Five great reasons to visit New Zealand’s South Island in autumn

Autumn in New Zealand is when locals have returned to work leaving uncrowded outdoors to inspire a variety of adventures.

Autumn in New Zealand begins early March and continues until late May – a period when most locals have returned to work after the long summer break leaving an uncrowded outdoors to inspire a wide variety of adventures. 

Here’s our take on five golden ways to experience the South Island during autumn. 

1. The great outdoors

As you travel south, the air grows cooler and the autumn colours more intense. By day and night, the South Island’s golden landscapes and glittering skies will take your breath away.

Paddling or punting a craft in Abel Tasman National Park or on Christchurch’s Avon River, across Lake Wanaka or down the Clutha River gives a different, water-borne perspective on the vistas of gilded trees lining the shores.

In Christchurch, long known as the Garden City for its many parks and gardens, Hagley Park in particular comes to life with russet autumnal tones. Further south the colours deepen, and the serenity of Glenfalloch Woodland Garden, established in 1871 on the Otago Peninsula and just a 15-minute scenic drive from Dunedin, is enlivened by fiery splashes of colour as the season changes. You can hire a “green electric bike” to explore the gardens and the peninsula. 

With its crystal-clear night-time skies, autumn is one of the best times to gaze at the stars. The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve in the South Island’s Mackenzie District is the world’s biggest starlight reserve. You can take a twilight tour with Earth and Sky to watch the sun dip beneath the Southern Alps as the stars begin to fill the darkening sky, or a night-time observatory tour to gain in-depth insights into the celestial bodies inhabiting the southern skies.

2. Flavours to savour

From craft beer to Bluff oysters to some very unlikely delicacies, nature’s table offers a feast for all the senses in autumn.

The Mussel and Seafood Festival in Havelock (March), on the scenic highway between Blenheim and Nelson in Marlborough, is an annual celebration of the greenshell mussel harvest, with celebrity chefs, cooking demos and live music.

In New Zealand, hops are grown only in Nelson so it’s unsurprising that the region has the largest number of craft breweries per person – in addition to producing three-quarters of the country’s wine. All of the beers at Marchfest (March) are making their debut, accompanied by live music and the best of the region’s wine, cider, juices and local produce and cuisine.

Adventurous eaters make a beeline for the Hokitika Wild Foods Festival (early March), where “exotic” local and wild delicacies as unexpected as local huhu grubs (beetle larvae), and wasabi or garlic ice-cream are served up, along with legendary West Coast friendliness and hospitality. 

About an hour’s drive east of Queenstown in the heart of Central Otago, you can sip on wines from the world’s southernmost vineyards at the Clyde Wine and Food Festival on Easter Sunday, in a setting made ambient by schist stone buildings dating back to the 1860s and dustings of snow on the distant mountains. It’s also the western end of the 150km Otago Central Rail Trail, which takes horseback riders, walkers and cyclists along the route of a disused railway line in the South Island’s old gold mining lands. 

Further south, at Te Anau on the shores of the South Island’s largest lake and a handy jumping off point for Milford Sound, the town’s Tartan Festival, also at Easter, honours the area’s Scottish heritage with traditional food, whisky tastings, games and music. 

Fat, juicy Bluff oysters are harvested from the Foveaux Strait on the South Island’s southernmost tip from the early May. Their unrivalled flavour, prized around the world, comes from being grown slowly in freezing cold, clean waters. The Bluff Oyster Festival (21 May) celebrates the harvest with wild foods, live entertainment, oyster shucking contests and a fashion parade featuring garments made from oyster sacks.

3. Arts and culture

Town meets country, past meets present and local meets global at shows and festivals across the South Island.

You can savour experimental and innovative art of all descriptions at the Dunedin Fringe Festival (early March), where about 200 homegrown and international artists take to the stage. There are more than 30 events in New Zealand’s “underground” fashion capital for Dunedin iD Fashion Week (mid March), including the world’s longest runway along the platform of the city’s Renaissance-style railway station.

