Planning or dreaming of a visit to New Zealand’s? Wondering where to go, and see and do? No worries. I got you!
After spending a year in New Zealand I can definitively say the South Island was my favorite and a must-see. The views are unlike any other I’ve experienced and if you are taking the journey to the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’, the South Island should be top on your list whether you have 7 days, 10 days, 2 weeks or longer.
I’ve compiled a list of my top 5 favorite places to visit and included some on and off the beaten path activity suggestions for each area. Buckle up! Your trip is going to be sweet as! (Not a typo, just some Kiwi slang to get you started)
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, so much so that I extended my stay here by an extra day plus returned when my mom came to visit. 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. You will need a car to get there but its remote location only adds to its charm.
Things to Do at Mount Cook:
The Hooker Valley Track is roughly a 3-hour return easy walk with spectacular mountain and river views. It’s a popular walk so be prepared for some crowds, but the views along the way and the Hooker Glacier at the end are well worth it. It’s considered one of the best day walks in New Zealand so shouldn’t be missed!
The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center is a small museum, but packed full of information. It’s a great way to learn about the early explorers of the area, history of the Hermitage and the ups and downs this region experienced. It also focuses on the life of Sir Edmund Hilary his time at Mount Cook before climbing Everest and the lasting impact he had on the area. The 3D movie theatre shows rotating videos throughout the day adding to the experience. I spent about 1 hour here on a rainy day and walked away with a larger appreciation for the park.
3. Experience the Stars
Mount Cook is part of the International Dark Sky Reserve which means limited light pollution and a full-on experience of the starry sky. If you are looking for inexpensive options I recommend grabbing a blanket and heading out to one of the many fields to watch the stars up above. But don’t forget your flashlight so you can find your way back! If you want more of a guided experience, the Hermitage Hotel offers a Big Sky Stargazing guided tour.
In addition to the Hooker Glacier, you can visit the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier. It’s about a 20 minute walk up some man-made steps to the top viewpoint or you can head off on a flat trail near the start of the trailhead to walk down to the lake. Tasman Glacier is the longest in NZ and if you are short on time during your visit, it’s a good stop. You also have the option to get up close and personal with the glacier on the Glacier Explorers Tour offered outside of the winter months.
5. Visit a Lavender Farm
During the summer months the Lavender Farm is open for visiting and purchasing gifts – all made with lavender of course. 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, on the other hand, is the location where locals choose to go when on holiday or so I’ve been told.
If you have the time it’s worth visiting both locations as they are only about 1 hour apart driving, have very different feels to them and different activities on offer. If you are into extreme sports this is definitely the area of New Zealand you want to visit! If not, no worries there are still plenty of activities for you too.
Things to Do in Wanaka & Queenstown
1. Yoga at Sunset
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 that provided a drop in rate and free mats for each class. The special bonus was that the studio overlooks the lake and mountains. Catch a class at sunset 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! Roy’s Peak is a medium to hard hike that takes about 5-6 hours return. In fact, about ¾ of the way up I contemplated turning 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 this amazing view and take this picture that looks like something out of a magazine. There is a reason it’s been dubbed the most instagrammed hike in NZ. Just make sure you leave yourself enough time to do the full hike and bring plenty of water, snacks and sunscreen.
3. Visit the Wanaka Tree
Arguably the most photographed tree in the world. It’s a lone tree near Lake Wanaka, right along the main beach path, that is famous for its remote location. It’s pretty easy to find and won’t cost you a penny. It really is just a tree though, so make a date out of it by walking down the beach from town to get your snapshot.
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 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 the most engaging host. And Wet Jacket which overall had our favorite wine, a great outdoor seating area and served up beer on tap giving it some variety.
You could spend an entire week just visiting the vineyards in the area. If interested in learning more about NZ wine and downloading a map of the region- check it out here.
5. Go Skiing in Winter or Kayaking in Summer
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 between the two cities including The Remarkables, Cardrona, Treble Cone and more so don’t be shy in hitting multiple ski fields during your stay. Ski rentals and frequent buses to and from ski fields can be found in both locations as well.
