Our South Island Location Guide
If you have read our itinerary for a two week journey around New Zealand’s pristine South Island, then this is the perfect companion to help give you some information about things to do and see along the way with some greater depth than we normally go into for our itinerary posts. Read on to get all the fun details!
Hokitika, or Hoki as it’s known to the locals is a small town on the west coast of the South Island. While there isn’t a huge amount of activities to do here, it is worth a stop on an itinerary due to its great beach and nature walks available, in addition to it being one of the best places to find New Zealand jade products for sale due to its history as a mining town founded on gold mining.
Te Anau is best known as the gateway to the Fiordland National Park, and is really the last large town you will encounter on a drive up to Milford Sound. It is also a great place to base yourself though if you are simply planning on doing a day tour up to Milford Sound for a cruise or a scenic flight. There is also the glow worm cave that you can explore across Lake Te Anau as part of an organized tour. All of this makes Te Anau a good place to linger for a few days, and it is also the last place with both fuel and a large grocery store if you are needing to stock up on the way to Milford Sound.
Christchurch is more than likely the place that most people will begin their journey around the South Island, as it has the largest airport and best flight availability. Although we didn’t get a chance to spend more than a night in Christchurch, it is still worth having a wander around downtown and with a good food and shopping scene it is a good option for picking up anything you may need before starting a trip. Much of the downtown area is still in the process of being rebuilt after the earthquakes that occurred roughly ten years ago, which also includes the Christchurch Cathedral, which is in the process of being repaired. The entrepreneurial spirit came alive though, and you can still visit many “container cafes” which sprang up in the aftermath of the quakes and just ended up becoming a fixture of the outskirts of downtown.
Queenstown is known best as being “the adventure capital of the world” and for good reason. There is a huge amount of extreme activities you can participate in, from jet boating to bungee jumping, skydiving, and much more. Beyond the adventure activities though, Queenstown is a great base for anyone looking to hit the slopes with several ski fields within a quick drive from the town center. Combine that with the killer restaurant and drink scene, and Queenstown is sure to become almost any travelers favorite stop on a South Island itinerary.
Wanaka is considered the tamer sibling of Queenstown, with a less hectic pace but still all of the great drinking and dining options along with access to the same snow fields that Queenstown enjoys. It is situated on the shores of Lake Wanaka, and is also the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park. With a multitude of outdoor activities and day hikes, it is well worth spending several days exploring the town and surrounding areas with there being several hikes with amazing views to take in.
Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers
Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are a pair of alpine glaciers on the west coast and shouldn’t be missed in any itinerary. Although they are situated roughly an hour apart, it is worth stopping at both if possible as they are equally impressive. You can take scenic flights at both locations, which is now the only way to get up on top of the glaciers ever since the terminal faces of both have become too unstable to hike onto. If you can only spend time at one location though, we suggest Fox Glacier as there are several other worthwhile sights to see including the mirror-like Lake Matheson and the chance to see glow worms on the Minehaha walk right near the center of town.
While all of the South Island is visually stunning, we believe that Milford Sound is the one place that no one should miss on a trip here. Although the weather can be notoriously challenging with the area seeing an average rainfall of 252 inches (6,412mm) in a year, it is the wettest place in New Zealand and one of the wettest in the world. If you can catch a clear day, you will be rewarded with some of the most visually stunning landscape on the whole island. Formed by glaciers during the last ice age, the fiordland features hundreds of waterfalls that come alive with the intense amount of rain the area receives, with Stirling and Bowen Falls being some of the most impressive. A boat tour is the most popular and most accessible way to take in the sights, with a scenic helicopter or plane ride also being an option. It is best to give yourself a few days here if you can as that will help your chances of catching the weather on a good day.
Mt Cook National Park
Mt Cook National Park is another area that should not be missed during a trip around the South Island (like everywhere else we mention here, I know). Known as Aoraki in Maori, this translates to “Cloud piercer” and when you see it, you will known how it got the name! All but one of the tallest peaks in New Zealand are located within the park, as well as eight out of twelve largest glaciers in New Zealand. The best part about the park though is that despite the terrain being alpine in nature, it is still a very easy and accessible drive to Mt Cook village, which lies right in the shadow of Mt Cook and a stone’s throw from both the Hooker Track and Tasman Glacier. You can also take to the skies on a scenic flight that includes a landing up within the range. Again, give yourself more than a day here as the weather can be temperamental and having more time will give you a better chance of seeing the terrain in all its glory.
Tekapo is another very small (369 permanent residents) town roughly three hours drive south-west of Christchurch, situated on the southern shore of Lake Tekapo that is best known for the often photographed Church Of The Good Shepard that is situated on the shoreline. Tekapo is also part of UNESCO’s dark sky reserve, which makes it a stunning area for star gazing and astro photography. Pair that with the scenic views of the lake and it makes for the perfect spot to spend a day or two.
If you haven’t checked out our two week itinerary for our trip around the South Island, make sure to follow the link here to see how we went about our roadtrip stops and time we spent in each location!