There are so many things to do when you visit the South Island. It is hard to limit it to just a few major things. Wherever you decide to visit, you will find some small little aspects or places that will make the whole trip amazing.
The Canterbury region located on the eastern side of the South Island spreads over 45,000 square kilometres. The region is known for a multitude of things, but it is world-renowned for being a food-growing region. It produces, amongst other things, meat products, seafood, dairy food and wine.
Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island with a population totalling at nearly 400,000. The Canterbury earthquakes rocked the city in 2011. The aftermath caused some 65,000 people to move to other parts of the country. Since then the city has slowly been recovering although it still retains some of its scars.
Why not take a walk around the city to see all of the different kinds of street art. After the devastating earthquakes in 2011, the city was rebuilt as a more creative and funky urban centre. You can find many colourful murals that tell stories of the city’s resilience and indomitable spirit. A worthwhile addition to any trip to the city.
Why not visit Akaroa, the most French Town in New Zealand
Located an hour and twenty minutes away from the city of Christchurch, this small town has a deep French vibe to it.
The best way to explore the town is on foot. First, stop off at the information centre and there you will be provided with all the information about the town that you could need. Take a look at all of the restaurants and little cottages littered throughout the town, and be sure to stop off at the Museum for all your history needs.
If the town’s history isn’t something that you are overly interested in, then you should look out to sea. There are many boat tours that you can go on to view all of the marine wildlife that is in the area. All in all, this is a must-see place if you are visiting nearby Christchurch.
Visit the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
If you have seen any kinds of information guides about the South Island of New Zealand, you would have heard about or seen Mount Cook.
You can visit Mount Cook National Park at any time of the year but each different season will provide you with a different experience. All around the NAtional park, there are many walks that you can take. Each of them is of varying difficulties (weather also plays a part in it).
Why not walk the Hooker Valley Track. The Hooker Valley Track is one of the finest half-day walks in the area. You’ll get to spot the peak of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mount Cook, across a glacial lake scattered with icebergs. This specific walk is good at all times of the year, although during winter it may take a little longer as the path can get icy.
Go whale watching in Kaikōura
Kaikōura is located two hours north of Christchurch. The town is caught between the Seaward Kaikōura Range and the Pacific Ocean, and during the winter the mountain range is covered in snow.
Off the coast, there is a plethora of wildlife; sperm whales, orcas, and dolphins, to name a few. So while you are here, you should hop on a boat to tour the oceans looking for these animals.
Gaze at the stars above Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo is not too far from Mt Cook National Park, located in Mackenzie Country of the Canterbury Region. Being so far away from any major population centre the skies are as clear as they can be, and all around the lake, you can see the mountains that reach towards the sky. You will find no light pollution to obstruct the view overhead, which makes Lake Tekapo a prime location to do some stargazing.
Stargazing at the Tekapo Hot Springs is the perfect place to sit back and look at the stars. It is perfect for those chilly clear nights. You get to hear about all of the different stars up in the night sky and then even look at them through several telescopes during your visit.
The deep blue depths of Lake Tekapo make this an irresistible stopover on your Mackenzie Country road trip. Make sure you step outside at night time to catch a glimpse of the spectacularly clear skies and bright stars.
One thing that you must check out while you have made your stop in Tekapo is to view the Church of the Good Shepard. To some, it might seem as though it is just a little stone church on the edge of the lake, but it houses some of the best views of the lake and the night sky above.
Located within the Otago Peninsula, Dunedin is known as the Edinburgh of New Zealand. The city is known to wear its Scottish heritage with pride and so it should. Dunedin is surrounded by dramatic hills and lies at the foot of a long, picturesque harbour. It has been said that Dunedin is ‘one of the best-preserved Victorian and Edwardian cities in the Southern Hemisphere’. I am inclined to agree with that statement. It feels as though regardless of where you turn, you can discover something new and tied to history.
The city is easily walkable, and everything is within reach of one another, so if you don’t happen to have access to a car, then you needn’t be worried. Two well-known heritage walks allow you to see every inch of the city and bask in its beauty. Each of the walks is marked by bronze plaques set into the footpath, marked as ‘Heritage Walk 1’ and ‘Heritage Walk 2’.
