The South Island of New Zealand is known around the world for its mountains, lakes and glaciers offering unique experiences and adrenaline-filled activities.
The Southern Alps run the length of the South Island and are home to New Zealand’s highest mountain peak, Aoraki Mount Cook. In the Southwest lies Fiordland National Park, a World Heritage area and the country’s largest national park full of jagged mountain peaks and dramatic scenery.
An intricate network of waterways makes up the Marlborough Sounds on the northern coast with picturesque coastal communities populating the east and west coasts.
With a variety of landscapes and experiences to be had, there is something for everyone. Here are the 10 best things to do in the South Island of New Zealand.
10 Best Things to Do in the South Island of New Zealand
1. Kayaking through the Marlborough Sounds
The Marlborough Sounds are 1500 kilometers (932 miles) of sunken river valleys located on the northern end of the South Island of New Zealand. Sea Kayaking is a fun way to explore these intricate waterways.
Turquoise water meets lush green native forests creating a picturesque landscape and a healthy habitat for local wildlife.
Renting a kayak and exploring the sounds independently or joining a guided tour is possible. Guided tour options range from half-day to multi-day tours and are suitable for a range of experiences from beginner to advanced.
2. Go Whale Watching in Kaikoura
Kaikoura is a small town near the top of the South Island and popular with visitors and locals alike for the opportunity to experience sea life up close.
Kaikoura is home to the playful dusky dolphin, New Zealand fur seals and majestic sperm whales, which can be seen along the coast all year round. Humpback whales and Orcas can also be seen at certain times of the year due to their migratory patterns.
Whale Watch Kaikoura has a 95% success rate of seeing dolphins and whales on their tours and offers a partial refund if there are no sightings.
Alternatively, you can see these majestic creatures from above on a whale-watching flight with Air Kaikoura.
3. Visit the Beautiful Town of Akaroa
Akaroa is a small town on the Banks Peninsula, a one and half hour’s drive from the city of Christchurch and one of the South Island’s hidden gems.
This charming town has an interesting history, being the only French settlement in New Zealand, which continues to feature throughout the town today.
The best way to experience Akaroa is to grab a map from the information center and explore the town on foot.
Visit colorful historic cottages, shop for souvenirs in boutique shops and dine at local restaurants featuring French cuisine.
4. Explore the Franz Josef Glacier
If you are feeling adventurous, you can experience the ultimate heli-hike or ice-climbing adventure on the Franz Josef Glacier.
Tours start from the Franz Josef Glacier Village near the West Coast of the South Island. It’s a small but lively village located only a few kilometers from the glacier.
If a guided tour of the glacier is not within budget, the Franz Josef Glacier walk is a great alternative without paying for a tour.
You will not be able to walk on the glacier from here but it’s an easy 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) return hike that takes you right to its edge.
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5. Experience the Hokitika Gorge
The Hokitika Gorge is a scenic reserve located 33 kilometers (20.5 miles) east of the town of Hokitika on the West Coast of the South Island.
Here you’ll see the blue-green water of the Hokitika River carving its way through the jagged rocks of the gorge. The color of the water is the most magnificent shade of blue-green that really pops on a sunny day.
The best views of the gorge are from the Hokitika Gorge Walk, an easy 2 kilometer (1.2 mile) loop track through the forest, over swing bridges and along boardwalks to a viewing platform with excellent views of the river flowing through the gorge.
6. Walk the Hooker Valley Track in Mount Cook
The Hooker Valley Track in Mount Cook National Park is in a remote alpine area of the South Island and home to Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain peak.
The Hooker Valley Track is one of New Zealand’s most popular day walks and for good reason. It is a 5 kilometer (3 mile) walk on a well-formed track suitable for most fitness levels with the most spectacular scenery.
The walk will take you over swing bridges with stunning views of glacial lakes and snow-capped mountains before finishing at the iceberg-spectacled Hooker Lake and legendary Mount Cook.
