How I spent time in South Island in New Zealand?

New Zealand Aerial view

Known for its pristine nature, snow capped mountains, fjords, open landscape, clear night skies, South Island in New Zealand is a gem in the rough. It consistently ranks as one of the top places for retirees.

Traveling in South Island, New Zealand reminded me a lot of my time in the Canadian Rockies for its similar landscape.

Here is how I planned my journey through South Island.

So what is the Itinerary for South Island?

I had three weeks planned for South Island in New Zealand. And wanted to cover whatever is possible with those three weeks.

  • Christchurch (2 days)
  • Kaikoura (2 days)
  • Lake Tekapo (2 days)
  • Te Anau (2 days)
  • QueensTown (3 days)
  • Milford Sounds (1 day)
  • Wanaka (2 days)
Explore South Island in New Zealand by land
Explore South Island in Kiwi by land

After my three week long travel around Australia I headed to South Island in New Zealand. I only had time to cover the southern part of South Island. The direct flight from Melbourne to ChristChurch by Jetstar is both cheap and short. Once you land in Christchurch you can take the Purple bus line no.29 to the city center. Buy the tickets at the bus terminal before you board the bus.

How to travel with public transportation

South Island is small and easy to travel both by car and bus. While driving has its advantages traveling by bus is cheap and convenient. If you are used to driving on the right side of the road you might find it difficult to drive in New Zealand.

There are a few bus companies and tour operators. Stray, a guided hop-on/off bus service is popular among the younger crowd. While it is considered a party bus it lets you connect with fellow young travelers. But just have tolerance for drinking and partying with youngsters.

I went with Intercity bus company which has wider coverage and low fares. It is better to book bus tickets in advance on Intercity’s website. You can either pay in bulk for a certain number of points and use it toward different journeys or pay as you go.

1. ChristChurch

Christchurch is the largest city in South Island, New Zealand. When I visited the city was still reeling from its worst hate inspired mass shootings on its soil. Christchurch was slowly getting back into norm. I didn’t really plan to spend much time in Christchurch other than using it as a starting point to explore rest of South Island.

One thing that was interesting to see is the 185 empty chairs painted in white on the demolished old Church. The city is pretty quiet and clean. There is not much to do after sunset. NZ is pretty expensive like Australia.

I used the opportunity to go to a local low cost super market Pak’n Save and loaded up on groceries for the travels. When I stay in hostels I cook a lot to save money and eat healthy. Eating out in New Zealand is quite expensive.

185 empty chairs

Hostel Recommendation: Urbanz

Activity Recommendation: Walk around the city

2. Kaikoura

A small sleepy coastal town, Kaikoura is known for seal and sperm whale sightings. When you are in town make sure to take an half a day whale watching boat cruise and if you are lucky you will encounter some dolphins along the way.

I stayed at Kaikoura Sea side lodge which has nice views of the lake. Although the lodge is a bit further from the center it is a close walk to the Peninsula seal colony.

Peninsula Seal Colony

This is one of the most beautiful hikes you will do in New Zealand. As you walk up the hill to the top of the cliff you will see loads of seals lazying up on the rocky shores of Pacific ocean. The whole walk along the cliff is beautiful with the ocean on one side and farm area on the other side. After you climb down the hill make sure to walk a bit close to the shores as you can see Seals really up close.

But take some precaution not to get too close to them. Seals are used to humans but they are not shy about hurting you to defend themselves. A day earlier some girl tried to take a selfie with a seal (duh!!) and she was left with a bloody nose.

Seals chilling out on the shore on a warm day

Funny enough when I returned to the parking lot at the entrance of the park I saw a seal right on the walking track.

Hostel Recommendation: Kaikoura Sea Side Lodge

Activity Recommendation: Hike Peninsular Seal Colony

3. Lake Tekapo

The color of the lake alone wants you to stay here in the town and just stare in awe. It reminded me of the glacial lakes in Western Rockies. The beautiful turquoise blue water is created by the suspension of the rock flour in the water. As the water make its way from the mountains it grinds the rock into a fine dust depositing it into the lake.

Incredible turquoise blue color of the lake

Mt John

Lake Tekapo is surrounded by Mt.John. I did a half a day hike around Mt. John. The last part of the hike to the top of the summit was rather steep. On your way you will observe some amazing landscape with wild flowers and yellow/orangish grassland (see pictures).

As you get to the summit at about 1031 meters from sea level, you will see the famous Mt.John observatory. If you are into stargazing this is a must visit place in the night time.

The Astro cafe has a nice look out to see the lake in panoramic mode. Try the delicious carrot cake here.

