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The New Zealand South Island is absolutely breathtaking. If you are planning a visit to New Zealand I highly recommend spending a good portion of your time here.

There are a lot of south island points of interest and attractions to see along the way but here are my top 5 places you must see in New Zealand if you are visiting the “land of the long white cloud.”

Highlight #1: Mount Cook National Park

I’m a sucker for mountain landscapes and the South Island did not disappoint. Mount Cook was by far my favorite, and in fact, I enjoyed it so much I extended my stay here by an extra day plus returned when my mom came to visit. You need a car to get there and its remote location is only adds to its charm.

Mount Cook is the largest mountain in New Zealand and the name given by the Maori is ‘Aorangi’ or ‘Aoraki’ meaning cloud piercer.  The peak is often covered by clouds but once they move away the view of the mountain is breathtaking. I was fortunate enough to visit the park towards the end of winter after a snowfall and during the summer with the golden plants in bloom. Honestly, both were pretty magical and I count Mount Cook as my top must see in New Zealand.

Things to do at Mount Cook

1. Walk the Hooker Valley Track – It’s roughly a 3-hour return easy walk with spectacular mountain and river views. It’s a popular walk so be prepared for some crowds, depending on the day. The views along the way and Hooker Glacier at the end are well worth the hike. It’s considered one of the best day walks in New Zealand.

2. Visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center at the Hermitage Hotel – it’s a small museum, but packed full of information. It’s a great way to learn a lot of about the early explorers of the area, Sir Edmund Hillary being one of them, history of the Hermitage and the ups and downs this region experienced. There is also a movie theatre showing rotating videos throughout the day adding to the experience. I probably only spent about 1 hour here, but I walked away with a larger appreciation for the park.

3. Experience the Stars– Mount Cook is part of the National Sky Reserve which means limited light pollution and a full-on experience of the starry galaxy at night. If you want more of an experience, the Hermitage Hotel offers a Big Sky Stargazing Guided tours.

4. Check out the Glaciers & Icebergs– Along with the Hooker Glacier at the end of the Hooker Valley Track Walk, you can visit the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier. It’s a short walk up some steps to the top viewpoint. Tasman Glacier is the longest in NZ and if you are short on time, it’s a good option for the area. You also have the option to get up close and personal with glaciers on the Glacier Explorers Tour offered outside of the winter months.

5. Visit a Lavender Farm – During the summer months the Lavender Farm is is open for visiting and purchases gifts made with lavender. The farm is located on your drive into Mount Cook and you can’t miss it- just look for all of the purple signs!

Highlight #2: Wanaka/Queenstown

I would equate Queenstown to the Aspen of Colorado. It’s small, full of tourists and absolutely gorgeous. Wanaka is less known by tourists and more of a locals holiday location (or so they told me).

If you have the time it’s worth visiting both locations as they are only about 1 hour apart driving and have different things to offer. And if you are into extreme sports this is where you want to be! If not, no worries there are still plenty of activities for you too.

Things to do in Queenstown & Wanaka

1.Take a Yoga Class – Traveling and finding time to work out can be a challenge which is why I was so grateful to find The Nadi Wellness Yoga Studio in Queenstown. The studio provided a drop in rate and free mats for each class. The unexpected bonus was that the studio overlooks the lake and mountains. Catch a class at sun set for an even more zen like experience.

2. Hike Roy’s Peak in Wanaka – This was the most recommended hike to me and for good reason! It’s a medium- hard hike that takes about 4.5 hours return. In fact, about ¾ of the way up I was contemplating if I wanted to keep going or just turn around because I felt I had done enough.

But I’m SO GLAD I KEPT GOING! Because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten to see the amazing view and take pictures that look like something out of a magazine. This is actually not the end of the hike, only a look out spot. The official top was about another 30 mins, but most people I chatted with chose to head back down from here. So whether you stop here or go all the way, is up to you. Either way you’ll have some amazing views!

3. Visit the Wanaka Tree – It’s arguably the most photographed tree in the world. It’s a lone tree near Lake Wanaka that is famous for its remote location. It’s pretty easy to find and won’t cost you a penny.

The Wanaka Tree with snow capped mountains in the background
The Wanaka Tree

4. Tour the Central Otago Vineyards – Most of the vineyards in New Zealand are further north, where the climate is warmer and sunnier. But if you find yourself in Central Otago, you may be pleasantly surprised by your vineyard options. Different grapes grow in this mountainous region so a few vineyards, such as Cloudy Bay (pictured below), have a location in Marlborough and in Otago.

