South Island

The South Island of New Zealand is an alpine paradise. With landscapes sharing many similarities to European highlands like Austria and Switzerland, but only a few hours from Australia makes the southern end of the land of the long white cloud a perfect getaway.

How to get there

Unless you’re catching the ferry over from the North Island of New Zealand, flying is the only real way to reach the South Island. There are two main airports to choose from: Christchurch or Queenstown. Typically, Christchurch is cheaper to fly in to, and most car hire companies are based here.

How to get around

Hire a van. This is the easiest way to see the island and it is such an easy and enjoyable drive – there is essentially one main two-lane road the entire way around the island.

Make sure you pick a Self-Contained van, which has a toilet or portable toilet on board. That way you can make use of New Zealand’s Free Camping legislation (you can pull up and sleep almost anywhere outside of the main towns). Download the Travellers Autobarn App via Google Play or iTunes – this is a great help to find free or cheap and legal campsites along the way, with ratings, comments and facilities listed.

Meeting the locals

Free Camping at its finest

An idea of costs

$206 NZ per day
– Van hire per day: $65
– Coffee & Bakery Item:  $6
– Fuel: $100
– Lunch at Local Pub: $15
– Home (van!) cooked dinner: $20

How long to spend on the South Island

You can zip around most key spots on the island in 7 days and you can check out my driving itinerary below here.

If you have a little more time, extend around the West Coast and stop in at some sights on the northern end of the island.

What to see and do on the South Island

Christchurch

Snow FieldsThe South Island is renowned for its ski slopes. Mt Hutt & Porters Ski Fields are just 90 minutes’ drive from Christchurch. Shuttles run daily from Christchurch and both locations offer gear for hire.

Canterbury Museum: One of the best cultural attractions in New Zealand, featuring Maori artefacts, a replicated street from the colonial era and modern local content such as Fred & Myrtle’s Paua Shell House. Best of all, it’s free and guided tours are offered Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3.30pm.    

Mount Cook Region

Lakes:
Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki both  aqua coloured water and a snow-capped mountain backdrop. Be sure to stop in at The Church of the Good Shepherd, just on the shores of Lake Tekapo.

 

Hooker Valley Hike:
This three hour hike will take you to some of the best scenery via two swing bridges! Start this track by following the signs from White Horse Hill camp ground.

Wildflowers:
For about 4-5 weeks at the end of each year, certain parts of New Zealand’s South Island bursts into colour as Lupins bloom purple, pink and blue flowers. Depending on the weather, but usually around November, you’ll be able to find these beauties blooming across Mackenzie Country, in particular:

  • The Crown Range Road between Wanaka and Queenstown

  • Lake Tekapo

  • Lindis Pass

  • Lake Wanaka

  • Burkes Pass

  • Twizel

What to eat:
Make sure you stop in to the Salmon Farm just outside Twizel for the freshest sashimi you’ll ever taste. $10 a serve, or you can buy cut pieces of salmon ready to cook.

Where to stay:
There’s a tiny clearing on the western side of Lake Pukaki, halfway on the road to Mount Cook. There are no facilities but it is an amazing little isolated spot on the side of the lake.

Small clearing off the road to Mount Cook - perfect to camp for the night!

Cooking our salmon on the shores of the lake.

Aoraki - Mount Cook 

Lake Tekapo - the blues are incredible!

Queenstown
Snow Fields:
Arguably even better than the slopes near Christchurch are those just outside of Queenstown. Queenstown is positioned right in the middle of the Southern Alps with four main ski areas to choose from, the closest just 20 minutes’ drive from the town centre. The ski season lasts from June to October and there are plenty of places to hire gear, buy lift passes and book a ticket on the shuttles in town.

Film Sets:
More Lord of the Rings shoot locations can be found dotted through Queenstown. Guided tours run daily but you can also do it yourself with nothing more than your own transport, location pins on Google Maps and a little imagination. Search for Middle-earth on newzealand.com for intel.

Adrenaline:
There are so many adventures here for adrenaline junkees. Bungee jumping, white water rafting, canyon swings…

 

What to eat:
Bobs Weigh offers plenty of cheap eats – hearty breakfast meals range from $10-$15.

 

Where to stay:
You won’t be able to free park in Queenstown, but if you head off on the road to Glenorchy there’s a number of great free camping spots on the lake, about 30km out of town. Keep an eye out for Little Stoney Creek or Meiklejohns Bay.  

