Before I even got to New Zealand, I realized everyone and their mothers seemed to think the South Island was so much better than the North Island. And after two months touring the country by bus, split about half-half on each island, I must say I agree! While the North Island was good, the South Island was spectacular, with unique scenery at (literally!) every turn. While planning your own trip to New Zealand, you’ll definitely want to hit all the epic places on the South Island I recommend below.
ABEL TASMAN NATIONAL PARK
They say North Island is better if you want beaches, and the South Island is better if you want hiking. But what if you want both? Hiking and beaches? Well, your answer is Abel Tasman National Park. Located at the top of the South Island, it’s New Zealand’s smallest national park and known as a pristine destination for hiking and kayaking. You can visit on a single day trip into the park from as far out as Nelson, or you can hike and camp through the park over three to five days.
Not many would consider Punakaiki a “can’t-miss” destination in New Zealand, but I think it’d be a shame not to stop here while driving down the South Island West Coast. It’s known for its pancake rocks and blowholes, but there’s enough to do here to warrant an overnight stop. I go into more detail on how to spend half a day in Punakaiki here.
FRANZ JOSEF GLACIER AND/OR FOX GLACIER
After hiking on a glacier and exploring ice caves while road tripping through Iceland, I questioned how Glacier County in New Zealand would compare to the hype. Well, I’m here to report back that it did live up (even considering I forwent doing a helicopter-hike!). Though I didn’t get up as close as normal due to heavy rainfall in the months before my visit, it was still incredible to hike through lush, green rainforest in contrast to the icy Franz Josef glacier hanging up above. Equally as incredible was watching the sun set over the vast Tasman Sea from the mountains while driving back from Fox Glacier and Lake Matheson.
Once getting here, I immediately understood why everyone loves this place. Wanaka is such a cute town with a lively atmosphere. Plus, who doesn’t love being right on a lake and surrounded by mountains? There are lots of water activities to do here when the weather is warm, and of course, there’s hiking the infamous Roy’s Peak – home to one of New Zealand’s most-famous viewpoints. If you do attempt this tough hike (tougher than the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in my opinion) definitely check out my tips to know before hiking Roy’s Peak.
As home to the first ever commercial bungee jump, Queenstown is rightfully dubbed the adventure capital of New Zealand. But besides all that adrenaline stuff, Queenstown is just a really pretty place. The town’s buildings are super cute, it sits on gorgeous Lake Wakatipu, and it’s surrounded by mountains. I didn’t have a desire to bungee jump, sky dive, or jet boat while there, but I still kept perfectly entertained in Queenstown with non-adrenaline activities (post coming soon on these!).
As the eighth natural wonder of the world, Milford Sound is the most popular spot to visit in New Zealand’s Fiordland. Visitors from all over the globe plan up to 18 months in advance just to secure their spots to hike the Milford Track, a 33.25 mi (52.5 km) 4-day hike from Te Anau to Milford Sound. In recent years, however, the larger Doubtful Sound has been increasing in popularity as well, as a slightly less-crowded alternative. Both Milford and Doubtful Sound offer overnight or day cruises, kayaking, and the chance to see wildlife such as dolphins, penguins, and seals. I only had time for a day trip to Milford from Queenstown (which I absolutely enjoyed), but I’d love to experience an overnight cruise at Doubtful the next time I’m in New Zealand.
MOUNT COOK NATIONAL PARK
This is hands down my favorite spot I visited in all of New Zealand. I still can’t get over stepping out of my hostel kitchen to eat my 2-minute ramen in front of Huddleston Glacier, or how the Hooker Valley Hike was the single best views-to-effort ratio of any hike in my life. I really can’t recommend a night or two in Mount Cook Village enough. Be sure to check out my hiking guide to Mount Cook National Park if you decide to go!
OTHER SOUTH ISLAND DESTINATIONS
My time exploring New Zealand was rushed short due to the novel coronavirus. So I’m including some spots I wanted to visit but couldn’t, because I think you should look into visiting these places as well.
- Te Anau: Gateway into Fiordland and starting point of the Kepler Track.
- Tekapo: Home to Lake Tekapo, lupin flowers in November, and stargazing capital of New Zealand.
- Kaikoura: East coast town with gorgeous mountains and home to whale and dolphin activities.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Any questions? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll respond.