Our Top Ten Favourite South Island Destinations

Publishing this post in August 2022, over twelve months since we left New Zealand, feels odd. Nonetheless, we feel it’s worth sharing and hope you’ll agree …

Having anticipated an extended exploration of Te Waipounamu/The South Island of New Zealand for many years, we were delighted to discover an array of amazing places in late 2020 and early 2021. Some locations we’d heard of and longed to experience first-hand. Others were destinations we found along the way – generally recommended by fellow travellers.

It’s been a challenge to choose our Top Ten. And we’ve cheated a little, as you’ll see. However, a few friends have messaged asking for recommendations, so I shared the (very) rough draft I’d started before we left Aotearoa. It’s now way past time to expand that and polish our treasured memories for others who may be interested.

Our 2021 Top Ten Favourite South Island Destinations

1/ Aoraki/Mount Cook & Surrounds

Top of the list, without a doubt, for me, was Aoraki/Mount Cook. If you weren’t aware, following the settlement between Ngāi Tahu and the Crown in 1998, the name was officially changed from Mount Cook to Aoraki / Mount Cook to incorporate its historic Māori name.

We parked up late one evening, having waited for a weather window, at White Horse Hill Campground – a fabulous spot. The night sky was surreal, crystal clear, with shimmering stars and a moonbow on our first night.

The Hooker Valley Track leads from the campground and was out of this world. We didn’t quite time the sunrise aspect as well as we hoped (we’re not great at early rising!), but it didn’t matter. No photographs could show the spectacular beauty and sense of human smallness as the real thing did. I covet the job of taking the loo roll up every day or so to the toilet about halfway along the track!

Three enormous swing bridges thrill or terrify you depending on your disposition – and the strength and direction of the wind. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear distant rumbles of avalanches from Mount Sefton. You’ll witness spectacular views across Mueller Lake. Along the way, it’s hard not to be delayed by beautiful flora and fauna – especially in the early morning frost.

Some time into the walk, you’ll be blown away by the first sight of the magnificent maunga. Then become speechless at the sight of giant icebergs floating in the glacier lake. Akin to a scene from the movie Frozen. Don’t rush this part if possible. We stayed to gaze and soak up the sublime atmosphere for hours.

I’d also highly recommend visiting the DOC centre in Mount Cook village and the Old Mountaineers Cafe, whose owners had a long history of angst to finally open. I bought and subsequently devoured the book written by Charlie Hobbs’ wife, Mary, about their long battle to open the restaurant in the face of fierce opposition by The Hermitage and DOC.

This whole area has an incredible sense of peace and purpose. Check out our blog post, which includes Barry’s slideshow of our visit – Magnificent Mount Cook (yes, I know! I didn’t name it correctly last year …)

2/ Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise (& Milford Sound)

Our second favourite destination would undoubtedly (pun intended!) be the Doubtful Sound overnight cruise we did with Real Journeys. We heard about this from two lovely people who stopped to chat with us at another favourite place below – Monkey Island. They told us Milford Sound is stunning and generally in every NZ tourist’s top ten, but Doubtful Sound surpasses it. They were not wrong.

We chose a shared room with four bunk beds – mainly because that was all that was available when I looked a few weeks in advance. Also, it’s much cheaper. We shared with Ben and Jenny, who live near Glenorchy and run Dart River Adventures in association with Ngāi Tahu Tourism. 

I kayaked in the Sound on the first day while Barry took photos from the Fjiorland Navigator. We ate delicious food and learnt about the area and history. The crew were incredible – helpful, knowledgeable and friendly. Everyone was ecstatic to watch a pod of dolphins when the captain took us out into the Tasman Sea briefly.

On the evening of our night stay, we docked in one of the Sounds. It was eerily dark. Pitch black. The only sounds (pun intended!) were the noises of the night. The following morning I was up early to watch the anchor raised – still in the dark.

On the way to the base at Deep Cove, we moored in one of the Sounds, and everything was turned off. People were asked not to use cameras or phones for a while but just listen to the sound of silence. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Milford Sounds is also worth mentioning; just the road there is incredible to witness. The Homer Tunnel is a humbling story of resilience in itself. Before the tunnel opened in 1954, after 19 years of construction, there was no road access to Milford Sound. We’d recommend booking with Southern Discoveries to get the underwater observatory experience in addition to the cruise.