Milford Sound
This inlet on the southwest of the island showcases some of the best natural sights in New Zealand. Breathtaking in any weather, the fiord’s cliffs rise vertically from the dark waters, mountain peaks scrape the sky and waterfalls cascade downwards from as high as 1000 metres.

The closest town to Milford Sound is Te Anu, and this is the last stop for supplies. There are no shops or petrol stations along the road to Milford Sound, so you’ll need enough to get you through the 240km return journey. The drive is stunning, windy and often wet so take your time (and say hello to the friendly Kea birds, but remember not to feed them!)

 

Depending on your budget, you have plenty of options to explore the stunning inlets, from helicopter plane, boat and kayak. If you’re looking for an inexpensive small trip, take a tour with Dennis on the Blue Duck Boat – book a ticket at the visitor centre at Milford Sound. A one minute journey across the marina will take you to a small, isolated headland, and the biggest waterfall in Milford Sound. You get up close, drink the water, explore the misty, mossy area and enjoy the great view out to Mt Tūtoko and the fiord.

Other than driving, there are bus tours or scenic flights available which leave Queenstown daily.

 

Where to stay:
After you leave Te Anu, there are no more supplies, petrol or fixed accommodation on the road to Milford Sound. There are 8 campsites along the way, however, as free camping in this area is strictly prohibited. The campsites are well marked, and have basic facilities such as drop-toilets and fire pits. Rangers will come to collect the fee (around $13 per person). Crystal Creek is a definite fav, with a couple of beautiful spots right on the creek.  

Wanaka

Wanaka is like Queenstown's smaller, less touristy brother. Set next to another gorgous lake, there's plenty of activities to keep you busy. Make sure you take a picture of the iconic Wanaka tree and hike the Roy's Peak track for an incredible view.

Where to eat: 

Big Fig dishes up delicious plates of roast veg, fresh salads and slow cooked meats – all displayed in the cabinet at the front & you can mix and match your meal. A medium plate (1 meat and 2 sides) is $18.

Where to stay: 

Drive 15 minutes out of town and stay at Lake Hawea – this great old school lodge has hostel rooms, hotel rooms and even campervan spots out the back ($12pp). They have a buffet breakfast for $16, $5 beers, 3 budget meals to choose from for $12, laundry facilities, and the best part – open fires for you to sit by and have a nice hot chocolate at the end of the day.

Wanaka Lake - absolutely stunning!

The famous Wanaka Lake Tree

$18 lunch at Big Fig

Hot chocolate + fire = happiness

Top of the world on Roy's Peak hike

Glaciers
Fox and Fraz Josef are twin glaciers located on the West Coast of the island and are ideal for ice-hikes or scenic flights for those wanting get up close (and who are prepared to splash the cash). It is truly worth it though, as you can’t really gauge the sheer scale or impressiveness of the glaciers from below.

However, for those watching your wallet there are two main walks to the glacial vantage points. The walks are very clearly marked from the road, and are about an hour round trip from the carpark.

 

ROSS
Situated right on the beach, this tiny town has plenty of character and is often visited by seals and penguins.

 

Where to eat:
The Empire Hotel is a must visit – ideally on a Sunday where they put on a 3-course all-you-can-eat Sunday Roast for $25. Mark the publican and all the locals are incredibly friendly, stay for a pint or two and enjoy the mining memorabilia crowding every wall – the pub opened during the gold rush in the 1800s.

 

Where to stay:
Top 10 Ross Beach has excellent beachfront sites for campervans, and self-contained rooms. There’s a communal kitchen, clean bathrooms and laundry facility making this the perfect stopover

Beef Wellington, mash, peas!

The Empire Hotel 

Hokitika
Stop in for a coffee at this beautiful Gold Rush town – head to the corner of Gibson Quay and Revell St for a tiny corner cafe which makes a mean flat white and homemade slices.

Take a stroll on the beach and see if you can spot any jade stones!

Hanmer Springs

This resort town is home to the famous for Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa, where you can relax in mineral waters naturally heated to as hot as 42 degrees. Tickets cost $24 for adults, and its definitely worth a visit.

The town itself is quaint and inviting, with plenty of restaurants and boutiques lining the streets. There are also plenty of hiking trails and seasonal ski slopes in the surrounding mountains.

 

Where to stay:
There is one free camping site a little outside of town, just past the Woodland Walk Recreation Reserve on Jollies Pass Road. You can find it on the Travellers App, but make sure you get there before dusk to bag a spot as it tends to get pretty busy when the sun goes down.

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