Top 10 Favorite Places in New Zealand’s South Island

Top 10 New Zealand’s South Island

Want to know the best places to spend your time when in New Zealand’s South Island?

Lochmara pole carvingsAfter completing a trip of a lifetime, we are excited to share our favorites. Four and a half weeks in New Zealand’s South Island, and we can show you mountaintops, snow, beaches, oceans, wineries, seafood, varied history and culture.

This is the first article in a series on the top places to visit in New Zealand, Australia, and the Pacific South Seas. Since there is so much to share, this first article will give an overview of our top 10 favorite places in New Zealand’s South Island. It will be followed by more in-depth information and photos about each of the top places we recommend and others, as well as those to avoid that are over-hyped.

  1. Christchurch, Akaroa and Hanmer Springs

Landing in Christchurch, we saw a beautiful, creative, modern city rebuilding after a devastating 2011 earthquake, and quite innovatively coming back. Front facade of the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch Innovations like the temporary cardboard cathedral, and the shipping containers set up as a mall for temporary stores and eateries are quite imaginative and worth a look when visiting New Zealand’s South Island.

Hanmer Springs overlookHanmer Springs is a lovely town with a nice hike, overlooks, and a hot springs complex with many pools of different temperatures and sizes, a spa, a lap pool and water slides for the kids. You can spend a day relaxing, swimming, having fun or just a couple of hours to soothe your sore muscles from hiking.  Take the beautiful hike to the top of the mountain overlooking the town and surrounding countryside.  Hanmer Springs has some excellent restaurants, too. We ate at and loved Malabar; although on the expensive side, they serve excellent creative Asian food well worth the price.

Hanmer Springs is just 90 minutes from Christchurch, so go as a day trip or stay overnight.  Check it out:

Akaroa is on the Banks Peninsula approximately 90 minutes from Christchurch; it was  a French settlement on the eastern shore, south of Christchurch.  A quiet beach town, Akaroa is built on terraces around the harbour.  Its sea life, seafood, and scenery make it worth a visit.

You can do all 3 completely in 5 nights and 6 days – 2 days in Christchurch, 1 day in Hanmer Springs, 2 days in Akaroa, with 1 day for travel.

2. Southern Alps

Other Countryside Views in New Zealand’s South Island

Southern Alps Tranzalpine RailwayExploring the countryside traveling through the Southern Alps by train in New Zealand’s South Island is a great way to see the gorgeous views; or you can see the countryside while driving.  We took the Kiwi TranzAlpine Railway – great way to travel – to see the Southern Alps.  See our next article to learn more about the Kiwi TranzAlpine Railway on New Zealand’s South Island.  Two to three nights is enough if you  are taking the TranzAlpine; stay in Arthur’s Pass 1 night and hike.  Then take the train to Moana and stay at Lake Brunner.  There are 2 choices from here, go on to Greymouth and rent a car or take a bus, or take the TranzAlpine back to Christchurch and continue your journey from there.

We also drove through the north central part of the South Island, as well as around the coastal area.

Have a look:

3. Abel Tasman – Harwoods Hole and the northern coast of New Zealand’s South Island

What a pleasure to drive through the mountains of New Zealand’s South Island to Abel Tasman National Park from Christchurch, and treated to the incredible views.  Abel Tasman National Park is one of New Zealand’s biggest tourist destinations, for beaches, trekking, and water activities.  It is adjacent to the Kahurangi National Park, another stunning place to hike or just take a short walk, and visit the overlooks.  Some of the great films like Hobbit and Lord of the Rings had scenes filmed in these areas. Just enter the woods and imagine the scenes.

There is so much to do here if you love the outdoors, or just want to hang out on different beaches.  We hiked in forests and along coastal tracks with great sea views, relaxed on the mountain sides, and dipped our toes in the icy fresh waterways and the crystal clear aqua ocean.  A visit to Abel Tasman should be 2-4 nights.

  1. North West Coast

New Zealand’s South Island West Coast is wet, wild and picturesque with seascapes, birds, and incredible rock Operara Basin Arch Karameaformations.  Few people visit the northern west coast, as there is just 1 road in and out that is accessed from Westport, New Zealand.  Travel there to be treated to wild oceanfront views on your way to the quaint town of Karamea.  While visiting Karamea, there are several hikes from the ocean front and inland to the Oparara Basin, a natural beauty of a rock formation.

Going South from Westport, stop to see the beauty that is Pancake Rocks; take the short coast trail.

Then stop in quaint Greymouth to go to the beach and visit local galleries for the Pounamu, Greenstone or Jade of the indigenous Maori people.

  1. Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef GlacierWhile on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, spend a day and a night or two in Franz Josef or Fox Glacier – a smaller area, see the glaciers, and partake in many of the sporting options in and around the glaciers. Some people head to Mount Cook, another option, but it was too far off our route. Stay tuned for an upcoming post on the fabulous things to do in Franz Josef!

  1. Haast and Mount Aspiring


Haast and Mount Aspiring are only 30 minutes apart, and present striking coastal and mountain views, offering various walks, hikes, waterfalls and more.  Staying between the two makes it easy to visit each by car.  Three nights will allow you to do many of the hikes around Haast, go to Jackson Bay, the fishing village at the end of the beach road, get in some trout fishing or visiting Wanaka and the lakes, and hiking in Mount Aspiring.

  1. Milford Sound

Milford Sound“A fusion of spectacular natural features. […]Described by Rudyard Kipling as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, Milford Sound was carved by glaciers during the ice ages.”

