New Zealand’s South Island – Wild & Lively
You might be familiar with the landscapes of New Zealand’s South Island, as it was the setting for The Lord of the Rings series – and for good reason. This island paradise offers unrivaled scenery, with turquoise waters, snow-capped mountains with glaciers, long coasts, and lush rainforests. Hidden within this wilderness are extraordinary towns. From gold mining villages to coastal towns and artsy cities, you can explore it all.
We’ll tell you about the most exciting and breathtaking places on New Zealand’s South Island and everything you can do there.
Geography of New Zealand’s South Island
New Zealand is an island country in the Southern Pacific Ocean that is part of Oceania. It consists of two main islands, the North and South Island, and many smaller ones. The South Island measures 150,437 square kilometers. The highest peak, Mount Cook, towers over the land at 3,724 meters in one of the numerous national parks.
January and February are the hottest months, whereas July is the coldest. September to November are the ideal months for most outdoor activities. Our climate guide provides more details about the weather and the best times to travel here. New Zealand’s official languages are English and Māori, the native language of the Māori people.
Cities and Towns on New Zealand’s South Island
Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island and is prone to minor earthquakes. It’s also called New Zealand’s “hipster capital” thanks to its fascinating street art trail and the many restaurants and cafés with a unique flair.
Gondola rides and walking are the ideal ways to explore the city. On weekends, a farmers’ market offers local delicacies and excellent coffee. The International Arctic Centre, the Canterbury Museum, the Cardboard Cathedral, Hagley Park, and the Botanical Garden are other sights you won’t want to miss out on.
Queenstown is the place to be if you’re interested in adventure sports and outdoor activities like bungee jumping, jet boating, quad biking, canyon swinging, white water rafting, and sky and river diving. You can also take a walk on the lively harbor promenade, go hiking in the neighboring areas, or visit the stunning Queenstown Gardens.
Guided boat tours on the Shotover River bring you to some of the astonishing Lord of the Rings filming locations – a must for all fans of the trilogy. Queenstown also has a reputation as a “party town” because of its young population and vibrant nightlife.
Wanaka, in Central Otago, is an agreeable alternative to Queenstown. It features similar adrenaline-pumping activities, but is far quieter and more relaxed. It’s also a popular pit stop as the home of Lake Wanaka and the Wanaka Tree, the most photographed tree in New Zealand.
From museum visits to skydiving, skiing, and hiking, you can do it all here. The Roys Peak Track is an especially enjoyable day hike.
If you’re a wine lover, a visit to Wanaka is a must – it’s the production site for two world-famous wines. The Rippon is one of the top 100 wines in the world, and the Maude is family owned and still handmade.
Dunedin is a college town on New Zealand’s South Island and is home to one of the steepest inhabited streets in the world, Baldwin Street. You can also visit Larnach Castle, the only castle in Australasia. It was built in the Victorian style in 1871, and employees serve British-style high tea every day at 3 p.m.
Other options for fun excursions include Sandfly Bay, where you can watch seals, or the Otago Peninsula Royal Albatross Centre – the only place in the world where birds breed on the mainland.
There’s also a museum and a lighthouse where you can learn about Dunedin’s role in World War II. On some nights, you can even catch the stunning Southern Lights.
Kaikoura is a coastal village in the northeast with a heavy focus on New Zealand’s marine life – hence why most whale-watching tours embark here. Tourists often spot albatrosses, sea lions, and dolphins and can even swim in the ocean with the latter.
If you’re not into boat tours, you can go animal-watching other ways, such as by helicopter or walking along the beach. You won’t want to miss out on the region’s culinary delicacy, either – a plate of crayfish.
Nelson, a small town close to Abel Tasman National Park, is perfect for art lovers. It has a well-known arts and crafts industry and many galleries, including the World of Wearable Art Museum. Jens Hansen, the artist who made the “One Ring” from “Lord of the Rings”, even has his workshop here.
You can also explore the national park, relax at Tahunanui Beach, or enjoy a view of the town and ocean from Botanical Hill.
The gold mining village of Arrowtown is known not only for its gold, but for its delicious food. Captivating high peaks surround the town and the Arrow River, and there are many opportunities for cycling, hiking, snowboarding, skiing, and golfing.
National Parks on New Zealand’s South Island
New Zealand is home to many national parks, and there are many more than what we’ve listed below. Each one has something unique to offer.
