South Island Holiday Planning Guide
The wilder of New Zealand's two main islands, South Island offers a feast of nature in all its glory. Extensive, untouched plains connect alpine landscapes with rugged shorelines, creating a home for an abundance of animals and vegetation, on land and in the rich surrounding waters. Renowned as a window to the natural world before man (something that scores of film directors have tapped into over the years), South Island folds its cities and townships into the surrounding landscape, their populations adding something singular to the mix. On your trip to South Island, you'll witness the awe-inspiring cultural heritage of the Maori, whose art and architecture complements the developments of the colonial legacy. The result is a land of characterful buildings, rolling vineyards, and free-spirited adventure.
Places to Visit on South Island
Destinations on South IslandQueenstown
: Lakeside Queenstown sits in the middle of scenic alpine mountains, with the peaks, rivers, and cycling routes of the area allowing for particularly adventurous South Island itineraries, and world-famous vineyards providing some welcome refreshment after a long day out in the wild.Christchurch
: The contemporary dining, partying, and art scenes have added modern flair to the more established, wilder charms of Christchurch, creating a town that’s entertaining and enriching to explore. What's more, you have easy access to the natural attractions of South Island.Dunedin
: Deserted beaches and penguin colonies are some of the many highlights of the coastline near Dunedin, while the city itself shows off well-preserved Victorian and Edwardian architectural highlights, a lively and forward-thinking restaurant scene, and a large collection of quirky bars. Te Anau
: Situated right in the heart of a national park, this township offers a cozy and inviting place to stay while exploring the area's dramatic fjords, with plenty of restaurants serving locally caught game and seafood to welcome you back after a day of adventuring.Wanaka
: Set picturesquely by the side of Lake Wanaka, this resort town offers plenty of activities to try in different seasons, including skydiving, water sports, and winter skiing. With its peaks and scenic views of the lake, it is a photographer’s dream year-round.
Popular South Island Tourist AttractionsSkyline Queenstown
: Head uphill for extensive views of the mountains, scenic lake, and nearby city. The luge ride down offers a thrilling descent, where you control your own vehicle along any one of a number of routes of different difficulties. Milford Sound
: The calm waters and rugged, rocky cliffs of Milford Sound provide a dramatic, awe-inspiring setting for a range of different relaxing or thrilling activities; explore the famous fjord by kayak, sailboat, or small plane. Christchurch Botanic Gardens
: These sprawling botanic gardens protect huge numbers of native and exotic plant life, with the sculpted flower gardens and wilder wooded areas allowing visitors to explore the richness of New Zealand's natural heritage without straying far from the town center. Franz Josef Glacier
: A highlight of many South Island vacations, this vast and enigmatically shaped natural wonder can be explored on a range of hiking and walking routes suitable for visitors of all abilities--or take a helicopter ride over the rugged tundra. Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa
: An indulgent counterpoint to the usual activities of a South Island itinerary, Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa boasts a wealth of warm pools filled by nearby hot springs, a number of kid-friendly slides and rides, and a spa and massage center. Queenstown Garden
: Equal parts tranquil park and lively activity center, the large Queenstown Garden offers something to suit a range of tastes, including a huge collection of native and exotic plant life, a number of walking and hiking routes, and facilities for a range of sports, including tennis, frisbee golf, and ice skating.Kiwi Birdlife Park
: A place to discover the country’s endemic bird and reptile species, Kiwi Birdlife Park is partly a zoo and partly a nature reserve, with four daily feedings of the famous national bird, a cultural center dedicated to traditional Maori life, and a wealth of woodland walks.Larnach Castle & Gardens
: A symbol of the decadence of 19th-century upper-class lifestyles, Larnach Castle & Gardens has been sensitively restored, featuring antique pieces in situ across the mansion’s many rooms and a diverse set of well-managed gardens, lawns, and greenhouses to explore.International Antarctic Centre
: Discover all the challenges and enigmatic appeal of Antarctica in temperature-controlled rooms with ice caves and simulated blizzards, as well as terrain you can traverse with specialized vehicles previously used out in the field.Dunedin Railway Station
: Built in a variety of architectural styles, this early 20th-century station is an attraction all on its own, while also acting as the start and end point for a number of tourist train journeys through the surrounding landscape.
Planning a South Island Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit on South Island with Kids
Holidays on South Island particularly appeal to outdoorsy families with a spirit of adventure, with natural attractions all around and a masses of ways to get out there to see them. Te Anau
offers a base for explorations of the island’s most famous national park, whether your family is up for a ferry ride, helicopter tour, kayaking trip, or hike. Kaikoura
, known for its whale-watching and dolphin-spotting boat tours, also offers pleasant coastal walking routes where you can catch sight of fur seals and sea birds.
has plenty of amusements for kids, including parks, museums, and entertainment areas, while nearby natural highlights can be explored on horseback and bike tours. The town center is accessible and inviting, with plenty of kid-friendly restaurants where the family can recharge their batteries. The same goes for lively Queenstown
, whose local farms you can explore as part of a horse trek or bike ride.
Things to Do on South Island with Kids
Exploring Milford Sound
is a highlight of many family holidays on South Island, with the surrounding Fiordland National Park (Te Wahipounamu)
full of impressive Middle Earth scenery. A number of tour groups, equipment rental outfits, and outdoor activity companies operate in the park, meaning your family can appreciate the surroundings however you wish: kayaking trip, helicopter tour, or plain old hike around the fjords.
