The Ultimate New Zealand South Island Travel Guide
New Zealand's South Island is undoubtedly one of the world's most beautiful places, where golden beaches and dense rainforests border the snow-capped Southern Alps and adventures are endless. But for those of us who can't pick up and move to Christchurch, here's a definitive guide on how to make the most of your time there.
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Looking at a map, you could be misled by the size of New Zealand’s South Island. As you’re circling the 58,000-square-mile island, packed full of every kind of landscape imaginable, it might be hard to believe that its entirety could nearly fit within Illinois’s borders. On the island’s northeast coast, Canterbury’s tussock-covered plains meet thousands of miles of golden beaches; head west and you’ll hit glaciers hidden among thick swaths of rainforest; to the east, remnants of extinct volcanoes form a rugged coastline holding bright blue bays; and to the south, rare penguins thrive in forests that almost reach the sea. The snowcapped peaks of the Southern Alps run through it all, punctuated by aquamarine glacial lakes. Even if you could technically drive across it in a day—the island is only 522 miles long—you wouldn’t want to.
Even then, don’t expect a few weeks, or even months, to feel like enough. In more than a year of living on the South Island, I’ve put 12,000 miles on my car yet have barely managed to make a dent in my to-see list. This isn’t unique to me; a common refrain I hear from Kiwis is that you can live in New Zealand your entire life and never see it all.
A love and respect for the outdoors is entrenched in New Zealand’s history, starting with the Māori who settled on the islands in the 14th century. Within the past few decades, the Māori culture has seen more integration and recognition, from the establishment of Tongariro National Park on the North Island in 1993 as the world’s first World Heritage Site, designated for its cultural and spiritual importance to an indigenous people, to today, with the comeback of many of its traditions, including Te Reo, the nation’s native tongue. This reverence for the country’s roots and landscapes runs deep and drives many of the government’s policies, from education initiatives like outdoor-focused schools to prioritizing climate-change impact.
New Zealand has almost every kind of outdoor activity, but its most unique features are its Great Walks, a series of ten three-to-five-day backcountry tracks that pass through some of the nation’s most awe-inspiring landscapes. The newest Great Walk, the Paparoa Track, opened on the South Island in December and winds through the pristine Paparoa National Park. Then there’s the longest walk of them all: the 1,860-mile Te Arora Track, an epic thru-hike that runs from the tip of the North Island to the bottom of the South and takes months to complete. The tracks—coupled with an extensive backcountry hut system and car-camping options—make it easy for hikers of all skill levels to get a taste of this country’s wilderness.
Activities abound throughout the entire country, but if you want to get the most out of a two-week trip, stay on the South Island—few other regions offer the chance to scale frozen peaks, surf rocky coastlines, and paddle roaring rivers in such a small space. The island is also home to seven of the ten Great Walks, as well as the country’s highest peaks and most expansive rainforests.
While the South Island has long topped adventure bucket lists, this year it will be easier to get there than ever before, with more airlines offering affordable, direct flights. Last year, American Airlines announced that it will debut the only nonstop flight to Christchurch from Los Angeles in late 2020, as well as a direct flight from Dallas–Fort Worth to Auckland, from which it’s a short domestic hop to the South Island. Once you get there, all that’s left is to follow our handpicked itinerary of the best adventures in every region.
What You Need to Know Before Visiting New Zealand
Plan for drives to take up to twice as much time as you think. Google’s estimated drive times are meaningless. Driving on the “wrong” side of the road isn’t the only challenge; the roads are notoriously narrow and winding, and many are unpaved. If you arrive in winter, chains are mandatory on many mountain passes. “Slips” (landslides) are also common, as are road closures, so be flexible in your planning and use the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) website to research your route before you head out.
Learn a new set of lingo. While there’s always an added ease when traveling to English-speaking countries, the local slang is almost an entirely different language. A few examples: DOC (pronounced “dock”) is the Department of Conservation, which manages the country’s parklands. (Like any bureaucratic government body, DOC is both loved and hated by Kiwis.) Backcountry hikes are “tramps,” which may be on a clearly marked “track” or on an unformed “route.” The word “walk” is reserved for paths suitable to all fitness levels.
Make bookings up to a year in advance for the most popular huts and hikes. DOC’s online booking system for its Great Walks typically opens in June for the next season (October to May). Peak periods for some trails, such as the Milford Track in Fiordland, sell out within a matter of seconds. All Great Walks must be reserved in advance, requiring mandatory hut or campsite bookings that can be as much as $92 per person per night. Some walks are known to have a greater chance of last-minute openings, like the Rakiura Track. If you miss out on a DIY trip, tour operators often have more last-minute availability.
Take advantage of backcountry huts. While New Zealand is known for its beautiful, high-end lodges and abundance of campsites, hike-in backcountry huts offer the opportunity to see some of the most stunning, remote landscapes in relative comfort. There is an extensive system of 1,400 huts, 950 of which are managed by DOC and the rest by various outdoor groups, that allow you to forgo your tent on the trail. Originally built for sheep musterers and deer cullers, huts today are used by trampers, or backcountry hikers, for shelter. They range in condition and amenities, from serviced huts that include mattresses and running water to those that are little more than mountainside shacks. Unlike the huts in the Great Walks, the majority of these are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and hut tickets ($3 to $9) or passes ($61 for six months, $81 for a year for unlimited stays) can be purchased from select i-Sites (official visitor centers), DOC info centers, Youth Hostel Associations, and outdoor outfitters.
