10 Iconic and Underrated Things To Do in New Zealand South Island
Tourism in New Zealand is booming, with certain destinations attracting the lion’s share of visitors. Having lived on the South Island for almost six months, I’ve traveled this island extensively. In this post I’ll introduce you to the most iconic (and also the most underrated) things to do in New Zealand’s South Island.
Editor’s note: The below wold make an epic New Zealand road trip. Renting, or buying an old, car is the most popular method of New Zealand travel although you can get buses around, which stop in every town. You’ll want to do the same in Australia too so you can explore the great ocean road.
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10 Iconic and Underrated Things to do in New Zealand South Island
Boat Cruise on Milford Sound | Visit That WanakaTree | Climb Roys Peak | Skydive in Queenstown | Hike Hooker Valley | Visit Nugget Point | See Baby Seals at Abel Tasman National Park | Swim with Dolphins in Kaikoura | Heli-hike on Franz Josef Glacier | Wander through Akaroa
5 Iconic Things to Do in New Zealand’s South Island
Get ready. In the following destinations, there will be crowds. You will not have the place to yourself. But despite that, the activities in these places will be awesome and exhilarating and a darn good time (despite the potential crowds). In fact, hiking Roys Peak and cruising down Milford Sound were two of my favourite things to do on the South Island.
Take a Boat Cruise on Milford Sound
Milford Sound is one of the most visited and most photographed destinations on the South Island, and despite the crowds, cruising down the fiord was one of my absolute favourite activities in New Zealand. The scenery is simply striking; wild forests over steep ridges, waterfalls crashing into the sea. We passed by sea lions and albatross, and the boat went so close to a waterfall we could feel the mist on our faces.
Other things to do while you’re in Fiordland National Park:
- Hiking Key Summit (3 hour return)
- Hiking Lake Marion (3 hour return)
- Kayaking on Milford Sound (go with Rosco Milford Kayaks – they are an awesome guiding company)
Have a little more time? You could also do an overnight boat cruise in Doubtful Sound, Milford Sound’s wilder and less visited sister.
|Top Tip: Odds are it will rain while you are in Fiordland National Park. It’s less a question of if and more a question of when (which might actually be the whole time). Definitely bring a good raincoat and I recommend also bringing a pair of rain pants.|
How can you visit New Zealand and not capture #ThatWanakaTree? Perhaps the most photographed tree in New Zealand, nay, the world, the Wanaka Tree is just a single tree standing alone in Lake Wanaka. A short walk from the town center, grab a coffee from a waterfront cafe and make your way to the tree. Don’t forget your camera.
Other activities in Wanaka:
- Go kayaking or paddle boarding on Lake Wanaka
- Take a happy hour cruise
- Get the best ice cream at Patagonia Chocolates
- Go on a bike tour
- Try out a custom Gin & Tonic at The Cork Bar
|Top Tip: Visit the Wanaka Tree early in the morning for sunrise. Not only will you get great lighting, you also will have fewer people around you. Sunset also has nice lighting, but tends to have a lot more people.|
Climb Roys Peak
The view from Roys Peak has blown up on Instagram, making this one of the most popular hikes on the South Island. Although you’re unlikely to have the trail to yourself, you will get simply spectacular views of the Southern Alps, Lake Wanaka and the town. The track is about 3 hours each way, and can get quite steep in sections. How to hike Roy’s peak; you will need a moderate level of fitness and hiking boots are definitely recommended.
Other activities outside Wanaka:
- Go swimming along Blue Pools Track
- Hike to Rob Roy Glacier
|Top Tip: If hiking for sunrise (which I 100% recommend), bring a headlamp and a pair of mittens. It will be very dark and the hike is exposed, so it can be windy – and that wind chill can get really cold.|
Skydive in Queenstown
Honestly, I’m a bit of a chicken and never went skydiving in Queenstown myself. My flatmates went and they all continue to rave about. “You get gorgeous views of the Southern Alps.” “15,000 of free fall is absolutely invigorating.” Okay, I get it, I get it. Skydiving in Queenstown is an absolute must-do in New Zealand that I did not do myself. That said, if heights are your jam or you’re a bit of an adrenaline junkie, there’s no better place to go skydiving than in Queenstown apparently.
Other things to do around Queenstown:
- Go whitewater rafting at Shotover River
- Eat and drink your way through Queenstown’s excellent food scene.
- Go bungy jumping in th the birthplace of Bungee
- Visit charming and quaint Arrowtown
- Take a boat ride or make the scenic drive to Glenorchy, 45 minutes north of Queenstown
|Top Tip: Don’t chicken out like I did.|
Editor’s Note: I’m terrified of bungy jumping but skydiving is actually ok, even if you’re scared. You’re strapped to someone else so once you’re up there you ave no real option but to go as they tip you out the plane. Plus you’re so high up the world below doesn’t look at all real.
