The South Island of New Zealand is an outdoor paradise fit for adventure enthusiasts and those in search of swoon-worthy landscape. Everywhere you look is a masterpiece by Mother Nature. From sweeping coastal views and stunning fjords to amazing wineries and unique wildlife, there is no shortage of things to do in New Zealand’s South Island.
Be inspired by New Zealand’s natural beauty with this list of things to do in the South Island.
Kayak in Queen Charlotte Sound
Go sea kayaking in one of New Zealand’s most iconic natural wonders. Located on the north end of the South Island, the expansive Marlborough Sound is composed of three different sounds, including Queen Charlotte.
Kayaking is one of the best ways to explore the gorgeous scenery of the sound. As you kayak, you’ll be surrounded by the stunning coastline bordered by giant cliffs and forest walls. You might spot local wildlife, too. Fur seals, stingrays, kiwi birds, herons, and dolphins have been known to make an appearance. If it’s the right time of year, orcas and other whales could be spotted as well.
Wildlife sanctuaries are located throughout the area, making this the perfect opportunity to experience bird and marine life from the region in more of the remote, protected areas reachable by kayak.
Sip Wine in the Waipara Wine Region
Situated approximately an hour north of the city of Christchurch, the Waipara wine region is a popular destination for wine lovers. The weather, in combination with its rich and unique soil, creates an ideal environment for producing fantastic wines.
Pinot noirs and rieslings are the main varieties made in this smaller portion of the larger Canterbury wine region. However, pinot gris, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc are also widely produced in the 75 wineries that the area is host to.
Sip amongst the scenery with the Pacific Ocean and the Southern Alps providing an amazing backdrop of this quickly growing wine destination. Throw in some lavender fields and olive groves, and you’re tasting top-notch wines in a real-life painting.
The region is known for its fresh, local food—a pair made in wine-making heaven. Hop on the food and wine trail (yes, there’s an actual map), and enjoy the tastes of the Canterbury Plains.
Experience the Taieri Gorge by Train
Perhaps the perfect day trip from the South Island city of Dunedin on the east coast, the Taieri Gorge Railway is an incredible way to experience the natural beauty of the Otago area. The route stretches from Dunedin to Pukerangi and features diverse and beautiful landscapes in the natural gorge formed by the Taieri River.
A portion of the journey travels on the same route of the 19th century Otago Central Railway. Information about the region is provided along the train ride, highlighting important and educational facts about points of interest that you’re viewing.
Traverse amazing scenery, including gorges, viaducts, valleys, and some of the more remote regions you can only see via train. Feel the wind rush by you as you snap photos on the open-air balconies of the beautiful landscapes you’re whizzing through. This is an unforgettable South Island experience.
Marvel at Milford Sound
Visiting the South Island’s most iconic destination will leave you breathless. On the southwestern coast, Milford Sound is a natural wonder and bucket-list item for most. Towering mountains, abundant waterfalls, wildlife, and postcard-perfect Fiordland scenery is all part of this experience, which is one of the most incredible things to do on New Zealand’s South Island.
Traverse the fjords carved by ancient glaciers and marvel at what is considered the “eighth wonder of the world.” Bottle-nosed dolphins, fur seals, and possibly even penguins are some of the wildlife you might encounter along the way.
Some highlights you’ll see are the impressive Mitre Peak, Bowen Falls, and Stirling Falls. The waterfalls are even more picturesque—and powerful—in the rain.
Zip Through the Southern Alps
Hop aboard an express train through the gorgeous Southern Alps and get ready to be wowed. Running between Christchurch on the east and Greymouth on the west, this journey showcases some of the most striking and diverse landscapes the South Island offers.
Massive mountain giants, beech forests, rivers, and vast plains are just some of the exciting highlights you’ll be able to feast your eyes on throughout this train trip. Wind through the iconic Arthur’s Pass, gaze upon gorges, valleys, and the beautiful Waimakariri River.
Experience all of this from the comfort of a smooth train ride with panoramic windows made specifically for visitors to take in as much scenery as possible. A selection of open carriages allows you to snap photographs or simply absorb the fresh air along with the stunning landscape, too.
