A guide to New Zealand's South Island regions
Split between its two main islands, Aotearoa is comprised of 31 distinct regions, each offering its own brand of Kiwi magic and unique experiences. From the very top through to the deep south via the heartlands of the country, start mapping your journey out now and continue at newzealand.com.
Let us introduce you to the 16 regions of the South Island/Te Waipounamu below and you can familiarise yourself with the regions of the North Island/Te Ika-a-Māui here.
Sitting pretty at the ‘top of the south’, Nelson Tasman takes up the north-west corner of the South Island/Te Waipounamu, with its main hub, Nelson, a five-hour drive from Christchurch/Ōtautahi.
The region’s major drawcards include Abel Tasman National Park, a walker and kayaker’s paradise that harbours the famous Split Apple Rock/Tokangawhā. And, with world-class culinary experiences, consistently high sunshine hours, a vibrant arts and culture scene and more, you’ll find all the best bits of the country here, distilled into a single destination.
Nelson Tasman’s natural landscapes take in beaches, rivers, lakes and mountains and opportunities to immerse yourself in nature abound across three diverse national parks (Abel Tasman, Nelson Lakes and Kahurangi).
Choose from low-carbon activities including kayaking, cruising, sailing, fly-fishing, cycling and hiking and revel in incredible outdoor experiences without needing to rough it. A network of cycling and walking trails weave through coastal and urban landscapes (see: Tasman’s Great Taste Trail), and you’ll find a selection of world-famous mountain-bike tracks nestled among the hills.
Boutique arts and artisans are discoverable at every turn at the region’s weekend markets, arts trails, waterfront galleries and home studios. Sampling fruit chutneys, gourmet chocolates, sheep’s cheese and olive oil is a highlight of any visit, and there are plenty of craft breweries, cellar doors and distilleries to explore along the way.
A place to slow down, linger, savour and enjoy, the location of Nelson Tasman at the very centre of New Zealand makes it an ideal interlude on your itinerary.
Located at the northernmost tip of the South Island/Te Waipounamu, Marlborough is a place where food, wine, scenery and a touch of adventure converge. Renowned for its world-class wines, the region is made to eat and drink your way around, flitting from award winning cellar doors to restaurants utilising the best local produce, all through a stunning landscape, before bedding down in a remote waterfront resort.
Marlborough’s other drawcard is its hidden gems and unique experiences that include the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, with its growing treasure trove of historic machines; the rich and diverse Māori and European heritage at historically and culturally significant locations like Meretoto/Ship Cove, the landing site of Captain James Cook when he visited the area; the remains of the Perano Whaling Station; and the unspoilt natural beauty of Motuara Island, a bird sanctuary located in the Queen Charlotte Sound/Tōtaranui (while there, you can also walk a section of the Queen Charlotte Track to marvel at the breathtaking views, or hurtle along New Zealand’s longest dual-purpose track on a mountain bike).
Add fishing the deep waters of the outer Marlborough Sounds, cruising the calm bays by yacht, and swimming with dolphins to complete your Marlborough experience.
West Coast/Te Tai o Poutini
The West Coast/Te Tai o Poutini, known as ‘the Coast’ to its welcoming locals, is made up of eight geographically diverse areas in the South Island/Te Waipounamu. Collectively, the region spans more than 600 kilometres, with more than 85 per cent marked as conservation and parkland. Little wonder then that it is known as a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts.
Divided into three districts, each is a unique and compelling proposition to visitors. The natural wonders of the Buller District include the Oparara Arches and the Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki, and its warmer climes invite exploration of the Old Ghost Road, one of the most coveted trails in the world. Grey is home to the region’s largest town Greymouth/Mawhera, where the TranzAlpine, one of the most celebrated scenic train journeys in the world, arrives. While there, explore natural treasures such as the Paparoa Track Wilderness Trail, stunning coastal forests and scenic driving itineraries.
