couple of days in most places. My suggestion would be to select just three or four areas and travel a little slower to really soak in all that this amazing part of New Zealand has to show you.

South Island itinerary NZ

Pic taken from the restaurant at the top of the Gondola in Queenstown

If you’re also interested in seeing the North Island, you’ll like this post I wrote on How to See the North Island in 3 Weeks listing my favourite places to visit and my estimation on how many days you should plan to spend there to have a good look around.

 

So, here we go – the South Island in two weeks!

Most people will fly into Christchurch (half way down the East Coast), so I’m going to start here…

South Island road trip
Christchurch – 1 to 2 days

As you might know, Christchurch had a massive earthquake in 2011 and seven years on the city is still slowly coming together. The CBD was pretty much wiped out and any buildings that didn’t fall down were cleared out for structural checking and strengthening.

Sadly there are still buildings to come down BUT we Kiwis are a resilient lot and out of the ashes rose some great new businesses, an innovative pop up shopping mall in brightly painted shipping containers that can be moved as development occurs, and most excitingly the Avon River is being highlighted in a whole new way for dining, drinking and feeding the ducks!

Spend at least a night here and spend some cash in locally owned restaurants, bars and shops (they will be grateful for your business), then jump in your car and choose whether you’re going to tootle north, south or cut across the middle to the West Coast.

Read my post on 6 great places to eat in Christchurch here >>

New Regent St Chch

New Regent Street tram

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Canterbury – 2 to 3 days (north)

Christchurch is the hub of the Canterbury region and a day trip to Akaroa (about 1.5 hours drive) should probably be listed in the days you might spend in Christchurch. Be prepared for a windy road out to this historic British and French settlement on a stunning harbour, but the views are worth it. Swim with the tiny and very rare Hectors dolphins, eat locally made cheese, browse the shops, stay the night or just go for the day.

Hanmer Springs is worth at least one night. It’s just under 2 hours drive north of Christchurch surrounded by lovely wineries where I have picked up stunning pinot noir on my visits to said cellar doors! I just drank my 2010 this year. Velvet! But as the name suggests, the hot springs are why people want to stay a night.

The most central hotel is the Heritage Hanmer Springs, across the road from the gorgeous hot springs which is great in the snowy depths of winter or the sunny days of summer. It also has a spa if you need a massage.

South Island road trip

Hanmer Springs has rock pools and regular pools

Kaikoura is a further 1 hour 45 mins north of Hanmer and is Maori for “eating crayfish” (spiny lobster) and there are two reasons why you’ll want to spend a night (or two) here. One is the aforementioned crayfish which you can buy from various joints in town, but for a real kiwi experience, drive out to Nin’s Bin, a little caravan on the side of the road, where crays are brought in fresh each day to be cooked the way you like it. Bring a bottle of sauvignon blanc and some plastic cups to complete the experience! I stayed at Hapuku Lodge, a luxury treetop hotel which I loved, especially if it’s chilly enough to put your own wood burning fire on!

The other reason to allow a couple of days here is the amazing, gigantic sperm whales. Book a whale watching tour and chances are good that you’ll see their giant flukes as they dive down to depths of a kilometre to the undersea shelf that they feed from. They may look like huge graceful mammals floating and fluking on the ocean, but these guys dine on great white sharks! A very cool experience. Oh and not to mention the dolphins and seals you’ll also see, but which honestly pale into insignificance!

Note: if you have been following news since the Kaikoura earthquake of 2017, you’ll be pleased to know the coastal road through to Blenheim is now open.

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Marlborough – 2 to 3 days (north)

Now you are north of Kaikoura and you’re in the famous Marlborough sauvignon blanc region which stretches up to Blenheim and Picton at the top of the South Island. A night or two at a lodge in the Sounds is an incredible place to relax and melt into nature. Loads of hiking trails, kayaking, fishing…

But Blenheim has some deliciously gorgeous wineries. Try Hanz Herzog for a Michelin star lunch (except we don’t have the Michelin system in NZ, but the owner is a Michelin chef from Europe). I loved Auntsfield for their history and their quest to grow the original muscat grapes again. Their pinot was one of those 2010’s I opened and was amazed by too! But for fabulous sauvignon blanc tasting and a fun afternoon, take a winery bike tour through the “golden mile”. (Read my post here on mountain biking and wine biking >>)

If you’re a war buff you’ll want to visit Omaka, film maker Sir Peter Jackson’s WWI and II memorabilia museum that he has set up with recreated war scenes thanks to his mates at Weta Workshop. It’s an incredible collection of real artifacts and antiques which seem to come alive.

