New Zealand South Island Winter Road Trip: A complete guide

Luxury Guided Tours New Zealand

Scratching your head over where to go in winter?

Aspen? Been there, done that.

Lake Tahoe? Nah, not now.

Well… how about this?

A New Zealand South Island winter road trip. Does that sound exciting to you?

Eh?

New Zealand or Aotearoa in Maori has been one of the best yet underrated places for winter travel destinations.

Fun fact: Aotearoa means land of the long white cloud. You can find more information about the name over here.

Lake Hawea

Lake Hawea

Its South Island packs two things that will bring delight to the most serial and casual travelers: breathtaking sceneries and memorable activities.

The sights of the South Island’s spectacular snowy mountains will definitely blow you away as well as providing opportunities for capturing envious photos of New Zealand’s stunning landscape.

Before we move on to the exciting stuff, here’s a list of topics that we’ll cover extensively today:

1) What is the South Island?

2) What is there to do on the island?

3) When is the best time to visit the island?

4) What are the different kinds of travel packages and how much do they cost?

5) Places to visit on your next trip

6) FAQ’s about New Zealand

What is the South Island?

New Zealand is primarily made out of two major islands: the North Island and the South Island.

The South Island is larger than the North Island in terms of land mass but it has way fewer inhabitants in comparison.

Think of it this way: the North Island is a more urban or cosmopolitan area of New Zealand while the South Island is more of an adventure destination.

If you would like to know about the differences between the two land masses, the official New Zealand website has an excellent comparison which highlights their distinctive characteristics.

You can check it out by clicking on this link.

Both of these islands have a lot to offer in terms of interests and activities, but for our article today, we’ll be focusing exclusively on the South Island.

What is there to do on the island?

Previously, we’ve mentioned that the South Island packs more in terms of exciting adventures and thrilling activities.

To make things easier, here’s a checklist of questions to ask yourself.

  1. Do you get giddy at the sights of dolphins, seals, and other marine life??
  2. Are you a fan of observing flocks of exotic and native birds?
  3. Are you someone who actively seeks action-packed adventures and jaw-dropping sights?
  4. Do you love going on treks and long walks along beautiful natural sceneries?
  5. Maybe you just want to take a break from the hustle and bustle of work and daily life?

If you think, “Yup, that’s me!” on any one of the checklists above, congratulations!

New Zealand is the perfect destination for you.

The South Island is home to one of the most expansive wildlife habitats in the world.

There are species of birds that cannot be found anywhere else other than the South Island. Kiwis aside (sorry buddy, you’ve got too much of the spotlight!), you can also find the majestic kea’s and takahe’s; a species of flightless bird indigenous to New Zealand.

Penguin Place, a conservation reserve that is a 3 hours drive away from Queenstown is home to the yellow-eyed penguins – one of the rarest penguin species in the world.

To make things even more exciting, the birds are just a part of the all-star wildlife ensemble on the South Island.

Kaikoura, also known as the marine capital of New Zealand is a coastal town on the island which is famous for its sperm whale population.

In the same town, you could visit Seal Swim Kaikoura, a local company that offers tourists a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to swim along with the island’s seals.

That’s right! You could spend some time with these water buddies although you should be careful about your distance – they can get aggressive if they feel threatened.

Of course, a New Zealand tour guide would never be truly complete without a mention of one the most famous wildlife animals on the island: dolphins.

You can find these social creatures in Kaikoura or Paihia in the North Island. Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura is one of the most reputable companies in allowing tourists to have a life-changing experience of swimming with the dolphins.

These tours usually operate 2-3 times daily, so make sure that you get your itineraries planned out properly to avoid missing out. Once again, you should always be careful while swimming with the dolphins and never, ever try to threaten or agitate the otherwise friendly sea creatures.

Moving away from the wildlife aspect of the travel destination, there are tons of interesting activities to be done on the island.

