South Island (New Zealand)

Travel Guide Oceania Polynesia New Zealand South Island



West coast of the south island

West coast of the south island

© melmonson

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.




Charcoal drawings can be found on limestone rock shelters in the centre of the South Island, with over 500 sites stretching from Kaikoura to North Otago. The drawings are estimated to be between 500 and 800 years old, and portray animals, people and fantastic creatures, possibly stylised reptiles.
Early inhabitants of the South Island were the Waitaha. They were largely absorbed via marriage and conquest by the Kāti Mamoe in the 16th century.

The first Europeans known to reach the South Island were the crew of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who arrived in his ships Heemskerck and Zeehaen. In December 1642, Tasman anchored at the northern end of the island in Golden Bay which he named Moordenaar's Bay (Murderers Bay) before sailing northward to Tonga following a clash with Māori. Tasman sketched sections of the two main islands' west coasts. Tasman called them Staten Landt, after the States General of the Netherlands, and that name appeared on his first maps of the country. Dutch cartographers changed the name to Nova Zeelandia in Latin, from Nieuw Zeeland, after the Dutch province of Zeeland. It was subsequently Anglicised as New Zealand by British naval captain James Cook of HM Bark Endeavour who visited the islands more than 100 years after Tasman during (1769–1770).

The first European settlement in the South Island was founded at Bluff in 1823 by James Spencer, a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo.




The South Island, with an area of 150,437 km2, is the largest land mass of New Zealand; it contains about one quarter of the New Zealand population and is the world's 12th-largest island. It is divided along its length by the Southern Alps, the highest peak of which is Aoraki/Mount Cook at 3754 metres, with the high Kaikoura Ranges to the northeast. There are eighteen peaks of more than 3,000 metres in the South Island. The east side of the island is home to the Canterbury Plains while the West Coast is famous for its rough coastlines such as Fiordland, very high proportion of native bush, and Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. The dramatic landscape of the South Island has made it a popular location for the production of several films, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.




South Island is divided into seven regions:

  • Tasman
  • Nelson (including Nelson Lakes National Parks) - Sun, golden sands, culture, wine and alternative lifestyles, although it has a rugged farming backbone reaching down to Murchison.
  • Marlborough (including Kaikoura) - The Marlborough Sounds and whale watching at Kaikoura
  • West Coast - Glaciers and wild wet wilderness together with some of the finest road-accessible coastal views from the Punakaiki coast south of Westport
  • Canterbury - The majesty of the Southern Alps sweeping down to the Canterbury plains. Includes Christchurch, the largest city on the island.
  • Otago (includes Central Otago and the university town of Dunedin) - Large spherical Moeraki boulders and the architecturally stunning coastal town of Oamaru with little blue penguins
  • Southland - Picturesque mountain lakes, snow-capped mountains plunging into fiords and Milford Sound





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.
  • Oamaru - little blue penguins and a Victorian streetscape of limestone buildings
  • Wanaka - lakeside town with skiing and scenery



Sights and Activities

Milford Sound Waterfall

Milford Sound Waterfall

© 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 generally has a more invigorating climate than the North Island; all the major weather records in New Zealand have been set in the South Island.

The sea and the Southern Alps are the main contributors to the island's climate. The moist westerly air flow from the Tasman Sea rises as it hits the mountains. This causes orthographic rain which is dumped on the West Coast of the island; most areas receive over 2,000 mm of rain per year here. This rain does have its benefits though, supporting the lush, temperate rain forests of Fiordland.

With very little moisture left in the air after crossing the Southern Alps, eastern areas of the South Island are generally dry, with the Pacific Ocean the only main influence on the moisture. Coastal Christchurch receive only 620 mm of rain per year, while Alexandra, over 100 km away from the ocean in central Otago, receives just 360 mm of rain per year.

Temperatures generally become cooler the further south you go – but you can still experience the classic New Zealand "four seasons in one day" in any part of the island. Coastal regions are generally milder because the sea buffers temperatures. The hot and dry northwesterly winds off the Southern Alps can push temperatures in Canterbury into the mid-to-high 30s and even the low 40s during summer. Rangiora, 25 km north of Christchurch, holds the national record with a high of 42.4 °C (108.3 °F) on 7 February 1973. Elevated regions in the centre of the island have a more alpine climate, being cooler in winter and hotter in summer. Many of the mountains themselves are permanently capped with snow.

In winter, snowfalls are common in central, elevated regions (occasionally leading to the temporary closure of roads). During winter, snow also occasionally falls down to sea level and even coastal region temperatures can often drop below zero overnight (32 °F) – although rarely by much.



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.