Know the rules around camping. After decades of misuse by tourists, the 2011 Freedom Camping Act limited most “freedom camping”—or pitching your tent virtually anywhere—to certified self-contained vehicles, meaning one you can live in for up to three days without getting water or dumping waste. If you don’t have a self-contained vehicle, you have to stay at designated campsites with toilets and available water, some of which are free or cost as little as $3 per night. Similar to BLM land in the U.S., there is some limited free camping available on public-conservation land to those without self-contained vehicles. But just because you can pull up and pitch your tent doesn’t mean you should—many of these sites don’t have waste-disposal facilities, and you must be prepared to practice Leave No Trace principles and pack out everything you bring in. Many campsites (free or otherwise) are at risk of being shut down due to tourist misuse. Freedomcamping.org has more information on the laws related to camping and parking your camper in New Zealand, as well as where you can find sites.
Interpret DOC’s signage in the most literal way possible. While everyone has different interpretations of rating systems, my experience is that the information provided by DOC is usually spot-on, especially once you have a handle on the difference between a walk, tramp, track, and route. Unlike other countries where walking times are padded, a three-hour tramp that’s signposted as such will take you three hours (minimum) to do. And if a route is recommended only for those with orienteering skills, you’re going to need your compass. Always check on the DOC website or chat with a ranger about your ability level and experience before heading out.
Pack your own gear. Like many other island nations, New Zealand relies heavily on imported goods, which can drive up prices. It’s better to bring all the outdoor gear you need with you. Before packing your boots and tent, make sure they’re clean in order to meet the country’s stringent customs and biosecurity guidelines—even a bit of dirt can lead to confiscation. If you do forget something, secondhand gear is readily available on Trade Me, New Zealand’s answer to Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.
Bring your best deet. Ever wondered why such a gorgeous country has managed to remain relatively unpopulated? Sand flies, my friends, and millions of them. They’re everywhere, all year round. These tiny biting blackflies love hanging out around water, so be wary when spending a day at the beach.
Be flexible. The country comes with the wildness and unpredictability of a land ruled by nature. Two earthquakes in the past ten years have devastated major cities, and smaller shocks are a regular occurrence. The weather is highly variable, with landslides and road closures a common disturbance to travel plans.
What’s the Best Time of Year to Visit the South Island?
Read any tourism brochure and you’ll invariably stumble across this catch-all statement: “New Zealand is a great place to visit at any time of year.”
In essence that may be true, but timing your trip should be more nuanced. Winter is June to September, with temperatures that range from below freezing to 50 degrees, while in summer, from December to March, temperatures average between 60 and 78 degrees. New Zealand’s southerly latitude means long summer days, with the sun setting around 9 P.M. In winter, it sets as early as 5 P.M.
Weather can be highly variable at any time of year, although you can always count on wind (cyclists pay heed). Rain and cloud cover are also par for the course. In fact, New Zealand’s Māori name, Aotearoa, translates to “land of the long white cloud.” It’s typical for the weather to shift moment to moment, with clear skies ahead of you and dense clouds just behind.
There are also regional factors to consider: Restaurants, accommodation, and operators all but shut down for the winter in Golden Bay in the northern Nelson Tasman region. Snow on Queenstown’s ski slopes is only solid from about July to August. And the typically always-rainy West Coast (commonly referred to as the wet coast) gets the least amount of rainfall in the winter months. In my opinion, fall—from March through May—is prime time, before the days get too short and operators close down for the year; this is when you’ll still get stunning colors, darker skies for starry nights, less rain than the spring shoulder season, and most important, lower rates after the summer crowds.
Perhaps the question to answer is when not to visit. Kiwis love to travel in their own country, so it’s best to skip the school holiday period of December and January.
How to Get There and Around
Getting to New Zealand
Regardless of whether you’re headed to a specific place or planning to circumnavigate the island, Christchurch’s central location makes it the perfect jumping-off point. Flights to Christchurch tend to be more affordable—and reliable—than those to Queenstown or Dunedin in the south, the island’s two other international airports. Christchurch Airport even has a dedicated area for reassembling bicycles.
Flying: If you’re short on time, 16 regional airports exist across the South Island, and tickets are relatively inexpensive. For example, flying from Christchurch north to Nelson will run you about $80. There are also no security checks for regional flights, which saves on travel time. However, be aware that smaller airports are more vulnerable to high winds, snow, and heavy rainfall—all of which the South Island has in buckets—and flights are often delayed or cancelled for these reasons.
Buses: InterCity (Flexipasses from $132) offers service throughout much of the South Island but has a limited schedule and doesn’t run in some areas (such as Golden Bay) during the winter months. Relying on the bus may also limit you from exploring backcountry areas.
Driving: Three popular rental companies are Jucy (from $80 per day), Spaceships (from $46 per day), and Travellers Autobarn (from $36 per day), all of which have minimum lending periods of anywhere from three to ten days.
