The Maori name for New Zealand, Aotearoa or "the Land of the Long White Cloud," is particularly well suited to the South Island. The dramatic topography of the 500-mile-long island—cloud-piercing mountain peaks descending to mist-covered forests and fjords, craggy coasts segueing to rolling wine country—makes for some heavy weather. The largest city, Christchurch, sits halfway down the eastern coast, but the adventure-sports mecca of Queenstown, on mountain-surrounded Lake Wakatipu, is the most popular destination and lies within easy traveling distance of Fiordland, on the southwest coast. Up north, the town of Nelson is the jumping-off point for hundreds of vineyards, as well as the gorgeous twin north-coast areas of Abel Tasman National Park (in the west) and Marlborough Sounds (in the east).
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WHEN TO GO
The New Zealand summer (November through February) is the best time to visit the South Island—especially if you want to swim, sun, and boat on the north coast. Temperatures during these months can get into the mid-70s during the day. The one downside to traveling here during December and January is that schools are on break, so you'll be sharing the sights and hotels with lots of vacationing Kiwis. Skiers, of course, will want to come in winter, when snows blanket the Southern Alps.
HOW TO GET THERE
Most travelers from the U.S. will have to transfer in Auckland (in New Zealand's North Island) before flying south into Christchurch, Queenstown, or Nelson. Air New Zealand, known for its excellent service and comfortable seats, does fly direct from New York and Los Angeles to Auckland; the flight is about 12 hours. From Auckland, Air New Zealand also runs smaller domestic flights to Nelson, Christchurch, and Queenstown (www.airnewzealand.com).
If you're traveling from the North Island by car, there are car ferries that leave from Wellington and cross Cook Strait to arrive in Picton, at the top of the South Island. The journey takes three hours and is quite lovely—although the motion-sickness-prone might want to forgo it, as the crossing can be rough. Some car rental agencies will allow you the option of leaving your car in Wellington and picking up another in Picton, saving the cost of transporting a vehicle across the water. For schedules and fares, call or check out the Web site for Interislander (64-4-498-3302; www.interislander.co.nz).
Driving is the best way to get around the South Island; it'll let you better appreciate the grandeur of the landscapes. Although you'll have to drive on the left-hand side of the road, there's hardly any traffic, and the roads are in good condition and well-marked. Just make sure to allow more time than you think you'll need to get from one destination to another; you'll inevitably want to stop and take tons of pictures. And check with your rental agency if you plan to drive around the Southern Alps in the wintertime; some roads can close because of ice and avalanche risks. Avis, Budget, Hertz, and Thrifty all have rental branches at the Christchurch, Nelson, and Queenstown airports.
Tourism New Zealand's comprehensive website, www.newzealand.com, has great information about destinations all over the South Island, as well as driving routes and maps.
The South Island has tourist information bureaus, called i-Sites, in all major destinations (for a list, check out www.newzealand.com/travel/i-sites/i-sites_home.cfm). There's also one at the International Terminal at Auckland International Airport, open from 5 am until the last flight of the day arrives.
Queenstown i-Site Visitor Information Centre
Tel: 64 3 442 4100
Nelson i-Site Visitor Information Centre
77 Trafalgar Street
Tel: 64 3 548 2304
Marlborough i-Site Visitor Information Centre
Blenheim Railway Station
Tel: 64 3 577 8080