New Zealand Highlights: What to see and do on the South Island

tree in lake wanaka new zealand

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Are you planning a road trip around New Zealand and wondering what there is to see and do on the South Island? Well, you’ve come to the right place. We explored New Zealand in our campervan and share with you here the highlights of the South Island.

Interested in replicating the itinerary? Head on over to check out your Ultimate South Island Road Trip Itinerary.

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Free activities or experiences

Many activities (and some of our most treasured experiences) are free or cost very little. On our journeys, we have

  • Visited many museums free of charge (including the Colosseum and Forum in Rome which are free on the first Sunday of the month)
  • Joined Al Green’s Baptist Church Service in Memphis (rather than pay the exorbitant entry fees at nearby Graceland)
  • Attended free guided walking tours around the world (you pay a tip at the end based on your budget and how much you liked the tour)
  • Did countless self-guided walks and used public transport to get to know a city
  • Hiked in the Andes in Ecuador and climbed volcanoes in the Caribbean
  • Swam and snorkelled at countless beaches, using tree shade rather than paying for parasols; and
  • Attended free performances and danced with locals in Cuba.

Just search for free activities in your destination and chances are someone has made a nice list for you already.

Paid Experiences

Paying for experiences or activities can add up quickly, especially if you're travelling as a family. Make use of family passes (if available). Look out for special deals and discount coupons. If you travel in a group, it may also pay to book a private tour and share the cost. Shop around - here are some of the service providers we have used and can recommend:

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Marlborough

Many people leave Picton as soon as they get off the ferry, but there is a little gem awaiting your visit just beyond the ferry terminal: the Edwin Fox – one of the world’s oldest surviving merchant sailing ships and the only one used to transport convicts to Australia and European settlers to New Zealand.

Unlike similar ships that still exist today, it was not fully restored but left in as much of its original state as possible. Exploring its hull, you can vividly imagine what life on board must have been like back in those days.

Only 30km south of Picton is one of New Zealand’s most famous wine regions: the Marlborough, home of the Sauvignon Blanc, which is best explored by bike, as you make your way slowly from one tasting to the next.

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View from the Edwin Fox in Picton

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Abel Tasman National Park

Nelson is not only blessed with reasonably good weather all year round. The city is also the gateway to three National Parks: Abel Tasman, Kahurangi and Nelson Lakes National Parks are each less than an hour’s drive away.

If you are into multi-day hikes, the Abel Tasman Coastal Track is one of the easier-to-reach Great Walks of New Zealand. If you prefer shorter hikes, there are still plenty to choose from. And if you love being out on the water, why not explore the National Park on a kayak tour?

To save money on activities, we recommend booking your Abel Tasman experiences through Bookme.

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Abel Tasman National Park | Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Unsplash

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Sun over Tasman Bay

Golden Bay and Kahurangi National Park

The Abel Tasman National Park is sandwiched between two expansive bays: Tasman Bay to the East and Golden Bay to the West. There is only one road in/out of Golden Bay but if you have the time (and the road is open) it is worth the effort:

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Te Waikoropupu Springs

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Wharariki Beach

Nelson Lakes National Park

The last one of the trio of National Parks around Nelson, aptly named Nelson Lakes National Park, is no less short of superlatives. Easily accessible Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa make for great day hikes (and it is fun to watch the eels from the Lake Rotoiti jetty), while remote Blue Lake is the world’s clearest body of freshwater. Thankfully, its remoteness has been protecting it from the tourist crowds, but the number of hikers visiting the lake has been increasing year after year.

West Coast

I visited Punakaiki first with my parents in January 2011, and even though Paul and I passed through at the end of summer, there were so many more tourists this time. So if you want to have the Pancake Rocks and Blowhole all to yourself best is to come at sunrise.

A great spot to watch the sunset lies some 80km further south: Hokitika Beach. A half-hour out of town is Hokitika Gorge with its glacial turquoise waters (but less pleasant sand flies – at least they didn’t bite).

To save money on activities, we recommend booking your West Coast experiences through Bookme.

punakaiki pancake rocks

Punakaiki Pancake Rocks

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Hokitika Gorge

Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers

When my parents and I first visited in 2011, we walked all the way up to the terminal face of the Franz Josef Glacier. These days, the terminal face is too dangerous to approach, and you only get as far as a lookout point quite a distance away, unless you book a tour that takes you onto the glacier (but those don’t come cheap).

Paul and I saw both glaciers on a ski plane tour. Seven years ago and again this time, I was shocked to see how far the mighty glaciers of the South Island have retreated. While they are still majestic to look at, it is sad to see how humans destroy our very own backyard.

If you’re passing through the area on a clear day, make sure you make the small detour to Lake Matheson. There is a nice and easy 5km hike around the lake, and you can capture Aoraki/Mt Cook and its reflection in the lake.

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Aerial View of Franz Josef Glacier

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Terminal Face Franz Josef Glacier

Queenstown Lakes District

Queenstown is often called the Adventure Capital of the World and for good reason. If adrenaline adventures are your thing you’re spoiled for choice: whether bungee jumping from the very bridge where AJ Hackett invented this thrill, paragliding from the top above the gondola or racing on jet boats through the river gorges – there surely is something for everyone.

But the area has way more to offer:

To save money on activities, we recommend booking your Queenstown experiences through Bookme.

Explore Queenstown Lakes District and beyond by rental car

If you plan to drive around the South Island, and Queenstown is your starting point, pick up your vehicle upon arrival. Although the public transport system in Queenstown is getting better year by year, you’ll get to see more places with a rental vehicle.

Find the Best Deals on a Rental Car with Discover Cars

Discover Cars is our go-to car aggregator platform when it comes to renting a vehicle anywhere in the world. They tend to have the least expensive options, and the customer service is great. Search, compare and save up to 70%! 

In 2023, they were named the World’s Best Car Rental Booking Website and App in the World Travel Tech Awards.

DiscoverCars.com is used and recommended by the team at Minimalsit Journeys
queenstown new zealand

Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu

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Coronet Peak Ski Field near Queenstown

Fiordland

While you can join a day tour to Milford Sound from Queenstown, we opted to slowly drive there ourselves, and we are glad we did. The road to Milford is very cool, with lots of otherworldly vistas and some nice little hikes along the way that are worth stopping for. Staying there overnight, we were able to see a magnificent sunset and sunrise and join a cruise early in the day before the tour buses with the day-tripper crowd arrived.

You can also join a cruise to Doubtful Sound (from Manapouri or Te Anau), a very different experience to Milford Sound as we have heard from those who have done both, but with NZD230 per person for the cheapest tour, we left this experience for another time.

Being the largest of New Zealand’s National Parks, Fiordland is home to three Great Walks: the Routeburn (mentioned above), the circular Kepler Track and the Milford Track itself.

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Christie Falls on the Road to Milford

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Mitre Peak Milford Sound

Stewart Island / Rakiura

For many visitors to Aotearoa, Te Anau is as far south as they go. If you have the time, travel further. The Southern Scenic Route from Queenstown via Te Anau to Invercargill, Bluff and on through the Catlins all the way to Dunedin is called ‘scenic’ for a reason. It is also one of the few places in New Zealand you can still get away from the tourist crowds.

If you are making it to Invercargill, New Zealand’s southernmost city, make sure you visit Stewart Island / Rakiura, only an hour by ferry off the coast. On the island, you can:

  • Hike the circular Rakiura Track, another one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.
  • Explore the 27 or so kilometres of the navigable road by mountain bike (or even better: electric mountain bike – they are great fun and cost pretty much the same to hire).
  • Taste some yummy seafood (including ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ Bluff Oysters) at Kai Kart (pick a day when there is no cruise ship anchored as there will be way more choice) or grab some freshly caught blue cod from the Four Square supermarket and cook up your own feast.
  • Spend half a day on Ulva Island, a paradise for native wildlife and those who love to observe them up close. Who knows, you might even get to see a Kiwi – the local variety is active during the day (though we weren’t that lucky).

