The South Island of New Zealand is adorned with spectacular locations, from icy glaciers in the mountains to the soft meadows at their feet. The landscape is an ever-changing tapestry through which you will love to travel.
With a total population of 4.47 million, but only 1 million on the South Island, New Zealand’s gorgeous landscapes can mostly be viewed without the threat of overcrowding. With its closest link being Australia, New Zealand is a very remote destination. Set aside from the rest of the world, its wide range of sights reflects the uniqueness of this country.
With the early Polynesian settlers, now known as the Maori, New Zealand is a country rich with culture. To explore the South Island and meet many incredible people along the way will leave you in awe of all that this country has to offer. You can cruise on a New Zealand South Island road trip, tour the country by railway or even enjoy a number of scenic flights, the choice is yours!
1. Take flight over New Zealand’s Glaciers
New Zealand offers the unique experience of glacier flights. You will have the chance to fly over and view these spectacular glaciers from above. From this incredible vantage point, you will gain a new perspective on the glacier. While the finer details may not be evident, you will certainly get an impression of the immense size of the glaciers that lie atop the Southern Alps.
As you fly closer to the glacier you will notice the cracks and crevasses that riddle its white surface. If you look deep into the crevasse you will notice a blue colour glowing from the ice. This colour comes from the pure ice crystals that lie beneath the white surface. Over hundreds of years, layers of snow have compacted on these mountains to form ice, as the imperfections and oxygen are slowly released from the ice; it becomes pure ice and displays a beautiful blue colour.
Standing in the presence of a natural beauty such as a glacier is a magnificent experience, but to walk on a glacier is another thing entirely. The helicopter will bring you to land on top of these glaciers and you will have a few minutes to walk around and take pictures. This truly unforgettable experience should definitely be a part of your New Zealand itinerary, as you stand on the hard, sturdy ice and feel the power of the earth emanating from beneath your feet.
If the idea of glacier flights and glacier landings intrigues you, then read more about Flying over New Zealand’s Glaciers to get an in-depth understanding of this phenomenal experience.
2. Magical Milford Sound
A cascading waterfall crashes into the water beside the boat and drenches you in a fine spray. The power of the waterfall gushing from the rocky cliff face showcases the staggering beauty of Milford Sound.
The spectacular scenery that can be found at any point throughout Milford Sound is the main reason to visit this fantastic site. Milford Sound is located in Fiordland National Park on the south-west coast of the South Island map. It is a perfect stop for your New Zealand South Island road trip.
The most common way to tour Milford Sound is by boat cruise. Hundreds of tourists make the four-hour journey down from Queenstown each day to enjoy the sights of this wondrous natural feature. If you’re better informed, you will know that the town of Te Anau lies only two hours from Milford Sound, which will give you more time to explore. To optimise your time spent here, book a cruise with a small boat and not a large cruise ship like most tourists do. The large ships are overcrowded and will inhibit your enjoyment of the tour. The smaller boats will bring you up close to the waterfalls and cliff faces, something that the bigger boats simply can not do.
Read More about why Milford Sound is the most magical place in New Zealand.
Cruises are not the only way to enjoy Milford Sound’s sensational scenery. Hiking through the green foothills, kayaking along the rocky cliffs and even touring the landscape from the sky are all excellent options. Each providing a new and interesting perspective on the terrain. Flying above Milford Sound will give you a clear view of why it is called a sound and not a fjord. While they are essentially the same thing, defined as a deep inlet of the sea between high cliffs, a sound is wider than a fjord, and from the sky, you will see just how wide Milford Sound really is.
The flight doesn’t end there! After exploring Milford Sound, you will begin to rise in altitude and feel the icy, fresh air through the vents in the cabin as you set off toward the glacier at Mount Tutoko. This journey will elicit a true love for flying from you. Viewing this incredible landscape from above and the way it changes so rapidly from the lush forest to the vast expanses of ice in just a few short minutes.
Read more about Milford Sound’s exciting adventures to get a better idea of what New Zealand has in store for you. Once you discover the magical beauty of Milford Sound you’ll be adding it to your New Zealand South Island itinerary in no time!
