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South Island (New Zealand)

Travel Guide Oceania Polynesia New Zealand South Island



West coast of the south island

West coast of the south island

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The South Island is one of the three major islands of New Zealand, the others being the North Island and Stewart Island, which is south of South Island.

The South Island is ruggedly beautiful, dominated by the Southern Alps, which run through the heart of the island from north to south. It is larger than North Island, but only holds a quarter of the nation's population. Much of the island is undeveloped and inaccessible, though most of the main tourist attractions can be reached by road.

The largest cities on South Island are Christchurch, Dunedin and Nelson. Queenstown is smaller but very popular due to its reputation as the place to go for adventure activities.




South Island is divided into seven regions:





The cathedral city and transport hub of Nelson is somewhere you'll invariably find yourself passing through whether you're going west to Abel Tasman National Park and Golden Bay, south to explore the wild west coast of the South Island or heading up to Picton to catch the ferry back to the North Island. The city has enough to keep you occupied for a couple of days, with many restaurants, cafe and bars, sea side walks and small city parks. There's a cinema showing new releases if the weather is unfavourable, though this won't be often as the city has earned the title 'Sunny Nelson'. Usually topping the list of places in New Zealand with the most sun hours per year (2,500), holding on to the title makes them a competitive lot.


Christchurch is the largest city on South Island. Founded in the mid-1800s, the city boasts a rich history, readily apparent through its Gothic architecture. Its parks and museums are unique to the country and have a distinct English feel. This is as a result of the large numbers of English settlers who have moved here during its development. The cathedral in the centre of the city looks like it has been taken straight from the United Kingdom. It is also home to a British style seaside pier. Christchurch gets many cruise ship visits during the summer months and the visitors spend lazy afternoons punting on the river avon. Unfortunately, Christchurch got damaged severaly by two earthquakes recently, one in September 2010 and one in February 2011, the latter killing many people and damaging the beautiful cathedral as well.


Queenstown lies on the edge of Lake Wakatipu in South Island, overlooking the magnificent Southern Alps. It became a growing settlement after gold was discovered in the area in 1862. Besides offering beautiful views, Queenstown is also now the adventure capital of New Zealand. It is has more recently been identified as the party capital of the country. Queenstown is the winter-sports capital of New Zealand and maybe even the Southern Hemisphere. During the winter season the city is full of skiers and snowboarders and it is difficult to look in the air without seeing a skydiver or paraglider. Backpackers (New Zealand name for hostels) abound along with motels and 3, 4 and 5-star hotels. Hire shops will be able to rent you anything you need for the slopes.


Dunedin is the country's fifth largest city, located on the southeast coast of South Island. It has been described as a southern hemisphere version of Edinburgh due to the high numbers of Scottish immigrants who have settled here. The city is located on the southeastern coast of the South Island, on the Otago Peninsula. It is home to numerous 19th century buildings from an era when it was New Zealand's largest city. It is home to the University of Otago, New Zealand's oldest university and the South Island's largest employer. During the university summer holiday (November - February), the city is notably quieter as a result.

Other Cities and main Towns

  • Blenheim is located at the heart of the Marlborough region and is world famous for its Vinyards and wine production.
  • Invercargill is the southernmost city in the country and one of the southernmost cities in the world. Beware it can get quite cold in the winter.
  • Kaikoura is a town located in the northwest of the South Island, between Christchurch and Blenheim and is the whale capital of the country.
  • Picton is where the ferry from Wellington docks.



Sights and Activities

Milford Sound Waterfall

Milford Sound Waterfall

© All Rights Reserved Laur456

  • Milford Sound, despite its remote location is one of the country's most popular attractions. Boat tours around the Sound (which is technically a fjord, not a sound) are the most popular way to get around, though the more adventurous travellers can set out in their own kayak.
  • To the south of Milford Sound is the altogether more remote feeling Doubtful Sound. Both the Milford and Doubtful Sound are part of the Fiordland National Park.
  • Franz Josef and the nearb Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier are highlights of the South Island.
  • Mount Cook or Aoraki, which means "cloud piercer", is the highest mountain in New Zealand at 3754 metres above sea level.
  • Nelson is the geographical heart of the country and is known as the sunniest place in New Zealand. Although the town itself and its nearby beaches are fun, the adjacent Abel Tasman National Park is the real gem in this area. There are great (multiple) day hikes along the beaches, coastline, through forests with huge ferns and the views are awesome. You will have to travel west from Nelson by road and be transported by boat further into the park where you can walk back in a day (or more if you like).
  • The Catlins is an area of green rolling hills, abandoned coastline and wildlife like the albatross and rare yellow eyed penguin. It is found in the southeast of South Island, with Dunedin its largest city.
  • Scenic Drives - Drive down the west west coast of the South Island from Nelson to Queenstown and see some of the most beautiful coastline in the world.



