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The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island

Welcome to the second half of The Complete Guide to New Zealand. This week we’re going to explore the South Island (and Stewart Island).

Most guides to New Zealand feature the South Island. Bloggers constantly write about its beauty.

And they’re right to!

I mean, we shouldn’t forget the North Island (how could you after part 1 of this guide to New Zealand??) and I would never tell anyone to skip it, but the South Island really is a marvel. Everywhere you look there’s another natural wonder to explore. From the glaciers to the wildlife to the clear night skies, the South Island really is spectacular.

Even if you’re not a big fan of hiking or cycling (why is mountain biking such a big thing in New Zealand? I feel like no one has talked about mountain biking since I was a kid!), there’s a lot to do. There are cultural centres, wineries (oh so many wineries!), photo ops and more beaches than you’ll have time to visit.

I’m going to stop talking now and let you get on with the post, because this is the LONGEST post I’ve ever written (seriously, I think I have carpal tunnel now. That or my fingers are going to fall off).

Enjoy our journey south to round off The Complete Guide to New Zealand.

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island
Lake Mahinapua, The West Coast

 

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island

Marlborough


 

We’re starting at the top of the South Island, following our trajectory from the Guide to New Zealand’s North Island. 

Ferry goers will land in Marlborough on the South Island in the town of Picton. From here you can rent a car and carry on south, or relax in this small coastal community.

Picton has access to the famed Marlborough Sounds coastline, with over 1500km to explore. Cruise or kayak the waters to see wildlife like fur seals, Rowi kiwibirds and weka. Walk or cycle the bush on Queen Charlotte Track, a 5-day hike or 3-day ride, to get stunning views of the Sounds.

Unwind on land by touring the regions more than 30 Sauvignon Blanc vineyards.

Prefer beer? Head to Moa Craft Brewery to sample what’s on tap.

History buffs will enjoy the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre to see aircraft artefacts and reenactments. Take your journey further back with a visit to the Edwin Fox Museum, a floating merchant sailing ship that once transported convicts to Australia. It’s the 9th oldest ship in the world and now a public museum – where else are you going to find that?

Most New Zealand tours skip Picton, but if you’re planning your own road trip you can make some time to enjoy this less-visited area.

 

Abel Tasman

Most tours head straight from the ferry to Abel Tasman. To avoid missing out on Marlborough, use this guide to New Zealand to plan your own trip.

The Abel Tasman National Park is listed on almost every guide to New Zealand. That’s partially because it’s where you’ll find the famous Split Apple Rock.

You can reach the rock by rented kayak or water taxi. If you take the water taxi, you can walk back through native bush and past limestone cliffs along the Abel Tasman Coastal Track.

When the weather is bad, it can be difficult to get out to the rock. If this is a must do for you, plan an extra day or two in the park just in case.

Abel Tasman is the first location to skydive on your road trip south. This spot is known for the ability the see both islands as you’re falling.

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island

Cyclists should head to Kaiteriteri, Codger, or Wairoa Gorge for mountain bike parks with amazing views. For a more relaxing ride, cycle Tasman’s Great Taste Trail. On the trip you can enjoy vineyards, breweries, orchards, art galleries, and local shops.

Fly fishers will want to head to Murchison for world-class fly fishing. You can ever pair it with a white water rafting experience. (I never thought I’d be writing about fishing in my guide to New Zealand, but it’s gotta be complete!)

Bird enthusiasts should visit Farewell Spit, a 35km vast bird sanctuary.

Nelson is the most popular resting point in the region. Head to the small city for nicer accommodations. Nelson is the craft brewing capital of New Zealand. Not just that! It’s also the Top Cider City in the world (according to National Geographic). Take a break from the alcohol to visit Nelson’s Classic Car Collection Museum to take in some antique cars. Leave room in your suitcase to take home some of Nelson’s fantastic local art (I particularly love the glass blowers).

You can go north from Nelson to Cape Farewell – the south island’s most northerly point. See seals basking in the sun and take a photo of the famous lighthouse.