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Native Bird on Ulva Island

Catlins

In some ways similar to the East Cape of the North Island, the Catlins is a bit off the beaten tourist track:

  • If you have been to Cape Farewell you might want to visit Slope Point – the southernmost spot on the South Island. From its clifftop position, you can even see Stewart Island in the distance.
  • Another cool place to check out is the Cathedral Caves. These sea caves are only accessible during low tide. Check the website to see when they are open, as you’ll only be able to visit from 1 1/2 hours before to one hour after low tide. We drove there in the dark, just in time to be there when they opened the gate at 0745 hours. One advantage to head there early is that you can walk further along the beach before the water returns. Most people just go to the first two (interconnected) caves but there are more further along the beach. Note: The internet access in the Catlins is patchy to non-existent (especially in the vicinity of the caves) so make sure you check their website before you get disconnected.
  • Rather than heading from the Catlins straight to Balclutha and Dunedin, make sure you check out Kaka Point (a pretty seaside settlement) and Nugget Point. The walk up to the Lighthouse has gorgeous views over the bay, and you can observe fur seals and (if you’re there during the right time of day) penguins along the way.
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Cathedral Caves in the Catlins

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Nugget Point Lighthouse

Dunedin and Northern Otago

I was looking forward to Dunedin as I had heard lots of good things about it, and the city of Scottish heritage (Dùn Èideann is the Gaelic name for Edinburgh) did not disappoint:

Not unlike Wellington, it is located around a beautiful harbour, has several (free) museums and galleries, and a Town Belt with an abundance of hiking and mountain bike trails.
The stunningly beautiful Otago Peninsula is right at its doorstep, and within less than an hour, you can observe Royal Albatross in the only breeding colony on New Zealand’s mainland and rare yellow-eyed and blue penguins coming to shore after a day of fishing at sea.
A great half-day outing is a ride on the Taieri Gorge Railway: Just sit back, relax and enjoy the stunning scenery as you pass across fertile plains, travel through 10 tunnels and across countless viaducts.
Dunedin is also home to some amazing street art and Baldwin Street, the world’s steepest residential street.
About an hour’s drive north of Dunedin, you will pass a sign for the Moeraki Boulders. It is worth stopping for these giant stones dotted along the beach, even though it is a popular tourist spot. Some of the boulders are still stuck in the coastal cliffs. Others have already been ‘freed’ by the forces of nature. And others yet have broken into pieces, enabling you to marvel at their crystalline interior.

Half an hour’s drive further north is Oamaru. Not only does this cool town boast many gorgeous Victorian-style buildings and its very own colony of Blue Penguins. Every year on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in June, the town buzzes with people dressed up for the annual Steampunk Festival. At all other times of the year, you can still pop by Steampunk HQ.

To save money on activities, we recommend booking your Otago experiences through Bookme.

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Taieri Gorge Railway, Dunedin

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Hiding in one of the boulders in Moeraki

Mackenzie Region: Lake Pukaki and Aoraki/Mt Cook

Even though I had been to the South Island numerous times before, I had never made it to the famous lakes of the Mackenzie Region, let alone seen New Zealand’s highest mountain – majestic Aoraki/Mt Cook. This time, thanks to the gorgeous clear weather, we were able to get a glimpse of the mountain from as far away as Hokitika and Geraldine.

The first thought that comes to mind when you see Lake Pukaki and the canals connecting it with the surrounding lakes (including Lake Tekapo to form a giant hydroelectric scheme) is how on earth is such a colour possible?. Even on a slightly overcast day, the Mackenzie Lakes are mesmerizingly turquoise. I’ve never seen anything like it.

While you will share the spot with heaps of other tourists, it is refreshing that there is no settlement on Lake Pukaki, only a tourist information centre and shop on the southern end of the lake. We have heard that this might change but we cross our fingers that it won’t.

From the southern tip of the lake, it’s about a 45 minutes’ drive to Mt Cook village. The village is the vantage point for Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, a paradise for hikers and mountain lovers. With the weather on our side, Paul and I decided to fly over Mt Cook and the glaciers in a ski plane. And while at times stomach-churningly turbulent, seeing Aoraki, the Southern Alps and the glaciers (including the Tasman, New Zealand’s largest glacier) up close, was an amazing experience.

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Tasman Glacier and Aoraki/Mt Cook

Mackenzie Region: Lake Tekapo

The Mackenzie Region, and Lake Tekapo in particular, is well known to photography enthusiasts, who are flocking to the only Dark Sky Reserve of the Southern Hemisphere to capture the stunning night sky (and the occasional Aurora Australis). We watched the sunset at the famous Church of the Good Shepherd in Tekapo, sharing the space with what felt like gazillions of tripods. You can also stargaze from the observatory on Mt John but we found the price of the tours a bit too hefty.

