I spent a week on the South Island of New Zealand and it was absolutely wonderful!!! There are endless things to do, places to see… During the course of planning the trip, I was a little overwhelmed. I mean, where do I even begin?!
Here is a list of some of the things I did and what I thought were the absolute highlights of my trip. I think these are South Island’s must-dos!
1. Mt Cook National Park
Now this is definitely a must-see for when you are in South Island. Located in between Christchurch and Queenstown, the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park delivers one hell of an amazing view of the highest and most iconic mountain in New Zealand. Ideal stopover for when you are doing a road trip from Queenstown to Christchurch like I did, or vice versa.
The end of the Hooker Valley track
Come here for a half day hike into the Hooker Valley and get right up close to Mt Cook and its surrounding glacial lakes – it is absolutely rewarding. Read about my experience on the hike here!
2. Milford Sound
Milford Sound is probably the most popular and iconic attraction in the whole of New Zealand! This World Heritage destination is definitely not to be missed in a South Island trip.
There are many ways you can get to it and experience it! You can either take a bus from Te Anau or Queenstown (long journey though) then witness the fiordlands through a cruise. We wanted to try something more fun (and also, spending less time on a bus) and decided to opt for a Fly-Cruise-Fly with Milford Sound Scenic Flights straight from Queenstown, and over Remarkables and straight to Milford Sound. How cool is that!
Unfortunately, we were unable to make the trip. Milford Sound is notorious for its crazy and unpredictable weather due to its unique fiordland climate. We allocated two days to attempt the scenic flight, and both of them failed. Although the weather was super clear and fine in Queenstown, the winds were too strong and it was pouring too much over at Milford Sound.
I’m sad I never got to visit it but oh well. Hope you have better luck than we did! 🙂
3. Lake Pukaki
Bask in the beauty of this extremely blue coloured lake. I couldn’t believe my eyes when we reached Lake Pukaki because it looked exactly like it does on photos – it is as real as it gets! You can see Mt Cook from here as a bonus!
View from Peter’s Lookout
Come here during spring and you can see lots of colourful lupines all around!
4. Queenstown, the scenic alpine town
Visiting the Queenstown is already an amazing experience in itself. It is with no doubt that this little town just loves to show off its beauty and the amazing scenery it has to offer. Set against the dramatic backdrop of The Remarkables range and the gorgeous Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is definitely one of the most picturesque town ever.
Go up to the Skyline Queenstown via the Gondola (or, just hike up if you want) for an panoramic view of the town. I was there on a clear day and it was amazing!! You can even see the planes fly through the town, too. There are some activities to do there, like bungee jumping, ledge swing and luge.
We stayed in a resort facing The Remarkables and the sunsets are spectacular.
5. Adrenaline adventures
Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world, and home to the most awesome adventure activities. Thrill seekers flock here for an array of adrenaline inducing experiences such as the iconic bungee jumping (first commercial bungee jumping was invented here in NZ!), skydiving, paragliding, canyon swinging, heliskiing, etc. The list goes on!
6. The road trip experience
One of the best things about New Zealand is that most of the places are accessible by car and it’s perfectly safe to self drive anywhere without having to worry about crazy traffic, potential highway robberies or whatever. The roads are all very well maintained, directions are clearly marked, drivers are courteous – it is such a joy to drive here as a tourist!
Experience this scenic country at your own pace and schedule. Be it a camper van or a rental car, you make your own decisions without having to follow a tour!
We were just constantly wowed by the scenic routes on South Island. Mountains and lakes everywhere… not to mention, lots of ‘long’ clouds along the way. It’s no wonder they call New Zealand, Aotearoa, the ‘land of the long white cloud’!
Getting from Queenstown to Mt Cook region would require the crossing of Lindis Pass, pictured above. Super scenic hills, gorges, and cliff edge routes. Sometimes this famous route is closed due to bad weather conditions though, so just be wary of the closures.
7. Whale watching at Kaikoura
Just two and a half hours drive from Christchurch finds us in this dreamy coastal town of Kaikoura, where you can experience whale watching on a boat based tour. Chances of whale sightings are pretty high in this area, as our tour guide explained, due to a steep drop in depth near the coast. A few hundred metres out in the sea from Kaikoura happens to be a continental shelf – it slopes from 100 metres to a steep drop of 1000 metres. This is the part where it attracts lots of sperm whales to Kaikoura, as they love to dive pretty deep! 🙂
It was such an interesting experience, being a first timer, as we watched how the guides listened to the sound of the whales to determine its location and direction it was heading to, in order to get us to the whales!
After the whale spotting, we were treated to a spectacular dolphin show. These acrobatic cuties were very friendly and playful, following our boat and jumping all around us. The scene was absolutely surreal and ridiculously entertaining. Wish we could’ve stayed longer. Hell, I WISH I COULD’VE SWAM WITH THEM! Haha.
8. Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo is ‘picturesque by day, dazzling by night’. Beautiful turquoise blue lakes and mountainous backdrops makes it a must-see for visitors in the South Island. Just like Lake Pukaki, it is beautiful to come during the spring time where lupines are blooming.
On top of Mt John Observatory (only accessible during daytime) where you literally get a beautiful panoramic view around the Lake Tekapo area. I felt like I was another planet, again!
9. Experiencing the night skies of NZ
Stargazing in New Zealand is definitely a unique and magical experience. Light pollution is not as crazy as other major cities around the world so you get dark and clear skies in the South Island, along with otherworldly landscapes as your setting.
A popular place to stargaze is at Lake Tekapo as it comes alive at night. As part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, it is a dream for all photographers and lovers of the night sky. Mt John University Observatory offers night tours on top of a hill beside Lake Tekapo, where you get to use their telescopes to observe the night skies with astronomy guides.
I was not that lucky, but it is possible to see Southern Lights (Aurora Australis)!! Yes!!!!! However, don’t expect lights that hang over your head like in Norway and such, as NZ is not south enough as Antarctica, so we only can see it appearing low on the horizon (unless, there is a major solar storm, maybe?). But still, it’s worth a shot because who knows?! You might get lucky!
Just amazing. The Milky Way and Southern Lights in the same photo. That is just #goals right there!
Hope you enjoy your next trip to New Zealand’s South Island. I left my heart there! Check out my other New Zealand posts: