From bright turquoise-blue lakes, and snow-capped mountains, to more adrenaline fuelled activities than you could shake a stick at, and incredibly friendly locals. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the South Island is rated highly by most visitors to the land of the long white cloud
The South Island of New Zealand is the largest Island, and in my opinion, the most beautiful of the two Islands. I had an incredible 2 years living and travelling around it, so much so, that I intend to return one day. It feels like my home away from home, more so than England, despite having lived here for 5 years on and off.
When people tell me that they are going to New Zeland, I immediately jump on them, and reel off a list of places that they must go to. I feel that I know New Zealand, more than the average traveller that goes there, as I really got into it, and experienced it like a local.
When I lived there, I loved being a local tour guide for people visiting. I was a huge advocate for the upcoming city Christchurch, where I lived, despite it undergoing constant change. It was home.
In no particular order here are 5 amazing places you should visit if you come to New Zealand’s South Island.
Lake Tekapo, Mackenzie County, South Island
This won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has been reading my blog. I have a total love affair with this place. I have been to Lake Tekapo about 5 times; once in Autumn, twice in Winter and twice Summer. Lake Tekapo is such a stunning place in any season. Although a small wee village, there is plenty you can do there.
Activities in Lake Tekapo
- Take a drive (or walk, depending on how energetic you are feeling – there is a track from the skating rink to the summit which takes 2-3 hours!) to Mount John Observatory, where you can walk around, have a coffee/lunch at the cafe, and take in the stunning views of the lake and often snow-capped mountains. On the short drive from the township to the Observatory in summer you will see a host of Lupins in nearby fields – such an incredible sight. When I went in March (early Autumn), the Lupins were dying off, but in January in full bloom.
- Stargazing – this is not an activity that I have done before, but there are tours that run daily, dependent on what the weather is doing. Tours can be booked online or at the tourist information (iSite) in Tekapo township
- Ice skating (based at Tekapo Springs) – an outdoor ice skating rink is in operation over the winter months of April-September and costs $16. In summer it is used for roller blading.
- Hot Pools (Tekapo Springs) – open year round, and a toasty 36 degrees, this is a great way to warm up on a winters day, and amazing in the surroundings of snow covered mountains. It costs $20 for an adult. However, you can get combo passes for the ice skating and hot pools.
- Build a rock tower at the lake – someone must have started this at some point, but basically you find all the flat stones and build a rock tower in front of the lake
- Look out the window of the Church of the Good Shepherd to the Lake – religious or not, this is an amazing image. The church was built in 1936, and is used for a number of events all year round.
- Activities on the Lake – boat tours, jet boating, paddling boarding.
- In winter if you are a snow bunny, head to Roundhill ski area (open this year on 6th July 2013) which is 35 minutes from Tekapo
Accommodation at Tekapo varies from a high-end hotel resort (Peppers resort) to a few backpackers, motels, wooden cabins and camping grounds.
2. Franz Josef/Fox Glacier, South Westland, South Island
Getting to Franz Josef and Fox Glacier can take a good while from many places. Franz and Fox Glaciers are a 40-minute drive apart (with Fox being further south). It is approximately a 5-hour drive from Christchurch to Franz. Flights to Hokitika or Greymouth can reduce this to a 2-2.5 hour drive. Driving up from the south – Queenstown is 5 hours, and Wanaka 4 hours. There are a number of bus tour companies that will take you here (Stray, Kiwi Experience) as well as independent bus companies such as Naked bus and Intercity, and some additional companies operating out of Queenstown and Wanaka.
Don’t let the distance and travel put you off though. This area is stunning. Over the Easter weekend in 2012, I travelled to both area (choosing to stay in Franz Josef) and having a tour of Fox Glacier.
Activities in Franz Josef/Fox Glacier
- Half or Full day tours of either Franz or Fox Glacier. This is amazing – the glaciers are melting daily, so don’t miss out on the chance to don a pair of crampons and get climbing, as well as crawling through ice tunnels! Fantastic
- Helicopter tours – tours take you for a scenic flight over the glaciers, and you can land at the top for a bit of a walk
- Take a trip to Lake Matheson and experience the amazing Mirror Lakes, with awesome views of Mount Cook (a 20 minute drive from Fox Glacier), with an approximate 30 minute loop walk around
Lake Matheson’s Mirror Lakes
Various accommodation exists from backpackers to hotels. I have stayed in YHA in Franz Josef, and it was great (good sauna). Franz Josef has a cool vibe to it with plenty of nice places to eat/drink in the evening. There is an amazing little pie shop at the top end of the township too. Great fuel if you are off on a road trip.