3. Mt Cook National Park
Mount Cook stands towering above New Zealand as the country’s tallest mountain at a height of 12,349 ft. With a wonderful national park surrounding it, and a number of scenic hiking trails, it is undeniably worth a visit. If you stop in at the visitor centre upon arrival you will discover a number of activities to do in Mount Cook National Park.
Many people choose to take a stroll along the Hooker Valley trail. This trail is very easy and is suitable for almost anyone. It gives you an excellent view of the landscape surrounding Mount Cook and allows you to explore the foothills of this extraordinary mountain range.Your other option will be to visit the Tasman Glacier. You’ll be based in Mount Cook Village, which is just around the corner from this spectacular glacier.
One thing that the national park provides is the stellar activity of stargazing. After a tour of their planetarium, you will be driven into the wilderness where you will set your gaze skyward. The dancing starlight amongst the colourful planets enhanced further as you look through the telescopes provided on the tour.
Whatever it is that you choose to do, you will not be disappointed! The sights that surround this majestic mountain are truly fantastic. Read more about how to visit Mt Cook National Park.
4. Trans-Alpine by Highway or Railway
To travel from the east to west coast of the South Island map is an epic journey which will transport you through a wide range of different terrains and sights. Fortunately, the two modes of transport available to take you on this adventure are both excellent, each with their own unique benefit.
You could choose to travel by railway, the comfortable option that allows you to slowly cruise through the fascinating landscape. The train journey will take about 5 hours to complete and is entirely for the benefit of tourism. This means that the entire trip will be aiming to please you with the natural beauty outside the window and the comfort of the cabin inside. If you’d like to experience the thrill of the fresh air you can make your way to the open-air carriage that allows you to take photographs without the reflection of a window pane getting in your way.
Your other travelling option is a self-driving tour of the landscape. While the drive along State Highway 73 from the east coast to west coast will only take 3 hours, your journey will take much longer because of all the stops along the way. You will have the freedom to get out of your vehicle whenever you want and explore your surroundings on foot.
This journey will take a full day, especially if you’re driving yourself. To prepare for the trip you should wake up early and set out before daybreak. This way you will be able to enjoy the magnificent sunrise as it shines over the shoulder of the Southern Alps range. Don’t miss out on the majesty of Castle Hill along the way, with smooth, grey boulders scattered on the hillside resembling the ruins of a castle. Read more about this Trans-alpine journey with an interactive driving map.
5. Mirror Lakes and the Te Anau Downs
To reiterate the importance of driving yourself down to Milford Sound, and not squashing yourself onto a tour bus and then an overcrowded boat, the sights along the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound are worth your time. While most tourists would drive right past, unassuming, this landscape is home to a hidden beauty known as Mirror Lake. Aptly named, the surface of the water has an uncanny reflectiveness to it, and to see the rugged peaks of the mountains on the surface of the water is phenomenal.
To learn more about this awesome New Zealand South Island road trip, read all about the journey, complete with an interactive road map.
6. Queenstown: The mecca for Outdoor Pursuits
If you’re traversing the South Island map and you’re looking for a place to get your heart pumping, then Queenstown should be on your New Zealand itinerary. With a plethora of adrenaline sports to choose from, you’ll have something to do in any weather. You’ll be able to enjoy snowboarding, skiing or any other snow sport you can think of! You will have the chance to go on hikes, explore the beautiful lake beside the town and even go bungee jumping. Since New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere, their winter descends between June and October, making these the perfect months for snow-sports. Fortunately hiking, sightseeing and bungee jumping run all year round.
If adrenaline is not really your thing, then you can take a scenic cable car ride which will give you excellent views of Queenstown and the neighbouring Wakatipu Lake. You’ll also be able to explore some of the quaint towns in the surrounding area. Glenorchy, Wanaka and Arrow Town are all nearby Queenstown, each offering their own unique view of the landscape.
Take a tour around Queenstown with my 15 Photos to inspire a visit to this region of the South Island and surrounding towns which altogether provide something for everyone.
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7. South Island Road Trip
The freedom of driving yourself around New Zealand’s South Island is unparalleled by any other form of transport. This allows you to explore New Zealand on your own terms, you’re completely independent and you can take control.
