homeNew Zealand travel guide > South Island
New Zealand guide
Traveler café 
Travel directory
Last updated : Nov 2009
South Island
South Island - Travelpuppy.com
Marlborough Sounds

To the north of the South Island, the sheltered waterways of the thriving and green region known as Marlborough Sounds attract numerous kayaking, boating, sailing and fishing enthusiasts.

The Marlborough province is well known for its food and wine, with world class, new world wineries such as Le Brun, Fromm, Cloudy Bay, Highfield, Hunters and Montana to name but a few. The best wines from this area tend to be crisp Sauvignon Blanc and white, sharp Chardonnay.

Nearby, Nelson is a busy and sunny small city on the coast, where visitors will find pretty gardens, spectacular beaches and a growing arts community. Besides being an interesting place for culture and art lovers, Nelson is a good starting point for excursions to the 3 national parks in the vicinity.

The UNESCO listed Abel Tasman National Park has a rocky coastline, long golden, crystal clear water, a seal colony, crescent shaped beaches, an abundance of bird life and a fine coastal track, the Abel Tasman Track (3 to 4 days).

Nelson Lakes National Park, also on the UNESCO World Heritage list, offers snow boarding and skiing during winter and fishing or sub alpine walking tracks during the summer.

The Kahurangi National Park, another UNESCO World Heritage area, has a selection of walking tracks that offer an astonishing range of scenery from mountains and karst tablelands to dramatic black sand beaches on the west coast. The most famous of these is the tough Heaphy Track (4 days).

The Kaikoura coast, further south, is a world famous preservation area, sitting opposite a deep water trench full of marine life, and is famous for boat rides at close quarters with various species of whale and the chance to swim with dolphins.


To the south, on the edge of the flat patchwork quilt of the Canterbury Plains, lies the ‘Garden City’ of Christchurch, the South Island’s biggest community.

The tree lined River Avon meanders through the centre of Christchurch, which with its public school, old university buildings (now a fantastic arts centre) and examples of Neo Gothic architecture is reminiscent of an old English university town.

The central square of Christchurch is occupied by a cathedral which provides a useful landmark for tourists either on foot or using the charming historic trams. About 500 metres (1640 feet) from the square is the vast expanse of Hagley Park, on the borders of which are the Canterbury Museum, the Old Canterbury University / Arts Centre, the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, the botanical gardens and Christ’s College.

Just a short walk along the river is St Michael and All Angels Church, an extraordinarily beautiful wooden Neo Gothic building combining French and English styles and containing a mixture of Maori and Catholic elements.

For excursions from Christchurch, the nearby Banks Peninsula provides a hilly substitute to the flat city, with a cable car, boat trips, beaches, pods of Hector’s dolphins (unique to New Zealand) and a number of accessible walking tracks.

Another alternative is to take a hot air balloon ride and from that vantage point look west across the broad flat plains to the Southern Alps, south down the east coast as far as the historic white stone city of Oamaru and north to the Kaikoura Ranges and Cook Strait.

Southern Alps

From Christchurch, a road and a single rail line lead to the Southern Alps, up over Arthur’s Pass and down the other side to the wild west coast. This is the route of a breathtaking rail journey which can be completed, there and back, in 1 day on the Tranz Alpine Express.

The minute village of Arthur’s Pass is a good starting point for climbing, canyoning and trekking trips to the UNESCO listed Arthur’s Pass National Park nearby.

The Alps themselves, which can be accessed by 5 main roads from the east coast, are the spine of the South Island pushed up by plate movement in the earth’s crust. They are larger than the similarly named mountain range in Europe and the spectacular scenery of snowy peaks and glaciers contains unique flora and fauna. The area is dominated by the mighty sagging tent peak of Mount Cook (3754 metres / 12,313 feet), also known by the Maori name Aoraki (cloud piercer).

Mount Cook National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage area and contains more than 20 peaks over 3000 metres (9840 feet). Sliding down from 1 side of Mount Cook is the fantastic Tasman Glacier, 1 of the longest outside the Himalayas.

All types of snow boarding and skiing are available along the Alps with many un crowded ski fields, including heli skiing, while around Mount Cook there are a number of stunning lone and guided walking and climbing trips of 1 to 5 days.

