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Best things to do & places to stay:

Last updated: 05 January, 2023
Expert travel writer: Mark Chipperfield

Remote, windswept and thinly populated, New Zealand’s South Island isn’t the obvious candidate for international tourism celebrity.

But for many people who live in the post-industrial cities of Western Europe and North America, this place is a primordial playground where you can ski, snowboard, hike, kayak and bungee jump to your heart’s content. The only factories here are wineries, breweries and Queenstown – a place devoted entirely to carefree fun.

The fact that most Kiwis are terribly nice makes travelling here even more pleasant. Strip away the backpacker veneer, however, and you’ll find a much more complex and intriguing destination coloured by compelling Maori culture.

And for nature and outdoor adventure, there are few places, if any, that can match it.

Orientation

Covering 151,000sq km, South Island is compact and sparsely populated. Christchurch is the main gateway city; world-class skiing and its notorious adventure/thrill attractions are centred on Queenstown.

The south and west coasts offer wild, rugged wilderness and excellent ecotours. South Island boasts three major wine regions: Marlborough, Waitako and Central Otago.

Unmissable Fjordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks in the south west offer amazing hiking and unforgettable ‘Lord of the Rings’ scenery.

Culture & Customs

New Zealanders are naturally gregarious, friendly and keen to share their country with outsiders. Sport and drinking are the two most popular pastimes, but Kiwis have a passion for outdoor adventure – especially reckless activities.

But there’s more to New Zealand than thrills. The traditional Maori culture and folklore remains strong and proud, adding a unique and fascinating cultural flavour to a visit here. Look out for Maori decorations, nomenclature, jewellery, dancing and tattooing.

Food & Drink

Dining in New Zealand is generally pretty informal. Pub grub, affordable café fare and cheap and cheerful Asian eateries abound. But the produce is exceptionally good – as is the wine and local craft beer. Thankfully, the Pacific Rim cuisine of the 1990s has been replaced with more robust flavours, drawing on New Zealand’s European heritage.

Traditional Maori food is difficult to find – unless you are invited to someone’s home. Touristy hangis are usually awful.

The bucket list experiences our writer says you must do in this destination

Marlborough Wine Region

Blenheim, South Island, New Zealand

New Zealand’s largest, prettiest and most celebrated wine region boasting over 80+ intimate, welcoming wineries.

Best for ages: 18+ | Free

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Other worthwhile experiences in this destination if you have the time or the interest

The new Air Force museum shows classic aircrafts of New Zealand
Experience

Air Force Museum

Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand

This national museum for New Zealand’s Air Force (RNZAF), dedicated to the country’s aviation history, occupies 37 hectares in a Christchurch suburb. The six display buildings feature historic aircraft, engines and components, enemy memorabilia, informative and interactive displays and even a Mosquito plane simulator. Open daily.

Best for ages: 8+ | Free

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Tourists are walking around the main street of Arrowtown
Experience

Arrowtown

Arrowtown, South Island, New Zealand

This charming town showcases New Zealand’s gold-mining history – a rare taste of heritage in this modern nation. Founded in 1862, at its height it was home to over 7,000 residents (today around 3,000). Many of the original buildings have been preserved, creating a character-filled main street – that’s now home to some excellent shops and restaurants.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Boat tours of Okarito Lagoon
Experience

Boat tours of Okarito Lagoon

Franz Josef, South Island, New Zealand

Nature lovers, especially bird lovers, should not miss a cruise on this huge estuarine lagoon, filled with birds and other wildlife. Two-hour guided tours on a flat-bottomed jetboat allow you access even to shallow areas, where you can spot iconic white herons, godwits and oystercatchers. All to a magnificent backdrop of Mount Cook. Daily tours Nov-May.

Best for ages: 4+ | £50 | 2 hours

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Cardrona Distillery
Experience

Cardrona Distillery

Wanaka, South Island, New Zealand

This artisan, family-run distillery is renowned for its handcrafted single-malt whisky, gin, vodka and liqueurs. 75-minute guided tours take you behind the scenes to see the production process, and of course, to sample some of the outputs.

Best for ages: 18+ | Free

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Overview >

Our selection of the best Viator tours of this destination, plus helpful tickets and transfers

5-Day South Island Tour from Christchurch

5-Day South Island Tour from Christchurch

Christchurch

See all the highlights of New Zealand's scenic South Island on this five-day guided sightseeing tour. Travel by coach from Christchurch to Q...

N1,920 | Rating 4.29 / 5 [58 ratings]

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Tour supplied by:

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Our writer’s picks of the best places to stay in this destination

Westwood Lodge

Franz Josef, South Island, New Zealand

Hearty, comfortable lodge, the best around, providing a homely base from which to explore Franz Joseph glacier.

Official star rating:

Wanaka Springs Lodge

Wanaka, South Island, New Zealand

Warm, inviting and homely B&B that’s a great adventure base, with an affordable price tag.

Official star rating:

Ocean View Retreat

Punakaiki, South Island, New Zealand

Comfortable eco-lodge on the wild West Coast, offering excellent outdoor adventures, ecotours and blissful isolation.

Official star rating:

Hapuku Lodge & Tree Houses

Hapuku, South Island, New Zealand

Luxury lodge with fun treehouse rooms, superb in-house dining and jaw-dropping landscape views. A good base for accessing Kaikoura’s ecotours, 20 minutes away.

Official star rating:

When to go

The peak ski season is June to October. Summer (December to February) is the best time for touring, but be aware that the South Island has relatively few hotel rooms and available rental cars/campervans.

Try to avoid the peak tourism periods – these coincide with Australian and NZ school holidays. Spring and Autumn are viable options and should guarantee a hassle-free experience.

Winter is great for skiing, but avoid touring; snowstorms and black ice can make the roads extremely hazardous – even with chains.

Getting there and away

Christchurch is still the main entry port for the South Island. There are shuttle buses and taxis available outside the terminal. A regular bus service operates the 11km trip to town.

Queenstown is the South Island’s second airport, 8km from the town centre. Shuttle buses and taxis are available outside the terminal.

For those on a self-drive holiday, a car ferry links the North and South Island, connecting the nation’s capital Wellington and Picton.

Getting around

Cars (or campervans) are essential – unless you want to spend your entire time around Queenstown, which is pretty much self-contained. New Zealand roads are narrow but remarkably free of other vehicles. Towns and cities have plentiful car parking.

Just remember to refuel before a long-distance trip. Petrol stations are thin on the ground and many close at night. Public transport in the South Island (mostly by long-distance coach) is inexpensive but time-consuming.

Where to stay

Accommodation is not such a big deal here – chances are you’ll be out all day and returning home exhausted. Look out for some terrific eco lodges, ranging from rustic to luxury, offering tranquillity and world-beating views.

South Island is a destination made for road trips, so campervans are a great option here, allowing you full flexibility and the ability to stay wherever you want, when you want. New Zealand has a network of good campsites (some with spas and swimming pools).

Health & Safety

New Zealand is ridiculously law-abiding and people in rural districts often leave their cars and homes unlocked. The biggest threat is likely to come from nature – getting caught in a snowstorm in the mountains. Queenstown, with its transient international population, is probably the only place where you might need to exercise some caution, especially late at night.

Annoying, biting sandflies are found throughout New Zealand, but mostly congregate in thick undergrowth or near lakes, rivers and swamps. Always take long sleeves, trousers and sandfly repellent if spending any time in the bush.