From turquoise lakes and lush peninsulas to snowcapped mountains and sparkling glaciers, the South Island's majestic landscapes offer awe and adventure in equal measure.
With just over a million people scattered across 151,215 sq km, you'll have no trouble finding your own slice of wilderness on New Zealand's 'mainland'. The only problem will be choosing between the sublime forests, mountains, lakes, beaches and fiords that make this island one of the best outdoor destinations on the planet. Lace up your boots and tackle one of the South Island’s six Great Walks, or choose from countless other options ranging from short nature strolls to multiday, backcountry epics. The Department of Conservation's track and hut network makes it easy to find a way in.
Hiking (known as 'tramping' here) may be the South Island's quintessential activity, but there are racier ways to immerse yourself in its landscapes. Tumble down the Buller or Rangitata Rivers in a raft, or paddle the glassy coves of the Marlborough Sounds, Abel Tasman National Park or Fiordland. In winter, slice up the slopes around Wanaka, Queenstown or Mt Hutt, while in warmer weather the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail and Central Otago Rail Trail beckon to those on two wheels. For the hardcore thrill-seekers, Queenstown's gravity-defying menu of bungy, paragliding or skydiving is sure to get your adrenalin pumping.
Tantalise Your Tastebuds
Epicurious travellers will delight in the South Island's smorgasbord of seasonal produce, from luscious berries, stone fruit, asparagus and root vegetables, to local seafood, lamb, beef and a plethora of artisanal dairy delights. Roadside kiosks sell everything from farm eggs to grandma's tomato relish, while world-class regional restaurants skim the cream of local crops for innovative tasting menus. Add some of the world's best cool-climate wines, from Central Otago's superb pinot noir to Marlborough's renowned sauvignon blanc, as well as some of the most exciting craft breweries in the country, and you have a recipe for a foodies' paradise.
Meet the Locals
Prepare to meet the South Island’s idiosyncratic wildlife. Whales, fur seals, dolphins and penguins all frequent the coastal waters around Kaikoura; endangered Hector’s dolphins cavort alongside penguins in Akaroa Harbour and the Catlins; and the Otago Peninsula shelters penguins, sea lions and even a colony of royal albatrosses. Further south, remote Stewart Island is the perfect place to spot the iconic but shy kiwi, alongside a profusion of other feathered friends. The South Island is also home to two special parrots, the kaka and the kea – the latter is particularly partial to car aerials and unattended tramping boots.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout South Island.
Punakaiki's claim to fame is Dolomite Point, where a layering-weathering process called stylobedding has carved the limestone into what looks like piles of thick pancakes. Aim your visit for high tide (tide timetables are posted at the visitor centre, or look them up online). If the swell and wind are cooperating, the sea surges into caverns and booms menacingly through blowholes. See it on a wild day and be reminded that nature really is the boss. Pancake Rocks geology The foundations of the Pancake Rocks were formed 30 million years ago. Fragments of plants and marine life solidified into layers. Seismic movements lifted the limestone above the seabed, then over time the rocks have weathered by wind, rain and sea spray, eroding the softer layers, leaving behind the stacks you see today. Pancake Rocks walk Allow 20 minutes for the straightforward (1.1km) walk, which loops from the highway out to the rocks and blowholes. Make that at least 40 minutes if you want to take photos. Part of the trail is suitable for wheelchairs. Keep children close by, especially at the end of the walk when it approaches the highway.
South Island’s true southerly point lies not in Bluff, as many mistakenly believe, but at the end of a 20-minute trudge through a windswept cliff-side sheep paddock. A humble signpost marks this spectacular spot where blackened rocks tumble into turquoise sea while waves smash and swirl below. Trees Local sheep farmers planted small groves of hardy trees here to protect their livestock from the weather. Today the photogenic trees are one of the main visitor draws. The wind has moulded these stands into twisted sculptural formations. Weather The weather buffeting this point has travelled 3200kms over the Southern Ocean causing consistently strong winds year-round. You know you're pretty much at the bottom tip of the world when you're standing here looking out over the ocean towards Antarctica. Accommodation The nearest accommodation is on a working farm in the Catlins, with self-contained options for different budgets, and the opportunity to recharge your electric vehicle if needed. How to find Slope Point Signs south from Haldane point the way. From the car park, walk towards the sea and veer left along the fencing. The car park at the start of the track is 4km south of Slope Point Accommodation. Be aware: there is no public access across the farmlands during lambing season.
Straddling the Southern Alps, known to Māori as Ka Tiritiri o Te Moana (Steep Peak of Glistening White), this vast alpine wilderness became the South Island's first national park in 1929. Of its 1144 sq km, two-thirds lies on the Canterbury side of the main divide; the rest is in Westland. It is a rugged, mountainous area, cut by deep valleys, and ranging in altitude from 245m at the Taramakau River to 2408m at Mt Murchison.
Every evening the tykes from the Ōamaru blue penguin colony surf in and wade ashore, heading to their nests in an old stone quarry near the waterfront. Stands are set up on either side of the waddle route. General admission will give you a good view of the action but the premium stand (adult/child $55/32), accessed by a boardwalk through the nesting area, will get you closer.
What makes the improbably beautiful beaches of this coastal sheep farm different from other important wildlife habitats is that (apart from pest eradication and the like) they're left completely alone. Many of the multiple private beaches haven't suffered a human footprint in years. The result is that yellow-eyed penguins can often be spotted (through binoculars) at any time of the day, and NZ fur seals laze around rocky swimming holes, blissfully unfazed by tour groups passing by.
Consisting of only a couple of blocks centred on Harbour and Tyne Sts, this atmospheric enclave has some of NZ’s best-preserved Victorian commercial buildings. Descend on a dark and foggy night and it's downright Dickensian. It's also ground zero for all that is hip, cool and freaky in Ōamaru, and one of the best places to window shop on the entire South Island.
Strolling through these 30 blissful riverside hectares of arboreal and floral splendour is a consummate Christchurch experience. Gorgeous at any time of the year, the gardens are particularly impressive in spring when the rhododendrons, azaleas and daffodil woodland are in riotous bloom. There are thematic gardens to explore, lawns to sprawl on, and a playground adjacent to the Botanic Gardens Visitor Centre, which also contains a lovely cafe and gift shop.
Around 14,000L of water per second bubble up from underground vents here, making it the largest freshwater spring in the southern hemisphere. It's also among the clearest in the world. The colourful little lake is reached via a 45-minute forest loop from the car park, where there are Māori carvings and illuminating information panels.
Set on its own tongue of land framing Queenstown Bay, this pretty park is the perfect city escape right within the city. Laid out in 1876, it features an 18-'hole' frisbee golf course, a skate park, lawn-bowls club, tennis courts, Queenstown Ice Arena, mature exotic trees (including large sequoias and some fab monkey puzzles by the rotunda) and a rose garden.
Epic hikes around the world
Adventure on New Zealand's South Island
Introducing New Zealand's South Island