To many of us here in North America, New Zealand often means 24 hours of travel time. With the effort it takes to reach this country, trips must be planned more deliberately, attracting only those who truly wish to spend time there. Thanks to this, the nation’s South Island has a rare combination of world-class tourism services, without the overwhelming crowds that typically come with them.
The South Island, while geographically larger than its northern counterpart, is smaller than the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Its size makes it the perfect destination to spend a couple weeks renting a car or van and slowly taking in the diverse natural landscape’s offerings.
We’ve compiled a few of the multitude sights and activities available on the South Island starting in the north and making our way around clockwise, but there’s no “right” way or order to take in all that the South Island has to offer.
Click the Destinations on the Map Above for More Location Information
Nelson and Abel Tasman
Abel Tasman National Park is one of the locations that earns New Zealand the “most beautiful place in the world” accolade. Famous for its sun-soaked beaches, the water in Abel Tasman teeters between turquoise and emerald as it leads up to golden sand beaches. Complete with bush-lined estuaries, forested walking trails and dramatic granite cliffs, the area is famous for kayaking, hiking, and walking (tramping, to locals) the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
The park’s activities, like so much of New Zealand tourism, are fully customizable when it comes to difficulty and commitment. Travelers can choose anything from trekking the entire 37 miles of the Abel Tasman Coast Walk over 3 to 5 days, tent camping along the way, to a leisurely boat cruise along the bay between nights in a comfortable hotel room.
The nearby city of Nelson is an excellent place to base yourself for a couple of days while visiting the park. Just under 50,000 people, it has a thriving local art scene and is best known for its many galleries. It offers accommodations of all price ranges to stay in while you take day trips into the park, or to refresh in after a days-long trek.
Marlborough Wine Region
A short drive in your rental car southeast from Nelson is the South Island’s Marlborough region. In less than half a century, this region of New Zealand has become known as producing some of the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc (sauvy, to locals), and is credited for catalyzing the New Zealand wine industry. You may have already tried well-known Marlborough wine producers like Oyster Bay, Brancott Estate, and Whitehaven – all widely available in stores across the U.S.
With a car rental in the Marlborough wine region of New Zealand you can make your way through to the vineyards of your choice on the Marlborough wine trail, taking care to have a designated driver of course. If all members of your party wish to imbibe, you can make the town of Blenheim your base as you embark on wine tours of the area. Very much geared towards Marlborough vineyard tourism, there are umpteen tour operators in the area offering a variety of options including private, bicycle, and full day tours.
With such a rich wine culture, it comes as no surprise that there’s a vibrant culinary scene to pair it with. Blenheim is teeming with restaurants and wine bars to enjoy after a long day spent touring the vineyards. Have a truly Kiwi culinary experience by ordering some New Zealand green-lipped mussels to go with a bright sauvy. The glorious sunny weather that makes the region produce such quality wine allows for ample al fresco dining options.
Less than 80 miles down the coast on highway 1 is the town of Kaikoura. Any easy trip of about one and a half hours in your New Zealand car rental brings you to some of the country’s best marine and wildlife-based encounters.
The scenery itself is worth a visit to Kaikoura with the dramatic, snow-capped Southern Alps plunging down into the South Pacific. The Kaikoura Peninsula extends out into the ocean, creating an environment hospitable to many sea creatures.
Popular outings here include whale watching tours to spot the area’s sperm whales, the opportunity to swim with wild dusky dolphins, and sightings of the adorable seal pups of Ohau Point seal colony.
As for land animals, you can visit The Point’s farm to watch a sheep shearing show and learn about one of New Zealand’s most recognizable products. Come in the spring time (September – November) and you could even feed and play with the adorable lambs.
Take a leisurely half day drive along the coast and you’ll reach Christchurch, just 175 miles south of Kaikoura. The South Island’s largest city, it’s been recovering since the massive earthquakes that devastated the area in 2010 and 2011. While there are restaurants, theaters, a symphony orchestra, and even a Casino, that could easily provide days of entertainment, we recommend taking in some culture of the indigenous Māori people.
Today the majority of Māori cultural centers and Marae (Māori traditional meeting grounds) are in the North Island, but you can still take in a Māori experience at Ko Tane cultural center in Christchurch. Watch traditional performances of the haka, the Māori war dance and cry made famous by New Zealand’s rugby team, The All Blacks. Enjoy a hangi, a traditional Māori meal cooked underground with hot stones, and take a tour of the living village, preserving the Māori way of life from before New Zealand was colonized.
From Christchurch, Dunedin is a bit of a longer drive, but there’s plenty to see along the way. Continue down highway 1 and stop at any site that stand out to you; that’s the beauty of a South Island car rental. One such site is the mythical Moeraki Boulders. These spherical behemoths rest scattered along the beach and look like something out of a fairy tale. In reality, these are mudstone boulders embedded in the sand and earth, exposed and rounded over time by the crashing waves.
Once you reach Dunedin, tour the University of Otago’s grounds, including the streets of student ‘flats’ for some local color, then head over to the Otago Museum. Dating back to 1868, it features excellent natural history exhibits, including the largest collection of extinct Moa remains and an immersive tropical butterfly environment.
If you’re hungry, stop by Velvet Burger for 100% New Zealand grass fed beef burgers and ‘chips,’ or dine at the restaurant in the Speight’s Brewery, a South Island institution. End your day with a tour of the Cadbury Chocolate Factory (of egg fame) for dessert and a leisurely drive by the famous Dunedin Railway Station.