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island

From Nelson you can visit the Nelson Lakes and jump into a glacial lake (I didn’t, because I’m terrified of cold and eels – but I did get the iconic shot from the dock!). Then continue south to Golden Bay (Te Waikoropupu Springs), the largest cold water springs in the southern hemisphere.

 

West Coast

The Blow Hole

The aptly named West Coast runs along the west coast of the South Island.

It’s not as iconic as Queensland, but don’t just drive past it! Take some time to explore the amazing sites it has to offer.

The West Coast is best known for the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blow Holes, which formed over 30 million years ago. These ancient limestone towers are best at high tide when the water explodes out of the blow holes.

Pancake Rocks

I recommend ignoring the odd sounding name when you visit Cape Foulwind. Although it is windy, it definitely isn’t foul! In fact, the short walk leads you to a seal colony that rest on rocks below.

For other amazing views, head to the Oparara Arches in Kahurangi National Park – limestone arches in a subtropical forest, Hokitika Gorge – turquoise glacial waters in a rimu forest, or Haast World Heritage Site (known as Te Wāhi Pounamu to the Maori, or “greenstone waters”) – primeval vistas over beautiful waters.

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island
Atop Cape Foulwind. No foul, but lots of wind!

Water-lovers should head to Lake Brunner, the largest lake in the region. Here you can jet boat, rent a sail boat, swim, bird watch, or fish for trout.

The West Coast has two main cycle trails: The Old Ghost Road from a ghost town and through native forest; and The West Coast Wilderness Trail through old packhorse tracks (note: this one requires a trail shuttle).

Learn more about New Zealand’s prized greenstone in the West Coast. Tours such as Arahura Greenstone Tours explore its history and cultural significance to the Maori. I made a keychain charm of a silver fern at one of our bus trip stops (not mentioned in this guide to New Zealand, as it is an exclusive experience to the tour).

It wouldn’t be New Zealand if there wasn’t an alcohol stop! In the West Coast, Monteith’s Brewery is the place to go.

Franz Josef

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island
Technically Franz Josef and the rest of Glacier Country are in the West Coast, but they’re significant enough to need their own space.

New Zealand is the only place in the world where there is a glacier inside a rainforest. You can visit the Franz Josef or Fox glaciers via heli-hikes or free walks (I chose the latter after spending all my money jumping out of a plane on the North Island).

Franz Josef is also a popular sky diving spot. People love the idea of seeing the glacier as they’re falling from the sky.

But be wary: Glacier Country is notoriously bad for weather. Heli-hikes and sky dives are regularly cancelled, sometimes for weeks at a time. It’s one of the reasons they recommend you skydive elsewhere – so you don’t get your hopes dashed here.

The world’s only glacier in a rainforest

Wondering what to do in Franz Josef if you don’t care about glaciers? I’ve got you covered! This is the complete guide to New Zealand after all.

Visit the town to shoot clay pigeons, visit a kiwibird, soak in hot spas or carve your own pounamu (greenstone necklace).

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island
Lake Matheson

When you’re leaving Franz Josef, make sure to stop at Lake Matheson, or the mirror lake. The still lake gives a perfect mirror reflection of Mount Cook and the Southern Alps. It’s a great photo op – especially if it’s sunny!

 

Canterbury

As a lover of the Canterbury tales, I was thrilled to get to go to Canterbury (yes, I’m that much of a nerd!) – granted, it’s probably nothing like its British counterpart. Still, the name made me happy.

Anyway, back to The Complete Guide to New Zealand!

Canterbury is home the Tasman Glacier, which you can hike or bike to. There’s even an option to boat to it now.

For a hint of France in the southern hemisphere, head to Akaroa. The town is full of historic French cottages and French food. It’s also a popular spot to try to see the world’s smallest dolphins: the Hectors Dolphin.

Visit Wairapa Valley for over 60 wineries, olive groves and lavender fields.

Enjoy rock pools and aqua therapy at Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa.

Looking for adventure? Head to Christchurch Adventure Park for the largest mountain bike park in the southern hemisphere. Not just that, it also has New Zealand’s longest chair lift. Take a ride to the top for remarkable views across the Canterbury Plains to the Southern Alps.

Kaikoura, Christchurch, and Lake Tekapo are all in Canterbury; however, like Franz Josef they need their own space. If you’re mapping your way through this post, they are in descending order.

 

Kaikoura

My favourite photo from the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway

Kaikoura is an adorable town on the east coast of the South Island. It’s a great spot for aquatic life – and where I swam with wild dolphins!

Book a dolphin swim or whale watching expedition to view these amazing creatures up close. (I cannot stress enough how much I loved swimming with dolphins. It’s definitely a must do experience in New Zealand.)

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island

Walk the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway to see brown fur seals up close. When we visited, there was a baby fur seal posing nicely on a rock before squirming away. We even saw some adults playing in the water and flipping beneath the surface!

It’s an easy walk but the rocks near the seals are uneven, so bring proper shoes. Wear sunscreen so you don’t get a weird sunburn from your cropped pants like I did!

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island
It’s a seal paradise!

Make sure to try some seafood in Kaikoura. The town is literally means “to eat crayfish” in Maori, so you can’t leave without at least having some fish and chips!

 

Christchurch

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island
The remnants of the Christchurch Cathedral, 8 years later

Christchurch is the largest city in New Zealand’s South Island, and the 3rd largest city in the country.

In 2011, it was destroyed by a severe earthquake. You can see the damage even as you drive along the Canterbury coast. Walking the city reveals many ruined buildings, condemned storefronts, and empty lots. I was heartbroken to see a bookshop with books bleached blue and white from the sun, laying scattered across the floor.

If you want to see more of the damage, you can book bus tours into the red zone to see the areas that were hit most severely.

Christchurch Earthquake Memorial

In the city centre, there’s a memorial commemorating those who died in the earthquake. It’s a marble wall that spans the length of their war memorial bridge, with the names of each victim engraved on a block. People regularly bring flowers and light candles at its base.

But Christchurch isn’t all ruins.

The botanical gardens are free to visit. They’re lovely to wander through on a sunny day. Afterwards, duck into the Canterbury Museum. The museum is free to enter and, honestly, I think it’s the best one in all of New Zealand. It has a variety of exhibits from historic clothing to Asian art to a recreation of an old street. My favourite exhibit was on sled dogs (did you know they used to parachute them into Antarctica??).

Christchurch’s Street Art Trail is a well-known walk that offers a lot of photo opportunities.

People spoke really highly of the Cardboard Cathedral, but I found it disappointing. It’s a cathedral made out of cardboard that was meant as a temporary solution after the earthquakes, then it became a tourist spot. It’s not as cool as it sounds. Other than a cross at the front that seems to be made of paper towel tubes, it doesn’t look like it’s made of cardboard.

It is free to visit, so stop in if you’re interested. But don’t expect some sort of tubing marvel like I did (which was probably a ridiculous image anyway).

 

Lake Tekapo

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island

Lake Tekapo is known for the beautiful lake that lies at its centre. It’s what makes every photo in this place so gorgeous.

If you’re visiting for Instagram shots, make sure to visit The Church of the Good Shepherd in the city centre. It’s the most photographed church in the world! That’s because the backdrop of the lake, the bright lupins and the old stone of the church feel surreally beautiful.

It gets busy so for the perfect Instagram shot, be sure to get there early.

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island
Lake Tekapo, behind the most photographed church in the world

During the day, spend time lying on the beach (but be wary of swimming because the water is COLD!) or hiking the small hikes overlooking the lake for panoramic views. Warm up at Tekapo Springs, a $27 NZD/person hot pool spa.

At night, gaze up at the stars in the world’s largest Dark Sky Reserve. You’ll be able to see everything the galaxy has to offer!

Take a tour to learn more about the stars at Dark Sky Project, an observatory above the lake. Or relax in the hot springs while you listen to a guide explain the stars.