In Westland, the town of Hokitika is home to cool cafes, art galleries and the stunning Hokitika Gorge, as well as being the starting-off point for striking out to Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. Meanwhile the township of Haast is situated in the heart of the Te Wāhipounamu UNESCO World Heritage-listed area.
Christchurch/Ōtautahi is the basecamp for exploration at the heart of the South Island/Te Waipounamu of New Zealand. The bustling cosmopolitan city, with a population of just under 400,000 people, has been revitalised after being scarred by the 2011 earthquake, resulting in a compelling melding of regeneration and innovation with culture and heritage – with a dash of adventure thrown in for good measure. Sitting at the heart of the Canterbury region, its rebuilding has resulted in Christchurch being anointed as the newest city in the world, with abundant street art, striking modern architecture co-existing with heritage buildings, and a funky cafe and restaurant scene supplied by local produce.
When visiting the city take in sites like the colourful Terrace dining and entertainment precinct, the arresting Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, and make the most of the genteel appeals of the Avon River/Ōtākaro that runs through it with a picnic on its banks or a spot of punting on its waters. And then head further afield into the surrounding area to explore the Banks Peninsula, the Southern Alps and the famed Canterbury Plains to try your hand at everything from mountain biking and zipline thrills to skydiving and paragliding.
The coastal town of Kaikōura is located at the top of the South Island/Te Waipounamu, where the mountains meet the sea, two hours’ drive from Christchurch/Ōtautahi. The area is proud to lay claim to one of the most beautiful coastal drives in the country (making it a must-stop on any road trip here), and happy to tell all comers about its abundant and diverse marine wildlife including its sperm whale population. The water is where many of the town’s most spectacular attractions can be found, from whale-watching to swimming with dolphins to observing the goings-on in a colony of New Zealand fur seals that can be found while tramping Kaikōura Peninsula Walkway, which winds from the town centre to lookout points at Point Kean (the area has a reputation for being New Zealand’s very own marine Serengeti).
But Kaikōura is also well known for its rich cultural history, its colourful storytelling, its many hiking and biking tracks through stunning mountain scenery, and its llama trekking (yes, you read that correct). Book into one of the boutique hotels or luxury lodges in the area and prepare to immerse yourself.
Hurunui, North Canterbury
Hurunui, less than an hour’s drive from Christchurch/Ōtautahi, feels a world away from the everyday. With quintessential Kiwi scenery that takes in endless coastlines, mountains, forests and alpine retreats, it’s quiet and peaceful but packs a punch with plenty to do. The district is known as one of New Zealand’s adventure tourism hubs and thrill-seekers can jet boat, raft, bungy jump, hike or bike to their heart’s content.
The region also comes alive in the cooler months as a winter playground with two excellent ski fields at Hanmer Springs and Mt Lyford. And it’s home to famous thermal springs and one of New Zealand’s best wine regions; chill-seekers can indulge in Hanmer Springs’ famous mineral-filled waters (and scope out its boutique shopping and award-winning restaurants) or make a beeline for the Waipara Valley, with over 90 mostly independently owned vineyards known for their excellent riesling and pinot noir. A scenic bike trail means you can meander between them at the most leisurely of paces.
Hidden gems in the region include exceptional fishing, diving and fossicking at Motunau Beach, local surf spot Gore Bay, stunning Cathedral Cliffs and tranquil St Anne’s Lagoon. Hurunui has everything you’d expect from a South Island/Te Waipounamu holiday – without the crowds and with a special vibe that sets it apart.
Located in the heart of New Zealand’s South Island/Te Waipounamu, an easy 2.5 hours’ drive from Christchurch/Ōtautahi, the Mackenzie region lays claim to New Zealand’s highest peak (Aoraki/Mt Cook) and largest glacier (Tasman Glacier), as well as some of the country’s most photographed sites, including the Church of the Good Shepherd sitting idyllically on the edge of Lake Tekapo.
