Must-sees in New Zealand South Island

New Zealand South Island in a word: Abundance. South Island is the larger of New Zealand’s two major islands. It is known locally as Te Waipounamu.  Despite extending over a bigger surface area, it is less populated than the smaller North Island. Cook Strait borders South Island New Zealand to the north. Its western boundary is the Tasman Sea, and it abuts the Pacific Ocean to the south and east. Now that you know where it lies on the map, let’s take a look at the must-see places in New Zealand on offer on the island of Te Waipounamu.

NZ South Island at a glance

If you can make it to the South Islands at the right time, you simply must experience Southern Lights New Zealand. Aurora New Zealand does not run according to any form of schedule, however, and they tend to be quite unpredictable. Aurora Australis occurs during the winter months, between March and September.

You would be lucky to get a 30 minutes heads up before the skies come alive with the awesome green and pink displays. The show is caused by solar wind reacting with atmospheric gases. The best time to view is around midnight when the sun is on the opposite side of the Earth. Check out this short video, from YouTube channel Frank James filmplanet:

South Island is one of the closest regions to the origin of the aurora: the South Pole. For this reason, it is possible to catch a glimpse from Stewart Island, Lake Tekapo, Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, the Catlins, Invercargill, and Dunedin.

How to move around?

Where to start on your experience of the South Island?

The answer depends largely on where you’re starting from. Assuming you’re flying in from the United States, chances are you will land at Auckland Airport on the North Island.

While Christchurch Airport on the South Island does cater to international flights, it does so to somewhat of a lesser extent than Auckland. Flights from Australia, notably Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, on the other hand, do land at airports in Queenstown and Dunedin on New Zealand South Island.

Traveling from the North Island to the South Island offers way more opportunities. By air, flights are only a few minutes in duration between Wellington (North Island) and Blenheim or Nelson in the northern parts of the South Island. A more adventurous and exhilarating option is the ferry from Wellington to Picton.

It is apparent that the North Island will simply be more easily accessible to internationally inbound travelers. Your start to discovering the South Island will, therefore, more reasonably be from the north. This being the case, we will take you on a look-see starting from the north and working haphazardly down to the south of the South Island.

Picton

The South begins with Picton. Known as a gateway to the islands and inlets of the Marlborough Sounds, Picton is where you will disembark if you are traveling by ferry from the North Island to the South Island.

It is quite possibly one of the most beautiful seaside villages to be found. Picton’s waterfront boasts two local marinas which testify beatifically to just how important boats are to this picturesque hamlet. Steeped in maritime history, it has morphed into a popular tourism spot having paid its dues as a gold mining town, and a bustling fishing port and dock.

It is also from whence boat trips depart to charming locations throughout Queen Charlotte Sound. Captain Cook named Queen Charlotte Sound in the 1770s after Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, King George III’s wife. Over 930 miles of breathtaking, winding coastline, the Marlborough Sounds nuzzle at the top of New Zealand’s South Island at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound.

What to do in the Marlborough Sounds

The astounding sea-drowned valleys known as Sounds were created by land subsidence combined with rising sea levels. The Marlborough Sounds allure many, and include Kenepuru Sound, Mahau Sound, and Pelorus Sound. Not least of those allured are sailing enthusiasts, fishermen, divers, dolphin lovers, and wildlife observers.

Unsurprising, since these beautiful waterways are rife with five species of dolphin, orca, visiting humpback whales, fur seals, and blue penguins. Rare birds intrigue ornithologists and amateur bird watchers alike, with the likes of the local endangered Saddleback. 43 miles of bush-clad ridgelines welcome cyclists and hikers to enjoy the Queen Charlotte Track. The track begins at Captain Cook’s favored landing site, Ship Cove, now a New Zealand Icon Heritage site.

In the 1770s, Captain Cook favored this as the spot in which to anchor his ship the Endeavour, and it remains largely unchanged today. Besides his English home town of Whitby, Ship Cove is where Cook spent more time than anywhere else on earth. It was here that Endeavor took on provisions and underwent necessary repairs.

Havelock

Havelock lies just miles west of Picton, where the Pelorus and Kaituna Rivers meet, on the coast northwest of Blenheim. Now known to be the “Greenshell Mussel capital of the world,” it derives from a gold mining settlement and has the quaint colonial buildings and Museum to prove it.

