When in the South… island that is…
So you are heading to the South Island of the gorgeous New Zealand! Not sure what to do or see? Well, you are in luck. After spending heaps of time in the South Island, I have condensed my favorite things into a one-month itinerary, or 28 days if you will. I have included some details of my personal preferences, as well as other options if you are looking for additional activities. This list is not exhaustive but is simply the things we did (and a few we didn’t but wanted to) that we recommend.
With all this being said, the South Island of New Zealand is simply stunning! It has bays, beaches, glaciers, mountains, lakes, cities, and everything in between. You can find adventure and experiences for free/cheap, or you can spend heaps of money. Most of my recommended activities or campsites tend to be on the free or cheap side, but so much of the things you’d want to do happen to be cheap. Now to get into it, here is your one-month itinerary in New Zealand’s South Island…
The itinerary is as follows:
- Day 1: Picton/Marlborough Sounds
- Day 2: Nelson
- Day 3-7: Abel Tasman Great Walk
- Day 8-9: Arthur’s Pass
- Day 10: Hokitika
- Day 11: Drive to Wanaka stopping at the glaciers
- Day 12-14: Wanaka
- Day 15-18: Queenstown
- Day 19-20: Te Anau/Milford Sounds
- Day 21-22: Catlins
- Day 22-23: Dunedin
- Day 24-25: Mount Cook
- Day 26-28: Christchurch/Canterbury Vineyards
If you are traveling from the North Island, then firstly, you’ll hit Picton and the Marlborough Sounds. Unfortunately, when we crossed on the Interislander from the North Island, a cyclone had just blown through. Therefore, we didn’t really want to stick around the area. However, given the chance, we would have done a kayak trip or other excursion through the sounds. They are meant to be beautiful.
Other activities include:
- Hike the Queen Charlotte Track
- Explore the Marlborough Sounds via a cruise or kayak trip
- Drink some famous Sauvignon Blanc while touring Marlborough vineyards
Known for its breweries, Nelson is also home to the Center of NZ. Moreover, it is quite a lovely little town to walk around and explore. We happened upon the Buskers Festival, which had all sorts of street performers.
Sites of interest include:
- Hike to the center of New Zealand
- View some local art at the Suter museum
- Take in the beauty of the Christ Church Cathedral
- Have a picnic at the Queens Gardens
- Try some local craft beer at Nelson’s various breweries
- Explore the historical Founders park (entry fee required)
Recommended accommodation: Brook Valley Holiday Park – $10 per person non-powered, $0.50 for 8 minutes hot showers
Abel Tasman Great Walk:
As mentioned in my prior post, looking back, I would have chosen a different Great Walk. I would definitely recommend doing a Great Walk, it is a New Zealand experience not to be missed! Read more about my tramp through the Abel Tasman National Park in my South Island Abel Tasman post.
If you haven’t had enough hiking at this point and are up for a challenge, the Avalanche Peak track is for you. The first leg of the journey is pretty much a hike/climb straight up. It is around a three-hour hike up to a stunning peak with 360 views. Aud and I made it in a little over 2.5 hours, however, it was definitely one of the most challenging hikes we have done. A less demanding hike, which is still beautiful, is the Bealey Spur track. The hike has trail markers up to Bealey Spur hut, but an additional 30 minutes will bring you to the ridgeline for incredible views.
Also, on the drive to Arthur’s Pass, make sure to stop at Cape Foulwind to see the seal colony there, as well as the Pancake Rocks and Blowhole.
Things to do:
- Make it to the summit of the Avalanche Peak Track
- Take in the beauty along the Bealey Spur Track (make sure you go past the hut to the ridgeline)
- View the gorgeous waterfall at the end of the Devils Punchbowl hike
Recommended campsite: Klondyke Corner Campsite – Free, basic campsite
Hokitika consists of a small west coast town with some free glow-worm caves. There isn’t a whole lot to do here, but it has a lovely beach with some intense waves and heaps of greenstone shops. The reason I included this town as a stop is due to the campsite/motel we stayed at. It looks like something from the 60s and rumor has it, is the site of an old psychiatric facility. “Woooooo….spooky…..”
