New Zealand is diverse and varied. The country is divided into a North Island and a South Island. In this post we present you the New Zealand South Island highlights and give you travel tips around the special country, which will surely become a longing destination for you.
Especially if you are nature lover or sports enthusiast, you will get your money’s worth in New Zealand. Because the country has to offer for outdoor friends everything that the heart desires.
1. The Abel Tasman Coast Track
The Abel Tasman Coast Track in the very north of the island is blessed with a mild climate, white sand beaches and thriving flora and one of our New Zealand South Island highlights. You can do the 51-kilometer track in both directions.
The trail usually runs very close to the coast, but you always move at different altitudes, so you can enjoy beautiful views over the bays. For some variety, you can also use water taxis or kayaks between the various points on your route.
In total, there are four cabins and 19 tent sites along the track. A popular way to make the track is to take the water taxi from Marahah to Totaranui and then hike back within three days. That’s how we did it and that was the perfect mix
You can book accommodation in advance through the Department of Conservation website. Water taxis can be arranged on site.
The little village Nelson near the Abel Tasman National Park is really nice. At Tahunanui Beach, you can either relax or enjoy beautiful views of the city and the sea from Botanical Hill .
In addition, Nelson is synonymous with art lovers highly in the course, because the city is known for their local arts and crafts and for the different galleries. For this reason we recommend a visit to the museum “World of Wearable Art”.
But your visit to Nelson is not complete unless you visit the workshop of Jens Hansen , the famous creator of the legendary “One Ring” of the Lord of the Rings trilogy .
Incidentally, we ordered the original rings of the film for our wedding here on our world tour. Yes, full nerdy, we know.
3. The Varied Heaphy Track
Not far from Nelson is the next of New Zealand’s “Great Walks,” the Heaphy Track . The track is also one of the top New Zealand South Island highlights.
You can start the track either from Brown Hut in Golden Bay or from Kohaihai on the west coast. The path is not a circular route, but can be done in both directions. The old Maori Trail in Kahurangi National Park is probably the most varied hiking trail.
Because the path along the west coast of the South Island offers great variety between lush forests, plains of tussock grass, Nīkau palm trees, but also marshland and views of the wild roaring sea.
The track stretches for almost 80 kilometers and is popular with hikers as well as mountain bikers (the latter is only allowed from the beginning of May until the end of November).
Generally, if you want to hike one of the Great Walks on your own, you will need a special pass. The fees vary from walk to walk, but overall are very moderate.
The only problem on the west coast of the track are the many sandflies. They are really a nuisance there. You also need to organize a return transport, as it is not a circular route. That’s why we only made a two-day detour to the track.
4th Buller Gorge Swing Bridge
The Buller Gorge Swing Bridge is New Zealand’s longest suspension bridge . A real action park has been established around the bridge. If you’re an adrenaline freak, jet-boating will get your money’s worth.
And if you want to try your luck, you might get rich gold. However, if you want a bit more peace and quiet, you can explore the wonderful flora and fauna on one of the many nature trails. Admission to the bridge costs $10 for adults, and jet boat travel costs $115.
5. Pancake Rocks
The Pancake Rocks have made a name for themselves around the world through their unique, weathered rock formations. The sandstone formations “Punakaiki” or pancakes of the New Zealand west coast look like stacked pancakes and are always worth a visit.
You can best explore the pancakes on the approximately 1 km circular trail. Especially spectacular are the rocks and the characteristic holes at high tide when the water splashes through the rocks. It’s best to bring a rain jacket with you to protect you from the water.
6. Hokitika Gorge
A hike through the Hokitika Gorge will reward you with excellent views of the blue-green waters of the Hokitika River. The water is almost the color of Wick Blue candies.
The river meanders picturesque through the gorge of the same name. The short and easy walk is only a few hundred meters long and you should not miss it. It starts directly at the parking lot of Hokitika Gorge Scenic Reserve, about 33 km east of Hokitika.
You can also fill some of the delicious glacier water. While not tasting of Wick Blue candies, it’s really refreshing.
7. Franz Josef Glacier
The Franz Josef Glacier is located in the Westland National Park on the South Island and has a length of about 10 kilometers. Popular is the valley hike to the glacier to admire the eternal ice at close range. Guided tours cost about 50 euros.
Unfortunately, the glacier is now only a shadow of the other ice giant, but still worth the trip to admire the dimensions of nature. The tours start at the Glacier Center in Franz Josef, where you will be provided with the necessary equipment for the glacier.