If you are a fan of hiking or walking trails, rejoice! New Zealand’s very own Department of Conservation has developed and maintained a set of trails to please even the most hardcore trail enthusiasts.

The Kepler track and Milford track are just two examples out of the nine Great Walks. These tracks are not the usual trails that can be completed in less than a day. To complete these tracks, you’ll have to spend about 3-4 days in the wildlife

Your efforts do not come without a reward, though. Along the way, you’ll be treated to some of the most incredible sights of your life. A vast array of magnificent mountains along with natural caves and dazzling waterfalls will leave you wanting for more.

The experience is so great that 3-4 days will actually feel too little, rather than too much time.

Aside from the walking trails, skiing is another major attraction of the South Island, especially during the winter season.

Mt. Dobson ski area is one of the best ski destinations in the world due to it being relatively uncrowded and very wide in terms of raw area. This hidden local skiing spot is also very accessible; you don’t have to worry about being a beginner or novice.

You can enjoy the facility even if you don’t know a single thing about skiing!

If you are still worried, don’t fret. There are plenty of options on the South Island to have a good time in the winter season.

You could head over to the Cardrona High-Performance Centre located in Queenstown. This facility is the primary base for local and international athletes who are preparing for winter athletics.

Wanaka March 2017

Private Road Trip through Wanaka – March 2017

The facility is perfect for beginners as there are tons of machines and trainers who will guide you from A to Z. Not far away from this area is Lake Wanaka, one of the major hotspots in the island.

Lake Wanaka is a travel resort and also hosts some of the best adventure tourism facilities in the world. Jetboating facilities, skiing, and even off-road tours are available nearby!

Looking back at these activities, you could be one of the select few who is just not interested in thrilling adventures. Maybe, all you need is some peace and tranquility.

Unsurprisingly, the picturesque views and places of the South Island can give you just that. Lake Tekapo, which is a 3-hours drive away from Christchurch is a stargazer’s dream at night.

Officially credited by UNESCO as a dark-sky preserve (an area that is free of artificial light pollution), Lake Tekapo offers the perfect spot for individuals who want the perfect balance of peace and beautiful sceneries.

That covers a small portion of what to do on the South Island. We’ll cover more in the later sections of this article.

When is the best time to visit the island?

Hence, the best time to visit the island if you are looking for a winter road-trip is in from June to August.

Winter in New Zealand usually begins in June and ends in August, so it’d make sense to plan your trips around this time period.

July is the busiest month for skiing or snowboarding so it’s best to avoid that month if you are not a fan of crowds. Fortunately, if skiing is not big on your list then this is not an issue as everything else tends to run smoothly as usual.

You also have to know that the island’s school holidays begin in July. Generally, this will cause the prices of rentals and accommodations to increase as a byproduct of increased demand.

If budget is an issue, we’d suggest that you plan your travel dates before or after the holiday period to avoid forking out more than what you can afford.

Every year, a winter festival is held in Queenstown. If you’ve never been to one, make sure to attend it as the festival is one of a kind, to be frank. You’d definitely miss out on a lot if you don’t attend, so try to plan your trip around the festival’s date if possible.

What are the different kinds of travel packages and how much do they cost?

The island’s travel packages usually revolve around 3 main options:

  1. Guided tours
  2. Luxury tours
  3. Self-drive tours

There are other travel packages out there, but we’ll cover these 3 in our article for now.

Private guided tours

Guided tours are the most widely available form of tour package for the island. It provides several distinctive advantages to travelers:

  1. Going on tour with an experienced tour guide means that you get to experience the very best of the South Island thanks to the guide’s expertise and knowledge of the island
  2. Tour guides also act as a safety net in your travels. You do not have to worry about being in compromising situations such as getting lost or violating local traditions.
  3. Guided tours also make the most out of your trip’s duration. You don’t have to be concerned about scheduling your daily itinerary – guided tours will do that for you in the most optimal way.

