South Island Highlights – Top 5 places to visit on South Island, New Zealand

Reflecting on our incredible New Zealand 2012 Holiday on the South island back in Sept/Oct (as part of our year long stay in New Zealand) I have decided to start a series of blog posts with a ‘Top 5’ theme – highlighting our favourite places, drives, activities etc. from our trip around South Island.

I am starting with the biggest one of all – top 5 places to visit on the South island. This was extremely difficult to actually narrow down to only 5 as we travelled round the whole of the South island (driving over 3,700 kilometeres in just over 3 weeks!) visting some truly stunning and amazing places. They aren’t in any order as it was difficult enough choosing just 5 let alone putting them in an order of priority!

So here we go. . .

Top 5 places we visited:

1. Queenstown

Queenstown has always been a place we love to visit. Having been here once before in 2006 if we are honest it stole our hearts. Coming back to Queenstown and spending longer on this trip was just brilliant. It does have a reputaion as being the ‘adventure capital’ of NZ but there is so much more to it! We love its breathtaking beauty and the stunning Lake Wakatipu and views of the Remarkables. Taking a walk along the Frankton Arm Walkway is so peaceful and idyllic, with amazing views of the lake and mountains all the way along. You can take a boat ride out on the lake, see kiwis and other native birds at the Kiwi Park, take a stroll in the beautiful gardens, take a ride up the Skyline Gondola to Bob’s Peak and complete the Skyline walkway. It does have so much to do, lots of shops and choices of places to eat, along with every adventure activity you could think of – but it has so much more than that. Its striking beauty and gorgeous neverending views make it a really special place and has to be a must-see on any tour of South Island.

2. Glenorchy

Sitting just 48 kilometres north of Queenstown it could be described as Queenstown’s quieter less well-known relative. In reality Glenorchy is an absolute hidden gem of a place to visit. We primarily went there for our LOTR 4WD tour, but ended up falling in love with the place! It is known primarily for its associations with the LOTR/The Hobbit films as many of the surrounding locations were used as sets in the films – the Misty Mountains, Isengard, Hobbiton (from The Hobbit), and the scene of Boromir’s death among many others  Glenorchy is a really peaceful little town, but still with lots to offer. We spent a lovely morning walking the Glenorchy Lagoon walkway which offers brilliant panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. Glenorchy houses a quant information shed with a long history and short pier out into Lake Wakatipu again with a stunning views. It is also home to a small place aptly named ‘Paradise’ – which feels like just that! Should you wish to you can also do more adventure seeking activities such as a jet boat on the Dart River or Skydive through the clouds. The icing on the cake for Glenorchy has to be the drive up from Queenstown which is a strong contender for best drive in NZ! The famous Glenorchy to Queenstown road closely follows Lake Wakatipu and with lookout points along the way offering an excellent way of seeing the beauty all around.

3. Catlins Region

The real highlight of the Catlins region for us was seeing yellow-eyed penguins in the wild (see our video we made above, of our wonderful memories)! We had read a lot about the Catlins region before we came, and often people said they felt it was a somewhat well-kept secret of NZ and that many people wanted to visit but just didn’t get down this far south. It is a little out of the way, but for us, fitted perfectly into our complete loop of the island. I would highly recommend a visit into this remote part of the South island, and it is definitely worth the trip. It just has such variety to offer, with wonderful wildlife! The roads are much less travelled on and some are still gravel but do not let that put you off, our little Holden Barina Spark managed just fine and it added to the experience of getting there! You should set aside at least 3 days to explore the whole Catlins regions, as it lends itself to a ‘roadtrip’ type journey. We based ourselves in Curio Bay for 2 nights and Kaka Point for 1 night. It is definitely prone to pretty wild weather but it suits the landscape and creates a pretty special atmosphere. Just a few of the highlights for us were Waipapa Lighthouse, seeing penguins in the wild at the petrified forest at Curio Bay, the very photogenic Purakaunui Falls, and Nugget Point lighthouse. At other times of year you might also see blue penguins and dolphins playing in the surf along some of the beaches. We weren’t able to visit the more well-known Cathedral Caves as they were closed, but we hope to go back in future and see them, as we would love to go back to this beautiful area. Catlins, despite often being missed off many a South Itinerary, offer such a vast and varied range of wonderful landscapes – wild beaches, amazing wildlife, quaint lighthouses and stunning waterfalls – that they simply have to be visited!

4. Marlborough Sounds

Marlborough Sounds was a bit of a mystery to us before coming, as despite reading and researching a fair amount about it we still did not really know what to expect. Many people said it was absolutely fantastically beautiful and it really did not disappoint! We spent a really special time here as we celebrated my husband’s 30th birthday on board a privately chartered boat – where we saw gorgeous dolphins and wonderful views. The Queen Charlotte Drive – again which we had read much about – was a beautiful drive with views at every corner. It is quite a challenging drive, but definitely worthwhile. There were lots of little stops and bays along this road – with Governor’s Bay being our favourite – and this area offer such beauty. Picton forms the entry point for those getting the ferry from Wellington, and it and its surrounding area are really pretty. Marlborough Sounds offers tranquility, wildlife and beauty quite unrivalled!