I adore this part of New Zealand! Here’s my post on 3 things not to miss in Marlborough (once you’ve drunk all the wine!)

Omaka aviation centre

One of Sir Peter Jackson’s war scenes

Nelson/Tasman – 2 nights to a week! (top of South Island)

Nelson officially has the most sunshine days in NZ each year. It’s actually on my Bucket List as I haven’t been for years and years. It was originally known for its artists and out of Nelson came the now internationally famous World of Wearable Art annual fashion show which Wellington is lucky enough to host now.

My ambition is to kayak on the crystal waters of Abel Tasman National Park, but maybe do it glamping style, which sounds more me than schlepping my stuff around in a waterproof pod for a few days!

Abel Tasman National Park

How gorgeous is this? Pic Flickr/Christiaan Biggs

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West Coast – 2 to 3 nights

I remember driving the west coast as a teenager on a family holiday (dad was actually driving) and I found it to be utterly boring! Bear that in mind if you have kids with you, but if not, then plan to spend a night in Hokitika or Greymouth. The former hosts the crazy and innovative Hokitika Wild Food Festival in March where you can gulp down a shot glass of horse semen or chew on a fried huhu grub.

Most visitors to this rugged part of NZ come to see Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, further down the coast. Driving down the coast from Nelson on Hwy 6, you must stop at Punakaiki, also known as the Pancake Rocks (where my sister nearly fell in! Note: you can’t get that close these days 🙂

Or if you drive on Hwy 7 a stop at NZ’s quirkiest pub, the Blackball Hilton, is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Grab lunch and head south to the coast staying at either Hokitika or Greymouth.

To get to the glaciers you have a long drive ahead of you and while it’s amazing scenery, it is rather same same! (Sorry, I’m being 17). After seeing them (and hiking further than you used to thanks to melted glaciers over the years) you’ll continue to Haast and cut east through Mt Aspiring National Park and I’d recommend staying in Wanaka for at least 2 days (or 5).

Pancake rocks NZ

Incredible Punakaiki’s pancake rocks with the mighty blowhole. Pic Flickr/macronix

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Queenstown/Wanaka – 2 to 3 nights (unless it’s winter and you’ve come here to ski!)

Queenstown is the winter party capital of New Zealand! The annual winter festival sees the city and the ski fields heaving with visitors and events, but in summer it’s just as magical. Some people fly into Queenstown and spend a week just here. That would be a great way to see a slice of NZ too and take day trips from here into Central Otago. The lake is stunning and several restaurants and bars are located around it in the city. Here’s a blog post I wrote with more detail about exploring Queenstown to Wanaka in 5 days >>

It’s here you’ll get to try screaming around in the rippingly fast Shotover jet boats, you could head out to Kawerau to AJ Hackett to do the longest bungy jump in the world and the newly launched Catapult which shoots you across the river like a rocket! . Amisfield winery is well worth stopping at for lunch if you’re heading through to quaint Arrowtown, which is stunning in Autumn by the way.

If you do go on to Wanaka (or you’re coming back from there) have lunch at the Cardrona pub. And of course, you are surrounded by NZ’s best ski fields.

This is also the gateway to the wine region of Central Otago and gorgeous old mining towns like Clyde (read my post I’m bonnie in Clyde here >)

Stop at Gibbston Winery and Mt Difficulty near Cromwell too for lunch and a wine tasting, and if you like adrenalin, then a spin in a McLaren race car is a hair-raising must. (I did it here! >)

Queenstown lake

Queenstown’s beautiful lake front

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Fiordland – 2 to 5 days (depending if you’re hiking!) south-west

To be honest I’ve only ever been to Te Anau and Lake Manapouri and taken (the very impressive) tour underground to the power station. But the reason Fiordland is on many people’s Bucket Lists is for Milford Sound. Breathtaking waterfalls, hiking trails, snow-capped peaks, lakes, bush, big skies. It doesn’t get much better than this. You can also take cruises on the lakes and around the fiords.

Milford Track kea

You’ve got to watch out for cheeky keas! Pic Flickr/Gavin Yeats

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Dunedin/Otago – 2 to 3 days

Dunedin is influenced by the early Scottish settlers and the town has many old stone buildings as well as a slight accent that you’ll notice if you have your ears on. It’s known as a university town, but don’t let that put you off! Christchurch, Wellington, Hamilton and Auckland all have universities too! The Octagon is a great place to start for dining and shopping and as you would expect, it’s octagonally shaped and streets lead from it.

If you’re a rugby fan, Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr stadium is the only one in New Zealand that has a roof. Not that that means it’s a warmer experience, thanks to the open ends creating a wind tunnel effect – but at least it’s dry! In July the city turns to chocolate with the Cadbury Chocolate Carnival and the crazy giant Jaffa rolling race down Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world! See my video of that here >>

Otago is the wider region and the peninsular is a great drive, especially if you want ogle the huge albatross that nest on the mainland. And one of the best things to do with family or friends, and which is on my Great NZ Bucket List, is to cycle the Otago Rail Trail staying at BnBs along the way over a few days.

Dunedin Cadbury jaffa roll

If you look carefully you can see a sea of orange Jaffas rolling down the street!

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Mackenzie Country – 2 to 3 days (near Christchurch)

We’ve now almost looped back to Christchurch where we started, but this time south west of the Garden City. I spent four days in the Mackenzie Country last winter, but you could do it justice in three days.

Tekapo is stunning in any season. The cute stone Church of the Good Shepherd is where you can expect to find marriage proposals and photographers – sometimes together, as I happened to be an unofficial and very surprised photog when I was there! Tekapo Springs is a series of hot pools shaped to look like the surrounding lakes and positioned lake front for amazing views while you soak. They also have an ice skating rink in winter and an inflatable water slide in summer.

If you’re a fan of galaxies far far away, Mackenzie Country boasts the largest black sky reserve in the world where enormous telescopes are set up and you can take a night tour up Mt John to star gaze and planet spot.

Then spend a night out at Mt Cook. I stayed at the Hermitage Hotel out here surrounded by soaring mountains and great for hiking, helicopter flight seeing and the Sir Edmund Hillary experience. Here’s my post on how to spend 5 days in the Mackenzie Country in much more detail! >>

Tekapo road trip

A quick big sky snap on my Mackenzie Country road trip.

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If you’re now planning on hitting the North Island, read my:
Tips for seeing the North Island in three weeks >>

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About Megan Singleton

Megan

Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio every week and a few newspapers and mags from time to time. I set off on this travel writing journey 18 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for monthly newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!

"New Zealand: how to visit the South Island" - What do you think?

Leave a comment

  1. KAREN JONES on

    It’s so beautiful. I won a shirt from a radio contest back in the 90’s. The shirt has an image of a kiwifruit and it had print writing that said “The Beauty Is On The Inside”. I never knew that the fruit is not just Kiwi until I read your page. You did a fantastic job on giving us who cant tour, a tour. xo

    Reply
  2. Wayne Olson on

    Hey Megan!
    I love all your pictures! Your trip looks like a great adventure. Everybody should go to New Zealand once in a lifetime to see all the beautiful places! 🙂
    thanks for the great Blog.

    Best wishes!

    Reply
  3. Gwenael Morin on

    Hi Megan,

    Thank you for your description ! What was the period of your trip ?

    I’ll do the same in June-July, what about this ?

    Gwen

    Reply
    • Megan on

      Hi Gwenael, this post is written from several visits at different times of the year. June-July will be winter and the ski fields usually open in June. So if skiing is your thing, that will be a great time to visit places like Queenstown and Methven.

      Reply
  4. Simon Leong on

    Hi Megan,

    thanks for sharing all the very useful information.
    My family of 4 has been thinking of taking a self-drive vacation to NZ and initially, we were hoping to cover both the North and South Islands within 14 days however, it seems a little to rush to really enjoy what the beautiful islands of NZ have to offer. After reading your posting on South Island, we thought it would be more meaningful to just cover the South Island in 14 days. As we are planning to travel from 17-30 June 2018. Recognized that this period is also Winter in NZ, will there be less of things to see and do compare to other seasons? Are the nights longer than days during Winter in NZ?

    As we planned to self-drive, is this a good idea and based on your posting, how should we divide the 14 days so that we can see and do more and yet, not too rushing?

    Appreciate your kind advice.
    Thanks Megan.

    Regards
    Simon Leong

    Reply
  5. K. Steven on

    Hi Megan,

    What an excellent write up on your trip:). Hope to get some help from you. I will be flying in to Christ Church from Singapore from 11 May 21 May 18. I will be renting a car and I have 11 days to cover South. I wish to cover some of these places Kalkoura, Hanmer springs, Hokitika, Franz Josef, Fox Glacier, Queenstown, Te Anau, Dunedin, Wanaka, Mt. Cook, Tekapo, back to Christ Church. How can I plan my journey within the 11 days that I have. Thank you very muck.

