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Exploring New Zealand's South Island regions

Prepare for a majestic mix of rugged coastlines, sparkling glaciers, forested mountains, arresting national parks, fabulous vineyards, and adrenaline-fuelled activities in New Zealand’s South Island - an outdoor wonderland stretching for 58,093-square-miles (roughly half the size of the UK and a 13-hour drive from top to bottom). Here’s our in-depth guide to the unique regions in the larger of the country’s two main islands.

milford sound cruise boat in fiordland south island

Nelson Tasman

Setting: Known as “the top of the south” for its setting in the South Island’s north western corner, the Nelson Tasman region offers mountain ranges, golden bays (including Tasman and Golden), three distinctive national parks, boutique wineries, and glorious year-round sunshine. Its main centre, Nelson City, is New Zealand’s buzziest art hub with more painters, photographers, potters, weavers, sculptors, glass blowers, and jewellers than anywhere else. You’ll also find plenty of designer shops, fabulous markets, and trendy waterfront restaurants and bars.

seascape at abel tasman national park

See and do: Cycle down the Rock Road along the waterfront to Tahunanui Beach, hire a kayak or take the ferry to sail around Nelson Haven, and walk from the Botanical Reserve to the Centre of New Zealand Monument atop Botanical Hill. Also relax in the beautiful Miyazu Japanese Gardens, spend time at the Nelson Provincial Museum, stock up on artisan goodies at the Wednesday Farmers’ Market, and admire native birds at the Brook Waimarama Sanctuary.

Star attraction: An essential stop for fashionistas and petrol-heads, the innovative National World of Wearable Art (WOW) Museum and Nelson Classic Car Collection is home to two unique collections. Spend time marvelling at experimental and award-winning garments from esteemed global fashion designers before wandering over to the adjoining gallery for Australasia’s largest private collection of classic cars. Both exhibition spaces open daily from 10am to 5pm.

nelson arts festival spot costume

Marlborough

Setting: Located in the South Island’s north-eastern corner, Marlborough never loses its capacity to enchant with postcard-perfect views, winding waterways, year-round sunshine, and the best Sauvignon Blanc in the Southern Hemisphere (it’s New Zealand's largest grape growing and wine making region with over 140 wineries, 40 individual cellar doors, 290 growers, and 4,054-hectares of grape-producing land). There’s also walking and cycling trails, scenic hikes, heritage driving routes, numerous bays, exciting watersports, and an abundance of native wildlife.

See and do: Cycle the 3.5-mile Golden Mile for some of the region’s best wineries such as Forrest, Giesen, and Wairau River, stock up on local produce and artisan offerings at the markets, and enjoy WWI and WWII aircraft exhibits at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre. Also hike the 43-mile Queen Charlotte Track for wildlife encounters, historical landmarks, panoramic ocean views, and unsurpassed views of the Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds.  

Star attraction: Made up of four pockets of waterways at the top of the South Island (Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru, Pelorus, and Mahau), Marlborough Sounds is a ravishing maze of bays, beaches, and ancient sunken river valleys filled with Pacific Ocean waters. Explore this idyllic spot by foot, boat, or kayak to enjoy sailing, diving, fishing, swimming with dolphins, and wildlife-watching (expect to see fur seals, little blue penguins, and the indigenous kiwi).

marlborough wine crop

West Coast

Setting: The soul-stirring West Coast region of New Zealand (or The Coast as it’s known locally) is the narrow strip of land between the South Island's Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea. An unspoiled wilderness measuring 372-miles long and never more than 30-miles wide at any point, it packs in plenty of natural wonders: rivers, rainforests, glaciers, mountains, coastal formations, and geological treasures. It’s best explored by car - the Great Coast Road stretching from Westport to Greymouth ranks as one of the top 10 coolest coastal drives in the world.  

haast west coast couple by river

See and do: Follow The Old Ghost Road to learn about the region’s gold mining history, take a jetboat safari through the Haast UNESCO World Heritage Area, and perfect your angling skills at Lake Brunner. Further must-dos include stopping to admire the turquoise-tinted waters and native rimu forests at Hokitika Gorge, walking to the foot of the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, and spending time gazing at the limestone arches of Oparara Basin at Kahurangi National Park.