Private guided tours are the right choice for you if:

  1. You have troubles putting together a good travel schedule or would like to focus more on traveling instead of spending your time on scheduling.
  2. You are afraid of getting lost or getting in sticky situations during traveling due to being unfamiliar with the destination.
  3. You are traveling in large groups (6+ people) and need an authoritative individual to make decisions.
  4. You want to experience the very best of the South Island based on the period of your travel schedule

Next up…

Luxury tours

Luxury tours have been quite popular over the past decade or so. The rise of this tour package can be attributed to an increased demand for exquisite traveling options in popular tourist spots – a trend that is still growing as of today.

The benefits of luxury tours include:

  1. Being able to experience luxurious 5-star accommodations and dining amenities such as the Te Waonui Forest Retreat or the Fiordland Lodge.
  2. The ability to access exclusive and incredibly beautiful spots on the South Island such as being escorted to the top of Franz Josef Glacier in a helicopter which is usually not included in regular tour packages
  3. The ability to bypass certain limitations of regular tour packages; avoiding long lines, have VIP access to tourist hotspots and having private drivers to escort you around the island just to name a few perks.

Luxury tours are the right choice for you if:

  1. You want to live and travel like royalty. Exquisite fine dining and 5-star hotels are things that you look for when traveling.
  2. You want maximum comfort. Luxury tours are designed in such a way that all you need to is sit back and enjoy the wonderful view around you.
  3. You want to try something different. Luxury tours give you a completely unique experience in comparison to other tour packages. If you are tired of regular traveling, luxury tours might be the perfect alternative.

Below are several photos of our luxury tours which were taken by clients of ours in the past.

You can check out our 8-day South Island luxury tour package here or head on to our luxury tours page for more information.

Self-drive tours

The name of the tour itself will drive independent and enthusiastic tourists crazy. Unlike other tours where you are constricted to a certain schedule, self-drive tours allow travelers to be completely in control of their itinerary.

These are the advantages of self-drive tours:

  1. Tourists have complete freedom in their travel schedule. This option is attractive to some people as having a fixed itinerary can be quite taxing and stressful – particularly if you are short on time
  2. They can be very, very fun and exciting. Unlike regular tours, self-drive travelers don’t really know what they’re doing or where they’re heading. This sense of mystery and the unknown can lead to thrilling moments in the journey.
  3. They are great for bonding and strengthening relationships. More often than not, travelers who opt for self-drive tours will land themselves in trouble. Getting out of these situations usually require some teamwork and co-operation, thus leading to rewarding moments that will really tighten the bond between travelers.

Self-drive tours are the perfect choice for you if:

  1. You are an independent person and the idea of fixed itineraries turn you off. Self-drive tour providers usually give you a recommended tour schedule that tells you where to go and what to do. Other than that, there’s nothing holding you back other than national (or local) laws and policies.
  2. You treasure relationships. As we’ve mentioned above, self-drive tours are a powerful way to strengthen bonds between friends, family and even strangers. There’ll always be some element of teamwork needed in self-drive packages.
  3. You look for exciting and thrilling encounters in your travels. As we’ve mentioned above, you are quite likely to get yourself in sticky situations (which does not involve life or death scenarios, fortunately) in self-drive tours. Getting out of these problems are very rewarding experience in itself and will leave you and your posse with lasting memories of your trip.

Places to visit on your next trip

Christchurch

One of the places that you’ll definitely visit on your trip is Christchurch, the largest city of the South Island.

After a series of earthquakes on the settlement, Christchurch has bounced back incredibly to become one of the most vibrant and liveable cities in New Zealand.

What to do in Christchurch

You may have second thoughts about Christchurch after seeing the rather quiet atmosphere on the way there, but don’t let the initial journey fool you.

There are tons of exciting things to be done in this city!

To kick things off, you can fork out a sizeable amount of money and participate in Adventure South’s guided bicycle tours. In this activity, you will be led from the dazzling Southern Alps to the vast brims of the Pacific ocean – a stunning sight that you definitely do not want to miss.

