Great Lakes of the South Island

Nelsons Blue Lake has the clearest water in the world

These are the best ‘must see’ lake areas on New Zealand’s stunning South Island. The recommendations are based on my widespread wanderlust and intimate local knowledge. This exclusive and sought after guide is unique, informative and very easy to follow. As my poet friend Claver Esmond says, “Contentment by quiet waters is one of this country’s great riches”.

Yours truly John Dunne standing at Hooker Lake on the Hooker Valley track with Mt Cook behind us.

The Best Lakes to Visit in the South Island

Welcome to the breathtaking South Island of New Zealand, a land of unparalleled natural beauty and serene landscapes. Nestled amidst the majestic Southern Alps and surrounded by lush greenery, the South Island is home to a collection of stunning lakes that captivate the hearts of all who venture here. From the iconic turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo to the pristine wilderness surrounding Lake Rotoiti, each lake offers a unique and awe-inspiring experience. Whether you're an adventure enthusiast seeking outdoor thrills or a tranquility seeker yearning for peaceful moments, the South Island's lakes provide an enchanting backdrop for exploration and discovery. Join us on a journey through the crystalline waters, snow-capped peaks, and charming lakeside towns that define the South Island's unrivaled charm.

The Nelson Lakes National Park

Where is it?

Located inland south of Nelson and Blenheim. Separate valleys gauged out by glaciers in the last ice age and these troughs are now Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa. The surrounding mountains are the northern most ranges of the magnificent South Island Southern Alps chain.

How to get there ?

The Park is about an hour and a half on sealed roads from Nelson and Blenheim.  It can also be accessed via the Lewis Pass highway that runs north from the South Island’s biggest city, Christchurch. That trip will take you around 5 hours one way through some stunning often bush clad country. 

Why go there and what is there to do?

Frankly the answer to this, is why not ? The little alpine village of St. Arnaud is cute, friendly, well serviced and right by Lake Rotoiti. Lake Rotoroa by contrast is a little quieter though does have a campsite and relevant facilities.

Get your hiking boots on cos the area is riddled with greater and lesser walks, excellent backpacking as well alpine routes and climbing challenges. The infamous and well named Pinchgut track is a must for all who think they’re fit enough, though be warned, it’s exactly as the name suggests so be sure to check the weather and know your limits.

There’s great hunting of red deer and chamois ( pron. shamwa ) excellent skiing in season, as well as all manner of water sports, though there are some restrictions on swimming and jetskis are prohibited. Mountain biking and 4WD off roading is popular too.

Read more about the Blue Lake here - reknowned as the clearest lake in the world

Blue Lake in the Nelson Lakes National Park is regarded as the clearest in the world.

Highly recommended

Check out Rotoiti Water Taxi services which are based shoreside in St. Arnaud and offer a range of services from taxi to ferry options. There’re scenic opportunities up and down the lake accessing private bays and walking tracks and double and single kayaks are also available for hire.

Quirks of the place?

The sandflies here can be a real nuisance, so you’ve been told..and if you’ve got domestic pets, please leave them at home. 

Insider tips

Though there is a service centre operating 7 days in St. Arnaud, be sure to have some basic supplies just in case. Litres of bug spray will never go amiss. Given the great fishing and hunting in the area be sure you’ve the appropriate licensing for such pursuits.

Best time to visit

Nelson Lakes is a good year round destination. However I’m biased and while obviously colder in winter months ( June to October ) the snowsports options are usually well sought after. Be it the nearby Rainbow Ski Area or ski touring along Roberts Ridge to the Angelus Hut.

Water Taxi departing the jetty at Lake Rotoiti

The Glacial Lakes

Where do I find these?

Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki and to a certain extent Lake Ohau are very popular destinations in the central South Island and easily reached from the biggest city on New Zealand’s South Island, Christchurch.

How to get there?

