The South Island
Nicknamed ‘The Mainland’, The South Island is the larger of New Zealand’s two main islands, covering 151,215 square km. It’s bordered to the west by the Tasman Sea and to the east by the Pacific Ocean, with the two bodies of water meeting to the north of the island at Cook Strait (see Travelling Between Islands).
Only about a quarter of New Zealand’s population live in the South Island these days, although in the early days of European settlement it was the more populated of the two islands, attracting Europeans in the 1860’s gold rush.
The South Island is the world’s 12th largest island. Geographically it’s quite different from the North Island, being divided down the middle by the Southern Alps. The Canterbury Plans stretch along the east side of the island, quite a contrast to the rugged scenery of the West Coast. The South Island is home to New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki (Mt Cook), at 3,754 metres (12,316 feet).
The breathtaking alpine scenery of the South Island has to be seen to be believed. Unless you’re travelling in the height of the summer holiday season (see When to Visit New Zealand), we recommend you start your New Zealand trip in the South Island, and clap eyes on that scenery as soon as you can! Read more about our recommendations for planning your trip
Sitting at the top of the South Island to the west are the Tasman and Nelson regions, home to three national parks, the most famous of which is the Abel Tasman National Park. The scenery here is diverse, from soaring mountain peaks to golden beaches and crystal-clear water. The Nelson region boasts a temperate climate which can be enjoyed year round, and outdoor activities are popular, particularly kayaking, walking and cycling in the beautiful national parks.
The city of Nelson is known as the creative arts capital of New Zealand, with over 300 working artists in the area and lots of galleries, including the internationally renowned Hoglund Art Glass studio.
The region of Marlborough covers the eastern part of the top of the South Island. The main town in the area is Blenheim. Marlborough boasts over 60% of New Zealand’s vineyards, and wines from the area are internationally renowned (particularly sauvignon blancs).
In addition to wine tours and winery visits, there are plenty of activities in Marlborough including the legendary Queen Charlotte Track, and the beautiful sea-drowned valleys, coves and islands known as the Marlborough Sounds.
Canterbury is New Zealand’s largest region by area, covering a large portion of the East Coast of the South Island. It’s mostly made up of the Canterbury Plains and the surrounding mountains. The main city in the region is Christchurch, which was rocked by earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. The city is famous for its English heritage and beautiful gardens. Despite the damage left by the earthquakes, there’s plenty to see and do in the city, which has embarked on a plan to rebuild. (link to top things to see in CHC – coming soon!)
To the east of Christchurch is Banks Peninsula, boasting beautiful bays, boutique galleries and seaside villages including the quaint French settlement of Akaroa, famous for dolphin cruises. To the north the beautiful coastline stretches up to Kaikoura, well known for its ocean wildlife, and a good spot to do dolphin and whale watching tours, and inland from this you’ll find the alpine spa village of Hanmer Springs. To the west is the rich agricultural area of Ashburton, and further inland is the stunning Mackenzie Country and Mt Cook National Park, with spectacular snow-capped mountains and amazingly vivid blue glacial rivers and lakes. Look out for the Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo, one of New Zealand’s most photographed buildings.
The West Coast of the South Island is one of the most remote and sparsely populated areas of New Zealand. It’s also one of the most interesting, with rugged coastal beauty, awe-inspiring Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers (the only two easily accessible glaciers out of the 140 that flow from the Southern Alps), plenty of history (it was the site of a gold rush in the 1860’s) and outdoor activities including fishing and hunting.
This area offers spectacular scenery which can be easily viewed from your rental campervan. A particularly well known section of road is the Haast Pass, a mountain pass crossing over the Southern Alps.
The West Coast offers excellent hiking and a range of adventure activities. Make sure you visit the Punakaiki (Pancake) Rocks, stunning natural rock formations located between the towns of Greymouth and Westport. The town of Hokitika is also worth a visit – it has a vibrant community of artists and is a great place to purchase souvenirs made from pounamu (New Zealand jade) found in the area.
The region of Otago is nestled near the bottom of the South Island. The 32,000 square km region encompasses deserted sandy beaches, mountains, glacier-fed rivers, rural plains and lots of wildlife.
The largest (only) city of the region is Dunedin city, first settled by the Scots and still with a strong Scottish flavour (it’s known as the Edinburgh of the South). A must-see in Dunedin is Larnach Castle, New Zealand’s only castle. Also worth a visit is Baldwin Street, the world’s steepest street, and the Cadbury factory (and also the Speights factory, if you like beer!). Just outside the city on the beautiful Otago Peninsula you’ll find the Royal Albatross Centre. You can view beautiful coastal scenery from the Taieri Gorge Railway.
Along the Otago coast, you’ll find the ancient Moeraki boulders, as well as the whitestone town of Oamaru, an interesting historic town with colonies of little blue and yellow-eyed penguins.
If you can, Central Otago is well with a visit. This region is home to the charming rural towns of Alexandra, Clyde, Cromwell, Roxburgh and Ranfurly. The area is fast earning an international reputation for its wines, particularly pinot noir.
The southernmost area of New Zealand is (funnily enough!) called Southland. This region encompasses the southwest portion of the bottom of New Zealand, as well as Stewart Island, the smaller island south of the South Island!
Southland is home to two national parks, including Fiordland National Park, New Zealand’s largest. 85% of Stewart Island is covered by the Rakiura National Park. This area is a mecca for anyone wanting to experience the New Zealand wilderness. Must-see areas in the region include the fiords of Milford and Doubtful Sounds in the Fiordland National Park, and the Catlins, with its abundant wildlife, magnificent waterfalls and 180 million year old petrified forest. The Southern Scenic Route through the Catlins is a great way to explore the region. Also don’t miss Bluff, world famous for Bluff oysters.