Events and Festivals

  • Christchurch Arts Festival takes place in August.
  • Christchurch buskers festival takes place in January and is a fun, family orientated festival in which the best street performers from all over the world entertain in the parks and town squares.
  • Queensland Winter Festival - In June, visitors and locals head to Queenstown to see international skiers race and perform during this popular festival. The celebration marks the beginning of the winter season and has taken place every year since 1975. There are fairs, parades, and shows topped off by an amazing fireworks display.
  • Bluff Oyster & Food Festival - In May, visitors flock to Bluff on the southern point of the South Island to enjoy the freshest oysters in New Zealand and all kinds of other seafood delicacies. There is plenty of entertainment such as oyster shucking, blindfolded competitions and live music.




The South Island on average is colder than the North Island. Summers last from December to March with generally warm weather, around or slightly above 20 degrees Celsius on average though hot days up to 35 degrees are not unheard of, especially in the north and east of the island. Winters last from June to September with cool to cold weather and snow in the moutains. The westcoast of the island can be particularly wet and rain is possible in all months. Nelson on the other hand, in the north, is one of the sunniest places in New Zealand.



Getting There

By Plane

Christchurch International Airport (CHC) is 12 kilometres northwest of Christchurch and was originally opened in 1953. The airport has connections to all cities in New Zealand, most major cities in Oceania and a few other international destinations. Air New Zealand and Air Chathams operate most of the domestic flights. While international flights, even some as far away as Bangkok, Dubai or Seoul, are operated by Fiji Airways, Emirates, Jetstar, Korean Air, Pacific Blue, Qantas and Singapore Airlines.

To/from the airport

  • Bus: three bus routes service the airport. Number 3 to Sumner via the city, Avonhead and Riccarton, number 10 via Merivale and number 29 via Fendalton. All buses arrive and depart from international coach park, at the end of the International Arrivals Hall.
  • Taxis and rental cars are widely available.

There are also international airports in Dunedin, and Queenstown (Queenstown Airport), though these airports only have flights to/from Australia. Air New Zealand and Qantas have domestic and international flights and other airlines serve Christchurch as well.

By Boat

Interislander operates a regular ferry service between Wellington on the North Island and Picton on the South Island.

Bluebridge also operates between the North (Wellington) and South Islands (Picton) with up to four sailings a day between the two cities.



Getting Around

By Plane

Though there are flights to various destinations within the South Island, most travellers use buses, cars or the scenic trains. Christchurch International Airport (CHC) has most flights, for example with Air New Zealand and Qantas.

By Train

One of the most scenic routes in the world is the Tranz Alpine between Christchurch and Greymouth on the South Island. It is operated by Tranz Scenic.
The TranzCoastal is a daily passenger service between Picton and Christchurch, stopping en route in 6 other places, including Blenheim and Kaikoura.

By Car

Renting or buying a car is incredibly cheap and easy and coupled with the relatively short distances it helps explain why road transport is the preferred way to travel around. It is quite possible to see several major attractions in the space of a few weeks when travelling by car. Driving is on the left hand side of the road. Explore More is a cheap rental option with depots in Christchurch offering several car and camper types. Some of the other options to rent cars include the following companies:

By Bus

The distances and infrastructure make bus travel a great way to see a lot of the island inexpensively. The Kiwi Experience, Magic and Stray backpacker buses are a popular "hop-on, hop-off" method to travel around, visiting most of the major sights with commentary and advice provided by the driver. There are many different long-distance bus providers, which are all listed on the Bus and Coach Association New Zealand website.

The two main nationwide bus companies are Intercity and Nakedbus.





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South Island (New Zealand) Travel Helpers

  • globaltrotter

    I have lived here for 8 years.

    Ask globaltrotter a question about South Island (New Zealand)
  • JeremyTJ89

    Two Week Drive through the country, snowboard and adventure stay in Queenstown.

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  • mcrush

    The highlight of my trip was my stay in Franz Josef Glacier. I ended up staying in this town longer than I expected. There was soo much to do here. After I went on a Glacier Walk I went on the most amazing skydive with Skydive Franz. This was soo much fun because I saw a whole new part of the glacier that you can't see from where they take you on the walk. It was soo amazing!! the scenery blew me away. i had already done a skydive in Cairns and did one in Queenstown also and Franz Josef was the best by far. I was thinking of doing a heli scenic flight but the skydive worked out cheaper and the scenic was just as good. They told me that soon they will be jumping from 18,000ft too but my one from 12,000ft was still really amazing. Very highly reccomended

    Ask mcrush a question about South Island (New Zealand)

This is version 33. Last edited at 11:28 on Nov 17, 15 by Utrecht. 48 articles link to this page.

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