South Island, New Zealand offers a real smorgasbord of things to see and do that caters to just about every interest and activity. It really depends on what you want to see and do that will help you determine your itinerary and the length of time you will need.
If you are looking for scenery then the entire South Island will blow you away with the diverse scenery from majestic mountains of the Southern Alps to the Canterbury Plains, soaring walls of the Fiords in Fiordland to stunning beautiful Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers (you can do guided hikes on these glaciers), rugged coastlines to beautiful sandy beaches and beautiful lush green forest/bush. Many of these you can see from a train ride as you relax and gaze at the diverse scenery. The best train rides on the South Island are Coastal Pacific that runs between Picton and Christchurch; TranzAlpine goes between Christchurch on the East Coast through Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth on the West Coast; and Taieri Gorge Railway is a day trip that starts and end in Dunedin.
If you are looking to walk there are many beautiful trails around the South Island. Throughout New Zealand you can find many walking trails. There are nine that have been labeled as New Zealand’s Great Walks. Five of them can be found in the South Island; Abel Tasman Coast Track, Heaphy Track, Kepler Track, Milford Track, and Routeburn Track. For the Great Walks you will need to book your time on the tracks. Bookings for some of these tracks may need to be made 12 or more months in advance based on the time of year you wish to walk them. Even some of the tracks like Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds while not a NZ Great Walk it is one worth taking and again it requires advance bookings. The Queen Charlotte Track is one that you can bike along as well. The walking trails around the South Island range from gentle strolls to scaling mountains and every fitness ability in-between.
For the cyclists you can cycle just about anywhere in NZ. There are some great cycling trails that will get you off the roads and into the backcountry where the scenery is breathtaking and on some of the trails you can challenge your cycling skills. The South Island has 12 of NZ’s Cycle Trails. One of the cycling trails is the 150 km relatively flat, unpaved, packed gravel Central Otago Rail Trail that was created from an old train route. Most people cycle this trail but it can be walked. There are many places to stop along the way and enjoy some good southern hospitality. As mentioned above you can also cycle the Queen Charlotte Track. A more challenging bike ride is Heli-Biking in Wanaka. Check out Krystle Theunissen’s blog about her day heli-biking. One of my favourite cities to cycle around is Christchurch. I lived in Christchurch for two years and spent many weekends cycling all over the city. It is mainly flat unless you get up into the hills, which I didn’t. There was much to see and do around the city on my bike without venturing into the hills! My favourite place in Christchurch to cycle was Hagley Park. It was so tranquil with all the trees and gardens.
If you are looking for adventure, head to the Adventure Capital of the World, Queenstown. You will find just about every adrenaline pumping activity you can think of that will take your adrenaline from zero to through the roof. You could do some of the walking trails in and around Queenstown, go Cayoning, Bungy Jumping or swinging, jet boating, heli skiing, paragliding, paraponting, hang-gliding, luging, skydiving, white water rafting, etc.
For the water lovers you can find much to do or in the water around the South Island. If you want sailing adventure then head to the beautiful picturesque town of Picton where you can hire yachts (skippered or bareboat), boats, kayaks, etc for day or overnight to explore in around the coves and island that make up the gorgeous Marlborough Sounds. You can also kayak or canoe on the lakes and rivers throughout the South Island. There is Sea Kayaking available in different locations around the South Island including the Marlborough Sounds, Abel Tasman National Park, and Fiordland.
Want to get up close and personal with New Zealand Wildlife? You could take a guided Sea Kayaking adventure in Abel Tasman National Park and meet some very friendly NZ fur seals. For Whale watching there is really only one place in NZ to do this and that is in Kaikoura. You can swim with the Dolphins in the Marlborough Sounds, Kaikoura, and Akaroa (Banks Peninsula near Christchurch). In Kaikoura you can swim with Dolphins or Seals or both! For bird watching head to the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin and visit the Royal Albatross Centre where you can see these magnificent birds on the only mainland breeding colony in the world. Near there you will also find the rare Yellow-Eyed Penguins.
If you need to relax, head to Hanmer Springs for a dip in their thermal mineral pools or have a spa treatment or two. You can also relax on the beautiful golden beaches near Nelson. Or enjoy the Garden City, Christchurch, on a punt down the Avon River.
For history you have the gold mining towns Arrowtown or Shantytown. In Dunedin you can visit the historic Dunedin Railway Station; Olveston House, a Jacobean Style house; and Larnach’s Castle, New Zealand’s only castle. There is the Royal New Zealand Air Force Museum in Christchurch or the International Antarctic Centre at Christchurch Airport. In Wanaka there is the Warbirds & Wheels museum at the Wanaka Airport. If you are in NZ over Easter Weekends on EVEN years then Wanaka hosts the biggest airshow in the southern Hemisphere the International Warbirds Over Wanaka Airshow. On the ODD years over Easter there is the Omaka Classic Fighters Airshow at the Blenheim airport. You can also visit the Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum in Blenheim too. In Nelson you can visit the World of Wearable Art and Classic Cars Museum. World of Wearable Art is an international design competition held in September each year in Wellington. The entries are then sent to the museum in Nelson for display.
For Wine Lovers we have some great wineries around Marlborough which is famous for their Sauvignon Blanc and Central Otago which is famous for their Pinot Noir. There are wine trails in both locations with self-guided or guided tours available.
Like Chocolate? Checkout the Cadbury’s Chocolate World in Dunedin and yes you do get some free samples! 🙂 There is also a Bean to Bon Bon Tour you can do in Christchurch where you learn how to make chocolate and you even get to make your own treats to take with you.
Movie fan? Head to Queenstown where you can tour sites used in Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Top of the Lake, Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Race for the Yankee Zephyr, just to name a few! This is just one place in the South Island that has been used for movie locations; there are many other sites around the South Island.
For winter months (June-August) you can go skiing or snowboarding in the South Island. In June every year there is the Winter Festival in Queenstown which is an amazing 10-day event with all sorts of activities and concerts going on. Want something a little more adventurous then try heli-skiing or heli-boarding where they take you in a helicopter and drop you on virgin powder snow and you ski or board down the mountain.
This is just a small glimpse into the MANY things to see and do in the South Island, New Zealand. You are probably overwhelmed by all that we have mentioned here; trust me this is just the tip of the iceberg! If you would like help planning your New Zealand South Island Adventure please go to Have2GoNewZealand.com and sign up for a FREE 1-hour, no obligation planning session. If you have been to the South Island please leave your comments below about some of your adventures and favourite places.