Many of the vineyards can be found on hwy 8 as you begin to approach Cromwell and then along hwy 6 on your way to Queenstown. We personally visited The Cloudy Bay Shed Vineyard which was the most gorgeous, Misha’s Vineyard store in Cromwell where we had a wonderfully engaging host and Wet Jacket which overall was our favorite wine and had a great outdoor seating area. Wet Jacket also served beer on tap and had a cheese tasting room so it’s possible to find some variety.

You could make a week out of just visiting the vineyards in the area. Interested in learning more about NZ wine and downloading a map of the region- check it out here.

5. Go Skiing – If you happen to visit during the winter season (Jun – Sep) than you may want to hit up the ski fields. You have quite a few choices in the area, so you could even visit multiple ski areas over the course of your stay. Ski rentals and frequent buses to and from ski fields can be found in both Queenstown and Wanaka.

Check out my Top 10 Travel Item Essentials

Highlight #3: Fiordland National Park & Milford Sound

New Zealand is host to many national parks, but one of my favorites is Fiordland. It’s not only home to Milford Sound and a Glow Worm cave, but it offers some of the most breathtaking scenes.

Things to do in Fiordland National Park:

1. Milford Sound – You can do a day trip via a guided tour bus from Queenstown or Te Anau or take yourself down there by car. However, you choose to do it, it will include about a 3 hour boat ride through Milford Sound. There are numerous tour operators and multiple tours leaving the dock all day so you can easily plan it into your schedule. This was a really unique activity and one that is very family friendly.

2. Hang out in Te Anau- Right at the entrance of Fiordland is the town of Te Anau. It has a cute downtown center and plenty of places to hang your hat for a night or two whether in a hostel, one of the lodges overlooking the lake or in an Air Bnb. You can kayak on the lake, walk along the trails or spend your day sunbathing. Visit the local i-site center in town for maps of great hikes nearby. It’s a great spot to enjoy the views and spend some time relaxing before your next adventure.

3. Fiordland National Park – If you don’t have the time (or sea legs) for Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park has a lot to offer. Around every bend is a new view or landscape to take in. There are plenty of hikes and places to stop along the way as well as camping and campervan spots to spend the night. Whether summer or winter, Fiordland is magical.

4. Visit the Glow worm Caves – Tours leave from the Real Journeys building located at the bottom of town on the water. First, you’ll take a short boat journey through Lake Te Anau to the entrance of the Glow Worm caves. Then your guide will take you through the cave onto a small boat to view the glow worms. You’ll also receive a short presentation on the life of glow worms and learn more about these magnificent creatures before returning by boat the start of your journey.

I don’t have any pictures of the actual glow worms as you can’t take photos inside the cave, but here is my mom and I right before entering. Other than the sand flies (who loved me!) we had a really good time.

Mom and daughter standing at the entrance to the Glow Worm Caves in Te Anau, New Zealand
My mom and I at the Glow Worm cave entrance

Highlight #4: West Coast

I was surprised how much I enjoyed the West Coast. I ended up not having as much time to explore as originally intended, but what I did see, I loved! If you are taking a road trip through the South Island you’ll enjoy hitting this on your travels.

Things to do in the West Coast

1. Walk around the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks & Blowholes – Located in Punakaiki in the Paparoa National Park the Pancake Rocks and BlowHoles are situated right on the coast and offer a quaint atmosphere. The pancake rocks are so named because of their shape after being formed over 30 million years ago. They are really a unique geological spectacle. 

The path is only a looped 1.1km long and very family friendly. You’ll need a car to get here, but it’s worth the short journey from Greymouth.

And after you visit the rocks you can order some pancakes (what else!) from the nearby café. Or if you are in the need of a new book, grab one from the community book exchange fridge.

2. Visit the Hokitika Gorge – Do you want to see the most clear and vivid turquoise water you’ve ever seen in your life? Then I recommend this stop along your drive through the West Coast. There will be signs along the way and a car park near the entrance. It’s a short walk through native bush to the Gorge itself but the views are worth the visit. This is another family friendly activity.

3. Walk along the Tree Tops – Ok so I didn’t actually do this, but I wanted to! The west coast is unlike any other area in New Zealand and for that it offers its own unique activities. One of which being a walkway among the tall trees for a true bird’s eye view. It is located about 30-45 mins south of Greymouth and had I known about it beforehand I definitely would’ve stopped.

4. Stay in a fun AirBnB– Be it a treehouse or retro camper turned home this unique area can offer you unique accommodations. I found a cute “glamper” van that the homeowners fixed up and made super comfy. I sadly can’t locate the pictures of it, but after the amount of driving I had done, I was so grateful for a nice comfy bed to get some sleep.