I missed out on the stars because it was cloudy (and I was exhausted). Like the rest of New Zealand, overcast skies can thwart your plans.

Use this guide to New Zealand to not make the same mistakes I did! Give yourself some leeway for bad weather.

 

Aoraki Mount Cook

Aoraki Mount Cook lies in the centre of the South Island. It is the tallest mountain in New Zealand and a popular destination for climbers. Historically, it was the place that Sir Edmond Hillary climbed to prepare for Everest.

Nowadays, you don’t need to be a climber to enjoy it.

There are a number of short walks like the Governor’s Bush Walk (1 hour) and the Hooker Valley Track (3-4 hours) that are suitable for beginners.

Arthur’s Pass is a more challenging route that goes the highest of all the paths. It’s popular for hikers who are heading to the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls (seriously, who  names these things??).

You can reach Aoraki Mt Cook Village and National Park via the TranzAlpine Train. It is supposed to be one of the most scenic train rides in the world. Catch the train from Greymouth to ride 4 hours inland. If you don’t want to stay, a round trip takes 9 hours.

Cyclists can bike the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail from Mt Cook National Park to Oamaru. It’s a 300km journey that takes 4-8 days. You can do shorter bits of the journey if 300km sounds as insane to you as it does to me (your poor legs! How do you even walk after something like that?).

(I don’t ever bicycle so including all these bike trails in this guide to New Zealand is giving me serious FOMO. Do I need to start cycling??)

 

Waitaki Region

Confession: I didn’t know anything about Waitaki Region when I was touring New Zealand. In fact, my bus drove right through it without stopping.

It was only when I was trying to find some penguins to visit that I learned about this gorgeous place.

There’s a blue penguin colony you can visit. Blue penguins are the second rarest penguin in the world. You can find them in Australia, where they call them “fairy penguins” because of their size (they’re the littlest penguins in the world!). (I ended up seeing them in Dunedin, because of the time of year.)

The most photographed spot in the region is at Koekohe Beach. Here you’ll find the Moreaki Boulders – spherical stones that formed millions of years ago.  They’re surprisingly huge – some measuring up to several metres high! Head to the beach to photograph these marvels in the early morning or late afternoon light.

You can also visit Clay Cliffs, formed more than 1 million years ago by ancient glaciers. (The world is so cool!)

For a truly luxury experience, head to Omarama Hot Tubs, where you can bathe alongside beautiful scenery. Immerse yourself in mountain water while you star gaze or enjoy mountain views. Want more? Visit their hot sauna or book a massage.

Adrenaline junkies will love Waitiki because it’s the gliding capital of New Zealand. Soar over the Mackenzie Basin in a tiny plane. You can even get certified at schools in the area!

The most unique spot in Waitaki is Steampunk HQ, a steampunk gallery in Oamaru. The sort-of-museum is filled with sculptures and old technology. You can even rent a steampunk bicycle to go around the town!

 

Central Otago

Central Otago is best known for its art. Journey along the Central Otago Arts Trail to see photography, carvings, music, film, writing, sculpture, painting, jewellery and more!

Roadside stalls are a classic part of the region. A lot of them sell local produce and freshly picked summer fruit.

Pinot Noir lovers should visit some of the 80+ wineries in the region.

Central Otago is home to a number of beautiful heritage towns. Stop in for a photo op or a wander through quieter areas. Check out Ophir, Bannockburn, Clyde or Naseby.

Feeling the need for speed? Visit the Highlands Motorsport Park to go around a track with a professional race car driver in a Ferrari. The car can get up to 100km/hr in 3 seconds! It definitely lives up to its name of “Supercar Fast Dash.”

 

Wanaka

Views over Lake Wanaka

I was so excited to visit Wanaka, because it was (at the time) the home of my favourite travel blogger, Young Adventuress. I saved countless tips from her Instagram stories of things to do and places to eat.

Unfortunately, my bus tour had a tight schedule. And my inability to drive on the left side of the road limited my options even more.

Wanaka is best known for two classic Instagram pictures: That Wanaka Tree and Roy’s Peak summit.

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island

The tree is easily accessible along the boardwalk. There are usually small groups of tourists in front of it taking photos, so it’s hard to miss. While you’re there, look down at the boardwalk to see the engraved history. The path from the tree to the city centre has stones that mark significant events throughout the year. I was so engrossed in reading them that I didn’t even realize when I’d ended up back in town!

Roy’s Peak is more difficult to get to, in that you have to hike. It’s not an insanely hard hike, but it is quite steep. Most people go in the morning to see the sun rise or in the afternoon when the clouds have burnt off. The classic shot is taken at the summit; however, it’s so popular now that people line up for it. Don’t be surprised to see people changing into their Instagram outfits before they strike a pose.

I skipped Roy’s Peak to explore to city centre and nurse the beginnings of my epic sinus infection.

Wanaka has tons to offer. You can paddle or kayak Lake Wanaka. Hike or fly over Mt. Aspiring National Park to see Rob Roy Glacier. Ski or snowboard at one of the resorts (Treble Cone is the largest). Heli-bike down Mt. Aspiring. Climb the a waterfall with WildWire Wanaka Walk. Visit the world’s first commercial bungee site at Kawarau Bridge. Try the Siberia Experience, a combination of flying, hiking and jet boating from Mt Aspiring National Park to Siberia Valley to Makarora River.

The first commercial bungee

Wanaka has a really great food scene. If you’re saving up to eat out, I’d splurge here rather than Queenstown. On top of great local restaurants, there are lavender fields that host high teas. Since Wanaka borders Central Otago, you can also find excellent Pinot Noir here. If you’re looking for something stronger, visit Cardrona Distillery for the only single malt whisky produced in New Zealand.

 

Queenstown

Full disclosure, I wince every time I think of Queenstown. Not because I drank so much that I get aftershock hangovers. It’s because I got a nasty sinus infection that made most of my time in the city a painful haze of napping and canned soup.

That’s for the best though since the two most popular things to do in Queenstown didn’t really appeal to me: partying and bungee jumping.

But, regardless of my issues with Queenstown, a Complete Guide to New Zealand wouldn’t really be complete without it!

Backpackers flock to Queenstown to party. People pre-game on the beach (since it’s legal to have liquor out after 5pm) then join pub crawls or make their own. It’s loud and often leaves parts of the city in shambles come morning.

If you’re staying in hostels, keep this in mind. Being sick with roommates coming back at 2am and slamming doors wasn’t fun.

Also, if you’re planning to stay in hostels book ahead! Queenstown fills up really fast.

Queenstown is great for adrenaline rushes. You can bungee jump or do a swing at Nevis, get catapulted across a canyon, zipline off a bridge, or bungee off the ledge of a mountain. I did none of these because they’re expensive and scare the hell out of me, but maybe you’re braver. If so, head to AJ Hackett for all your adrenaline needs.

For the best views in Queenstown, take the Skyline Gondola up Bob’s Peak (or hike, but it’s very rocky and people often get hurt) to get panoramic views of the Southern Alps. You can get excellent shots of Lake Wakatipu, dotted with kayaks and jet boats. Take the gondola back down or opt for something different and luge or paraglide to the bottom.

Queenstown food is less exciting than in the rest of the country. Most of it is cheap, backpacker or drunk food. And for some reason those people love Fergburger. It’s said to be the best burger in Queenstown (maybe even the world). There are line ups around the block at peak meal times. If you want to try it, avoid the lines by going at off peak hours like mid-afternoon or late at night.

The one ridiculous food trend I can get behind is Cookie Time’s Cookie Bar. It’s literally a bar that only serves cookies and milk! There’s happy hour every day where cookies are half off. Go early because the line gets long! Don’t forget to get some milk on tap for the full experience.