If you’re planning an extended trip of a few months or more, it’s cheaper to buy a car or van and sell it when you leave. Used vehicles are surprisingly affordable and can be found on Facebook Marketplace or Trade Me, and many come outfitted with everything you’ll need to hit the road, including cookware and lawn chairs. Some used-car lots also offer buyback programs. Plan to invest between $2,000 to $7,000, plus the cost of registration, a warrant of fitness, and any additional insurance from AA, New Zealand’s version of AAA. Ideally, you’ll get most of that back when you sell the car at the end of your trip, but keep in mind that sellers garner higher prices in the summer, the prime tourist season. Look for a camper that’s certified as self-contained, and you’ll be able to park almost anywhere for the night, free of charge. Use the CamperMate or WikiCamps apps to find the best spots.
Another important consideration is where you’ll be driving. If you plan to head into the backcountry, you’ll won’t regret choosing a vehicle with four-wheel drive and ample clearance.
Where to Go
The South Island is made up of six major regions. Marlborough is in the northeast and Nelson Tasman is in the northwest. Just south, Central Canterbury is the island’s largest region and home to its biggest city, Christchurch. Southwest of Canterbury is Otago and the adventure hub of Queenstown. The West Coast and Southland are exactly where you imagine they would be.
We’ve designed this guide to function as a road-trip map of sorts, if you were to start in Christchurch and head north to Marlborough before driving counterclockwise around the island.
Many people who fly into Christchurch immediately head south, or those who arrive from the North Island on the Cook Strait ferry pass through Marlborough without giving it much consideration. Don’t make the same mistake: the northernmost tip not only has plenty of adventure, but it’s one of the best winemaking regions in the world.
A half day’s drive north of Christchurch, Marlborough has 1,118 miles of coastline—much of it unpopulated and unspoiled—equating to days’ worth of hiking, kayaking, and mountain biking. Half-day excursions are best paired with afternoons wine tasting near Blenheim, which has plenty of restaurants and lodging. The seaside port town of Picton offers direct access to water-based activities.
To get there, drive north roughly 4.5 hours from Christchurch up State Highway (SH) 1 toward Picton. Kaikoura will be the first major town you hit; as you near it, be prepared for queues—construction has been underway on stretches of the road since a 7.8-magnitude earthquake rattled the area in 2016. (Check the NZTA website for live updates.) From Kaikoura, it’s less than two hours to Blenheim.
What to Do While You’re There
Walk the Queen Charlotte Track. One of the most popular tramping routes in the country, this 45-mile trail, part of the larger 1,860-mile Te Araroa Track, follows the bays and inlets of the Marlborough Sounds, a huge network of sea-filled valleys off the coast. You’ll need to book boat transport from Picton to get to the walk’s starting point in Ship Cove, a remote bay at the north end of the sounds that’s only accessible from the water. Over the next three to five days, you’ll walk your way back to civilization; the track’s end point, in the village of Anakiwa, is near the small settlement of Linkwater and has ferry service back to Picton. Designed for all skill levels, the track traverses lush coastal forests of ferns and nikau palms and offers sweeping views of the Pacific. You can camp at one of DOC’s six designated self-registration sites along the route, or combine it with kayak or mountain-bike excursions to vary up the scenery. Those who prefer to travel light can hire an outfitter such as Wilderness Guides NZ to transport gear from lodge to lodge (packages start from $240).
Tramp in Mount Richmond Forest Park. If you’re looking for more of a challenge, this densely wooded region just southwest of Picton might be more your speed. Hikes range from a few hours to days, but the most challenging is the five-to-eight-day Alpine Route. Steep and rugged, the track isn’t well-formed, so you’ll need navigation skills, a good level of fitness, and up to four days to conquer it. It will take you 5,577 feet above sea level, where you’ll be rewarded with views over the Waimea Plains and, farther northwest, the neighboring Kahurangi and Abel Tasman National Parks. The walk starts from the picnic area at the end of Hacket Road, 18 miles south of Nelson, and heads southeast, ending at the Goulter Road near SH 63. There are five DOC huts available along the way; they don’t require online booking, but you will need hut tickets.
Kayak with seals in Kaikoura. While technically in Canterbury, Kaikoura is worth a stop on your way up to Marlborough from Christchurch, from which it’s two and a half hours northeast. Spend your day sea kayaking in the place where the viral “seal slaps kayaker with octopus” video was filmed. You’re unlikely to get a tentacle to the face, but a day out on the water with Kaikoura Kayaks (from $36) will get you close enough to whales, seals, and dolphins that it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility.
Where to Stay
Scenic Hotels Marlborough: This 54-room hotel (from $125) was fully renovated a few years ago, enhancing it with eco-friendly features such as electric-car charging stations. The main selling point, though, is its location; the modern lodge is walking distance from Blenheim’s downtown and only a short drive to Picton’s adventures.
Lochmara Lodge: As is the case with much of the Marlborough Sounds, there are no roads to Lochmara Lodge—the only way to access it is via kayak or boat across Queen Charlotte Sound or mountain bike or walk from the Queen Charlotte Track. Located two miles from the trail, in Lochmara Bay, the hotel’s 14 offerings range from motel-style units to high-end chalets opening to panoramas of the bay (from $66).
Whatamango Bay Campsite: A 20-minute drive northeast of Picton will land you in Whatamango Bay, where 50 campsites sit a stone’s throw away from the ocean. Bookings ($5 per person) are recommended for the high season, and there’s no filtered water available, so you’ll need to treat your own.
