The South Island of New Zealand is characterized by grand open landscapes and a sense of space and freedom.
Divided by a backbone of mountain aptly called the Southern Alps, the South Island has spectacular snow-topped mountains and deep, clean fiords, extensive southern beech forests, broad plains and golden sand beaches.
Generally cooler and drier in climate than the North Island but don't forget sun block and T-shirts - temperatures routinely top 30°C (86°F) in summer. The sea moderates winter temperatures so they rarely drop much below freezing except in mountainous regions.
Town and cities
The South Island of New Zealand is the larger of the two main islands though it has fewer people and is sometimes referred to as the 'Mainland' - especially by South Islanders. Geographically the South Island is dominated by the Southern Alps. Dividing the island, the alps affect climate and flora. Most of the South Island's national parks are strung out along the main divide.
Generally, the West Coast is wetter and cooler than the east, and the north of the island is warmer than the south.
Christchurch, Dunedin, Invercargill and Nelson are the main settlements, although the main attractions are rarely in the cities. All four cities are very different. Christchurch is the largest and has a certain English feel to it though it is definitely a New World city. Dunedin was settled by Scottish Presbyterians and is very proud of those roots. It also feels older than other cities in NZ because it was built by gold rush money in the late 19th century but has since been surpassed by bigger and brasher cities to the north. Nelson is still very young by European standards (although it was the second founded city in New Zealand) but has a very South Pacific feel with palm trees and the long, gently shelving and sheltered white sand beach of Tahunanui.
The Interislander and the Bluebridge ferry companies run from Wellington to Picton through the Marlborough Sounds and across Cook Strait. The ferries take cars, buses and cargo-only trains. The scenery on a good day is spectacular. These ferries are substantial ships designed for the sometimes rough conditions and the journey takes 3-3.5 hours.
Buses are a cheap way to get around the main destinations. There are a range of services, from luxury coach services to minivan shuttles. Shuttles which service a local area can be found in the regions and towns which they service.
Roads in the South Island vary in quality and traffic, but as long as they are treated with respect they serve you well. Rental cars are available in most sizeable towns. The best range (and hence lowest prices) are in Picton when you come off the ferry and Christchurch.
The South Island has become the home of Adventure Tourism. That is, ordinary people being encouraged to do crazy things; such as jumping off a bridge with a rubber band tied to their ankles, riding in a jet boat or rubber raft.