Reasons to hit the South Island in winter

It goes without saying that winter’s not everyone’s favourite time of year. But thanks to the South Island of New Zealand, taking on the cooler weather is worth every layer.

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From shredding slopes to bathing in natural springs to traversing across glaciers, mother nature has all the right ingredients for a perfect winter getaway. And taking the Interislander Ferry means you can load up your car, drive on and sail across the Cook Strait. Here are the best things to do in the top of the South Island during winter.

Start of Queen Charlotte Track
Start of the Queen Charlotte Track - Chris McLennan

The Queen Charlotte Track

 Looking to stretch the legs? Or want to tackle the South Island on wheels? The magical Queen Charlotte track is the place to do both. Nestled at the top of the South Island, with over 70km of stunning coastline, native bush and pristine waters, it’s easy to forget you’re breaking a sweat. Speaking of sweat, if you’re more about views than working out, there’s plenty of shorter routes to walk or mountain bike.

Getting there is also part of the fun, as some of the track is accessible only by water taxi (other parts can be accessed by car). Plus, if you need accommodation, there’s a bunch of lodges, campsites and cabins to rest up in. You’ll find the Queen Charlotte track just one and a half hours from the Interislander Ferry terminal.  

Person Skiing in Nelson Rainbow Ski Area
Marlborough alpine ski experience

Rainbow Ski Area

 If you’re after some snow, but don’t want to travel far South, the Rainbow Ski Area is an excellent choice. Being near the top of the South Island, it takes just under two hours to reach this winter wonderland from the Picton Ferry terminal. And whether you’re up for a challenge or want to take it easy, the mountain has slopes fit for beginners right through to advanced. Plus, when you need a break from all the fun and games, there’s a great café serving everything from warm soup, to chicken curry, to locally roasted coffee and other belly warming delights.

Lake Rotoiti Jetty Nelson Lakes
The famous Lake Rotoiti Jetty

Nelson Lakes National Park

National parks are aplenty in New Zealand. And Nelson Lakes is one of the best. Surrounded by the enchanting Southern Alps, pictures (and words) don’t do it justice. And whether you’re into hiking, biking, ice skating (there’s a pond near St Arnaud), boating, or snapping pictures, the number of outdoor activities will undoubtedly keep you entertained for hours.

The entrance to Nelson Lakes National Park is two hours from the Picton Ferry terminal. And the charming St Arnaud village is nearby, should you need accommodation, gas or something to eat.

Helicopter on Fox Glacier
Fox Glacier Heli-tour
Top of Fox Glacier
Experience the top of Fox Glacier

South Island glaciers

Glaciers alone are enough reason to visit the South Island. So if you’ve fewer to see one, the South Island is home to two of the best – Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. And, even though glaciers are both a winter and summer activity, winter conditions make the sight of them all the more spellbinding. We’re talking crisp blue ice, snow-capped peaks and fewer visitor numbers, meaning there’s a good chance it could be just you, your camera and one of the glaciers (unless you’ve got time for both).

Plus, if you’d like a local guide to show you the ropes, both glaciers have a bunch of tours on offer. Fox Glacier offers a helicopter tour, guided walk and overnight trek, while Franz Josef provides a heli-hike, valley walk and challenging heli-ice climb.

You will find both glaciers on the South Island’s West Coast, not far from each other.

Train waiting at Springfield station
Snow-capped mountain peaks at Springfield station
Lake Sarah in the snow with train going past
Lake Sarah in the snow

Experience winter wonderland on the TranzAlpine train

If you need to rest the legs but don’t want to miss out on the action, a day journeying on the TranzAlpine train could be just the thing for you. Departing daily from Christchurch to Greymouth – and returning in the evening – this is one of the world’s most incredible train rides. Covering 223 kilometres of breathtaking scenery, you’ll experience sights that can only be seen on the train, including the Southern Alps, Canterbury Plains and Arthur’s Pass. Of course, if you do want to explore one of the several stops along the way, it’s easy to hop off and jump back on in the afternoon.