Car is best though tour buses also service the route. Self drive via sealed highway will have you lakeside at Tekapo Village inside of 3 hours from Christchurch. 

 Why go there?

You can’t beat the vastness of the area and it’s proximity to Southern Alps. Simply put, the area is breathtaking. Year round, rugged snow capped peaks, huge blue lakes and Tekapo Village has a cool vibe. There’s great skiing in winter and watersports in summer with an excellent range of accommodation.

What is there to do?  

Be sure to take the famous Lake Tekapo Farm tour on a 50,000 acre high country. You’ll learn of the geography, the flora and fauna, old farming practises verses new and you’ll also get up close with animals.

The planetary observatory and café on nearby Mt John offers an opportunity to ‘look at the stars’ and as the area is an official global dark sky sanctuary, you can book a guided ‘trip though the milky way’.

A scenic flight with the world renowned Air Safaris over magnificent mountains is also a must, so you’re going to busy. There’s a rich history including sheep rustling, landmarks like the Church of the Good Shepherd, to the Tekapo Springs and the hydro electric power development. 

Lake Pukaki - still and serene.

Highly recommended

Make sure you inquire about visiting The Hermitage Hotel and Ed Hillary Museum at Mt. Cook National Park. The area is rich in trekking and climbing and Glacier Explorers also offer a boat trip on the glacial lake at the base of New Zealand’s largest glacier, the Tasman. The 2 and half hour experience in purpose built boats gets you up close with the icebergs while expert guides explain the history. The season runs from September to June.

Insider tips

Have the camera charged and ready as this area is a photographer’s smorgasbord. Make the side trip to the little group of cabins lakeside known as baches in New Zealand, at the smaller Lake Alexandrina.Remember though the weather can change quickly and for all seasons!

Best time to visit

Any time is good as this place can R O C K

The Southern Lakes

Where are these?

Queenstown is the adventure capital of ‘ The World ‘ and is built on the shores of Lake Wakitipu. To the north and over the highest public road in New Zealand is Wanaka township and the lake of the same name. Further south and a road trip away is beautiful Lake Te Anau with it’s own unique town. Also within range are the Milford and Routeburn walking tracks and Milford Sound.

How to get there?

Fly direct to Queenstown international airport or self drive the internal highway that dissects the centre of the South Island. Either way the views will blow your mind.

What are the main attractions?

The area is the home of the AJ Hackett bungy jump. This is where the craze began and now that you’ve come this far you can’t leave without being part of it. Return trips to the bungy run from the centre of Queenstown all year round. Do the bungy get the T shirt.

There’re lake cruises of all sorts, jetboating through the mighty river gorges, skiing ( in season ) parasailing, watersports, famous vineyards, outstanding restaurants and bars, shopping, stunning treks, movie sets, awesome scenery and Queenstown’s night life pumps. As mentioned the Milford and Routeburn tracks and Milford Sound are famous side trips.

Accommodation ranges from backpackers to the finest hotels and private lodges.

Things unique to the area?

Against this modern backdrop, the SS ( steam ship ) Earnslaw built in 1912, still sails the lake offering a range of trips. Gather around the grand piano on board and sing some songs from the past after lunching over the lake at a high country sheep station. 

Try panning for gold in nearby Arrowtown or take a day to visit Te Anau and a boat trip across the lake to see the glow worm caves.  This very young 12,000 year old system of caves features passages of limestone and swirling pools with the shimmering images of the glow worms all about. Purpose built vessels and expert guides are key to the operation.

Highly recommended

Make a visit to the lakeside town of Wanaka which is also the base of Wanaka Eco-Tours. This is where you book a trip to Mou Waho, one of the 4 islands on Lake Wanaka. The fascinating feature of this island is that it too has glacial pond in its centre, which 150m above the level of the main lake. Hence the saying, a lake within an island, in another lake on an island..

Insider tips

Be sure the debit or credit card is well charged, you’ll need it. Just as the queue to get a Ferg burger is well worth it !