Renowned for its production of sauvignon blanc, Marlborough is home to 140 wineries and around 30 tasting rooms. Most are an easy bike ride from Blenheim. Two must-stops include Moa Brewing Company, which sells wine-infused beers and has a food truck serving burgers on-site, and the award-winning Framingham Wines. The latter’s Rieslings are featured in Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants, but the vibes here are more rock and roll than dinner party (the house rock band rehearses in the wine cellar).
Located just west of Marlborough at the northern tip of the island, the Nelson Tasman region is rapidly becoming one of the most popular vacation destinations for residents and visitors alike. At its epicenter is the city of Nelson, which is worth a quick stop to check out its numerous breweries. Farther northwest is Abel Tasman National Park and Golden Bay, where you’ll find New Zealand’s best climbing, rappelling, and canyoning.
With around 2,600 hours of sunshine per year (compared to national averages between 1,672 and 2,098 hours), Nelson Tasman is also one of the few places that isn’t perpetually covered by the “long white cloud.” But be warned: while its winters are mild, many operators and accommodation providers in its rural areas still close for the months of July and August.
From Picton, it’s about a two-hour drive west to Nelson. From there, getting to the towns of Kaiteriteri or the much-smaller Marahau—both at Abel Tasman’s south entrance—is easy. Both are about an hour’s drive northwest of Nelson. Be sure not to miss the turn right after Riwaka.
Driving to Takaka, Golden Bay’s main town at the north end of Abel Tasman, is another task altogether. Takaka Hill is a 2,595-foot mountain pass, which one New Zealand journalist described as “less a road than a rickety goat track hewn into the side of a mountain.” Give yourself extra time here, and enjoy the views. The trip from Nelson to Takaka takes two hours, hugging the coast along SH 6 before heading inland on SH 60.
What to Do While You’re There
Walk, canyoneer, and paddle through Abel Tasman National Park. At 37 miles, the Abel Tasman Coast Track hugs the shoreline from Marahau at the south end of the park to Totaranui in the north and typically takes three to five days to complete. Despite this, it’s one of New Zealand’s easier Great Walks, thanks to the region’s relatively mild weather. Much like Marlborough’s Queen Charlotte Track, it’s best combined with a sea kayak for a multi-sport expedition, which allows you to shortcut across bays while getting up close with fur seals. If you’re short on time and can’t do the full route, the four-hour walk from Marahau to Anchorage Bay—where a prebooked water taxi will pick you up—offers a good glimpse. Or join outfitter Abel Tasman Canyons (from $160) to rappel, zip line, and swim through the park’s backwaters and waterfalls. Then head out on in a traditional outrigger canoe with Waka Abel Tasman (from $63) to Split Apple Rock, a geologic formation off the coast that looks exactly as it sounds. New Zealand’s Māori first arrived in the country about 1,000 years ago via waka, and this excursion is more about the cultural experience than the paddling, while offering a great chance to see the park from the water.
Rock-climb in Golden Bay. Just outside Takaka, past Abel Tasman’s northern reaches, Paines Ford Scenic Reserve (sometimes spelled as Paynes Ford) has over 250 single-pitch routes and more than 20 limestone crags. It doesn’t hurt that they’re almost all directly beside the Takaka River’s best swimming holes. Most climbers stay at nearby Hangdog Camp, which offers cheap and cheerful accommodation (from $9) a ten-minute walk down the road from the crag. (The owners will also give you the inside scoop on where to find less developed walls that are hidden elsewhere in the area.) Nearby Pohara also has over 100 bolted routes directly beside the ocean. They’re not only more picturesque but longer, ideal for intermediate climbers looking to build their endurance.
Go caving in Golden Bay. An hour and a half north of Nelson, Harwood’s Hole, which plummets 577 feet straight down from the top of Takaka Hill, is probably the region’s most famous cave. Rappelling into its depths is only advised for the most experienced and technical of cavers, but if you want to get your feet wet, there are other caverns for unguided newbies nearby. The Rawhiti Cave Track, starting from a parking lot just outside Motupipi, less than ten minutes east of Takaka, is a short but steep walk that will take you to the mouth of a massive cave with an impressive display of rare phytokarst stalactites. It takes about two to three hours round-trip, depending on track conditions. Alternately, head 20 minutes north toward Collingwood for the Aorere Goldfields Track, another half-day hike that will bring you to the cavernous Ballroom Cave, which was supposedly used by miners for dances in the 1800s. Come equipped with a headlamp and proper footwear.
Where to Stay
Awaroa Lodge: Set in the bush on the edges of the Abel Tasman Coast Track, Awaroa (from $166) is only accessible by foot or boat from Kaiteriteri and various spots along the coast. The 26-room hotel is a bit glossier than some of its counterparts on Marlborough’s Queen Charlotte Track, with a spa, pizza bar, and library. Kayaking trips and guided bushwalks are also available directly from the lodge.
Abel Tasman Lodge: Owners Jocelyn and Scott Hendry were living overseas when they bought this motel-style accommodation five years ago (from $146). They arrived home to discover it was in need of an overhaul. Their renovations—which included adding a shoe-washing station for dirty boots, a massage studio for sore post-hike muscles, and a revamped shared kitchen area with top-end barbecues—paid off. In 2019, this lodge in Marahau was named the country’s best small hotel by TripAdvisor.
