The snowy Southern Alps, icy blue glaciers, hidden bays of golden sand, vast lakes, fast flowing rivers and powerful waterfalls. With so much natural beauty it’s no wonder so many people choose to visit New Zealand. But it’s not just nature that attracts so many visitors to the South Island. Lively cities, friendly locals and extreme sports play their part, the only difficult bit is deciding what to include on your South Island itinerary. So what are New Zealand’s South Island highlights? The must do and can’t miss locations in this breath-taking part of the world? The only way to find out is to keep reading.
The biggest city in the South Island and often the starting point for visitors looking to discover the surrounding natural beauty. Christchurch has been forced into a lot of change over the last decade following the devastating 2011 earthquake when much of the city was destroyed. You’ll see many reminders of the disaster throughout the city, such as the moving 185 Empty White Chairs memorial. However, as businesses reopen Christchurch is once more becoming the vibrant place it was.
Highlights of the city include the botanical gardens, International Antarctic Centre and Willowbank Wildlife Reserve. Christchurch Cathedral was once the main meeting point in the city but has been left in ruins after the earthquakes of the last decade. It’s still worth a visit to see for yourself as it now holds a whole new meaning to the city.
The area surrounding Christchurch has many picturesque small towns, including Lyttleton and Akaroa. Lyttleton is just on the outskirts of Christchurch while the journey to Akaroa takes a little over an hour through some beautiful New Zealand scenery.
The Edinburgh of the south, Dunedin is a thriving student town with plenty of local attractions and a heaving nightlife. In the centre you’ll find the Otago Museum with its huge whale skeleton and many interesting exhibits. There are several nice beaches around Dunedin, while just a short drive up the coast are the strangely spherical rocks at Boulder Beach.
Dunedin is also home to the world’s steepest residential street. Baldwin Street has a gradient of 35% gradient, which you really begin to notice the further you climb. It’s just a short walk from the city centre and while the way up may be challenging the view from the top is worth the effort.
The city also has its own local beer and you can tour the Speights Brewery for NZ$30, which includes samples of their beer at the end of the visit and the option to pour your own. Tours happen three times a day in winter or six times during the summer and last approximately 90 minutes.
Queenstown is the home of extreme sports. Jetboating, kitesurfing, paragliding and of course bungee jumping. AJ Hackett was the first to commercialise bungee jumping and his original site is still one of the most popular jump spots in the world. Although now things have been taken to new extremes. From the canyon swing to catapults, and tandem jumps to the highest bungee in New Zealand. Whatever you can imagine is seemingly possible.
It’s not just the extreme sports that will take your breath away however. From the densely forested hills overlooking Queenstown you’ll see the surrounding mountains, while down below the town sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. You’ll also find many mountain bike trails leading through the forest for another chance to find that surge of adrenaline.
For anyone not looking for anything too heart pumping (or if you just want to satisfy your inner child) the luge is an alternative way to slide back to town and a fun way to spend an hour or two. Nearby is Arrowtown, a former gold mining town on the banks of the Arrow River and just a short drive from Queenstown.
Situated on the shores of a lake by the same name, Wanaka is a beautiful alpine town with many reasons to visit. The town is often seen as a quieter alternative to Queenstown, without so much focus on extreme sports. Around Wanaka there are many hiking trails leading past wide lakes, massive rocky mountains and thick green forests. Alternatively you can go off-road and explore the local area on a mountain bike. During the winter Wanaka is one of the most popular spots in New Zealand for skiing.
If being active doesn’t sound too appealing, you could always just sit back and try the tasty local food while enjoying a glass of some of New Zealand’s best wine. The local farmer’s market is a good place to start when looking for something to eat while there are several wineries around Wanaka plus craft breweries and a distillery. After having your fill of the local food and drink all that’s left to do is relax and enjoy the stunning scenery.
Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
The South Island is home to two stunning icy blue glaciers; Franz Josef close to the town of the same name and Fox Glacier just 20km further southwest. The two glaciers are close enough together that’s it’s possible to visit both in one day. There are some differences between the two glaciers, namely Fox Glacier has a more gradual incline whereas its counterpart is much steeper. This is because it’s constantly moving, which in turn creates dramatic crevasses and ice caves for you to explore.
While you can admire the two glaciers from a short distance, the only way to actually reach them is by helicopter. This is pretty expensive at NZ$485, but then how many chances do you get to fly in a helicopter or stomp around on a glacier?
Aside from the glaciers the town has other attractions. Kayaking on Lake Mapourika isn’t as strenuous as in other parts of the country, plus the scenery is breath-taking. Paddling calmly across the huge flat lake you can enjoy the picture postcard mountain views all around you. If you still need to relax after that you can always visit the local hot pools.