Leave the small but hectic city of Queenstown behind to visit other nearby attractions. The Gibbston wine region of Central Otago is a close drive and has New Zealand’s largest wine cave. Drive 20 minutes to Arrowtown to see a preserved gold rush village and visit the Lakes District Museum. Or drive 45 minutes to Glenorchy to enjoy the native beech forest and towering mountains. Lord of the Rings Fans will want to visit this stop because it was used to film Isengard, Amon Hen, Lothlorien Forest, the Misty Mountains, and Ithilien.

 

Dunedin

University of Otago

Ah, Dunedin. I have fond and … not so fond memories of the city.

The first thing I’ll say is: get a car! Or a scooter. Or book a bus tour.

Do anything but DO NOT rely on taxis. My wallet still hurts from spending $400 NZD on taxis for four trips.

Beyond that issue, Dunedin was really cute. It’s a little town with a Scottish feel. But it’s hilly. Be prepared for hills!

Dunedin is even home to the Steepest Street in the World (from 1987-2019). Baldwin Street is so steep most cars can’t go to the top. Push your legs to the limit hiking to the top to take some photos then try not to die climbing back down.

Hike up Signal Hill for great sunset views.

Looking for beaches? Head to St Clair, Aramoana, Murdering Bay (they might want to rename that one), and Karitane for surfing. Long Beach is excellent for rock climbing. Relaxed swimming is best at Brighton Beach. Marvel at a sandstone sea arch at Tunnel Beach at low tide.

Dunedin has a lot of history for such a small, southern place. It’s a UNESCO City of Literature. You can follow the Writer’s Walk (a series of plaques with famous quotes), see rare manuscripts at Reed and de Beer Galleries, or learn about old binding techniques at Dutybound Book Bindery.

Visit Toitu Otago Settlers Museum to discover the history of Dunedin, from the Maori to the Europeans to modern days.

Dunedin is home to Australasia’s only castle: Larnach Castle. It was built in 1871 in the Victorian style by William Larnach. Stop in for a visit and enjoy high tea served at 3pm daily.

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island

Penguin lovers will definitely want to visit Dunedin. The Otago Peninsula is known for its penguins, both blue and yellow-eyed penguins. Even though yellow-eyed are the rarest species, I opted to visit the smaller blue penguins (They’re just so cute and round!). I visited them at the Royal Albatross Centre.

They also run tours to see wild albatross – the birds with the world’s longest wingspan.

Head to Orokonui Eco Sanctuary for even more wildlife. There you can see lizards, skinks and 17 species of native birds.

If you enjoy a good train ride, take the train to the Taieri Gorge Railway. It goes through the Taieri Plains and over Wingatui Viaduct (the largest wrought iron structure in the world). The journey is about 4 and a half hours return.

If you’re visiting Dunedin in the winter (July and August, especially), pack warm clothes! Dunedin is one spot in New Zealand that regularly gets snow.

 

Fiordland

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island
Milford Sound

Fiordland is a national heritage site that includes three Sounds: Milford, Dusky and Doubtful.

Milford is by far the most popular. It’s known as the 8th wonder of the world. I’m going to focus on it in this Complete Guide to New Zealand, because it’s the most popular of the three.

If you have more time, head over to Doubtful Sound for more incredible hikes and views.

Milford Sound was carved out by glaciers during the ice age. Now the exposed cliffs house waterfalls as high as 1000 metres.

The area is best known for its scenic cruises and its hikes.

Book a scenic cruise and make sure to be outdoors so you can really see it all. The cruises narrate the different geographic areas of the fiords, drift past lazing seals, and go right up to the waterfalls.

If you prefer to go on your own, you can rent a kayak and explore as much of the Sound as you please.

Milford looks its best after it has rained, when the waterfalls are at full velocity.

Fiordland National Park is home to 3 of New Zealand’s 9 Great Walks. The Milford, Kepler and Routeburn Tracks are 3-4 day long hikes which stops in tents or huts along the way. My friend did the Milford track and spoke so highly of it that I wished my back wasn’t too fragile for a backpack.

If you know how to scuba dive, don’t miss out on the chance to dive in Milford Sound. It’s probably the warmest opportunity to dive in a fiord (if not the only)!