When I’m not house sitting or bouncing between hostels, I frequently check out AirBnb. Most hosts are locals who love meeting fellow travelers, have extra space and sometimes act as guides. It’s great for solo travelers to get some social time and for couples / families to get a break from one another (am I right?). It’s also usually a much more affordable option than hotels so if you’re on a budget, don’t forget about AirBnb!

5. Tour Monteith’s Brewery–  While NZ may be better known for it’s coffee and wine, beer is not far behind with more and more breweries popping up every year. One of the oldest and most established breweries you’ll find is Monteiths. Their history dates back to the mid-1800’s and their beer is still served in almost every bar in the country. The heritage brewing continues today in Greymouth and is open for daily tours.

Did you know that New Zealand has some of the best coffee in the world?!

Highlight #5: Kaikoura

This was the biggest surprise to me on the South Island. I only stopped through because it was a convenient place to spend the night between Christchurch and Picton. I wasn’t able to get much information from my Kiwi friends on what to do there so was pleasantly surprised after I arrived!

Kaikoura has a cool and chill coastal town feel with some of the most beautiful scenery in all of NZ (which is saying a lot) and the bay makes it a perfect location for all types of sea life adventures.

Things to do in Kaikoura

1. Whale Watching- One of the biggest draws to Kaikoura is the ability to view whales from the sea or sky. There are multiple companies to choose from offering a variety of options and prices.*

It was recommended to me if I did choose the whale watching to do it by air to see more of the whale than if on a boat. But if you like being on the sea and are looking for more of a ½ day activity and ability to do some bird watching along the way, then the boat tour might be a better preference. It’s really a choose your own adventure activity!

*All tours are weather dependent, and you are not guaranteed to see a whale. I recommend doing some research and reading the refund policy before making a purchase.

2. Swim with Dolphins– This was my activity of choice! And if you aren’t keen to swim in the ocean, there is a spectator only ticket option. As with any tour that that is dependent on weather and animal cooperation it’s always a possibility it won’t work out. Due to weather, my first attempt to swim with dolphins was cancelled. They fully refunded every person as we didn’t see any dolphins on our short boat trip.

My second attempt was much more successful! The weather was perfect and pod of about 200 dolphins were very active. The staff were very knowledgeable and concerned with not only the well being of the human guests, but also the dolphins. If possible, they allow you two swims with the dolphins and time at the end for spectating so you can catch some photos. If you have an underwater camera or GoPro this is the time to bring it along!

Swimming with dolphins was a bucket list item dream come true and I’m so happy I went back to try again.

*All tours are weather dependent, and you are not guaranteed to see or be able to swim with a dolphin. I recommend reading the refund policy before making a purchase.

3. Visit the Seal Colony- There are a couple of large seal colonies right near the town center. You can drive to the car park and walk a short distance over the rocks to where the seals bathe in the sun.

There are so many seals hanging around and since it is an observation area they are used to having humans around. They are of course, still wild animals, so you want to keep your distance! But you are able to get fairly close and watch them interact without them caring too much about you.

This area was closed off for a bit after an earthquake hit the area in 2016, but as of 2018 it was back open and I loved it so much! I even visited the colony twice in my short 24 hours in Kaikoura. Just be prepared for quite a bit of wind during your visit.

Honorable Mentions:

Lake Matheson Mirror Lake Walk 

A local recommendation that I’m happy I made the effort to get to. It’s about 30 mins driving south of the main Franz Josef center. The looped path is flat and an easy walk most of the way. It takes about 1 hour to walk the complete loop.

Pro Tip: Get here at sunrise to see a clear and perfect reflection of the mountains in the lake. My picture is from late morning/early afternoon and while still a beautiful reflection, a crisp and clear reflection is possible!

Castle Hill between Arthurs Pass and Christchurch

The Dalai Lama once called it the “Spiritual Center of the Universe”. It also has a significant cultural and spiritual history among the Maori. If you happen to be traveling through Arthur’s Pass, this is a great stop to stretch your legs and walk among the boulders. It’s completely free and plenty of area to explore.

Sumner Beach/Taylor’s Mistake just outside Christchurch

If you’re hanging out in nearby Christchurch but looking to ditch the city for a beach atmosphere, then hop on over to Sumner. It’s a short 20 minute journey and a completely different feel from the busyness of Christchurch city. Learn to surf, hike among the hills, build sand castles or have a beer at a seaside cafe. Whatever you’re after, Sumner is the perfect getaway.

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