Check out our blog post, which includes Barry’s slideshow of our visits – Feeling Tearful At Doubtful Sound and Travelling The Te Anau to Milford Highway

3/ Stewart Island & The Rakiura Track

Stewart Island had been on my list of places to visit since I first spent time in NZ in 2001. It’s quite a journey to get there with limited access. Either by ferry or plane. Both of which can be rather bumpy, to say the least! Fortunately, our ferry journeys both ways were smooth.

I’d booked us on the Rakiura Track, one of NZ’s Ten Great Walks. Not one of the most popular, which is why I was able to book so late. However, by the time I did, accommodation choices were limited. We, fortunately, found a room for the first two and the last two nights at Stewart Island Backpackers. What a fabulous place. Comfortable rooms, welcoming and helpful staff, central location, heaps of information, every facility you could wish for, and we met many lovely people.

We visited Ulva Island (twice – once on an organised tour and once by ferry on our last morning).

The bird song was prolific. The infamous quiz night at the pub was brilliant (compared by the resident bobby!). And the sense of community spirit we felt from everyone we met was wonderful.

The Rakiura Track was an experience never to be forgotten – despite the trauma of me getting lost on day three. I’d wholeheartedly recommend it – many people even get to see a kiwi or two in the flesh. Generally, when you’re least expecting to and don’t have a camera at the ready! There are around 4,000 kiwis and about 400 people on the island – so the chance is higher than in most places in NZ.

The white-tailed deer were beautiful. It saddens me greatly that they’re seen as a pest and hunted. It wasn’t their fault idiots brought them to the islands for sport – and they thrived!

Sadly, my luck wasn’t in. However, I paid NZ$100 to tour with Beaks and Feathers (the prices are NZ$125 now) to the airport runway and managed to glimpse an adult and a chick, separately, albeit a distance away. The photos I took were appalling. If you ‘like’ the Stewart Island Backpackers Facebook page, there are frequent sightings and postings there, which always thrill me. Watch the video post from 18th January 2022 of a large brown kiwi looking like it wants to check in …

Check out our four blog posts from this unique place, which include Barry’s slideshows of our visit – Stewart Island – Our First Two Days, Our Rakiura Track Adventure – Days One And Two, A Scary Wrong Turn On The Rakiura Track, Exploring Rakiura’s Villages, Bays and Islands.

4/ The South West Corner

4/ The southwest corner. Oh. My. Goodness. This was never on our radar. I doubt many tourists know about this stunning area – maybe that’s a good thing? If I lived there, I wouldn’t be promoting it – part of its beauty is its isolation and seemingly happy welcoming people.

Places like Colac Bay/Ōraka. Monkey Island/Te Puka o Takitimu. Gemstone Beach (I literally had to force myself off this on my second visit!). Orepuki and its terrific Tavern. Tuatapere – another awesome Tavern and purportedly the sausage capital of NZ. Clifden Suspension Bridge. Each one with its individual attractions. And many with superb free campgrounds for a campervan – or tent even. Including the luxury, to us, of flushing toilets.

Oh! I almost forgot – we also walked our variation of The Humpridge Track. It’s not one of ‘the’ Great Wlaks, but it should be. We heard about it from a couple we met at Monkey Island and did it mainly to see the historic viaducts. We bypassed the steep incline to the top, sadly. But still got a lot of enjoyment from the track. We stayed in the DOC accommodation for two nights rather than the more costly (but more comfortable) Humpridge Track organised walks (which would’ve been booked up by the time we discovered it).

I can’t possibly share every gem (another intended pun!) from this remote location – check out our blog posts from these links, which include Barry’s slideshows of our visit – The Southland Scenic Route Monkey Island to Clifden Suspension Bridge, History On The Hump Ridge Track

5/ The Wild West Coast

The West Coast was another area we’d both longed to experience. One you definitely don’t arrive at by accident, but by intention. For early settlers, the ONLY way to get here was to risk an extremely precarious boat trip. Many didn’t make it.