Old MacDonald’s Farm: A short walk from the entrance to Abel Tasman Coast Track, Old MacDonald’s Farm in Marahau offers a range of options, from tent sites ($15) and dormitories ($23) to self-contained cabins ($119). As the name implies, it’s a working farm, and a nearby river is a popular post-adventure spot for guests.
If you’ve been hankering for one of Queenstown’s legendary Fergburgers, from a restaurant known for its unusual meat choices such as lamb and venison (everyone from CNN to Lonely Planet claims they’re among the world’s finest), try the Fat Tui first. This little food truck in Marahau is quietly pumping out what some consider the best (and biggest) burgers on the South Island—all without the hourlong line or the hype.
The West Coast
A long, narrow stretch of coastline reaching from Karamea in the north to Haast in the south, the South Island’s West Coast lives up to its wet and wild reputation, receiving up to 32 feet of rain per year. Most tourists will only drive through on their way to see the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, some of the island’s biggest attractions, which is good news if you’re looking for relatively untouched mountain-biking and hiking trails in native rainforest. Just remember to bring your rainjacket‚ even during the less rainy winter months.
From Nelson, take SH 6 southwest for three hours until you hit Westport, your first major stop on the West Coast. The road to get there—like many in New Zealand—is winding and long, so stop in Murchison, about 80 miles in, to fuel up and grab lunch.
Karamea is 90 minutes farther north via SH 67, while Greymouth, Punakaiki, and Hokitika are all to the south on your way to the glaciers.
What to Do While You’re There
Hike the Paparoa Track. The first Great Walk built in New Zealand in 25 years, this 34-mile one-way track was completed in December. It’s the only purpose-built route for both hikers and mountain bikers in the country and offers access to the remote Paparoa Range, a stunning environment of limestone karst, rainforest, and high-alpine tussocks. It can be walked in either direction, northwest from Blackball or southeast from Punakaiki, and takes three days to complete on foot and two by bike. There’s no trailside camping, and huts must be booked in advance through DOC. Before starting your walk, stock up on supplies in nearby Greymouth, as there are only small, limited grocery stores in the walk's terminus towns.
Cycle through rainforest and along the ocean. Built for cyclists, the 75-mile West Coast Wilderness Trail from Greymouth to Ross follows paved and gravel routes originally carved out by gold-rush miners. Although it’s pretty beginner-friendly—the New Zealand Cycle Trail system rated it as grade two, with some grade-three on-road riding—it’s still a ride for the intrepid, given the amount of rainfall. Best completed over four days, it follows bush railway lines and ocean shorelines and passes by the remains of former gold-mining towns. Looking for a more advanced challenge that will take you through forgotten valleys and across tussock-covered mountaintops? Try the Old Ghost Road, a 52-mile, grade-four trail. Also accessible to trampers, it starts in Lyell (an hour inland from Westport) and connects to the Mokihinui River in the north near Seddonville. If you plan to complete it in its entirety—a journey that takes two to five days—bookings for the track’s huts, campsites, and private sleepouts next to the huts must be made in advance.
Explore Kahurangi National Park. Just northeast of Karamea, Kahurangi is blissfully free of the crowds you might find in other national parks. It’s New Zealand’s second largest and is best known for the Heaphy Track, a four-to-six-day Great Walk that connects this region to Nelson Tasman. (It’s also open to mountain bikers during the winter months.) If you’re looking for a place to chill out after your trek, the tiny township of Karamea is the place to do it. Connect with Mark Cloughley of Karamea Surf and SUPs to find out where the best surf breaks are; paddle or tube through the Karamea Gorge with Karamea Outdoor Adventures (from $49); or explore the Honeycomb Hill Specially Protected Area, an expansive cave system that’s only accessible via guided tours (from $62) due to the delicate environment, in the national park’s Oparara Basin.
Where to Stay
Theatre Royal Hotel: Popular with cyclists on the West Coast Wilderness Trail, this Kumara hotel, 20 minutes southeast of Greymouth, was built as a gold miners’ lodge and dance hall in the late 1800s. It was all but abandoned for several years but has been fully restored to its former glory. It offers plenty of storage for bicycles as well as e-bike charging stations. Rooms start at $85 per night, but if you’re on a budget—and comfortable sleeping in a place that’s almost guaranteed to be haunted—check in to Theatre Royal’s Undertakers Backpackers, where beds start from $16 a night.
Punakaiki Beach Camp: The new beachside cabins at Punakaiki Beach Camp (from $54), located on the coast at the north end of the Paparoa Track, are your go-to if you’re walking or cycling the trail. The camp will take care of gear transfers and transport your car to the start or end of the track in Blackball. Powered and tent sites are also available (from $12).
Otago’s biggest municipality, Queenstown, likely needs no introduction. This is where bungee jumping and jet boating were invented. It’s also where you can whitewater raft, parasail, canyon swing, skydive, snowboard, heli-hike, mountain bike… you get the idea.
If you’re happy to drop all your money doing outlandish things and (hopefully) living to tell about it, go hard. However, venture beyond the city’s limits—even if it’s just over to nearby Wanaka—and you’ll find wide-open spaces and trails with fewer crowds and plenty of free outdoor activities.
It’s a long drive over Haast Pass to Queenstown, so break it up into several days if time allows. From the town of Hokitika, it takes about 5.5 hours, not including the stops you should make along the way, including hiking at the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers and exploring waterfalls like Fantail and Roaring Billy Falls.
