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9 Spectacular Things to Do in New Zealand’s South Island

When traveling down under to New Zealand, visiting the South Island is a must do for those who love nature and the outdoors. The North Island is more cosmopolitan with a larger population, but the South Island is larger and is famous for many of its geographical features like the Fiordlands and the Southern Alps.

Still, not enough information to get you there? Follow along to discover 9 of the most spectacular things to do in New Zealand’s South Island.  

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About the South Island in New Zealand

The South Island in New Zealand is home to Mt. Cook (12,218 ft.), the tallest mountain in New Zealand, and two glaciers. You’ll recognize one of the cities in the island by name, Christchurch. It only contains 23% of New Zealand’s population. The population is diverse with most claiming European ethnicity and others claiming Maori, Asian, and other Pacific backgrounds. The economy relies heavily on tourism, fishing, agriculture, and manufacturing.

The South Island produces nearly 92% of the island’s electricity with hydroelectricity and the remaining with wind power, and some of the electricity is exported to the North Island to help with the increasing demand there.

Eco-tourism is a large part of the South Island economy. People come to the island for sightseeing, glacier climbing, bungee jumping, hiking, kayaking, and more.

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Things to Do in New Zealand’s South Island

We loved the South Island while caravaning around New Zealand. These are the top 9 things we think every itinerary should include.

Note: These are all things we wanted to visit on the South Island. Some of them we didn’t get to before our trip was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Haast Pass

Location: State Highway 6, Otago, New Zealand, stretching from Makarora to the village of Haast on the West Coast.

Why It’s Spectacular: This is a four-hour drive. However, we set aside more time to see all of the beauty around us and were glad we did. This scenic drive will take you past mountains, lakes, and bridges over cascading water and waterfalls. It ends on the west coast.  

Things to Do: Stop at the Makarora Blue Pools. These fast-moving waters are pure glacier water with very little pollution. We recommend stopping at the swinging bridges to take pictures. Also, if you’re brave, watch for a path that goes down to the water. Some are brave enough to take a quick dip.

Other places we recommend stopping at include Fantail Falls, which is an easy hike with a viewing area across from the falls. However, be aware of flash flooding if it is or has been raining. We also did a quick stop at Dianna Falls, which is on the side of the road and hard to miss. Gates of Haast is listed as a waterfall, but it’s more of a series of rapids. Thunder Creek Falls is just up the road from Dianna Falls. It’s claimed to be one of New Zealand’s most spectacular waterfalls. Lastly, Lake Hawea has the most amazing colored water that left us speechless.

Caravan trip in South Island New Zealand
Grab your caravan and get ready for a road trip like no other on the South Island of New Zealand.

Kaikoura Whale Watching

Location: On the east coast of the South Island on State Highway 1,180 km north of Christchurch.

Why It’s Spectacular: The main reason for stopping by this quaint town is for marine encounters, including finding whales, seals, and more.

Things to Do: The best thing to see in Kaikoura are the sperm whales, which can be seen from the shore. New Zealand fur seals can also be spotted here and orcas can sometimes be spotted between November and March. During our stop, we learned all about the whaling past of this coastal community.

Take a boat trip to swim with dolphins, kayak around the harbor to see the fur seals, and get up close and personal with the whales in the area, or take a helicopter coastal whale watch trip. In Kaikoura, the wildlife outnumbers the human population. There are also plenty of places to eat crayfish and do a bit of shopping.

Pro Tip: We shared How to Enjoy Freedom Camping in New Zealand to help you plan the perfect adventure.

Punakaiki Rocks

Location: Located in Paparoa National Park Visitor Centre 4294 Coast Road, Punakaiki, RD 1, Runanga 7873

Why It’s Spectacular: The scenery and geological formations here are unlike anything we’ve seen. Check out the “pancake stack” formations on the West Coast of the South Island. We found them on a short 20-minute walk through the area. This is where we also saw Punakaiki Rocks, the ones that look like stacked pancakes, and blow holes.

Things to Do: Take a cave hike at the Punakaiki Cavern which has 130 meters of safe passages. Truman Track is a 30-minute walk through a subtropical forest which ends on a spectacular beach. There are also companies to rent bikes from and hike through many parts of New Zealand with, for those who’d rather have a guide.

Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes - West Coast, New Zealand 2022

Larnach Castle

Location: 145 Camp Road, Larnachs Castle, Dunedin 9077, New Zealand.

Why It’s Spectacular: The Larnach Castle is a mock castle built by entrepreneur and politician, William Larnach. The castle is ornate with award-winning gardens, beautiful rooms, and exquisite, rich history.

Things to Do: The castle is open 365 days a year. Now, owned by the Baker family, they have painstakingly renovated and completed the castle, which was left unfinished by Larnach. They offer tours of the castle, gardens, and grounds. A private guided tour is an extra fee. Or, have high tea in the Ballroom Café for an extra special memory.

Marlborough Sounds

Location: Marlborough Sounds lies in the northeast part of the South Island, between Tasman Bay in the west and Cloudy Bay in the southeast.

Why It’s Spectacular: The lore surrounding the Marlborough Sounds is fascinating. The beauty is unquestionable. The sounds are an average of 114 feet deep. The “sea-drowned valleys” were created by man and the rising seas.

Things to Do: Book a cruise along the sounds, or bring your own kayak or boat, to see wildlife, birds, and whales. Visit a mussel farm, where 70% of NZ’s Greenshell Mussels come from or visit a salmon farm in Marlborough. After that, stop at a local restaurant to sample some of the delicious seafood. There are more than 40 activities to get involved with while visiting Marlborough and the sounds. Wine is also made and is very popular in this region – which we enjoyed trying!