Tours on the glacier cost several hundred euros. Same prices apply to the helicopter flights . The flights take about 40 minutes, but only take place in stable weather. Inquire in good time about the weather before you drive to Franz Josef to avoid disappointment. Flights can be booked online or in advance.
8. Fox Glacier
About 25 km further south of the Franz Josef Glacier is the Fox Glacier . It starts at the highest peaks of the New Zealand Southern Alps and reaches down to 300 meters above sea level. He overcomes 2,600 vertical meters and ends as one of the few glaciers in the world in the rainforest.
By 2007, the glacier was still expanding, but since that time the ice giant has unfortunately been shrinking rapidly. You can still admire the dimensions, for example in the context of a helicopter flight. In the offer of many organizers you can also find combi flights over the two glaciers.
One of the absolute New Zealand South Island highlights is Wanaka. The crystal clear waters of Lake Wanaka attract sailors, kayakers and jetboarders alike. The lake has a length of 45 km and an area of 193 km ². Skydiving providers also offer their services around the lake.
You can also make a day hike to the 1578 m high Mount Roy and climb the mountain over the popular Roys Peak Track. It is one of the most beautiful day hikes we have ever done .
On the way to the summit you will be accompanied by the chirping of grasshoppers and the bleating of the sheep. Later, spectacular views of Lake Wanaka and its islands and bays are revealed. Behind you will see the mighty, snow-capped mountains of the New Zealand Southern Alps. Just breathtaking.
10. Arrowtown – the gold mining town
There are two things the town of Arrowtown is known for: gold mining and good food. The charming and bizarre Goldgräberdorf is embedded in a beautiful landscape. High peaks and the sparkling Arrow River surround the village, where many are still looking for gold today. You can just borrow a Gold Starter Kit and start your own search.
Athletes will get their money’s worth around the town: you have the choice between hiking, cycling, skiing and snowboarding as well as playing golf. If you want to strengthen yourself afterwards, you can do so in the summer on one of the many open spaces of the restaurants and in winter enjoy the homey atmosphere at one of the many fireplaces.
Queenstown is the party city on the South Island and attracts especially young backpackers and the party people. The city does not even have 13,000 inhabitants, but is known for its many outdoor activities that you can experience around the city.
These include canyoning, rafting, climbing, paragliding, bungee jumping, heli-biking and much more. From Queenstown come again and again the craziest ideas. So if you’ve dedicated yourself to outdoor sports, you should definitely visit the town.
Glenorchy is about 45 km from Queenstown and is located in the north of Lake Wakatipu . On the only road there are many stopping places so you can park your car and enjoy the view in peace. Alone this route is worthwhile.
Beautiful walks are possible around Glenorchy and the scenery has been used for many film shoots. So is the gigantic riverbed with the Bergkullisse z. For example, “Isengard from Lord of the Rings” and the backdrop for Beorn’s house in the trilogy “The Hobbit” .
Various scenes from the movie “Wolverine” were filmed there. From Glenorchy you can go on one-day or multi-day hikes – for example the hike on the Routebourne Track.
13. Routebourne track
The Routeburn track stretches between Glenorchy at the head of Lake Wakatipu and the Divide, Te Anau, Milford Road. Altogether it is 32 km long and traverses Mount Aspiring and Fjordland National Parks via a signposted path. The trail is suitable for all people with normal fitness and can be completed within three or four days.
The problem here is unfortunately the transport. The way is not a round. At the other end of the track you either have to take an expensive shuttle back to the starting point or someone drives your car to the end point.
On the track we had our first encounter with a curious Kea . He was about to take apart a designed Trap for Weasel. These birds are very intelligent and extremely inventive. They examine everything that is not rivet and nail feast.
That’s why you have to tie the shoelaces together on your hiking boots, if you leave them outside for airing overnight. Otherwise you may not have any more the next morning.
14. Kepler Track
Almost twice as long as the Routeburn Track is the Kepler Track . The 60 km long track lies in the Fiordland National Park and is the venue of the eponymous Kepler Challenge . If you want to hike on the Kepler Track, you should plan at least three to four days for the tour.
And especially in the peak season, from the end of October to the end of April, you should book the accommodations in advance through the Department of Conservation (DOC) website. The circuit starts at its own parking lot at the southern end of Lake Te Anau, about 5 km from Te Anau. Here you come out again on your car.
The track is one of the most beautiful we have done in New Zealand.
