New Zealand’s South Island is an incredible holiday destination for travellers of all types. From stunning turquoise lakes and snow capped mountains, to lush forests and ancient glaciers, the island has everything a nature lover could ever want. Your only challenge will be choosing which of these incredible locations to visit! To make your decision a little bit easier, here are 10 incredible spots not to miss on New Zealand’s South Island.
- 1 1. Fiordland National Park
- 2 2. Lake Wakatipu
- 3 3. Blue River
- 4 4. Queenstown
- 5 5. Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony
- 6 6. Lake Tekapo
- 7 7. Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier
- 8 8. Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
- 9 9. Stewart Island (Rakiura)
- 10 10. Arthur’s Pass National Park
- 11 Final words on 10 incredible spots not to miss on New Zealand’s South Island
1. Fiordland National Park
Fiordland National Park is a must-see location for nature lovers visiting the South Island of New Zealand. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site known for the beautiful fjords called Doubtful and Milford Sounds. Milford Sounds is the more famous of the two, as it was judged to be the world’s number one travel destination in 2008 by TripAdvisor.
It’s an incredibly beautiful location with two huge waterfalls (Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls) that run down the steep-sided valleys into the pristine water of the inlet. Doubtful Sounds is a little more off the beaten track but is equally beautiful. It’s a 421-meter deep fjord stretching between high cliffs. Flora and fauna are abundant in both locations.
There are many other activities and locations to enjoy in the park, including scenic flights, glowworm caves, the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory, Te Anau Bird Sanctuary, fishing expeditions, cruises, and dozens of hiking trails. If you’re interested in a more action-packed getaway, you could try jet boating or mountain biking.
The beauty of the natural environment and the many activities on offer means that Fiordland National Park is often included in guided tours of South Island New Zealand. It’s a breathtaking spot worthy of being included on any itinerary.
2. Lake Wakatipu
Lake Wakatipu is a pristine lake located on the southern part of the island. Shaped like a lightning bolt, it\s the country’s third largest lake with a maximum depth of 372 meters. The lake is fed by five rivers and funnels out through the Kawarau river to its east. The lake’s name comes from the Maori word Whakatipu wai-māori which means “bay of spirits”. Maori folklore says that the shape of the lake is the burnt outline of a sleeping giant named Matau.
The Maoris believe that a warrior named Matakauri set fire to the bed on which Matau slept to rescue his beloved Manata, who was kidnapped by the giant. Legend states that the fire was so strong that it caused a hole in the ground, which filled with water to form Lake Wakatipu.
The water is extraordinarily clear and clean, which makes swimming very tempting. However, be aware that the water is also very cold, with average temperatures of about 11 degrees Celsius. The lake is surrounded by large mountains and has a diverse range of wildlife on display. The Remarkable Mountain sits on its southeastern edge, guarding the water like a stone giant.
There are also plenty of activities to enjoy on Lake Wakatipu, including scenic cruises, farm tours, jet boating, 4WD tours, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and so much more.
3. Blue River
Nestled amongst the beautiful native forests just outside of Makarora is one of the most spectacular locations in all of New Zealand — Blue River. It’s a small river system that flows all the way through the Mount Aspiring National Park before joining the Makarora River. The color of the water that runs along the river is what makes it special. It’s a remarkable blue color similar to that of the Caribbean Sea.
It’s so unusual that many people who have seen a photograph of the river assume it’s been photoshopped. However, when you visit Blue River, you’ll discover that its color is real and even more spectacular when seen in person.
The path to the river will take you through a mature beach and podocarp forest which is stunning in its own right. You’ll then cross a swing bridge over the Makarora river, before crossing a second swing bridge that acts as a viewing platform for the river. If you want to explore further, there are several walking tracks in the area.
On the shores above Lake Wakatipu sits the popular town of Queenstown. It’s set in a stunning location, surrounded by the Southern Alps, which makes it reminiscent of an Alpine village. There are spectacular views as far as the eye can see, thanks to the snow-capped mountains, crystal clear water, and lush greenery.
Most guided tours South Island New Zealand will include Queenstown in their itinerary because of the many activities on offer. They include adventure sports, beauty and wellness retreats, family-friendly activities, and plenty of cultural events.
Some of the most popular options include bungee jumping, jet boating, 4WD adventures, and rock climbing. If you prefer a getaway that’s a little more relaxing, you could enjoy wine tasting, yoga classes, massage therapy, meditation retreats, or a nature walk. And Queenstown is the perfect jumping off spot if you’re interested in exploring the Southern Lakes region.
5. Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony
Located on the east coast of the island, the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony is a must-visit destination for anyone who loves penguins. It’s a conservation and research center which has been established to protect the little blue penguin. The colony is located just outside of the town of Oamaru, in a beautiful part of the island. This region features long stretches of rocky beaches, undulating hills, lush native vegetation, and large populations of sea birds.
The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony has a large viewing platform, where you can watch the penguins return to land after spending their day in the water. There are also displays which share penguin facts and results from the organisation’s research.
The best time of the year to visit the colony is November and December. During this time, you’ll see as many as 250 penguins. The least active time of the year is March to August, when you may only see 20 to 30 penguins. There are also more penguin-viewing opportunities at Bushy Beach, just out of town. It’s home to a large colony of yellow-eyed penguins, which tend to return to land a little earlier in the day than blue penguins.
6. Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo is a picturesque destination about three hours drive south-west of Christchurch. It’s mostly known for its stunning turquoise water and natural abundance of wildlife. The lake is also a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, which means it possesses an “exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment”. In other words, get ready to see the night’s stars as you never have before!
The water gets its wonderful color because of the journey it takes to arrive in the lake. Most of the water comes from river systems which extend into the valleys of the Southern Alps. These systems are fed by slow-moving glaciers, and each glacier places immense pressure on the rocks in the mountains, gradually grinding them into a fine mineral-rich powder, which is added to the water — causing it to develop that bright blue color.
The township of Tekapo is adjacent to the lake. It’s a quaint village with friendly residents and many activities to enjoy. They include stargazing and astronomy tours, hiking to Tekapo springs, Alpine treks, 4WD high country tours, Alpine horse trekking, and scenic flights.
7. Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier
The South Island of New Zealand is home to two of the world’s most beautiful glaciers, Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. Both glaciers are easy to access because of the island’s temperate climate and the glacier’s low altitude. The foot of the Franz Josef Glacier can be reached after a short walk down a river valley. The sheer sides of the valley show scars from where the glacier has advanced and retreated over the centuries.
Fox Glacier is the larger glacier of the two, extending for 13 kilometres, from over 2,600 meters above sea level. It’s one of the largest glaciers in the world, thanks to the four alpine glaciers that feed into it. It’s also reached with a short valley walk (2.6 km).
It’s possible to hike to either glacier or view them via a helicopter or ski plane. The vastness of these glaciers is awe-inspiring, making them an absolute must-visit location on the South Island.
8. Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
Punakaiki is a beautiful village located on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. Just outside of town is the popular tourist destination of Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, which consists of heavily eroded limestone rocks located next to the sea. As the waves wash in, water is channelled through blowholes in the rocks. This causes huge eruptions of water during high tide.
The layering of the limestone rocks is also a big attraction. Each rock contains a variety of planet sediments, shells, and marine creatures stacked upon one another. There are several walkways winding through the rocks, which help visitors get a great vantage point of the rocks and aquatic explosions. It’s one of the most unique and interesting places to visit in all of New Zealand!
9. Stewart Island (Rakiura)
Stewart Island is located a short boat ride from the South Island of New Zealand. It’s an idyllic location famous for its natural beauty and large bird population. The island is home to the Rakiura National Park, which covers 1,570 kilometers, or 85% of its territory. The bird population is a major draw card for visitors of the island. Because it’s a predator-free environment, there are dozens of rare and endangered species.
This includes the grey warbler, weka, kākā, albatross, sooty shearwater, and yellow eyed penguin. If you love kiwis, you’ll enjoy seeing the Stewart Island Brown Kiwi, which is the only species of kiwi which remains active during both night and day.
Aside from bird watching, there are dozens of fun activities and scenic locations to visit, like guided beach walks, kayaking, fishing, diving, boat cruises, hiking, and mountain biking.
10. Arthur’s Pass National Park
Located across the Southern Alps is the stunning Arthur’s Pass National Park, which is a vast nature reserve that covers 1,144 kilometres of rugged mountainous terrain, beech forests, waterfalls, and plains. Arthur’s Pass National Park is a popular destination amongst hikers and mountain bike riders.
There are several trails including the relatively easy Arthur’s Pass Walkway. Some of the highlights of the park are Devils Punchbowl falls, Temple Basin, Goat Pass, Cass-Lagoon Saddle Track, Avalanche Peak, and the multi-day Bealey Spur track. This is a wondrous location that highlights the natural beauty of New Zealand’s South Island.
Final words on 10 incredible spots not to miss on New Zealand’s South Island
New Zealand has so much to offer and we have only touched the surface on the top places to visit in New Zealand’s South Island. Being a short 3 hour plane journey from Australia, it’s no wonder travellers flock to this picturesque country year round. Have you been on a tour of New Zealand’s South Island? If not now is the time!
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