We stayed in Te Anau, a small town about 1.5 hours from Milford Sound on New Zealand’s South Island.  Trips access Milford Sound from Queenstown as well, which is 3 hours from Milford Sound, and much more crowded and touristy than Te Anau.  One to two nights is all that’s needed to see Milford Sound, and staying for three allows more time to visit the farms, lake, bird sanctuary, or just relax in the beauty of Te Anau.

  1. Stewart Island

Visit the southernmost land mass closest to Antarctica, New Zealand’s third Island, Stewart Island.  Few people, including New Zealanders, ever go that far south to absorb the wild beauty.  Over 85% of it is national park, and it is the place to go for birdwatching and hiking.  Some people go for 1 night, and 3 nights at a minimum is best to see the birdlife, go to Ulva Island, visit the beaches, do the hikes, and the overlooks.

  1. Catlins and Otago

These two areas are located on the southeastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island with scenic coastal landscapes, and endangered birds like the yellow-eyed penguin and the little blue penguin.  Start in the Catlins from Bluff and drive north. After the Catlins, continue a bit further north to the Otago Peninsula, east of Dunedin, where you’ll be treated to more natural beauty, hikes with incredible overlooks, giant sand dunes leading to wild ocean beaches with cathedral rock formations. See albatross and the little blue penguins in Otago. Four nights between these two areas provides time to see a lot, but six nights is preferred.

  1. Picton

Since the coastal road was closed due to the earthquake, we turned in our rental car and flew to Nelson from Dunedin. Nelson is on the North coast of New Zealand’s South Island.  Nelson is a big town with lots to offer, but since we did not stay I can‘t comment on it.  Once the road is open, I believe going to Kaikoura, on the northern east coast of the South Island would also be a highlight, but we skipped it due to the earthquake damage.  An alternative to flying back to the northern coast of the South Island is a flight to Blenheim, which is closer to Picton.

Picton was our destination for the Marlborough Sound, Picton Seaside Town and the ferry to the North Island.  Driving from Nelson to Picton is Havelock and the famous Mussel Pot Restaurant and Cafe.  It was on my list, and a wonderful stop with great seafood!

Picton is a picturesque coastal town in the Marlborough Sound region near the Queen Charlotte Track, and the base for the ferry services between the North and South Islands.  With lots of sea related activities, and sea views, wineries, as well as forest and coastal hiking, swimming and seaside eateries, you’ll have too many wonderful activities from which to choose – Dolphin eco tours, fishing, birding, beachcomber cruises, Mail Boat Cruise and Queen Charlotte Track hike, kayaking on the Marlborough Sound, wilderness tours, boat safaris, diving, and more.  Spending four or more nights between Nelson, Picton and Blenheim would make a nice holiday in this region.

We spent 4.5 weeks on New Zealand’s South Island and it was not enough time to partake in all of the activities and see all the sights.  Some people would say go to Queenstown and Nelson; go there if you prefer built up touristy expensive areas offering lots of extreme sports. We preferred the more natural environments in the sights listed above.

Over the next 3 months, I will provide more in-depth information about each of the areas and the various activities, worthwhile trips and excursions to choose from.  So travel with us vicariously or use our insights to help plan your own trip to New Zealand.  Watch for our article next week on one of New Zealand’s premier excursions, and one on accommodations (in the interim check out how we choose accommodations).

Subscribe to this blog (on the top right corner of this page); don’t miss the details of New Zealand’s South Island, North Island, Australia, Vanuatu and Fiji.

14 thoughts on “Top 10 Favorite Places in New Zealand’s South Island

    • There will be lots more in coming posts on New Zealand. It’s a gorgeous place and so tourist friendly! So diverse. Donna – make it happen.

  1. Great information! We are in the process of planning a New Zealand trip right now, so your timing is perfect! I’m looking forward to future installments.

    • Thanks, there will be likely at least 10 or more post on NZ. Working on the next one right now. When are you going?

  2. I’ve been to quite a few of these places although I’ve never managed to make it to the glaciers or to Stewart Island. The one place I’d like to spend more time in is Abel Tasman Park – it’s a spectacularly beautiful place.

    • We loved Abel Tasman too. Even with 7 weeks in NZ, we found that 4 nights was a good amount of time in Abel Tasman. If I was simply vacationing there, it would be nice to relax for a week or two at Abel Tasman. However, I would not choose the extra time and leave out the Glaciers and Stewart Island – both special in different ways.

  3. Wendy, I loved my New Zealand visit ( and re-visit thanks to this post). That Abel Tasman beach is absolutely stunning. One of my all-time favourites, which is saying something since our Pacific Northwest beaches are pretty spectacular, too.
    Thanks for bringing back so many marvellous New Zealand memories. Time I went back! 🙂 Great pix, too.

  4. I had no idea the diversity of activities in New Zealand’s South Island! And your photos are spectacular. I’ll be back on your site if I even am lucky enough to visit. I love travel blogs; they give me so many ideas!!

    • Thanks! And this is just some of them. I will be writing about all of the different activities in more detail over the next 4 months. I hope you’ll follow.

    • Thank you! While we are baby boomers and my husband is retired, I still work. Even though we call it ‘’ the blog seems to appeal to all ages. It may be because on some of our adventures, we are the oldest by far. Some of our adventures are food, art, or culturally related, or less strenuous.

  5. Pingback: Franz Josef New Zealand - Glacier Country Experiences off the GlacierAdventurous Retirement

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