Having run down my five must do’s on the North island of New Zealand, it only seems fair to address the south island as well.
We spent two months touring New Zealand’s south island in the late Autumn, going from the very top to the very bottom and pretty much as many places in between as possible, and left just as the island was encased in the grip of a seriously frosty Antarctic blast. Lucky us!
The south island differs greatly from the north island. It is less densely populated for starters, and is home to the quite phenomenal southern alps, a mountain range which runs down the entire island and boasts a number of seriously spectacular peaks – dwarfing anything that the north island has to offer.
It is also home to stunning beaches, rainforests, glaciers, and New Zealand’s largest national park. Lots therefore to see and do on any trip! Here are five of our must see sights from that two month trip that no visit to New Zealand’s south island should be without!
Must See Sights on New Zealand’s South Island
Tucked away at the top corner of the south island’s west coast is the tiny town of Karamea, which could best be described as laid back. Its relative isolation, off the usual beaten track, makes this place a haven for a bit of relaxation and exploration of the local area. Except, I should mention, in whitebait season, when by all accounts the whole place goes crazy.
The area surrounding Karamea is well worth taking the time to explore, if for the Oparara Basin alone, which is a definite must see.
High up in the mountains that surround Karamea, in the Kahurangi National Park, the Oparara Basin is a serious geological marvel, home to a number of hugely impressive rock arches. The highlight of these is the Oparara Arch itself, Australasia’s longest limestone arch, which comes in at a colossal two hundred metres in length. Visit, and feel dwarfed.
Beyond the Oparara basin there is plentiful exploration to be had. One of New Zealand’s great walks, the Heaphy Track, ends just north of Karamea, and is probably the main reason people end up here. This track can be walked as part of a multi day hike, or can be explored in part as a shorter day trip. The beaches alone make this a worthy venture.
2. Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers
No visit to the south island would be complete without taking in one (or both) of these glaciers, which are both easily accessible and handily next to each other. Particularly remarkable for their proximity to the ocean, you can get very close to both of these glaciers for free just by taking a short walk from their respective car parks.
Alternatively, there are a whole range of companies that will take you on guided glacier walks or, for the truly decadent amongst you, aerial sightseeing tours by either helicopter or plane.
However you choose to experience the glaciers you cannot fail to be impressed by their immensity and the impact they have had on their surroundings.
3. Milford Sound
Way down at the south of the west coast (the west coast being a major highlight of the south island!), is the Fiordland national park, the largest of New Zealand’s fourteen national parks and a UNESCO World Heritage Area.
The park is home to a world of exploration, from mist laden fiords to snow dusted mountain tops. Wildlife abounds, as does vegetation, and this is one place in New Zealand (of many!) that you could spend some quality time getting properly lost in nature.
The highlight for many visitors, myself included, is the quite frankly incredible Milford Sound, a water inlet carved out by the movement of glaciers a few thousand years ago. The peaks that this glacial activity left behind are quite stunning, with the favourite being Mitre Peak – a dagger like outcrop that goes from sea level to over a mile in height in jaw dropping fashion. It truly has to be seen to be believed, and you’ll need to take one of the Milford Sound cruises to make that happen.
4. Aoraki Mount Cook
The southern alps are, for me, one of New Zealand’s most impressive natural features, and no part of it is more impressive than Aoraki, or Mount Cook, the highest of the lot.
Reaching nearly four thousand metres, this mountain is visible from, well, quite a lot of places really, including the famous mirror lake on the west coast.
To really get an idea of the spectacle of the mountain though, you’re going to want to get up close and personal, so a trip to the Mount Cook village, deep in the alps, is going to be on the cards.
From the village and surrounds there are a plethora of walking options available which will grant you incredible views of the mountain, as well as surrounding features such as New Zealand’s longest glacier and iceberg strewn lakes. It’s spell binding stuff – just bring some warm clothes because this place is high and cold!
5. Banks Peninsula
Over to the east coast now, and the oddity that is the Banks Peninsula. This was formed by a massive volcanic eruption, resulting in an entirely round blob of land, jutting out into the sea next to the city of Christchurch.
This place has a really laid back vibe and countless opportunities for exploration – from hiking up the local peak of Mount Herbert (home to a wonderfully scenic toilet, and views across much of the south island), to exploring the French influenced town of Akaroa. As with much of New Zealand, you could easily spend many days exploring the variety of attractions on offer!
Queenstown bills itself as the adventure capital of New Zealand, if not the world, and it’s not hard to see why. From here you can go bungee jumping, sky diving, skiing, snowboarding, jetboating… well, basically if there’s an extreme sport that’s been invented, you can do it here. The town itself is also beautifully located with the incredible mountain range known as the Remarkables providing a gorgeous backdrop – you could easily base yourself here for day, weeks or even months!