After the pass, it’s about an hour to the region’s first major town, Wanaka. From there, Queenstown is another hour south through the Crown Range, the highest main road in New Zealand, reaching an elevation of 3,677 feet. If you plan to take on this pass in the winter, you’ll need to come equipped with snow chains for your tires.
What to Do While You’re There
Tramp high into Mount Aspiring National Park. Hiking in this national park will take you deep into New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Although most of the park is technically in the west-coast region, its tracks can be accessed from the Otago towns of Makarora, Wanaka, Queenstown, and Glenorchy, as well as Southland’s Te Anau. Most people in the park just do the roadside one-hour Blue Pools walk to peer into their crystalline depths, but the 36-mile Gillepsie Path Circuit—which starts in Makarora, about an hour north of Wanaka, and takes around four days to complete—is worth the time and effort. Best for experienced trampers, the second day of the track will take you over a 5,250-foot pass, with impressive views of the aptly named Mount Awful. While the track takes as little as three days to complete, spend an extra night to do the lung-busting, 5.3-mile trail to Crucible Lake, a bright blue pool of glacial runoff situated beneath the icy peak of Mount Alba. The circuit has three first-come, first-served DOC huts along the way that require hut tickets or passes.
Go whitewater stand-up paddleboarding in Wanaka. Wanaka is one of only two places on the South Island where you can whitewater kayak or SUP (the other is on the West Coast near Karamea). Lake Wanaka empties into the Clutha, the second-longest river in New Zealand, where it forms Class I–II rapids and whirlpools. Even at depths of 65 feet, it’s so clear that you can see trout swimming along its bottom. With a flow fluctuating between 7,000 and 21,000 cubic feet per second, the entire river can be paddled southward from its start near Queenstown to the sea (ending near Dunedin on the east coast) in about a week. Outfitter Paddle Wanaka (from $119) offers a four-hour whitewater SUP tour, as well as multi-day kayaking and lake excursions.
Heli-ski in Queenstown. With five areas (Cardrona, Treble Cone, the Remarkables, Coronet Peak, and the exclusive Soho Basin) and a long season that lasts from June to October (granted with plenty of help from snow cannons), Queenstown (day tickets from $78) is the most popular skiing destination in Oceania. Got a bit of extra cash to splash out? It’s a great place to try heli-skiing. Compared to other mountain destinations, you don’t have to be an expert to do it here, with outfitters catering to both intermediate and advanced levels. Harris Mountains Heli-Ski (from $660) and Southern Lakes Heliski (from $697) are two of the largest operators and group guests according to skill level, while Alpine Heliski (from $660) has access to more skiable terrain.
Where to Stay
Kamana Lakehouse: One of the newest luxury hotels in Queenstown is set high in Fernhill, with stunning views of the towering Remarkables Range and Lake Wakatipu. Its après-ski room is probably the most luxurious you’ll see in the region, with heated cupboards for ski boots. The view doesn’t come cheap though, with 73 rooms starting at $210, but the private outdoor hot tubs make it worth it.
Oasis Yurts: When Jo Day and Rusty Downham decided to open Oasis Yurts, they had three nonnegotiables: access for those with disabilities (having had friends seriously injured in whitewater-rafting accidents), family-friendly, and communal, with a common space and kitchen that even they would love to cook in. With six yurts set beside the river just outside Wanaka (from $116), the resulting space easily earns its name.
Camp Glenorchy: There is absolutely no greenwashing at Camp Glenorchy. The sustainable lodge and campsite, two hours west of Wanaka, is designed so that 100 percent of its energy is generated on-site. The Routeburn Track, another premier Great Walk, is only 11 miles away and e-bike rentals are available on-site (bunks from $30; powered sites from $36).
If you can’t get a table at Wanaka’s acclaimed Kika restaurant, mosey over to White House Wanaka instead. It will feel like you’ve wandered into someone’s living room, because you have. The owner, Pedro, lives here, and the service is highly dependent on his mood. Menus change regularly and are posted on chalkboards throughout the room. The one thing that is guaranteed? Pedro’s son, Jacques Scott, will churn out a hearty helping of delicious Mediterranean meals with fresh ingredients.
New Zealand’s biggest national park, Fiordland, is also its most famous for good reason. Every year around 400,000 tourists travel to Fiordland’s isolated Milford Sound to catch a glimpse of waterfalls that plummet down into the ocean off sheer cliff faces.
However, it’s not the only thing that Southland has to offer. In the country’s southeast corner, the rugged Catlins, where dense forest extends to the sea, are home to a few endangered species of birds, including the rare yellow-eyed penguin. The penguins can also be found on Stewart Island, 18 miles off the southern coast, alongside kiwis and albatross.
Starting in Queenstown, head southwest on SH 6 until you reach the 97, which turns into SH 94 at Mossburn. It will take about two hours to reach Te Anau, the midpoint of Fiordland, where you’ll find the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre.
Driving all the way to Milford Sound takes an additional two hours northwest on SH 94, but check the NZTA website before you depart—the road closes frequently during the winter and spring. If traveling in the winter, you’ll also need snow chains, which are available for rent in Te Anau. Finally, if you want to avoid the thousands of other tourists also making the drive, check out DOC’s handy cheat sheet of when the tour buses typically stop at lookout points along the way.
