Home » Travellers Guide to New Zealand’s South Island

Travellers Guide to New Zealand’s South Island

The classic kiwi road trip has always been an institution for gap year students but now couples, honeymooners, families and friends alike have all realised that New Zealand is the ‘must-see’ destination. The road trip is undisputedly the most fun way to see the North and South Islands of Aotearoa, to give it the native Maori name.

Still exhilarated from a three week trip to New Zealand, there remains no doubt that it is the most beautiful place on planet earth. It has EVERYTHING you could want, all wrapped into three delicious islands – North, South and Stewart Islands.

Franz Josef

New Zealand served up a banquet of scenery including magnificent glaciers, twisting roads, dense forest, tropical coastline and incredible wildlife including whales, dolphins, seals, pukeko and the famous kiwi bird itself. On a personal note it offered this kiwi who has been away far too long the chance to see my family, explore remote areas, gorge myself on pies and mingle with some of the friendliest people.

New Zealand Sheep

Iain Shiels
About Me!

New Zealand

New Zealand is roughly 1,250 miles southeast of Australia, and consists of two main islands (north and south) separated by the Cook Strait. There are a number of smaller outlying islands so scattered that they range from the tropical to the Antarctic. The North Island is long and has a volcanic south-central area containing an awesome array of hot springs and bubbling geysers. The South Island has the Southern Alps along its backbone and Mount Cook at the highest point.

Milford Sound

The Maoris were the first inhabitants of New Zealand, arriving on the islands in about 1000 AD. History dictates that the Maori people arrived to the island in seven canoes from other parts of Polynesia. In 1642, New Zealand was explored by a Dutch navigator named Able Tasman, but it was Captain James Cook who made three voyages to the islands, beginning in 1769 whereby New Zealand was promptly colonised by the British. The Treaty of Waitangi (Feb. 6, 1840) between the British and several Maori tribes promised to protect Maori land if the Maoris recognized British rule.

New Zealand

South Island road trip, New Zealand

Trip Itinerary and link to blog posts
Christchurch (1 night)
Greymouth (collected car after the TranzAlpine Train)
Franz Josef (2 nights)
Queenstown (3 nights)
Lake Tekapo (1 night)
Kaikoura (1 night)
Nelson (1 night)
Kaiteriteri (2 nights)
Punakaiki (1 night)
Christchurch (1 night

There loads of ways to get from point A to B but by car or campervan is easiest. Having said this, it is one of the few places where hitchhikers still line the roads and if time is on your side, it is also a great way to meet the locals and share costs. As I didn’t travel with my thumb out to hail a ride, my only advice is wear a clean pair of shorts and look somewhat respectable because I swear some of the backpackers looked like hobos.


We rented a car which was a brilliant way to travel, see all the sites, stop where we wanted and discover areas we hadn’t planned for. Avoid Thrifty Cars at all costs. Go Rentals are a reliable and moderately priced company to hire through so it’s worth checking them out.
Car Hire: http://www.gorentals.co.nz/?gclid=CLSw-fK5jMUCFVMatAodS2AAcw
Campervan Rental: http://www.escaperentals.co.nz/

I took so many photos but in a country as awesome as New Zealand, how many is really too much? This Stop Motion video really captures how amazing NZ really is and a holiday I will never forget.

New Zealand Highlights

What were my highlights? Well, having barely scraped the surface of what New Zealand has to offer it’s a tough question. Especially when each day the scenery looks like a movie set (and frequently was) and managed to fill my camera memory card many times over. However…if pressed my top 3 highlights are;

Franz Josef Glacier
I’ve been lucky enough in my 38 years on the planet to witness some incredible things and also my share of glaciers and it never gets old, never! The only way I can describe the colour of a glacier is a luminescent electric blue, like the remnants of a catastrophically beautiful chemical leak. Did you know that glaciers are blue because they can absorb all colours of the rainbow with the exception of blue which is why it’s the only colour you see. A helicopter flight with Franz Josef Glacier Guides over the gnarly contours and chance to land and explore ice caves and glacial shapes on foot is spectacular. Although Franz Josef Glacier is retreating (or sliding down the mountain as it melts), this is an experience not to be missed and on a good day it’s easy to imagine how Lance Armstrong felt as he stepped onto the moon.

Franz Josef

Milford Sound
Anyone seeking Middle Earth should make a beeline here. It’s remote, wild, untamed, untouched and although frequently rained on (300 days a year), it’s also astoundingly beautiful. We chose to fly in and out from Queenstown due to time constraints, setting off in the rain, flying for 40 minutes and landing with pure blue skies overhead and the sun shining. What a view from 12,000 feet, easy to see why Peter Jackson chose the Milford Sound to film the Lord of the Rings.

Milford Sound Scenic Flights offers packages with return flights and a small cruise vessel up and down the length of the Sound, giving two very different perspectives of a land mass too huge to cover completely on foot. And make no mistake; it is a massive expanse of lush sweeping valleys, glaciers, snow-capped peaks and lakes. On a lucky day you might even see whales and dolphins which frequent the area. This is an unmissable addition to any New Zealand trip and whilst it isn’t cheap at NZ$470pp, it’s truly magnificent!

Milford Sound

Driving through Wonderland
As the Cheshire cat said to Alice, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there! A car gave us the freedom to go where we wanted through wonderland, stop when we needed, drive away from the cities artificial lights to see the Milky Way, and follow the winding contours of the road. It turns a point A to B journey into an adventure. I had done my research prior to arriving and still we managed to find hikes, glacial pools, quirky towns and fresh seafood roadside caravans to stop along the way, which really made the trip for us.