It also prides itself on being a pioneer in ‘astro-tourism’ experiences, as the region is home to the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, the world’s largest gold-standard dark sky reserve. The seasons play out theatrically here, with the summer months characterised by kayaking its turquoise blue lakes, wondering at its golden grasslands and hiking and biking its towering Southern Alps (the Hooker Valley tracks in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park and Mt John track at Lake Tekapo are stunning short walks to consider).
During winter, the landscape is transformed into a wonderland of pure white that invites everything from heli-hiking to ice skating to soaking in its thermal springs. And skiing the Tasman Glacier offers New Zealand’s longest ski runs. Once you are finished with Mackenzie’s wealth of outdoor activities and stunning alpine scenery, recharge to do it all over again by filling up on some of the world’s finest tasting freshwater salmon, its abundant local produce and the craft beer the region is famed for.
The second-largest city in the Canterbury region in New Zealand’s South Island/Te Waipounamu, sitting midway between Christchurch/Ōtautahi and Dunedin/Ōtepoti, Timaru (from the Maori word Te Maru ‘place of shelter’) has a laid-back atmosphere that makes it the perfect spot to stop awhile on your way from one place to another. The fact that the city is a hidden gem on the South Island tourist trail means that it is blissfully uncrowded, but there is no compromise in the wealth of scenery and activities to be discovered right on its doorstep.
The city itself, which sits on the shores of Caroline Bay (with great swimming and water-based activities) and is filled with lovely Victorian and Edwardian architecture rendered in distinctive local volcanic bluestone, boasts pretty botanic gardens including one of the best rose gardens in the country, a buzzing local cafe culture, a craft brewery and the Te Ana Māori Rock Art Museum, which houses eight pieces of ancient art including a representation of the Pouākai of Māori legend, now believed to be the extinct Haast’s Eagle. From the city you can also strike out to bike or explore Aoraki/Mt Cook to the west.
With its stunning setting in the Southern Alps and nudging the shores of its namesake lake, Wānaka is a four-season alpine resort with a lively, carefree spirit. Its picture-perfect location (just over an hour’s drive north-west of Queenstown) and ready access to the great outdoors make it a perfect holiday base offering all of the good stuff. Here, you’ll enjoy the natural beauty of mountains, lakes and forest; exceptional food and wine; and plenty of elemental activities, all against the backdrop of Mt Aspiring National Park (this wilderness of native forests, towering mountains and glacier-cut valleys forms part of Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage area).
Lake Wānaka itself covers 193 square kilometres, offering the ultimate aquatic playground for jet-boaters, sailors, cruisers and kayakers. Adventure seekers can choose from any number of thrills including skydiving, canyoning, climbing and mountaineering and scenic flights that soar over the region (you might even opt to land on a glacier). Hikers and bikers will find hundreds of kilometres of tracks to traverse here, too. Come winter, Wānaka transforms into a vibrant hub for skiers and snowboarders, with the diverse ski areas of Cardrona, Treble Cone and Snow Farm all within a short drive from town.
Stretching from the Southern Alps to the Pacific Ocean in the South Island/Te Waipounamu, the Waitaki district offers travellers a blend of natural marvels, historic treasures and adventure. It boasts scenic landscapes of wild coastline, emerald-green plains and soaring mountains as well as a rich history and heritage that takes in everything from Māori history to Steampunk. The district is home to New Zealand’s first geopark, Waitaki Whitestone Aspiring Global Geopark. The park’s stunning karst landscapes feature signature white limestone that has created some remarkable geological sights such as Elephant Rocks and Clay Cliffs.
The Waitaki’s largest town of Ōamaru, 90 minutes’ drive north of Dunedin/Ōtepoti, is renowned for its elegant limestone architecture. It’s here that you’ll find some of the most complete Victorian streetscapes in the southern hemisphere (stay at the Victorian mansion Pen-y-bryn Lodge) along with a quirky culture of Steampunk, centred around Steampunk HQ, an art collaboration and gallery in the town’s historic Victorian precinct. Ōamaru is also famous for its colony of blue penguins, which you can observe nesting during the day or coming ashore in the evening.