Things to do in Havelock:

  • Charter a boat or take a water taxi from the marina, for a fishing excursion or a sail around Kenepuru and Pelorus Sounds
  • Catch your own Snapper on board a charter boat.
  • Enjoy an eco-history tour of the Kenepuru and Pelorus sounds.
  • A little more hands-on are sea kayaks available for hire, and individual or guided paddling tours.
  • Partake in the tasting of the delicious green-lipped mussels.
  • Visit the historic gold mining township of Canvastown and the tiny settlement of French Pass.
  • Feel the vibe on a two-day walk of the Nydia Track to Tennyson Inlet.
  • Discover offshore D’Urville Island and the scenic splendor of Pelorus Bridge Reserve and rural Rai Valley.
  • Let your feet do the work on the Pelorus Bridge Walks just 11 miles west of Havelock.
  • Browse the interesting range of shops.

Blenheim

To the east of Picton in the heart of wine-growing Marlborough lies this gateway town to the wineries of the Wairau Valley to the west. Within excess of thirty wineries surrounding Blenheim, visitors are not left wanting for cellar door sales and wine sampling opportunities.

Blenheim winelands
Blenheim fields

The Marlborough Museum in town chronicles the area’s winemaking and the history of its Polynesian settlement. It is also here that one can browse New Zealand’s original Farmers’ Market. This endearing market setting offers opportunities to buy locally grown and produced goods.

The area is also a bounty of shops, wineries, bars, cafes, restaurants, artisan food outlets and golf courses. Let’s not overlook the popular walkways which lie enticingly along the Taylor River Reserve.

Thanks to the brilliant minds and expertise behind the Lord of the Rings, World War I history is brought to life a short distance from Blenheim, at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre. Here aircrafts heralding from both World Wars are theatrically presented for visitors to enjoy.

Marlborough’s Wine Region

Step through the gateway into New Zealand’s largest wine region, just 15 minutes from Picton by road. Picturesque Marlborough is the producer of 77% of New Zealand wines. As a matter of fact, more than ninety percent of the country’s Sauvignon Blanc is grown, produced and bottled right here.

You can make a day of pairing and tasting wines,  with no shortage of award-winning drink of the Gods. Or choose to spend a weekend or more in this sunny spot of the South Island.

Kaikoura Whale Watching

A little down the west coast will take you to Kaikōura, a base for wildlife experiences. As the name suggests, this is the place to eat crayfish. In the Māori language ‘kai‘ means food and ‘kōura‘ means crayfish. It is also where one would go for marine mammal encounters.

Whale watching in Kaikoura affords opportunities to encounter the magnificent creatures at any time of the year by boat or air. As the whale watching capital of NZ, Orcas are often hosted, and sightings of migrating Humpback Whales, Pilot Whales, Blue Whales, and Southern Right Whales are commonplace.

The Hectors, the world’s smallest and rarest whale, also call this piece of the Pacific coastline home. It is here where up-close encounters with the Giant Sperm Whale are possible. Get personal with the largest toothed predator in the world in their natural environment.

You can also enjoy a more idyllic swim with dolphins or the playful New Zealand fur seals, or just watch them from up close. Bird watching tours offer sightings of among others the endangered Wandering Albatross, molly-mawks, seabirds, shearwater, and petrels.

For the less hands-on sightseers, the indigenous Māori people afford you the chance to experience their culture. You can also sightsee overhead from a small plane or helicopter during a scenic flight for the ultimate view of the South Island landscape and sea life.

Murchison

One a gold mining town, Murchison is now the Whitewater capital of the country. It is really no wonder with so many rivers in all directions. Kayakers and canoeists revel with options including the Gowan, Glenroy, Maruia, Matakitaki, Mangles, Matiri, and the mighty Buller.

As for white-water rafting, various class of white-water abound, starting at Class 2, and including Class 3 and 4. If you’re not up to this level, no worries. You can also enjoy rafting, gold panning, jet boating, and fishing on the water. On land, mountain bike the “Old Ghost Road” or mender any one of the many historical, scenic walks.

The West Coast

On the map, the New Zealand West Coast extends almost 373 miles, from the Kahurangi National Park at the top of the South Island’s westernmost coastline to the bottom of the Mount Aspiring National Park. Never expanding to more than 31 miles wide, all in all, it encompasses eight New Zealand must-sees, in multiple regions:

  • Westport and Karamea
  • Punakaiki
  • Reefton
  • Grey District
  • Moana
  • Hokitika
  • Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier

Diverse as the stretch is, visitors are spoilt for choice to keep them occupied, entertained and fed. Delight by foot or bike in the 53-mile-long Old Ghost Road, with its forgotten valleys, indigenous forest, open tussock tops, and river flats. Hokitika is the west coast’s only full-service beach town, so pull in and find out just why life’s a beach.

It also offers the Arahura River, which is the birthplace of New Zealand Jade, known here as ‘pounamu’. Punakaiki has the limestone Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. Karamea is good for those off the beaten track adventure moments, with its general store, a stretch of empty beaches, river estuaries, granite and limestone formations, Mikau Palms, tamarillos and fruit trees.

Westport has great historical allure, lying near the mouth of the Buller River, it is the Coast’s oldest town. Reefton is an old gold mining town where all that glitters is not gold. Evident in the surrounding Victoria Conservation Park and heritage sites.

Fishing is the main attraction in Moana, on the northern shore of Lake Brunner. Haast is a “World Heritage” area surrounded by national parks.

Main glaciers in New Zealand South Island

Fox Glacier aerial view
Fox Glacier

New Zealand can boast 3144 glaciers South Island is home to the five largest: Tasman, Murchison, Fox, Franz Josef, and Volta. These come down to 1312 ft on the steeper western side of the Southern Alps, and 2297 feet on the eastern flank.

Thanks to global warming, these giant rivers of ice are retreating quite rapidly. Now would, therefore, be as good a time as any to get to experience them. The West Coast has the Fox glacier and these are easily accessible by a short walk or on a guided glacier walk where you might have the added advantage of walking on ice.

The full panoramic majesty of Franz Josef Glacier, known locally as Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere, can be appreciated on the Franz Josef Glacier Heli Hike. The Heli Hike allows unique access to the giant river of ice, after a thrilling helicopter flight over the lower icefall pinnacles, majestic upper icefall, and the spectacular Victoria Falls.

The helicopter lands on a remote part of the glacier, and you get to walk the ice steps cut by a guide to discovering ice caves and ice formations only seen here, and ever-changing.

Likewise, the Fox Glacier Heli Hike offers a fly-in, fly-out guided exploration of a remote and exceptional section of the Fox Glacier. See the giant rivers of ice as they squeeze down the valleys to just about 820 ft above sea level.

Lake Tekapo

Lovely view of Lake Tekapo landscape
Lake Tekapo

South Island is home to five of New Zealand’s largest lakes, but Lake Tekapo is not among these. Nonetheless, it is the spot for stargazing! A veritable mix of delights for the senses, the area offers the Tekapo Springs, Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, and the hot pools.

Which are of the clearest and darkest night skies in the world, the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is the largest reserve in the Southern Hemisphere. Lake Tekapo stargazing is a must-see in your New Zealand experience.

But what to do when the stars aren’t out? Take a selfie with the Church of the Good Shepherd, the country’s most photographed building. With Lake Tekapo and the Southern Alps as a backdrop, why not? In its shadow stands the Mackenzie sheepdog statue.

A monument to James Mackenzie and his dog, Friday, the area’s first permanent settlers. Save photo opps in the summertime for the beautiful fields of lupins. Walk a lot. With the likes of Mt John to ascend, scenery abounds, and you need not be a hiker to manage.

Omarama

An awesome attraction for glider pilots, Omarama means ‘the place of light’. Lying in a broad basin between mountain ranges, it is well known to glider pilots who soar its clear skies over the Waitaki Valley and McKenzie basin. Fishing in the fast-flowing rivers is also a highlight for visitors.

Other reasons to stop by and linger are the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail and the Hot Tubs Omarama. Since you are in high-country, pop into the Wrinkly Rams to view sheepdog demonstrations or a live sheep shearing show. While you’re there grab a bite to eat at their popular restaurant and do a bit of browsing and gift-buying at the souvenir shop.

Wanaka

Wanaka is more than just the lake that gives it its name, which is, in fact, one of New Zealand’s five largest lakes. This enchanting resort town on the southern end of its namesake lake is the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park.

Visit Mount Aspiring National Park and experience one of New Zealand’s highest peaks. It is a hiker’s utopia, with glaciers, river valleys and alpine lakes, you’re spoilt for choice with many short walks as well as longer hikes. Tracks include the Dart/Rees River circuit, Routeburn, Greenstone/Caples, and the Wilkin Valley tracks. Shorter walks include Lake Sylvan near the lower dart River, Routeburn Nature Walk, and Haast Pass Summit. The 30-minute Blue Pools Walk has a swing bridge that leads to a viewing platform overlooking the mouth of Blue River and its crystal-clear pools.