    Regards,

    Steven.

    Reply
    • Megan on

      Hi Steven, these trips take a while to plan! I’d get a map if I were you, print it out, highlight the places you’ve mentioned then plot your route. You will be doing an awful lot of driving to see all these places in 11 days and when you see it on a map and calculate the drive times, you’ll see what I mean! I’m not a travel agent so I don’t plan trips for people, but hopefully this post will give you an overview of maybe where you want to go and where you might have to leave out if you want to spend more than a night everywhere – Megan

      Reply
    • Ana Clifton on

      Hi Megan
      Can you make my decision for me?
      14 days in 1 island? We like sightseeing/hiking/good food/relaxing. We will have a car. We don’t want to do more than 2/3 hours each time we travel. Would love your honesty
      Thanks
      Ana-Australia

      Reply
      • Megan on

        Hi Karen, yes you could easily spend 2 weeks in one island! I’ve spent 5 days in a 2-hour radius in Central Otago :). North or South will be your decision, so have a read through my North Island post too and then you can enjoy slow travel and take your time to see things and not be rushed. Hope that helps, Megan

        Reply
    • Megan on

      Hi Elle, our intercity bus transport is not as good as in some countries. However with some forward planning (and bookings) you will be able to achieve most of these places. Go for it!

      Reply
  6. amira on

    Hello Meghan! Thankyou so much for this post! Im planning on going there on Sep/Oct next year with my girl friends (4 of ud). Can you suggest is it better for me to take domestic flight or ferry to Christchurch from Auckland. Which way is cheap? Rent a campervan so that ill save for hotel and motel? Or just rent a car and book an accommodation. Is it okay for me to do venis swing and jet boating in spring?
    Thankyou Meghan!

    Reply
  7. Trudy Clement on

    We are travelling from Canada to New Zealand in Jan/Feb of 2018. After disembarking from our cruise in Auckland on Jan 26th our plan is to fly to the south island (we have seen a lot of the north), rent a car and tour for 13 days before returning home. Any advice on where to start our adventure? Thanks
    (PS….your above itinerary sounds good :-} )

    Reply
  8. Belinda Keepence on

    Hi Megan,
    Thank you so much for sharing your blog, such a great read.
    We are looking to travel to New Zealand next October with our 2 children for our 10 year wedding anniversary. It will be our first time in New Zealand and was thinking of coming over for 3 weeks and travelling up and down the South Island in a Campervan.
    Can you recommend some must see’s and do’s with 2 young children? We definetly would love to book into a traditional Hangy/ Hakka experience, Abel Tasmain, Glaciers, Nelson but was hoping to get your expert advise on anything else you could reccommend?
    We will mostly be staying at Holiday parks too..
    Thank you in advance

    Reply
    • Megan on

      Hi Belinda
      Your trip will be amazing! I do have lots more NZ content on the blog which I think you’ll find useful. It would take hours for me to make suggestions as I’d need to know your itinerary and some more info about your family’s likes and dislikes. So have a good search through in my NZ category and feel free to send me specific questions if you have them.
      Megan

      Reply
  9. Lishan Loong on

    Hi Megan,
    I came across your blog while I researched on NZ travel. My husband and I are planning to travel to South NZ from Oct 6-18 to celebrate our 20th year anniversary. It’s our first time to NZ and we are so looking forward to this trip and want to make the most of it but yet want it pretty relaxing and chill.

    We will be flying in & out of Queenstown. Our plan is to rent a car from the airport and drive to Queenstown , Franz Joseph, Te Anau. We are flying in from Singapore so it’s a long way from home and want to take the first 2 days just recovering from jet lag.

    Would appreciate your input/advice to our plan and also any hotel recommendations would be appreciated. As my husband is the only person driving, we want to take it slow and not rush around. So here it is.

    Oct 6-8 : Queenstown (2 nights)
    Oct 8 -9: a night in either Wanaka or Haast on our way to Franz Josef
    Oct 9-11: Franz Josef (2 night)
    Oct 11 – 13: ( 2 nights) Wanaka or Haast (Driving back from Franz Josef heading to Te Anau)
    Oct 13-15: Te Anau (2 nights)
    Oct 15: Milford Sound night cruise
    Oct 16-18: Queenstown

    Thank you so much in advance for your help.

    Best,
    Lishan

    Reply

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