Star attraction: The bizarre-looking Pancake Rocks and Blowholes at Dolomite Point near Punakaik are easily the West Coast’s biggest draw. A landscape of tiered limestone stacks formed over 30-million-years ago and sculpted by wind, sea, and mildly acidic rain, this unique spot is best viewed at high tide when the water from Tasman Sea is blasted into the air and through the blowholes (the spray is more dramatic if there has been a big swell).

pancake rocks new zealand

Christchurch-Canterbury

Setting: Covering a large central chunk of the South Island’s east coast, Canterbury is centred around the vibrant and culturally-rich city of Christchurch. It’s also celebrated for its silvery East Coast beaches, jagged Southern Alps peaks, sweeping farmland, thermal pools, and big open skies (a hot air balloon ride across the Canterbury Plains is magical). Further highlights include the Aoraki Mount Cook (New Zealand’s highest mountain) and the coastal town of Kaikoura where the mountains meet the sea (this is where you can spot the giant sperm whale).

See and do: Head to Christchurch Adventure Park for mountain biking, ziplining and sightseeing, stargaze at the Aoraki/Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, and drive to Arthur's Pass - the highest route through the Southern Alps connecting the Canterbury Plains in the east with the wild West Coast. Also hit the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail from Aoraki Mount Cook to Oamaru for views of glacial-fed lakes, limestone cliffs, native forests, and ancient Maori rock art.

Star attraction: The South Island’s largest city of Christchurch offers amazing street art, state-of-the-art architecture, and a very English vibe. Take time to explore the city by double-decker bus, vintage bicycle, gondola or tram, spend time at the Canterbury Museum, and gaze in awe at the colourful bedding displays at the Botanic Gardens - an award-winning horticultural wonderland founded over 150 years ago with the planting of a single English oak tree.

canterbury plains balloon canterbury s island new zealand

Waitaki

Setting: The district located in the South Island’s regions of Canterbury and Otago (it straddles the border between the two), Waitaki serves up a hauntingly beautiful selection of towering pinnacles formed by ancient glaciers, limestone boulders of all shapes and sizes, windswept beaches, emerald plains, and a sizeable amount of Maori rock art. The Waitaki River flows through the landscape, punctuated by three hydro-electric dams: Waitaki, Aviemore, and Benmore (one of the largest earth dams in the Southern Hemisphere).

See and do: Follow the Alps to Ocean Cycleway in reverse all the way to Aoraki Mount Cook, hit one of the walking trails in the Otematata area (most take around an hour), and head to beach near the small town of Moeraki to spot Hector's dolphins playing in the waves as well as mysterious spherical stones. There’s also the Clay Cliffs for its maze of ravines and the art space known as Steampunk HQ for its epic collection of retro-futuristic sci-fi art and sculptures.

Star attraction: Formerly Oamaru's commercial hub, the quirky and slightly eccentric Victorian Precinct offers the chance to explore a streetscape exactly as it appeared in the 1800’s. There’s plenty to see and do here: art galleries, vintage-clothing boutiques, bookshops, artist studios, restaurants, cafés, breweries, bars, and well-preserved heritage buildings. To truly get into the spirit, dressing up in Victorian costume and taking part in a penny-farthing race is an option.

Dunedin

Setting: Nicknamed Edinburgh of the South and known as Dunners by the locals, the university city of Dunedin is incredibly proud of its Scottish roots (it even has its own tartan). Built around the picturesque Otago Harbour, it offers immaculately-preserved Victorian and Edwardian architecture on a grand scale, unique wildlife experiences around the Otago Peninsula located within the city limits, and the only castle in the entire country (built by entrepreneur and politician William Larnach in 1871, it’s now a private residence that opens for guided tours at select times).

See and do: Head to the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum to learn about Dunedin’s past, follow the Dunedin Street Art Trail to see an impressive collection of artworks, and take afternoon tea in the ballroom at Larnach Castle. Also pose for a selfie at Dunedin Railway Station, follow the Writers’ Walk (Dunedin is a UNESCO-approved City of Literature), and stroll along the 350-metre-long Baldwin Street - the world's steepest residential street according to the Guinness World Records.