Further reading & resources
That’s that for my must see sights on New Zealand’s south island! If you need more information to help you plan your New Zealand adventure, look no further than my series of New Zealand guides, which cover everything from finding free internet to buying and selling a vehicle, to the perfect one month itinerary in New Zealand.
If you’d like some physical resources to further plan your trip, then the following should help:
- This collection of New Zealand travel guides on Amazon.com (Amazon UK for EU readers)
- The Lonely Planet Guide to New Zealand on Amazon.com (UK / EU link)
- The Rough Guide to New Zealand on Amazon.com (UK / EU link)
Thanks for reading my favourite things to do on the south island of New Zealand! Got a favourite that you think I missed out? Let me know in the comments below!
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Fluent In Frolicking says
That blue photo of Milford Sound is gorgeous! I only got to see the North Island when I was in NZ. I keep hearing I missed the best parts of the country! Hope to get back there one day! Happy New Year!
Laurence Norah says
That is a good number of rainbows 😀 And yes, narrowing it down to five was a bit of a challenge!
Laurence Norah says
Thanks very much! It’s a seriously pretty place – have a great trip 😀
Your photos are truly amazing and you have captured NZ’s south island in it’s true glory!! 🙂 heading back for dose two in a few weeks… and seeing your photos have made me even more excited (if that is possible!!)
Erik Smith says
I love that you got a rainbow pic in here! I saw 27 of them in the 30 days I spent in NZ earlier this year.
I would incluse the Catlins in any list about the South Island, but I’m impressed you could pick just 5!!!
Would you believe I’ve never been to NZ (other than for work) and I’ve lived so long just across the Tasman? Ok, it’s going on the to-do list… within the next 12 months… I promise!!
bewitched in salem says
Love the valley carved out by the glaciers.
Laurence Norah says
You should – it’s an amazing place!
Harold Gardner says
I have always wanted to go to New Zealand. Now I REALLY want to go.
Jess | GlobetrotterGirls says
Love these images…big skies, amazing landscapes. Thanks for these great tips!
Karen @ Trans-Americas Journey says
High peaks, glaciers, tranquil coastlines, ancient volcanoes, scenic toilets…wait…what? Anyway, NZ really did sort of double dip in the “natural wonder” bowl, didn’t it? Thanks for narrowing down my South Island options!
Jeremy Branham says
New Zealand is incredibly beautiful! The volatile earth underneath has created some spectacular sights and scenery. I had heard of the glaciers but not didn’t know much about the rest of these. I definitely need to get to NZ one day.
I think I’ve said it a million times already. I wanna go to New Zealand. Now, the urge is much greater, well, after seeing the pictures.
Check it out:
Rima Mari says
Woah.. The beach blew me away.. I have seen Mount Cook from a far. When I was in New Zealand, we only visited the South. We asked for some tourist spots or nice places to see in the North but one of the locals said that there is nothing to see there. We shouldn’t have bothered him.
Thanks Rima 🙂 It’s a really wonderful place up there, seems to be it’s own little world. The town even has it’s own radio station, which ain’t bad for a place with less than a thousand inhabitants. If you ever get the chance, I can recommend a visit. And it’s always interesting getting a locals opinion on things. I was told the west coast of the north island wasn’t worth visiting, but my day hike up Taranaki was my favourite walk in all my time there! I guess it’s a question of finding the right local…
Lukasz Lorentz says
Great list, we are on our way through the South Island and unfortunately we also missed Karamea 🙁 Currently in Queenstown and the next stop is Dunedin and then Oamaru to see some penguins! Have you been to Lake Tekapo? I heard that is quite stunning as well 🙂 All the best! PS why didn’t the sausage capital of NZ not make the list? haha
Hey Luke! Good luck with the penguins, we kept intending to see some but they never seemed to turn up for us at the times when we were there. Oamaru has an awesome old bit of town though, and the craziest steampunk style steam engine in the middle of town for some reason! Worth a wander around no doubt. And just south from there on the way to Dunedin are the Moeraki boulders – make sure your bus driver stops there! And sausages… well… I have to keep some secrets eh 😉
When my family came to visit me, we did a whistle stop tour of the whole country (CHC-AKL!) in 12 days (!!) and my sister wanted to go to Kramea but we had no time as there is only one road in and out. Sorry we missed such a picturesque spot!! Instead we hit Golden Bay, which was pretty fantastic too.
Akaroa is my FAVORITE town in the entire country! I just love it!!!
The Catlins Coast is another favorite spot, as is the town of Dunedin..
Oy, look at me! I could gush forever too:-).
Gush away, I’ve been banging on about the place for nearly a year now 😉 Amazing that you managed to do a tour of the country in such a short time, great work! Golden Bay was certainly close to making this list – loved the sandspit at the far end in particular. Karamea would have been a bit out of the way for such a short timeframe, but never fear, I’m sure you’ll make it some day! Also, can’t argue with the Catlins, and I think Dunedin was my favourite city in NZ 🙂