While flights from Canberra to New Zealand only go to Wellington (for the moment) the south island is only a short ferry ride from the north.
Much more sparsely populated (only a quarter of the country’s population of four million live there), the South Island is best known for its beautiful scenery. Here are some of our top picks for what to see, do, and eat in the south.
Don’t forget to check out our North Island write up here.
OHAU STREAM WALKWAY AND WATERFALL, KAIKOURA
Travelling to the peaceful seaside town of Kaikoura will earn you some delights when it comes to natural sea life viewing opportunities. Home to one of the largest seal colonies in New Zealand, Kaikoura offers excellent chances to get super close to the mammals that have made their home here. But kayaking up to a seal and hitting the waves on a whale watching cruise – while excellent in their own ways – are nothing compared to the raw beauty that is the Ohau Stream Walkway and Waterfall.
Located 25 minutes out of the township of Kaikoura, this little gem is very blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, but worth looking out for. You see, on this short five minute walk, you can find a colony of seal pups seeking protection from the big wide wet world under a beautiful waterfall. In the middle of a rainforest location, you can sit and watch baby seals dive, swim and play as they wait for their mother to return and learn the social skills that will keep them alive in the ocean.
Watching these seal pups play under a waterfall is one of the most glorious sights that New Zealand has to offer, and it will remain a highlight of your trip for years to come – I know it was for me!
HANMER SPRINGS NATURE RESERVE AND GEOTHERMAL SPA, HANMER SPRINGS
If you are looking for the perfect place to enjoy a New Zealand winter, than Hanmer Springs is the stop you want to make. Located in the mountainous countryside on the way to the icy passes of the western side of New Zealand, Hanmer Springs feels like the warmth and comfort of hanging out in one of Australia’s premier snow villages.
Home of the Hanmer Springs Geothermal Spa – one of the South Island’s best – you get the chance to spend your day relaxing in the warm naturally-heated pools surrounded by piles of snow, as you watch the world drift around you. After soaking your tootsies all day, you can enjoy some delicious food and drink by the fire in the surrounding restaurants and do some shopping in the village boutiques, but if you have time here then you want to check out the Hanmer Spring Nature Reserve, just a few minutes’ drive out of the town.
The Hanmer Springs Nature Reserve is like opening up a storybook and walking through the pages.
The whole reserve feels like you are walking through an enchanted forest, and that a queen in a carriage will come trundling down the path at any moment. With heaps of different treks to follow, if you are an outdoorsy kind of person, this is one reserve you want near the top of your “to hike” list.
Queenstown is one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist destinations, and once you go there, it’s obvious why. The range of adventure sports are a drawcard for the brave of heart, and the skiing and snowboarding for the snow bunnies. But it’s Queenstown’s natural beauty that really makes it special. In some places, the scenery is so stunning that it doesn’t even look real.
Queenstown is also home to the famous Fergburger, where, in addition to the classic Ferg, you can pick up burgers with amusing names such as the Chief Wiggum (pork belly), Cockadoodle Oink (chicken and bacon), and the Codfather (no prizes for guessing what’s in this one). The lines at Fergburger can get crazy long, so if you can, try and hold off til a more unusual time of day, e.g. 11am, 3pm. The wait is worth it though. Next door is the lesser known but equally good Fergbaker, which serves up some wickedly delicious pies and pastries.
If you’re a chocoholic, then Patagonia Chocolates in Queenstown is a must. Desserts, drinks, and ice creams abound, and it’s a great place to sit and enjoy the view in the afternoon or get a sweet fix after dinner. Bob’s Weigh is also worth a visit—their pumpkin bread with chicken, cranberry, brie, and lettuce results in one of the best sandwiches you’ll ever have.
A short bus ride from Queenstown is the pretty and historic Arrowtown. The main street is lined with lovely heritage buildings, but what’s really fascinating is the row of 19th century miners’ cottages. New Zealand in spring is still pretty cold, and looking at the simple huts you can’t help but imagine what it must have been like for those miners to live there in the dead of winter.
RE: START CONTAINER MALL, CHRISTCHURCH
Christchurch is an interesting place to go, especially after the 2011 earthquake that destroyed many buildings in the main city. With the city still in the long stages of being rebuilt, Christchurch is also building hope through Re:START—its colourful shipping container shopping district that stands on the ruins in a temporary, yet industrial chic designs.
All graffiti, colourful shipping containers, up-market boutiques, trending style and delicious food, the shipping container village is a great place to shop and feel the embers still burning in Christchurch after its devastation. You’ll also find one of the best wood-fired pizzas in New Zealand, so if that isn’t incentive to visit, I don’t know what is!
PUNTING IN CHRISTCHURCH
A more unusual but lovely way to explore Christchurch is with a punt on the Avon River (how British does that sound?). It’s really relaxing sitting in the boat while the punter steers you gently down the water. It’s also a different way to see the impacts of the 2011 earthquake, as you travel underneath bridges and can see where parts have buckled and bent, as well as the damage to other buildings near the riverbank.
WILLOWBANK WILDLIFE RESERVE
New Zealand’s wildlife is pretty unique. There are really no native predators, which means the bird populations have been able to flourish (except for the moa, which were sadly hunted to extinction). At Willowbank Wildlife Reserve you get the opportunity to get up close and personal with the animals, especially the hilarious kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. Extremely curious and friendly, expect keas to come up to you and try and figure you out—this can range from pecking at your bag to potentially landing on your shoulder/head.
You’ll also get a chance to spot the elusive Kiwi bird, feed eels, and also pat and feed one of my favourite animals ever—the native kunekune pigs. Kunekune means ‘fat and round’ in Maori, and once you see these pigs, you’ll realise how appropriate the name is. They’re like no other pig you’ll ever see, and are distinguishable by their unusual faces and the wattles hanging from their jaws. I have a postcard of one stuck up at my desk at work and it makes me smile every time I look at it.
OTHER PLACES OF INTEREST
White Chair Art Installation, Christchurch – A temporary art installation that stands on the grounds of one of the old buildings in Christchurch that was destroyed during the earthquake, these rows of white chairs are to remember and honour the lives that were lost during that terrifying day.
St Germain Restaurant and Bistro, Christchurch – A French restaurant situated in a hotel made up of Tudor-style buildings might not seem like a promising place for a good meal, but don’t let the location fool you. The food and service here is first class, and you’ll be treated to one of the best French meals you’ll have outside of Europe.
But wait, there’s more! Keep an eye out for our guide for getting around New Zealand, and how to get your Lord of the Rings/Hobbit fix!
THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN WITH ANOTHER HERCANBERRA WRITER