Star attraction: Given how close it is to the coastline, there’s no shortage of beaches just a few minutes’ drive from the city. Head to St. Clair Beach or Aramoana Beach for surfing in Pacific waters, Long Beach for rock climbing, or Brighton Beach for safe swimming and dramatic sunsets. Another go-to spot is Tunnel Beach for its sea-carved sandstone cliffs, rock arches, and hand-carved tunnel built in the 1870s to offer access to the secluded and sheltered sands.

dunedin otago peninsula

Wanaka

Setting: Located on Wanaka Lake’s southern shore, Otago's second-largest resort after Queenstown combines all the charm of an alpine town with a dizzying array of Southern Alps experiences. Most fabulously, it has Mount Aspiring National Park on its doorstep - a UNESCO-protected wilderness stretching from the Haast River in the north to the Humbolt Mountains in the south (the showstopper is the 9,951-feet-high Mount Aspiring, known by the Maori people as Tititea). Wanaka is also a vibrant winter hub, with four ski areas just a short drive from the town.

See and do: Enjoy kayaking, mountain hiking and biking in summer, skiing and snowboarding in winter, and walking the lakeside tracks and trails in spring and autumn. Further highlights include taking a cruise across Lake Wanaka to the remote Mou Waho Island, booking an exciting fly-hike-jetboat tour through Mount Aspiring National Park, and touring the Cardrona Distillery to learn how New Zealand’s only single malt whisky is produced with pure alpine water.

Star attraction: Replacing the former New Zealand Fighter Pilots Museum located at Wanaka Airport, the Warbirds & Wheels Museum houses military aircraft in addition to a world-class collection of 30 privately owned classic cars and motorcycles. Attractions include a collection of WWI and WWII fighter planes (including an impressive Skyhawk A-4K and De Havilland FB5 Vampire) and an award-winning 1950-style diner that’s a great spot for lunch or a coffee.

Queenstown

Setting: The self-styled Adrenaline Capital of the World located on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, the cosmopolitan hub of Queenstown is the birthplace of bungee jumping (AJ Hackett and his business partner Henry van Ache launched the world’s first nail-biting jump operation on the city’s Kawarau Bridge in 1988). There’s also a huge amount of adventure sports for daredevils, including whitewater rafting, canyon swinging, hand gliding,  jet boating, ziplining, skydiving, and the Southern Hemisphere’s only gondola-accessed downhill mountain biking.

See and do: Take the scenic gondola ride from the Skyline terminal up Bob's Peak for panoramic views of the Southern Alps and Lake Wakatipu, visit the Lakes District Museum in the quirky gold rush town of Arrowtown, and head to Gibbston (known as Valley of the Vines) for its top-notch pinot noir. Also discover movie magic in Glenorchy, a region of breathtaking mountains, lakes, river, and forests (it featured heavily in The Lord of the Rings movies).

Star attraction: Made up of a series of lakeside paths, country lanes, cross-country cycleways, and off-road routes linking Queenstown with Arrowtown and Gibbston, the 75-mile Queenstown Trail is a must-do for hikers and cyclists. Presented as seven themed rides (the easiest of which is the flat Lake Wakatipu Ride, starting in central Queenstown), highlights include the Kawarau Bridge bungee jump, the Kelvin Peninsula, and The Remarkables mountain range.

arrowtown new zealand

Central Otago

Setting: A stronghold for pioneers and adventurers seeking their fortunes on the goldfields during the 1860s, Central Otago is now most famous for producing some of the best pinot noir in the world. A dramatic landscape of glistening river basins, deep gorges, and soaring snow-capped mountains that has impressed poets, painters, and a certain The Lord of the Rings location crew, it rewards with award-winning wineries, excellent cellar door facilities, a dry continental climate, and heritage towns such as Ophir, Bannockburn, Clyde, and Naseby.

See and do: Visit the town of Alexandra for its fruit orchards and pinot noir vineyards, try your hand at curling at Naseby’s indoor rink (the sport was introduced here over 130 years ago by Scottish gold miners), and ride in a Ferrari 488 GTB at Highlands Motorsport Park. Also spend time at the Bannockburn Sluicing Historic Reserve for the chance to see evidence of water races, dams, tunnels, shafts, and crumbling mud-brick and stone buildings from the gold rush era.

Star attraction: Stretching for 45 miles and winding along the Clutha Mata-au River between Roxburgh and Lawrence, the Clutha Gold Trail presents walking and cycling experiences about the adventurous souls of a bygone age: mostly Chinese gold miners, European pastoral farmers, and early Maori hunters. While you can begin your own journey at any point along the trail and go at your own pace, it usually takes between two and four days to complete.