Best time to visit

All year round. If skiing is your thing, 4 genuinely internationally rated resorts are easily reached from both Queenstown and Wanaka with seasons from July to October.

Lake Mou Waho - is an island on a lake, on lake Wanaka.

West Coast Lakes and Fantastic Fiordland

Where am I?

This is as wonderfully remote as you can get in the south west of New Zealand, Fiordland and the southern wild West Coast. Fiordland is like Norway with gaping fiords and inland waterways.

How to get there?

The West Coast lakes are a coach or bus trip trip or self drive option. Heading south down New Zealand’s West Coast Highway you’ll eventually enter bush clad ravines and river valleys as you pull away from the ocean that is the Tasman Sea. This is where you find some real lakeside gems. Be warned though as the sandflies have found them too!

Why go there ?

Unlike other lakes in the South Island these lakes are less known and not so well visited. However make a note of the names because they’re worth a stop and in some cases a sidetrip, if just to absorb the peace and quiet. If you’re an angler, check you’ve got an appropriate license.

So start writing your list, Lake Mahinapua, Lake Paringa Lodge and budget accommodation options, Lake Ianthe and campsite, Lake Mapourika and kayak hire from the up market Wilderness Lodge ( winter months only ) and Lake Matheson beyond Fox Glacier township and photo opportunities of New Zealand’s highest peaks of Mts Cook and Tasman and the reflections on the lake surface.

While the often brooding Lake Te Anau has been mentioned elsewhere, it is also in close proximity to Lake Manapouri, while a little further south still, are Lakes Monowai, Hauroko and Poteriteri.

While Manapouri is rated one of the country’s most picturesque lakes, Hauroko is the deepest. This grouping offers excellent fishing and hunting, jet boating and other watersports. Unsealed roads provide access with campsites and huts available. DOC ( Dept. of Conservation ) huts in New Zealand usually work on a booking system.


Highly recommended.

Be sure to consider Lake Hauroko which offers one of New Zealand’s most impressive jet boat experiences. The all day ultimate adventure includes 92kms of jet boating, white water grade 3 rapids, nature walks, a free nature guide and a complementary lunch, in a 6 hour voyage of discovery.

It leaves Hauroko jetty at the 10 in the morning and returns to the same place.

Quirks of the region ?

I’m sure I mentioned the the fact that the weather can change quickly and if you thought ‘ It never rains in Southern California, man it pours ‘ then you’ve never been in a West Coast deluge. Point being a single umbrella just won’t do. You’ll need the heaviest wet weather gear money can buy ! 

Also Fiordland is no stranger to earthquakes.

Insider tips.

Please be careful if you’re driving a campervan, especially in more remote areas. Road signage is often basic and nothing upsets locals more than someone crossing the centre line or worse, not pulling over to let traffic pass.

Good time to visit.

There is no rainy season as such, though that’s no guarantee it won’t rain and when it rains on the West Coast or in Fiordland it can do so for days. Check your weather and vehicle as there’s no garage just down the road.

That said, the ‘elements’ are part of the attraction, so seek some local knowledge from the Fiordland National Park headquarters in Te Anau and go with it and enjoy.


Wairaurahiri Jet which starts at Lake Hauroko

Apart from Queenstown, Wanaka, Tekapo and a lesser extent Te Anau, the South Island ‘ great lakes ‘ are not surrounded by hotels and townships. They’re generally pristine and as nature designed them.

Kiwis by their very nature are friendly and communicative and will likely suggest other options to the lakes I’ve highlighted here. Listen to them as they all have valid and treasured opinions of what is their favourite and why.

Do you like the sounds of visiting the lakes of the South Island - Click here to find out more. 

If you’re ready to start planning your bespoke New Zealand itinerary, you can message FLT’s New Zealand travel experts directly

John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 16 Nov 2023 (Last updated: 16 Nov 2023)

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