Agricultural and Pastoral (A&P) Shows bring together the best of town and country life in rural centres across the country. The Upper Clutha A&P Show (also called the Wanaka A&P Show, mid-March) showcases the region’s farming activities and communities with horse jumping and other equestrian events, exhibitions, live entertainment and artisan treats, in a stunning location.

One of the world’s top-ranking warplane air shows, the biennial Warbirds Over Wanaka, takes flight at Easter (late March / early April), with spectacular aeronautical displays by all manner of aircraft, including fighter jets and vintage planes dating back as far as the early 1900s. There’s also the opportunity to take to the skies yourself as passenger in a microlight, warbird or Douglas DC3 “Gooney Bird”.

Near Queenstown, the exotic trees planted in the late 19th century by Arrowtown’s miners and settlers are bursting with autumn colours when the little town celebrates its goldmining past (late April). Fixtures of the community-run festival, which lasts for five full days, are the Buckingham Belle dancing girls, Arrow Miners Band (with a combined age of 655 performing on the back of an old truck), lunchtime concerts, a street parade and a market day. 

4. Close encounters with wildlife

Watching New Zealand’s native wildlife preparing for winter provides delightful photographs and lasting memories. 

From May, native New Zealand fur seal pups come ashore from the ocean to play on the Pacific coast around Kaikoura, while their mothers hunt for food. Authorised tourist operators can help you see the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin, the grey Hector’s dolphin with distinctive black and white markings, found in South Island coastal waters, mostly around Akaroa on Banks Peninsula and Kaikoura.

At viewing areas on the rugged Otago Peninsula, you can watch yellow-eyed penguins call to each other as they waddle out to sea to feed and return each evening to roost. By this time of year, the chicks have almost reached adulthood and are preparing to head out to sea for the first time. The less intense yellow band around their heads distinguishes them from their elders. At this time of year, at the Royal Albatross Colony, the world’s only mainland albatross colony located at the tip of the peninsula, adult birds fly in and out to feed their newly hatched chicks. Huge and fluffy, the chicks are an unlikely combination of cute and majestic.

The Catlins, off the beaten track on Southland’s east coast, is a wilderness haven worth discovering. Its sweeping beaches are home to rare species such as yellow-eyed penguins, New Zealand sea lions, NZ fur seals and Hector’s dolphins and visited by many varieties of seabird. While exploring the Catlins’ unspoilt rainforests, you will also see prolific native birdlife.

5. Sporting events

Recreational and competitive cycling and golf feature large on the South Island’s autumn events calendar.

The 101km Forrest GrapeRide (early April) is the South Island’s biggest cycling event, setting out from the small wine-making town Renwick and winding through the famously beautiful Marlborough Sounds and picturesque wine country. Riders from beginner to elite have a choice of competition categories and alternative distances offered of a 42km “taster” and 202 “magnum” courses. Afterwards, participants relax while 100 women riders are tasked with crushing three tonnes of pinot noir grapes in a custom-built oak vat. If that date doesn’t suit, you can be assured that any time is good for cycling between the region’s 70 wineries, pretty cellar door outlets and vineyard cafes and sampling some of the best sauvignon blanc in the world. 

Le Race (mid-March) involves 100km of cycling from the city of Christchurch to Akaroa, a picturesque French settlement on the further reaches of Banks Peninsula. 

The BMW ISPS Handa New Zealand Golf Open is played at two of the country’s finest links, the Hills and Millbrook Resort courses in central Otago (mid-March). Its Pro-Am format brings together a minimum field of 140 amateurs and 140 professionals who play alongside each other.

Described as New Zealand’s ultimate mountain bike challenge, the Contact Epic at Wanaka (mid-April) sends 700 cyclists on 125km and 95km circumnavigations of Lake Hawea for endurance riders, or on a 35km loop track for intermediate riders.

At Easter, Queenstown is the only place for two-wheeler enthusiasts to be. The Queenstown Bike Festival (late March / early April) hosts family, social and extreme competitive events for mountain, downhill and road bikes, including a Mountain Bike Night Ride and the technically challenging Vertigo Bikes Special.