If you are looking for those typical New Zealand sceneries, you will find most of them on the South Island. The mountains, glaciers, rivers, lakes and dramatic coastline – it is all there…
Driving is the best way to explore the island. The roads are in good condition and there isn’t much traffic. New Zealand isn’t a big country but you will hardly find a crowded place there.
Related Post: What You Should Know Before Going To New Zealand
To help you plan the trip, these are the highlights which shouldn’t be missed:
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
The sceneries in the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park are absolutely stunning. You should visit the park even if you aren’t into mountains. There couldn’t be any better entrance than Lake Pukaki with its incredibly turquoise water.
The park is home to the New Zealand’s highest mountain Aoraki/Mt Cook (3724 m/12218 ft). Unfortunately we weren’t lucky with the weather and we didn’t see the peak because it was hidden in the clouds. You have better chances of clear skies early in the morning. Don’t miss the walk to the Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake to see the icebergs and breathtaking landscape.
Fiordland National Park
Fiordland National Park is the largest national park in New Zealand. Most people come here for one of the cruises – Milford or Doubtful Sounds are the most well-known. If you are short of time, go for the Milford Sound cruise. It takes just about two hours. Be prepared for crowds, the place is very busy because of its popularity.
We took the early morning Milford Sound Scenic Cruise with Southern Discoveries. It was the best value and a cooked breakfast was also included. There were just a few people on board with us. The first and last cruises are usually the most quiet. It was a special experience – sharp peaks rising from the water, stunning waterfalls or fur seals basking on their favourite rock. We really enjoyed going under the Stirling Fall and tasting its water. We didn’t mind getting soaked at all.
The landscape along the Te Anau highway leading to the Milford Sound is very scenic and there are many interesting stops on the way. Watch out for the olive-green kea which is the world’s only alpine parrot. You can meet them at many car parks. Keep an eye on your belongings (especially your car keys) because they are curious and clever.
The Fiordland is home to a few Great Walks (the Milford and Kepler Tracks). These are hiking (tramping) trails which lead through most spectacular landscapes in New Zealand. They usually take a few days to complete but you can choose to walk just a section or two. The huts might be fully booked months in advance so you need to plan ahead.
Abel Tasman National Park
We were excited to visit the Abel Tasman National Park and it exceeded our expectations.
We hiked the first part of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track which is one of the New Zealand Great Walks. We took water taxi from Marahau to the Bark Bay and walked back to Marahau. It took us about seven hours. This time we got good weather (for change!).
It is a beautiful and easy walk through the lush bush with stunning golden beaches around every corner. Kayaking is also popular in the area.
Punakaiki Marine Reserve
We have to admit that we hadn’t heard about this amazing place before our trip. But we are so happy we stopped by and didn’t miss it!
The area is also known as the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. These limestone rocks have been formed by the ocean for over 30 million years. Here you can really see how powerful the water can be. The walking path will take you along the dramatic coast. It starts just across the road from the car park.
Queenstown is a lively town located on the shores of the stunning lake Wakatipu and surrounded by mountains. We didn’t expect much of this ‘party’ town but we liked it in the end. It is full of tourists but still a nice place.
It is often called ‘the adventure capital of the world’. There are so many outdoor activities to choose from – bungy jumping, huge swings, jet-boating, white water rafting, skydiving and much more.
We chose bungy jumping because we had never tried it before and Queenstown was the perfect place for our first jump. We both jumped from the Kawarau Bridge (43 m/141 ft) which is the world’s first commercial bungy jump. Petr also conquered the Nevis Bungy – the 134 m (440 ft) jump off the hanging platform. Super scary, but experience of a lifetime! Both these locations are stunning but the bad news is that it doesn’t make the jump any easier.
After you calm your nerves, try the best burgers in town at the FergBurger. Yummy!
Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island. It is still recovering after an earthquake in 2011 that badly damaged many buildings. There are still a lot of reconstruction sites. Walk around to discover how creative the locals got with recovery of their city. They used art and design to make it look better even in these difficult times.
The city centre is compact and flat, ideal for exploring on foot. Don’t miss the original Cathedral, Cardboard Cathedral and 185 Empty Chairs memorial. Have a cup of coffee or a bite to eat at the Re:Start Mall which is built from shipping containers.
If you have time, visit the International Antarctic Centre to learn more about Antarctica. Where else could you experience a polar storm or a bumpy ride in a hagglund (snowmobile)?
Dunedin is a cute university town with Scottish heritage. It is hilly and its steep roads reminded us of San Francisco. It is home to the world’s steepest street – Baldwin Street. Walk or drive to the top – it is a challenge indeed!
The railway station, which looks like a huge gingerbread house, is supposed to be the most photographed building in New Zealand. Visit some of the lookouts outside the town (for example Mount Cargill) for some amazing views.
The Otago Peninsula is located just off Dunedin and it is a popular choice for one-day trips. The dramatic coastline offers spectacular views. Follow some of the walking trails to explore more secluded areas and unspoiled beaches. You can get close to wildlife and see fur seals, penguins or albatrosses here (fees apply).
Fox And Franz Josef Glaciers
West coast of the South Island is called the wettest part of New Zealand for a reason. During the two days we spent there, it was raining so heavily that we weren’t able to see the glaciers at all. C’est la vie…
You will be able to walk on your own just to the terminal faces of both the glaciers. Expensive helicopter rides or guided trips are the only way to get closer and see more of the glaciers. Yet, the area is beautiful and it is worth stopping by. There are plenty of good walking trails around.
And if you are unlucky with the weather like us, just soak at the Glacier Hot Pools in Franz Josef and life will be beautiful again…
These are our favourite spots on the South Island of New Zealand. They are all so worth a visit!
Is there anything you would add? Let us know!