Here you can look out over the snow-capped Southern Alps and alpine lakes. Experience a wilderness of glaciers and beech forests on the very edge of the Treble Cone and Cardrona ski resorts. But snow and water are not the beginning and end of your options in Wanaka.

Things to do in Wanaka:

  • The best tandem-jump in New Zealand is to be found with Skydive Wanaka, and it starts at Wanaka airport. Whether it’s a tandem or freefall thrill you are after, this gives you a unique perspective of the lakes and mountains from 15,000ft straight up.
  • Snow ski or snowboard at any one of four ski resorts, for family fun, a world-class freestyle park, cross-country skiing, a night out in a backcountry hut or exclusive access by snow-cat to 652-acres of pristine snow.
  • Bike tours give you the chance to cycle around the scenic lakes or adrenaline rush along Mt. Aspiring. Heli-biking offers a helicopter ride to 6500ft with a cycle down one of New Zealand’s highest mountain bike trails.
  • Tour the Twin Falls where you get to climb the world’s highest waterfall, cross wire bridges and be in awed by hidden pools.
  • And now for something completely different, visit Puzzling World. A weird day’s worth of optical illusions, 3D maze, puzzling rooms, the Leaning Tower of Wanaka, and the Sculptillusion Gallery with its reversible figures, mysterious objects, and paintings.
  • Cruise Lake Wanaka by boat to Mou Waho Island nature reserve and spot the rare flightless Buff Weka. A nature walk opens up the large lake on top of the island.
  • Kayak or paddle Lake Wanaka at your leisure.
  • Hike Roys Peak or the Mount Iron Track and enjoy the views.
  • Jet boat on Matukituki River.
  • Wanaka Lavender Farm offers 10 acres of lavender fields and gardens, alpacas and highland cows. Here you can get a feel for the country life, settle back for tea, and relax awhile.
  • Photograph the Wanaka Tree. A most photographed feature of the Southern discoveries as it lives blooms and thrives in the middle of Lake Wanaka.

Wanaka Foods and drinks tips

  • Eating out has never been as scenic, with cafes and restaurants lakefront.
  • The local Farmers Markets are a must.
  • Raise a glass (or two) at Rippon, the oldest vineyard in Wanaka, which comes with a complimentary view of Lake Wanaka and the Southern Alps.
  • Sample New Zealand’s only single malt whiskey on a tour of the Cardrona Distillery.
  • Lunch with the Kea birds on Mount Aspiring National Park’s Rob Roy Glacier Track, but don’t feed them!

Milford Sound

Milford Sound is internationally lauded as the eighth wonder of the world. This fiord in the southwest of South Island is yet another of the must-see places in New Zealand. The pure natural beauty of the rainforests is quite simply a world apart. Bear in mind the towering Mitre Peak and the Stirling and Bowen waterfalls. At Milford sound kayak the pure glacial water in a serene cove for a tranquil dip in nature like nowhere else on Earth.

Glenorchy

Nestled on the northern end of Lake Wakatipu it is here where the Dart River ends its meander at the small settlement of Glenorchy. The area beckons outdoor enthusiasts, photographers, hikers, adrenaline junkies, and holidaymakers seeking time away. Indeed, there is no shortage of activities to thrill the psyche while the mind rests:

  • Horse riding
  • Kayaking
  • Canyoning
  • Fishing and Fly fishing
  • Mountain biking
  • Golf course
  • Paragliding
  • Jetboating
  • Boat cruises
  • Walks and Climbs
  • Windsurfing and Kitesurfing
  • Guided tours in and around Glenorchy

Te Anau

The gateway to Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound is the picturesque township of Te Anau. This city is the perfect place to stay and dine while experiencing the surrounding points of interest of the South Island. Whether you are interested in taking a scenic flight, lake cruising, fishing, kayaking or generally just exploring, you’re in the right place.

  • Te Anau Glow-worm Caves: bioluminescent insects light up the limestone passages and dark, albeit young caves, at a mere 12000 years in age. The experience starts with a cruise across South Island’s largest lake, Lake Te Anau, with the option of a guided forest tour.
  • Te Anau Bird Sanctuary specializes in naïve birds, but the most unique must be the rare and flightless Takahē.
  • Horse trekking allows a view of the town, mountains and scenic areas from the saddle

Queenstown

Bobs Peak view of Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown
Aerial view of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu from Bob’s Peak

Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand. It is here that the tourist is catered for above and beyond, with a veritable smorgasbord of to-dos for both the adventurous and the less so. It is definitely one of the must-see places in New Zealand. Sitting as it does under dramatic alpine ranges on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, year-round entertainment is the order of the day.

