Going to New Zealand was a dream come true for us. We always wanted to discover what we thought was probably one of the most beautiful country in the world. And it exceeded our expectations, with its stunning landscapes during the entire trip. The South Island of New Zealand is the wildest of the country’s two large islands. Although, still home to the country’s second largest city: Christchurch and other major cities like Dunedin, the South Island of New Zealand is home to only a quarter of New Zealand’s population. The South Island is renowned for its breathtaking landscapes.
Nicknamed the The Southern Alps, the South Island mountain range is a real playground for hikers. Its cities nestled in these mountains, like Wanaka or Queenstown are among the most beautiful in the country or perhaps the world… The water of these mountain lakes, such as Lake Tekapo or Lake Pukaki also offer impressive panoramas. These mountains have produced wonders of nature such as the impressive West Coast glaciers of Fox and Franz Josef Glacier. A helicopter flight over the latter is one of the region’s must-see.
Another must-see: the famous Fiordland National Park and its impressive fjords, the most famous being Milford Sound. The South Island of New Zealand is also famous for its exceptional fauna with the presence of many species of dolphins, whales, seals, like in Kaikoura or Akaroa on the East Coast.
1. Visit the beautiful city of Queenstown
Queenstown was our favorite city in this trip. Before going over the countless things to do in Queenstown, let us tell you a few words about this city. Quite simply one of the most beautiful cities in New Zealand, nestled between the mountains of the Southern Alps and bordered by Lake Wakatipu.
Queenstown has the appearance of an Alpine resort. First of all, the mountains surrounding the city will allow you, during the winter, to enjoy the snow with its beautiful ski resorts. Skiing, Snowboarding, snowshoeing, the choice is yours. Its lake is also a pleasure in summer, with yacht sailing, parasailing, cruise or even fishing.
The advantage of this city of roughly 13,000 inhabitants, is that it brings together all the possible activities to please everyone, but particularly known for claiming to be the capital of extreme sports! This is the place to be if you want to do bungee jumping, parachuting, paragliding, high speed boat, helicopter etc.! For Bungee jumping head to Kawarau Bridge Bungy which is a few kilometers from Queenstown and one of the most famous and prettiest spot. Once there, the staff will take great care of you and it’s up to you when you want to get started!
Don’t forget to stop at Arrowtown while you are visiting Queenstown
Arrowtown, one of the most picturesque villages in New Zealand, is located along the Arrow River, exploited by gold miners. The city was founded in 1862 during the height of the Otago gold rush. Walk along the tree-lined streets to the restored cottages and explore the gold mine sites.
The village flourished quickly as the pioneers built homes, shops, hotels and churches, more than 60 of which can still be admired today. The most striking monument is the Chinese colony located by the river. Built by Chinese miners in 1868, this area of shelters and restored buildings gives a glimpse of what life was like at that time. A visit to Arrowtown is a must if you are in Queenstown.
2. Observe some whales at Kaikoura
Kaikoura is a small town which is best known for its activity around whale watching which is run by the Maori. Several times a day, boats take travelers to the open sea to observe whales and other marine animals in their natural environment. Obviously, we can’t promise you that the whales will be out, but they show up very often so you are likely to be able to observe them from a distance. In Kaikoura, humpback whale is the main whale. The famous blue whale is also around, as well as orcas, Minke whales, pilot whales, dolphins and seals. On the way to Kaikoura, watch the roadsides because you can come across seal colonies: hundreds of seals relaxing peacefully on the rocks by the beach. Do not disturb them, watching them from the other end of the beach is more than enough.
Book your Whale Watching trip in advance as it can get quickly full. You can do so here.
3. Go on a cruise at Milford Sound
lt’s time to tell you about one of the most extraordinary landscape in New Zealand, a place that we will classify as the essential number 1 of things to see during a visit to New Zealand, given the landscapes offered by this place: Milford Sound.
Milford Sound is simply one of the most beautiful fjord in the world, these dimensions are impressive with a summit which rises to almost 1700 meters. A cruise in this fjord is truly a must on any trip to New Zealand. The fauna of this place
It is strongly recommended to book the cruise in advance. You can do so here.
