A First-Time Visitors Guide to the South Island

From the colourful streets of Christchurch to the snow-covered peaks in Queenstown, take a road trip through the South Island with a first-time visitor.

For many people around the world, New Zealand’s spectacular South Island is on the bucket list. We’ve all heard about the iconic sights in travel magazines and seen incredible scenery played out on movie screens, so we arrive with steep expectations. The good news is that the South Island does not disappoint.

Coming from Australia, even the flight descent through the snow-covered mountains with shining glaciers decorating the landscape below is a fantastic sight. It is a stark contrast to the even New South Wales coastline that I am used to.

As a first-time tourist with limited time to spend in the country, it is important to seek out the best attractions. And although the South Island is full of exciting places to explore, from the rocky coastline of Dunedin to the winding roads of the west coast, a tourist favourite is the road trip from Christchurch to Queenstown.

Stroll around the colourful streets of Christchurch

“Every cloud has a silver lining”. The words are painted on a large mural not far from the beach, and it is not the only one. The streets are decorated with hopeful murals, and the building sites have been transformed with multi-coloured beads. Spend some time following the tramway in the historic centre, exploring the narrow streets and boutique shops. Visitors can also go punting on the lovely Avon River.

Swim with the rare Hector’s dolphins in Akaroa

Located just an hour and a half south of Christchurch is the charming harbourside village of Akaroa. It would not be a proper New Zealand road trip without taking a few detours along the way, so take a quick drive along Governor’s Bay Road for some picturesque harbour views.

Upon returning to the highway, follow the winding roads until the French-colonial style town comes into view. The harbour is famed for its local dolphin population, and visitors can opt for a cruise into the bay to interact with the creatures up close. I only caught a glimpse of the elusive dolphins, but the views of the harbour alone are worth the trip.

See stunning glacial lakes

The road to Queenstown will take you past Lake Tekapo. The fluorescent blue waters against the dramatic backdrop of snow covered mountains is hard to miss. For your classic tourist snapshot, the Church of the Good Shepherd makes an ideal foreground.

Another worthwhile stop is Mount Cook National Park. You will have to detour off the main highway to reach the park. The road passes by Lake Pukaki, a body of water so blue that the colour seems almost indistinguishable from the sky. Of course, New Zealand’s unpredictable weather must kick in eventually, and the storm clouds finally make an appearance. Even as the peaks of the tall mountains disappear into the clouds, the park is still impressive. During moderate rain, the Hooker Valley track across suspension bridges and around glaciers is a worthwhile venture.

Spend a few days in Queenstown

Follow the highway through Lindis Pass to reach Queenstown. This resort town is busy year-round with tourists, which probably has something to do with impressive Lake Wakatipu, the surrounding mountain ranges, world-class ski slopes and reputation as the adventure capital of the world. If, like me, you are not one for bungy jumping, consider hiking to the top of Queenstown Hill instead. Of all the places I have travelled, the 360-degree view from the top of the hill is still one of my favourites.

Take advantage of your rental car and explore some of Queenstown’s surrounds. Find exceptional photo opportunities in Glenorchy, and discover the region’s history in Arrowtown.

Take a cruise on iconic Milford Sound

Of course, no trip to the South Island would be complete without a visit to world-famous Milford Sound. The drive takes about four hours from Queenstown, so it is a clever idea to break up the journey with a stop in Te Anau. If you are feeling like adding some extra kilometres to your trip, take a 20-minute drive from Te Anau to beautiful Lake Manapouri.

The grassy plains with perfectly reflective lakes surrounded by towering mountains is like something out of a postcard. With two days at Milford Sound, I am lucky enough to see it in both sunny and rainy weather, and it is fantastic both times. In the rain, you will have the opportunity to see the dry cliffs turn into hundreds of waterfalls. Beware if you are standing on the top deck of the cruise ship.

Extra Tips

Plan your drive ahead of time. New Zealand’s roads can be narrow, and some of the bridges are one-lane wide. If you plan to navigate the small roads, find a reliable rental car with VroomVroomVroom

Allow plenty of time to see the South Island. There are plenty of things to do in New Zealand, so make sure you do not miss out on anything. 

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