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Ten top things to do on the South Island

In many ways, the South Island of New Zealand is the ultimate travel destination. It effortlessly combines spectacular natural beauty, thrilling adventure activities, and great food and wine. Barry Johnson checks in with suggestions for ten amazing things to do across the region...
Ten top things to do on the South Island
Ten top things to do on the South Island

Te Waipounamu — the stunning South Island of New Zealand — gobsmacks holidaymakers from across the globe.

The South Island pushes the boundaries on extreme sports and spectacular natural vistas, combining the two into one of the greatest adventure playgrounds on earth. Equally, this is a destination that offers amazing cultural and culinary experiences. It’s the complete holiday package!

Here are ten top things to do on the South Island.

Ten top things to do on the South Island
Ten top things to do on the South Island. Image courtesy of Destination Queenstown

1. Experience the majesty of Milford Sound

However you choose to experience it, Milford will undoubtedly be at the top of your list of top things to do on the South Island. Millions of years in the making, the glaciers of Milford Sound were rightly named a wonder of the world by the adventuring author, Rudyard Kipling.

Start your adventure with a ‘flight-seeing’ helicopter ride with Milford Helicopters — a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will reveal the full glory of the landscape. Next, create gentle ripples over the mirror-like surface of the Sound by exploring it in a kayak. Rosco’s Milford Kayaks is the original operator. For those with extra time on their hands, take on one of the finest walks in the world — the Milford Track. It encompasses 53 kilometres of winding trails and ever-changing scenic vistas.

Ten top things to do on the South Island
Ten top things to do on the South Island: Milford Sound. Image: Bigstock

2. Push your limits in Queenstown

The name ‘Queenstown’ suggests gentle and conservative, but the locals have other ideas! This lakeside city is an adrenalin junkie’s paradise and a visit here is worthy of a spot on any list of the top things to do on the South Island. Satisfy your need for speed with skydivingbungy jumpingparagliding, ziplining, canyoning or flyboarding (aquatic-powered jetpack flying). For plenty of thrills (and thankfully no spills), a jet boating trip with Shotover Jet is a must-do.

For the less adventurous at heart, Queenstown offers plenty of gentler cultural pursuits, and a plethora of dining and shopping options to keep you well and truly occupied.

Ten top things to do on the South Island
Ten top things to do on the South Island. Image courtesy of Shotover Jet

3. Go heli-skiing on Mount Cook

Skiing is an adventure sport loved by many, but there’s always one issue — how to get to the top of the mountain. Supercharge the journey on a Harris Mountains Heli-Ski trip on majestic Mount Cook, NZ’s highest peak. Power to the upper slopes aboard a chopper, before carving out your own trail back down.

4. Take a heli-hike on Fox Glacier

Climbers dream of adventure on the slopes of Everest, but the South Island has its fair share of towering peaks to conquer — including Fox Glacier on the West Coast. Get up close and personal with this icy monolith on a ‘heli-hiking’ trip with Fox Glacier Guiding. You’ll take a helicopter up to survey the terrain, before being dropped off on the glacier for a six-hour climb down with an expert local guide. This is alpine adventure at its finest!

Ten top things to do on the South Island
Ten top things to do on the South Island. Image courtesy of Fox Glacier Guiding

5.  Get the royal treatment at Larnach Castle

For something a little more sedate, don your imaginary crown for a mock medieval experience in Dunedin at the only castle in the country — Larnach Castle and Gardens. Built in 1871 and carefully restored, the castle’s interiors are a time capsule of New Zealand’s history. See exquisite period furniture, paintings and sculptures. The castle’s extensive grounds bloom with magnificent flora.

6. Go waterskiing on Lake Wanaka

Touching on Mount Aspiring National Park, the waters of wonderful Lake Wanaka — just north of Queenstown — are too appealing simply to stroll by. Try jet skiing, wakeboarding, waterskiing, stand up paddle boarding, kayaking and banana boating. There are also hundreds of kilometres of walking trails in the area that forge though the landscape towards Mount Aspiring.

Ten top things to do on the South Island
Lake Wanaka. Image: Bigstock

7. Sample local wines outside Queenstown

Got a penchant for pinot noir? You are well catered for in the vineyards around Queenstown. There are some 200 estates to explore. If you’re tight for time, head for The Winery in town  for the chance to try over 80 of the region’s finest drops under one roof. Enjoy an accompanying cheese board in the comfortable lounge area. The Winery will even ship your purchases home.

8. Get back to nature in the Marlborough Sounds

At the opposite end of the island to Milford, the Marlborough Sounds are a nature lover’s delight. Engage with the local furred and feathered residents, including penguins, dolphins and seals, as they swim beneath fluttering native kingfishers and bellbirds. Immerse yourself in the stunning surroundings on a mountain biking trip along the Queen Charlotte Track. You’ll stop at historic Ship Cove — the site of Captain James Cook’s first hoisting of the Union Jack in New Zealand.

Ten top things to do on the South Island
Meet the locals at the Marlborough Sounds. Image: Bigstock

9. Join the steampunk movement in Oamaru

There are lots of great reasons to visit Oamaru on the South Island’s east coast, including a wealth of perfectly preserved 19th century architecture. What’s even more intriguing is the town’s devotion to the Victorian ‘steampunk’ movement. Converse in the street with gentlemen in full Victorian garb, before making your way to Steampunk HQ — a gallery of elaborate steam-driven fantasy contraptions.

10. Visit Christchurch and The Giants House

Christchurch has largely been rebuilt following the devastating Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. This resilient, resourceful and creative city needs the support of every visitor to the South Island, and has so much to offer. Enjoy an eclectic cafe and dining culture, along with superb cultural facilities and attractions.

Ten top things to do on the South Island
Ten top things to do on the South Island: Go punting on the Avon River in Christchurch.

The pretty town of Akaroa — an hour and a half’s drive from Christchurch — is also well worth visiting. Make sure you visit The Giants House. Built shortly after Larnach Castle, it’s a former Victorian bank manager’s mansion turned gallery, and features a colourful sculpture and mosaic garden.

Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do on the South Island? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

About the writer

Barry Johnson is a freelance writer living in Sydney, but with a trail of Aussie souvenirs scattered throughout previous homes in Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East. Barry believes travelling is an adventure where the highlights push you on to the next trip and the lowlights can be laughed at with hindsight. Without a passport, he’d have missed getting lost in the Californian forest a week after the Blair Witch Project went viral, building a giant Buddha on a Cambodian mountain, camel racing in an Egyptian desert and teaching English to Peruvian children as they taught him Quechuan — the language of the Incas.


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