New Zealand’s South Island is a beautiful collection of mountains, glaciers, rainforest’s and beaches. There’s no better way to show off all this beauty than with photographs from all over New Zealand’s South Island. Here I’ve put together this picture book itinerary which will take you through the Marlborough Sounds, up to the famous Abel Tasman National Park. Through the rainforest that is the west coast, to see Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. You’ll travel through Wanaka and Queenstown and into the Fiordland National Park to marvel at Doubtful and Milford Sound. As the journey continues we’ll venture into Mount Cook, Tekapo and then down the East Coast to Christchurch and a quirky town called Oamaru. I’ll take you on an adventure through New Zealand’s South Island in this guide, and help you plan your adventures.
New Zealand’s South Island Itinerary
If you arrive on the South Island via the ferry then Picton will be your first destination. This is how I travelled to the South Island, and I would highly recommend you take the ferry at least once. It’s said to be one of the most scenic ferry journeys in the world. As you travel through the Marlborough Sounds, the scenery was like nothing I had seen before. It was mesmerising.
Once in Picton however, many people rush off with just 1 or 2 weeks to see the whole South Island. Yet, if you have the time, I would recommend staying a couple of nights in Picton. It’s a wonderful little town that is massively underrated. There are several walks you can do in the area and discover little inlets of the sounds. The Snout Track was a personal favourite of mine in Picton. Walking along the coast out towards the sounds, it was peaceful and ever so beautiful. The Marlborough Sounds are one area of New Zealand’s South Island that I would love to explore more the next time I visit.
Nelson will likely be the next place you visit if you are driving the popular tourist route down the west coast and up the east coast. It’s a nice town and I enjoyed spending a few days here. Wander down to the marina at sunset as all the boats glow in the afternoon light. You can climb up to the centre of New Zealand monument. The views are lovely from up here, and it’s pretty cool to say you have been to the geographical centre of the country.
Another part of Nelson I enjoyed were the gardens. Quite unexpectedly they have gorgeous Japanese inspired garden named Miyazu gardens. Walkthrough Neale park, along the coastline, to get to the Miyazu gardens. It makes for a lovely day out.
Moreover, if you like peanut butter then head over to Pic’s Peanut Butter World for a free tour and tastings. The tour should be booked in advance but they have plenty of tours each day. Even for someone that doesn’t like peanut butter, I did enjoy the tour. The tour guides are really knowledgeable and clearly enjoy their jobs. They explain the history of Pic’s peanut butter, show you where it’s made and have lots of different samples to taste. It’s a really interesting process and a great way to spend a few hours.
Motueka is a great little town to base yourself in for adventuring into the Abel Tasman National Park. This national park was one of the places I was most excited about visiting on the South Island. I had seen so many pictures of the golden sand beaches and turquoise blue waters, I wanted to see it for myself.
Since I was so excited about this part of the trip we wanted to explore it to the max. The great thing about being on a working holiday is you can be super flexible about spending more time in some places and extending stays. I think it’s so much better than being on a strict schedule. Whenever someone told me they were travelling both the North and South Island in 2 weeks I just laughed, you simply can’t rush New Zealand.
The Abel Tasman National Park is home to one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. It’s often said to be one of the easiest of the great walks in New Zealand. So, we decided it would make for a good first multi-day hike to test my abilities and see more of Abel Tasman at the same time. Motueka is a great place to stay before and after you do the great walk. We booked all of our huts and water taxi transfers at the iSite in Motueka; the staff were really friendly and helpful in planning our trip.
Another town that is situated on the outskirts of the Abel Tasman National Park. Takaka is located further North than Motueka, staying here will allow you to explore different areas of the National Park. You can visit the Te Waikoropupu Springs – famous for the incredibly clear water. The springs also have special historical significance to local Maori people. To learn more about the history of the Te Waikoropupu Springs visit the DOC website here.
There are lots of other places of interest nearby. One of my favourites was the Rawhiti Caves. Before we visited my expectations were not very high and I just thought it would be a nice walk. It was more than just a nice walk, it was quiet – tucked away on private land not many people come and explore this area. The walk through the woods and up to the caves was tranquil. It was a really interesting walk, zigzagging its way through the trees. When we reached the caves at the top I was completely surprised. The Rawhiti caves cover a large area and are really cool. It was a fantastic area for the keen photographer in me to practice taking pictures in different conditions.
Farewell Spit and Wharariki Beach
If you have the time make sure to drive up to Farewell Spit as well. This is at the very top of the South Island. There’s a great walk along the beach and over the sand dunes here. Another place I didn’t expect to be quite so beautiful but once you are walking across the sand dunes the views are just incredible.
After finishing your walk at Farewell Spit, drive over to Wharariki Beach. This beach is famous for its sunsets. If you are lucky enough to visit Wharariki beach at low tide you can often find seal pups playing in the tidal pools. Unfortunately, low tide and sunset didn’t match up on my visit but I would love to revisit another time.
It’s a slight detour driving towards Hanmer Springs, but if like us you just completed the Abel Tasman Great Walk, you’ll be thankful for a place to relax. If that’s the vibe you’re after, there’s no better place to do it than Hanmer Springs. The Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa are famous on New Zealand’s South Island; they’re a great place to rewind for a couple of days.
We got the same day return pass which allows you to leave and go back in the same day. We went once in the day time and then went back in the evening too. It was nice to experience the springs at both times of the day and get the most out of our visit. However, there’s often a good deal available for Hanmer Springs on ‘Bookme’ (discount app/ website) too.
If you are looking for something else to do in the town in between hot spring sessions, hike up the conical hill walkway. It’s by no means one of the best hikes in New Zealand, but it will keep you busy and offers some good views of the town when you reach the peak.
After relaxing in Hanmer Springs for a couple of days, head back over to the west coast and stay in Westport for a few days. There are so many walks to do in Westport and the surrounding areas. We did the Charming Creek walkway, Fenian Caves and a few short walks in the Oparara Basin. There is so much to do in this area of New Zealand’s South Island, yet because none of it is the popular tourist spots it often goes unseen. I loved how quiet this area was yet it was just as beautiful if not more so for the serene environment. The west coast showcases New Zealand’s nature at its best.
Cape Foulwind is another place close to Westport. A short 15-minute walk from the car park will lead you to the seal colony. Following on from this viewpoint the walkway continues to Cape Foulwind Lighthouse. A nice and easy coastal walking track in Westport.
Driving down from Westport to Greymouth make sure to stop at the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. These are some crazy limestone rock formations. Blowholes are created when the compressed water and air push through the caverns and are forced upwards, creating a spray of water. It’s a short 20-minute walk around the pancake rocks, but plan for longer to take photos and wait for the blowholes to erupt.
In Greymouth, I would highly recommend heading to the Monteiths Brewery for a tour and something to eat. The brewery tour was really good, even for someone who isn’t the biggest fan of beer. I loved the atmosphere inside and being guided around where they make the beer was really interesting. There’s not too much to do in Greymouth but it’s a good place to stop for the night. At sunset, walk over to the breakwater viewing platforms. The waves crashing over here are so big and it’s a nice place to watch the sunset too.
Top tip: Do not stay at the Duke Hostel in Greymouth, read all about my horrific experience at this hostel here:
Read Next: New Zealand South Island Hostel Review
I would recommend staying in the town of Franz Josef whilst visiting the glaciers. It’s a slightly bigger town than Fox Glacier, and they are both so close you can easily drive between them. On the drive down make sure to take the detour to Hokitika Gorge. It’s a stunning area with beautiful blue water running down from the glaciers. As one of the more popular Instagram hot spots on New Zealand’s South Island, don’t be surprised when you see crowds of people here.
There are several walks to do around Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. The Franz Josef Glacier walk takes about 1.5 hours to complete and gets you as close to the glacier as possible for free. If you want to get closer to the glaciers you’ll have to book on to a Heli hike tour. I didn’t do one of these because they are expensive and can get cancelled often if the weather conditions aren’t safe. If you are sticking to a budget too the walks are just as beautiful and you can spend that money on something else.
Robert’s Point Track
We also attempted to hike Robert’s Point track at Franz Josef. However, at the time we didn’t realise it was an advanced hiking track. I would only recommend this track to those who are experienced hikers. A lot of hiking tracks in New Zealand do not take the full amount of time that the signs indicate they will take. This one, however, was pretty accurate. We climbed quite high and were probably about 30-40 minutes from the summit when we decided to turn around. We didn’t have enough daylight hours to reach the top and then return safely. It was starting to rain and the track was slippy in many places. Furthermore, my anxiety about falling was getting quite high and panicked.
For a bunch of reasons, we decided to admit defeat and turned around and I’m so glad we did. It was dark by the time we reached the car again but it could have been much worse had we carried on. If you do attempt this track, give yourself plenty of time, tell someone where you are going and if you can take someone with you too. I can guarantee I wouldn’t have made it as far as I did if I had been on my own. For more information about the Robert’s Point Track click here.
