If you're looking for natural sights and experiences in New Zealand, you'll find them in abundance in the South Island, the largest of New Zealand's main islands. Officially known as Te Waipounamu (which translates to "water of greenstone"), the South Island is home to barely more than one million of the country's five million inhabitants, who are mostly settled in and around the cities of Christchurch and Dunedin and a handful of smaller towns.
The Southern Alps form the backbone of the South Island, starting just south of Nelson and continuing down to Fiordland. While it's easy enough to get between the towns and cities in the north and east of the South Island, the mountains create a natural barrier to the west, with just a handful of mountain passes connecting the west and the east. Although distances between points of interest may not look that big on the map, you need to factor in the time it takes to cross mountain roads.
Here are some of the best things to see and do in the great South Island.
Hike, Bike, or Kayak in the Marlborough Sounds
Many travelers entering the South Island come by way of ferry, crossing the Cook Strait from Wellington and into the jagged Marlborough Sounds. The drowned river valleys of Queen Charlotte, Pelorus, Kenepuru, and Mahau Sounds are a watery paradise of calm seas and forested mountains rising out of the water. While a highway connects Picton, the largest town in the sounds, with other parts of the South Island, most of the sounds aren't accessible by road. Hiking, biking, and kayaking are the best ways to explore the area. The multi-day Queen Charlotte hiking and biking track is especially popular, but there are many other shorter options.
Taste Wine in New Zealand's Largest Winemaking Region
If you pick up a bottle of New Zealand wine anywhere in the world, there's a high chance it will be from Marlborough. The greater Marlborough region (not including the sounds) is the largest producer of wines in New Zealand, with more than 150 wineries exporting about 80 percent of the country's fermented grapes. The crisp, white Sauvignon Blanc is the most highly regarded. The flat, fertile area around the town of Blenheim is covered with rows upon rows of grape vines, which can be toured.
Find the Clearest Water in the World in Nelson Lakes National Park
The alpine Nelson Lakes National Park marks the start of the Southern Alps mountain range and, as the name suggests, contains several lakes—16, in fact. Attractive Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa are the most easily accessible, but keen hikers shouldn't miss Rotomairewhenua (Blue Lake), deep in the park and about a two days' walk from the trailhead. The waters here are classified as the clearest in the world.
Be Blown Away at Wharariki Beach
In the western corner of the upper South Island, Golden Bay is a remote area of native forest and stunning beaches. Hikers and sun-seekers shouldn't miss the Abel Tasman National Park, in Golden Bay's east, but Wharariki Beach will blow you away. Literally. This windy expanse of sand sits right on the edge of the South Island, and has impressive rock formations, sand dunes, and seals that play in the rock pools at low tide. Horse treks along the beach can also be arranged.
Heli-Raft on the South Island's Remote Rivers
Whitewater rafting in general is excellent in New Zealand, but experienced rafters and paddlers seeking a greater thrill can heli-raft on one of the South Island's more remote rivers. As the name suggests, the entry point is reached by helicopter. Such expeditions can be arranged around Murchison, the West Coast, and Queenstown.
Soak in the Natural Hot Springs at Hanmer Springs
The South Island's answer to the North Island's more famous Rotorua, Hanmer Springs is a spa town in the mountains of Canterbury, where you can bathe in naturally heated geothermal waters year-round. The warm waters are especially comforting in the cold winter, but kids will enjoy the slides and rides at the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa in the warmer months.
Check Out the Sea-Level Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
At the southern end of the South Island's remote West Coast are the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. They're unusual for being dynamic glaciers in a temperate climate not far above sea level. Visitors can get close to the glaciers by themselves, but you can see and learn a lot more on a guided hiking tour of either one, or by taking a heli-tour.
Get Wet in Fiordland
Fiordland is one of the main reasons why many travelers visit the South Island, and iconic Mitre Peak, rising from Milford Sound, is one of New Zealand's most famous picture-postcard images. A near-wilderness of fjords, lakes, mountains, and forest, the Fiordland National Park is the largest in New Zealand. It also has some of the highest rainfall in the country, with 23 feet falling on 200 rain days per year, on average! So, whatever you choose to do in Fiordland, there's a high chance you'll get wet. Many travelers enjoy Fiordland's long-distance hikes, but gentler boat trips on Milford and Doubtful Sounds, as well as Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau, also offer great views.
Brave the Haast Pass and Mountain Roads
Travelers needing to drive (or take a bus) between Queenstown/Wanaka and the West Coast will need to brave the Haast Pass, as it's the only way to get to the other side of the mountains. The twisting mountain roads are certainly a challenge, but the road journey is one of New Zealand's best. Along the way, the dazzling Blue Pools, Haast Pass Overlook, Fantail Falls, Thunder Creek Falls, and Roaring Billy Falls are all ideal places to break the journey.
Admire the Earthquake Memorial in Christchurch
The South Island's biggest city, Christchurch, was rocked by two large earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. The 7.1-scale earthquake in September 2010 weakened many buildings, but it was the 6.3-scale quake in February 2011 that killed 185 people and caused the spire of the city's famous ChristChurch Cathedral to topple. Now, the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial on the banks of the Avon River, which runs through the central city, is a poignant and beautiful place to walk and soak in Christchurch's atmosphere.
Kayak with Dolphins at the Banks Peninsula
The volcanic Banks Peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean east of Christchurch contains two large harbors and many smaller coves around its jagged coastline. The conditions are ideal for kayaking, and paddlers will often be lucky enough to share the water with dolphins. The Banks Peninsula is one of the few places where Hector's dolphins, the world's smallest and rarest dolphin species, can be seen. Kayaking is an especially good way to see them because it is less intrusive than sightseeing tours on larger boats.
Pose with the Boulders at Moeraki
The small town of Moeraki, between Dunedin and Timaru on the southeast coast of the South Island, would just be another place to drive through if it weren't for its unusual boulders on Koekohe Beach. Around 50 huge spherical boulders, the result of millions of years of erosion. sit on the beach. (The largest is 23 feet in diameter!) This is a must-stop when traveling between Dunedin and Christchurch as Moeraki is just off State Highway 1.
Have a Drink at a Student Bar in Dunedin
The second-biggest city in the South Island, Dunedin has a distinctly Scottish architectural and cultural heritage, as it was settled by Scottish colonizers and modeled on Edinburgh. It is also home to the oldest university in New Zealand, the University of Otago, and sees around 20,000 students at any one time. The student party scene here is famous (some would say notorious), so if you're in town during semester-time, why not join the students for a drink? The student pubs in North Dunedin aren't the "classiest," but central Dunedin, particularly the Octagon, has many more upmarket joints.
Spot Penguins in the Catlins
The rugged mountains and coast of the Catlins, which span the Otago-Southland border, are often overlooked by international and domestic travelers. But if you're into birds, you won't want to miss it. Yellow-eyed penguins breed and nest in shrubs along the shore, and are best seen at Curio Bay and the Nugget Point Totara Scenic Reserve (especially Roaring Bay beach). Stay off the beaches when they are around and watch them from the specially made hideouts. Dawn and dusk are the best times.
Down below the South Island is New Zealand's third "main" island, Stewart Island/Rakiura. The majority of the island is part of the Rakiura National Park, and is a good place for camping, bird watching, and hiking. Although not technically the South Island, Stewart Island can only be reached by passenger ferry from Bluff, the southern-most point of the South Island, or by flying from Invercargill.