Things to Do in New Zealand in Winter – South Island
Winter in South Island, NZ
In some ways the South Island of New Zealand lends itself admirably to being a winter destination. With its magnificent mountains offering skiing, snowboarding, glacier walking and a host of other winter sports, it is a paradise for the outdoor active types. There is also miles of glorious coastline rich with marine and birdlife to be enjoyed; although probably not in a swimsuit and sunscreen!
The weather does get very cold in the South island in the winter; it can be very windy and wet and there is a lot of snow on the higher elevations. As most of the activities available during the winter are still outdoors, it would be wise to ensure that you bring with you warm, weatherproof outer garments, some warm thick jumpers and fleeces, and some sturdy footwear. You will be able to enjoy miles of walking tracks in the hills and around the coast, whale watching, fishing, sky diving, bungy jumping, kayaking, bird watching and if you prefer to be indoors you can even visit a chocolate factory!
It is easy to travel around the South Island. There are several bus companies, such as the Magic Bus that run services between all the major tourist spots, there are train services and airports at Christchurch and Queenstown.
So where would be the best places to go if you visited the south island of NZ in the winter?
Abel Tasman National Park
There are many beautiful National Parks in New Zealand, and the Abel Tasman National Park in the South Island is one of the most spectacular. Abel Tasman National Park is close to Nelson, hugs the coast and is renowned for its glorious sandy beaches and its world famous coastal track. You can take guided walks or walk independently, and accommodation is available in pre-bookable Department of Conservation huts and camp sites.
There is also comfortable Lodge style accommodation with en-suite bathrooms available. If walking is not your thing, you can take a cruise into the National Park from Kaiteriteri or jump on the Water Taxi. If you are feeling a bit adventurous, sign up for some sea kayaking. You can book a short excursion of a few hours, or a longer trip covering several days. If you are venturing into Abel Tasman in the winter, make sure that you are warmly dressed in weather-proof clothing and take supplies with you, as there are no shops, which I found out to my cost when I had to walk all afternoon with no lunch inside me!
Queenstown is the South Island's winter sports capital. Situated on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is surrounded by magnificent mountains. All kinds of accommodation are available from upmarket hotels to backpacker hostels. Skiing and snowboarding is what attracts most visitors in the winter, and there are slopes for every level and excellent instructors for beginners.
You can choose from Coronet Peak, The Remarkables, Cardrona, or Treble Cone. Queenstown is also the home of the original bungy jump, AJ Hackett, and you can jump into a river canyon or off the edge of a cliff. If you enjoy high-adrenaline thrills, you can go jet boating, white water rafting, mountain biking, pony trekking or catch the cable car up the mountain and try out the Luge. The list of outdoor activities on offer is truly endless!
If you are looking for a more relaxed experience, Queenstown offers excellent shopping, many bars, restaurants and galleries. You can take a cruise down the lake on the steamship TSS Earnslaw Vintage Steamship and join the farmyard tour at Walter Peak High Country Farm, which includes an excellent tea! If you like wildlife there are many nature and eco-tours that you can take.
In Queenstown itself, you can visit Kiwi Birdlife Park, where they offer guaranteed Kiwi viewing. You need to let your eyes adjust to the dim light though! You can also use Queenstown as a jumping off point for tours to majestic Milford Sound.
Dunedin is the home of the University of Otago, the famous Dunedin Railway Station which is one of the most photographed buildings in NZ, and also has the steepest street in the world in Baldwin Street. If you like wildlife, Dunedin has the only mainland breeding colony of the Royal Albatross on Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula, and also is home to the Yellow-Eyed penguin, which is the rarest penguin in the world.
The city of Dunedin boasts many good examples of Victorian and Edwardian architecture. It is set on a fine natural harbour that was first settled by the Maoris and then attracted whalers and gold miners from Scotland and China in the 19th century. The Botanical Gardens in Dunedin was the first in New Zealand and Otago Girls School is one of the oldest in the world.
If you like museums visit the Otago Settlers Museum next door to the railway station, Otago Museum and Discovery World and if sport is your passion wander round the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame. Take a harbour cruise, or catch a train up the amazing Taieri Gorge or even take a tour on a plane. For lovers of food and drink take the tour round the Cadbury’s Chocolate Factory and stock up with goodies in the factory shop or go on the tour around the Speight’s Brewery.