From Te Anau to Invercargill, your jumping-off point to Stewart Island, it’s a two-hour drive southeast starting on SH 94.
What to Do While You’re There
Explore Fiordland National Park. Called the “world’s finest walk,” Fiordland’s 33-mile Milford Track packs all of New Zealand’s superlatives into four days. Starting at Glade Wharf, at the head of Lake Te Anau, and traversing north to Milford Sound, this intermediate walk passes through ancient rainforests, past gushing waterfalls, and into valleys carved by glaciers. In order to complete it without a guide, you’ll need to book DOC huts far in advance, as there’s no trailside camping. It’s also one of the more expensive Great Walks, costing $46, with an additional fee for boat transportation from Te Anau to the starting point. Its popularity comes with another cost: it sells out quickly, so you’ll have to book it up to ten months in advance. Another option is the Gertrude Saddle Route, which starts at the signed parking lot east of the Homer Tunnel, about 60 miles north of Te Anau on the road to Milford Sound. Not to be attempted in wet or winter weather, the challenging six-hour tramping route will see you crossing rivers and rock scrambling but will reward you with views of the valley below and parts of Milford Sound.
Take the ferry to Stewart Island. If you’ve traveled this far in New Zealand, you’ve likely already seen a kiwi, the country’s most famous endemic bird, in a wildlife sanctuary. Stewart Island, however, may be your best bet to see them in the wild. The crossing from Bluff, near Invercargill, to the island’s port of Oban via express catamaran costs $106 round-trip and takes roughly one hour. Once on the island, there are countless walking paths, but the best way to see it is via the Rakiura Track, another Great Walk. A 20-mile loop, it takes about three days to complete, starting from the Lee Bay Road End, two miles north of Oban, and ending near the Rakiura National Park Visitor Centre in Oban. There are two huts along the path and three campsites that must be booked in advance.
Where to Stay
Milford Sound Lodge: Milford Sound Lodge isn’t just the place to stay in Milford Sound—it’s the only place to stay. (And if you plan to visit between October and April, book well in advance.) Luckily, having a monopoly on the area hasn’t resulted in subpar accommodation at inflated prices. The food is highly rated, as are the rooms. The boat terminal from the Milford Track is only a 30-minute walk away, though the lodge also runs a guest shuttle. Accommodation ranges from a camper-van park (from $20 per person) to private chalets with riverside views (from $262).
Aden Motel: It’s the small touches, like colorful comforters, graphic wall murals, and updated bathrooms, that make this 12-unit motel one of the top rated in Te Anau. If you’re self-catering, most rooms (from $83) have full kitchens, and in the summertime, a barbecue is available for use.
Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers: Only a five-minute walk from the shops, this hostel is in a prime location, directly on Te Anau’s shorefront. Sick of staying in the standard shared dorm rooms ($23)? Opt for a shared glamping tent instead ($19). For those looking for a bit more privacy, new cabins ($80) are also available, as are tent sites ($17).
Endemic to New Zealand, yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho)—identified by the pale feathers surrounding their eyes—use the Catlins to breed. Your best bet to see them year-round without shelling out for a tour is to head to Curio Bay or Nugget Point Totara Scenic Reserve on your way back north when the sun is starting to set, which is when they come in from feeding at sea. To avoid disrupting the endangered birds, use the available public viewing hides.
It’s been nearly a decade since a 6.3-magnitude earthquake all but destroyed the South Island’s largest city. But disaster has given Christchurch a chance to reinvent itself. Just two years ago, I wouldn’t have recommended staying in the city for more than a couple of nights, but now every week marks the opening of a new restaurant or attraction.
Christchurch has been transformed into an ideal base for day trips to explore the rest of Canterbury. Arthur’s Pass, Mount Cook, and Akaroa are all short drives away, while the city itself has prime mountain biking in its hills and surfing on its shores.
From Invercargill, Christchurch is a long 7.5-hour drive up SH 93 and SH 1—but take the extra half-hour and hug the coast by linking various state highways that wind through the Catlins and past scenic lookouts like the Nugget Point Lighthouse. Break up the trip with an overnight in the university town of Dunedin, about five hours south of Christchurch, known for its Gothic architecture. Alternatively, cut back inland on SH 8 toward Queenstown and hit Lake Pukaki, Lake Tekapo, and Aoraki, or Mount Cook on your way back north.
To access Mount Cook, the closest places to overnight are in Mount Cook Village or nearby Twizel or Lake Tekapo. Start by driving southwest from Christchurch on SH 1, then turning onto the 79 in Geraldine. At Fairlie this will turn into SH 8. At Lake Pukaki, drive north on the 80 to reach Mount Cook Village. In total, this journey should take you four hours.
What to Do While You’re There
Trek in Arthur’s Pass National Park. An easy day trip from Christchurch (but well worth an overnight) is the alpine valley of Arthur’s Pass Village, a two-hour drive northwest from Christchurch on SH 73, where you’ve got a good chance of seeing endangered keas. The country’s cheeky native alpine parrots are known to hang out near cafés and campsites. (As is best practice with all wildlife, don’t feed them or leave food out.) There are a number of overnight tramps to DOC huts that start from the village, but if you have less time, the best day hike in the area is the 3,609-foot vertical Avalanche Peak Route, which can be done in six to eight hours. However, if travel is inadvisable due to poor visibility or high winds, there are several other challenging half-day walks in the area. Be prepared though: accommodation in Arthur’s Pass is very limited, although there may be some homes available for rent in nearby Castle Hill Village and there are DOC campsites along the main road. Just down the street is the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, where properly equipped cavers can make their way through the twists and turns of a 1,948-foot cavern truncated by a ten-foot-high waterfall. Bring a headlamp, dress in warm layers, and prepare to get very wet.