Fjordland National Park
The Fjordland National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes the famous Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound fjords. The park is in one of the country’s rainiest regions, making the thundering waterfalls even more impressive. Boat rides, walking, and sightseeing flights are the best ways to explore it. There are also small overnight cruises available.
The famous Kepler Track also passes through this area. It offers one of the most beautiful hiking trips in the country. In three to four days, you’ll venture through some of Mother Nature’s most astounding sights, including awe-inspiring primeval forests and Lake Manapouri’s beaches. There’s also a firefly cave in the town of Te Anau. It’s best to trek between November and April.
Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman is the country’s smallest park. Its protected bays with golden beaches are perfect for sailing and kayaking. If you’re lucky, you might even see dolphins and fur seals.
We also recommend the Abel Tasman Coast Track. It follows the coast, passing through evergreen forests, over sandstone cliffs, and onto sandy beaches. You’ll cover up to 51 kilometers and climb to various altitudes. Many parts are also accessible by water taxi.
There are many other hiking opportunities of various lengths and difficulties. Don’t miss the Split Apple Rocks, which you can visit on a boat trip, or the Pupu Springs and their crystal-clear waters.
Mount Cook National Park
Many of the attractions and famous hiking trails on New Zealand’s South Island are in Mount Cook National Park. Examples include the Blue Lakes, the Tasman Glacier Walk, and the Mueller Hut Route. The latter offers a moderately challenging trek through the mountains to Mueller Hut, where you can stay overnight and witness spectacular sunsets and sunrises.
The park is named after Mount Cook, also known as Aoraki. It’s New Zealand’s highest mountain, and experienced mountaineers and tourists alike climb it via the Hooker Valley Track. There are other mountains over 3,000 meters tall in the park that offer excellent hiking opportunities as well. Explore untouched nature and glaciers, and say hello to kea birds, one of New Zealand’s national animals.
You can traverse the magnificent turquoise lakes and waters by boat. To see nature from another perspective, scenic flights are also available.
Since the park is in one of the world’s largest reserves, the nights are always exceptionally clear and starry. As a result, it’s the perfect place for Mt. John Observatory and New Zealand’s largest telescope. The stone Church of the Good Shepherd on the shores of Lake Tekapo makes for a fantastic backdrop for any photo.
Scenic Landscapes on New Zealand’s South Island
Lake Tekapo is one of Mount Cook National Park’s glacial lakes, located in the heart of the South Island at an altitude of 710 meters above sea level. Very few people live in the area, so the surrounding nature remains untouched. It’s also the easiest way to reach Mt. John Observatory.
Rainforests and beaches cover Stewart Island. As New Zealand’s third-biggest island, it’s home to the largest and most diverse bird population in the country. On 240 kilometers of hiking trails, you’ll find penguins, albatrosses, and many more delightful animals.
The Marlborough Sounds are ancient, flooded river valleys with a 1,500-kilometer-long coast, historic sites, and marine and island reserves among secluded bays and forests. Boat and mountain biking trips, kayaking tours, and hikes can fulfill your desire for entertainment and adventure. If luck is on your side, you might even encounter the national bird, the Kiwi.
Hokitika Gorge is located on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, 33 kilometers from Hokitika. It’s a gorge encircled by rainforest with pure turquoise water that gets its color from the abrasion of the rocks. A suspension bridge hangs over the river, and walkways take you to various viewing platforms and through the surrounding area.
Franz-Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier
The Franz-Josef Glacier and the Fox Glacier are close to the South Island’s west coast. They’re also among the few easily accessible glaciers in the world. You’ll get the best view of the glaciers on a 40-minute helicopter flight.
Alternatively, you can hike up to the glaciers, as they reach inland quite a way. The Franz-Josef Glacier is 10 kilometers long. The Fox Glacier is about 25 kilometers away and surprisingly ends in a rainforest.
This extraordinarily weathered sandstone formation is called Pancake Rocks because of its astounding resemblance to stacked pancakes. The Māori term for pancakes is punakaiki.
Slope Point is the southernmost part of New Zealand’s South Island and is only 4,803 kilometers away from the South Pole. The slanted trees formed by the strong Cape winds make for excellent photos. You might even be lucky enough to see yellow-eyed penguins only found in New Zealand.
New Zealand’s South Island charms visitors with its wild nature and countless excursion opportunities. Its rich diversity makes it perfect for road trips. Bask in nature’s beauty and travel from national park to national park first, then jump from one adrenaline-filled adventure to another next.
New Zealand’s South Island has something for everyone and is a destination that will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression.