New Zealand's South Island is less populous than the north - you will be greeted by vast nature, dramatic landscapes, and a couple of sheep.
Start off your South Island journey in the Abel Tasman National Park near Nelson, the most visited national park in New Zealand. From its limestone hills to numerous caves and potholes, you’ll be able to uncover nature’s gems by going on a walk along the coastal track. There is a three- to five-day trek, but you can also do shorter stretches in a single day.
On your way south, you can pause at the Pancake Rocks. There is a short track through the park, which consists of layered rocks that look like – layered pancakes, you guessed it. Plenty of other activities await you nearby – canoeing, horse-trekking, rock climbing or some relaxing fishing, but we recommend you continue straight away to the glaciers further south.
At Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers and can go on a helicopter tour and be astounded by the stunning aerial view of the region. A cheaper option is to join a tour up the glacier. You will actually walk on the ice, with snow shoes and pickaxe. Both glaciers are similarly attractive, but the tours on Fox Glacier are a bit cheaper.
Your next stop is Queenstown, New Zealand’s adventure capital. You can throw yourself out of a plane, off a bridge, or down a snow-capped mountain slope. The city itself looks unassuming, but there are scenic views all around, for example at Lake Wakatipu. Queenstown also has a lively nightlife scene that caters mainly to tourists. Check out the pub crawl.
With time to spare, you can hike into Milford Sound via the 53.5 km Milford Track, which starts at Lake Te Anau and takes 3-4 days to complete. The trek can be done independently or with a guide, but is often booked out in the high season from October to April.
No matter if you walk or prefer a motorized transport, Milford Sound is going to be the highlight of your trip. Nature has fully decked out this region with stunning cliffs and sprawling forests. The sound itself – another name for fjord – is surrounded by sheer rock faces that rise up to 1200 meters, offering stunning vistas and two permanent waterfalls (Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls). The scenery is best admired on a boat tour, offered multiple times per day.
Then head north to the popular Christchurch region, which is party central for many travelers passing through the South Island. You can take a day trip to the Banks Peninsula for some jet boating or sailing on the Akaroa Harbour. The city of Christchurch itself is growing increasingly cosmopolitan; check out the Arts Centre, and enjoy a traditional Maori feast at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve.
Kaikoura is your next destination; a peninsula town that’s a wildlife haven. Marine animals can be found aplenty here due to the sea conditions: whales, dolphins, seals, penguins, shearwaters, petrels and albatross are only some of the animals that have Kaikoura as their habitat. Most likely you will only see whales and even that only if you join one of the frequent but overpriced boat tours. If you have seen whales before, you can save some money and skip Kaikoura altogether.
Lastly, head over to the Marlborough Wine Region and explore the world-class wineries in the area. While you can do this on an organized tour in a minibus, it is most fun on bicycles with a bunch of friends. Rent yourself a bike, pick a few wineries to visit, and have a couple of glasses at each. Cheers! Some of the more popular wineries charge a price for sampling.
From nearby Picton, you can easily take a boat to the North Island.
(This itinerary is based on our New Zealand (South Island) Backpacker CheatSheet, a visual guide available for free download. We offer Backpacker CheatSheets for many more countries.)