10 Reasons to visit the South Island

Struggling to decide whether it is best to visit the North Island or the South Island of New Zealand? Here are 10 reasons to visit the South Island.

When I was a little girl, I must admit I was very curious, but I was also a silly girl – still am, by the way.

Whenever people told me to do something or go somewhere, I’d say, “Give me ten good reasons why I should do that or go there.”

Most of the time, the people who told me to do something or go somewhere, could never give me those ten reasons. They’d come up with three reasons at the most.

I like challenging people or giving them food for thought.

So I thought, why not turn the tables on myself and give you ten good reasons why you should visit the South Island of New Zealand?

1. South Island national parks

New Zealand has a total of 14 national parks, nine of which are located on the South Island:

  1. Abel Tasman National Park
  2. Kahurangi National Park
  3. Nelson Lakes National Park
  4. Paparoa National Park
  5. Arthur’s Pass National Park
  6. Westland / Tai Poutini National Park
  7. Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park
  8. Mount Aspiring National Park
  9. Fiordland National Park

Needless to say, you’ll find the best nature that New Zealand has got to offer on the South Island. In addition, most of the Great Walks start and end on the South Island.


Because it is almost impossible to visit and enjoy all of these national parks during one trip, make sure you at least visit Abel Tasman National Park, Mount Cook National Park, and Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park for the most impressive scenery.

To save some time when visiting Abel Tasman National Park, you could catch a water taxi from Marahau or Kaiteriteri, have it drop you off on one of the beaches, and then walk back the whole way or part of the way if you have arranged for a water taxi to pick you up again.

This way you can easily do part of the Abel Tasman Coast Track without having to spend days in Abel Tasman National Park to enjoy its beauty.

Where Milford Sound is concerned, you could book a Fly-Cruise-Fly tour, which would fly you from Queenstown to Milford Sound, see you join a boat cruise, and then fly you back all in half a day.

This would save time from having to drive to Milford Sound which can take up to four hours from Queenstown or two hours from Te Anau.

2. South Island mountains

The ten highest mountains in New Zealand are all located on the South Island. The highest mountain is Aoraki / Mount Cook at a towering 3,754 m (12,316 ft).

Coquille Bay in Abel Tasman National Park in New Zealand

Coquille Bay in Abel Tasman National Park

This might not come as a surprise to you if you know that the Southern Alps run from the top of the South Island all the way down to the bottom of the South Island.

In the north and the south of the South Island, the the Southern Alps spread outwards and downwards to become smaller mountain ranges and eventually transform into rolling hills.

The Southern Alps have at least 223 named peaks higher than 2,300 m (7,546 ft).

The permanent snowline on the Southern Alps is around 2,100 m (6,890 ft), so you can expect to see snow on some of the highest mountains even in summer.

However, the best time to see snow in New Zealand is during winter.

3. South Island glaciers

New Zealand has 3,144 glaciers. The five largest glaciers are all located on the South Island:

  1. Tasman glacier
  2. Murchison glacier
  3. Fox glacier
  4. Franz Josef glacier
  5. Volta glacier

Glaciers come down as low as 700 m (2,297 ft) on the eastern flank of the Southern Alps and 400 m (1,312 ft) on the steeper western side.

Both Fox glacier and Franz Josef glacier, which are located on the West Coast of the South Island, are easily accessible.

You can do short walks to see the glaciers or book guided glacier walks with tourist operators on the West Coast.

When I joined one of those tour groups back in 2001, I had the privilege of doing a glacier hike at Fox Glacier and actually walking on ice.

The glaciers are quickly retreating due to global warming, which is reason enough for you to visit and see these glaciers sometime soon.

4. South Island fiords

Fiordland National Park on the South Island is New Zealand’s largest national park but also a large wilderness area.

Only a small piece of Fiordland National Park is seen by tourists in the form of walks on the Milford Track and boat tours on Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Lake Manapouri.

This area does not only have large lakes but also tall mountain peaks and waterfalls tumbling down into the fiords. It offers some of the most spectacular scenery in New Zealand.

