South Island Travel Guide: Nature’s Paradise

South Island travel guideTravelling the South Island of New Zealand is something that I believe all backpackers and travellers of any kind, should do at least once in their life.

I say at least once because after living in this amazing island for 10 months during my New Zealand Working Holiday Visa, I would give my right arm to go back and do it again!

The South Island is one of the most beautiful and diverse places you can visit in the world. There are so many things to do in the South Island, that you could easily spend a month travelling around seeing it all.

Travelling New Zealand is something that I can’t recommend enough. This South Island travel guide will help you enjoy exploring this amazing place as much as I did!

South Island travel guide

General info

The South Island is the larger of the two main islands that make up New Zealand. Despite being larger than the North Island, it is less populated, with only 23% of New Zealand’s population living on the island.

The climate differs too, with the South Island, experiencing a more temperate climate than the sub-tropical North.

The Maoris had settled the island long before it was sighted by the first European, Abel Tasman. It was not until 1769, following Captain Cook’s circumnavigation of New Zealand, that European migration began. Christchurch, in particular, has a very English feel to it!

Why you should visit the South Island

The South Island is somewhere that I believe everyone with a passion for travelling should visit during their lifetime. After living there for 10 months in Christchurch, during my New Zealand working holiday visa, I fell in love with the place.

The island has absolutely you could want as a backpacker. There is amazing scenery, cool cities and loads of activities to do, during winter and summer.

I’m not sure there is a collection of such beautiful and diverse scenery, there is almost every geographical feature possible in the South Island.

From glaciers to the warmer climbs of Golden Bay and the Abel Tasman National Park, there is a differing collection of features throughout the island.

In fact, the island changes dramatically, the further you head, with the lush plants replaced by towering mountains and glaciers as you head down to what feels like the end of the earth!

A road trip is definitely the best way to see the island, as you really get to soak in the beauty of the island.

 

seal pups at the Oahu Waterfall Park

 

You could easily spend a month travelling around by car, just to see everything that the South Island has to offer. This was m favourite thing do while backpacking in the South Island, as driving around allowed you to really see all the different parts of the island that you otherwise wouldn’t see!

One downside can be the weather, especially during the winter, when it can get quite cold and rain a lot. If you plan on venturing to Fiordland (which you absolutely should!) then be prepared for rain.

This area of the South Island has some of the highest rainfall of anywhere in the world! Wet weather clothes are a must have item, that’s for sure!

The best time of the year to visit New Zealand is contentious, and that’s true of the South Island. The weather in summer is great and allows you to explore the amazing scenery and beaches on the island.

However, the scenery is equally incredible during the colder and wetter and winter. Plus you get to go skiing during these months. The best time to go to the South Island really is up to you!

Disregarding the weather, the South Island has some incredible sights, from the awe-inspiring Mt Cook, Lake Tekapo and the strange Moeraki Boulders, there is so much to see and do here, it is ridiculous.

But ridiculous in a good way, because you’ll never be short of things to do on the South Island!

 

View of Lyttleton Bay

Where to stay on the South Island

Choosing where to stay on the South Island can be difficult, as there are so many great hostels to choose from. However, during my time travelling around the South Island, I stayed in many decent hostels.

Below is a selection of my favourite hostels in the South Island, which come highly recommended!

Christchurch YHAChristchurchA newly renovated hostel near the centre of Christchurch. Great facilities and spacious rooms!
Point Break BackpackersChristchurchA nice hostel by the beach in New Brighton. Be aware the hostel is outside of the centre of Christchurch, takes 25 minutes to get to the centre.
Noah's ark BackpackersGreymouthThis is more like a big house than a backpackers! Brilliant facilities and a cosy environment at this hostel in Greymouth.
The Bug BackpackersNelsonAnother hostel that felt more like a home! Located in Nelson, the facilities and staff here are great!
Nomads QueenstownQueenstownA great hostel in the centre of Queenstown. facilities were good and the staff were very friendly and helpful.
YHA Queenstown LakefrontQueenstownThis was a very nice hostel. the facilities here are very good, with spacious rooms and a big kitchen.
Flying Kiwi BackpackersWanakaA nice hostel near the centre of Wanaka. Good facilities and a nice atmosphere about the place too.
YHA Trip Inn HostelWestportBeautiful hostel in Westport, that is more like a home! The facilities here were great and the downstairs social area is fantastic!

If you don’t fancy staying in a hostel, then check out the latest deals on Booking.com, for hotels and luxury accommodation in the South Island!

 

Kaikoura

Activities on the South Island

The South Island is full of great activities, listing them all would take too long. There’s a lot of things to do on the South Island, below are a few which I think are definitely worth doing!

Obviously, if you are backpacking New Zealand, you may come across other activities, which you think are better, so this list is only arbitrary, but should give you an idea of what you can do in this great island!

Adrenaline rush in Queenstown

It would be a waste to visit Queenstown without doing at least one of the many activities that get your adrenaline pumping. The Nevis bungy jump is probably the ultimate adrenaline rush, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

If you are the same as me, then I recommend jet-boating, which is a bit more tranquil compared to bungee-jumping!