The South Island's regional specialities reflect New Zealand's island nature, and the agricultural character of the regions. They include:

  • Crayfish - from the sea around Kaikoura
  • Lamb - most notably from Canterbury
  • King salmon - farmed in the Marlborough Sounds, and in the Mackenzie Country
  • Mussels - in the greenshell mussel capital of Havelock
  • Oysters - from Bluff near Invercargill
  • Scallops - from the seabed off Nelson
  • Stonefruit - especially cherries, plums, apricots and nectarines from Otago
  • Venison (deer meat) - farmed throughout the South Island




  • Beer – Nelson grows all of the hops and has a thriving export business, so it's not surprising that it has both the pub that was voted "Best in New Zealand" but is also the craft brewing capital. Other regions all have local beers, and also feature their own smaller craft breweries.
  • Fruit juice – in Central Otago or boysenberry spritzers in the Upper Moutere.
  • Wine – the varied climate of the South Island provides for a number of different climates suitable for growing different varieties of wine. Although the most well known are the Sauvignon Blanc producing region of Marlborough and the Pinot Noir producing region of Central Otago, many of the Gold medals at national and international tasting competitions are often won by lesser known regions such as Nelson Bays and the Canterbury/Waipara regions.




Like the rest of New Zealand, there are numerous options, from simple camping to luxurious hotels in major cities and main tourist areas. And everything in between. Some of the best deals are smaller hotels, motels or B&B's, which offer comfortable options for relatively little money.

Staying connected in New Zealand is an easy affair in most towns and cities, although naturally if you are heading off the beaten path it can become harder.


Internet cafés are widely available throughout New Zealand at rates of around NZ$2-4, though sometimes more in smaller places. Besides internet and e-mail services, most big internet cafés also offer some way for travellers to connect their digital camera and burn cds. Many public libraries have public Internet access, and most of them offer short free internet sessions. Wi-Fi access is getting more and more common in for example coffee places or fast food chains. It is becoming more common for Wi-Fi to be provided at hotels and motels, though sometimes at a fee. Wireless Hotspots are located in many cities and towns all over New Zealand from dedicated Wireless providers from whom you can buy connect time. Many camping holiday parks also have such services available.


See also International Telephone Calls

Dial 111 for emergency police, fire or ambulance services. The worldwide emergency number for GSM mobile phones, 112, can also be used.
The country code is 64.

Most payphones in New Zealand require the use of phone cards for payment and it is getting harder to find payphones that accept coins. As phone cards are available at a lot of outlets, they are easy to purchase and very handy as a backup in case of emergencies. Many of them also accept creditcards. Local calls are free from residential phones and charges for calling outside that area can be found at the front of the regional phone books, amongst many other services.

Mobile telephone coverage is effectively national in near urban areas although the mountainous terrain means that outside the urban areas, and especially away from the main highway system, coverage does have huge dead patches. Do not rely on mobile phones in hilly or mountainous terrain. Mobile telephone users can call 555 only to report Non-emergency traffic safety incidents, such as a breakdown, road hazard or non-injury car crash, to the Police. There are currently three major mobile carriers in New Zealand.

  • Telecom operates a UMTS (3G) network, named XT Network, nationwide on 850MHz with supplementary 2100MHz in metropolitan areas. (the same frequencies as Telstra in Australia and AT&T in the U.S.)
  • Vodafone operates a GSM network on 900MHz/2100 MHz and a UTMS (3G) network operates nationwide 900MHz with supplementary 2100MHz coverage.
  • 2degrees operates a UMTS (3G) network (2100MHz) in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch, with supplementary GSM coverage provided elsewhere by Vodafone.

A prepaid sim-card connection pack with $10 credit from Telecom or Vodafone costs around $30, and prepaid sim-cards from 2degrees cost $10. It is possible to pick up a free 2degrees sim-card on the SkyBus service that runs between Auckland airport and the CBD. Telecom has broader coverage in remote areas away from major cities compared to Vodafone and 2degrees.


Most areas have dedicated PostShops, however stamps can also be bought at grocery shops, supermarkets and book stores. There are two main formats for domestic mail, namely Standard Post and Fast Post. Fast Post is used next day delivery between major towns and cities (two days from rural areas), whereas Standard Post will take a few working days to deliver nationwide. Standard costs NZ$0.50 for letters/postcards (NZ$0.80 for larger envelopes), Fast Post costs NZ$0.80 (NZ$1.20 for larger envelopes). International mail takes about 3-6 days to Australia (NZ$1.50), and 6-12 days to Europe, Asia and the United States (NZ$2). Post boxes are white, red and black and can be found in many areas throughout towns and cities, including information about when their contents are collected. Most post offices and smaller post shops have opening hours from 9:00am to 5:00pm Monday to Friday, and 9:00am to 12:30pm on Saturday. You can buy stamps here, or at newsagents and general stores. For parcels, you can use the NZ Post or otherwise courier companies like TNT, DHL, UPS or FedEx.



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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)
  • 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 36. Last edited at 9:48 on May 3, 17 by Utrecht. 50 articles link to this page.

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