South Island: The Ultimate Guide

South Island: The Ultimate Guide

Backpacking in New Zealand’s South Island

If you’ve always wanted to hit the slopes in Queenstown or are looking for the ultimate New Zealand road trip adventure, visit the South Island, a 58,084 mi² land of mountains, lakes, glaciers, fjords, forests, beaches and valleys so beautiful it’s no wonder Peter Jackson filmed his beloved Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies here. Where else can you spend a day trekking through ancient forests, viewing impressive waterfalls and heli-hiking on a glacier?

Though the South Island may not seem so big, keep in mind that the roads are full of twists, turns and scenic lookout points, so it can still take time to get from Point A to Point B. Driving from Picton to Queenstown takes 10 hours if you head east through Christchurch and Lake Tekapo, and 11 hours if you head down the West Coast, and that’s without making any stops.

When To Visit the South Island

If you’re into skiing, snowboarding, ice skating or snow tubing, visit in the wintertime, whilst the summer months are ideal for those who love to hike or want to embark on one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Stick to spring and autumn for warm weather and fewer crowds.

You’ll likely enter the South Island through Christchurch or Queenstown. Alternatively, you could fly into Auckland or Wellington on the North Island, then hop a flight or catch the ferry down.

Must-Visit Towns in the South Island

  • Queenstown

New Zealand’s ski capital is home to some of the best slopes in the country and a bustling nightlife scene. It also makes a great base for day trips to the Milford Sound.

  • Wanaka

About an hour’s drive from Queenstown, Wanaka is where you’ll find Insta-famous places like #ThatWanakaTree and the Roy’s Peak Track.

  • Aoraki / Mount Cook

Home to the Hooker Valley Track, this scenic spot is a major South Island highlight.

  • Lake Tekapo

This stunning blue lake gets its unique colour from surrounding glaciers. Don’t miss the view from the Mount John Summit Circuit Track.

  • Christchurch

This resilient city has made quite a comeback since the devastating 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, sporting a fresh foodie scene and plenty of free museums and gardens.

  • Kaikoura

Visit Kaikoura to see dolphins, orcas, humpbacks, blue whales, seals, albatross, coastal seabirds and other marine life in the wild.

  • Picton and Nelson

If you’re taking the ferry to or from the North Island, you’ll be passing through Picton, gateway to the Marlborough wine region.Stay in nearby Nelson for its proximity to Abel Tasman, Kahurangi and Nelson Lakes National Parks.

  • Franz Josef and Fox Glacier

Hike to a scenic viewing point or splurge on a heli-hiking trek that’s actually on Franz Josef Glacier or Fox Glacier.

  • Stewart Island

Accessible only by boat or small plane, Stewart Island is a popular among visitors and locals alike for fishing, diving, hiking, kayaking and birdwatching.

Driving Tips for the South Island

  1. Check sites like Transfercar or Imoova to score free car rentals—or nearly free if you pay for extra insurance— and ask your favorite car rental companies if they’re running any rental relocation specials between certain cities.
  2. Roads in New Zealand are full of twists and turns, so take it slow, pay attention and watch the speed limit.
  3. Need to check directions, answer a text or take a photo? Pull over. You’ll get an $80 fine and 20 demerit points if you’re caught using your phone behind the wheel.
  4. Check road conditions in case of floods, landslides and road closures.
  5. Always lock your most important belongings in the boot or take them with you.
  6. Use backpacker groups on Facebook to see if anyone wants a lift so you can share fuel costs and swap travel stories during a long drive.
  7. Hitchhiking is popular in New Zealand so don’t be afraid to give it a go. The Thumbs Up app also connects drivers to people who need a ride.
  8. Use apps like Gaspy to track down the cheapest fuel near you.
  9. If you feel an earthquake, drop, cover and hold.

If You Don’t Want to Drive…


Enjoy the view from the Coastal Pacific between Picton and Christchurch, or the TranzAlpine, which passes through the Southern Alps on its way from Christchurch to Greymouth.


Intercity offers coach service throughout the South Island, though some of its routes operate via Great Sights, a tour bus. The Cook Connection takes passengers between Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook and Twizel, whilst East West Coaches offers rides between Christchurch, Greymouth and Westport. Catch-A-Bus-South provides service between Queenstown, Dunedin, Invercargill, Bluff and their airports, whilst Ritchies runs shuttles between Queenstown and Dunedin, as well as Queenstown and Wanaka.

Guided Tours

Kiwi Experience and Stray offer hop-on-hop-off touring experiences around the North and South Islands, whilst guided tours by G Adventures, Intrepid Travel and Contiki (strictly for 18-35 year olds) can also be booked. For day trips and discounts on attractions, check sites like BookMe, Viator and Groupon.


Trekking enthusiasts will love Te Araroa Trail, which runs the length of both islands. The South Island half stretches roughly 1,300km from Ship Cove all the way down to Bluff.