Spot Wildlife in Otago Harbor
Dunedin’s picturesque harbor is a haven for seabirds, making it a fantastic destination for wildlife enthusiasts. Exploring the area by boat will give you the opportunity to spot seals, dolphins, penguins, and many sea birds like albatrosses and cormorants in their natural habitat.
The tip of the Otago Peninsula, in Taiaroa Head, is home to the world’s only mainland breeding colony of Royal Albatross. Observing them here is a very unique experience to New Zealand’s South Island. Watch as they take off, their massive wingspan spreading as they fly across the water. The Otago Peninsula is one of the iconic spots to visit on the South Island, sure to deliver a memorable experience.
See the Famous Moeraki Boulders
About an hour north of Dunedin, you’ll find the massive Moeraki Boulders on the beach in Oamaru. Seeing these round giants in person is one of the more popular things to do in the South Island due to their unique appearance and location. They were formed over 60 million years ago and are now resting within a protected area of the beach. Most weigh several tons, and the largest stretch over six feet wide.
The boulders are tied to ancient Maori folklore involving the origin of the stones from gourds and remains of a legendary canoe that washed ashore. Visiting in the early morning or just before sunset provides ample opportunity for taking some beautiful photos.
Find Serenity in Doubtful Sound
The second-longest and deepest fjord in New Zealand’s South Island awaits to impress you with its sheer natural beauty. Doubtful Sound in the Fiordland region is also referred to as the “Sound of Silence” due to its peaceful and serene atmosphere.
It may not be as well-known as the nearby Milford Sound, but it offers a more off-the-beaten-path feeling with many of the same features, such as waterfalls, flora, fauna, and wildlife. Waterfall highlights include Helena Falls, which cascades over 700 feet, and Browne Falls, tumbling over 2,000 feet.
While enjoying Doubtful Sound, you may just spot local bottlenose dolphins, penguins, and fur seals. If you’re lucky, you might even get to see the rare Fiordland crested penguins. If you’re in search of a more remote New Zealand fjord, Doubtful Sound will have you feeling like you’ve got the place to yourself.
Bike Along the Golden Mile
Much like the Hawke’s Bay wine region on the North Island of New Zealand, it’s ideal to travel on two wheels through the gorgeous vineyards of the Marlborough wine region. Referred to as the “Golden Mile,” this bike trail allows you to vineyard hop at your leisure through breathtaking landscapes in the northern region of the South Island.
Make sure to try the region’s world-renowned sauvignon blanc and pinot noir; after all, that cycling will make you thirsty. This part of the island is known for having fantastic weather, the perfect accompaniment to your idyllic bike ride through the stunning countryside. Pair a meal of locally sourced ingredients with your favorite wine produced in Marlborough for an afternoon well spent in the sunshine.
Zip Line in Christchurch
Although the western city of Queenstown is known as the “Adventure Capital of the World,” there’s plenty of adrenaline rush to be had in the eastern (and largest) city of Christchurch. Score a bird’s-eye view of the city and surrounding area as you zip through the Adventure Park via the highest and longest ziplines in New Zealand.
The adventure begins with a chairlift ride up to the zip line course, where you’ll embark on your flying endeavor after getting harnessed in. The series of four zip lines will have you catching an exciting thrill as you soar above the trees. On a clear day, you might be able to see as far as the Southern Alps. If you’re up for a little healthy competition, the park even has a dual zip line section where you can race a friend or family member.
Try Local Beer at Speight’s Brewery
The well-known Speight’s Brewery is an iconic Dunedin establishment which has been running since the late 1800s. It snags the award for the oldest continually operating brewery in New Zealand. If you like beer and history, this is one of the best things to do in New Zealand’s South Island.
Tour the brewery to learn about its backstory, ingredients, and production, then taste the different varieties to find your favorite. You may even have the chance to try your hand at “pulling a beer” the proper way.
Speight’s Ale House also offers delicious bites to eat that pair well with your brew of choice, all of which are on tap for a delicious tasting experience. Make sure to try the Gold Medal Ale, the most well-known of their brews.
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