Beginning in the coastal paradise that is the Marlborough Sounds and Nelson–Tasman region and ending at the southern fishing port of Bluff, New Zealand’s South Island unfolds as a never-ending sweep of breathtaking landscapes that bring Middle Earth alive.
The north–south journey starts beside glistening waters and golden sands, then travels east or west of the Southern Alps – the mountainous backbone dividing the South Island.
To the east are vineyards and dazzling seascapes, the rocky Kaikoura Coast teeming with marine life, vast plains and the dramatic Otago coastline. The West Coast’s rugged coasts are fringed by rainforests that merge into glacier country and the vast protected expanse of Fiordland and the South Westland World Heritage Site.
Nelson and Marlborough
Directly across the Cook Strait from Wellington, the Marlborough region is one of New Zealand’s largest wine-growing regions. While Sauvignon Blanc is considered the region’s specialty, Marlborough’s Methode Traditionelle and Chardonnay wines are also well regarded.
The Marlborough Sounds are another key attraction, where bush and mountains rise spectacularly from the sea. The Sounds can be explored by boat, bicycle or on foot, and the 71 kilometre (44-mile) Queen Charlotte Track offers superb views as it passes through coastal forest, around coves and inlets and along ridges.
The Nelson–Tasman region is known for its year-round sunshine, golden beaches, national parks, boutique wineries and microbreweries, and large creative community of working artists. With Nelson's locally grown produce, freshly caught seafood, historical streetscapes and waterfront restaurants, it is easy to see why many New Zealanders are moving here to enjoy the lifestyle it offers.
From Nelson, it’s easy to access any of three national parks: Abel Tasman National Park, the Nelson Lakes National Park and Kahurangi – New Zealand’s second-largest national park, with 22,530 hectares (55,700 acres) of mostly upland wilderness and magnificent three- to four-day hiking trails. Sea kayaking safaris are also an excellent way to explore this region.
West Coast and Canterbury
The West Coast is the narrow strip of land between the South Island’s Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea. It is memorable for its backdrop of mountain peaks, Fox and Franz Josef glaciers which finish in rainforests just a few kilometres from the sea, as well as for its limestone landscapes, lakes and rivers, and gloriously wild coastline. This region has New Zealand's largest area of protected land and provides access to five of the country's 14 national parks.
The southern West Coast is part of the larger South West New Zealand area recognised by UNESCO as a "special place" in the world and designated as a World Heritage site.
Canterbury is the largest South Island region and includes a large central portion of the east coast, centred around the city of Christchurch. After suffering serious damage and disruption from a series of powerful earthquakes and aftershocks that struck from September 2010, Christchurch is re-emerging as an energetic and cosmopolitan city. Revitalised with new shopping precincts, restaurants, cafes, bars and hotels, it offers a unique opportunity to experience a city that is reinventing itself.
The city’s 150-year-old cathedral collapsed in the 6.3 magnitude earthquake of February 2011 and has been temporarily replaced by a six-storeyed A-frame cathedral built from cardboard and capable of seating 700 people.
One of the region's highlights is the Alpine Pacific Triangle, a touring route that links the alpine and thermal village of Hanmer Springs with the wine valley of Waipara and Kaikoura ("place for eating crayfish") on the coast. Fur seals and dusky and Hector’s dolphins can be seen from Kaikoura and, a few kilometres offshore, giant sperm whales (the third-largest whale in the world) can be seen all year round. The renowned ecotourism operator Whale Watch Kaikoura runs spectacular wildlife tours.
Southland and Otago
New Zealand’s southernmost region, Southland, is home to the fishing port of Bluff and its best-known attraction, the Bluff oyster.
From Bluff, visitors can catch a ferry to New Zealand’s third-largest island, Stewart Island, a haven for native birdlife and one of the only places where you can easily see kiwi in their natural habitat. Rakiura National Park, which opened in 2002, takes up about 85 percent of the island.
Dunedin, the home of New Zealand's first university, is memorable for its historical architecture and considered one of the best-preserved Victorian and Edwardian cities in the southern hemisphere. It is also notable for its proximity to wildlife. Within a short drive, visitors can see the hoiho or yellow-eyed penguin (the world’s rarest), the world’s only mainland breeding colony of the royal albatross, and rare New Zealand sea lions.
Southern Lakes region
The Southern Lakes region is characterised by adventure, luxury living, snow sports and scenery.
One of the most dramatic and beautiful parts of New Zealand, Fiordland is another part of the World Heritage Site of South West New Zealand and often called the sightseeing and walking capital of the world. You can explore Fiordland National Park on foot, by sea kayak or boat, or from the air. Its 1.2 million hectares (almost 3 million acres) offer dramatic wilderness on a grand scale. Famous walking tracks in the area include three of New Zealand's nine Great Walks: the Routeburn, Milford and Kepler tracks.
Located on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and overlooked by the Remarkables Range, Queenstown is one of New Zealand’s most popular holiday destinations. Action and adventure feature, with activities including skiing and snowboarding, jet boating, bungy jumping and whitewater rafting.
The city and its surrounds also offer more relaxing pastimes such as golf, wine tasting in the many boutique wineries, and exploring the historic gold-mining townships of Central Otago. The region is celebrated for its restaurants, wineries, five-star resorts and remote luxury lodges.
Wanaka, a short scenic drive from Queenstown over the Crown Range – one of the highest road passes in the southern hemisphere – is the region's second resort town. Located on the southern shores of Lake Wanaka, it offers stunning views of Mount Aspiring National Park. The township combines outdoor adventure with indoor luxury, complementing the lake, mountains and year-round events calendar with comfortable places to stay, restaurants and vineyards.