While not part of the South Island, Stewart Island is somewhere not to be missed on any trip to New Zealand. It’s easily accessible either by plane from Invercargill or by ferry from Bluff. When you arrive on the island’s only settlement in Oban, you’ll immediately find yourself surrounded by thick forests and dramatic hills. You’ll wonder if you’ve mistakenly been transported to something from Jurassic Park!
Oban has the basic infrastructure you’d expect from such a remote location and there are plenty of nice walks heading along the coast in either direction. Further inland you’ll find yourself deep in Stewart Island’s wilderness. Around 85% of the island is made up of national park and it’s an incredible place to go hiking for a few days.
Stewart Island is also the best place in New Zealand to spot the native kiwi in the wild. (As in the bird, not the local people) In fact you’ll find many native bird species around the island, mainly thanks to the lack of introduced predators such as feral cats and weasels. As well as the flightless kiwi you might see the enormous albatross or the tiny blue penguins.
Abel Tasman National Park
For outdoor lovers Abel Tasman National Park is true must-visit location. Secluded bays, golden sandy beaches, campsites and hiking trails in the middle of green forests. This national park has almost everything. To get the most out of a visit to Abel Tasman try the kayak and walk day trip. Not only will you have time to wander through the national park at your own pace, but you can get up close to many of the small islands in the area.
Most tours start with a boat ride into the national park as you explore the hidden coves and wooded areas of this coastal paradise, before taking to the water and paddling out to the uninhabited islands of Abel Tasman. If you have a little more time on your hands then opt for an overnight or multi-day excursion and camp out in the national park, allowing you to see even more of this beautiful natural area.
Unless you’re sleeping in the national park, the best place to stay is Motueka just 18km away. The town is another good spot to do a skydive as, on a clear day, you’ll be able to see both of New Zealand’s main islands from high up in the sky.
180km further up the coast from Christchurch is Kaikoura, one of the most popular spots in New Zealand for whale watching. Several companies run regular boat trips out into the Southern Ocean, with the best time to see migrating whales between June and August. During the warmer parts of the year you might see orcas in amongst the whales as well as dolphins and seals. Up in the sky many birds pass overhead, including the massive albatross.
You don’t need to go out into the ocean to spot the seals however. They always gather in huge numbers along the coast and there is a nice easy coastal walk from the town which leads past many seals as they laze around relaxing. There is also the opportunity to go swimming with seals, which may or may not be the most ethical activity you could do.
For something a little different than the usual tourist activities in Kaikoura, rent a mountain bike from a store on the main street and head out into the surrounding woodland. There you’ll find several trails that aren’t too taxing for everyone to enjoy.
Milford Sound and Te Anau
For stunning New Zealand scenery you don’t have to look much further than Milford Sound. Located in the Fiordland National Park, there are many ways to explore Milford Sound. Whether it’s scenic flights, kayaking, cruises or just walking through the surrounding rainforests and soaking up the breath-taking natural beauty all around you. Here you can also appreciate the power of nature as huge waterfalls, such as the 162m Lady Bowen Falls, dot the landscape.
Milford Sound is home to many animal species and you should spot dolphins, fur seals and penguins. To get to Milford Sound you can either do a day trip from the nearby town of Te Anau or trek the Milford Track; a four day hike that takes you through some of the country’s best scenery.
Te Anau itself is the best place to stay when visiting Milford Sound and has some beautiful scenery of its own. The small town sits on the shores of a lake by the same name on the edge of the Fiordland National Park. Nearby are many hikes plus other attractions such as glowworm caves, a bird sanctuary and an underground waterfall.
Down at the bottom of the South Island sits the city of Invercargill. While being a great place to spend a night either before or after visiting Stewart Island, it also has plenty of other attractions worth checking out while you’re there.
Invercargill has many heritage buildings, being heavily influenced by early European settlers, which give the city a charming quality. You’ll find many beautiful parks and gardens such as the 80 hectares of Queens Park. There are many reasons to get out and about in Invercargill too, with opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, horse riding, surfing and other outdoor activities. Being one of the southern most cities in the world, Invercargill is also a great spot to witness Aurora Australis, or the Southern Lights.
Perhaps the most famous resident of Invercargill was Burt Munro who set a world land speed record on his Indian Scout Motorbike in 1967. His story was immortalised in the 2005 movie ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’. This is one reason why Invercargill is now known as New Zealand’s classic motoring capital and is home to some amazing vintage car collections, including Burt’s famous motorbike.