Te Waipounamu, the stunning South Island of New Zealand, gobsmacks holidaymakers and thrill seekers 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 – with an equally amazing culture, food and wine scene.
Here are ten top things to do on the South Island that will leave you absolutely breathless.
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, to see the full glory of the snowy peaks, thundering waterfalls and unspoilt wilderness.
Then create ripples over the mirror-like surface of the sound by exploring the tranquil waters by kayak. Rosco’s Milford Kayaks is the original operator.
For those with extra time, take on one of the finest walks in the world – the Milford Track. It offers 53 kilometres of ever-changing scenic vistas, suspension bridges and winding trails.
Push your limits in Queenstown
The name ‘Queenstown’ suggests gentle and conservative, but the locals have other ideas. This is an adrenalin junkie’s paradise and is worthy of a spot on any list of the top things to do on the South Island.
Satisfy your need for speed with skydiving, bungy jumping, paragliding, ziplining, canyoning or flyboarding (aquatic-powered jetpack flying), but for the best of thrills (and thankfully no spills), jet boating with Shotover Jet is a must.
For the less adventurous at heart Queenstown itself has plenty of gentler cultural pursuits, cafes and restaurants, and shopping options to keep you well and truly occupied. It’s a stunning place.
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.
Take a heli-hike on Fox Glacier
Climbers dream of adventure on the slopes of Everest. NZ has its own share of towering giants to explore, including Fox Glacier on the West Coast. Get up close and personal on a ‘heli-hiking’ trip with Fox Glacier Guiding.
Take a helicopter up to survey the terrain, before being dropped off on the glacier for a six-hour climb with the expertise of a local guide. Kick your metal crampons into the ice for grip as you wield an ice axe and tie ropes to abseil ice walls. This is alpine adventure at its best!
Get the royal treatment at Larnach Castle
Built in 1871 and carefully restored, the castle’s interiors are a time capsule of New Zealand’s history, stacked with period furniture, paintings and sculpture. The castle’s extensive grounds, inspired by English and French Renaissance gardens, bloom with magnificent flora.
Go waterskiing on Lake Wanaka
Touching on Mount Aspiring National Park, the waters of wonderful Lake Wanaka, just north of Queenstown, are too appealing just to walk by. Jet skiing, wakeboarding, waterskiing, stand up paddle boarding (SUP), kayaking and banana boating are just some of the options on offer.
As you stand by the lake, listen closely for the deep exhale from the water’s surface, still rippling from the legend of a Maori chief carving out the lake with a giant spade. Then choose from the hundreds of kilometres of walking trails, forging though the region towards Mount Aspiring.
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 options to explore.
If you’re tight for time, The Winery offers one of the most comprehensive experiences. Sample from over 80 of the country’s finest wines, along with award-winning cheeses in the comfortable wine lounge, under the guidance of local experts. They’ll even ship your purchases home.
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 through history on Queen Charlotte Track, including a stop at Ship Cove, the site of Captain James Cook’s first hoisting of the Union Jack in NZ.
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. But what’s even more fun 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.
Visit Christchurch and The Giants House
Christchurch has largely rebuilt from the ground up 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 much to offer including an eclectic cafe culture, along with contemporary art galleries and outdoor markets to explore.
For another arty affair, head for The Giants House of Akaroa – an hour and a half’s drive from Christchurch. 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 this list of ten top things to do on the South Island? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.
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 Quechua, the language of the Incas.