We had the opportunity to spend 3 months in New Zealand back in 2014. We bought a campervan in Auckland, drove around both the North and the South Island, and then sold it in Christchurch. We did some truly amazing multi-day hikes, went fishing with some crazy Kiwis (people, not birds), drank delicious Sauvignon Blanc, forged our own knives, and overall had an amazing time!
But unfortunately we weren’t blogging back then. Partially because we were so busy adventuring, and partly because the Wifi was abysmal. So instead of attempting to recall all of the epic things to see and do around the country, we decided to ask our blogging friends for some help.
Check out our compilation of 26 epic things to do during your trip to the South Island of New Zealand from a group of avid travelers. And don’t forget to check out our bucket list for New Zealand’s North Island as well. Enjoy!
- 26 Epic Things to do on the South Island of New Zealand
- 1. Trek Around Abel Tasman National Park
- 2. Go Wine Tasting in the Marlborough Region
- 3. Make Your Own Knife at Barrytown Knifeworks
- 4. Swim with Dolphins in Akaroa
- 5. Skydive over Franz Josef Glacier
- 6. Go Heli Hiking on Franz Josef Glacier
- 7. Fly over Mount Cook
- 8. Take a Glacier Lake Boat Tour on Lake Tasman
- 9. Hike the Hooker Valley Track
- 10. Spend the Night in a Mountain Hut
- 11. Summit the Ishtmus Peak
- 12. See the Moeraki Boulders
- 13. Hike Roys Peak
- 14. Climb a Waterfall with Wildwire Wanaka
- 15. Bungee Jump from Kawaru Bridge
- 16. Conquer the Shotover Canyon Swing in Queenstown
- 17. Go Canyoning in Queenstown
- 18. Ride the Queenstown Luge
- 19. Trek the Routeburn Track
- 20. Hike the Milford Track
- 21. Cruise Around Milford Sound
- 22. Enjoy the Serene Lake Marian
- 23. Try More Better Meat Pies in Te Anau
- 24. Explore the Doubtful Sound
- 25. Go Wildlife Spotting at the Otago Peninsula
- 26. Visit Stewart Island
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26 Epic Things to do on the South Island of New Zealand
1. Trek Around Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park is one of New Zealand’s premier hiking and kayaking destinations. It’s home to one of the nine Great Walks of New Zealand, a 37-mile loop track taking you to some of the country’s best beaches. The great thing about the Abel Tasman Track is that it is incredibly easy to day-hike different sections by using the water taxi service. So even if you only have a day or two, you can walk some of the prettiest sections of track.
We highly recommend walking from Anchorage to Bark Bay via Cleopatra’s Pool as this section has it all! White sand beaches, deep turquoise water and forested areas with iconic New Zealand ferns. There’s even a waterfall to visit and clear rock pools to bathe in if you prefer freshwater to seawater.
If you aren’t an avid hiker, you can kayak alongside the trail with a high chance of seeing playful dolphins and fur seals along the way. It is a truly stunning area that is well worth putting a couple of days aside to explore.
2. Go Wine Tasting in the Marlborough Region
One of my favorite things to do on the South Island is to go wine tasting! New Zealand wines are incredible and there is more to New Zealand wines than just Sauvignon Blanc. The Marlborough Region of New Zealand is found in the north of the South Island near Blenheim. It is recognized as one of the premium wine regions in the world and the best in New Zealand.
One of my favorite vineyards in the area is Auntsfield Estate which is nestled amongst the rugged southern hills. It is full of the history of Marlborough winemaking, having planted the first vineyard of the area in 1873. It’s open by appointment only so be sure to call ahead of time!
If you are looking to try all the best varieties of the area, I’d suggest that you take a wine tour. There are lots of different options to choose from. You can tour by bike or catamaran or take a small tour in a van. No matter what you choose, you’ll have a great time experiencing the wines of a new region!
3. Make Your Own Knife at Barrytown Knifeworks
Ever wondered how exactly knives are made? Well, you can find out by forging your own steel at Barrytown Knifeworks. You’ll begin with a safety briefing and then set about determining the shape of your knife. You’ll pound and fire your own steel to get the correct shape and size, and later sand and polish it to a finished product. It will give you a newfound appreciation for the knives you use for cooking every day!
Knifemaking is an all-day event but you’ll take a break at mid-day for lunch. And at the end of the day, you’ll be served drinks and snacks while you complement your new friends on their impressive knives. It’s an expensive activity but one that you can’t do just anywhere. And you won’t soon forget your experience!
4. Swim with Dolphins in Akaroa
Swimming with wild dolphins anywhere in the world is one of those iconic bucket list experiences that many wish to tick off during their lifetime. But swimming with wild Hector’s dolphins near the Bank’s Peninsula is taking the experience to a whole new level!
New Zealand native Hector’s dolphins are the smallest dolphins in the world, and their numbers are very few. These endangered dolphins are only found swimming in the waters of New Zealand’s South Island, and Akaroa is the ideal place to launch off on an expedition to see and swim with them. The playful and curious dolphins are protected in this part of the island, and they can be found hunting together in small pods.
Responsible tour operators in the area, such as Black Cat Cruises, will carefully observe the dolphin’s
5. Skydive over Franz Josef Glacier
If you’re looking to check off all the New Zealand bucket list boxes with one activity, a Franz Josef skydive has to be it! Combining exhilarating, adrenaline-pumping extreme sports with the incredible aerial views of New Zealand’s iconic Southern Alps, you can’t get more Kiwi than that!
You’ll get to experience a beautiful flight taking you 16,500 feet in the air with the Tasman Sea to one side and the peaks of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman to the other. And before you know it, you’ll be sliding out the door! Skydiving is an experience in any circumstances, but when you have views of the wondrous nature of New Zealand while free-falling through the clouds, you won’t find a more memorable few minutes.
I can’t recommend the experience of skydiving over Franz Josef enough. It might well be the most spontaneously crazy thing I’ve ever done, and boy was it worth it! Better still, there are some amazing photos captured the whole way making it a truly treasured memory!
6. Go Heli Hiking on Franz Josef Glacier
There are so many amazing things to do in New Zealand, but our best experience by far was the Franz Josef Heli Hike. The Franz Josef Glacier is one of only three in the world that starts high up in the mountains and ends in a rainforest close to the sea. The best (and only!) way to get up close and personal is by taking a “Heli Hike” tour.
After being suited up with gear to handle glacier walking, including crampons, you’ll be flown high above the glacier in a helicopter to take in the epic views. Then the helicopter will land on the ice so you can start your glacier walking experience. The guides are well-versed in safely building paths as you go, so you can venture into wide crevices, over the top of the glacier, and even through ice tunnels.
You’ll spend around 3 hours on the glacier itself, before jumping back in a helicopter to return to the town below. The whole thing is an epic experience that you shouldn’t miss during a trip to the South Island!
7. Fly over Mount Cook
By Louis of The Northern Boy
Mount Cook mountain is one of the most amazing places to visit on the South Island in New Zealand. I was lucky enough to take a plane onto the Mount Cook Glacier and then take a helicopter ride back down. This was a surreal experience and one that I would highly recommend!
Mount Cook is one of the most visited places in New Zealand, and it’s no wonder considering how amazing it is. Mount Cook National Park is home to some of New Zealand’s highest and most beautiful mountains and the glaciers are absolutely breathtaking.
There are plenty of hikes near Mount Cook, but I would highly recommend taking the scenic flight over the mountain. Being able to step onto the glacier is an amazing experience and one you will remember forever. There are also a few campsites in the area which is the perfect location to set up camp for a few nights under the stars.
8. Take a Glacier Lake Boat Tour on Lake Tasman
A glacier lake boat tour is one of the coolest (pun intended) things you can do on the South Island! It provides an opportunity to get up close and personal with one of nature’s massive miracles.
The guide will take you on an easy 25-minute walk through gorgeous scenery to the boat dock. You’ll get to see baby icebergs as soon as you get out on the water, all of which have
Finally, you’ll get to see the glacier a bit closer. At over 16 miles long, the Tasman Glacier is the longest in New Zealand! If you happen to visit on a clear day, you just can’t top the combination of blue sky, sharp icebergs, dark snow-capped mountains, and that insanely opaque turquoise water!
You can stay nearby, or base yourself in Lake Tekapo which is an easy (and gorgeous!) 90-minute drive away. This is also a perfect half-day activity when paired with the Hooker Valley track as the two activities start from the same place and take just a few hours each.
9. Hike the Hooker Valley Track
If you’re looking for the best things to do in New Zealand, you have to add Hooker Valley Track in Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park to your New Zealand bucket list! Hooker Valley Track is one of the most famous and beautiful hikes in New Zealand. It’s a 6-mile return trip that takes you through Hooker Valley to Hooker Lake, and then back at your starting point.
It’s a very accessible hike for every fitness level since the whole trail is pretty flat (there is only a 300-foot elevation gain spread across 3 miles) and the path is well beaten. However, 6 miles is a long way so make sure you allow yourself enough time to do it. There are toilets halfway across the hike and picnic tables at the most scenic spots to stop for lunch.
Walking in the valley while surrounded on all sides by towering, snow-capped mountains is quite the experience. When you reach Hooker Lake you might also be able to see small icebergs floating around in the lake. Don’t miss it during your trip to the South Island!
10. Spend the Night in a Mountain Hut
If you enjoy hiking and getting off the typical tourist route, spending a night in a mountain hut should definitely be on your bucket list while traveling in New Zealand’s South Island! So what are “mountain huts” exactly? Basically, this is a form of shelter along longer treks that give hikers a place to spend the night in nature.
New Zealand is home to a network of nearly 1,000 mountain huts, which range in accessibility and comfort. Some huts are incredibly remote and have only the most basic of facilities, while others are more comfortable and reached on relatively easy to manage paths. Some are incredibly popular and you’ll have to book your bed weeks in advance, while others are rarely visited and you’ll likely have the place to yourself.
We found Brewster Hut to be right up our alley. Not nearly as trafficked as some of the other more popular huts, Brewster Hut requires quite a strenuous 3-hour hike to reach. But it is beyond worth it. The 360-degree views over Mount Aspiring National Park were some of the best we saw in all of New Zealand!
The hut itself is relatively basic, and you will need to bring your sleeping bag, cooking supplies, food, and water (there are rainwater collection tanks, but they were nearly empty during our stay). There is space for 12 people to sleep in “community-style” bunk beds, but unless you’re there during peak season, they likely won’t be full. Just be sure you go to a DOC office and pay for your spot in the hut, which allows them to keep them running.
Learn to speak Kiwi: When you stay at a mountain hut, you are “tramping”, not hiking.
11. Summit the Ishtmus Peak
If you love hiking and are up for a real challenge with an amazing reward at the end, then hiking
The route is around 5 miles each way and takes around 5-6 hours to get to the peak and back. With over .6 miles of elevation gain, it is a bit of a climb too. Even during summer
Now let’s get to the fun part, the peak itself!
12. See the Moeraki Boulders
Located at the Koekohe Beach, between Hampden and Moeraki, the area surrounding the Moeraki Boulders is open to the public and is free of charge. That’s what I love about New Zealand! According to the ancient Maori legends, these massive Moeraki Boulders were all once gourds and baskets on a canoe that transformed into boulders when the canoe crashed.
Visit Moeraki Boulders at the sunrise to enjoy one of the best sunrise views on the South Island. Because they are located on the east coast, you’ll see the sun rising from the horizon above the boulders. It’s truly beautiful. Tourists are also sleeping during these hours, so you’ll likely have the beach all to yourself.
Before you leave, try the chowder in Moeraki Café, you’ll love it! And be sure to check out this 10 day South Island itinerary!
13. Hike Roys Peak
If you didn’t go hiking in New Zealand, did you even go? Needless to say, the nature in New Zealand left us completely speechless, much like the hike up Roys Peak. We will always remember this trek as being one of our favorites on the South Island!
Located a few miles away from Wanaka, undoubtedly one of New Zealand’s most picturesque cities, you’ll get a bird’s eye view of the surrounding rolling hills along the way. Be sure you make your way up to the peak of the mountain, it’s one of the best views you can get!