The district also offers skiing and water sports in the Waitaki Valley Lakes; a growing wine industry in the Waitaki Valley; The Alps2Ocean Cycle Trail, which winds through the Waitaki Valley from Aoraki/Mt Cook to Ōamaru over six days; the Vanished World Fossil Trail, and, within the coastal areas, the amazing and mysterious Moeraki Boulders – perfectly spherical stones strewn across the sand – and wildlife-viewing opportunities.
The ultimate adventure destination, Queenstown is nestled in the heart of the Southern Alps on the shores of Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand’s South Island/Te Waipounamu. With its majestic mountains, lakes and valleys setting the stage, this is one of the world’s great four-season lake and alpine resorts. And while naturally we’re talking adventures of the heart-pounding variety, there are myriad diversions across the Queenstown region that cater to all tastes, tempos and temperatures.
Thrill-seekers can take the plunge with the Kawarau Bridge Bungy (the world’s first and most famous bungy jump); go skydiving to take in the epic landscapes of the Southern Alps and surrounding lakes; explore the rugged beauty of the Shotover River via a thrilling jet boat ride through whitewater rapids; and navigate rocky gorges and creek crossings by quad bike.
Other activities and adventures to choose from include golfing, cycling, mountain biking, hiking, hot-air ballooning, off-piste skiing, soaking in an onsen hot pool or cruising across Lake Wakatipu on a vintage steamship. If a culinary adventure is more your speed, Queenstown offers them up in abundance with an enviable food and wine scene. Explore the renowned Gibbston wine region and don’t leave town without trying a famous Fergburger.
Central Otago is nestled in the heart of the South Island/Te Waipounamu and is dominated by soaring mountains and abundant expanses of nature. The region is a bike rider’s paradise and is home to New Zealand’s original great ride – the Otago Central Rail Trail, a 152-kilometre arc that weaves its way through unspoilt scenery along the course of the old railway line from Clyde to Middlemarch. Add to this the Roxburgh Gorge trail, the Clutha Gold trail, a 73-kilometre easy-grade trail along the Clutha Mata-au River, and the recently opened Lake Dunstan Trail and you can understand why Central Otago lures riders from all over the world.
Whether biking or driving, the towns of Central Otago are worth time and exploration: Alexandra, which sits surrounded by a lunar landscape of tors and rugged high country, offers up fruit orchards to visit (apricots and cherries are the specialties), ice skating and curling to try, gold mining history to discover and pinot noir to sample at cellar doors; Cromwell is perfect for families with its ‘Big Fruit’ sculpture, farmers’ market, orchards and heritage precinct; and Roxburgh has bike trails, kayaking on Lake Roxburgh, a world-famous pie cafe (Jimmy’s Pies) and a lone bagpiper playing every Friday lunchtime (many of the streets are named after places in the Scottish Borders).
The small and perfectly formed city of Dunedin/Ōtepoti is the South Island/Te Waipounamu’s second-largest city, located on its south-east coast. Modelled on Edinburgh (the name Dunedin is derived from the Gaelic name for the Scottish capital), it is one of the best-preserved Victorian and Edwardian cities you’ll find in the southern hemisphere. And it boasts a bounty of eco adventures on its doorstep besides. Wreathed in volcanic hills and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Dunedin is where gothic architecture meets sweeping coastal landscapes – a mix of quirky urban charm and dramatic natural surrounds.
The city will surprise first-time visitors with its wild beauty, diverse attractions and boutique shopping; there are some real gems to discover among the winding city streets, beaches and hills beyond. Dunedin is also the wildlife capital of New Zealand and home to an array of rare and endangered native species within close proximity to the urban centre including yellow-eyed penguins, little blue penguins, northern royal albatross, New Zealand sea lions and fur seals among other creatures of wing and water.
