Every year I get a handful of messages from people mapping out their New Zealand winter itinerary and each person always asks the same question. Is it worth going to the South Island in the winter?
Listen, I get it. You see New Zealand on a map and you see how far south the South Island is and you can’t help but imagine spending your entire holiday trudging through an icy winter tundra. But here’s the thing: New Zealand is a pretty small country and the North Island is not that incredibly far or different from the South Island. In fact, with the North Island humidity, frizzy haired people like myself will argue that the South Island is actually preferable all year round. Plus, there are significantly less people around in winter. You have the place to yourself.
As an ardent lover of seasons, I’ll argue that ALL South Island seasons are magnificent and deserving of your precious holiday time but it’s time for winter to have its moment. It’s time we give this magical season all the attention and glory it deserves.
Here are my top 8 reasons to visiting the South Island in the winter.
1. No Sandflies
Ok, that’s not entirely true.
Perhaps limited sandflies would be more accurate. If you have been to New Zealand before, I’m going to give you minute to ponder over that thought. Think of the most beautiful places you saw in New Zealand and how quickly you came to despise them because of the nasty little flies who carry the bite of a horse. Imagine enjoying the bliss and serenity of Milford Sound or the West Coast while not having to worry about these demonic flesh eating monsters who literally use saw-like barbs to tear open human flesh.
If you have never been to New Zealand before, you’ll have to trust me that this alone is reason enough to book a trip for the winter.
Māori legend has it that sandflies were creating to discourage visitors for lingering too long in the most beautiful parts of the country. If that’s not the most Kiwi legend I don’t know what is.
Oh, you’re enjoying something beautiful? Move along please and definitely don’t talk about it too much.
These little pests are mostly blind so they disappear at night and are attracted to warmth. As much as I despise these little jerks, I have to tip my hat to one of mother nature’s most impressive ladyboss species. The females sandflies are the only ones who bite and they’ll travel great distances for a tasty blood meal because drinking blood is vital to their ability to lay eggs. Lady sandflies getting shit done.
How’s that for girl power?
2. Explore the South Island’s hot pools
Summer is for escaping the brutal New Zealand sun by jumping in glacier lakes and refreshing rivers. The last thing anyone wants to do on a 30-degree day is soak in a hot pool.
Winter, however, is the perfect time to explore and discover the plethora of the South Island’s hot pools. Sure, they are not as plentiful as the North Island but the South Island can definitely hold its own.
For the keen outdoor lovers, head to the Welcome Flats Hut on the Copland Track on the West Coast. This 20 km walk is long but gentle with minimal elevation change. At the end of your hike, you’ll be rewarded with a modern hut to rest your head for the night and your choice of three natural hot pools. I have done this hike in the summer and the winter and winter is the definite winner. Not only will you have more space to stretch out in the hot pools but the warm water will actually feel good and HELLO no sandflies.
Win win win.
For those looking for some hot springs without the work, enjoy the luxury hot springs in Lake Tekapo or Hanmer Springs. No matter your location, you’ll be within close proximity to a good soak with epic views.
3. Discover New Zealand’s cafe scene
New Zealand is a country that takes its coffee consumption very seriously. It’s not uncommon to find a world class espresso machine in a petrol station, neighborhood gym or local bike shop. You can get a decent coffee almost anywhere in New Zealand but where this country really shines is its dedicated cafe culture. Unlike in the USA where cafes have become every freelancer’s home-away-from-home-office, New Zealand cafes pride themselves on being the epicenter of social catch ups. In fact, don’t be surprised if many New Zealand cafes don’t have offer wifi. Many discourage laptop squatters and prefer to keep their tables open for customers who are there to get the full cafe experience.
Kiwis have been taking notes from the Brits when it comes to their morning and afternoon tea. Every day between 10 and 10:30, the cafes begin to buzz with working professionals and tradies alike taking a break from their day to meet up with friends or grab a quick bite to eat. In the afternoon, they take another break for cake and tea.
If you find yourself looking for something to do on a rainy winter day, order yourself a flat white and post up in a cafe for a bit while you watch the local community thrive around you.
4. Explore small town quirks
In the summer, nobody really wants to spend the day inside but winter is the perfect chance to explore the weird little nooks and crannies that make each South Island town so unique.
Interesting road trip pit stops are plentiful in the South Island. Maybe check out the Totara Estate, a historic 1800’s South Island farm credited for being the birthplace of New Zealand’s billion dollar frozen meat industry. Or perhaps you’ll pop into Adventure Books in Oamaru where you could easily spend a few hours of sifting through collection worthy adventure literature books. Treat yourself to a movie at Cinema Paradiso in Wanaka where traditional cinema charts have been swapped out for upcycled cozy couches. During intermission, indulge in their famous freshly baked cookies or glass of a local pinot noir. It’s like watching a movie in the comfort of your own living room with 50 strangers.
