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I spent a semester studying abroad in Auckland, New Zealand in 2012. While I loved my entire time there, the highlight had to be the two weeks I spent exploring the South Island. The entire country is breathtaking, but the South Island completely blew me away.

There are so many magical places to see and things to do on the South Island of New Zealand, so I’ve compiled my favorites into a list for you.

Things to do in on New Zealand’s South Island

Explore Picton and the Malborough Sounds

If you are taking the Interislander ferry from the North to South Island, you will first arrive in the charming town of Picton. It’s the perfect introduction to New Zealand’s South Island, as it’s one of the prettiest seaside towns in the country. When you first arrive, take a stroll along the harbourfront and enjoy the incredible scenery. Picton is the gateway to the inlets and islands of the Malborough sounds, which is a beautiful area to explore.

boats in picton
Harbourfront in Picton

Wildlife Adventures in Kaikoura

The two-hour drive down the coast to Kaikoura from Picton is breathtaking. Once in Kaikoura, there are many amazing adventure activities to go on, especially for wildlife lovers.

You can join a whale watching tour (November to March) spend the afternoon hiking surrounded by beautiful viewpoints, visit a fur seal colony, and swim with dolphins. The best part is New Zealand has incredibly high standards for wildlife welfare and there are many responsible tour operators to take part in these activities with.

If wildlife isn’t your thing, there are plenty of more adventure options. Take a scenic flight over the area, go sea kayaking, rock climbing, or simply take a hike around the breathtaking scenery.

viewpoint in kaikoura

Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman National Park is a pristine wilderness reserve at the north end of the South Island, offering visitors a number of activities to do.

While visiting, take a hike along the Abel Tasman coastal trail, which will take you through some of the most beautiful golden beaches of New Zealand. The park is meant to be on the sunniest spots in New Zealand, but on the day we visited it actually rained on us! We ended up running through the park trails amidst a downpour which was a memorable experience.

abel tasman national park
Abel Tasman National Park

If you enjoy spotting wildlife, the park is home to a number of incredible species such as seals, dolphins, native birds and penguins. You can hire a water taxi to explore the turquoise waters and search for wildlife, or rent a kayak and explore the waters on your own. Abel Tasman is one of the best places to go kayaking in New Zealand given its lengthy coastlines and crystal clear waters.

Stop to Admire Punakaiki ‘Pancake Rocks’

Continuing South on your road trip from Abel Tasman National Park, stop at this unique rock formation for a road break. Formed over 30 million years ago, it’s an area of the heavily eroded limestone area where the sea bursts through several vertical blowhole. What’s left is this unique rock formation that truly looks like pancakes stacked on top of each other.

pancake rocks in new zealand

Take a Helicopter Ride up Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef glacier is one of the most beautiful glaciers in the world, and the top is now only accessible by helicopter. While pricey, taking a helicopter tour of Franz Josef glacier was one of the highlights of my time in New Zealand.

The journey starts at the glacier base in Franz Josef village where the team checks you and equips you with all the gear. From there, it’s a short walk through a forest to the heli pad. It was my first time ever in a helicopter and it was such a cool experience, soaring above the breathtaking landscapes of the mountain ranges.

The helicopter lands directly on the glacier. From there we got to hike around, exploring the incredible frozen landscape. Crawling through the narrow crevasses and walls of ice was such a cool experience (literally and figuratively). It’s something I’ll never forget and am so glad I spent the money on, despite it breaking my student budget.

helicopter coming onto glacier

Go Diving in Milford Sound

Fiordland National park is one of the most beautiful places to see on New Zealand’s South Island. While there,  take a boat cruise through Milford Sound, considered one of the top natural attractions in New Zealand.

There’s a ton of adventure to be had in Fiordland National Park. You can explore the Te Anau glowworm caves, take a scenic flight over the park, jet boat down the river, or hike to key summit. One unique adventure to do here is to go diving in Milford sound where you can see coral and fish that would otherwise only be found in deep seawater.

Another place worth checking out in Fiordland National park is the mirror lake. As the name predicts, this is a stunning lake with beautiful reflections of the mountain ranges.

Go hiking up Mt. Cook

Driving towards Mt. Cook, you’ll begin to see the gorgeous views of this epic snow-capped mountain. It’s a paradise for mountain lovers, with many day hiking opportunities. There are several campsites in the area to stay overnight, as well as lodges in Mt. Cook village.

mt cook in new zealand

 Endless Adventures in Queenstown

No New Zealand South Island road trip would be complete without Queenstown. Known as the adventure capital of the world, it is truly an adrenaline junkys’ dream with endless options of bungee, zip lining, canyoning, jet boating, skiing, snowboarding, skydiving and whatever else your heart desires. The party scene is awesome here too!

bungee jumping

Final Thoughts

I dream of returning to New Zealand someday and renting a camper van and exploring every road, inlet, and island that you can. Until then, I’ll cherish the wonderful memories I have from my time living there. If you get the chance to explore New Zealand, just go. You won’t regret it.

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