Anglers should stop by Waiau River to fish for brown and rainbow trout.

You can stay in the park overnight if you camp or have a van. Otherwise, the nearest town is Te Anau.

 

Southland

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island
A very tired, very grump sea lion at the Catlins

Southland is, as you probably guessed, the southern point of the South Island.

Here you’ll find Invercargill, the most southern town in the country. Visit Oreti Beach to relax by the water. Indulge in the town’s love of wheels by visiting Burt Munro’s world land speed record-breaking motorbike at E. Hayes and Sons Motorworks. Visit more wheels at Transport World.

Cyclists can try out the Welcome Rock Trail for an easy ride or go through the alpine landscape on the Around the Mountains Trail.

Drive out to the Catlins Coast to visit Nugget Point, the only place where you can see fur seals, sea lions and elephant seals together. Go down to Curio Bay to see a Jurassic Forest and try to spot some yellow-eyed penguins.

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island
A petrified or Jurassic forest

The final stop on our trip through the South Island is Bluff. Bluff is one of the oldest European settlements in New Zealand. It’s home to Bluff oysters, a must have when you’re in the region.

Stop to take a photo of the Bluff sign showing how far you are from major cities.

Bluff is the location to go to Stewart Island, the final stop on the Complete Guide to New Zealand.

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island

 

Stewart Island

How to Get to Stewart Island

There are two options to get to Stewart Island: ferry or plane.

The ferry leaves from Bluff and takes approximately 1 hour to reach the island. A return trip costs $159 NZD. You are only allowed to take 2 carry-ons to the island. In peak season there are 4 trips each way daily. The rest of the year, there are 2 trips each way daily, one in the morning and one in the evening.

The Foveaux Strait can be very rough. People often speak of it with the same horror as those visiting the Hebrides. If you have a weak stomach, take plenty of sea sickness pills or consider flying from Invercargill.

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A special moment on NZ’s little island. We caught a late flight with @stewartislandflights , landed on the beach at low tide and hiked back to civilisation. If you want something different this is it. We walked up the beach to our hut for the night. Later on and the next morning we saw kiwis out in the open minding their own business. What a fun, unique and memorable adventure. NZ you beaut! 🇳🇿 @southland.nz . . . . #lifeofnewzealand #NZmustdo #destinationnz #newzealandvacations #nzguide #purenewzealand #capturenz #purenz #realmiddleearth #destinationnz #lifeofnewzealand #beautifulnewzealand #newzealandguide #earthpixnz #wonderlustofnz #newzealandnatural #nz #gottalovenz #ig_newzealand #jordhammondsundays #travelawesome #discoverearth #exklusive_shot #southislandnz #southlandnz #stewartisland @purenewzealand

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Flights leave from Invercargill and take 15-20 minutes. There are three flights daily from the mainland to Oban, Stewart Island and back. They market the flights as scenic journeys, since you’re low enough to see the land. If you fly in, they will give you a free transfer to town from the airport. If you are looking to do additional day trips on the island or go out fishing, you can bundle them with your flights to save money.

Flights cost $220 NZD return at the time of writing this guide to New Zealand.

Most reviewers on TripAdvisor enjoyed their flight, but did not that it’s a very small plane (about 10-seats).

 

Exploring Stewart Island

Stewart Island is also known as Rakiura (“the land of the glowing skies”). That may be because you can sometimes glimpse the Southern Lights from the island.

Although it’s less visited than the North and South Islands, Stewart Island has a lot to offer.

The island is 85% national park, with over 240km of walking trails (compared to just 28km of road!). There are lots of options for walks. You can tackle one of New Zealand’s 9 Great Walks on the Rakiura Track. It’s a 3 day walk through the bush that will show you the island’s untamed nature. You can bring your own tent or stay in the Department of Conservation huts along the way.

But dress properly and pack well! Stewart Island is truly wild, with dense bush and rains that bring the mud to your knees. It can make the flat walk feel much harder than it is.

