The Best Reasons to Visit the South Island in Autumn

Lake Tekapo

If you’re looking for something a little different and outside the normal high seasons for travelling, well here’s a bundle of very compelling reasons to visit New Zealand’s South Island in Autumn. Imagine the colours of the trees in the hills of Old Vermont in the Fall, less crowds, rustic little towns, lofty mountain peaks, brooding lakes and fjiords, fine local wines and friendly locals. Then welcome to Autumn on New Zealand’s South Island.

Jump for Joy in Milford

When is Autumn in New Zealand?

Autumn can be late February though certainly March, April, May and even into early June.

Is New Zealand less expensive this time of year?

Autumn months are a shoulder season here, so some accommodation options will offer a cheaper rate with prices to match all budgets, while rental car hire is often cheaper too.

How busy will it be?

The kids are in school so there are less domestic travellers on the road and with that a greater range of accommodation as well as rental cars and plenty of room for everybody. 

What’s the weather like in New Zealand in Autumn?

The weather is generally more settled and with daily temperatures still capable of reaching the mid 20s, most Summer activities are still popular

We start from North to South or as it’s known locally from top to bottom of the Island.

The Marlborough Sounds

These glorious waterways at the north eastern top of the South Island make up about 1500ks of the country’s coastline. Long harbours,huge bays and countless coves with private beaches are everywhere. Much of the access is by boat or via walking and biking tracks, especially the famous Queen Charlotte Track.

Why go there?

In a word, the solitude. There are lots of cool places to stay like the famous Portage, Furneaux, Punga Cove and Loch Mara lodges as well as private houses for hire. At this time of year the Sounds are way less busy and you’ll possibly feel as if you’re the only ones around. Often the native bush comes right down to the water’s edge adding to the notion of wonderful isolation. The weather is settled and the waters in some of the bays still warm enough for swimming with air temperatures still capable of hitting the mid 20s. A trip on the mail boat is a great way to experience the vastness of the area and maybe see some dolphins and other marine life with a stop in Picton town an excellent chance to buy some world famous Marlborough Sauvignon blanc, as well as other supplies.

Queen Charlotte Track

The Abel Tasman National Park

Continuing to look at the map of the South Island and towards the north western top of the Island is the Abel Tasman National Park 

Why go there? 

The story here is similar to that of the Marlborough Sounds with the difference being this area is more coastal, so the sky meets the sea and therefore unique in its own right. Access is generally easier from either the east or western ends of the park, where there are established and hugely popular beach destinations like Kaiteriteri and Totaranui. Though walking will take you everywhere else featuring gems like the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, Awaroa Inlet and the publicly owned Awaroa Beach. However this time of the year the traffic is way less yet the pull of the place is just as strong. Sea kayaking on still mornings and swimming here is huge fun and there’s plenty of marine life to see. Make sure you’ve sand fly repellent and a good camera!

Awaroa Inlet in the Marlborough Sounds

The Nelson Lakes

Hitch your skirts and britches we’re heading south toward the interior of the Island.

Why go there?

Picture large inland lakes beneath steeply rising tree covered mountains with stunning views, amazing walks, awesome fishing, swimming, boating, kayaking and sand flies the size of small birds! The latter isn’t true, though what is, is the captivating beauty of this place. St Arnaud Village on the shores of Lake Rotoiti and the less populated neighbouring Lake Rotoroa are classed as low alpine regions and you’ll need to be prepared with appropriate wet weather gear and poly pro clothing. Though at this time of the year the tracks and lakes are still worthy hiking destinations where native bush and the local wildlife are your constant companions while the temperatures though a little cooler, are still pleasant enough.

The Wild West Coast Highway

Why go there?

You’re going back in time yet with all the ‘mod cons’ at your disposal. This is the experience that is the ‘Wild West Coast’. Small towns and villages and people living their own inimitable pace of life. Drop in, slow down and enjoy the moment. The ‘Coast’ is less populated anyway and the locals are very laid back and friendly. It can rain a lot anytime though this only adds to the often foggy autumnal mood of the place.

As celebrated South Island scribe Claver Esmond says “The West Coast and those alluring, addictive mists of marvel and melancholy”.