Ferries Between the North and South Islands

Choose between Interislander Cook Strait Ferry and Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferries for a relaxing three-hour sailing through the Queen Charlotte Sound and Marlborough Sounds on your way from Picton to Wellington. Bring your car along, watch a film in the onboard cinema, hear live music in the lounge or take in the view from the top deck.

Accommodation in the South Island

Freedom Camping is huge in New Zealand, but only if you follow the rules, camp in the right places and leave nothing behind. You’ll also find everything from a jailhouse-turned-hostel in Christchurch to familiar chain hotels, luxury lodges and Airbnbs in the South Island.


  1. Hilton Queenstown Resort & Spa
  2. DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Queenstown
  3. Crowne Plaza Queenstown
  4. Haka Lodge Queenstown
  5. Adventure Queenstown Hostel & Chalet
  6. Adventure Q2 Hostel


  1. Ramada Resort by Wyndham Wanaka
  2. Distinction Wanaka Alpine Resort
  3. Wanaka Bakpaka Hostel
  4. YHA Wanaka Purple Cow

Aoraki / Mount Cook

  1. The Hermitage Hotel
  2. Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Lodge
  3. Aoraki Court
  4. Mt Cook Lodge & Motel
  5. YHA Aoraki Mount Cook

Lake Tekapo

  1. Mantra Lake Tekapo
  2. Peppers Bluewater Resort Lake Tekapo
  3. Lake Tekapo Motels & Holiday Park
  4. Lake Tekapo Village Motel
  5. YHA Lake Tekapo


  1. The George
  2. Chateau on the Park, a DoubleTree by Hilton
  3. Crowne Plaza Christchurch
  4. Jailhouse Accommodation


  1. Kaikoura Boutique Hotel
  2. Albatross Backpackers Inn


  1. Bay of Many Coves
  2. Marlborough Bed & Breakfast 
  3. Harbour View Motel Picton
  4. Piwaka Lodge & Backpackers
  5. Tombstone Motel, Lodge & Backpackers


  1. Mantra Nelson Bay
  2. The INNBetween Lodge & Backpackers
  3. Bridge Backpackers

Franz Josef and Fox Glacier

  1. Distinction Fox Glacier Te Waheka Hotel
  2. Fox Glacier Lodge
  3. Westwood Lodge
  4. YHA Franz Josef

Stewart Island

  1. Anchorstone
  2. Stewart Island Lodge
  3. Bunkers Backpackers
  4. Stewart Island Backpackers


For lifelong bragging rights, choose from three jumps: Kawarau Bridge, Nevis or the Ledge. If you still need a rush after that, take on the Nevis Catapault, Nevis Swing, Ledge Swing or Zip Ride. If that’s still not scary enough, try the Shotover Canyon Swing.

Take the gondola to the top of the mountain, enjoy the view from the café, then try the luge or hike the legendary Ben Lomond Track.

Treat yourself to a hop-on-hop-off drinking adventure through the Gibbston Valley wine region, with stops at some of Queenstown’s best vineyards and craft breweries.

This 16km track takes six hours, but you’ll be rewarded with views of Lake Wanaka, Mount Aspiring and the Southern Alps.

Day trip from Queenstown to Te Anau and all the way to the Milford Sound, where a two-hour cruise alongside waterfalls and beautiful snowcapped mountains awaits.

Ride two hours from Queenstown to Manapouri, then spend an hour cruising along Lake Manapouri through some of the most spectacular scenery in the South Island.

The park is best known for the Hooker Valley Track, a scenic three-hour hike that takes you past alpine mountains and streams and over three swing bridges to a glacial lake in the heart of the Southern Alps.

Choose your own adventure on a heli-hiking tour of either Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier, or hike to each one’s scenic viewing point for a closer look.

Five minutes from Fox Glacier or 30 minutes from Franz Josef, catch beautiful views of Aoraki / Mount Cook and Mount Tasman on this scenic walk.

If you’re in Lake Tekapo or Aoraki Mount Cook, try an educational stargazing tour through the Dark Sky Project or Tekapo Springs. Or, just grab a blanket for a DIY stargazing sesh.

If you’re driving up the West Coast between Greymouth and Westport, stop for a quick look at this unique rock formation by the ocean.

A fabulous place to spend the day kayaking, sailing, cycling or hiking along the South Island’s northern coast. Try the Abel Tasman Coast Track for a three- to five-day tramping and camping advenure.

About an hour’s drive from Greymouth or a two-hour drive from Christchurch, you’ll find beautiful alpine mountains and valleys, with several hikes to choose from depending on whether you want to make it a day trip or a multi-day trek.

Learn about New Zealand’s history and indigenous peoples at Ko Tane: The Māori Experience, a special cultural performance that includes a hongi welcome and traditional Kapahaka dances. A four-course hāngī dinner is also available, as is a 45-minute guided tour of Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, one of the only places where you can see New Zealand’s native kiwi bird in the wild.

View interactive displays about the powerful earthquakes that struck Christchurch in 2010 and 2011 at this fascinating museum just a few blocks from the 185 Chairs Memorial, Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial and Christchurch Cathedral, which is still in ruins.