We especially loved Kohaihai and the DOC Campground at the top of the navigable road – though not the voracious infamous sandflies we encountered for the first time there.

We were astounded by the azure blues of the Hokitika Gorge. And the natural geological formations of Punakaiki (aka Pancake Rocks) were a sight to behold. Our two visits to Lake Matheson, one at dawn to get the best reflections on the calm lake surface, were magnificent.

Finally, we adored the remoteness and history of Jackson Bay (thanks to the brother of a friend who allowed us to park up and camp on the drive of their seasonal whitebait fish factory).

Check out our blog posts which include Barry’s slideshow of our visit – Exploring Past And Present In Hector And Kohaihai, Kohaihai To Westport And Cape Foulwind, Haast to Jackson Bay And Beyond

6/ The South East Corner – The Catlins

Another area we’d not heard of. Blimey, how naive we were!

Our friends Rod and Tracey had booked a holiday in The Catlins over easter. So we planned our itinerary around them and parked up (with the owner’s permission) on the drive of their rental place for a couple of nights. Afterwards, we explored more of the area together and loved it.

Places that stand out are the lighthouse walk to Nugget Point. The towering Cathedral Caves (make sure to check the tide times!). Curio Bay and the petrified forest (again, check the tide times), where we just missed sighting yellow-eyed penguins waddling to shore. And spending time chilling with seals at Cannibal Bay. It was absolutely amazing.

Check out our blog posts which include Barry’s slideshows of our visit – Fun With Friends and Wildlife In The Catlins, Continuing Our Catlins Adventures, Entranced By The Catlins Heritage Trail

7/ The Otago & Banks Peninsulas

Next is a place I visited in July 2002, on my first extended stay in New Zealand. I’d been at a New Zealand College of Midwives Conference and, along with a couple of colleagues, stayed afterwards to explore the Otago Penninsula.

Barry and I witnessed dozens of little blue penguins returning to their nests, following a look through binoculars at the albatrosses nearby. These incredible creatures mate for life, and spend an unbelievable length of time in flight. We witnessed three ‘teenagers’ in a kind of courting ritual which Barry managed to capture.

We travelled twice to the Banks Peninsula. Once in November 2020, returning in the campervan in May 2021. Akaroa and Little Akoloa are such pretty places, retaining their longstanding French roots admirably.

Check out our blog posts which include Barry’s slideshows of our visit – Adorable Dunedin Buildings People Albatrosses and Penguins, Re-Visiting Christchurch and Banks Peninsula

8/ The Vanished World Trail & St Bathans

I doubt there are many, if any, overseas tourists who say, “I’d like to visit the Vanished World Trail“. To be fair, it’s unlikely any kiwis would either! We only discovered it by reading a sign on the side of the road and set off to find it before it disappeared.

Wow! We were so thankful we did. The rock formations were astounding – it was around these parts that some of Narnia’s Chronicles were filmed. It’s definitely like something out of a story.

Then there were the Omarama Clay Cliffs nearby – oh my days. Nature is fascinating. How does she decide to form such fascinating structures of tall pinnacles? Well, apparently from the flow from ancient glaciers over a million years ago.

We also savoured the sights of the historic gold rush town of St Bathans. With a splendid (though basic) DOC campground nearby. Barry was entranced by the Blue Lake – which wasn’t as blue as expected, to be honest, but we think that was probably just a weather thing. The walk around it was incredible.

Check out our blog posts which include Barry’s slideshows of our visit – Visiting A Vanished World, A Superb Few Days Around St Bathans

9/ Arthur’s Pass

One of the few ways across the South Island is through Arthur’s Pass. This windy undulating road takes you from Canterbury to the West Coast and is chock-full of delights. In February we stayed at Jacksons Retreat Alpine Holiday Park campground with Jamie and walked at dusk down to a wall of glowworms far superior to those at Te Anau – and free!

There’s a crazy hotel (The Otira Stagecoach Hotel) in ‘The Republic of Otira’, that we visited with Jamie and again with Kerry and Tony in May. It’s incredibly quirky and one of the stops of the TranzAlpine train. Otira means “o” (place of) and “tira” (the travellers).

