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The South Island of New Zealand is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. It simply has it all: vast mountains, empty beaches, rain forest and enough activities to keep any outdoor lover and adrenaline junkie entertained.
What I love about the South Island is the diversity: the scenery is ever changing and I was literally glued to the window of the Stray Bus to take it all in and not miss a thing.
Here are some places you can’t miss, when traveling the South Island of New Zealand.
Wildlife experiences in Kaikoura
Kaikoura is a lovely small coastal town and was our first stop on the Stray bus, an easy two hour drive away from Christchurch. It is famous for it’s wildlife spotting. On a good day you can take a boat out to watch dolphins and whales in their natural habitat or spot them from up in the air on a scenic flight. Another option is to go for a swim with the Kaikoura’s Dusky dolphins in the open ocean.
I also really enjoyed the 2 hour walk around the Kaikoura peninsula taking in some breath-taking views and stopping at the seal colony to watch those entertaining creatures.
If you love seafood this is also great place to get your hands on some delicious crayfish and other goodnesses.
Picton- The heart of Malborough Sounds
The picturesque port town Picton in the heart of the Malborough Sounds connects the North and South Island with each other as this is where the ferry operates. The waterfront looking into the Sound is lovely and there are quite a few nice cafés to take a little break at. Some ideas what you can do here: take a cruise of the sound aboard a working mail boat or hike Queen Charlotte Track, which is a major attraction that offers magnificent views.
Of course you can’t miss out on a visit to the world-famous Malborough wine region to do some wine tasting at one of the many great vineries. Sauvignon Blanc is the grape to drink there.
Abel Tasman National Park
This popular New Zealand national park is named after explorer Abel Tasman, who in 1642 became the first European to sight New Zealand and who anchored nearby in Golden Bay. It might be the smallest national park of the country, but one the most visited because of the stunning environment. Think golden beaches, a beautiful coastline with hidden bays and spectacular marine life.
There are plenty of activities to do in this coastal paradise. Take a kayak out (either by yourself or as part of a guided tour), go on a sailing tour with Abel Tasman Sailing Adventures to experience the magnificent Abel Tasman National Park or hop on a water taxi that takes you from Marahau to Anchorage Bay and then take a 4 hour hike through lush forest back to Bark Bay.
This is one of the wettest places in NZ, so if you get here on a clear day consider yourself very lucky. Franz Josef is famous for its glacier and has some beautiful rain forest and waterfalls. This is the perfect place to get your hiking shoes on and explore.
Here you can do a pretty unique and spectacular activity that is worth every penny: do a heli hike. A helicopter will take you from the town to the Franz Josef glacier, lands, you get off and hike and explore the glacier together with a knowledgable guide before getting picked up again by heli. After this memorable adventure relax in the glacier hot pools.
Lake Wanaka is the fourth biggest lake of New Zealand and located in the stunning alps of the South Island. It attracts visitors from all over the world for its natural beauty and relaxed atmosphere. It is also the perfect base for outdoor activities of all kind. In summer you can enjoy stunning hikes and water activities and in winter hit the slopes to ski or snowboard.
One popular thing to do in Wanaka is the Roy’s Peak hike. We got up at 2.30 am to hike Roy’s Peak for sunrise and I got to admit, it was a challenging hike as it basically is just a steep way up for about 2-3 hours. However the views from the top over the lake and the mountains made it all worth it. If you want to learn more about this hike, check out this full guide on hiking Roy’s Peak.
For the perfect photo spot, visit Wanaka Tree- probably New Zealand’s most famous tree. It is a 100-year old willow that stand alone in the water of Lake Wanaka.
Queenstown earned itself a reputation as the adventure capital of the world. There are tons of amazing activities for thrill seekers such as bungee jumping, skydiving or a tour on a jet boat that can go up to 95 km/h. Here you can really test your limits. The town itself is situated on lake Wakatipu surrounded by mountains and has a very special vibe to it. Here you will also find plenty of great shops, restaurants and a good night life. Check this link for a detailed guide on what to do and where to eat in Queenstown.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
This national park is located deep in the heart of the Southern Park in the Canterbury region and offers a unique landscape of ice and rock, with 23 peaks over 3000 meters including New Zealand’s highest mountain: the mighty Aoraki/Mount Cook.
Enjoy the beautiful alpine landscape on of the most popular hikes on the South Island, the Hooker Valley Track. This easy day hike takes around 2-3 hours return where you will pass an awe-inspiring landscape of the Southern Alps, glaciers and mountain streams.
Since the national park is situated in a dark reserve far away from city lights, you will be able to do some star gazing on a clear night. I have never seen so many stars anywhere else and even got a glimpse of the milky way.
Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo
Both lakes get their intense milky-turquoise colour from the fine rock-flour (ground by glaciers) which is suspended in the water.
When in Tekapo visit the Tekapo Springs and soak in the hot pools while enjoying being surrounded by beautiful nature. Wander along the lake to the picturesque Church of the Good Shepard that has a beautiful backdrop of the turquoise water of the lake and the snow covered mountains.
Another iconic New Zealand landscape that you will pass when driving to the Mount Cook National Park is Lake Pukaki. Stop at the Lake Pukaki Visitor Center and get some fresh, delicious Mt Cook alpine salmon.
Iconic Milford Sound is a natural wonder that should not be missed. The fjord was graved by glaciers throughout the years. You can experience its beauty by taking a day or overnight cruise. Most cruises take around 2 hours and during the cruise you will get close to dramatic cliffs, waterfalls and wildlife such as dolphins and seals.
Unfortunately during our visit to NZ the road to Milford Sound was closed due to flooding, so we weren’t able to visit. Since the Big South Freestyle Pass from Stray is valid for an entire year, this might be a reason to return to New Zealand soon for another adventure and travel the stunning South Island again.
Doutbful Sound is located in the same region as Milford Sound and also worth a visit. It is also not short of impressive sites. The difference is that it is more widespread, longer and deeper.
If you don’t want to drive yourself, I can recommend you this great adventure company called Stray. I have travelled the South Island of New Zealand on their Big South Freestyle Pass and they take you to all the great spots you would want to see. All of the locations mentioned in this article are part of the Stray Big South Freestyle Pass. Travel hassle free and at your own terms, as you can hop on and off the your in case you want to stay longer.