In my opinion, the South Island is significantly more stunning than the North. With the Sounds, Fjords, and Southern Alps, the natural beauty of the South Island cannot be paralleled. Beauty aside, my ten days in the South Island was filled with hits and misses. While I had perfect weather every day, a handful of my desired activities were cancelled for various reasons. I had to chock that up to the ebbs and flows of travel…plus, I was in NEW ZEALAND. I really couldn’t complain.
I may not have done every activity I wanted to do but I’ve still managed to put together a list of South Island highlights. These activities were either something I actually did myself or something my friends raved about (and, most likely, are things I should have done). The South Island is known for its beauty and its tremendous sense of adventure. Queenstown alone puts the South Island on the map for being the adventure capital of the world. You’ll find everything from bungee jumping (spelled ‘bungy’ in New Zealand) and sky diving to canyon swings, glacier hikes, and white water rafting. There is no shortage of thrills down South. Here are my suggestions for the best activities and sights throughout the South Island.
1. Kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park
After a long morning of travel, which included a 3.5 hour ride on the Interislander Ferry and a bus trip into Kaiteriteri, I was met with my first South Island disappointment. Kaiteriteri is a small town located on the outskirts of Abel Tasman National Park, a destination I was looking forward to exploring. After comparing the activity options and price points, I opted for an Aqua Taxi and guided hike through the park. The weather was perfect and my body was ready for some activity, but I soon learned there weren’t enough people signed up for the hike — it was cancelled.
There was another option though; kayaking! Now, I love kayaking and wanted to do it, but I decided against going in Kaiteriteri because I wanted to save my kayaking trip for Glacier Country instead. This was the wrong choice. At the beginning of my trip, I was advised by my bus driver to take advantage of any kayaking opportunity because it may not be available to you later. I didn’t take him up on this advice when I first heard it and I didn’t listen to my second bus driver in Kaiteriteri who tried to encourage me about it as well.
Unfortunately for me, these two guys were right! I missed out on getting into the park because I was too stubborn to alter the plans I’d settled on in my head. A word of advice, when in the South Island, find a kayak to rent or a tour to join and get into Abel Tasman. It is a beautiful park that deserves to be explored. If the weather is in your favor, go for it!
2. Glacier Hiking in Franz Josef
It’s three days later and I’m heading down the West Coast to Franz Josef, home to Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. I’ve signed up and paid for the Glacier Country kayaking. There are only three of us scheduled to go but the guides don’t seem bothered by this. The tour is a three-hour experience which includes kayaking along one of the mirror lakes and free photos of your trip. I’m dressed and ready to go when I find out — cancelled due to too much wind. Apparently it’s not as fun to kayak on a flat lake when it’s filled with white caps. Man, was I disappointed!
Although I didn’t get to do the activity I originally signed up for, several of my friends opted for the heli-hike and it was an activity I should have signed up to do instead. Franz Josef is a tiny village located in the foothills of the mountains and a short helicopter flight away from the glaciers. In addition to kayaking, another optional activity in Franz is a heli-hike to the glaciers. The tour takes you via helicopter to the top of Franz for a two-hour guided hike and ice climb followed by a relaxing visit to the hot pools and spa.
Two of my friends chose to do this activity and, after seeing their photos and hearing their stories, I realized it was something I should have opted for too. Of course, they tried to encourage me to join them (here we go again, right?), but the price point and the opportunity to kayak had me looking elsewhere. Another word of advice, do the Glacier Tour in Franz Josef! You’re likely to regret it if you don’t.
3. Sailing Lake Wanaka
I promise I loved the South Island! I don’t mean for this post to read negative. I really did enjoy my time, although a lot of it was by hanging out with friends at the local pubs… One of the things I love the most about New Zealand is all of the free hiking trails throughout the country. If there wasn’t an activity I was excited about or something was cancelled (!!), I usually found a hiking trail to travel instead. Fortunately and unfortunately, Wanaka was another missed opportunity that turned into an awesome hike!
The drive into Wanaka was easily my favorite of my whole three weeks in New Zealand. Surrounded by the Southern Alps, Wanaka is a resort town located on the southern end of its namesake lake. Our bus stopped several times throughout the drive to allow for photos and, no matter the angle, I could not capture the stunning beauty of it all. The landscape, colors, and textures alone were unlike anything I’d ever seen. When the opportunity to take a sunset cruise on the lake arrived, I jumped at it. The cruise was to include dinner, drinks, an opportunity to swim, and being on the water at sunset. However, you know where this is headed now — cancelled! This was becoming an annoying trend.
I tried to find another option to get on the water but, being a small town, there was only one boat taking guests out on the lake and it was not going out tonight. Sigh. Thankfully, I chose to hike up Mt Iron at sunset instead for 360 degree views of the mountain ranges, Wanaka, lakes and surrounding towns. I threw on my headphones, jogged some of the way, saw several wild hares, a few sheep, and a beautiful sunset. The day was not lost, especially with the 9:30pm sunset! What I should have also brought along for this hike: bug spray!
4. Canyon Swings in Queenstown
Surrounded by The Remarkables mountains, Queenstown is a year-round resort town situated on a charming lake. Many private jets fly in and out of the airport in time for ski season and summer holidaying. Nicknamed the adventure capital of the world, Queenstown is the place to do crazy things like throwing yourself over a cliff with a single cord connecting you back to a platform suspended in the air.
For once, I won’t share a cancellation story, but rather just another awesome activity I didn’t actually do. This time though, it wasn’t my stubbornness that got in my way, it was fear. After weighing all the options, it seems I’m more of a hiking, scenery, and wine kind of girl. Queenstown is home to the first commercial bungee and several other incredible adrenaline-filled activities; one of them being the Canyon Swing. I can’t say with certainty that I would ever be able to bring myself to do this, but after hearing about it from a few friends, it did seem like fun.
The Canyon Swing is as it sounds, a giant swing down into a canyon. However, this swing presents you with a free fall first before the actual swing, giving you the same sensation as a bungee but without the pull back at the end. A friend of mine who had done both the bungee and the swing said she greatly preferred the swing. Tip: Feeling adventurous in Queenstown? Do the Canyon Swing!
As for me, I found another morning hike to enjoy up Queenstown Hill. This one was moderately difficult with excellent views of The Remarkables and Queenstown. I even saw a mountain goat grazing on the path back down. That’s adventure for you!
5. Cruising through Milford Sound
Finally, an activity I actually did! And an amazing one at that! Milford Sound is a stunning fjord located within Fjord National Park, a four-hour drive from Queenstown. On this full day tour, I joined a busload of other Kiwi Experience passengers to the largest national park in New Zealand for a cruise through Milford Sound. The mountains can often be shrouded by clouds but the day featured perfectly sunny weather and a cool breeze blowing off the Tasman Sea.
My bus stopped several times throughout the drive out to allow us the chance to photograph and admire the scenery within the park including valleys, lakes, and dramatic solid granite mountains. Upon arrival into the fjord, we boarded our boat for a 1.5 hour round-trip cruise through the fjord. We passed several waterfalls, cascading cliffs, walls of vertical rock, sunning fur seals, and breathtaking views.
It was a long drive there and back but Milford is unbelievably gorgeous. It is one of the most photographed natural wonders of the world and a must-see when in New Zealand. Again, the photos barely do this gem any justice.
Whether you get to enjoy all the adventure thrills or simply spend time hiking and relaxing among the natural beauty, a trip to New Zealand would not be complete without a visit to the South Island. I hope to make it back again soon!
P.S. Don’t skip Christchurch! The city, in all its growth and rebuild, is incredibly beautiful. I loved my (too short) visit.