4. Visit the Glow Worms Cave at Te Anau
One of New Zealand’s most fascinating natural wonders is the glow worm caves of Te Anau, with a maze of caves, tunnels, dramatic rock formations and underground waterfalls. Adventure abounds: visitors can cross Lake Te Anau, browse the caves and marvel at a glistening canopy of tiny glowing worms. If you head to Milford Sound spend the night at Te Anau, and visit the glow worm cave, it’s really fascinating, we loved it. Te Anau has great restaurants, so spending the night there will be a good choice.
5. Enjoy the pretty town of Wanaka
Wanaka is one of the essential stops on New Zealand travel itineraries, and for good reason.The city is famous for the sumptuous landscapes which surround the town and for its numerous activities. Wanaka is located on the southeast shore of the large Wanaka Lake and has just under 10,000 permanent residents.
Like Arrowtown, Wanaka as it exists today was created during the 19th century gold rush. About 120 kilometers further south is its big sister Queenstown, and almost 150 kilometers north is Haast, on the West Coast. Wanaka is a tourist city all year round. The city is famous for its winter sports, its lake but also for its mountains which surround the city to offer a large number of outdoor activities in summer. Hiking, mountain biking, fishing, rafting or water skiing are activities that the city offers during the summer period.
The Wanaka Tree
The tree growing alone, in the middle of Wanaka Lake is one of the most photographed spot in New Zealand. At the foot of Mount Aspiring National Park, a World Heritage Site. This is one of the most beautiful panoramas with breathtaking landscapes that represent the South Island of New Zealand. It is a great spot for a picnic or a moment of contemplation and meditation. Inhale – Exhale !
This could be one of the most stunning view in New Zealand at Sunrise, Roy’s Peak. It’s another classic but inevitable, which we highly recommend doing! The ascent is long and tiresome, besides doing it in the dark means you can’t see everything but if you reach the top at sunrise, you’ll be well rewarded with a majestic view. (make sure to check the weather conditions the day before)
6. Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
The West Coast of the South Island is famous for its magnificent landscapes, its beaches, its tropical forests but especially for its glaciers: Fox and Franz Josef. These glaciers are unique in the world. Indeed, these glaciers are closer to the ocean than any other glaciers. Only 15 kilometers separate these glaciers from the Tasman Sea. Fox and Franz Josef are 13 and 12 kilometers long, respectively, but their size inexorably shrinks over time. These glaciers have the distinction of being surrounded by a tropical forest. You can access the top of the Glacier with a Helicopter.
Stop at Lake Matheson in the morning
And to top it off, we recommend that you come very early in the morning, at sunrise, to Matheson Lake, which is a few minutes from Fox Glacier. This lake, and the landscape that goes with it, is so magnificent that it is listed as a UNESCO heritage. There is a small walk to do around the lake to fully enjoy it. It will take you a good hour. The landscapes from the lake with the glaciers in the background is one of our most beautiful memory.
7. Visit Aoraki Mount Cook
The name “Cook” was given by the crown of England in honor of James Cook, who went many times to New Zealand during his various travels around the world. However, today the name of the mount is not only Mount Cook but Aoraki / Mount Cook. This name became official after the return of the mountain and its surroundings to the Ngāi Tahu tribe. This tribe names the mount: Aoraki, in reference to a Maori legend. The Maori legend tells us the story of a young man Aoraki and his three young brother, son of Rangi and Papa (the sky father and the earth mother) who sail on the ocean by canoe around Papatuanuku (the earth mother ). After hitting a reef, their canoe capsizes, the brothers find refuge on it when an icy wind comes to change them into stone. Their canoe, Te Waka o Aoraki, today represents the south island of New Zealand, Aoraki, the largest of the brothers, Mount Cook and his brothers Kā Tiritiri o te Moana, the chain of the Southern Alps. Aoraki/Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zeland (3,724 meteres) was by far the highlight of our trip on the South Island.
Go on a beautiful hike near Mount Cook
The surroundings of Aoraki / Mount Cook are ideal for hiking. Indeed the breathtaking landscapes as well as the multiple hiking trails makes it a perfect place for hiker lovers. You can decide which hikes you want to go for on the DOC site, here. We decided to go for
Stop at Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki is legendary. The color of the lake, the backdrop with Mount Cook, the mirror-like reflection, makes it an amazing place to see. That was one of the “wow” moment we had in New Zealand.