Young outdoor adventurers wanting to see some of the country’s famous wildlife will enjoy a trip to Ohau Point Seal Colony
, where scores of seals sunbathe on the rocky shore. Take a thrilling run down the luge at Skyline Queenstown
after you’ve absorbed the drama of the surrounding landscape and the city below. Nearby Queenstown Garden
will keep the whole family entertained with landscaped gardens, lots of space to run around in, and facilities for a range of traditional and novel sports.
Interactive, fun, and educational, Willowbank Wildlife Reserve
introduces visitors old and young to the wildlife of South Island. With performances of the traditional Maori haka followed by an authentic hangi dinner, the center helps to show the relationship between the country’s indigenous people and its stunning natural heritage.
Tips for a Family Vacation on South Island
For many families, it's a long journey to South Island, but the wealth of attractions makes it well worthwhile. Mountains, valleys, lakes, and the coastline will generate plenty of South Island vacation ideas perfect for parents and kids of all ages. Some age restrictions apply for many of the more extreme outdoor activities, so check ahead to avoid disappointment. Activity centers tend to have a good range of experiences available, meaning you should find something age-appropriate for all in your party. It’s easy to get distracted when in the middle of such sublime scenery, and to take detour after detour on a hike or ride. Try to plan your route in advance to stop little legs from getting too tired.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday on South Island
Cuisine of South Island
Kiwi cuisine blends European influences and traditional Maori classics, making gastronomic tours of South Island historically and socially enriching, as well as very tasty. With so many sheep around, it’s little surprise that lamb is integral to local cooking; plenty of restaurants around Christchurch and Queenstown serve roast lamb with seasonal vegetables, either with modern twists or traditional simplicity. As you’d expect for an island, seafood is another big part of the South Island diet: try green-lipped mussels when you’re in Marlborough Region
, and sample the famous whitebait in West Coast Region
Maori hangi dinners, where a variety of meat and vegetables are cooked on hot rocks in the ground, are primarily reserved for special occasions these days--though they occur more regularly in the north of the country. You will find a couple of Maori cultural experience centers during your South Island vacation, and a hangi dinner will give you further insight into the culture, particularly the relationship between the people and the natural world. Certain staples of hangi meals, including kumara (a kind of sweet potato) and other endemic vegetables, feature in restaurants across the island.
Shopping on South Island
With shops selling everything from modern art and Maori crafts to outdoor gear and trinkets, few people leave a South Island holiday empty-handed. Souvenir stores in the tourist towns and larger cities sell Kiwiana: a colorful and varied mix of objects great and small that are important to the national identity. These include buzzy bee toys, paua shell ashtrays, and the Edmonds Cookbook, a staple of every New Zealander’s bookshelf.
At cultural centers and museums across the island, you’ll find interesting collections of Maori arts and crafts for sale. Made using traditional raranga (weaving) and whakairo (carving) techniques, and in a highly intricate and decorative style, the artworks often have symbolic meaning, and reveal the close connection between the country’s indigenous population and the natural world.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to South Island
Interesting Facts About South Island
More people live in Auckland Central
than on the whole of South Island.
South Island is home to a giant carnivorous snail (but don’t worry, it mainly eats earthworms and slugs).
South Island is the 12th largest island in the world.
Holidays & Festivals on South Island
Christmas time through into January is the busiest time of year on the island, with the school holidays starting and warmer weather encouraging parties and festivals. Check out Christchurch for Christmas parades and New Year celebrations, when the city puts a particularly arty and crafty take on traditional festivities. In June, Queenstown rejoices in the return of the snow with a slew of cultural events, sports days, and celebrations, as well as special markets and fairs.
Each region in the country celebrates an Anniversary Day, dedicated to the founders of the first provinces that made New Zealand. Events relate to the individual heritages and characteristics of the provinces, and include sheep-shearing, horseback-riding, and agricultural markets. Make sure to book your accommodations and travel arrangements ahead of time if you’re planning your South Island trip during any public holidays: places can get booked up quickly, particularly during the summer holidays.
Useful South Island Travel Tips
Climate of South Island
The weather in South Island’s coastal areas is generally milder, with the sea having a moderating effect. In general, average temperatures drop and the chance of snowfall increases the farther south and inland you go. Winter lasts from June to August, and summer from December to February. July in Queenstown has average temperatures of 3 C (27.4 F), while Christchurch experiences averages of 6.6 C (43.9 F), with much less snowfall. January sees average temperatures of 15.8 C (60.4 F) and 17.5 C (63.5 F) in Queenstown and Christchurch, respectively. Marlborough Region is known as the sunshine capital of South Island, while the West Coast Region is particularly wet. Strong winds make the weather throughout the country very changeable throughout the day, so keep abreast of weather warnings and announcements when traveling or planning outdoor activities during your South Island vacation.
Transportation on South Island
A full range of transport options take visitors across South Island, with choices between them dependent on how much time you have to spend in transit. The Tranzalpine Train
routes offer a particularly enriching ride, with views of the country that you can’t get from the road or the sky. The same goes for ferries and water taxis in the coastal areas and along the fjords and rivers of the national parks: if you have the time, taking a slower form of transport becomes part of the experience. Of course, car rentals offer maximum independence during your South Island holiday, letting you explore the parks, city surroundings, and scenic routes between the major urban areas. Meanwhile, while buses provide a more cost-effective option for budget-conscious travelers, particularly those traveling independently. Those with limited time can take advantage of flights between Queenstown and Christchurch--the journey lasts just 50 minutes.