For some reason, I thought it was hilarious! Additionally, while in Hokitika, don’t forget to check out the Hokitika Gorge. Milky blue freezing cold waters await. Note: if possible, try to go on a nice sunny day, preferably when it hasn’t rained the day before. It makes a huge difference.
Activities to do:
- Explore the free glow-worm caves
- Take a picture at the Hokitika sign on the beach
- Shop for greenstone at one of the many shops
- Swim in the gorgeous glacier waters at Hokitika Gorge
Recommended accommodation: Seaview Motel – $15 per person non-powered, unlimited wifi and hot showers
Wanaka via glaciers:
It is around a 5-hour drive from Hokitika. Break that bitch up with a few pit stops. The glaciers (Franz Josef and Fox) will not only give you a driving respite but are lovely to behold. If you’re one of the hard-core travels and want to get the full glacier experience, try booking a glacier heli-hike.
Also, make sure you stop at some of the Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea lookouts. On a sunny/partly cloudy day, they are incredible. See for yourself.
Ideas to break up the drive:
- Walk the 1.5-hour return hike to the Franz Josef glacier face
- Go extreme with a heli-hike glacier experience
- Get up and personal with Fox glacier with a terminal face hike which leads you to the base of the glacier
- Take the 1.5-hour return hike to the Blue Pools
- Take photos at various lookouts along Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea
A small town set on the edge of a gorgeous lake. Hikes that I recommend include the Rob Roy glacier and Roy’s Peak tracks. Roy’s Peak wasn’t my favorite, but you can’t ignore the incredibleness that is the view (see below). I enjoyed the Rob Roy glacier hike much more. Note: the drive to the trailhead includes crossing 9 fords on some back country roads, my campervan handled it fine, but it the weather is bad, you might reconsider waiting for a better day.
There aren’t many budget-friendly campervan spots within the city, but if you are down for $20 pp, you have an option on the edge of town with unlimited hot showers.
What to do in Wanaka:
Rent kayaks or paddleboards to explore the lake
- Summit Roy’s Peak for an amazing photo
- Unless you’re sick of glaciers, hike to the Rob Roy glacier for some stunning glacier views
- Get your sun rises/sunset #thatwanakatree photo
- Grab some food and watch the sunset along the riverfront
- Blow your mind at the Puzzling World
- Experience the panoramic view at the top of Mount Iron
- Listen to some live music at Fitzpatricks Irish Pub
As the country’s adrenaline capital, I suggest participating in one of the various adventure activities. I did canyoning, which was fun, but in hindsight, I would have chosen the more advanced level of canyoning. (There were three levels, we did level two, and were talked out of level three due to needing “canyoning experience”. Per discussion with the tour guide, we would have been fine on level three as beginners as long as we weren’t afraid of heights). However, if canyoning isn’t your jam, Queenstown offers everything from jet boating to skydiving.
In regards to hiking, the Ben Lomond track is gorgeous. It might be my favorite hike to date. In order to do it properly, you must start at the base of the gondola and hike first up to the top of the gondola, then continue to the peak. Roughly a 5-6 hour return hike, the views are worth it!
Round out your days in Queenstown with some vineyard hopping. The Central Otago vineyards are known for Pinot Noir. Just 20-30 minutes outside of the city, you can indulge in some delicious New Zealand wine!
Other suggested activities:
- Feel the rush by booking an adventure activity
- Rent kayaks in Frankton ($20 pp for an hour)
- Try your hand at frisbee golf (rent a frisbee for $5 from Small Planet Fitness Sports) in the Queenstown Gardens
- Ride the gondola up and enjoy the luge above the city
- Take a day trip to Glenorchy (45 outside the city) and do one of the local tracks
- Wait in line for a massive burger at Fergburger
Recommended campsite: Twelve Mile Delta Campsite – $13 per person, basic amenities
Te Anau/Milford Sound:
Te Anau is another small town, and for those with a New Zealand phone, probably the last place you will have service when you head toward Milford Sound. If I had more time, I would’ve booked a tour of Doubtful Sound, which requires a boat to get to. Though a bit pricey, it is supposed to be insane.