The Fox Glacier Valley walk has been closed indefinitely since February 2019. Floods and landslides have destroyed the road and made it inaccessible. For more up to date information on this walk visit the DOC website here. A good alternative to this walk is the Fox Glacier Southside Walkway. A 6.4km walk which will take approximately 2 hours to complete. It’s an easy walk and a great opportunity to see Fox Glacier for free.
Another walk to do close by to Fox Glacier is the walk around Lake Matheson. This was one of my favourite walks in the whole of New Zealand’s South Island. The weather conditions, however, need to be just right to get the most out of this experience. A perfect day would be no wind and no cloud coverage. Lake Matheson is famous for its perfect reflections of the mountains in the lake. High wind will cause the water to have a ripple effect and then the reflection won’t be as good. Of course, if there’s too much cloud coverage then there’s nothing to reflect either.
We stayed in Franz Josef for 3 days and were lucky enough to get a morning with good weather conditions. I have seen lots of lovely pictures of Lake Matheson at sunset too, but my advice would be to visit when the weather is on your side. Anyway, I have never seen anything as I saw at Lake Matheson before and that will always be a special place in New Zealand for me! Bonus – visiting in the winter season meant it wasn’t busy at all either and we barely saw anyone else.
A very popular town on New Zealand’s South Island. And for good reason too, there is a lot to do in Wanaka. #ThatWanakaTree is possibly one of the most famous attractions across the whole of New Zealand. It is just a tree and in itself is not that impressive. However, I did make Adam get up at sunrise to come and view it with me. I would say that the pink glow of the sun rising over the mountains was beautiful and the tree is a nice focal point for a picture. It was the sunrise that I thought was magical, but you have to see the tree at some point whilst in Wanaka.
Rippon Winery is a stunning winery based in Wanaka. The vineyard overlooks Wanaka with beautiful views and the wine is good too. The employee in charge of the cellar door at Rippon was very knowledgable about the wines and friendly to talk to. The tasting is free at this winery too which is a nice bonus! I didn’t feel any pressure to buy anything and it’s an easy walk from Wanaka town centre along the lake. Overall, visiting this winery was an unexpected favourite of mine in Wanaka.
Hiking in Wanaka
Hiking Roy’s Peak is a must-do for anyone visiting Wanaka. This views from this hike are famous on Instagram but they truly are incredible. Roy’s Peak was one of my favourite hikes in New Zealand. It’s a tough hike because it’s constant uphill for about 2 hours without much break. The famous viewpoint at the top is a great place to stop and enjoy the views for a bit. It’s a further 30 minutes to the summit and the views are even more incredible from up there, so don’t miss it!
Mount Iron is a shorter hike in Wanaka and is another good one to do. It’s about 1 hour to the peak and is located much closer to the town centre. Puzzling World is located nearby so you could do both of these activities in one day. Puzzling World is a mix of illusions and a massive maze which you have to make your way out of. It was so much fun and I would recommend that anyone staying in Wanaka should do it.
First of all, the drive from Wanaka to Queenstown is, in my opinion, one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand. There are plenty of places to stop, so take advantage of the scenic viewpoints and take it all in. Once you arrive in Queenstown there are endless activities for you to do. New Zealand is an adventure playground and Queenstown is at the heart of all this adventure. From skydiving to the Nevis swing to jet boating and everything in between, there is something for everyone in this city.
That being said, Queenstown is expensive. I would even go as far as to say the most expensive city in New Zealand. If you want to spend money then Queenstown is the place to do it. However, if like me you are travelling on a budget then I’ll share a few of the things I did that didn’t break the bank.
Queenstown Budget Activities
- Hike the Tiki Trail – Save your money from the Queenstown Gondola and hike up to the same viewpoint via the Tiki Trail instead.
- Hike up to Ben Lomond – following on from the Tiki Trail, the Ben Lomond track starts at the Queenstown Gondola with a total elevation gain of 1438m. It’s a tough one but the views are so worth it!
- Queenstown Hill – Another free hike, offering fantastic views of Queenstown. Approximately 1 hour to reach the summit.
- Disc Golf in Queenstown Gardens – Rent a frisbee from one of the many shops in Queenstown or some hostels even offer them for free!
- Creative Queenstown Arts & Craft Market – Lots of local artists and craft stalls to wander around every Saturday at the Lakefront.
