New Zealand is one of those places that takes your breath away on a continual basis. Its two islands are vastly different, but both intriguing in their own ways. The North is a hive of geothermal activity: volcanoes, hot springs, and hot water beaches. The South is chock full of wilderness: epic mountains, beautiful fiords, and pastureland as far as the eye can see. I spent the bulk of my time there on the South Island, and that’s where the majority of my favorite places were. So, for those keen on seeing some of the same places, here are eight of the best sights on the South Island of New Zealand.
New Zealand was one of the most beautiful countries to drive through for the scenery and the vast scale of the place.” – Louise Nurding
I did these sights in reverse, but I also started my Kiwi adventure in wee Te Anau. Most people take the ferry over from Wellington, so we’ll start at the north end of the island.
Te Pukatea Bay in Abel Tasman National Park
The Abel Tasman Trek is one of the famed Great Walks of New Zealand. I stretched the trek to four days, though most do it in three. Doing so allowed me to spend that extra day on the northern loop of the trek, which often gets skipped. The best spot, however, was where I spent my third and final night in the park: Te Pukatea. It’s up a side-trail and was personally recommended to me by the DOC staff member who helped me book the trek.
I could immediately see why she liked it so much. The beach was pristine — the forest encroaching on it as waves smoothed the iron-rich sand. To me, Te Pukatea encapsulated the essence of the Abel Tasman experience: beaches, rainforest, and solitude.
The Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki
Punakaiki surprised me. When I arrived just before sunset after a long drive up the West Coast, I hadn’t dreamt I might be tempted to stay in that tiny little place. But after a magical sunset, two days of awesome hikes, and (of course) the Pancake Rocks the town is known for, I was hooked. So when the owner of the hostel asked me if I’d like to stay on and WWOOF, I almost said yes. Almost. But I desperately needed a paying gig, and the one offered wouldn’t get me anything except free accommodation.
If you go, be sure to check out the other hikes in the area, not just the Pancake Rocks: the Truman Trek, the Pororari Trek, etc. There’s a lot to see in a relatively small area, so allow at least a couple days for exploration!
The Summit of Isthmus Peak
Isthmus Peak sits snugly between two of the South Islands most beautiful lakes: Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. The hike up it is steep and takes about six hours roundtrip. My friend Marketa and I had planned to hike Roy’s Peak that day, but after a recommendation from her coworker had decided to do Isthmus Peak instead. It was a good decision. After making a good portion of the ascent shrouded in a heavy fog, we emerged blinking into one of the most beautiful days I ever experienced in New Zealand. And the views?
The Lord of the Rings. On the list of reasons people want to go to New Zealand, that’s got to be one of the top three. It was for me, so when I realized I would be driving past the filming location for Edoras, I had to stop and check it out. The drive there is long and arduous — a 45 km haul up a truly awful gravel road. My trusty steed Te Namu made it intact, but I saw some other travelers pulled over and changing out punctured tires.
But if you can endure the journey, the destination is worth it. Mount Sunday is on private pastureland, and the surrounding mountains are the perfect place to have the realization that, “Woah, I am definitely in New Zealand right now.”
Lake Coleridge was another surprise favorite of the sights on the South Island that I visited. I didn’t even plan on staying there. To be honest, I was a bit lost, a bit tired, and a bit fed up with driving. So when I found a campsite totally off the grid and with the amazing view above, I made the tough decision to spend a night on the shores of Lake Coleridge. It was as cold as Freya’s frigid heart, and I woke up the following morning with a layer of frost on my sleeping bag and ice on the inside of my car windows. But that sunset was worth it all.
If you were to catalog New Zealand’s sights by location, the Catlins would have more jaw-droppers per square kilometer than anywhere else in the country. I spent four days driving along the Southern Scenic Route, but could easily have stretched that a few more days if I hadn’t been trying to make a flight. Cannibal Bay was one of my favorites — an absolutely gorgeous beach with sea lions aplenty and the space to enjoy it all by yourself.
Curio Bay was another Catlins highlight, and probably the most ruggedly impressive area I saw there — mainly because of the rolling surf breaking over the volcanic rocks piled along the shore. That, along with the chance to see endangered porpoises and penguins (I saw neither), make it a must see. Don’t forget to check out Porpoise Bay directly adjacent to it!
Doubtful Sound is accessed from where it all began: the little town of Te Anau. While Milford Sound is the more popular destination, it is also much, much smaller than the sprawling Doubtful Sound. Doubtful is also a bit tougher to get to — requiring an hour-long cruise up Lake Manapouri AND a bus ride before embarking on a 3-hour cruise of the Sound. But for the majestic scale of the geology, the dolphins frolicking in the swell, the rain-laden stormclouds cloaking the Shadowlands… for all of those things and more, Doubtful Sound was my favorite of the many great sights on the South Island.
There you have it! Ever been to New Zealand? Are there any sights on the South Island you’d recommend that I didn’t mention? Anything I did mention which doesn’t belong here? Share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below!