In the city itself, you will find a variety of restaurants, pubs and cafes to fill all of your food and drink desires. But if you are looking for something more involved with the history of the city, then why not visit the Toitu Otago Early Settlers Museum and the Otago Museum. The city is littered with picturesque gardens for all to see. The Botanic Gardens and the Dunedin Chinese Gardens are two of these such places, and I highly recommend visiting both attractions.
Taieri Gorge Railway
Starting from the Railway Station located in Dunedin, Taieri Gorge Railway is New Zealand’s longest tourist railway. The line travels through spectacular scenery along the banks of the Taieri River, through numerous tunnels and climbing along the Taieri Gorge to the Strath Taieri. It crosses a dozen viaducts, including the southern hemisphere’s largest wrought iron structure, and passes through ten tunnels. All along the way, you can look out the windows of the cabin or walk between the carriages to see all of the sights.
This railway has to be one of my favourite pastimes in New Zealand. I love it so much that the second time that I visited the city, I just had to take another trip on it.
Up in the hills overlooking the Otago Peninsula (only a 20-minute drive from Dunedin), you will find yourself in the estate of Larnach Castle. Although not considered to be like a castle of European means, it is the only castle in New Zealand. It is filled with the history of the family who lived there and of the Otago Peninsula itself. There you can take a tour around the gardens and inside the castle, or explore them both for yourself, taking in all the spectacular views along the way. You can partake in high tea in the gardens, and also have some lunch in the gardens.
Royal Albatross Centre
A short drive further up the peninsula from Larnach Castle, nestled at the foot of Taiaroa Head, you will find yourself at the Royal Albatross Centre. It holds the very high prestige of being the only place in the world on the mainland where you can view the Northern Royal Albatross in their natural habitat.
This city is located at the southernmost tip of the Southern Island and along the route of the great scenic road that led down from Dunedin, taking about 3.5 hours.
The city has an excellent range of shops and a selection of lively bars and restaurants to suit everyone’s needs. The architecture throughout the city is very much that of Victorian, Edwardian and Art Deco, they give the city a charming old-world character.
Just minutes from the city centre there are a great array of coastal landscapes to explore – from the long coastal highway of Oreti Beach to the native wonders of Waituna Wetlands and Omaui. You can also just take a walk along the boardwalk on the estuary and the heritage wharves.
Te Anau is the best place to base yourself if you wish to see both the Fiordlands National Park and Milford Sound.
The town is home to a wide range of accommodation including lodges, hotels and campgrounds, and it is best to book well in advance if you wish to travel during the peak months of January through March.
There are plenty of restaurants in this area, all of which give visitors the opportunity to sample delicious local meals like venison, lobster and seafood.
You will find a wide variety of popular local activities to do during your stay in Te Anau. These include scenic flights, lake cruising, fishing, kayaking and exploring the Te Anau Glowworm Caves. Additionally, to those activities, there is also a bird sanctuary that specialises in native birds. Hiking is also available on the Milford, Routeburn or Kepler Tracks, but you must organise it through the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre before departing.
Across the lake is where you will find the Te Anau Glowworm Caves. These I have been to twice, and they always seem to take my breath away. When you are in the boat looking up at the roof, it feels as though you are staring at the stars. But all you are seeing is thousands of little glow worms hanging above your head. An experience I highly recommend.
Milford Sound is situated on the west coast of the South Island about two hours away from Te Anau. The drive to Milford Sound is almost as beautiful as the sound itself. But it is recommended to take it slow and careful as the road can be quite windy through certain sections.
The Fiordland is one of the wettest areas of New Zealand. It is notorious for high rainfall and can have cool temperatures all year round. On average, Milford Sound receives rain 182 days of the year. If you plan on visiting Milford Sound, be prepared to bring your umbrella. But don’t let the rain discourage you. The more rain there is, the more waterfalls there will be to cascade over the mountains.
For those who are seeking a little bit more adventure while at Milford Sound you can take part in sea kayaking, diving or flightseeing. If you wish to learn more about the local marine life, then why not visit the underwater observatory at Harrison Cove.
But ultimately the best thing that you can do to take in the scenery up close is to cruise through the sound on a ship. There are many different tours that you can choose from that to have different lengths, but each of them allows you to see the sound in all its glory.
Queenstown can be considered the travel destination for tourists who love adventure activities. There’s skiing from winter right through to spring, and activities such as bungy jumping, sky diving, canyon swinging, jet boating, horse trekking and river rafting all year round.