- Below Zero Ice Bar – Both the ice bars are always on the discount booking app ‘Bookme’ with cheap admission tickets. It’s a unique experience and relatively cheap. We had a great night out here and went out after with some people we met here!
As with any place, there are always things you can do for free or cheaply, those are just a few examples of what we did. If you have a car then I would recommend driving out to both Bob’s cove and Glenorchy too. The drive to Glenorchy is another highlight from New Zealand’s South Island.
Te Anau is the perfect place to base yourself for doing both Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. We did an overnight cruise in Doubtful Sound in the winter, and without exaggerating, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Doubtful Sound is so serene and beautiful. In the winter months, only one commercial company operates tours in Doubtful Sound. They offer one daytime cruise and one overnight cruise each day. This means you’ll barely see another boat cruising through the sounds with you and it’s the most incredible thing to experience.
Alternatively, Milford Sound is another good option and much more budget-friendly too! Even if you don’t go on the cruise in Milford Sound it’s worth driving the road there at the least. There are lots of scenic stops on the way and its breathtaking to see just from the ferry terminal. There is a small walk to do close by to the car park to see the ferries leaving and the entrance to Milford Sound.
Te Anau is a cute little town to spend a few days in. If you have time visit the Te Anau bird sanctuary to see an array of native New Zealand birds. Hiking is also popular in the Fiordland National Park with three of New Zealand’s great walks in this region. The Milford Track, Routeburn Track and Kepler Track are all in this national park. All are great multi-day hikes and I would love to go back one day and do one myself!
After exploring the Fiordland National Park drive to Dunedin next. Otago’s university city, a lot is going on in Dunedin. Spend a few days exploring the city, drive around the south Dunedin peninsula and visit the Royal Albatross Centre. Here you can pay admission to see the albatross, a large bird with a wingspan of over 3 metres! Alternatively, you can visit the Little Blue Penguin Colony in the evening and watch the penguins come to shore. This is a great experience we saw 45 penguins come to shore the night we visited. It is a paid attraction though and you can see them for free elsewhere! Make sure to read the section on Oamaru to find out where you can see 2 penguin colonies for free.
The Otago museum is full of interesting exhibits, you can easily spend a few hours in here. Best of all it’s free too! Moreover, if the sun is shining and you would rather be outside, don’t miss out on visiting Baldwin Street – formerly recognised as the world’s steepest street.
The Moeraki Boulders are approximately a one hour drive north of Dunedin. These are large spherical boulders on a beach and offer some fantastic photo opportunities. Another popular attraction on New Zealand’s South Island. Once you have finished exploring Dunedin, you can either travel south into the Catlins region and onto Stewart Island. Or you can travel North up the East Coast; this guide will follow this itinerary choice as the more popular option among travellers.
Little Blue Penguins
Oamaru is a small quirky town on New Zealand’s South Island. At first glance, it may seem like there’s not much to do but actually, this small town offers plenty to visitors. My favourite of all is that there are 2 penguin colonies in easy walking distance.
The Little Blue Penguins I mentioned you can pay to see in Dunedin are easy to spot in this town. It’s probably the easiest place in the country for a guaranteed sighting for free. Walk along the harbour towards the Little Blue Penguin colony where you can pay to see them. Wait along the harbour near the pier and after sunset, you’ll start to see them coming up the banks. Their nests are actually in the rocky cliffs on the other side of the road so they have to venture up and cross the road safely each night. Make sure to keep a safe distance from them and ensure they have a clear path to walk across safely.
The bushy beach reserve scenic reserve is home to a Yellow-eyed penguin colony. These are the rarest penguins in the world and sadly are in fast decline. Luckily, a few of these penguins live in the burrows at this beach. Since they are such a rare breed of penguin, several safeguarding practices are in place to protect them. The beach is closed to public access before 9 AM and after 3 PM each day. This provides the penguins with a safe environment to return home each day. Dogs are also not allowed at this beach as they are a known predator to the penguins.
There are however cliff-top viewing platforms for people to view the penguins from a safe distance. The Yellow-eyed penguins have a slightly different behavioural pattern than the Little Blue penguins. These penguins return to their nests roughly 2 hours before sunset. Patience is key in spotting the Yellow-eyed penguins though as they can return at any time and it’s not uncommon to wait 45 minutes to 1 hour before you see one. They are much bigger than the Little Blue penguins and as they return to shore in the daylight it will make it easier to spot them. You’ll likely hear them before you see them, as some will be in their nests already or may not have gone out fishing that day. They are free to view at this beach, so take advantage and see the world’s rarest penguin here.