Things to do in Queenstown:

  • Tours and adventure opportunities are available for bungy-jumping, jet-boating, skiing, canyon swinging, horse trekking, hiking, biking, winery, scenic flights, and so much more.
  • White Water rafting Queenstown is a must-do, whether you are beginner status or advanced. Queenstown has the grade of rapids for every level and everyone.
  • A renowned cyclist paradise, Queenstown and surrounds offers a range from scenic tracks to backcountry trails and Heli-biking.
  • Skydive Queenstown lets you jump safely from a plane from as high as 15000 ft, for a uniquely exhilarating view of the greater Queenstown area.
  • Skyline Gondola Queenstown takes you up the steepest cable car lift in the Southern hemisphere for panoramic views of Queenstown below.
  • Queenstown Gondola offers the Southern Hemisphere’s only gondola accessed downhill mountain biking prospect.
  • Walking and hiking trails and sightseeing tours are enjoyable for those who are not adrenaline junkies.
  • Opportunities for shopping, spa treatments, and indulging on the culinary side.
  • Queenstown wine tours let you enjoy wine tasting at leisure. Queenstown even has its very own wine cave.

Manapouri

Abutting the Fiordland National Park and nestled on the lake of the same name is the town of Manapouri. Meaning “lake of the sorrowing heart,” it if from here that visitors can enjoy journeys into the glacier-carved wilderness. Explore the fiord known as Doubtful Sound by sea kayak or cruise boat, or walk the many hiking trails: Circle Track, Kepler Track, and the more remote Dusky Track.

Dunedin

New Zealand’s own Edinburgh wears its Scottish heritage very proudly. This well-preserved Victorian cum Edwardian city has nonetheless a vibey night scene and well worth the while natural attractions. The Otago Peninsula affords views and rugged beaches quite stunning in their purity.

It is hereabouts where the Northern Royal Albatross can be viewed in its natural surrounds. In fact, this is the only place in the world where they can be seen on the mainland. The rarest penguin colonies are also to be found on Dunedin’s doorstep.

Giving credence to the Edwardian and Victorian heritage, New Zealand’s one and only castle is regally perched on the Otago Peninsula. Here you can view the splendor of Larnarch Castle; delight in the gardens, dine like a king or queen and even spend the night.

Christchurch

Moving your way back up north along the east coast brings you to Christchurch.

Things to do in Christchurch

Exploring the city is easy, with bike options including cycling along on a vintage cycle. Guided tours aplenty including a guided Hassle-free double-decker bus tour, or a view from on high with Garden City Helicopters.

You can enjoy The Garden City by meandering the parks and gardens, including Hagley Park, Christchurch Botanic Gardens, Sumner Promenade or New Brighton Pier, or float on a punt down the Avon.

Ride the longest chairlift in New Zealand at Christchurch Adventure Park. This is a great way to see the city from atop the Port Hills, as far as with the Canterbury Plains and the Southern Alps.

Culturally, Christchurch has The Court Theatre and the Isaac Theatre Royal. Māori culture is explored at Ko Tāne, where the passion of the haka is explained. Rugby lovers will enjoy this particular slant.

History enthusiasts will just love the Air Force Museum of New Zealand, Canterbury Museum, and Quake City. As the Gateway to Antarctica where better to have the International Antarctic Centre to get a closer look at life on the ice.

Clearwater Golf Club and Pegasus Golf and Sports Club offer opportunities to hit that allusive hole in one on inspiring fairways. Ride a pony with Waimak River Horse Trekking or jet boat on the Waimakariri River.

Wrapping up

New Zealand South Island has definitely got the purest natural landscapes travelers will ever experience in the world. Whether you are after adrenaline rush encounters or a chill meander through a diverse collection of natural phenomena, South Island is the place to see.

Water, glaciers, mountains, starlit skies, and even a natural light show par excellence all thrown in with rare and interesting wild- and birdlife, fauna, and flora. Shopping, eateries, culinary delights and winelands pull it all together for a holiday of a lifetime, no matter who you are. Pull in. You won’t be disappointed.