With its impressive heritage architecture, the city’s rich history and character shines through in attractions such as Larnach Castle and Olveston Historic Home. The quirky urban vibe is reflected in the extensive street art adorning walls all over the city and the excellent eateries and bars serving locally sourced fare.
It is not an understatement to say that Fiordland is one of the last untouched wilderness areas on Earth. It is also one of the most stunning, with soaring mountains emerging from the sea, dramatic fiords filled with glacial carved valleys contrasted by lush rainforest, stunning lakes, and thousands of waterfalls that materialise after a good southern rain.
Fiordland allows visitors to bear witness to how the forces of nature have combined to shape and preserve this natural paradise. The lovely town of Te Anau is a perfect base for exploring; from there strike out into Fiordland National Park, New Zealand’s largest national park at a staggering 1.2 million hectares.
Fill your time with walking three of the country’s Great Walks, the Milford, Kepler and Routeburn tracks or wondering at Milford Sound/Piopiotahi, described by Rudyard Kipling as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ or driving the Milford Road where you are spoilt for choice of spectacular stops. For wildlife sightings, Doubtful Sound/Patea is the place to head, with the chances of encountering rare and endangered birds like the takahē, kea, tawaki/Fiordland crested penguin, kiwi and kaka, as well as New Zealand fur seal colonies and bottlenose dolphins.
On the east coast of the South Island/Te Waipounamu, Clutha is located between the cities of Dunedin/Ōtepoti and Invercargill/Waihōpai in New Zealand’s deep south. This unspoilt district, discoverable along the Southern Scenic Route, is all about nature and history. It boasts stunning beaches, waterfalls, tidal lakes, wetlands, star-studded skies and a rich gold mining heritage.
Highlights to explore include The Catlins, an area filled with natural wonders such as triple-tiered waterfalls, lush rainforest and beautiful beaches. Take a trip to iconic Nugget Point, home to one of the country’s oldest lighthouses, spectacular views and an abundance of wildlife, or the majestic Cathedral Caves, set into coastal cliffs, with their amazing natural acoustics. You might even spot some of New Zealand’s most precious and endangered penguins and fur seals along the way.
While you’re here, don’t miss the new state-of-the-art Owaka Museum, which tells the stories of the pioneers from Māori to European settlers who carved out a life here in the wilderness. For history buffs, heritage town Lawrence offers a chance to explore the district’s rich gold mining past. Walk or cycle Clutha Gold Trail as it winds its way beside the mighty Clutha River. Foodies will love the Taste of Clutha Trail, where you can sample home-grown produce from local farms: think cheese, honey, organic veggies, lamb and smoked eggs. For the adventurers, remote surf beaches, numerous walking tracks and the Blue Mountains invite exploration.
In the deep south of New Zealand on the very edge of the Southern Pacific Ocean, Southland/Murihiku boasts generous hospitality and some of New Zealand’s most varied and dramatic landscapes. Spreading across the lower coastline of the South Island/Te Waipounamu, the region has a best-of-both-worlds mix of rural and suburban, from the majestic wilderness of Stewart Island/Rakiura (don’t miss Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara, a predator-free open island sanctuary that is a haven for native species of flora and fauna, including many rare and endangered birds) to the bright lights and café culture of Invercargill/Waihōpai.
Visitors will find that life is a bit more relaxed in Southland, inviting them to slow down and indulge in their surroundings. The landscape is anchored by the Southern Alps and fringed by the sea, boasting vistas of mountain peaks, blue lakes, fertile farmlands, lush primordial forests, and unspoilt coastlines that stretches for 3400 kilometres. Add to this friendly locals, fresh and delicious southern fare and abundant activities, from tramping and cycling to surfing with dolphins, and you start to see why the region considers itself the New Zealand everyone dreams of.
Read our guide to the North Island/Te Ika-a-Māui regions of New Zealand here.
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