Hiking trails

There are so many hiking trails in New Zealand that you would be stupid not to do at least one of them while you are here. There are some great hiking trails in the South Island, such as the Milford track, although that is a very long one.

Hiking around the coast of Kaikoura was a particular highlight and is not as lengthy as the Milford Track! For the adventurous, any hike around Mt Cook, will be a challenge and provide incredible sights!

Pancake Rocks

The Pancake Rocks are located on the West Coast of the island, between Westport and Greymouth, which is also known by its Maori name of Punakaiki.

The limestone rocks have been heavily eroded when the sea bursts through vertical blowholes during high tide. This, combined with the pancake layering of the rocks, gives the rocks its strange appearance!

 

Pancake rocks

Road trip

Road trips in New Zealand are the best way to see the country and the South Island is no different! They allow you the freedom to decide your own itinerary and see places you otherwise would not reach. A South Island road trip also gives some of the most amazing views as you drive along in this beautiful island.

Particular favourites were the driving down the West Coast and East Coast, both offering some incredible and wacky places to see as you make your way around the island!

Skiing/Snowboarding

New Zealand has some of the best ski slopes in the world, so it would be stupid not to take advantage of this while you are here. Three of them, Coronet Peak, Mt Hutt and The Remarkables have a deal where you can buy a card for the season for all three.

This is a great deal, as they are all great, the season runs during winter, through to early spring, so around June to October, so be sure not to miss out!

 

Skiing in Queenstown

Best places to visit on the South Island

A South Island travel guide wouldn’t be complete without telling you the best places to visit! There are so many places to visit on the South Island, that it’s hard to narrow them down to 5!

The Island is full of amazing and diverse attractions. However, there are a number of points of interest in the South Island that you should endeavour to see!

Christchurch

Christchurch is the biggest city and principal gateway to the South Island. It’s an interesting city that has experienced a lot of trauma in recent years, due to a number of earthquakes that devastated the city. I worked on the rebuild here for 10 months and believe me, the earthquakes did some damage! A new city is basically being built from scratch!

However, there are lots of things to do in Christchurch. Checking out Lyttleton Bay is a must, with some excellent views available.

The Re:Start Mall is another must-see, as it highlights the ingenuity and drive of the people of Christchurch, who refused to be beaten by the earthquakes. A trip to Sumner and Godley Head is also highly recommended for more amazing scenery!

Read more: Christchurch – The Broken City

 

Backpacking Christchurch

Golden Bay

Golden Bay, located at the tip of the West Coast, is one of the best places to visit in the South Island. It has one of the best beaches in New Zealand and the incredible scenery of the Abel Tasman National Park. This is without mentioning Nelson, which is the main city in the area, and a great place to visit in its own right!

Farewell Spit is a must visit in Golden Bay, as you reach the northernmost point of the South Island. Everywhere you look there is just sand!

It is an incredible sight! Abel Tasman National Park has a lot of cool places you can visit, with many interesting waterfalls to check out. Two days should be spent backpacking around this area, as it is just incredible, and any less would not do it justice!

 

Farewell Spit in Golden Bay

Milford Sound

Milford Sound is probably the number one attraction in the whole of New Zealand, not just the South Island! Yes, it is that incredible! We went on one of the 300+ days of the year, that the area experiences rainfall.

However, it did dampen our enthusiasm or make the views that less incredible. This is the great thing about New Zealand, even in bad weather, the country is still beautiful!

Even though we could barely make out the structure of the sound, the sight was still awe-inspiring! It was like we had set foot into an ancient Nordic world!

To get a sense of the scale of Milford Sound, you have to take a boat trip and get up and close and personal. For the hikers, there is also the Milford Track for you to tackle. Although, at 53.3km, it’s a beast, so be prepared!

 

A wet and grey Milford Sound

Queenstown

Queenstown is a place that you absolutely have to visit if you are backpacking the South Island. It is a haven for backpackers and I’m pretty sure there would only be about ten people living here if all the backpackers just upped and left!

Queenstown is the adrenaline capital of New Zealand, and perhaps the world! So, if you fancy bungee jumping or whitewater rafting, this is the place for you!

If you visit during the winter, you can go to the Remarkables and experience some of the best ski slopes in New Zealand! This is without mentioning the incredible scenery, which is apparent, from virtually every area of this great town.

The lake is a particular highlight, and if you drive into Queenstown during the day, you will be treated to some incredible views!

Read more: Queenstown Travel Guide: New Zealand’s Adrenaline Destination

 

View of the lake in Queenstown

Wanaka

Wanaka is often overshadowed by its close neighbour Queenstown, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit this great town. The scenery is on a par, if not better than Queenstown, particularly Lake Wanaka, which is just incredible! There is also Coronet Peak ski field to check out if you visit Wanaka during ski season.

Wanaka is more laid back than Queenstown, and it is easy to get the impression, that the place is boring, but that is not the case.

There is a lively nightlife scene here, if not on the level of Queenstown, and there are quite a few things to do in Wanaka, such as check out the weird and wacky Puzzling World!

 

Lake Wanaka

How much does it cost to travel in the South Island?