8. Enjoy some great wines in the region of Marlborough
Marlborough enjoys very sunny weather and a moderate climate, thus, the visitors can benefit from all the diversity of Marlborough in any season. Whatever the time of year, there is always something going on in Marlborough. There are more than 40 wineries in Marlborough, so why not take advantage of a wine tour organized by a local agency to visit a selection of the best areas in the region?
You can create your own itinerary, drive yourself or travel in class in a chauffeured car, or take the opportunity to do your daily exercise by doing the bike tour. Whichever mode of transportation you choose, be sure to stop by a vineyard restaurant on the way. The Marlborough Sounds canals are best explored on the water, with a range of cruises and activities ranging from kayaking to sailing on a luxury yacht.
Get active by swimming with dolphins, diving, or fishing in the Sounds. Hike along the Queen Charlotte Trail which follows its path through the primeval forest, with a view of ridges and idyllic coves in the distance. Take a tour of the Marlborough High Country which stretches along the Pacific coast to Kaikoura. Stop at the salt pink lakes at Lake Grasmere and discover Molesworth Station, the largest working farm in New Zealand.
9. Surf at Dunedin
Dunedin and its region, the Coastal Otago, offer natural beauty coupled with a fascinating cultural history. It often earns the city the title of eco-capital of New Zealand. The Otago coast stretches from Waitaki north of Oamaru to the impressive Clutha River south of Dunedin. Among the essentials, we can cite the mysterious rocks of Moeraki.
Dunedin is the second largest city on the South Island in New Zealand. Indeed Dunedin is populated by more than 120,000 inhabitants, 20,000 of whom are students. The city, founded in 1848 by the Scots, has a unique charm thanks to the excellent conservation of its buildings with Victorian and Edwardian architecture. A visit to Dunedin is a must on the South Island.
Here is our top things to see in Dunedin. Dunedin station, the most photographed monument in New Zealand. The Octagon, the heart of Dunedin. Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Dunedin Botanical Garden and Chinese Garden. Otago Museum and Toitū Otago Settlers Museum. Cadbury World, a paradise for sweets lovers. And Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world.
And of course if you like surfing, then St-Claire beach, is one of the best surf break in the South Island, especially in the winter months.
10. Visit Abel Tasman National Park
One of our favorite stop, was at one of New Zealand’s oldest and most beautiful national parks, Abel Tasman National Park. The special features of the park are its yellow / orange sandy beaches bordered by turquoise water on one side and a green forest on the other. It is also possible to rent Kayaks and thus take advantage of the park’s marine reserve to see the seals that live there or to be dropped off on one of the most beautiful beaches by boat in the park and then return by foot. The hikes are not very hard, rather flat, mainly through the forest and along beautiful beaches. After the hike, head to Nelson, the main town in the North of the South Island.
As you may have understood, New Zealand is a beautiful country. During our trip on the South Island, we’ve seen many things within 2 weeks. We could not see it all, or do all the activities we would’ve liked, but we keep a fantastic memories of this gorgeous place. We love nature, we love being outdoor, near the water, on the mountains, see wild animals, and we’ve seen it and done it all. It was a fantastic and energizing trip. It is certain that we will have to come back one day to see the rest and in particular plan a few hikes of several days in the middle of these magnificent landscapes. Finally, we haven’t mentioned it yet, the Kiwis are particularly adorable hosts, we will remember their warm welcome! We would love to live here!
Where to stay in New Zealand?
If like us, you simply decide to rent a car and stay in different hotels around the South Island, here is our recommendations:
Although a little outside the city center, Stoneridge Estate, is a luxury hotel located on a hill, you wil experience a breathtaking view of the lake and mountain. A real gem in Queenstown, which we highly recommend. Book here.
In Wanaka we stayed in a unique place and slept on a yurt at Oasis Yurt Logde. It was a really cool experience, the facilities were really clean, and we were surrounded by nature. Best place in Wanaka! Book here.
In Te Anau we stayed in one of the most gorgeous house we’ve ever seen in our life. The view on the lake is stunning, and you can see some venisons running right in front of the house. Breakfast was freshly cooked in the morning by the very nice hosts. If you happen to spend a night at Te Anau, don’t hesitate and stay at High Leys Lodge . You can book here.
In Mount Cook village, the choices are limited if you do not have a camper van, there is one main luxury hotel, called The Hermitage Hotel Mt Cook. Although a bit expensive, the hotel is very nice, with great views and yummy buffet breakfast. You can book here.