5. Mount Cook

Mount Cook was a place we had longed to visit – it seemed so dominant and striking on the New Zealand landscape. So when we got the chance to spend 2 nights at Mount Cook village we made the most of every second. As my top 5 drives post (coming soon) will note the drive up to Mount Cook alongside the stunning Lake Pukaki is absolutely amazing! The view alongside the lake of Mount Cook are breathtaking. As you arrive in Mount Cook you do feel a little cut off, but it is a nice feeling. With only a small population and a focus very much on tourism and hospitality the village has a lovely warm and welcoming feel to it. As any local resident will tell you the weather is quite temperamental in this part of NZ. Being quite high above sea level the vlllage is prone to unpredictable weather, and I think the stats are 2 days out of 3 Mount Cook is covered with cloud. But do not be put off by these stats as when you do finally get to see it, it is such a wonderful sight! They also get snow and we had a nice sprinkling whilst we were staying there back in October. There are many lovely walks around the Mount Cook area – some shorter ones for those not keen on proper ‘hiking’ but also some longer half-day and day hikes for those more serious. Activities are also varied include 4WDing and a boat trip out on the glacier lagoon (which we did – and loved). Mount Cook provided us with some iconic images and iconic memories and will not soon be forgotten.

Places that could have made the list (but didn’t for quite specific reasons) are:

  • Abel Tasman National Park – we only took a flying visit here, and spent a half day exploring the coast via boat, but think if we spent longer here, this could make the list. The beaches are gorgeous (especially the starting point of Kaiteriteri) and walking the Abel Tasman Track seemed like it would be one of NZ’s easiest but most beautiful walks. It is very accessible and has lots of little hidden coves and stunning views. So definitely a place to come back to should we have time!
  • Doubtful Sound – one place we visited on this holiday that was a huge disappointment – but only because of the awful weather! See my blog posting of the time for more detail, but had the weather not consisted of almost complete lack of visibility and torrential rain we think this could also have made the list.
  • Milford Sound – we visited Milford Sound back in 2006 so haven’t included it on this 2012 list – but it was absolutely amazing and would make a top 5 of that trip. The drive down is scary but really worth it with stunning scenery and the boat trip out (we went with the smaller Mitre Peak cruises) was incredibly memorable.
  • Franz Josef Glacier – again a place we visited on our 2006 trip, but the heli hike we took up on the glacier is probably still our favourite all time thing we have done in NZ. We took our trip with Helicopter Line who were fantastic and loved every second of the helicopter ride and 2 hour hike on the glacier – with views out of this world!

I hope you have found this interesting – and those of you hoping to travel around NZ possibly even helpful! Please feel free to comment, ask questions and add any of your favourite places you visit in NZ. I will be following this post next with Top 5 drives, walks, and activities, so watch this space!

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Categories: Activities, New Zealand, Top 5 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

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14 thoughts on “South Island Highlights – Top 5 places to visit on South Island, New Zealand

  1. Oh WOW! These scenes are absolutely stunning!! I’ve long wanted to visit NZ, I even have a cousin living in North Island – so there isn’t really any excuse not to go! It’s a great idea that you have to make a “Top 5” list of activities/places, although I agree with you in general terms that it is often very difficult to pick a Top 5!!

    • Thanks very much! You should definitely visit – especially if you have family over here. Make sure you go and explore the South Island if you do visit. Have just finished my next Top 5 – Things to do! 🙂

  2. Claire

    Amazing pictures, was it easy to find work in NZ with working holiday visas?

    • Thank you for your comment and glad you like the photos. Finding work very much depends on what you do – there are quite a lot of casual jobs around in touristy places (like Queenstown etc.) – particularly at this time of year which is peak season. My husband is a software developer with lots of experience so applied for a job one day, had an interview the next and started the following day! I am not sure if that is normal in all industries though!

  3. Wow the South Island sounds amazing! I’ve never been as my family live in Auckland but we’re hoping to go on a working visa towards the end of the year. Your photos are amazing! If we do go, we’ll definitely spend time in the South Island! X

    • Thank you – I’m glad you like my photos. You should definitely come to South Island! As much as I love the North island, I feel South island is much more scenic. There is just so much to see and do (we have done it all!), and I know loads of great off-the-beaten-track gems! If you do find you plan to travel over here then I run a company called Blue Penguin Travel (www.bluepenguintravel.com) that helps travellers such as yourselves plan amazing itineraries for travelling around New Zealand so feel free to get in touch. Thanks again for stopping by! 🙂

  4. Ah, such beautiful scenes from NZ. Makes us want to go back – ASAP!

  5. Looks fabulous! Many thanks for the follow 🙂

  6. I love your traveling experience. What a beautiful country New Zealand! You should check my blog to discover some very different landscapes in Ecuador. Cheers!

  7. Thanks for following my blog. I look forward to reading all your posts about New Zealand, as it is one our favorite places! We have visited several times and hope to again if we are able to visit our son in Australia next fall.

    • You are welcome. Isn’t New Zealand just an amazing country? It is one of our favourite places too. You are lucky to have visited several times and I hope you enjoy your next trip there when you visit your son in Oz 🙂

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