Visit the Banks Peninsula. A volcanic landmass just outside Christchurch, the Banks Peninsula has some of the best mountain biking and tramping in the region, thanks to its rugged, hilly terrain. Akaroa, a small French village about an hour’s drive south of Christchurch, is the start of the three-day Banks Track, a moderate hike that winds past dramatic cliffs and farmland and is guaranteed to be uncrowded: only 16 walkers are allowed on the track each day. The coastal Port Hills, a 15-minute drive from the city center, is where the 12.5-mile Crater Rim Walkway, known for sweeping coastal views over grassy plains, begins. It will take you along the high ridgeline of the extinct Lyttelton Volcano. You can also mountain-bike on well-established routes across the crater, including at the Christchurch Adventure Park, which has 21 trails forming about 50 different combinations.
Climb the trails at Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. North of Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki is New Zealand’s highest peak, 12,218-foot Mount Cook (Aoraki, or “cloud piercer,” in Māori). The most popular stroll from Mount Cook Village is the three-hour Hooker Valley Walk, but the Sealy Tarns Track, with 1,968 feet in elevation gain, is a much better way to spend an afternoon. It’s not the most exciting of climbs—called the Stairway to Heaven, it’s basically a never-ending StairMaster made up of 2,200 steps—but the payoff is epic views of Mount Cook, the freshwater lakes of Sealy Tarns, and the Hooker Valley. If you have more time and the weather allows, the 5.2-mile one-way Mueller Hut Route—which branches off from Sealy Tarns and includes a rock scramble near the top—is worth an overnight; the star-strewn vistas of New Zealand’s tallest mountains are hard to beat. The most recent hut, built in 2003, was opened by famous Kiwi mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary in the shadow of Mount Ollivier, the first peak he ever climbed.
Where to Stay
SkyScape: If you have a bit of money left at the end of your trip, the architecturally stunning SkyScape near Twizel, 50 minutes south of Mount Cook, is the place to spend it. Isolated high among the tussocks of a family-owned sheep station, its three rooms have all-glass ceilings and outdoor baths, which allows you to stargaze from your bed (from $400, including breakfast).
French Bay House: After years spent working in hospitality projects abroad, Jacqui and Tim Richardson took over this bed-and-breakfast in Akaroa (from $146) in 2017, which was the town doctor’s residence in the 1800s. The hot breakfasts are reason enough to say, with hand-rolled croissants, fresh lemon curd, and eggs from the couple’s own hens.
Camping near Lake McGregor: On the shores of Lake Alexandrina, near Lake Tekapo, this basic site has toilets but no running water or electricity (from $3). What it lacks in amenities, it makes up for in stunning views of the surrounding peaks reflected in the lake’s glassy waters.
Lake Tekapo, a less than an hour’s drive south from Mount Cook, is located at the heart of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve—the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. The Dark Sky Project offers stargazing and observatory experiences at the University of Canterbury’s Mount John Observatory, the Church of the Good Shepherd, and Cowan’s Observatory.
How to Be Conscious While Visiting New Zealand
Remember that you are just one of four million. Overtourism is a serious concern in New Zealand, where the country’s population of 4.9 million will soon be exceeded by its annual international arrivals, which are projected to reach 5.1 million by 2024. Tourism puts extreme pressure on the country’s already vulnerable natural environment, as well as its infrastructure and public services such as health care. (If you’re injured while in New Zealand, you’ll be covered by the government’s ACC scheme, although supplementary travel insurance is still necessary to cover illness or trip disruptions.) Abide by the Tiaki Promise, a new national initiative that asks all visitors to drive carefully, be prepared, show respect, and protect nature.
Don’t underestimate New Zealand’s wilderness or weather. No, there aren’t any bears or snakes to be concerned about. And yes, many DOC-maintained routes are technically open in the winter months. But that doesn’t mean you should use them. Take the advice of locals, tourism-information staff, and DOC seriously, and don’t allow optimism bias to prevail. In addition to avalanche risks and high-wind conditions, weather can shift quickly in New Zealand’s alpine environments. Always notify people of your plans, and pack emergency supplies. Personal-locator beacons, which can be rented from most outdoor outfitters and some DOC info centers, are a wise investment, because cell-phone service doesn’t exist in most national parks—and nobody wants to be that tourist who has to be airlifted out.
Help prevent the spread of invasive species. When you’ve spent 15-plus hours flying across the world, encountering strict biosecurity guidelines in the customs hall can feel, well, exhausting. However, it’s necessary. Incoming tourists are one of the biggest threats to the country’s biodiversity, with unwanted insect hitchhikers potentially devastating to native flora and fauna. Once you’re across the border, be sure to clean your boots before and after heading into the bush, which can help protect kauris (a type of native tree). Any gear that’s been used in or around waterways should also be cleaned and dried to prevent the spread of didymo algae.
Looped video (seen on the desktop version) by commandoXphoto/Getty