South Island New Zealand Guide, Things to Do
Planning a trip to South Island, New Zealand? Whether you’re a thrill-seeker, nature-lover or a fan of The Lord of the Rings, our guide to Middle-earth is chock-full of things to do.
Wander through the hardwood forest to reach the viewing platform of Hokitika Gorge to catch a glimpse of the stunning, milky-blue waters. A walk over the swing bridge leads to stunning views of the Hokitika River spilling into the Gorge. For the best viewing spot, continue on to the large rocks at the base of the Gorge. Be sure to bring insect repellent to ward off the pesky sandflies.
Breathe in the fresh mountain air while strolling along the tree-lined lakeshore trail of Lake Wanaka. There are plenty of photo opportunities along the way, including That Wanaka Tree (#thatwanakatree). Growing out of the water, the lone willow is one of the most photographed trees in South Island, New Zealand. To close out the evening, toast the sunset with a glass of local vino at a restaurant or wine bar in the vibrant lakeside village.
Often called the Eighth Wonder of the World, the amazing scenery of Milford Sound includes jagged cliffs, waterfalls and sea life. After a rainstorm, hundreds of waterfalls cascade down the mountain walls into the deep ocean water below. Explore the fjord by boat with Cruise Milford. Tip: opt for a smaller boat to get closer to the waterfalls and seals sunbathing on the rocks.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes
Punakaiki’s weathered limestone rocks and cliffs were formed 30 million years ago from fragments of marine life along the coast. Over the years, the rocks have taken a beating from the wind, rain and water to give a stacked pancake appearance. Arrive during high tide and watch as the water explodes from the blowholes just a few feet in front of you.
Take in the majestic landscapes of the Haast Pass (verdant rainforests, an abundant wilderness) on a scenic drive from Wanaka to the West Coast. The highway is also a gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park where you can see the magnificent Blue Pools. The walking track leads you through a silver beech forest to a suspension bridge that crosses the Makarora River. Perch on the bridge to watch the rainbow and brown trout glide through the water below. After crossing, head viewing platform above the pools, names for their have-to-see-it-to-believe-it hue.
Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers
The full scope of these two glaciers should be seen from up above, and a helicopter tour with Fox & Franz Josef Heliservices does just that. Bonus: get even closer with a snow landing. The chopper touches down on the snow for photo ops, and you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world with unobstructed views of the Southern Alps. The glaciers are melting at a rapid pace, so don’t miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Shotover Canyon Swing
Take a deep breath and jump, dive, pin drop or fall backwards from a 360-foot rugged cliff overlooking the river at Shotover Canyon Swing. After this 200-foot freefall descent, you’ll feel the exhilaration of flying as you swing across the canyon several times, taking in the view of the towering canyon walls. This is an adrenaline rush that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Tarzan’s got nothing on you!
Step into the foothills of the Southern Alps at the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. Aoraki/Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand, and the park offers stellar hiking, or tramping, as Kiwis like to call it. The cloud-capped mountain trails are filled with pebble-bottomed streams and awe-inspiring glaciers. If the mountain looks familiar, it’s because it served as a filming location for The Lord of Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.
Along the shore of Lake Tekapo, sits the quaint, charming Church of the Good Shepherd, built in 1935. During the day, the teal blue lake water with snow-capped mountains frame the church. At twilight, watch the sky come alive as the moon rises behind the church. Free from light pollution, Lake Tekapo is one of the best locations for astronomy and stargazing in the world.
Spend a leisurely afternoon driving from coast to coast on New Zealand’s South Island along Arthur’s Pass. If you head west, the snow-capped mountains of the Southern Alps come into focus. Around every curve, spectacular sights await from sparkling riverbeds to tussock valleys to ancient limestone boulders. You could make the crossing in only a few hours, but one full day is worth it to take advantage of the rewarding panorama from the scenic overlooks and hiking trails.
Shotover River Canyons
Hold on tight to the handlebar as the Shotover Jet boat zig zags through the canyon, coming within inches of the angled rock walls. To let you catch your breath, the boat’s captain makes brief stops pointing out notable spots along the way. Your adrenaline will start pumping again when the boat does its signature 360-degree spin. The passengers squeal with excitement and applaud the captain for such a thrilling ride.
Best Time to Travel to New Zealand
September through May is the best time to visit New Zealand: December through February is the height of summer, and also the height of tourist season. Avoid the winter months of June through August, unless you want a snowy adventure.