15. Milford Sound
Milford Sound is certainly one of New Zealand’s South Island highlights and arguably one of New Zealand’s best-known and most legendary natural phenomena. The fjord on the west coast of New Zealand, which is considered a World Natural Heritage by UNESCO, will certainly trigger you with wonder and ecstasy and has already been described as the eighth wonder of the world.
The best way to experience Milford Sound from the boat is to book one of the many boat tours. Depending on what you want to spend, there are variants for backpackers (around $170) or luxury variants with included gourmet lunch for about $250. If you want to see the natural phenomenon from the air, you can book a sightseeing flight at some of the numerous companies .
One of our special New Zealand South Island travel tips: even better, because less touristic, should be Doubtful sound . It begins about 46 km west of Te Anau and leads to about 30 km towards the Tasman Sea. A tour there is more time consuming and more expensive.
Before you get to Milford Sound by car you have to pass a dark tunnel. In front of it is a parking lot, which many keas make uncertain. They sit on the cars and take everything apart. Gladly the rubber seals or the antennas and windscreen wipers. Please do not feed the keas! They can not tolerate fruit or bread and die from it.
16. Catlin’s Conservation Park
The Catlins Conservation Park is known for its trees. The winds are here permanently so strong that the trees grow downright crooked. Recommend is the approximately 40-minute walk to the McLean Falls .
The 22m high waterfalls are located on the Tautuku River in the Catlins Conservation Park and are often referred to as the most spectacular in the region. The path to the falls leads uphill, but is not very steep and therefore pleasant to walk.
17th Slope Point
The Slope Point is the southernmost point of the New Zealand South Island in the Southland region. From here it is only 4803 km to the South Pole. From the parking lot on the road, a path leads to the beacon and the cape. On the way you can admire the crooked trees – a sign of the everlasting strong wind at the Cape.
If you’re lucky you can watch the yellow-eyed penguins. This rare penguin species is only found here in New Zealand. But please only watch from afar and not disturb.
18. Nugget Point
The Nugget Point Lighthouse, built in 1870, is picturesquely located on the rugged coastline of the Cape. The landscape with the rugged and jagged rocks is just beautiful. You should definitely stop here and take the short walk there.
19. The New Zealand Niagara Falls
The “Niagara Falls” speak for the humor of the New Zealanders, because of course they are not waterfalls to the extent as they are to be found in the USA. The cases are rather clear, but worth a stop if you’re in the area anyway. Just around the corner, the Niagara Café definitely gives you reason enough to have a break with delicious food in a pleasant atmosphere.
20. Otago Peninsula at Dunedin
On the Otago Peninsula at Dunedin you can visit the Royal Albatross Center . It is probably the only place in the world where the Royal Albatros nests and breeds on the mainland. Just a short drive from the town of Dunedin, the center is home to over 20 different species of wildlife.
In the museum and the lighthouse, you will learn the background story of the role of the location in World War II. From inside, you can also observe the albatrosses while breeding. The road to the Albatross Center is beautiful and worth the drive.
21. Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park
The Mount Cook National Park should also not be missing on your tour of New Zealand. Within the park there are many attractions and opportunities to experience and admire the unique nature. For example the Hooker Valley Track , the Blue Lakes or the Tasman Glacier Walks and the Mueller Hut Route .
Namesake for the park is the highest mountain on the island of 3724 m high Mount Cook or Aoraki . And at the foot of Mount Cook, Lake Pukaki is particularly noteworthy. The shore of the lake is ideal for a relaxing picnic and the view of the snow-capped mountains in contrast to the turquoise waters of the lake is worth a break.
If it fits into your itinerary, you should check it out at dusk. Because then the scenery seems as if it stems from a painting.
If you are a seasoned mountain hiker, you should take the Mueller Hut route. It leads you to the same named Mueller Hut and is a moderately difficult mountain tour. The tour begins at the Department of Conservation (DOC) Visitor Center in Mount Cook Village and can be completed in one day.
You should consider, however, if you do not want to spend the night in the self-catering hut Mueller Hut to enjoy a spectacular sunset in the midst of the mountains. To be on the safe side, you can book a bed in the hut in advance via the DOC website.
22. Lake Tekapo
The Lake Tekapo is centrally located to 710 meters above sea level in the Mackenzie Basin in the Canterbury region. It is a former glacial lake and the largest lake in the region. On the south shore of the lake is the same place Lake Tekapo.
The night sky around Tekapo is relatively dark due to the sparse population of the region. For this reason, there is also the largest telescope in New Zealand with a diameter of 1.8 meters. And it was on the nearby Mount John the same Mount John Observatory built, which you should visit in any case.