Look at the color of the landscape

Even if you can’t afford a visit to Mt. John Observatory you can still witness the breathtaking sky with the Milky way galaxy by just walking close to the lake. Lake Tekapo along with Wanaka has one of the darkest (least light-polluted) skies in the world. The town has made extraordinary effort to make sure the skies remain dark as possible at night.

As I look up to witness the Milky way I see many shooting stars appear out of nowhere and then disappear into oblivion. The last time I observed that was in Wadi Rum, Jordan.

A shooting star falls
Granting a wish to someone
The stardust scatters

Haiku – Anonymous

Hostel Recommendation: Tailor Made Tekapo Backpackers

Activity Recommendation: Mt John hiking, Mt John Observatory

If you have a car you can make a trip to Mt. Cook which is the tallest mountain in New Zealand. Apparently the hike to the summit of Mt.Cook is harder than Mt.Everest.

4. Te Anau

The point of going to Te Anau was to be close to Milford Sounds. This way I only have a short bus trip to the 8th wonder of the world and more time exploring Milford Sounds. Te Anau is also a nice break from Queenstown. It is a quiet, sleepy lake town. I recommend hiking the Kepler walk way. Along your way you will see some interesting trees and the rare chicken looking bird known as takahe.

Serene calm nature

Hostel Recommendation: Lakefront Backpackers

Activity Recommendation: Kepler Walk hiking

5. Milford Sounds (Fjords)

If you have been to Halong Bay in Vietnam, before you will get some deja vu moment of karst looking island hills spread out in the open ocean. But Milford Fjord is much more than what you see in Halong Bay. The Milford fjord has water falls, sea life, rainforest, seal colonies, dolphins, penguins. The sheer size of the Bowen water falls plummeting down into ocean. I was lucky to go on a rainy day. The water falls looked like a steady jet stream overflowing into the ocean.

Worth taking the 3 hour long cruise
8th wonder of the world and UNESCO heritage

Book the Milford Sound day tour from Te Anau or Queenstown using Viator. I recommend this tour as it is a small group of people. The guide is pretty good as well.

6. Wanaka

Wanaka is a pictureque coastal town on Lake Wanaka with views of the snow-capped mountains. The most popular activity in Lake Wanaka is to hike the Roy’s Peak which is about 5-6 hour hike. Start early in the morning if you want to see the breathtaking views of the surrounding lakes and mountains sunrise at sunrise. Make sure to pack plenty of water and snacks.

If you are not up for a hiking challenge or short on time, you can always try walking the Waterfall creek trail.

Majestic trees pave the path of Waterfall creek.

Hostel Recommendation: Mountain View Backpackers Wanaka

Activity Recommendation: Waterfall creek hiking

7. Queenstown

I arrive in Queenstown which would be my last stop of this epic journey in South Island. The defacto adventure capital of the world, Queenstown has over a dozen adrenaline filled activities. Carved by Glaciers and shaped by rivers and lakes, Queenstown was formed as a result of Gold mining rush in the 1800’s. From Bungee jumping to Canyoning to Paragliding to Shotover Jet ride, everyone has something to do in Queenstown.

Gorgeous view of Queenstown harbor with Southern alps in the background

Queenstown downtown is rather crowded with tourists. Many young people from different corners of the world come here to partake in adventure sports and party with friends. Some bars like 1876 or Below Zero Ice bar have happy hour where you can get alcohol really cheap. Try the famous local gelato and the Fergburger (although it is nothing compared to Shake Shack).

Hostel Recommendation: Adventure Q2 Hostel

Activity Recommendation: Too many to choose from depending on your budget and adrenaline level. High difficulty – Bungee jumping, Medium difficulty – Paragliding, Low Difficulty – Gondola ride from Bob’s Peak

Travel Notes

Bus Information

Book your bus tickets in advance if possible as tickets sell out quickly during non-winter seasons.

For Intercity tickets, go to Intercity site and book your tickets. There is also an app that you can download to store your e-tickets. However the bus drivers in New Zealand never ask for your tickets (not even your ID) but only ask your name. I found that oddly strange. Kiwi drivers are the friendliest drivers you come across in your journey. Most drivers give a live commentary during your trip of the different sites and they are excited to talk about their country with such high spirits.

Hostel Information

Best way to book your accommodations is through or Airbnb. But Airbnb has fewer places and more expensive. Stay in hostels that I recommended in this article.


Food is relatively expensive in New Zealand (similar to Australia). Try to shop at cheap Super markets such as Pak’n Save and New World. But “cheap” is a relative term. All hostels in New Zealand have nice kitchens with basic utensils to help you cook. If you eat out it is pretty expensive in New Zealand especially in small towns.

#Travel #NewZealand #SouthIsland #Nature #Queenstown #Wanaka #Tekapo #Fjord #MilfordSound