Taking part in Christchurch’s Botanic Garden tours is also an essential entry in your itinerary. Welcome Aboard Christchurch offers travelers the opportunity to stroll around one of the world’s most historic and treasured botanic gardens.

If you are looking for a scenic view, head on over to the top Ports Hill. The hill overlooks Banks Peninsula and provides tourists an over of the island and its array of extinct volcanoes.

Moving around Christchurch is no different than in other cities; you have the usual suspects in taxis, car rentals, buses and what not. There is one transportation option in the settlement that is very outstanding though – the Christchurch Tramway.

This colourful tram system is one of Christchurch’s wonderful heritage attractions and leads tram-goers to stops such as the Avon River and the Canterbury museum.

The train will also stop at Punting on the Avon, a sightseeing ride where you sit on a small, flat-bottom boat while being led by guides dressed in Edwardian clothing. Cheeky.

There’s plenty of other things to list down about Christchurch but we have to cover other places too, unfortunately. You can head on to New Zealand’s official website to have a look at what the city has to offer and find out more details.

Queenstown

This city is a sightseer’s dream. Set upon the mighty Southern Alps, travelers have unparallelled access to dreamy views and stunning landscapes upon setting foot in Queenstown.

Queenstown Lake Wakatipu - Nov 2016

View of Queenstown Lake Wakatipu – Nov 2016

What to do in Queenstown

Lake Wakatipu which is the third largest lake in New Zealand should be one of the first entries of your checklist in the city.

Exciting watersports activities are the primary attractions of the lake. However, the best thing to do in Lake Wakatipu is to take a cruise on the steamship, TSS Earnslaw.

Also known as the “Lady of the Lake”, the coal-powered passenger vessels is truly the last of its kind. The cruise will bring you back to the olden days where the ship was used to transport goods into remote settlements. Surely, you can’t miss out on that!

Beautiful sceneries aside, Queenstown is also known as the capital of adventure in New Zealand. From white-water rafting to thrilling skiing courses, the city has it all.

However, Queenstown is famed for its extreme and borderline heart-stopping bungy jump attractions.

There are several bungy jumps scattered all over Queenstown but they are all unique in their own way. The famed Kawarau Bungy Centre is the world’s first bungy jump attraction and widely lauded as the best.

If you are faint-hearted, it’s best to avoid the bungy jumps. If not, there is no reason for you to skip out on this as bungy jumping is essentially the thing to do in Queenstown!

Crown Range Pass - Nov 2016

Crown Range Pass – Nov 2016

To make things even better, tourists have the option of taking helicopter rides to the Remarkables, a mountain range and ski field that is contested by none.

The alpine mountain offers terrain and facilities to skiers and snowboarders regardless of skill levels. You can enjoy the true alpine skiing experience even if you haven’t touched a ski pole or snowboard in your life.

You can check out Matt and Phoebe’s Queenstown roundup on their travel blog and Nomadic Matt’s Queenstown travel tips on his blog.

Milford Sound

The spectacular fjord (a narrow passage of the sea between high cliffs) is regarded as the highlight of the trip for most South Island tour goers.

With its unmatched mountain views and vivid scenery, it’s easy to see why.

What to do in Milford Sound

On the way to Milford Sound, you will most likely pass through or stop by Te Anau, the closest town to Milford Sound.

Te Anau is known as the ‘gateway to the fjords’ which sounds super cool. This town is famous for its glowworm cave, the Te Ana-au caves. This in itself is already a glorious experience for tourists and locals alike.

There are plenty of things to do in Milford Sound. This place is a Mecca for kayaking enthusiasts thanks to its unparalleled views and dramatic landscapes.

Tasman Glacier

Tasman Glacier

For the more adventurous, helicopter flights are available to allow tourists access to otherwise hard to reach areas. If you choose to get on a helicopter ride, you will probably be escorted to the glacier peaks of Mount Tutoko where you will have plenty of photo shooting opportunities.