Unfortunately, Christchurch is repeatedly hit by earthquakes. Most of them are relatively weak and shake the city only a little. In February 2011, however, the city was hit by an earthquake of magnitude 6.3, which has left severe destruction.
Unfortunately, the historic city center was destroyed by the earthquake. Nonetheless, Christchurch remains a small and beautiful hipster city you should not overlook on your way south.
Highlights in Christchurch include the International Arctic Center , Canterbury Museum or Cardboard Cathedral . If you like to go outside in the city, why not take a walk through Hagley Park or the Botanical Gardens.
24. Kaikoura: whale watching
If Kaikoura is famous for being an attraction in the northeast of the South Island, whale watching is the option . This is a unique experience for many New Zealand visitors. Ships of different sizes will take you to the spots where you can watch the whales up close.
If you prefer dolphins, you have the opportunity to swim with the cute and intelligent animals on the spot. Of course, you can watch the whole thing on the air and watch a flight with the motto “Wings over Whales”.
For the whale watching tours, you should plan for the $130, the flights cost about $180. You can either pre-book the tours on the internet or you can buy a ticket on the spot.
New Zealand travel tips
New Zealand is located in the South Pacific and consists of the North Island and the South Island. The capital is Wellington and lies on the North Island. By ferry you can however translate to the South Island. New Zealand has an area of 269,652 km² and about 4.7 million inhabitants.
New Zealand belongs to the Kingdom in the Commonwealth of Nations and has a democratic parliamentary constitution. Since New Zealand is located between Australia and the Pacific Island States, it has influences from both cultures and can not be clearly assigned to a cultural area.
Information centers on site
i-SITE and Department of Conservation (DOC)
New Zealand has a well-developed tourism infrastructure and many tourist centers. The official i-SITE centers will make sure you get the most out of your New Zealand vacation.
In total, there are well over 80 different i-site centers where you can gather information and book the various tours. In the iSites you can get free map material. There are also free SIM cards and free wifi.
The second important institution is the Department of Conservation (DOC) . It takes care of the many national parks in New Zealand and has valuable information when it comes to all activities in nature.
For example, at the DOC, you can pre-book the accommodations in the national parks online or check the website for current conditions (eg avalanche situation or closed trails). It is always important that you do all your activities both with fun and in harmony with nature.
The best time to go to New Zealand’s South Island
Overall, it is a bit colder on the South Island than on the North Island. The best time to travel is the New Zealand Summer from December to February . In these months, the best weather conditions, the sun is shining and it rains rather little.
If you are traveling to New Zealand for skiing, you should focus on June to August . Overall, the east coast is drier than the west coast. In the west it is generally rainier and windier.
By the way: The New Zealanders also have vacation time between December and January , which is why many locals spend their holidays at home.
Popular means of transport to explore the New Zealand South Island highlights
New Zealand is a perfect destination to explore on your own. Campervans, motorhomes or a car in connection with overnight stays in one of the many Bed & Breakfasts are therefore popular means of transport .
There is also the possibility that you can explore the islands by public transport. Because the country has an excellent bus network, with which you can easily and comfortably make a round trip and explore the New Zealand attractions.
You can either book single tickets or buy a pass. Lines in New Zealand are the Inter-City Bus, Stray or Naked. InterCity is the New Zealand wide bus, Naked offers you transport with no fuss at a bargain price and Stray has handy hop-in-hop-off deals.
Annual events on New Zealand’s South Island
New Zealand is an “outdoor country” and that’s why many interesting events take place there every year. One of the better known events is the “Kepler Challenge”. The mountain run leads on 60 km on the eponymous Kepler Track through the Fjordland National Park.
The race is now attracting runners from all over New Zealand and other parts of the world who are embarking on the challenging course. In October 2018 the River boarding World Championships will take place on the South Island.
- Kepler Challenge: 60 km trail run on the eponymous Kepler Track
- Golden Oldies Festival in Christchurch: sports festival in April, where athletes over 35 from all over the world compete
- Buskers Festival in Christchurch: street theater by jugglers from around the world on 10 days in January
- Glenorchy Races: Horse racing and rodeo against the backdrop of the mountains at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu, early January
- Waitangi Day: National holiday on the 6th of February, where numerous events are taking place all over the country
- Matariki Festival: Maori New Year In late May or early June, the country celebrates with fireworks, performances, traditional Maori customs and stargazing.