If you set out to hike Roys Peak, know that you’re in for a long day, regardless of how active or healthy you are. Pack a lunch and snacks, and plenty of water. This will probably be the best lunch with a view you’ll get on the South Island!
Make sure to start early enough so you don’t have to climb in the scorching heat, because there’s a lot of climbing! Although the trail is well-maintained, the 5,000 foot climb is a steep one. But the views you’ll get out of it will be well worth every moment!
On your way down, don’t forget to give a few words of encouragement to those making their way up!
14. Climb a Waterfall with Wildwire Wanaka
The South Island in New Zealand is full of adventurous pursuits, but for something truly memorable, attempt the highest waterfall via
Located outside the beautiful lakeside town of Wanaka is this spectacular climb. A via ferrata is a series of metal rungs and wire cables drilled into the rock. Climbers secure themselves to the cable and climb using the iron rungs, pegs, bridges and ladders, allowing you to climb routes that may not otherwise be accessible. No climbing experience is necessary to enjoy a via ferrata.
Wildwire Wanaka offers three climbs up the mighty Twin Falls. The easiest climb, ‘Go Wild’, takes just over an hour and is perfect for families. The intermediate climb ‘Wild Thing’ is perfect for those looking for more adventure. This was the climb we did as a family, our youngest being just eight at the time and the youngest person at the time to climb ‘Wild Thing’!
At times you’re climbing so close to the falls you actually get wet. And I must mention the rope bridges, crossing from one rock face to another. You’ll dangle with nothing below you, with hundreds of
Our day at Wildwire Wanaka was one of our best during a month long trip to New Zealand. A true bucket list adventure. If you’re looking for an adventurous challenge, with the most amazing views, put Wildwire Wanaka on your list of things to do on the South Island!
15. Bungee Jump from Kawaru Bridge
One of our the best experiences we had in the South Island of New Zealand was jumping off a bridge. Queenstown, New Zealand is home to the world’s first commercial bungy jump. If you’ve ever considered it, this is the place to do it!
There are several different bungy locations you can head to, but the Kawarau Bridge is the original. It’s also very unique in that you can actually jump off the bridge and touch or even be dunked in the water below.
The views all around are beautiful, but the feeling of standing on that bridge will be a feeling you won’t soon forget. It’s even a great stop to just head out and watch people take their leaps. You can grab lunch and get a souvenir at the gift shop as well.
If you’re looking for an awesome experience of a lifetime, you should definitely jump on this one!
16. Conquer the Shotover Canyon Swing in Queenstown
Having lived in Queenstown for over 6 months I’ve done most of the adventures around the area. The most blood-pumping, adrenaline-inducing adventure I’ve experienced on the South Island of New Zealand is hands down Shotover Canyon!
Imagine tiptoeing to the edge of a platform. Looking down you see that hundreds of feet below you lies a gushing river. Then a voice behind you starts to countdown ” 3..2..1.. Jump”. And suddenly the wind is tearing at your face as you plummet towards the water. After falling 200 feet you feel a tug in your harness, but instead of being bounced up, like bungee jumping, you are quickly shot through the Canyon in a massive 600-foot swing. Gulp!
However, what really makes this Canyon Swing more terrifying than bungee jumping is the variety of different jump styles, each one more daring than the last. Want to dangle over the edge from a chair, before being dropped without warning? You can! Want one of the employees to kick you off the ledge in an epic “This is Sparta” moment? Well, you have that option too! In all, there are 10 different ways to conquer the Shotover Canyon so every adventurer can find the perfect style that suits them.
17. Go Canyoning in Queenstown
One of the most adventurous things I did during my trip to New Zealand was canyoning in Queenstown. As the most touristic city in all of New Zealand,
A canyoning tour will have you ziplining over the canyon, repelling down cliff faces, jumping off cliffs, swimming through rivers, and so much more. I consider myself somewhat of a “thrill-seeker” so I had my doubts about how exciting canyoning would be to me, but it exceeded my expectations and my heart was racing the entire time!
The canyoning experience in Queenstown is also a very good value in comparison to many of the other adventure tours in the area. For only $189 NZD, this four-hour long tour includes transport from Queenstown to the river, all your gear, professional guides, and snacks. To me, it was an excellent value and everyone on our tour had a great time!