But if you visit NZ in the warmer months (Dec – March), check out the many water sports offered in each location such as kayaking, canyoning, rafting, river surfing, etc. Both Queenstown and Wanaka have a lake near the town centre so there is no shortage of opportunities to get wet!
Highlight #3: Fiordland National Park
Although Mount Cook is my top must-see, Fiordland is my favorite national park. It’s not only home to Milford Sound and a Glow Worm cave, but it offers some of the most breathtaking landscapes in all of New Zealand.
Things to Do in Fiordland National Park
1. Tour 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 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 is a really unique activity and very family friendly. Locals and tourists alike recommend this activity so if you have the time to get down here, it’s not to be missed.
2. Hike Fiordland National Park
If you don’t have the time (or sea legs) for Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park still has a lot to offer. Around every bend is a new scene to take in. There are plenty of hikes (also known as tramping in NZ) 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.
3. 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 AirBnb.
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 nearby hikes. It’s a great spot to enjoy the views and spend some time relaxing before your next adventure.
4. Say Hi to the Glow Worms
Glow Worm Cave tours leave from the Real Journeys building located at the bottom of town on the water. You’ll take a short boat journey through Lake Te Anau to the entrance of the Glow Worm caves where a guide will lead you through the cave to view the glow worms. Afterwards, you’ll receive a short presentation on the life of glow worms and learn more about these magnificent creatures before returning to the start of your journey.
Overall, my mom and I really enjoyed our tour and and if you’ve never seen glow worms before, it’s a pretty cool sight!
Highlight #4: The West Coast
Speaking honestly – I was surprised how much I enjoyed the West Coast. Although I ended up not having as much time to explore as I had originally intended, what I did see, I loved! If you are taking a road trip around the South Island or traveling through Arthur’s Pass you’ll enjoy hitting this on your travels.
Things to Do on the West Coast
Located in Punakaiki in the Paparoa National Park the Pancake Rocks and BlowHoles are situated right on the coast and offer a calming atmosphere. The pancake rocks are so named because of their shape & looking like…well pancakes. They were formed 30 million years ago and are a unique geological spectacle.
The 1.1km looped path is easy 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 near the entrance.
2. Explore 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 stopping at the Hokitika Gorge on 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 (about 20 minutes) on a trail through native bush to the Gorge itself but the views are worth the visit. This is another family friendly activity.
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 at 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 to to stay in for a night. 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, check out the local fare through Airbnb.
While NZ may be better known for its 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, whose beer can be found in almost every bar in the country. Its history dates back to the mid- 1800’s and is one of the few breweries to have survived from that time. The heritage brewing continues today in Greymouth and is open for daily tours.
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, where I was catching the ferry. 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 beautiful ocean landscapes and the bay makes it a perfect location for a variety of of sea life experiences.
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 as you get 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 the ability to do some bird watching along the way, then the boat tour is a good option. 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
Swimming with dolphins was my main 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 is dependent on weather and wil animal cooperation it’s always a possibility it won’t work out. My first attempt to swim with dolphins was cancelled as soon as we got out into the ocean due to weather. 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 a 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 take some photos. If you have an underwater camera or GoPro this is the time to bring it along! This was seriously a bucket list item dream come true and I’m so happy I went back to try again.
3. Visit the Seal Colony
There are a couple of large seal colonies right near the town center with a nice walking path to get there. Alternatively, you can drive to the car park and then walk a short distance over the rocks to where the seals bathe in the sun.
The seals are abundant 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 visited the colony twice in my short 24 hours in Kaikoura!
This was a local recommendation to me that I’m happy I made the effort to get to. Lake Matheson is 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 complete, or you can walk about 20 minutes to the lake and then turn around to the carpark if you are short on time.
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!
Stop at Castle Hill between Arthurs Pass and Christchurch
The Dalai Lama once called Castle Hill the “Spiritual Center of the Universe” and it 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 get out and stretch your legs or have a picnic 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 by bus or car 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.
Questions or Comments? Leave them below or send me an email. I’m happy to help!