3. Queenstown, Otago, South Island
Coined as the adrenaline and party capital of New Zealand; Queenstown is a playground for both young and old. In the 16 months that I have been here, I have visited Queenstown 4 times, and I love it, perhaps because I am a little bit of an adrenaline junkie myself. Queenstown itself is relatively small, and I think this surprised me initially, but it is packed full of stuff to do. If you are not a party animal or adventure loving maniac, there is still plenty to do and see.
I will start with the adventure-filled activities
- Bungy – this is probably the top of the list for many backpackers and travellers. AJ Hackett who invented the commercial bungy (‘cos lets not forget, many pacific islanders were doing this a long time ago!) has a number of options for the first time bungy jumper. The Nevis is known as ‘the big one’ often branded by the slogan ‘go big or go home’ is a 135m drop out of a cable car over a gorge, you freefall for 8 seconds. This will cost you $299. You can also do the Nevis swing from the same site.Then there is the Ledge Bungy (Closest to Queenstown – the others you are required to get a shuttle out to). The ledge bungy costs $180 and is based up at the top of the Gondola base, and is a 40m drop over Queenstown. Here you can choose a style from a list or just freestyle jump of the edge. The last of the jumps is the original – the Kawarau Bridge Bungy. This site was the first to open in 1988. It is a 40m jump, where you can choose to get dunked in the water. It costs $180
- Shotover Canyon Swing – the highest cliff jump in the world! Dropped (in a number of different and creative styles) from 109m. Staff are eccentric and energetic and make your experience both nerve racking and fun! This activity I would rate better than a bungy (which I have only completed in Auckland!) mainly because of the way staff interact with you, and for the experience they give you. If you are mad enough to do this, it will cost you $199 with extra jumps costing $39
- Luging – The Luge is based at the top of the Gondola base. Here you can get in a wee kart and go full pelt down a track, racing against all your mates. There are a number of different prices for this, mainly in combination with a Gondola pass, or a lunch/dinner at the Skyline restaurant. This is such a fun experience – I could have done it all day.
With many of these activities, you can buy a combo pass and do many of them together for cheaper
For the tamer traveller in Queenstown
- Bike tours – there are a number of tour operators in QT
- Water activities from jet skiing, paddle boarding to a little cruise of New Zealand’s second largest Lake – Lake Wakitipu.
- Hike to the top of the Gondola station – Ben Lomond Forest Track has a good marked track (though it is not for the unfit – it is quite a climb). The estimated time marked on the track info sign is 1 hour, which is achievable. The track goes uphill through the forest. At the top you are greeted with a stunning view over Queenstown township, with the Lake and Mountains as a backdrop – simply stunning
- The Skyline Gondola – if hiking (tramping) isn’t your thing, you can get a ride to the top on the Gondola. Taking about 5 minutes (if it doesn’t stop), allowing you out at the top to see the same stunning view. At the top you can Bungy and Luge (as above) as well as paraglide (something I have yet to do)
- FERGBURGER – World famous in New Zealand at least, this is something everyone talks about. Fergburger is based on Shotover street (the main strip), and is packed no matter what time of day it is. They do amazing burgers and chips. Just get one!
- Onsen Hot Pools – a short 25 minute drive out of Queenstown is the Onsen Hot Pools. These are a perfect for a winters day (or even in summer). The pools are all private, and you can hire for 1 hour at a time (but you need to book). The pools come with a retractable roof, overlooking the Shotover River. Prices vary depending on the number of people you have (I think the pools can accommodate 4-5 at a time). We paid $40
- The Ice Bar – this is something which has now opened in a few countries. Queenstown have two ice bars. One called Below Zero and the other ‘The Ice Bar’ Both are amazing. You get rugged up in a winter jacket, boots, and gloves and off you go, for as long as you want to chill out (literally) in the bar, completely made of ice, from the chairs, to the bar and a variety of sculptures including an ice hockey table. Totally recommend this!
