The ultimate travel guide to New Zealand’s South Island

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As long as I remember, New Zealand has been on my travel bucket list. I’ve been eager to delve deeply into nature and explore magnificent mountains, lakes, forests and beaches and experience the Kiwi culture and lifestyle.

When I moved to Australia back in January 2017, I knew that visiting New Zealand was inevitable, and in late November last year, I went on a 10-day road trip around the South Island with two of my best friends. I had very high expectations before we left, but New Zealand was magical, and it isn’t the last time I visit the country. In this travel guide to New Zealand, I’ve gathered everything you need to know to plan an unforgettable trip to the South Island!

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About New Zealand

New Zealand is located in the South Pacific Ocean with Australia on the western side as its closest neighbour. New Zealand consists of mainly two islands, the North Island and the South Island, that are separated by the 23 kilometres long Cook Strait, and more than 700 smaller islands. The two main islands are very diverse and offer a variety of different experiences. The smaller North Island is most famous for its active volcanos, vibrant city-life and Maori culture while the bigger South Island is most famous for its wild nature, the Southern Alps, magnificent lakes and glaciers. Altogether, New Zealand is a dream destination for adventure seekers and nature lovers.

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Where to go

Christchurch

Christchurch is the biggest city on the South Island and is an interesting place to visit. In 2010 and 2011, several earthquakes hit Christchurch and destroyed large parts of the city centre. Today, more than seven years after the natural disasters occurred, the damages are still clear. And it’s inevitable not to be impacted by what had happened back then when strolling around the city. However, it’s life-affirming to experience how the people of Christchurch manage to continue their lives and stay grateful.

Christchurch offers a funny mix of urbanism and creativity combined with a traditional English architecture and feel.  

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Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef Glacier is placed on the western side of the South Island and is one of New Zealand’s many World Heritage sites. The glacier is 12 kilometres long and is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world.

There are three ways of exploring Franz Josef. First, a Glacier Valley Walk where you walk in the valley either alone or with a guide and see the terminal face of Franz Josef. Second, an Ice Walk where you get to walk on the glacier with a guide. Third, a Heli-Hike where you see Franz Josef from a helicopter and get in contact with the ice on an Ice Walk. You can find all tours here.

We only explored the glacier from the valley and afterwards, we agreed that we should have splurged and bought the Heli-Hike to get the most out of it.  

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Wanaka

Wanaka is known as Little Queenstown and is definitely worth a visit. In fact, Wanaka was my favourite place on our trip around the South Island. The town is located next to the stunning Lake Wanaka and around the lake, there are so many things to do – incredible hikes such as the easy Lakeside Walk to the famous Wanaka Tree and the more challenging hike to Roys Peak, great mountain bike routes and various water sports activities. During winter, it’s also one of the best spots on the South Island for skiing.

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Central Otago

Central Otago covers an area on the South Island that is full of beautiful landscapes, small villages and wineries.

Central Otago should reportedly have a lot to offer, but most people go there for the sole purpose of drinking wine, as the area has excellent conditions for especially pinot noir. And so did we. We went on a half-day tour with Roaring Wine Tours that was excellent. We visited different wineries, enjoyed a lot of wine and went to see the beautiful landscape of Central Otago in between the visits.

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Milford Sound

Milford Sound is located in the Fiordland National Park on the southwestern side of the South Island. Although it’s named Milford Sound, the term actually covers a 15-kilometre long fjord.

Milford Sound is without a doubt the main attraction in the national park and when you see it, you understand why. The fjord is a stunning natural attraction made up of mountains, cliffs and deep-blue water. We took a day trip to Milford Sound with Mitre Peak from Queenstown, which was great and highly recommendable!

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Queenstown

Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of the world, and with good reason – in the surrounding areas, you can go skydiving, bungy-jumping, whitewater rafting, canyon swinging, skiing etc. However, Queenstown offers so much more than adrenaline. It’s a nice and vibrant town with a lovely town centre full of great restaurants and bars.

In addition, its location between incredible mountain ranges and the giant Lake Wakatipu makes the town a photographer’s paradise, and especially the scenic drive to Glenorchy is just stunning and very photogenic.