18. Ride the Queenstown Luge
Even though you CAN luge in quite a few places around the world, Queenstown Luge beats all other options. Queenstown is one of the most beautiful places on earth and you can see the best views while racing down a track on your little luge cart.
It’s not a cheap day out, as you’ll probably want to get the gondola ride too, but it’s an incredible experience. It’s fun for people of all ages, and you have 2 track options: one for learners and one for the more adventurous. If you want to ride the faster track, you’ll need more than one ride, since the first ride is always on the ‘slow’ track. But don’t be fooled, both of them can be fast!
The best part of it is that you control your speed, so if you want a leisurely ride, with time to take photos, you can slow down. If you want the thrills, you can just let the cart go!
And since you’re up there already, why not try and paraglide too?
19. Trek the Routeburn Track
Of all the “Great Walks” in New Zealand, the Routeburn Track was absolutely our favorite! It’s a one-way trek so you’ll need to arrange to have your car or motorhome relocated to the other side. But no worries, it’s easy to book (or you can simply hitchhike back to your vehicle). The trek is 20.5 miles in total and you should plan on spending 2-4 days in the park.
The Routeburn Track links the Mount Aspiring National Park with the Fiordland National Park in the Southern Alps and offers incredibly diverse scenery. Along the way you’ll enjoy panoramic views of Hollyford Valley and the Darren Mountains, along with beautiful lakes, waterfalls, and plenty of lush greenery.
As with all of the Great Walks, you’ll need to book your huts or campsites well in advance during the high season (~October – April each year). There are park rangers who check to make sure you have a reservation.
The Routeburn Track is certain to be a highlight of your time on the South Island of New Zealand!
20. Hike the Milford Track
Considered one of the finest hikes in the world, the Milford Track is located in Fjordlands National Park and is one of the Great Walks in New Zealand.
This incredibly beautiful hike is typically a 4-night, 5-day trek. The lush greenery and stunning waterfalls throughout the entire track are incredible to experience. You’ll be in awe of your spectacular surroundings at every turn. The walk is moderate but can be challenging especially during heavy rain.
Walking up Mckinnon’s Pass can demanding, but it is worth it for the misty views. The walk into the beautiful glaciated valleys is the perfect way to immerse yourself into New Zealand’s nature. Make sure to take the side trip to Mackay falls, New Zealand’s highest waterfall!
21. Cruise Around Milford Sound
Near the top of your New Zealand bucket list should definitely be a cruise on Milford Sound. This is a spectacular fjord in the far southwest of the country and is a part of the Fiordland National Park, the largest of New Zealand’s National Parks.
Milford Sound is particularly well known as being the home of Mitre Peak, a mile-high mountain that seems to just shoot straight up out of the fjord. There are also many other peaks in the area, and there are multiple waterfalls that cascade down into Milford Sound.
In our opinion, one of the best ways to experience Milford Sound is to take a scenic boat cruise. These depart from the Milford Sounds Visitors’ Center and give you the opportunity to see many of the highlights of Milford Sound. These include the multitude of waterfalls and mountain peaks, as well as wildlife such as dolphins if you’re lucky.
There are a variety of tours to choose from, with varying lengths. Milford Sound is around 9 miles long, so some tours go all the way to the end, whereas shorter tours will see a bit less. You can book tours directly from the visitor center, and there are also operators who depart from Te Anau and Queenstown, which is a good option if you don’t have your own transport.
22. Enjoy the Serene Lake Marian
Hidden in the Fiordland National Park, Lake Marian might not be easily accessible, but it’s definitely one of the most picturesque lakes on the South Island. It’s also a great stop on the way from Te Anau to Milford Sound.
The return hike to Lake Marian takes around 3 hours. It’s not a difficult trail, but since you are making your way to the alpine lake, be prepared for plenty of uphill action. Starting at the car park, you will first reach the waterfalls and then walk through the lush forest and some steep rocky hills towards the lake. Reaching it seems so surreal. After walking through a green trail, this serene glacial lake is not what you expect to see.