West Coast

At the foot of the Southern Alps’ western slopes, the thin strip that is the West Coast is one of New Zealand’s wildest unharmed natural areas. The coast gets about 4 metres (13 feet) of rain a year, and is a sparsely populated region with a dramatic mountain and native forest landscape, with pristine bush fringed lakes, which provides a home to the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers.

It is possible to take guided ‘ice walks’ on the glaciers or enjoy the myriad wilderness walking tracks that snake in and out of the forests, round the river gorges and valleys, and into the foothills of the Alps.

It is also worth visiting the small communities of Hokitika and Greymouth, where you can purchase carved greenstone, called pounamu by the Maori, who use it for decoration and to make weapons. This stunning, green, hard nephrite jade carved in a traditional shape (each shape carries its own meaning and story) provides the perfect souvenir of a trip to the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’.


To the southwest of the South Island is Fiordland, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Area, which offers a huge range of walking tracks in the wilderness consisting of numerous lakes, native forest, mountains and a pristine coast. Many scenes from the popular blockbuster film trilogy The Lord of the Rings were filmed in different areas of Fiordland.

Nestling beside Lake Wakatipu at the foot of the Remarkables Range, Queenstown is known as New Zealand’s ‘adventure capital’ where tourists can paraglide, bungy, parachute and jet boat (in narrow gorges) until weak at the knees.

There are also several world class walking tracks running out from Glenorchy just along the lake shore, including the Caples, Greenstone Tracks and Routeburn (all 4 to 5 days).

Only 100 kilometres (60 miles) or so away is Te Anau, on the shores of the gorgeous Lake Manapouri, where many more walking trails (from 1 to six days) wind into the bush, over the saddles and around the fjords, mountains and forests including the famous Milford Walking Track (4 to 5 days).

From Te Anau traveling north, a stunning scenic road leads to Milford Sound (wrongly named a sound when in fact it is a fjord). Tourist boats carry people out to the sea along the narrow, high walled glacially scooped fjord where Fiordland crested penguins, seals and sometimes dolphins and whales take advantage of the abundance of fish due to the unusual conditions.

In the fjord a layer of freshwater from the mountains, lays on top of the salt water from the ocean refracting light and producing a mini ecosystem teeming with marine life. For those interested in an even more deserted wilderness experience, there are kayak and boat trips into the neighboring Doubtful Sound.


The green and fertile province of Southland at the bottom of the South Island is home to the cities of Dunedin and Invercargill (which is Gaelic for Edinburgh), both of which have strong Scottish roots and retain a distinctive Celtic flavour.

In Dunedin, this is perhaps best reflected by the city’s streets bearing the same names as those of Edinburgh, and the presence of Wilson’s Whisky Distillery (supposedly the world’s southernmost distillery) and the Emmerson’s and Speights breweries.

Unlike Edinburgh, Dunedin also has the Otago Peninsula, a splendid natural thumb poking out into the Pacific, where it is possible to see rare yellow eyed penguins (Maori name hoihoi, meaning noise maker), enormous yet graceful royal albatross, and basking on the rocks around the peninsula, fur seals.

Invercargill’s Sub Antarctic Audio Visual and Gallery is a magnificent museum containing among other interesting exhibits a number of live tuatara, New Zealand’s very rare and prehistoric lizard, while nearby is Bluff, home of the famous ‘Bluff oysters’ a delicacy that should not be missed.

Between Invercargill and Dunedin is the Catlins Forest Park, with its natural beaches, pods of Hector’s Dolphins and the only mainland colony of Hooker sea lions.

Stewart Island

Across the Foveaux Strait, New Zealand’s 3rd largest island, Stewart Island, has few inhabitants and can be reached by plane (the travel time is 20 minutes), boat, or helicopter ride aboard a motor catamaran from Bluff.

The island has assorted attractions including a rare chance to see the endangered kiwi (New Zealand’s national symbol) in the wild. The birds feed in the evenings around Mason’s Beach, accessible by plane, or by water taxi to Patterson’s Inlet followed by a delightful 4 hour walk.

Another draw card is Ulva Island, a predator free, offshore expanse of bush and fabulous beaches where curious native birds come down to the foreshore to watch tourists clambering off the water taxi.
Useful travel Links
South Island The official tourism website for the Central of NZ
Southern New Zealand General information on southern New Zealand.