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Best time to visit

New Zealand has four seasons where summer that runs from December to February and winter that runs from June to August are high seasons. The weather during summer is warmest with temperatures around 15 to 25 degrees and the amount of rain is low. In this season, the cities and towns are more vibrant and lots of festivals and events are held. However, during this time of the year, the popular attractions can be very crowded and prices may rise. In winter, the ski season peaks.

We visited New Zealand in late November/start December where the weather was mild and the prices hadn’t risen much yet.

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Getting there and getting around

For most people, New Zealand is far away and getting to New Zealand requires a flight. Momondo (affiliate link) is my preferred site for finding cheap flight tickets. There are international airports in Christchurch, Queenstown and Dunedin and various domestic airlines around the South Island. We flew with my preferred airline Emirates between Sydney and Christchurch, however, the biggest New Zealandic airlines are Air New Zealand and Jetstar.

The most popular way of exploring New Zealand’s South Island is by car. All the different cities and towns are connected by highways and roads, making it quite easy to get around. However, you should be aware that the Kiwis drive on the left side of the road. We used the rental car company Apex, which is highly recommendable. As an alternative, bus companies like Kiwi Experience, InterCity and AAT Kings offer bus trips around the island.

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Other information

Time: +12/+13 GMT.
Language: English (95%) and Maori (5 %).
Population: 4,7 million.
Capital: Wellington (North Island).
Currency: New Zealand Dollars (NZD) (1 NZD ≈ 0,69 USD). You can pay with credit card pretty much everywhere, and there are ATMs in the larger cities. It’s not common to tip in New Zealand except for excellent service. In that case, leave a maximum of 10% gratuity.
Visa: For most countries, tourist visas for up to 90 days aren’t needed. However, make sure that your passport is valid for at least three months beyond the time you plan to stay in New Zealand. Check if your country has a visa waiver agreement with New Zealand and apply for a visa on this site if needed. 
Safety rating: 2/163 on the Global Peace Index.
Plug: Type I, 230V/50Hz.

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Budget

Accommodation

Accommodation in average hotels cost around 100-200 NZD per night for a double room. Free wifi is common, however, some places only offer free wifi in the main areas.
Accommodation in average hostels cost around 30-50 NZD per night. Most hostels have several room options from private double rooms to big dorm rooms that accommodate several people. Wifi is typically available, but be aware that wifi isn’t always included in the price. 
In addition, Airbnb is widely available in New Zealand, and there are various campgrounds throughout the country.

Food and drinks

Eating out is typically expensive in New Zealand. A meal at an average restaurant costs around 20-35 NZD while fast food costs around 10-15 NZD.
Drinks range from around 10 NZD for a glass of wine to 20 NZD for a cocktail.

Transportation

Not surprisingly, the price for flight tickets varies depending on where you fly from. However, it’s often quite expensive to fly to New Zealand. Likewise, domestic flight tickets are typically quite pricey. A domestic flight between Christchurch and Queenstown costs around 110 NZD.
The price of renting a car or campervan is decent. 10 days with different pickup and drop off locations cost approximately 1000-1500 NZD for a compact car and approximately 500-1500 NZD for a campervan.
A bus pass for 11 days around the South Island with Kiwi Experience starts at 645 NZD.

Attractions and activities

The price level of attractions and activities is generally high. However, New Zealand has so many amazing things to see and do that you can’t miss out on.
Glacier tours range between around 80 NZD for a guided Glacier Valley Walk and around 460 NZD for a Heli-Hike.
Wine tours cost around 185 NZD for a half-day tour.
Day trips to Milford Sound cost around 190 NZD.
Adventure activities cost from around 300 NZD for sky-diving and 200 NZD for bungy-jumping. 

Other

Other expenses you should consider are travel insurance and visa (if necessary). Travel insurance for 10 days in New Zealand costs around 45-65 NZD and visa costs from 165 NZD for a 90 days tourist visa.

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Itinerary options

One-week itinerary option

1 day in Christchurch
2 days in Wanaka
1 day in Central Otago
1 day at Milford Sound
2 days in Queenstown

 

10-day itinerary option

1 day in Christchurch
1 day at Franz Josef Glacier
3 days in Wanaka
1 day in Central Otago
1 day at Milford Sound
3 days in Queenstown

Read more posts from New Zealand here.

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