7. Take a Scenic Road Trip
You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to scenic road trips in the South Island. Here are a few options for the most scenic drives in the country.
The drive from Queenstown to Mt Cook is 275 kilometres (171 miles) long and one of the most scenic road trips in New Zealand. It is a must-do experience when visiting the South Island.
There is so much to see and do along the way that it can easily be turned into a whole day’s journey. From historic hotels to the otherworldly Lindis Pass you will be awed by the ever-changing scenery and lookout points along the way.
The scenic drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is known as the Glenorchy-Queenstown Highway. The road follows alongside the vast Lake Wakatipu with mountains as the backdrop. As the road curves around bends and crests over hills you are treated to some seriously stunning views.
Along the way, you’ll find scenic lookout points, swimming spots, hiking trails, famous filming spots and plenty of photo opportunities.
The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is one of the most popular roads in New Zealand.
In fact, the Milford-Sound Highway has been named one of the most scenic drives in the world! It’s a whopping 287.6 kilometer (179 mile) journey through dramatic landscapes with lots of opportunities to stop along the way to soak up the views.
8. Indulge in Adventure Activities in Queenstown
Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of New Zealand and for good reason. Located in a stunning alpine location, it is a top destination for visitors from all around the world.
From skydiving to bungy jumping, canyoning, off-road adventures and so much more, Queenstown is THE place in New Zealand to get your adrenaline fix!
This is where it all started, after all, the World Home to Bungy. The Kawarau Bridge Bungy is the original and world-famous. It’s a 43m (140 foot) high bungy over the Kawarau River.
You can even touch the water if you dare. The views are pretty awesome here, especially in autumn when the gorge is filled with red, orange and yellow colors against the ice-blue river.
Queenstown is built around an inlet called Queenstown Bay and perched on the edge of the massive Lake Wakatipu.
It’s surrounded by mountains such as The Remarkables, Cecil Peak and Walter Peak with Queenstown Hill and Ben Lomond sitting just above the town. All of these elements make for the most spectacular views. They are also the perfect ingredients for adventure.
9. Go Wine Tasting in Cromwell
Cromwell and the Central Otago Region is one of the most prominent wine-producing regions in New Zealand. It’s particularly known for its Pinot Noir whose vines thrive in the dry, arid climate.
With many cellar doors and tasting rooms dotted around Cromwell, it’s easy to walk from winery to winery on your own.
Misha’s Vineyard Tasting Room, Scott Base Vineyard, Wild Earth Wines and Wooing Tree Vineyard are popular options nearby that can be visited in one afternoon.
Of course, the best and easiest way to experience multiple wineries is to join an organised wine tour. With many tour options and operators to choose from, there is a tour to suit many tastes and budgets.
10. Experience Milford Sound
Milford Sound is located in Fiordland, a World Heritage area and home to New Zealand’s largest national park. It’s a magical place and worth dedicating a whole day of the itinerary to explore this unique part of the world.
The 4-hour scenic drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound will take you through some of the most dramatic and picturesque landscapes New Zealand has to offer.
Alternatively, if you prefer not to drive, there are several tour options available departing from Queenstown.
Milford Sound is often referred to as the ‘8th Wonder of the World and should be on everyone’s list of things to do in New Zealand.
You’ll be surrounded by rugged mountain peaks, lush green landscapes and waterfalls plummeting down sheer rock faces.
The best way to see Milford Sound is by boat and on foot. Be sure to take a cruise to Bowen Falls and experience some of the many great hikes in the Milford Sound area.
Final Thoughts: 10 Best Things to Do in the South Island of New Zealand
From mountains to coastal communities, bucket-list adventures to award-winning wineries, the South Island offers a diverse range of landscapes and activities.
With so many epic things to see and do in the South Island of New Zealand, it’s sure to be a trip to remember!
Heather Marston from https://newzealandwanderer.com/