Lake Marian is surrounded by mountains and provides magnificent views of the hanging valley that reflects on the water surface. It’s a perfect place to have a peaceful break, since it’s not overcrowded with tourists. This was one of my favorite spots on the South Island, and I highly recommend taking your time to explore the surroundings and have a picnic at the lake.
23. Try More Better Meat Pies in Te Anau
Te Anau is a small town of 2,000 people that sits on the edge of Lake Te Anau, the largest lake on New Zealand’s South Island. It is on the way to Milford Sound, a major attraction in the area.
Many people miss Te Anau on the way to better-known attractions but that’s a mistake as this cute little town has a lot to offer! The most notable among them are taking a tour of the Glowworm Caves and going jet boarding on the lake.
There are many hiking trails in Te Anau that go through the temperate rainforest areas so common on the South Island. You’ll see exotic giant ferns, bright green moss-covered trees, and crystalline lakes created by receding glaciers along the way.
Despite this abundant natural beauty, the one stop you absolutely must make in Te Anau is a little shop at the intersection of routes 94 and 6, on the way to Milford Sound, called More Better Meat Pies. This tiny, unassuming shop has hordes of tour buses and cars lined up to taste their delicious pies. One taste and you’ll know why! These flaky little savory delights are so good you’ll keep going back for more!
24. Explore the Doubtful Sound
Without a doubt, Doubtful Sound is a must on any New Zealand itinerary. It is most easily accessed when staying in Te Anu, however, you can also experience Doubtful Sound if you are staying in Queenstown. It will just be a bit longer of a day as you will have a 2-hour bus ride to the starting point of your tour.
Your day will start with a 1-hour boat ride across Lake Manapouri before reaching the hydro plant and hopping off at the West Arm Visitor Center. You will then take a 45-minute bus ride through the Fiordland, stopping to see some fantastic viewpoints and waterfalls. At the end of the bus ride, you will reach the starting point of Doubtful Sound and hop on a boat that will take you to explore this beautiful place.
Exploring the Doubtful Sound offers an extremely peaceful boat ride through the Fiordland. The rolling green landscape against the deep blue water makes it feel like it is out of a movie and simply can not be real. Moving through the Doubtful Sound passages and being surrounded by high cliffs make for beautiful photo opportunities and fantastic views that are truly unforgettable!
25. Go Wildlife Spotting at the Otago Peninsula
If you are adventuring through New Zealand’s South Island and looking for an epic wildlife experience, be sure to make a pit stop in the east coast city of Dunedin, which is the entry point to the Otago Peninsula! New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula offers visitors a fantastic excursion with sweeping landscape views and the ability to spot some of the most unique wildlife in the world.
Pop into the Royal Albatross Center, the world’s only mainland-breeding colony of the Royal Albatros. Keep your eyes peeled for New Zealand Fur Seals and Hooker Sea Lions, it’s one of the rarest sea lion species in the world!
Otago Peninsula is also an important breeding area for the rare Yellow-Eyed Penguin and the Blue Penguin, which is not only the smallest of its kind but also happens to only be found in New Zealand.
While you can visit this bucket list destination on your own, it’s worth booking one of the many wildlife tours. Guides will provide information about these species and have access to private conservation areas, which get you up close and personal with these amazing creatures.
26. Visit Stewart Island
One of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand is tucked away on a tiny island to the south of the South Island. Stewart Island is slowly welcoming more and more visitors to its shores as people hear about the untouched beaches, abundant birdlife, and welcoming locals.
This island is home to one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Rakiura Track, which is heaven for hikers of all levels. Aside from this easy 3-day hike, there are backcountry tracks running loops around the north and south ends of the island.
Stewart Island is also full of native birds with Kereru, Kaka, and Tui flocking through the town and nearby bush. It is also one of the best chances to see the elusive Kiwi bird in the wild as they outnumber people on the island by about 40 to 1!
The town offers a couple of cafes, a pub (with a fun quiz night), a small cinema and some of the best fish and chips in the world served from a caravan. Life doesn’t get much better than a relaxed few days on Stewart Island!
Have an amazing trip to New Zealand’s South Island!
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