Welcome to the South Island of New Zealand, where the locals are friendly and the nature is out-of-this-world, drop-dead gorgeous. Glaciers! Mountains! Forests! Beaches! Did we mention the nature was really pretty? We did? Well, we weren’t kidding. But it’s not just the stunning scenery that captivates travellers down south in this part of the world. There are world-class wineries, award-winning restaurants, cosy villages and cool destinations to add to your bucket list. We’ve rounded up the top activities and things to do in South Island, New Zealand, to help you plan your next great adventure.
1. Stay in the Marlborough Sounds
One of the largest and most impressive national parks the South Island has on offer, the Marlborough Sounds span a jaw-dropping 1,500km of New Zealand’s coastline. You can hike through impressive forests on the trails, kayak or cruise along the headland and swim in the picturesque bays.
With so much to explore, many travellers opt to stay in one of the park campgrounds or kick things up a notch with a few nights in one of the lodges. On Contiki’s South Island Off Grid trip, you get to enjoy a two-night special stay in the remote Lochmara Lodge, pictured below.
2. Journey up Dart River on a Funyak
Put the FUN in kayaking with a journey up the scenic Dart River in Mt Aspiring National Park, near Glenorchy. On this memorable tour, you’ll paddle down the river in your inflatable funyak, admiring the forested mountains, pristine lakes, rock pools and chasms of the Te Wai Pounamu World Heritage area. Stopping in the heart of the park to enjoy a picnic at lunch, you’ll make your way back up the river on an exhilarating jet boat ride.
3. Spend a week in Queenstown
If you can’t spare a week, a few days is still plenty of time to explore this travel hub – hey, even a quick 24 hours will still leave you with a tonne of fun memories. Queenstown is known as the home of adventure, with the AJ Hackett Nevis Valley, Kawarau Bridge Bungy, Shotover Jet and more to enjoy. There’s also the famous Bob’s Peak and Ben Lomond track, Queenstown Luge, Queenstown Wine Trail and much, much more to enjoy. And at the end of the day, you can top off your adventures with a delicious Fergburger. See our guide to the best things to do in Queenstown here.
4. Take a wine tour in the Marlborough region
Whether you’re a wine savant or prefer to grab the cheapest bottle on offer, you’re sure to know that New Zealand is world-famous for its wine. In particular, the Marlborough wine region is renowned for superb Sauvignon Blanc, as well as Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.
Take a relaxing day tour through the wine region to visit some of the local vineyards. With over 20,000ha of vines in the region, its safe to say there are a lot of wineries to choose from. Head to the top-rated Nautilus Wines for a smaller, family-run vineyard experience, Seresin Estate for organic and biodynamic drops, and to Cloudy Bay for one of the most popular Sauvignon Blanc varietals in the world.
5. Heli hike on Franz Josef Glacier
A helicopter ride for a hike? Absolutely! It’s go big or go home in New Zealand, and the Franz Josef Heli Hike is a world-famous experience.
But even if you’re not feeling a helicopter vibe, a visit to this ancient glacier should still be on your bucket list. You can check it out from the best on-ground vantage point at the Franz Josef lookout, taking the 5.4km return Franz Josef Glacier/Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere walking track.
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6. See the Southern Lights
Did you know that the iconic Northern Lights have an equally impressive southern counterpart? Yep, the Aurora Australis AKA Southern Lights are known to light up the skies across New Zealand, with vibrant pink and green hues dancing alongside the stars. These magical lights can appear at any time, but they’re most likely to show in the winter months, from May to September. One of the best places to see the lights is Stewart Island, the southernmost island off the coast of NZ. It’s closely followed by The Caitlins, Invercargil and the stunning Lake Tekapo.
7. Wind down in Lake Tekapo
Being able to see the Southern Lights is enough of a reason to visit Lake Tekapo, but fortunately this quaint town has even more going for it. One word springs to mind when you’re walking along the shoreline of the beautiful Tekapo: tranquil.
If you’re looking to relax on the South Island, you can’t beat the small town of Tekapo, which is perched along the southern end of a glacial lake. Take in the surrounding scenery including the blue lake and lupin flowers, stargaze at the at Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, admire the historic Church of the Good Shepherd and treat yourself to some delicious meals in the local eateries. Don’t let the small-town nature of Tekapo fool you – there are some serious good eats to be found in restaurants including Our Dog Friday, The Greedy Cow and the Blue Lake Eatery and Bar.
8. Take a helicopter ride over Mt Cook - Aoraki
Mt Cook (Aoraki) is the tallest mountain in New Zealand, reaching an impressive height of 3,724 metres. The national park is home to many mountain peaks, glaciers and walking tracks to explore the scenic valleys on foot. But one of the coolest things to do is take a helicopter ride over Mt Cook (Aoraki), with a stop on the Tasman Glacier. It’s an unforgettable experience.
9. Hike the Routeburn Track
If you’re keen to immerse yourself in the nature of the Fiordland National Park and Mt Aspiring National Park, you can’t go past the Routeburn Track. The 33km tramping track takes about three days to complete, passing through enormous valleys, past cascading waterfalls and up mountain peaks. But it’s also broken up into smaller segments if you’d prefer to tackle something a bit lighter. Either way, the nature is still epic!
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10. Cruise through Milford Sound
Arguably one of the most popular sights to see in New Zealand, Milford Sound and the Fiordland National Park are a major part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site. This protected region has been described as the “eighth natural Wonder of the World” thanks to its incredible beauty and impressive size.
Milford Sound is a fiord formed during the ice ages; with inky dark waters, steep cliffs and incredible waterfalls to see. The most popular way to explore the fiord is with a Milford Sound cruise, but there are also walking tracks, kayak tours and scenic flights. You should also have your camera handy as you drive through the Fiordland National Park to reach Milford Sound, with some seriously beautiful photo-stops to check out the mountains, valleys, streams and general “pinch-me” moments.
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11. Kayak in the Abel Tasman National Park
The Abel Tasman is New Zealand’s smallest National Park, but still compares to the likes of the grand Marlborough Sounds when it comes to pristine natural beauty. You can cruise, sail and swim through the waters of the park, but kayaking is one of the best ways to get around. Whether you rent a kayak and go it alone, or take a kayak tour, it’s a great way to make the most of the park’s many different golden bays, coves, lagoons and offshore islands along the coastline.
12. See the Hokitika Gorge and Sign
If you’re travelling on the west coast of the South Island, head to the borough of Hokitika for a pit-stop or overnight stay. Discover the local history of gold mines and shipwrecks, see the pounamu galleries and check out the Hokitika Beach Sign made from driftwood.
The real showstopper, however, is the Hokitika Gorge just a 30-minute drive outside of town. With vibrant turquoise waters and lush native forest, this gorge is what New Zealand travel dreams are made of.
13. Run through the lavender fields in Ben Ohau
Name a better duo than Instagram and Lavender Fields. I’ll wait. Up your ‘gram game with a visit to one of the largest organic lavender farms in the world, the New Zealand Alpine Lavender Farm outside the small town of Twizel. See the picturesque rows of lavender, sample fresh lavender-flavoured ice cream and pick up some organic oils or gifts to take home as special souvenirs.
If you’re not passing through this side of town, you can also check out lavender fields in Wanaka, Kaikoura and Queenstown.
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