When potential visitors to New Zealand dream of our beautiful land, it is generally images of the South Island that will come to mind.
Towering mountain ranges, raging rivers and picture-postcard scenery – this is the New Zealand that people travel from all around the world to see, and for good reason!
Along with plenty of ‘big’ must-do activities in the South Island, we also wanted to bring you a collection of lesser-known (but equally worthwhile) options and with the help of some of our well-travelled friends, that’s exactly what we have (in no particular order)…
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10 Amazing Things to Do in New Zealand’s South Island
1. Akaroa: Absolute Relaxation
Sitting inside a flooded volcanic crater not far from Christchurch, Akaroa is perfect for a day trip. On the drive in, be sure to pause at the Hilltop Tavern to admire the view of the harbour before you descend the twisty road. Sorry if you’re prone to car sickness – there’s no other road to get there but trust me, it’s worth the trip!
Akaroa feels like an isolated place within an isolated country. Time seems to slow down even further compared to other Kiwi towns. How could it not when green hills shield it from the rest of the world on all sides? The town was once a French whaling settlement; the French-sounding street names and the Tricolore flags hanging from the buildings reflect its past.
There are no tall concrete-and-glass blocks – just plenty of rustic-looking shops, historic houses and eclectic art galleries. If you’re able to, stay at the mosaic-filled Giant’s House (or pay the $20 to visit) and eat some of the best fish and chips from the imaginatively named Akaroa Fish and Chips shop.
The water in Akaroa can’t help but draw you in and you’ll find that the bay makes for a great way to spend the rest of your day. The waves are so gentle that it feels like a lake rather than the Pacific. It’s a breeze to paddle to the other side, to coves where royalty once walked their dogs and you can also get close to marine life; seals, penguins and rare Hector’s dolphins inhabit the murky waters.
Nicholas – Rambling Feet
2. Akaroa: Swimming with the Dolphins
The waters around the Banks Peninsula, near Christchurch, are home to the highest concentration of Hector’s dolphins in the world. With only around 7,000 of these New Zealand-native dolphins left in the wild, seeing them in their natural environment is an experience not to be missed. And swimming with them is an absolute bucket list adventure!
Jump on a dolphin safari from Akaroa Harbour to get acquainted with these petite (they’re the smallest dolphin in the world), but playful dolphins. Hector’s dolphins are naturally inquisitive and love to come close to swimmers – diving and swooping around you as you bob around in the water, trying to keep up with their antics!
With any luck, dolphins won’t be the only interesting creatures you encounter on your trip out to the marine reserve – we were fortunate enough to see both seals and penguins on our dolphin swimming excursion also!
Nadine – Le Long Weekend
Related: The best things to do in Akaroa.
3. Christchurch Gondola
The Christchurch Gondola is an iconic attraction in New Zealand’s South Island. Situated in the Port Hills, the cable car takes you up the side of Mount Cavendish to reveal an amazing view over Christchurch City and its surrounds. The elevated vantage point also affords views over Lyttelton Harbour on the other side of the hill.
Or, to really appreciate the unique landscapes of this area, you may choose to walk up the mountain and take the gondola back down (or vice versa if you want the easier option!).
At the top, you can hike one of the many summit trails or take a ride on the interactive ‘time tunnel’ – an experience that will take you through Christchurch’s tumultuous past and post-earthquake transformation.
Combine your gondola experience with a trip to the colourful, seaside town of Lyttelton to scour the galleries and boutiques, or to depart on a harbour cruise!
Nadine – Le Long Weekend
Book: Christchurch Gondola tickets | Gondola and tram tour tickets | Gondola and Avon River punting combo | Vintage tram, punt and gondola ride combo – Save 10% on Klook tickets with the promo code NZTTPLAY.
4. Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman is arguably one of the most beautiful national parks in New Zealand. Turquoise waters and beautiful bush make it a prime place to explore. I went on a full-day kayak trip that stopped at all of the key spots and believe this to be one of the best ways to explore this beautiful National Park.
The day began with a transfer from Nelson to Marahau; from there we got in our kayaks and headed to Tonga Island to see a colony of New Zealand fur seals and their pups. They were excited to see us and a few of them even hopped on our kayaks to get a free ride. The pups are so cute you can’t really blame them!
Next, we kayaked further north to experience the bush-clad coastline. At beautiful Bark Bay, we took a break from our kayaking adventure where we enjoyed lunch (which was provided on the tour – bonus). After lunch, we headed to Split Apple Rock before finishing the tour.
Should you prefer, you can also hike through Abel Tasman but I wholeheartedly recommend taking to the water (which you can do by ferry if you’d prefer).
Nicole – Travelgal Nicole
Book: An Abel Tasman National Park scenic cruise | A kayaking trip around Abel Tasman’s beautiful beaches | Kaiteriteri hiking and kayaking tours | Half-day kayaking tour including Split Apple Rock – Save 10% using the promo code NZTTPLA
5. Lake Rotoiti
A part of the Nelson Lakes National Park, Lake Rotoiti is a pristine reminder that parts of our world remain truly untouched. In the summer the lake is a hive of activity with activities like hiking, and boating in full swing. The region also has some of the best fly fishing in the world!
As we found on our visit, in the wintertime, it is much more subdued; the lake is a centre of calm and there are very few other visitors. The resident ducks will gladly accept your breadcrumbs while you enjoy happy hour rugged up under the watch of the surrounding mountains.
Relaxing by the lake is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, no matter when you visit.
