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Upper South Island and the West Coast Travel Guide

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  • Photo: Tim90 / Shutterstock

Plan Your Upper South Island and the West Coast Vacation

The South Island has been carved by ice, water, and tectonic uplift, all processes still rapidly occurring. Here, the mellow farmland greens and jumbled forest-covered ranges of the North Island are replaced by snowcapped mountains, glaciers, rivers that sprawl across wide-shingle beds and, in the northeast, drowned river valleys.

Marlborough occupies the northeast corner of the South

Island. Here, the bays and inlets of the Marlborough Sounds (these are the drowned river valleys) wash around bush-covered peninsulas and sandy coves. Marlborough is also the largest wine-growing region in New Zealand, with more than 27,000 acres of vineyards. It's a relatively dry and sunny area, and on a hazy summer day the inland plains can resemble the American West, with mountains rising beyond the arid flats.

The northwest corner of the island is the sun-drenched Nelson region, which enjoys a relatively mild climate that allows a year-round array of outdoor activities. Nelson city is a lively place to visit, with fine restaurants and a vibrant network of artists and craftspeople. It's also the gateway to three national parks, an internationally recognized wetland, beaches, hiking tracks, and boating opportunities. Abel Tasman National Park, to the west of the city, is ringed with spectacularly blue-green waters studded with golden beaches and craggy rocks, and it's home to the popular Abel Tasman Coast Track. To the southwest is Kahurangi National Park, with unique karst marble mountains and the popular Heaphy Track. Farther to the south Nelson Lakes National Park, with its glacial lakes, bush walks, and longer hiking trails, alpine passes and snowcapped peaks, is a popular holiday spot for both Kiwi folk and overseas visitors.

After the gentler climes of Marlborough and Nelson, the wild grandeur of the West Coast is a dramatic contrast. This is Mother Nature with her hair down, flaying the coastline with huge seas and drenching rains and littering its beaches with tons of bleached driftwood. When it rains, you feel like you're inside a fishbowl; then the sun bursts out, and you swear you're in paradise. (Always check local conditions before taking an excursion.) This region has a rich heritage of mining for gold and coal, and milling, a legacy that has created a special breed of rough-hewn and powerfully independent locals—known to the rest of the country as Coasters—who occupy a special place in New Zealand folklore.

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Top Reasons To Go

  1. Mountains, Glaciers, and Beaches Hiking, climbing, short rain forest and coastal walks, glacier walks and scenic flights, and learning about the gold and coal-mining heritage are all popular West Coast activities. Across the Upper South Island, golden beaches and bays and forest-covered national parks are your playgrounds.
  2. Wildlife The Marlborough Sounds and Abel Tasman coast are home to several island sanctuaries where rare native wildlife is protected. At Kaikoura, whales, dolphins, and ocean-traveling albatross come close to shore to feed. You’ll find New Zealand seals in coastal areas throughout all these regions.
  3. Wine In Marlborough and Nelson the sunny-day–cool-night climate means grapes come off the vines plump with flavor. At many of the smaller wineries, you'll likely share your first taste with the winemakers themselves.

When To Go

When to Go

Nelson and Marlborough are delightful year-round, but beach activities are best from December to mid-March if you plan to be in the water...

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Check historic weather for your trip dates:

Travel Tips

Upper South Island and the West Coast Travel Tips

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