Queenstown is the home of the first Bungy jump as well as one of the largest Bungy jumps in the southern hemisphere. However, if jumping off a ledge with a stretchy rope tied around your legs isn’t to your liking, there are plenty of other adrenaline-inducing activities you could always try out such as canyoning and jet boating. There is also kayaking in certain parts of Lake Wakatipu or even up the rivers like the Dart River. Or if you have ever wanted to try out trail riding, then I would recommend doing it here. Mountains and scenery will surround you at all times, so having your camera ready would be wise.
If the adventure activities aren’t your kind of thing Queenstown still has much to offer. There are plenty of restaurants and bars, and also lots of places to get some sightseeing in. The town is easily accessible by walking, and you can get yourself lost within the streets.
If you want to check out two famous Glaciers of the South Island, you’ll need to head to the western side of the island. There are many different places that you can see snow in New Zealand, but being able to see these glaciers up close and personal is something else.
The name Fox Glacier describes both the glacier and the nearby village. It was given such a name after one of New Zealand’s prime ministers, Sir William Fox who ran from 1869-72. The glacier descends from the Southern Alps and meets temperate rainforest at just 300 metres above sea level.
To see the glacier, you can head towards Lake Matheson on Cook Flat Road for magnificent views. You can arrange an ice-hiking adventure or booking a scenic flight. If you decide to drive why not check out the beautiful Lake Matheson. It is considered to be one of the most photographed lakes in New Zealand. People have said that on a clear day it reflects Mount Cook.
While in the village of Fox Glacier you should check out the glow worm caves, which are just a short walk from the town centre. This also offers you a chance to see a good choice of cafes and restaurants.
Franz Josef Glacier
The glacier is five kilometres from the town of the same name, and a 1.5-hour walk will take you to within 750m of its terminal face. The face of Franz Josef Glacier has receded over time due to the ice melting, and along the walk to the glacier face, you can learn all about the changes that can occur to a glacier over time. Like it’s twin, Fox Glacier, it descends from the Southern Alps and meets temperate rainforest at 300 metres above sea level.
However, if you want to make contact with the glacier, then you will need to take a heli-hike or a guided ice walk. But there is also the option of aerial sightseeing. These sightseeing and helicopter tours are all subject to weather conditions as they can quickly change on the glacier.
There’s a range of natural attractions close to Franz Josef Glacier Village. So why not delve into the nature of your surrounding in the local rainforests, waterfalls, and lakes.
In the town, you’ll find plenty of places to stay and eat, and you can relax at the Glacier Hot Pools (these I personally recommend, especially after doing the walk to the glacier) or explore the nearby wildlife centre. There are quad bike tours which allow you to drive, by yourself or with a partner, on a quad bike through various tracks that give you perfect sights of all the stunning mountains. You can also take a kayak tour or rent a stand-up paddleboard at the local lake, Lake Mapourika.
Nelson is located in the region of Nelson Tasman; this area is some of the sunniest regions of the southern island. With the water located right next to this region, a lot of the activities in this area are based upon the sea.
From Nelson’s city centre, it is an easy walk to the geographical centre of New Zealand. From here you can enjoy the stunning views of the city, port, Tasman Bay and surrounding mountains – a perfect place for anyone who loves to bask in the scenery and take photos.
During your visit to the city, you can get the chance to appreciate New Zealand art, both in galleries and in artists’ studios. If you are a massive Tolkien fan (like myself), then visit Jens Hansen, the maker of the ‘One Ring’ from the Lord of the Rings & Hobbit trilogies. Or why not visit the Historic South Street and Founders Heritage Park you with an insight into regions unique history. Gardens like the Queens Gardens, Miyazu Gardens & the Japanese Gardens can show you the diversity that the city holds dear.
The city of Nelson has events taking place all year round, this makes it a desirable place to visit, live and work. Some of these events include Light Nelson, Feast for the Senses, Arts Festival, Buskers Festival, Cider Festival and MarchFest.
Blenheim is situated in the heart of the wine-growing Marlborough region. It is considered to be one of the sunniest towns in New Zealand.
In and around Blenheim you’ll find an array of cafes, restaurants, wineries, bars, shops, artisan food outlets and golf courses along with popular walkways along with the Taylor River Reserve.
The Marlborough Farmers market is a must-do in Blenheim; buy direct from local growers and producers in a lovely market setting at New Zealand’s original Farmers’ Market.