More or less…next time
I would spend less time in Nelson, that or more time to really explore the outer areas. Don’t get me wrong the town itself is beautiful and has the modern charms (and an excellent Saturday market) one would expect, but would spend more time in the Able Tasman national park.

In retrospect I also probably wouldn’t bother again with the TranzAlpine train, not to say that is wasn’t enjoyable but the drive back over Arthur’s Pass which covered the same areas was nothing short of spectacular. Being a photographer, I was keen to pull over almost every turn of the road which the train doesn’t allow for. I did get speaking to a local Christchurch fellow who said the best time to take the train is in winter when a dusting of snow transforms the beautiful landscape.


Next time I’ll plan for more time in coastal Punakaiki, a town so small you would miss it if you blinked. Like the Hawaiian Islands, the natural beauty of the area is magical and growing up by the beach in New Zealand; I enjoy patrolling beaches looking for sea treasure so I was in my element. Don’t overlook the hiking trails as they are fantastic, next time I want to explore them in more detail. Top tip is make sure you have plenty of mosquito spray.


The Best Places for 40 Winks
The accommodation we chose was mid to high end and geared more towards unique places which were Kiwi owned, and not your typical big brand hotel. On the whole I was pleasantly surprised. Have a read below and for more in-depth information and pictures click on the link to my blog pages for the town/city mentioned.



Christchurch – Heritage Hotel
It is unfortunately one of the few hotels remaining in central Christchurch not destroyed by the earthquakes. The building is solid and quite beautiful, rooms are large on two levels and when we wanted to relax, the gym, spa and sauna downstairs provided the perfect oasis. My only complaint is Wi-Fi is terrible but apart from that a great stay.

Franz Josef – 10 Cottages
I loved this place. The cottages are small but offer a quiet and relaxing stay and only a short walk to restaurants, hot pools, activities and glow worms at night. Wi-Fi is fast and unlimited, the place is clean and glacier views from the balcony for sundowners can’t be beaten.

Queenstown – Hilton Queenstown Hotel & Spa
This hotel is 10 minutes’ drive from Queenstown proper. We chose here so as not to stay in the heart of the city as it can get lively, but it also sits right beside the lake. Very comfortable, tastefully decorated and the perfect place to stay if late nights and noise aren’t your thing.

Lake Tekapo – Lake Tekapo Cottages
Small wooden cabins off the main road, surrounded by a beautiful garden and fully equipped so you can cook indoors should you want to. You are about 2 minutes’ walk from the Church of the Good Shepherd and the balcony catches the evening sun, perfect for enjoying a glass of New Zealand’s finest. Would definitely stay here again.

Kaikoura – The Factory
Simply an incredible and luxurious place to stay. Words can’t describe this place but it’s in a remote and beautiful setting, the owners are lovely, its private and has everything you will need as well as a few things you don’t but wonder how you ever lived without. With a confirmed booking you will be the only people staying there in an exclusive wing of the owner’s historic property. This place is outstanding and I could have easily moved in, unpacked and been dragged out kicking and screaming!

Nelson – Palazzo Motor Lodge
You know what, it’s a Motor Lodge so there will be no explosions in the sky but I’ve stayed at a few and this hotel in Nelson was extremely clean and the owner gave great options with what to do with our time including restaurant options. Wi-Fi is excellent and it’s a hop, skip and a jump into town. I slept very well, it’s quiet and affordable. What more could I need!

Kaiteriteri – Kimi Ora Eco Resort
The resort is private, has a lot of character and is surrounded by nature. There is a relaxing spa area but they need to monitor cleanliness, cabins are spacious and perfect for groups and all with beach views. I enjoyed my time here and the whole complex is very beautiful however, in my humble opinion overpriced and next time would choose differently.

Punakaiki – Hydrangea Cottages
Paradise on earth. The wooden cottages extend up the cliff and offer views and sounds of the crashing waves. Cottages are tastefully decorated, quiet, and private with cooking facilities (buy your groceries before arriving). The private outdoor bath makes for a lovely way to chill with a glass of wine, and a sky full of stars above. I could have stayed here longer and for me it represented everything good about a typical, yet well maintained kiwi bach (holiday home).

If you find yourself in my home town Auckland, make sure you leave enough time for a day trip and if possible overnight, to Waiheke Island for fine dining and wine drinking at Cable Bay Vineyards. It’s a brilliant day out and platforms the best of New Zealand’s wine growing business.

I’ll leave you with a visual synopsis of some of my highlights from the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’, because even as a Travel Writer and Blogger, words are never enough!


























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Happy Travelling folks.




  1. July 7, 2015 / 8:36 am

    My Uncle advised us to catch the transalpine express one way, and the bus coming back (or collecting a car to drive home) as they follow slightly different routes which is an epic tip.

    • July 7, 2015 / 8:54 am

      Good advice, there are so many different options in NZ which makes it such an awesome country to travel in. Glad I took the train though.
      Cheers Emma

  2. July 28, 2015 / 7:47 pm

    I am a Kiwi and this is a brilliant article with gorgeous photos. Well done.

    • July 28, 2015 / 7:57 pm

      Thanks Tim, really appreciate it. Will have a read of yours as well buddy

  3. August 13, 2015 / 12:42 am

    This design is incredible! You most certainly know how to keep
    a reader entertained. Between your wit and your videos, I was
    almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!)
    Excellent job. I really enjoyed what you had to say, and more
    than that, how you presented it. Too cool!

  4. March 18, 2016 / 4:05 pm

    Yes, I feel very lucky to be a Kiwi. We have a beautiful country without all the problems other countries have. Kiwi’s don’t understand how lucky we are.

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