Things to do in the South Island of New Zealand

 

Dramatic, snow-capped mountains, wild beaches and secluded bays, with just a few hours drive from one to the other, interspersed with wide, flat planes and vineyards: this is the South Island of New Zealand in a nutshell.

Awaroa beach in Abel Tasman National Park

The South Island is best explored in the Great Outdoors as this is where its magic lies. But what are the must-dos on New Zealand’s South Island? With so many options, it can be hard to pick the absolute highlights for your South Island itinerary. But fear not, we’re here to help. 

Let’s dive right in! Here are the best things to do in the South Island of New Zealand:

Experience Milford Sound

Mystical Milford Sound is one of the places in New Zealand that are a must-do for every first-time visitor! You feel tiny as your boat cruises past towering mountains rising up high from the water. Milford Sound is one of the few places where you’ll want it to be raining to fully experience its magic. Clouds get caught in the mountains and massive waterfalls tumble into the sea from high above. The more rain, the more waterfalls you’ll discover. 

You can not only cruise Milford Sound on a boat. Experience it even more personally on a kayak, paddling past seals perched on rocks. Or watch sealife swim by in the underwater observatory. If you need more time in Milford Sound, stay at Milford Sound Lodge. 

The road to Milford Sound and back again is long. We highly recommend you join a day tour from Queenstown or Te Anau. That way, you can fully enjoy the scenic landscape and you’ll stop for pictures at all the best spots along Milford Road. 

Bungy in Queenstown

If you only ever do one bungy jump in your life, jump off Kawerau Bridge! While the roots of bungy stem from an old ritual in Vanuatu, the first ever commercial bungy jump in the world took place on Kawerau Bridge in Queenstown. It’s still operated by the same company AJ Hackett, who have gone and come up with even crazier ways to bungy, swing or catapult you off platforms, bridges and cable cars.

Next to the famous Kawerau Bungy, which is 43m | 141ft high, you can also choose from the Ledge (on Skyline Gondola’s summit, 47m | 154ft) and the Nevis. At 139m | 440ft, Nevis is the highest bungy jump in New Zealand. For those not wanting to take the leap themselves, AJ Hackett at Nevis also offers a giant swing and the world’s biggest human catapult.

Embark on a glacier hike

One of the highlights when visiting New Zealand’s South Island definitely is a glacier hike. You not only get to walk on an actual glacier but the ‘shuttle’ to the ice is an actual helicopter! That’s two boxes ticked off in one day! 

Follow your guide as they lead you through an icy, white-blue wonderland. When the guides deem it safe, you can even clamber through ice tunnels and climb down glacier crevasses. 

You’ll find two options for glacier hikes on South Island’s West Coast, one in Franz Josef and another one in Franz Glacier. But even if you travel between Queenstown and Christchurch, you can do a glacier hike. Tasman Glacier is the glacier that’s accessible from the airfield at Aoraki Mt Cook Village.

Pounamu, also known as greenstone or New Zealand jade, originates from the Southern Alps and can be discovered on the West Coast beaches. Pounamu can break off through erosion and the rivers carry the rocks and rubble all the way down to the rocky beaches of Greymouth and Hokitika.

When visiting the area, make sure you go for a stroll on the beach and take a good look at the pebbles under your feet. If you find one in a green hue (especially when wet), chances are it is a pounamu. You are allowed to take any smaller greenstones that you can find on the beach. 

You can bring your stones to Bonz n Stonz shop in Hokitika, they’ll be happy to identify whether or not you stumbled across pounamu. They also offer carving workshops where you can learn how to carve pounamu, paua (the colourful shell) and bone. A perfect and unique souvenir! 

Explore Abel Tasman National Park

Tucked into the sunny north-western corner of the NZ South Island, Abel Tasman National Park isn’t on every visitor’s bucket list. It really should be, though! The yellow sand beaches, sheltered bays and tropically blue water invite for a stay and a swim and are a perfect summer destination.

The easiest way to explore Abel Tasman NP is on a day tour. Tours usually include a cruise and an option to either relax or go on a bush walk. 

The more adventurous among you embark on a journey on the Abel Tasman Coast Track, a hiking track that spans the whole coast of the national park. You can also just do a part of the track, hiking in and kayaking out on the calm waters, or stay for a night or two. The options are endless. 

Star-gazing in Tekapo

The small town of Tekapo boasts so many attractions and activities, you could easily spend a week there and never get bored. But the biggest reason visitors stay here (next to the lake and the Church of the Good Shepherd) is Tekapo’s incredible star-gazing opportunities. Tekapo is the biggest accredited International Dark Sky Reserve in the World. Meaning there’s hardly any light pollution at night which makes the stars look much brighter than elsewhere. In winter, there’s even a chance to see the Southern Lights from Tekapo!

A number of operators offer star-gazing in Tekapo but the two most famous are Dark Sky Project and Tekapo Springs.

Late at night, Dark Sky Project takes you up to Mt John summit where their observatory is stationed. The guides show you the stars and constellations visible in the Southern Hemisphere and you get the chance to take a peak through their telescopes.

At Tekapo Springs, you’re in for a super-relaxing way of stargazing. Float in the warm waters of their hot pools while drowning in the vast sea of stars above you. 

Whale Watching in Kaikōura

Technically, you could see whales pretty much anywhere in New Zealand. In most places, though, you need a bit of luck. Not so in Kaikōura! Here, you can see whales all year round. Thanks to a massive drop in the seabed near the shore, the giant mammals can live and hunt safely within the calmer waters of the bay, giving us humans an easy glimpse into their lives in the open ocean. 

Visit the Sperm Whales in their natural habitat and see them up close on a whale-watching cruise. With a 95% success rate, you’re almost certain to see one of the giant mammals.

If just the thought of being on the water makes you feel seasick, you might prefer the option of seeing the whales from above! Take one of the scenic whale-watching flights and observe how the pod moves around in the water and how massive the whales look compared to the boats! 

Or you can join a kayaking tour to see Kaikōura’s coastal wildlife. While seeing whales isn’t guaranteed, you can watch the seals basking in the sun on the rocks and, with some luck, get close to playful dolphins and other wildlife. 

No matter what you prefer, whale watching in Kaikōura is definitely one of the best things to do in the South Island of New Zealand!

Taste all the South Island wine

As a wine lover, you will love New Zealand and especially the South Island! You can find tasty wine pretty every step of your way. Cellar doors are open to wine tastings, and some offer dining options, too.

Overall, New Zealand has the best climate for white wines. The temperatures and the amount of sun we’re getting are perfect for growing Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. On the South Island, you’ll find these mainly in the wine regions of Nelson, Waipara (between Christchurch and Kaikōura) and New Zealand's biggest wine region, Marlborough. 

If reds are more to your taste, make sure to visit the wineries in Central Otago, especially Gibbston near Queenstown and Cromwell. The growers found that the micro-climate of hot summers and cool winters in that area is perfect for growing Pinot Noir. 

New Zealand South Island itineraries

With so many awesome things to do in the South Island of New Zealand, we understand it can be a bit overwhelming to decide where to go. Our South Island itineraries are a great way to start planning. And if you have any questions or would like a bespoke itinerary, our team of specialists are more than happy to help you out!  

Alexandra Diethelm
By
Alexandra Diethelm
: 18 Oct 2022 (Last updated: 19 Oct 2022)

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