If you want to visit the area, Te Anau would be the likely city to stay and start your adventures.

5. South Island lakes

Four of the five largest lakes in New Zealand are located on the South Island:

  1. Lake Te Anau
  2. Lake Wakatipu
  3. Lake Wanaka
  4. Lake Ellesmere

If you’re wondering, the next one up would be Lake Pukaki [Photo: Lake Pukaki on the South Island (33 KB)].

Yes, the large milky blue one in many pictures of Mount Cook.

The largest lake on the North Island (and in New Zealand) is Lake Taupo; Lake Taupo would come in on number one in the preceding list of largest New Zealand lakes.

So for fun on the water, you should visit the South Island.

6. Autumn colors on the South Island

The best autumn colors in New Zealand can be found on the South Island in April.

While you’ll be able to find patches of color here and there on the North Island, it is not as good as on the South Island, especially in South Canterbury and Central Otago (Southern Lakes region).

If you do not know where those regions are located, driving from Christchurch to Queenstown will have you visiting most of the locations that have trees that turn yellow in autumn, with the autumn meccas being Arrowtown and Wanaka.

7. South Island ski fields

The South Island has 21 ski fields, compared to four on the North Island.

So naturally, the South Island ski fields are not only less busy but you’ll have more choice and depending where you go skiing in New Zealand, see spectacular New Zealand winter scenery.

The most popular ski fields on the South Island are:

  • Mount Hutt ski field, which is about 1 hour away from Christchurch.
  • Coronet Peak ski field in Queenstown.
  • The Remarkables ski area in Queenstown.

Ski fields start to open at the beginning of June, which is also the time snow starts to fall in New Zealand, with some ski fields remaining open till well into October depending on the weather and snow conditions.

[Photo: South Island mountains with snow in October (30 KB)]

8. South Island wineries

Marlborough, which is located on the South Island, is New Zealand’s most significant wine-producing region. Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne on the North Island come in on a good second place.

You can easily get to Marlborough from the North Island by catching a ferry from Wellington to Picton.

In addition, Central Otago on the South Island is becoming well-known for its wineries and award-winning pinot noir wines. For example, you can find several wine-tasting rooms and restaurants in Gibbston Valley when driving from Cromwell to Queenstown.

So if you’re into wine-tasting, the South Island could give you what you’re after.

9. Queenstown New Zealand

While the North Island has Wellington as the capital city of New Zealand, the South Island has Queenstown as the adventure capital of New Zealand.

The scenery around Queenstown is not only gorgeous, but Queenstown itself is built for and around tourism. Many adventurous (bungy-jumping, jet-boating, etc.) and less adventurous (hiking, biking, winery, scenic flights, scenic drives, etc.) tours can be booked from Queenstown.

Queenstown is busy, but it is also a must-see place on the South Island.

10. South Island sheep

How can I mention the South Island without mentioning sheep?

The South Island is more rural than the North Island, so naturally there are many farms and there are many sheep. In addition, many farms are located in high-country areas.

You might even have to stop and wait for sheep to get off the road when driving on rural roads or drive through them like I did when I drove on the Hakatere Potts Road.

So if you want to see sheep, you’re guaranteed to see a good few on the South Island.

11. South Island beaches (bonus)

While the North Island has the best beaches in New Zealand – in my opinion – the South Island beaches are not too shabby.

Head to the top of the South Island for beaches, especially Nelson, Kaiteriteri, and Golden Bay.

Then take Highway 6 down to the West Coast to enjoy the rugged beauty of the New Zealand coastline.

And finally, drive across to Dunedin on the east coast and visit the beaches of Otago Peninsula. When you are done, drive down south through the Catlins and along its coast to see more beaches and bays.

[Photo: Roaring Bay in the Catlins (41 KB)]

Final words on 10 reasons to visit the South Island

See? I was able to give you more than ten reasons to visit the South Island…

Okay, I cheated a bit, because the North Island definitely wins in the best New Zealand beaches category.


This article falls under Travel Guide.

Note: This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm all details
directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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