Better still, if you need somewhere to park up for the day, the Christchurch train station has free long-term parking on site. Just book your seats online, pull up, and climb aboard.

Malborough Winery
Explore Marlborough vineyards in the winter sun

Marlborough wineries

If wine and cheese are calling your name, head to Marlborough for some of New Zealand’s (and the world’s) best wine. With the perfect weather conditions for growing grapes, no one does wine quite like Marlborough. So you’ve come to the right place.

Because Marlborough's home to some of the world’s best wineries, the only trouble you'll have is deciding which vineyard to explore. Two stand out. Wairau River Wines have some of the world’s oldest vines, a roaring fire during winter and a famous blue cheese soufflé. Then there’s Brancott Estate, who created Marlborough’s first Sauvignon Blanc. They also have some Marlborough wine tours on offer, including a vineyard cycle, premium wine tasting and even a helicopter flight experience.

Whale watch boat in Marlborough Sounds
Whale watching in Marlborough Sounds
Sperm Whale tail in Kaikoura
Sperm Whale in Kaikoura

Whale watching

Whether you consider yourself a marine life lover or not, whale watching should be high on your list. And if you want to get straight into it, or end your trip on a high, Picton’s Winter Whale Watching Tour will get you up close with some of the Baleen Whale species – those being Humpback Whales, Southern Right Whales, Fin Whales, Blue Whales and Orca. Tours run for 4-5 hours, from May through to August.

If you want to go further South, head to the magical town of Kaikoura. As one of the only places in the world to spot the Giant Sperm Whale (you’ve got a 95% chance), travellers come from near and far to experience this pocket of paradise. So consider yourself lucky that it’s only a few hours drive from the Interislander terminal. Whale Watching Tours run year round and depart from early morning till mid-afternoon.

Hamner Springs Hot Pools

If you’ve maxed out your energy whale watching in Kaikoura, relaxing at the nearby Hamner Springs Hot Pools is a great way to unwind. Known for its mineral waters, aqua therapy and incredible views, it really is everyone’s idea of paradise.

The cost for one adult is $24, or if you’re with a small group of friends, you can enter for just $60. Better still, if you’re in need of some pampering, there’s a stack of spa packages, some of which include massages, accommodation and facials. Bliss.

Hamner Springs is 90 minutes north of Christchurch. And a four hour drive from the Interislander Ferry terminal.

Heaphy Track Bridge
Bike or hike the Heaphy Track

The Heaphy Track

Along the roaring seas of the West Coast is the enchanting Heaphy Track. And if you’re after one of the best things to do in New Zealand, this is it, one of the nine internationally known Great Walks. At just under 80km, there’s a range of well-formed walking tracks open year round, some of which have huts and campsites to stay in along the way. Or, if you’re into mountain biking, winter’s the best time to test the track (bikers are only allowed from May through to November). If you haven't loaded your bike onto your car for the journey, there's bike hire available

You’ll find the Heaphy track on the north-west corner of the South Island. Check out the Department of Conversation website for more info on how to get there.

Campervan boarding Interislander Ferry
Get ready for your winter roadie
Couple taking photos on Interislander Ferry
Relax and enjoy your sailing

Take the Interislander Ferry from Wellington to Picton

If there’s one way to up the excitement of your weekend down South, it’s hopping aboard the Interislander at the Wellington Ferry Terminal. Not just a way of getting your car from A to B, the Interislander is one of the most incredible ferry rides in the world, making it the perfect opportunity for you to kick back before the adventure kicks off. And because you’re most likely packing your weekend with adrenaline pumping activities, you’ll need some dedicated downtime there and back. So add the Plus Lounge to your Interislander booking for some added relaxation. Don't forget to enjoy the complimentary food and drink, including craft beers and local wine.

If you’re all about the savings, it’s worth checking out the Interislander Ferry specials. There are discounts for students, AA members, families and more. Just check out the Interislander timetable to make an Interislander Ferry booking.