The South Island is filled with these hidden treasures that are often overlooked in the summer when tourists are busy filling their holiday itineraries with sunny activities. Visit the South Island in the winter and you’ll discover secret spots not everybody takes the time to see.
5. Shred the pow
I’ve been dancing around this one for long enough but it just seems so obvious. Clearly one of the biggest draws to the South Island in the winter is the access to world class alpine terrain. In Wanaka alone, you’ll be a stone throw away from a handful of top-notch ski fields.
Where else in the world are you going to get views like the ones offered at the top of Treble Cone? Fresh white powder overlooking sunny Lake Wanaka? Yes please! Treble Cone is perfect for groups with varied abilities. For beginners, their bunny slope for learners is free! For those looking to make fresh tracks on backcountry terrain, their backcountry lift pass is only $40/day and gives you access to some of the best (and quietest) views in the area.
Are large ski resorts not for you? Explore the quirky “club ski fields” where you’ll find uncrowded slopes and *interesting* lift configurations. Or for those who prefer to do their own thing in peace and quiet, rent some gear in town and head out for some snowshoeing or cross country skiing.
At the very least, buy yourself a sled from The Warehouse and shred the pow like 7 year old on a snow day. Whatever your cup of tea, get out there and enjoy the uniquely surreal snowy landscapes.
6. You can still do (mostly) everything outdoors!
Ok so maybe skiing and snowboarding is really just not your thing. I get it. It can suck sometimes.
Good news is, while everyone is having a ball up the mountain, you can still get your fix in town because the climate is actually incredibly mild. Yes, it’s a little chilly sometimes but the temperatures hardly drop below freezing in the winter and there’s never snow on the ground.
Here’s a list of all the things you could theoretically do in the winter: take a walk, ride a bike, play frisbee golf, do an ollie at the skate park, put a cute dog on the end of your SUP board and paddle out to Ruby Island in Wanaka, window shop, enjoy a beer in the sun, climb up a waterfall on the Via Ferrata in Wanaka, send a route at one of the local outdoor climbing hubs, skydive pretty much everywhere, walk in a field of lavender, pet a sheep, drink a glass of wine in the sun, ride a horse hike up a mountain, take a ski-plane onto New Zealand’s longest glacier and go snowshoeing. Really, you can do it all.
The point is unless it’s pouring down torrential rain, the winters are actually pretty pleasant. You can still enjoy all the things you would in the summer, just with an extra few layers on. Trust me, just because it’s in the mountains, it’s not that cold. Embrace the kiwi spirit, put on some wooly layers, harden the fuck up a bit, and don’t let a little cold air stop you!
7. Enjoy the rugby season
If you’re like me, you like to be fully immersed in the culture you’re visiting, even if that means screaming and shouting at real life giants playing a game you don’t understand on TV.
Rugby is king in New Zealand. Even the non-fans still have a good grasp of what the game is actually about and how each team is doing throughout the season.
Good rugby is a huge source of national pride for Kiwis. When I first moved to New Zealand in 2015, I woke up at 3 am one day to watch the New Zealand All Blacks battle South Africa in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals. I was told that if I missed it, I might not get another opportunity to see them again in all of their glory. That turned out to be wrong because they made it to the finals (and later won the world cup) the next day.
Needless to say, Kiwis love their rugby and if you want to understand this cultural obsession, visit New Zealand in the winter so you can wake up at 4 am to go to a classic bar to watch these incredible athletes mow each other down.
8. Experience all of the winter festivals
The South Island is home to some seriously cool winter festivals. Let’s start with Matariki, the Māori New Year. You’ll find celebrations in pretty much every town across the country, each with their own Hakas, Hangis, and fireworks.
Queenstown hosts Winter Festival, a 10-day long event marking the start of winter complete with all the coziness associated with a winter Christmas market without the stress of having to Christmas shop. Street markets, dog derby, live music, comedy shows and of course more fireworks. The most compelling event, however, is the dog barking competition where dogs are commanded to bark on cue. If the dog doesn’t bark, the owner gets on all fours and barks on the dog’s behalf.
If dog barking competitions are wacky enough for you, check out Omaru’s annual Steampunk Festival held every year on the Queen’s Birthday Weekend. Omaru is New Zealand’s Steampunk capital and this festival is the self-proclaimed premier and longest running Steampunk event of the Southern Hemisphere.
Perhaps you’re looking for something a little more mellow like the New Zealand Mountain Film and Book Festival held in Wanaka and Queenstown. This epic week long festival offers workshops and courses as well as world premiere showings of mountain films. This year, the film festival had an entire segment dedicated to up and coming NZ directors ranging from a 10-year-old Lake Hawea crusher to professional mountaineers. If you love mountain culture, you’ll love this film fest. Liz has also been a speaker here for the past few years.
New Zealand’s South Island in winter is pretty awesome. Have you been? Do you travel in winter? Share!