Travelling New Zealand is certainly cheaper than backpacking Australia. However, that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. It can be expensive in some places, Christchurch, in particular, can be pricey. If you’ve been working in Australia before coming here, everything will seem a lot cheaper!

Accommodation

A bed in a hostel generally costs around $20-30 a night. This does depend on what city you are in, expect to pay more in the big cities such as Christchurch and Dunedin!

Obviously, the more beds in a room the cheaper it will be, however, you have to weigh up whether this is for you or not. The more people in the room, the harder it is to get to sleep.

Food

Food can be quite expensive and eating out is not exactly cheap, unless you are eating fast food such as McDonalds or Burger King. My advice would be to cook your food as much as you can and learn to love eating pasta.

It’s ridiculously cheap, with 500g bags costing less than $1! A weekly shop shouldn’t cost too much more than $50. Although that does depend on what you’re buying!

Transportation

Travelling around the South Island is not too expensive. If you are travelling by yourself, a great option is to use Naked bus, which has prices starting from $1. You shouldn’t pay much more than $20-30 to get to most destinations in the South Island.

Renting a car is also cheap, especially if you are in a group, so this is a great idea, for travelling around the South Island. A week’s car rental should cost $120-150 a week, which between 4-5 people, works out quite well!

Tips

Cooking your food will save you a lot of money as opposed to eating out. This is a must while travelling in the South Island. Also, take advantage of the free wifi in McDonalds and the libraries, as most hostels don’t offer free wifi.

Choosing which activities you do during your time here will contribute to you having a healthy or unhealthy budget. Most activities cost in the range of $80-100, so if you really want to do that bungee-jump, it might come at the expense of skiing later down the road!

 

Sumner, Christchurch

Concluding thoughts

Visiting the South Island is an absolute must if you’re going to New Zealand. Hopefully, my South Island travel guide has given you an idea of what to expect. There are so many things do in the South Island, that you could spend at least a month travelling around seeing everything.

A road trip is the best way to travel around if you are backpacking through New Zealand, but that is even truer in the South Island. The ease of getting around by car and the views on offer, make this the best way to see this incredible island!

Want more information about a trip to the South Island, click here to get the Lonely Planet New Zealand’s South Island (Travel Guide)

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Tom

Tom is a travel addict who first left England to spend a year Down Under. Not satisfied with this, he then went to New Zealand, about as far away from home as he could get. He is now planning his next adventures in Europe and Canada while maintaining this blog.

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20 Responses

  1. Hi Tom

    Great tips for our next NZ adventure. We did tour around in a Camper for 7 weeks and we loved both, the South and the North island.
    The Milford sound boat trip was amazing. We were superlucky with the weather.

    Thanks for sharing your tips. Very helpful.

    Cheers,
    Reni

    • Tom says:

      The Milford Sound boat trip is incredible, if you got decent weather you were definitely super lucky! However, I still thought it was incredible, even with dodgy weather!

  2. Katie says:

    New Zealand is the adventure lovers dream destination! It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. I know I will get there eventually, just have to figure out when! You have given us a comprehensive guide on traveling the South Island. I will keep it in mind when I get there eventually!

  3. Very informative! And great timing! I’m planning to visit the South Island later this year! Thank you!

  4. Angela says:

    Okay, you convinced me, now I just have to get there 🙂 Sounds like you had an amazing 10 months of gallivanting around New Zealand. AWESOME! Great post. Very informative.

  5. I lived in NZ for 5 years and have traveled all of the North. Such a shame that I never set foot in the South Island. This post just validates that I should maybe plan a South Island travel soon. Thanks for this informative piece!

  6. christine says:

    Queenstown is my favorite!! I definitely prefer the South over the North…. if I had to choose 😛

  7. Akid says:

    Tom, your articles are consistently detailed and informative! You’re a great resource to travels across Oz and NZ. Very interested to read what other things you have around the area.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks, I appreciate that a lot! I’ve got a few more articles in the pipeline. Hopefully find the time to write them soon!

  8. Claire says:

    Awesome, this is a great go-to guide for the South Island – I’m heading there next year and absolutely cannot wait! Good to hear that if you’re going to NZ from Australia it’s not so expensive, as that’s my plan 😉 What do you think about campervanning/ camping in South Island? We’re planning on getting a campervan on one island and camping/ walking/ bussing around another – but haven’t decided which yet!

    • Tom says:

      It’s not too expensive, but I would book in advance to just be sure! Anything road trip related is a must do, so I would definitely encourage you to do this. I didn’t camp myself, but I wouldn’t advise it during the winter. It can get very cold and wet, especially on the West Coast!

  9. Ajaya Kumar Rout says:

    Hey Amazing photographs and a great compendium on the South Island.NewZealand is truly the wonder land of the world.

  10. You’ve just made me miss New Zealand so much. I was only there for just under 3 weeks when I was visiting my friend 4 years ago. We road tripped around the South Island and visited Wanaka, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Hamner Springs and Christchurch. It was so beautiful and we even got to go snowboarding at Cadrona. Amazing place and I can’t wait to go back one day!

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