For natural sights, drive out to the Otago Peninsula to spy on penguins, seals, and royal albatross.
The Fjordlands: Milford and Doubtful Sounds
Drive through the south of the South Island by car as you leave Dunedin for the Fjordlands of the west coast. Formed by ancient glaciers, the dramatic views of mountains jutting steeply into dark sounds should not be missed. The most popular fjords to visit are Milford and Doubtful Sounds. Park your car for a few nights and take an overnight boat cruise to give yourself time to take in the awe-inspiring scenery. There are also opportunities to go on kayak-trips and even scuba dive into the depths. Words just can’t quite do the beauty of these fjords justice!
Queenstown and Wanaka
Allegedly named because it is “fit for a queen,” Queenstown ranks among one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The breathtaking Remarkable Mountains plunge down to meet glistening Lake Wakatipu, giving the Swiss Alps a run for their money.
One of the adventure tourism capitals of the world, Queenstown is especially popular for its snow sports. Die-hard skiers and boarders fly south for the summer from the northern hemisphere to continue skiing throughout New Zealand’s winter. Visitors can ski the surrounding resorts: Cardrona Alpine Resort, Coronet Peaks, Treble Cone, and the Remarkables. For those seeking additional adrenaline, you could try heli-skiing, bungee jumping, sky diving, white water rafting, jet boating, or canyon swinging, just to name a few.
Don’t worry if your trip to Queenstown is more for r&r than to defy death, there are plenty of laid-back activities as well. Experience the best view in town on the Skyline Gondola reaching Bob’s Peak overlooking the city, cruise Lake Wakatipu aboard the 100-year-old coal fired steamer TSS Earnslaw, or visit nearby Two Paddocks vineyard owned by Kiwi actor, Sam Neill, of Jurassic Park fame.
If all the action of Queenstown is just too much for you, low-key Wanaka is just under 45 miles away in your rental car. Considered to be the calmer, less commercial version of Queenstown, Wanaka boasts similar views of gorgeous mountains and a serene lake on a slightly smaller scale.
When you’re tired from a day of shopping or rafting nearby rivers, relax with a movie at Cinema Paradiso where you can sip wine in old convertibles repurposed into comfy movie seats.
Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers
Leaving Queenstown and Wanaka may be hard, but be consoled by the fact that you’re headed towards the incredible west coast. While the Fox Glacier could be reached from Wanaka in roughly three hours, the way of the west on the South Island is slow and relaxed. Spend a full day to pull over for the copious photo opportunities like Haast Pass and Kings Point Lookout.
Most travelers choose one or the other glacier to visit, out of the interest of time. They both offer exciting heli-hiking where you are lifted to a stable part of the glacier then brought on a guided tour – complete with crampons and ice axe!
Those looking for more challenging trips can do some ice climbing on the gorgeous blue-hewed ice-faces. For a more relaxing experience visitors can take a helicopter tour of the glaciers and view their magnitude from above without having to do any hiking. There are also tours bringing visitors to the edge of the glaciers to learn about their fascinating histories, without requiring you to strap on any gear. Whichever trip you choose, it’s an incredible experience to peer up at what looks like a rock-solid, stationary mass and know that it is a constantly moving and fragile entity.
The town of Hokitika is about 80 miles north of the glaciers and the drive in your South Island car rental, primarily along the Tasman Sea, is stunning. The town itself feels almost out of the Wild West with its low-level store fronts lining the street, leading up to a central clock tower. Similar to the American West, it was first settled (by westerners) during a gold rush in the mid-1800s.
Today its economy mainly focuses on the arts and tourism, but still emphasizes its natural resources. In addition to gold, another major natural resource for the town is pounamu, or New Zealand jade/greenstone that is sourced here from the Arahura River. Bearing major significance to the Māori, the stone was used for weapons and precious jewelry alike. Today, greenstone jewelry is still widely worn by Kiwis and those who love the country. Many of Hokitika’s studios and galleries are dedicated to the carving and sale of this precious stone. There are also museums and tours available to learn more about this stone’s rich history and connection to the country.
More recently, the Wild Foods Festival has put Hokitika on the map. This is a must-visit if traveling the South Island in March when it takes place. As the name implies, the festival is dedicated to sampling strange and out of the ordinary New Zealand fare including sheep’s brain, earthworm sushi, and rocky mountain “oysters.” A quirky Kiwi experience, people travel from all over the country and world to camp along the beach, eat crazy food, and peak through local galleries. And don’t forget your themed group costume, as is the custom for many New Zealand events. If you’re not interested in car camping next to your rental vehicle during your time in Hokitika, there are a number of fine hotels available, many right on the beach.
South Island Farm Stays
The South Island is less about urban centers and more about appreciating rural, natural beauty of the land. A farm stay is a popular way to meet some friendly locals and learn about a major South Island industry. Don’t let the name fool you though, many farm stay options offer plush accommodations with all the amenities of a fine hotel. Participation on these visits vary from receiving tours of the grounds and animals, to actually taking part in the work like feeding the calves and rounding up the sheep.
While it would be a nice way to finish off your trip after an epic loop of the South Island, farm stays are available all over the country in every region, at a wide variety of price points. Having your own South Island car rental makes this kind of stay much easier, since many of the farms are off the beaten path without access to frequent public transportation.
Whichever sights you end up choosing, it’s impossible to leave the South Island without feeling a lasting impression. It is a place that strikes the perfect balance of catering to tourism without being overrun by it, a place where you can still find moments to breathe deeply and feel that you are the only people on earth.