Milford Sound is also home to one of the Great Walks that we’ve mentioned earlier; Milford track is New Zealand’s most famous walking trail and has been maintained and trekked by hikers for over 150 years.

On this trail, you will encounter Sutherland Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in New Zealand. The stunning Pompolana Ice Field is also a sight that you will not miss on the track.

Wanaka

Wanaka is a beautiful town located in the Otago region of the South Island. The town is one of the most popular ski and resort towns in New Zealand due to its pristine view and wide areas of snowy landscape.

What to do in Wanaka

For starters, travelers can head on to Mount Aspiring National Park, a park that includes some of the best walking trails in the Otago region.

Unlike the Great Walks, trails in the national park usually take around 3-4 hours to complete. However, the views and sceneries of these hiking trails are just as good if not better.

Rob Roy Glacier Track is the most popular track in the national park with magnificent snowy fields and glaciers surrounding you along the way.
One thing that is very good about the Wanaka trails is that there are trails specifically designed for push chairs and wheelchair-enabled individuals. This touching gesture is what separates Wanaka’s famous walks from other trails. Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.

Wanaka is also a haven for biking enthusiasts. The local authorities have built and managed a dedicated network of tracks for mountain bikers and cyclists to test their skills.

The annual Contact Epic, for instance, is a 125km long mountain bike race that truly tests the endurance and athleticism of riders – definitely a challenge to relish for the most competitive of individuals.

Casual riders should not worry though as there are trails that are designed for leisurely rides and strolls through the magnificent scenery of the Wanaka Mountains.

You can find out more about Lake Wanaka by going to their official website.

For more information where to go on the South Island, check out NZ Travel Insider’s sample itinerary over here.

FAQ’s about New Zealand

  • What is the currency for New Zealand?

The official currency for the island is in New Zealand Dollars (NZD). 1 NZD is equivalent to approximately 0.70 US dollars (USD).

  • What time zone is New Zealand located in?

New Zealand’s timezone is GMT +12

  • Do I need a visa to travel to New Zealand?

You do not need a visa to visit New Zealand if you are from one of the visa-free countries listed over here in the island’s official immigration website.

If your country is not on the visa-free list, you will need to apply for a visitor visa to enter. Head over to the immigration page to find out more.

  • Is New Zealand safe?

New Zealand is one of the safest countries in the world with a very low crime rate as well as having a top-notch healthcare system.

However, tourists are still advised to take care of their personal safety regardless of how safe the country is.

Travel companies and agencies are also audited and routinely checked by the government. They are required to comply with the national law so you should not worry about companies being negligent in their operations.

  • How do I move around New Zealand?

Just like how you would do it in any major city in the world. Public and private transport systems are readily available in the city.

Uber is also available on the island.

  • Can I drive in New Zealand as a tourist?

Yes, you can. You are legally allowed to drive in New Zealand for 12 months as long as you have a full driver’s license from your home country.

You can find out if you are eligible to drive in the island by clicking on this link.

That wraps us the basic FAQ’s for the island. You can find out more on New Zealand’s official website over here.

We appreciate you staying until the end of this (very lengthy!) post. You can have a peek at our blog to read up on more articles.

Over here at the Road Trip NZ, we provide a variety of tour packages on the South Island.

If you fancy yourself a self-drive tour, check out our 14-day South Island self-drive road trip package where you’ll have the opportunity to explore the island with total freedom.

We also provide an 8-day luxury tour for tourists who seek for maximum comfort and majestic experiences in their travels. We will be providing you 5-star accommodations as well as sights and activities that are on par.

Last but not least, our very popular private guided tours are also available to tourists who want to encounter the very best of the South Island. Our 16 day guided tour package will leave you in awe at the end of the trip!

New Zealand’s South Island is definitely one of the places to visit at least once in your lifetime.

We wish you the best in your upcoming trips and we hope that this article has been of a great help to you!