Lake Tekapo is situated in the stunning highland scenery in the central South Island. It is close to Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, and is surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery. There is lots of different accommodation to be had from self-catering to backpacker and many different activities to enjoy. This is sheep farming country and visit the Church of the Good Shepherd that was built in 1935 and see the famous sheep dog statue on the lake’s edge.
The great outdoors is where it is all happening at Lake Tekapo and you can enjoy hiking, skiing, pony trekking, fishing, mountain biking and kayaking all through the winter. Take scenic flights over Mount Cook, soak in the hot pools and go ice skating on the rink. In the evening, go on the star gazing tour and marvel at the wonders of the night sky.
The beautiful city of Christchurch was tragically rocked by major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, causing a devastating loss of human life and huge structural damage across the city. I visited in the winter of 2007, so my descriptions are of what you could see and do before the earthquake damage. As it was estimated that around 60% of the historic heart of the city was damaged, rebuilding Christchurch will be a long and slow process.
Christchurch, with its international airport, is the gateway to the South Island . The Maori had inhabited the area for a thousand years before the first European settlers arrived in the 1850s to engage in whaling, sheep farming and producing dairy products. Known as ‘The Garden City’, Christchurch boasts acres of parkland and public gardens. Visit the Botanic Gardens with its river, lakes and Palm Houses, Victoria Park, Port Hills and Hagley Park.
Cathedral Square and the city centre offer good shopping, bars and restaurants, and take the walk through the city’s central lanes and alleys. Hop on the old-fashioned tramway for a ride that runs a loop through the city centre to see all the major locations, including the Cathedral, The Arts Centre, The Art Gallery and the Canterbury Museum. At the weekend there is a market at the Arts Centre. Or to view Christchurch in a more leisurely fashion, have an afternoon punting on the Avon River. If you enjoy panoramic views and have a head for heights ride up the summit of Christchurch’s extinct volcano on the Gondola.
If you are interested in wildlife visit the Southern Encounter Aquarium and Kiwi Experience in Cathedral Square, where you can see and interact with the marine life that inhabits the oceans around New Zealand’s South Island. Christchurch is also home to Orana Wildlife Park, which is the only open range zoo in New Zealand. Learn about Maori culture at one of the Maori Cultural Experiences such as the Tamaki Heritage Village or go on a wildlife cruise up the coast and swim with the rare Hector’s dolphins.
Christchurch’s most famous attraction is probably the International Antarctic Centre, where you can slide down a snow slope, throw a snowball, try on special Antarctic clothing and ride on one of the genuine Antarctic vehicles on the outdoor Hagglund Ride.
Unfortunately the centre of Christchurch was badly hit by an earthquake, with a tragic loss of life, in 2011 so many of the historic buildings have been badly damaged. However, the Kiwi spirit is strong, and I have no doubt that they will soon be restored and back in use.
Kaikoura is set on a rocky peninsula and was originally a Maori settlement that became a whaling centre on the arrival of European settlers. The history of Kaikoura’s past can be traced in the Kaikoura Museum and the historic Fyffe House. Kaikoura is also a centre for arts and crafts, and there are many galleries in the town displaying pottery, paintings, and jewellery.
However, Kaikoura is most famous for its wildlife; especially whale and dolphin watching. The tours go out to sea all year round, but you might find that the water temperature is too cold to go swimming with the dolphins during the winter months! Several different species of whale can be viewed in the waters off Kaikoura including Orcas and Pilot Whales. But it is the huge Sperm Whales that are resident all year round, living off the plentiful food supply and diving to incredible depths, which are most usually seen. There is also a large population of Dusky Dolphins and the rarer, tiny Hector’s Dolphin can also sometimes be seen. Fur seals, although once nearly hunted to extinction, are now plentiful and can be seen close up basking on the rocky shore.
There are many other activities available in Kaikoura, such as walking, kayaking, quad biking, fishing and rafting, all of which can be done in the winter months. There is plentiful accommodation of all different grades and a selection of bars and restaurants.
All images my own