Apart from the Church and the stunning turquoise lake, there are heaps of hiking trails in the area and two ski fields (at Roundhill and Mt Dobson). And after a day of hiking or skiing, you can soak your tired legs in the Tekapo Hot Springs. They are open until 2100 hours, so on a winter’s day, you can even stargaze from your very own hot pool.

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Stunning Lake Tekapo

church of the good shepherd

church of the good shepherd

Christchurch and surrounds

As you travel north from the Mackenzie Region to Christchurch, you are likely to pass through Geraldine, a quaint little town worthy (at least) of a stopover to stretch your legs, pop into one of its quirky shops and meet the friendly locals. From Geraldine, take the scenic route (State Highway 72) to Christchurch. If you are an avid skier/snowboarder and you travel through in winter, stop in Methven for a day skiing at Mt Hutt or one of the many private ski fields north of Mt Hutt.

I had last visited Christchurch with my parents a month before the devastating earthquake in February 2011. So I was keen to see what the city was like now. A lot has been rebuilt since, but seeing the damage brought upon by the earthquakes of 2010/2011 so many years later was still heart-wrenchingly sad. On the other hand, having visited Napier and Hastings, I am confident that Christchurch will ‘rise out of the ashes as these two cities have.

Very fittingly, the first place we visited this time was Quake City. This special exhibition of the Canterbury Museum tells the story of the earthquakes and explains the geological impact they had on the area. Parts of Christchurch are now ‘Red Zones’, uninhabitable parklands that once housed thousands of people. Liquefaction brought upon by the extended shaking of the ground, and the silt and high groundwater that sit under large parts of Christchurch caused houses and roads to sink into the ground.

At Cathedral Square, you can see the ruins of the 19th-century Anglican Cathedral, reminding everyone of the destruction Mother Earth can unleash at any moment. While reconstruction of the old Cathedral has now started, only a few blocks away, a temporary cathedral has been established. Being (partially) made of cardboard and a beautiful structure in its own right, it is a symbol of the ingenuity and resilience of the people of Christchurch.

If you have a few days left at the end of your road trip around New Zealand, we recommend exploring Christchurch’s coastal communities: pretty Sumner, laid-back Taylors Mistake, Godley Head and the Banks Peninsula are all waiting to be explored. If you’re lucky you might even get to see the rare Hector dolphins during a cruise of Akaroa Harbour.

To save money on activities, we recommend booking your Christchurch experiences through Bookme.

Explore Christchurch’s neighbourhoods and beyond by rental car

If you plan to drive around the South Island, and Christchurch is your starting point, pick up your vehicle upon arrival. Although the public transport system in Christchurch, you’ll get to see more places with a rental vehicle.

Find the Best Deals on a Rental Car with Discover Cars

Discover Cars is our go-to car aggregator platform when it comes to renting a vehicle anywhere in the world. They tend to have the least expensive options, and the customer service is great. Search, compare and save up to 70%! 

In 2023, they were named the World’s Best Car Rental Booking Website and App in the World Travel Tech Awards.

DiscoverCars.com is used and recommended by the team at Minimalsit Journeys
cardboard cathedral sharon ang pixabay

Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand | Photo by Sharon Ang on Pixabay Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch | Photo by Sharon Ang on Pixabay

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Punter on the River Avon in Christchurch | Photo by Skeeze on Pixabay

Kaikoura

Dolphins are likely to greet you also during a whale-watching trip further up the coast. Kaikoura is the whale-watching capital of New Zealand. Why? Well, for starters, sperm whales are feeding in the nutrient-rich waters off the Kaikoura coast all year round. If that’s not enough, many migrating whales (including humpback, pilot, blue and southern right whales), as well as orca, stop off Kaikoura’s coast for feed as they travel between the Antarctic and the South Pacific.

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Kaikoura Coastline

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Dolphins in Kaikoura

What are your favourite tourist experiences on the South Island?

Did we whet your appetite? Check out our itinerary for your Ultimate South Island Road Trip. Have you visited Aotearoa? What are your favourites of the South Island?

Author: <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/sandrarosenau/" target="_blank">Sandra Rosenau</a>

Author: Sandra Rosenau

Sandra Rosenau is a Gen X gal from Germany, born and raised behind the Iron Curtain, with an unquenchable thirst to learn. Self-starter. Multi-lingual. Minimalist. Environmentally conscious. Financially and location independent. Energised by connecting with others and helping people succeed.