Other Things To Do in Oamaru
There is more to Oamaru than the penguins though. The town has a strong link with steampunk. I would highly recommend a visit to the Steampunk HQ museum. Much more like an art gallery than a museum, there are lots of strange and quirky exhibits here and some are interactive too. If you walk down towards the harbour you will find the steampunk-inspired park too, fun for all ages not just kids!
The Victorian district is also popular among visitors. Spend a morning or afternoon wandering down Harbour Street. There are loads of shops selling fun and interesting things, several old bookshops and cafes too. Once you are done have a walk around Oamaru’s botanical gardens. They are maintained well and really beautiful. Lastly, don’t leave town without visiting Scott’s Brewery. We spent many afternoons and evenings at Scott’s whilst we lived in this quirky town. The beer, cider and homecooked pizza are all brilliant. This micro-brewery has a large selection of drinks on offer and it’s a great atmosphere to relax in. They even have free live music at the weekend.
Mount Cook, one of the most popular areas on New Zealand’s South Island. The drive into the Mount Cook National Park is beautiful and no doubt you will stop several times along the way. The stunning blue water of Lake Pukaki and the view of the mountains ahead is truly breathtaking. Once in the National Park, there are several walks you can do.
- The Hooker Valley Track – The most popular walk among visitors. It’s an easy 10km round trip.
- Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier Walks – Another easy walking track, 2.6km return. There are a few steps towards the end of the walk, but the heightened view of the glacier is lovely.
- Kea Point – An easy, short walk in the National Park, relatively quiet compared to the popular Hooker Valley Track.
- Sealy Tarns Track – Dubbed the ‘stairway to heaven’, this walk has a total of 2,200 steps up to the top of the Sealy Tarns viewpoint. This was by far my favourite walk in Mt Cook, and we didn’t see anyone else whilst walking here.
A relatively small town but there is enough to keep you busy for a few days. Firstly, walk up Mt John for views across the whole to Lake Tekapo. You can drive if you want but there is a charge for vehicles, whereas the walk is free and the circuit track has fantastic views you won’t see by driving. After your walk, visit the Tekapo Springs for a relaxing dip in the hot pools. It is a paid attraction but you can often get cheaper admission tickets on the discount app and website ‘Bookme’.
Tekapo is also part of the Aoraki Mackenzie dark sky reserve. This means that Tekapo offers some of the best stargazing opportunities in the world due to the low light pollution and clear skies. Relax in the hot pools at Tekapo Springs in the evening and watch the stars. If you are a keen photographer, head over to the church of the good shepherd and take some pictures there.
In November- December the lupins appear and provide another good focal point for photos in Tekapo. Although they technically are an invasive species in New Zealand they do look pretty in full bloom.
Christchurch wasn’t my favourite place in New Zealand but it does offer some cool attractions and things to do. A few days is likely enough to explore the city. Popular attractions include:
- Christchurch Tram – Cheaper on ‘Bookme’
- Christchurch Gondola – Save money and take the public bus here!
- The Canterbury Museum – Free
- Christchurch Botanical Gardens – Free
- Riverside Market – Free to wander around
There are lots of nice places to eat and drink in the city. I enjoyed C1 espresso where food is delivered to you by pneumatic tubes to your table! The food itself wasn’t the best but the experience was great. Head over to New Regent Street in the evening for a range of cocktail bars to choose from. We enjoyed the cosy atmosphere in the ‘Last Word’ and the bartenders were very knowledgeable about the large selection of drinks on offer.
A visit to Kaikoura wouldn’t be complete without seeing the dolphins or whales. We chose to do a whale watching tour and were super lucky to see 3 whales on our visit. We saw one Sperm Whale fist and later saw two Humpback Whales towards the end of our journey. Alternatively, you can book on to specific dolphin watching tours and see these playful creatures up close. We managed to see the dolphins playing from the shore before and after our whale watching tour.
The whale watching is pricey of course but as we mostly steered away from the expensive activities during our time in New Zealand, this was a special treat for us! Kaikoura whale watching does commonly offer discounts on ‘Bookme’. This is where I booked our tickets and got NZ$20 off each. A small discount but better than nothing, it was something we knew we wanted to do so we always check to see if we can get it cheaper somehow.
That’s your tour of New Zealand’s South Island complete. As always if you have any questions pop them into the comments section below and I’ll get back to you. If you are wondering where to stay on the South Island then check out my post on the best hostels and those to avoid.