Visit quaint pubs and iconic locations like Karamea, the Heaphy Track, Punakaiki and the Pancake Rocks, Barrytown, Ross, Nelson Creek, Hokitika and the Greenstone factory plus the famous Franz Josef And Fox Glaciers. Many a walking track will test your fitness, native rainforests and huge glacial expanses will fill your lenses, lakes will beg you to go paddling, or you can take a chopper and it view it all from above. Specific to the West Coast is New Zealand Greenstone. Known globally as Jade, the stone is a product of the rivers in the region. Each river will produce its own form of stone. It was currency for Maori and is popular today as a jewellery adornment.

The weather can be a little cooler here and the rain regular though the hillsides after a downpour literally come alive with the most magnificent myriad of waterfalls. This part of the ‘Coast will make you feel small, just as it’ll leave you wondering why did it take you so long to get here!

Kaikoura and whale watching

Why go there?

Whale watching and surfing are popular here. The resident Sperm whales hang around this coast all year while others like the Humpback turn up in June and July. A trip to see them aboard purpose built boats will cost around $165 and while there’s no guarantee of seeing whales, your chances are about 90%. Morning trips are usually best and take about a couple of hours. 

If not the whales then the surfs often up just north of the town at Mangamaunu. A long right hand point break over a boulder bottom makes it an excellent spot for intermediate to expert surfers. There’re some other spots to cater for all levels and some excellent surf shops, tours and board hire in Kaikoura itself.

Hanmer Springs

Only 90 minutes from Christchurch.

Why go there?

It’s a genuine Spa town. The natural Geo Thermal Springs here are arguably the best in New Zealand and are the major attraction in the town. These started as small pools back in the day, becoming the Hanmer Hot Pools in the 1880’s. popular tourist village has grown around them with hiking, mountain biking, a bungee, jet boating, skiing in season and golf, all handy. The local shops and bars are welcoming and in Autumn, especially during the week days there should be no shortage of accommodation. The village is an easy walk around and throw in the mix of native and deciduous trees and the town and surrounding hills are a kaleidoscope of colour. Hanmer is a few hundred metres above sea level and the population is just over 1100. Autumn temperatures can be chilly at night though warming during the day. The daily plan in Hanmer is ‘coffee, hike/bike, wine, repeat’.

Hanmer Springs

Akaroa French Village

Also 90 minutes from Christchurch.

Why go there?

This is a gem of a destination anytime of the year though autumn here is simply stunning! Getting there is just part of the WOW factor. The permanent population is only several hundred people however that can swell to thousands in the summer months. Locals are justifiably proud of their village and the legacy it’s created as a tourist town. Yet they welcome visitors with open arms and have all the modern infrastructure to make you feel completely at home. Akaroa is rich in French history and this is still evident in street, shop and some family names. It boasts a wide open and safe swimming beach where temperatures can still be pleasant in March. There’re Akaroa Harbour Cruises of all sorts while the seafront village in the long sheltered harbour is a wonderful walking circuit with glorious autumn colours in many of the nearby valleys and hillsides. Akaroa’s peace,beauty and quieter autumnal pace will seduce you and if it doesn’t the local home made Akaroa Gin will!

Arrowtown, Central Otago and environs

“Ah ‘central’,where miles of not much became a real something for often just a few”.Claver Esmond.

Why go there?

Envisage a brilliant explosion of colour in the trees and buildings and you’re looking at Arrowtown . It’s a famous gold mining town from the 1860’s and still has much of that historic vibe today in some of it’s commercial structures and private dwellings. Unsurprisingly an early stop for many coming to this country in autumn is often Arrowtown and why not? Usually relegated to the back seat by it’s bigger neighbour Queenstown, Arrowtown boasts a population around 3,000 yet with huge fluctuations according to the seasons. Autumn here is glorious and the surrounding mountains and gullies present arguably the greatest splash of autumnal colours seen anywhere in the world! Therefore the town can be busy though remains an easy walk around with great bars, restaurants and all sorts of accommodations. You might brave a dip in the nearby river though be prepared for some chilly mountain water. There’s golf locally including Millbrook Resort while the world famous and original AJ Hackett bungee is just down the road at the Kawerau Gorge. Arrowtown also has lots of guided trips with nearby Jetboating a real favourite.

biking Central Otago

Central Otago’s attractions are many and varied and more than just Arrowtown. The further south you head on this Island, it’s suggested the friendlier the people. Just down the road from Arrowtown are the Gibbston Valley Wineries which are hugely sought after globally with all manner of varietals available. Pinot Noir is a speciality of the region and most of the wineries are open for tasting on a daily basis. The area is also a fruitbowl with amazing soft colours dominating the region while the autumn fruit is boundless.