For day walks, try out Fern Gully, a 2 hour hike, or Horseshoe Point Walk, a 4 hour hike. These will have you back in time to get some oysters at the pub before sundown.

Tramping on Stewart Island inevitably leads you to wildlife. The island isn’t predator-free yet, but it’s getting there. That’s allowed a lot of native birds to thrive, and made the island home to New Zealand’s largest and most diverse bird population. You can find albatross, penguins, kiwibirds and weka all in one place!

Try your luck at spotting wild kiwibirds in the morning and at dusk (you’ll definitely hear them – they’re noisy little guys!). For a better chance, book a kiwi encounter tour to have a guide lead you to them. Although there are more kiwibirds than humans on the island, they camouflage well.

Visit Ulva Island (Te Wharawhara) to see a truly predator free island (I know – an island off an island. How many islands does this place have?? A lot. But they’re worth seeing).

Although Stewart Island is small, it has a significant history. The Maori initially settled it as a fishing village before the Europeans arrived. Then it became a spot for logging and mining. You can see some of the history at the tramway in Port Pegasus, the Norwegian Whaling station at Paterson Inlet and Ackers Cottage (considered the oldest building in New Zealand).

After all that hiking, you’ll be looking for a place to relax. With over 700km of beaches and less than 400 residents, there’s always an empty spot on the beach! But be careful: the water looks tropical, but it’s freezing!

Head to Bathing Beach if you’d like to swim. Otherwise, go to the golden sand beaches of Little Hellfire, Maori Beach or Mason Bay.

To stay overnight, you’ll need to prepare in advance. Because there are so few people on the island, there are also few places to stay. And they book up fast. Either plan to bring your tent and camp, or book a lodge ahead of time. The lodges in Oban or Halfmoon Bay (people call it one or the other, but it’s the same place) offer lovely views and are close to the pub.

Even dining can book up quickly. In summer, you’ll have to pre-book meals or cook for yourself.

Stewart Island is a remarkable place that lets you glimpse the original New Zealand, before the people arrived. A guide to New Zealand really wouldn’t be complete without it, but a lot of people ignore it.

I didn’t make it to Stewart Island. I had to get to Auckland for my apartment contract and I really regret it.

One day, when I go back to New Zealand, I’ll finally get to visit this wild island.

 

With Stewart Island, we’ve reached the end of The Complete Guide to New Zealand.

(You’ll notice that I’ve left out the Subantarctic Islands. That’s because the best way to visit them is by tour companies. I don’t have experience with any of those agencies and wouldn’t want to recommend any without experiencing them.)

The North Island and South Island editions of The Complete Guide to New Zealand are all you need to prepare an itinerary for your next visit to this amazing country. It’s impossible to get to everything – there’s too much even in this small country – but you can start to select your favourites from this guide to design your own trip.

Thank you for joining me on this journey from the most northern point of New Zealand’s North Island to the most southern point of the South Island (and beyond to Stewart Island!). It’s been a fun, but lengthy journey (just like any expedition across, around or through New Zealand).

Although this Complete Guide to New Zealand is, well, complete, I’m not finished with New Zealand yet! Expect some more posts on how to prepare to visit or move to New Zealand, and maybe even an itinerary (hint hint!). Subscribe to my mailing list to be alerted to new posts like these!

Have a question about New Zealand or any of the activities in this guide? Want to know more about my time in the country? Looking for more information?

Send me a message or comment below!

The Complete Guide to New Zealand: South Island

 


Did you miss out on the Complete Guide to the North Island? No you didn’t! You can find the first part of this guide to New Zealand here.

Need more inspiration to visit New Zealand? Check out these 10 photos to inspire your New Zealand wanderlust.

Not sure what to eat in New Zealand? Check out my guide to New Zealand’s food. 

Wondering why I ever left this amazing country? Read my post on the tough decision to move away from my southern home.

Not sure how to plan your trip? You can find my travel planning tips here. Use them with this guide to New Zealand to craft your dream trip!

 

 



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