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South Island Travel Guide

Useful information for planning your trip around the South Island, New Zealand

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Tasman Glacier Lake, Mt Cook, South Island

Tasman Glacier Lake, Mt Cook, South Island

Image Courtesy of Malene Holm

For international tourists and visitors to New Zealand, it is the South Island that most of them come to see. With its dramatic scenery, dominated by the mountains of the Southern Alps, this is the New Zealand that is breathtaking and awe inspiring. This Guide will give you an overview on how to make the most of your visit to the South Island.

South Island Geography

The South Island is nearly one third larger in land area than the North Island. It is dominated by the Southern Alps, a mountain range 280 miles (450 kilometers) long and running north to south for most of the length of the island. The eastern side of the Alps is notable for the large and flat plains of Canterbury and North Otago. The west coast is generally wetter, wilder and more rugged.

The majority of New Zealand's most dramatic natural features are in the South Island, including lakes, mountains, glaciers and fiords. The exception is volcanoes, which are more common and active in the North Island.

More than forty percent of the South Island is legally protected public land, a much higher percentage than the North Island. This includes ten of New Zealand's fourteen national parks. The South Island also contains one of New Zealand's three UNESCO World Heritage sites, Te Wahipounamu in the southwest corner. This alone incorporates four of the national parks.

South Island Weather and Best Time to Visit

The South Island has a hugely varied climate due to the regional differences. The west coast can be very wet (Fiordland in the south west is one of the wettest places on earth). The east coast is significantly drier.

The southern part of the South Island has some of the most extreme weather variation in New Zealand. Winters are cold and often rather dry, making it the ideal time to enjoy the island's winter sports, especially skiing and snowboarding. Summers can be quite hot. Apart from winter, the rest of the year is great for outdoor activities such as hiking and tramping the many tracks and trails throughout the island.

Summer is the most popular time for visiting the South Island. In the winter the main attraction is the skiing and snowboarding although outside of New Zealand school holidays, the ski fields are relatively uncrowded.

Depending on what you are wanting to do, any time is a good time to visit. Spring and autumn (fall) often have pleasant temperatures and weather without the crowds of summer - although the South Island is such a big place that there are few places where you will feel like it is busy at any time of the year.

South Island Regions

There are seven distinct regions in the South Island. They are (from north to south):

  • Tasman (including the Abel Tasman National Park)
  • Nelson
  • Marlborough
  • West Coast
  • Canterbury (including Christchurch, Kaikoura and Aoraki/Mt Cook)
  • Otago (including Queenstown)
  • Southland (including Dunedin, Fiordland, Milford Sound and Stewart Island)

South Island Cities, Towns and Population

The South Island is sparsely populated; less than a third of New Zealand's total population lives here. It is also less diverse culturally than the North Island, with more than 90% being of European origin.

Christchurch is by far the biggest city (around 380,000) followed by Dunedin (117,000), Nelson (60,000) and Invercargill (49,000). Other towns with more than 10,000 people are Blenheim (Marlborough), Timaru and Ashburton (Canterbury), Oamaru and Queenstown (Otago) and Greymouth ( West Coast).

South Island Travel Itineraries and Routes

Distances between the South Island's attractions can be significant. Plan your route with some of these driving tours:

South Island Maps (by Region)

Here are some maps that will assist your travel through the South Island.

Best Places to Visit in the South Island

There are so many breathtaking sights in the South Island that highlighting a few is rather difficult! Nevertheless, the following are amongst the best known that you won't want to miss.

Marlborough: Vineyards and Wineries

Canterbury: Kaikoura, Hanmer Springs, Christchurch, Aoraki/Mt Cook, Lake Tekapo

West Coast: Fox and Franz Josef glaciers Otago: Queenstown

Southland: Milford Sound

Learn more about these in our South Island Highlights

Best Things to Do in the South Island

Skiing and Snowboarding: Mt Hutt (Canterbury), Queenstown (several fields) Walking and Hiking: National parks in Tasman, Canterbury, Otago and Southland (including Fiordland) Water sports: Rafting (Queenstown) and kayaking

Whale Watching: Kaikoura

Wine Tasting: Marlborough, Waipara, Central Otago

Learn More About the South Island

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