Hike Hooker Valley Track
Stroll along the boardwalk, hiking trails and swing bridges as you make your way into Hooker Valley. This track has long been a popular destination for visitors and top of the list of things to do in South Island, New Zealand. The track itself is fairly flat and unchallenging, making it suitable to beginner hikers. Throughout it you will be treated to views of Mount Cook, the tallest peak in New Zealand.
Other things to do in Mount Cook / Aoraki National Park:
- Do the overnight hike to Meuller Hut
- Check out Tasman Lake
- Make a stop at Lake Tekapo (not in the park, but nearby)
5 Underrated Things to Do in New Zealand’s South Island
While all the things mentioned above are sure to be fantastic experiences, there are also plenty of awesome – yet totally underrated – things to do on the South Island of New Zealand. After six months living on the South Island, I generally enjoyed the off-the-beaten path destinations much more than the (busy) iconic destinations. Kayaking with baby seals in Abel Tasman and swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura were perhaps my all time favourite things to do in New Zealand South Island.
Photograph Nugget Point
Nugget Point is home to a quaint and wonderfully photogenic lighthouse in a region of the South Island called The Catlins. From the car park, the walk to the lighthouse takes about 20 minutes and you’ll be treated with several good view points along the way. If you can, head to Nugget Point for sunrise – the colours will be astounding and it won’t be nearly as busy.
Other places to visit in The Catlins:
- Check out Slope Point (the most southern point of the South Island)
- Go inside Cathedral Caves (giant sea cave you can explore when the tides are right)
- Visit McLean Falls (22 m waterfall)
Kayak with Baby Seals in Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park is located on the northern coast of the South Island. It’s distance from destinations like Milford Sound and Mount Cook mean it doesn’t get too many tourists. Kayaking is the best way to experience the park. I went with a kayak tour that started with a boat cruise so we could go even deeper into the park. We kayaked into a little hidden harbour and were greeted by dozens and dozens of baby seals. Apparently their mothers leave them in this protected harbour while they go and fish. One even jumped onto a kayak! It was a truly magical experience only to be had in Abel Tasman National Park.
Other activities to do in Abel Tasman National Park:
- Hike the Abel Tasman Coastal Track
- Lounge on the golden beaches
- Go canyoning
Swim with Dolphins in Kaikoura
Kaikoura is a seaside town located three hours north of Christchurch. Something about the geography of the seabed right beside Kaikoura means they get tons and tons of whales and dolphins. Encounter Dolphins runs small and sustainably operated tours that let you go snorkeling with wild dolphins in the Pacfic Ocean. It was the craziest experience of my life – at one point I was underwater and two dolphins circled around me for a few minutes. They were so close I could have touched them (but you shouldn’t). Gosh, I’m getting goosebumps just writing about it.
Other activities to do in Kaikoura:
- Hike Mount Fyfe
- Stroll along the Kaikoura Peninsula (and visit the seal colony there or kayak to them)
- Go whale watching (by boat cruise or by flight)
|Top Tip: When you go swimming with dolphins, rent a GoPro from Dolphin Encounters for $50 NZD. I was feeling cheap and didn’t, so I don’t have any nice photos of the experience (hence why I present you with a photo of one member of the Kaikoura Seal Colony).|
Heli-hike on Franz Josef Glacier
A visit to Franz Josef and Fox Glacier should really be on everyone’s South Island New Zealand bucket list. And yet a lot of itineraries leave them off. Crazy! If you have a couple hundred dollars in your back pocket (as a backpacker, I did not), consider going heli-hiking on Franz Josef glacier. You get flown to the top of a glacier in a helicopter and then a guide takes you hiking by ice crevasses and caves. Sounds like an adventure to me.
Other destinations along the West Coast:
- Visit the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks (pictured below)
- Check out Hokitika Gorge and the tree top walkway
Wander through Akaroa
Akaroa, meaning “long harbour” lies just an hour from Christchurch and yet so few people visit it. Maybe it’s because there aren’t any mountains. While the area’s vertical achievement may not wow you, there are several worthwhile activities here. This is a great place to relax for a day or two at the end of your trip.
Other things to do in Akaroa:
- Take a boat cruise to the end of the long harbour (you’ll likely see seals and albatross)
- Visit The Giant’s House, a picture-perfect home surrounding by quirky and perplexing mosaic sculptures
What was your favorite of the things to do in New Zealand South Island? Let me know in the comments below.
About the Author
Mikaela is the voice behind Voyageur Tripper, a blog dedicated to outdoor adventure. Based out of Canada, Mikaela spends her free time hiking and canoeing. She spent six months living on the South Island of New Zealand.
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