For many years, there was a precarious road around a deep valley – in the hotel are images of how it looked. Thankfully there’s now a viaduct to take travellers across. Our campervan struggled but just about managed the steep ascent! At one end is the lookout, where you can often sight the colourful, cheeky, intelligent world’s only alpine parrot the Kea. Sadly we only heard and saw them at a distance. I did, however, manage to find a tail feather which I cherish to this day.

There are several walks near Arthur’s Pass Village – we did the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls one. With a zillion steps to climb (only a slight exaggeration!), the view from the top is worth every aching muscle.

The whole road journey is full of beauty from beginning to end.

Check out our blog posts which include Barry’s slideshows of our visit – Lake Brunner to Arthur’s Pass A Weekend With Jamie, Joining The Dots In Arthurs Pass

10/ Moeraki & Hohio/Yellow-eyed Penguins

10/ Lastly, but definitely not leastly of our Top Ten highlights, are the magnificent Moeraki Boulders. These, too, had been on our radar for many years, and it was fulfilling to finally experience them. we heard a few people say they’re not as great as you imagine, but we enjoyed them and found them fascinating.

We stayed at a paid campground, with the luxury of a washing machine and hot showers. One morning I woke early to walk a couple of miles before sunrise to see yellow-eyed penguins. This was one of the most moving experiences of my life as I was the only person there that day. To watch and hear these gorgeous creatures frolicking together, then waddling to the sea and diving in, was wonderful. Barry drove up once awake, as there was still one penguin loitering. I’d watched in horror as he tumbled down the hill, and later on, I reported it to penguin rescue as he never got to the water. It transpired he was a juvenile with avian malaria, was taken for treatment, recovered and returned. I’m an avid follower of Rosie’s now, who runs Penguin Rescue at Moeraki Lighthouse.

Check out our blog post, which includes Barry’s slideshow of our visit – In Awe Of Yellow Eyed Penguins And Moeraki Boulders

Other South Island Thoughts

You’ll notice we’ve not listed any big cities. Instead, many places we’d never heard of before feature, rather than the usual highlights people rave about. Freedom camping is mostly generous and in magnificent places.

In 2020 there was a population of just over 1 million. Conversely, the North Island has almost 4 million. The long roads feel empty in comparison, that is until you venture near Invercargill, Dunedin or Christchurch. For the latest figures check this site out – https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/new-zealand-population/

There’s also a stark difference in landscapes depending on the area. The west and south-west are predominantly a lush green, with plentiful native bush. The wildlife is also abundant. The centre and east by contrast, are quite barren. Mostly dry, with rocks and tussock strewed around.

The Southern Alps are the magnificent long mountain range that divides these landscapes.

I defy anyone to not be astounded by the beauty of these landscapes.

Regrets And Disappointments

Regrets. I have a few. But then again …

One is not seeing a kiwi first-hand apart from an organised trip on Stewart Island. Nor a Kea close-up at any point. We missed the prolific colourful lupins. Though these flowers are pests (as they take over the land stopping native plants from flourishing), to see them in their full glory does look breathtaking in photos.

The insatiable sand flies of the west coast and south-west were irritating in more ways than one!

We also felt (and we’re not alone) that the South Island is ‘too white’. However, we do understand there are historical reasons for this.

I felt, as I did in 2002, that the big cities of the South Island mimic mini-British cities too closely for my comfort. Christchurch. Invercargill. Dunedin. Nelson. I still prefer Gisborne and the upper east coast of the north island with its bi-cultural population. It feels more like ‘real’ New Zealand to me.

Over To You

We hope this post has been of interest – if you’re still reading, I guess it has!

Let us know below your favourite places in Te Waipounamu/The South Island or the places you long to visit sometime.

4 thoughts on “Our Top Ten Favourite South Island Destinations

  1. Thanks Sandra for your list. As a NZer, I have not heard of some. But a great list for those who enjoy walking, and seeing nature in all its glory, and one to check off, so you need plenty of time.

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