Fiordland

Setting: Cherished for its fiords, sparkling lakes, ice-carved valleys, rugged granite tops, and beautiful mountain-to-sea views, enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status as part of Te Wahipounamu - the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. Not only is this home to the stunning Milford and Doubtful Sounds as well as the gorgeous lakeside towns of Te Anau and Manapouri, but it’s also the Walking Capital of the World (it’s three Great Walks are Kepler Track, Milford Track, and Routeburn Track - each takes about three or four days).

See and do: Explore untouched waterways and lakes by kayak to spot bottlenose dolphins or fur seals, take a cruise around Lake Manapouri or Lake Te Anau, and go fishing at Lake Henry in Ivon Wilson Park or on the Waiau River that borders Fiordland National Park. Also spot native birdlife at the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary, tour the fascinating Glowworm Caves, and take a scenic heli flight from Te Anau to Lake Hauroko, New Zealand's deepest lake at 1,516-feet.

Star attraction: Of all New Zealand’s fiords, Milford Sound gets the glory for its being the only one that can be accessed by road. While coach tours and scenic flights are available, the best way to appreciate the vertical cliffs, sky-scraping mountain peaks, cascading waterfalls, and incredible wildlife is on a boat cruise - either during the day or overnight (the heritage vessel, Milford Mariner, offers luxurious accommodation and a specialist nature guide).

southern discoveries cruise on milford sound

Southland

Setting: New Zealand's southern-most region, Southland is as the launch pad for Stewart Island - the only place you’re likely to get a glimpse of wild kiwis in their native habitat during the day. But there’s much more to this land of rugged coast and rolling plains, including geological wonders, pristine rainforests, fertile farmlands, sweeping coastlines, and superb hiking and cycling trails. It’s also home to Bluff, the small town most famous for its exceptionally palatable oysters that are grown slowly in the cold and clean waters of the Foveaux Strait.

See and do: Ride a jetboat across Lake Hauroko and down the Wairaurahiri River to the southern coast, take one of the fishing charters operating off the coast of Bluff and Stewart Island, and take the Around the Mountains trail to cycle through alpine landscapes and historic towns. Also visit the Classic Motorcycle Mecca for its 300-plus motorcycles and Dig This for its hands-on experiences in a heavy-duty playground with real-life bulldozers and excavators.

Star attraction: Located to the south of the South Island and across the Foveaux Strait, the remote 1,000-square-mile Stewart Island (also known as Rakiura) offers 150-miles of walking tracks suited to short strolls, day walks, and multi-day hikes. You’ll also find dense coastal rainforests, freshwater wetlands, vast sand dunes, granite mountain ranges, and the country’s largest and most diverse bird population (including over 20,000 of the elusive brown kiwi).

Clutha

Setting: Named after New Zealand’s largest river, the region of Clutha on South Island’s east coast is home to sweeping sandy beaches, farming communities, and waterways made for boating and fishing. It also charms with a rich mining heritage, especially in the town of Lawrence where the discovery of gold at nearby Gabriel's Gully in May 1861 led to the Central Otago Gold Rush. Equally standout is the Blue Mountains, a range of rugged hills rising to 1,019-metres and forming a natural barrier between the river valleys of the Clutha and Pomahaka.
 
See and do:
Head to the Catlins to see six separate waterfalls, including the triple-tiered Purakaunui, the majestic McLean, Matai and Horseshoe, and the off-the-beaten track Koropuku (on the Chaslands Highway) and Barr (just south of Owaka). Also visit the majestic Cathedral Caves, head to the lookout at Nugget Point for nugget-like rocks and horizon views, and share sand space with sunbathing sea lions on beaches along the coastline.

Star attraction: Not only was Lawrence at the heart of one of the world’s fastest ever gold rushes, but this town nestled in the rolling hills of the Clutha region was where New Zealand’s first bicycle was built in 1893. Head here to explore restored and abandoned miners’ cottages, spend time at the Lawrence Information Centre & Tuapeka Goldfields Museum, and stroll down the main street for historic buildings, cafés, restaurants, galleries, and gift shops.

the catlins south island new zealand

Experience the very best of New Zealand's South Island with these recommended tours


9 Day Coast to Coast independent tour (8 nights)
9 Day Southern Splendour independent tour (8 nights)
10 Day Glacier and Overnight Fjordland independent tour (9 nights)
South Island Discovery: Dunedin to Queenstown independent tour (7 nights)
South Island Kea Small Group Tour (7 nights)
A Taste of the South Self-Drive (7 nights)
Drive and Hike Around the South Island Self-Drive (13 nights)


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