If you’re a biker, you can cycle the Queen Charlotte Track, which is 43-miles long. Visit Ship Cove where Captain James Cook used to anchor and learn about the early days of shipping in NZ.

Wine tasting in New Zealand
Make sure to try some wine while in the Marlborough wine region.

Queenstown Adventure Sports

Location: Queenstown is a hip town located in the southwest corner of the South Island. Queenstown adventure sports take place all over that area, which is nestled in the most spectacular mountains.

Why It’s Spectacular: If you’re seeking the rush of adrenaline that comes from hurling yourself off a bridge high above a river, skimming up the surface of a river in a jet boat, or jumping out of a perfectly fine airplane, this is a place to stop.

Things to Do: In Queenstown, you can mountaineer, hike, mountain bike, go indoor flying, take scenic cruises, or find land adventures. Afterward, check out the nightlife, and stop by Bob’s Peak, 500 meters above Queenstown. Get there by taking the Skyline Gondola. You only have to look around to find something exciting to do here.  

Pro Tip: Make sure to download these 7 Best New Zealand Apps You Absolutely Need to ensure your RV adventure is a success.

Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve

Location: Lakeside Drive, Lake Tekapo 7999, New Zealand

Why It’s Spectacular: This location put into effect controls that limit the amount of light that is used at night in this area, making this the best place in all of New Zealand to stargaze. Lake Tekapo is also a stunningly beautiful teal lake.

Things to Do: The reason this reserve was created was to help with light pollution for the nearby Mt. John Observatory, it has also helped the area to conserve energy and increase tourism. Go out at night and gaze at the sky. With very little light around, the stars and galaxies can be seen with the naked eye.

Dark Sky Project also offers night tours at the observatory, and Tekopa Star Gazing has guided tours of the night sky, which also allows you to check out the sky while soaking in a 38-degree hot pool.

Go star gazing at Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve.

Lake Wanaka

Location: Lake Wanaka is 69.3 km from Queenstown, in the lower part of the South Island. The town of Wanaka sits in a glacier-carved basin on one shore of the lake.

Why It’s Spectacular: This spot has views for days. Mountains, crystal clear water, beaches, and majesty. We were blown away by all the different views here. The famous Wanaka Tree can be found in the shallows of this lake.

Things to Do: We loved that there were so many different things to do here. Looking for adrenaline? Try the Wildwire Wanaka to walk along wires in front of a raging waterfall, or leap off a cliff while tandem paragliding from Wanaka Paragliding. Nature lovers can explore Wanaka Lavender Farm.

There are plenty of places to hike, bike, or walk, including stand-up paddleboarding with Paddle Wanaka, taking a fishing charter with Adventure Wanaka, horse trekking, or a 4-wheel drive off-road tour. Though we didn’t go skiing during our visit, this is also a skiers’ paradise in the winter and a resort town in the summer.

mortons with that wanaka tree nz south island
#ThatWanakaTree is one of the most photographed trees in the world.

Milford Sound

Location: Hours away from the nearest town, on the southern edge of the South Island.

Why It’s Spectacular: Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound the “eighth Wonder of the World.” The mountains on either side jut out of the water 1,000 meters or 3,280 feet straight up. The water is very deep and the top 32 feet or so is fresh water because of the amount of rain Milford Sound gets every year. The rest is salt water.

Things to Do: Visit Milford Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory to see rare black coral and other marine life. You can cruise the sound, kayak the waters, and get up close to the many waterfalls. If you’re lucky, you might even see the Fiordland Crested Penguin.

Hiking and camping on the Milford Track is very popular. The multiday trips are great from the start of October until April, but make sure you book the huts on the trail at least 3 months in advance.

Pro Tip: Trying to decide between visiting the North or South Islands of New Zealand? We compared the two to help you plan the perfect itinerary.

New Zealand’s South Island: A Spectacular Adventure

New Zealand’s South Island is ripe with eco-tourism. Hiking, biking, climbing, cruising, and so many more adventures await the people who are daring enough to make the trek down under. Keep in mind that the seasons in New Zealand are reversed from those in America. When it’s winter here, it’s summer there. A trip to New Zealand’s South Island is an adventure you’ll never forget. 

Is a trip to New Zealand on your bucket list? Tell us in the comments!

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About Cait Morton

Co-Founder, Logistics Queen, Business & Content Manager, and Animal Lover

An Upper Peninsula of Michigan native (aka a Yooper), Caitlin is the organization, big-picture, and content strategy queen of our operation. She keeps everything orderly and on track.

With a background in Business Management, she supports and helps channel Tom’s technical prowess into the helpful content our readers and viewers expect. That’s not to say you won’t find her turning wrenches and talking shop – RV life is a team effort. She keeps the business and the blog moving forward with a variety of topics and resources for our audience.

Believe it or not, she is rather camera shy, though she co-hosts the Mortons’ personal videos and The RVers TV show.

Caitlin’s passion lies in outdoor recreation and with animals. Some of her favorite things to do are hiking, biking, and getting out on the water via kayak, SUP, or boat.

She also loves the RV life due to the fact that you can bring your pets along. Sharing information about safely recreating outdoors with your whole family – pets included! – is very important to her. Because of this, Caitlin spearheaded the launch of HypePets in 2023.

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