- When you are in Queenstown, you should take a drive out to Arrowtown (it is really cute), a small little township with older buildings, and quaint shops. It is a little bit of remaining history in the Newness that is New Zealand
Accommodation – Queenstown is not short of accommodation from the budget backpackers, to flashpackers, motels, hotels, apartments and camping grounds. I have stayed at the Adventure Queenstown Hostel twice and recommend this to anyone – amazing staff, rooms and facilities
I don’t think I will ever be able to express, how much Christchurch means to be. It was my home and I loved it. However, as much of the world will have learnt, Christchurch was hit with a series of earthquakes between 2010-2011, with the worst being on 22/02/11, which killed 185 people, and injured many more. Over four years on, the city is slowly recovering, but there are many reminders of what happened, both physically and emotionally. However, Christchurch is rising from the rubble and has demonstrated (in my eyes) what a resilient and wonderful city it is, and what an amazing community lives there. I have written many times about the rebirth of the city, including Gap Fillers, in the hope that people will see it, as being a wonderful place to visit. Christchurch isn’t the war zone that people think it is, there is a number of amazing things to do.
Activities in Christchurch
- Christchurch Gondola – based in Ferrymead and costing $25 offers stunning views of Christchurch and Lyttelton from the Port Hills. At the top you can walk Crater Rim (approx 16km) around an extinct volcano. There is a cafe at the top (Red Rock Cafe). The Gondola is open all year round, from 10am-5pm.
- Christchurch Botanic Gardens – Christchurch is known as the garden city, and is blessed with a number of parks and gardens. The botanic gardens is an exceptionally beautiful green space. There are a number of activities to do in the garden including the caterpillar garden tour. The main Christchurch information site (isite) is based here. The gardens are just for pedestrians – not bikes allowed, but there are a number of bike parks outside to safely leave your bike
- Gap Filler – Christchurch has a number of Gap Fillers on many vacant sites, including the wonderful Pallet Pavilion, the book fridge, Gap Golf and many more. Where in the world can you play golf made from recycled wood and traffic cones?
Punting on the River Avon – a tour of about 30 minutes – a rather British based activity, but very beautiful and relaxing
Quake City in restart Mall a new museum in the central city
- Adrenalin Forest if you fancy being a monkey for the day, swinging from trees and crawling through barrels (approx. $30 and takes 3-4 hours)
- Restart Mall – Cashel Street Mall was completely destroyed in the earthquake. So in October 2011 (8 months post quake) Christchurch developed a new mall called re:start, made out of colourful shipping containers. There are a number of shops and businesses here, and it is well supported by the local community. On a Saturday and Sunday there is a small market.
- Container bars –after the earthquake, there wasn’t many places for people to go out for a drink in the central city. Shipping containers became a great resource for making a bar. Some of my favourites are smash palace (made out of a bus), revival bar (shipping container with shopping trolleys as seats) and Cargo bar.
- New Regent Street – the newest street to reopen in the central city. New Regent Street is a block of colourful shops, with a historic feel. There are a number of shops including a bar, cafes, (an amazing) fudge shop, jewellers, bead shop and a boutique clothing shop. Other shops are being fitted out currently and waiting for consent from the council.
- Beaches – Sumner, and New Brighton – amazing little spots, but both badly damaged by the quake. Near Sumner you can take a short drive out to Taylors Mistake and do the walk to Godley Head (a good 2-3 hours). You can also hire out surf and paddleboards at the beaches.
- Day trips – Kaikoura is about 2 hours north, here you can Whale Watch, as well as see the Seals. Cute wee spot. There is a daily train (the Trans-coastal), which leaves from Christchurch around 7am, and goes all the way to Picton, but stops off in Kaikoura.
- Akaroa – the French like village in Canterbury – about an hour away, a small village feel, you can do a number of things here from hiking, to horse trekking to swimming with dolphins and cruising in the sea.
- Hanmer Springs – a small village approximately 2 hours away, with a number of activities including quad biking, cycling, hot pools and horse trekking
5. Abel Tasman National Park
The Abel Tasman is a stunning area at the top of the South Island. It is reachable from Nelson (1 hour to the border of the Park – Kaiteriteri) and about a 5-6 hour drive from Christchurch.
Abel Tasman is quite a big National Park, and you can spend anywhere between 1-5 days trekking through it. It has a number of lovely beaches and great coastline a long the way.
Abel Tasman National Park is known for its Tramping (hiking), as well as Kayaking. There are a number of Kayaking trips that can be booked (mainly from Kaiteriteri).
If you are planning on camping in the park, you must by a DoC pass from any of the outdoors shops as well as DoC info centres before entering the park, as this goes towards maintenance of the parks. You can also buy passes to stay in the huts themselves. Just be prepared when you go into the park, there are no facilities to buy additional supplies at all.
The water is great to swim in all year round (no nasty sharks). We stayed in a backpacker boat during our time there, and it was incredible.
Have you been to New Zealand’s South Island?
What is unmissable in your opinion?