A note on Milford Sound. It requires you to drive through the Homer tunnel, which closes with inclement weather. Therefore, before you make the 4-hour trek from Queenstown, make sure you check that the tunnel is open. Also, there is only one lodge once you pass through the tunnel, so booking ahead of time is essential. The Milford Sound Lodge offers packages which include accommodation and a cruise through Milford. (Fun fact, Milford is not actually a sound, it is a fjord, i.e. created when the sea floods a glacial valley.) Got to love New Zealand with its misnomers.
Potential activities include:
- Book a tour of the Te Anau glow-worm caves
- Become one with nature by taking on one of the three Great Walks that start in this region
- Great Walk too much? Try hiking Gertrude’s Saddle or Key Summit walks
- Take a pit stop at the mirror lakes on your way to Milford
- Cruise or kayak your way through the unreal Milford Sound
Recommended accommodation: Milford Sound Lodge – accommodation and cruise for $175 per person
The Catlins is composed of a series of small towns. Sights include lighthouses, animals, and lovely bays. Aud and I made a list of things that we wanted to see, and slowly made our way through that list.
The Catlins to do list:
- Take a stroll through Maple Glen Botanical Gardens
- Get a photo of the Waipapa Lighthouse and see sea lions
- Stand on the most southern point of the South Island at Slope Point
- Explore the Curio Bay petrified forest
- Have a quick stop to see the Koropuku Falls
- Take in the view of the Florence Hill Lookout
- Walk inside the Cathedral Caves (make sure to go at low tide)
- Have a wander through the Lost Gypsy Caravan
- Get up close and personal with sea lions at Surat Bay
- Be confused why Teapotland exists
- Walk to view the Nugget Point Lighthouse
Recommended accommodation: Papatowai Campsite – $13 per person non-powered, basic amenities
Dunedin is the second largest city in the South Island. Therefore, after visiting only small towns and wandering aimlessly through nature for days, it was lovely to be back in a bigger city. AKA… there are actual bars and restaurants here.
The Dunedin to do list is composed of:
- View the beauty of the Dunedin Train Station
- See penguins and sea lions at Sandfly Bay
- Trek down the Tunnel Beach Track
- Admire Dunedin’s local art along the Street Art Trail
- Soak up some sun at St. Clair Beach
- Walk or drive (if you dare) up the country’s steepest residential street: Baldwin Street
- Grab a drink or local eats on the Octagon
- Explore the country’s only castle: Larnarch castle
- Take a walk through the Chinese gardens
Recommended accommodation: Wingatui Racecourse – $15 per vehicle, basic amenities
There are no words to describe the beauty that is found at Mount Cook. Weather makes a difference though. I was there during a cyclone as well as an amazingly sunny day. The first, you can’t see shit, the second, you’ll see sights that blow your mind!
Lake Tekapo home to an international dark sky reserve. As a result, this meaning that star-gazing is epic there. Just a little over an hour outside of Mount Cook, consider spending the night looking at the stars…
When at Mt. Cook/Tekapo
- Hiking the Hooker Valley, Tasman Glacier, or Mueller Hut tracks
- Heli-hike around Mount Cook
- Stargaze at Lake Tekapo
- Take photos of the gorgeous Lake Pukaki or Lake Tekapo
Recommended accommodation: White Horse Hill Campsite – $13 per person, basic amenities
Christchurch is the largest city in the South Island. After surviving an earthquake that destroyed much the city, Christchurch is in the process of rebuilding. This is evidenced everywhere as you explore the city. A few days is all you need to get the full experience, at least in this hat lovers opinion… Also, make sure you leave yourself time to try some of the wines of the Canterbury region.
Things to do and see:
- Give tribute to those who lost their lives in the quake by visiting the 185 chairs
- Get your prayer on while attending a service at the cardboard church
- Become one with nature when walking through the botanical gardens
- Hike the Godley Head and Bridle tracks
- Go for a drink on Strange’s Lane
- Take a walk down Regent Street
- View the street art around Christchurch
- Learn about New Zealand’s history in the Canterbury Museum
- Get out of the city and enjoy some of the Canterbury wines of the Waipara region
Recommended accommodation: Blue Skies – $13 per person, unlimited hot showers
Well there you have it…
This is my itinerary for the South Island. Obviously, it does not include everywhere you could go and everything you could do, but it could at least give you a place to start when planning your own adventure. Feel free to reach out with questions or comments! As always,