Apples, kiwifruit, mandarins, blueberries, peaches, pears, nectarines, persimmons and plums to name a few. Keep some warm clothing and a woolly hat handy as autumn can be full of surprises. Look for local biking tours while a four wheel drive trek to the historic site of Macetown is also worth it. Remember the pace of life is always on the slow side, photo opportunities lurk at every corner plus the locals don’t bite!

Queenstown - the adventure capital of the world

Why go there?

It’s hard to ignore Queenstown any time of the year. It’s usually busy and while a little more expensive than other destinations, it’s still well worth it and it also looks like something of the Laura Ashley colour chart this time of year. Set lakeside on Wakatipu under the Remarkables Mountains chain the place will make you feel like a kid at the local fair with so much going on. Queenstown attractions and events offer everything from parasailing, to jetboating, mountain biking, luging, water sports, four wheel driving, bungee, you name it. In short you go there and in the best of Kiwi tradition they’ll happily take your money, tie you up and throw you off things! Queenstown is another easy walk around, there’re great shops, restaurants, a casino, bars, cafes, fergburgers and first class hotels. Queenstown has an international airport and is a genuine New Zealand small city. Temperatures in autumn are pleasant enough.

Glenorchy, Fiordland - to infinity and beyond

Why go there?

To infinity and beyond says it all about this part of the world! Glenorchy at the head of Lake Wakatipu is the gateway to an incredible and vast wilderness. The small town is the best of rustic and the views of the lake and to the rugged mountains beyond will suck the breath out of you. Again the autumn colours will startle and the peace and quiet can be deafening. It’s easy to imagine these scenes in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and similar imposing representations of wonder and grandeur. You may see the odd local wandering about the place though if not, there’s a great wee pub and a unique bare bones radio station that usually operates daily broadcasting the community news and weather updates. Jetboating and all sorts of trekking is available while the TSS Earnslaw old steam ship that travels the lake from Queenstown taking tourists, also berths here on a regular basis.

You realise when you get here that there is just so much more out there..and there is. Glenorchy is a great and genuine gateway to the vastness that is Fiordland. This region is often referred to as the ‘Norway of the South’, with its huge coastline of mainly uninhabited fjiords and huge inlets, dotted with islands and thick native forests. Cruising the sounds and especially Milford Sound s definitely the way to go 

Venture out and the sandflies will attack from every direction as if to protect the secrets that you might imagine lay within these most majestic valleys and deep forests, though isolated and distinctive tracks like the Routeburn,Greenstone,Caples and the world renowned Milford, will take you places you’ve only seen in your dreams. It’s wonderfully remote and has managed to revermain as it was when first created while the autumn season only adds to the special nature of the place. You can opt to register and pay to walk these tracks, using the well appointed huts along the route, or you can freedom walk and camp. Either way it can take 2 or 3 days. You’ll need the proper attire especially good wet weather gear and footwear, a fully charged camera and plenty of insect repellent. There’ll be some great pools, or mountain tarns to bathe in.

kepler track

*The South Island Autumn Summary according to the author,’Dunney’ (and very close friend of Claver Esmond ).

Like the iceberg theory, there’s a lot more to what might seem easily apparent. For example the highway into the inland South Canterbury town of Fairlie and home of the famous Fairlie Pie features on many calendars in the autumn months because of the changing colours of the trees. Just as the garden city of Christchurch has the Botanic Gardens and it’s myriad of colour, while the town of Lake Tekapo with it’s Dark Sky status and tourist and farm tour focus, is another of the Island’s popular spots. 

Another story altogether is Stewart Island, the land mass that sits at the bottom of the South Island, like the full stop under a question mark. If you’ve the time this natural wonderland is amazing. Largely uninhabited with a single town Oban on the waterfront near Patterson Inlet. A light plane will take you there, as will sea ferry. Accommodation is largely in private houses to rent and there’re fishing tours, walking trails and boundless wildlife including Kiwi to be seen in it’s natural state.

 Such beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder and up to you which way you go when you come to New Zealand though must come and may you as the beholder trust First Light Travel and its expert local advisors to help steer you in the right direction. Cheers and enjoy! 

John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 21 Mar 2024 (Last updated: 26 Mar 2024)

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