Luke – The Backstreet Nomad
6. Whale Watching
One of the best experiences we had in the stunning South Island was going on a whale watch tour in Kaikoura. The town in itself is a wonderful place that should be visited by everyone, but especially by those who love marine wildlife.
Whale watching isn’t cheap, but if you have the chance, it’s a must!
The view of Kaikoura was stunning from the sea in itself but we were really lucky that day as we were not only greeted by three sperm whales, but also dusky dolphins. Besides them, we saw albatrosses, flying fish and the most incredible fur seal colony sunbathing on the rocks.
Seeing those beautiful creatures was an unforgettable moment and something every visitor to New Zealand should have the chance to do!
Thais – World Trip Diaries
Related: The best things to do in Kaikoura.
Book: Whale watching in Kaikoura | Kaikoura Dolphin Encounter tickets – swim with dolphins | A seal kayaking adventure | The Kaikoura Albatross Encounter – Save 10% with the promo code NZTTPLAY.
7. Hokitika Gorge
After living in New Zealand for 2 years, we were constantly blown away by this little country. Every time we thought we had seen the best of the best, we would stumble upon somewhere else that seemed to top the list again. It was a never-ending cycle; from glaciers, to snowy mountains, golden beaches and crystal blue lakes, each landscape seemed to outdo the previous. Trying to see the best of New Zealand is like falling through Alice’s rabbit hole, on what feels like a never-ending quest!
In a country where you can literally snowboard and surf in the same day, trying to decide on a must-do activity or must-see destination is difficult. With so much to see, how can we possibly begin to narrow it down?
However, when we think back on all our New Zealand road trips and weekends away, there is perhaps one place that is truly unlike anything we’ve seen before; the Hokitika Gorge.
The Hokitika Gorge, on the West Coast, is one of those places that looks photoshopped; the vibrancy of its blue water defies comprehension. It’s simply not possible for water to be that blue. Yet it is.
We were in the middle of a 10-day road trip around the South Island, not long after first arriving in New Zealand, when we decided to drive towards the tiny little dot called ‘Hokitika’ on the map.
Though Hokitika is home to possibly the bluest water we’ve ever seen, this place was special because we were the only people there. As we walked along the 1-hour track which weaved back and forth across the fast-flowing river, we saw 2 people. That was it! Had this been anywhere else in the world, we’re fairly sure there would be an entrance fee, long queues and tour groups but when it comes to New Zealanders, they seem to take places like this, with incredible natural beauty, in their stride.
If you are planning a trip to New Zealand’s South Island then you need to see the Hokitika Gorge to believe it. Trust us, you won’t be disappointed.
Megan and David – Half This World Away
8. Cruise Milford Sound
Milford Sound is an absolute icon of New Zealand – so much so that Rudyard Kipling named it the eighth wonder of the world, and it’s not difficult to understand why.
The best way to explore the fiord is by taking a cruise, be it a day one or even an overnight cruise. However, be aware that the title of the most beautiful place in New Zealand also comes with hoards of tourists so make sure to book ahead and decide which cruise suits you. There are some that also offer kayaking on their tours – this is a great way to really immerse yourself in the sound.
Once you are in the boat, it’s impossible to ignore all the natural beauty around you. Forest-covered cliffs, stunning waterfalls and mountain peaks will surround the boat, and if you are lucky, you’ll also spot some native wildlife. Though we only got to see some seals, in the right season you might even meet whales!
Milford Sound is one of those places where the rain is welcome as it brings even more waterfalls. But with gorgeous weather, it’s no less impressive. You really can’t lose with Milford so get your camera ready and prepare for nature’s spectacular show!
Andra – Our World to Wander
9. Wānaka Lavender Farm
The Wānaka Lavender Farm feels like a slice of France in the south of New Zealand. With 10 acres of lavender fields, along with a collection of farm animals and a shop selling wonderful lavender and honey products, it’s a must-visit when you’re in the South Island.
The family-run business was started around 6 years ago and is open for visitors all year round. For the best lavender displays, however, you’ll need to visit in summer, from December until March. The brilliant purple against the surrounding dry and mountainous landscape is a beautiful sight to behold.
Entry for adults is only $2-5 depending on the season and $2 for children in the high season (and free for under 15s for the rest of the year).
When you’ve finished wandering amongst the fields you can enjoy a respite of herbal tea or lavender ice cream in the lovely adjacent tearoom. What a find!
Sonya – Migrating Miss
10. TSS Earnslaw Boat Trip
When mentioning Queenstown, everyone will tell you how beautiful it is. It’s the kind of place where time stands still and I promise, you’ll hope never to leave! The Remarkables mountain range and vast Lake Wakatipu both have large roles to play in that, and the best way to see them both is by far on the TSS Earnslaw.
This century-old steamship is a fascinating slice of history, ferrying eager landscape lovers to Walter Peak Farm and the Queenstown docks up to 4 times a day. As the boat gently floats along the lake’s beautifully blue waters, you’ll catch the mountains from every vantage point.
With snippets of New Zealand’s past to be discovered along the way, you can enjoy the fresh New Zealand air and bask in the alpine charm that captures so many hearts.
In my opinion, the best way to see what this rugged landscape has to offer is to completely immerse oneself in it – and what better way to do that than literally be on the water?!
Suzy – Suzy Stories
Related: Things to do in Queenstown with kids.
With world-class beauty all around, the South Island of New Zealand is exactly what visitors think of when they dream of Aotearoa.
What are you waiting for? Isn’t it time you got yourself to the bottom of the world?
Photo Credit: Dolphins. All others directly from contributors.