Before you begin to feel like planning your own trip through the South Island may be stressful, you have nothing to fear. My New Zealand South Island itinerary has everything you could possibly need! This excellent itinerary will show you a detailed list of the stops, as well as an interactive map. This will help give you a clearer understanding of the route. If you follow this itinerary you will be guided through the very best of the South Island, you won’t miss a thing and you will skip through all the unnecessary stops that might take up your precious vacation time.
A city ravaged by earthquakes in 2011, Christchurch shows an incredible resilience and tenacity as they work to rebuild. After Auckland in the north, Christchurch is New Zealand’s second largest city, and there is plenty to see and do here.
Christchurch offers an interesting insight into the history of New Zealand. While many buildings have fallen away, there are a few historical buildings and churches that have stood the test of time. With the botanic gardens, cathedral square and many more sights in the city, you will have plenty to choose from. The threat of earthquakes may never subside, but witnessing a city going through such dramatic change is an experience in itself.
9. Stunning Scenery: Lakes & Waterfalls
As one of the world’s wettest countries, it makes sense that New Zealand harbours a number of spectacular water features. If you’re looking to dip your toes in the icy clear waters of Mirror Lake, or take the plunge into Lake Wakatipu, or even just to bask in the glory of one of the country’s many waterfalls, New Zealand has you covered!
The unique landscape of New Zealand is something that truly sets it apart from other travel destinations. This rings especially true for the South Island. The stunning range of landscapes is made even more magical when viewed through the reflection of one of New Zealand’s vast lakes.
Waterfalls are features abundant to New Zealand. You can stop off and view a waterfall at almost any point during your New Zealand South Island road trip. The mesmerising spray of cascading water, framed by the rugged cliffs and soft vegetation will leave you awestruck by its immense beauty.
10. Hollywood Film Locations
The incredible diversity of terrain and sights across New Zealand as a whole is impressive to say the least. Hollywood films take advantage of this and often use locations across the country for sets in their productions. A number of popular movies have been filmed here, including The Lord of the Rings Trilogy; The Hobbit Trilogy; The Chronicles of Narnia; 10 000 BC; X-Men Origins: Wolverine; King Kong, Avatar and The Last Samurai to name a few.
While you plan your trip to New Zealand’s South Island, do some research on any movies that may be in production at the time. You may be lucky enough to bump into a celebrity or two on the set of an upcoming movie.
During my New Zealand South Island road trip, I came across the set of Ridley Scott’s upcoming movie Alien Covenant. Even if your trip doesn’t coincide with the making of a Hollywood movie, you’ll still get a sense of the landscape that provides such excellent backdrops for all these films.
South Island Itinerary
I’m sure that after having read this you’re ready to run out the door with your bags packed and book the next flight to New Zealand. But before you do, don’t forget to take a look at my New Zealand South Island itinerary! You truly will be in good hands, and your tour of New Zealand will be all the better for it. Not only will you have a detailed list of everything you’ll need to know for your trip, but you’ll also get an interactive map of all the stops, giving you a better idea of the route you’ll be taking.
South Island New Zealand Map
South Island Itinerary Highlights
|Day 1||Explore Chrsitchurch||Ibis Christchurch|
|Day 2||Explore Chrsitchurch||Ibis Christchurch|
|Day 3||Tranzalpine by Highway or Railway||3hrs||Lake Brunner|
|Day 4||Franz Josef & Fox Glacier Flight||2hrs 40mins||YHA Franz Josef|
|Day 5||Drive to Wanaka||3hrs 30mins||OakRidge Resort|
|Day 6||Drive to Te Anau via Arrowtown & Queenstown||3hrs||Aden Motel, Te Anau|
|Day 7||Milford Sound Cruise orFlight||4hrs||Aden Motel, Te Anau|
|Day 8||Queenstown & around||2hrs||Mercure Queenstown|
|Day 9||Drive to Mt Cook||3hrs 10mins||Mt Cook Lodge|
|Day 10||Mt Cook National Park: Hiking, Stargazing||Mt Cook Lodge|
|Day 11||Drive to Christchurch via Lake Tekupo & Mt Hutt||4hrs 20mins||Christchurch Airport|
|*Driving Times do not include breaks or stops!|