This Travel Expert Shares How to Explore New Zealand’s South Island

This Travel Expert Shares the Best Ways to Explore New Zealand’s South Island

Adventure beckons from the unspoiled shores of South Island.

The first stop of adventurers in New Zealand, South Island is a vast expanse brimming with alluring natural vistas — from glaciers dancing with rainforests on the West Coast to the golden coastline and turquoise lakes of Canterbury. Extreme sports thrive in Queenstown and a dramatic landscape carved by glaciers awaits in Fiordland, while the snow-capped Southern Alps run along the island. 

As the Kiwis take pride in saying, “One can spend a lifetime in New Zealand and never see all the wonders it has in store.”

Maria Karla Cervantes explore New Zealand's South Island

Image credit: Maria Karla Cervantes | Chan Brothers Travel

And so, it’s no surprise that we need a little help navigating this wild frontier. Luckily, a travel expert is here to show us the way. Travel agent Maria Karla Cervantes of Chan Brothers Travel visited South Island on a memorable trip in 2019 and we talked to her about what makes it such an irresistible place for travellers. 

If you’re planning to explore New Zealand now that the country is opening its borders to tourists, keep reading. Maria shares what to do, where to go, and what to eat in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

What to expect in New Zealand’s South Island

Milford Sound in New Zealand's South Island

Image credit: Sebastian Goldberg

Blessed with a stunningly diverse natural landscape, South Island is the best New Zealand destination for anyone looking to make the most of a vacation. Few places in the world can rival the sheer number of outdoor activities you can do on this island: climb, surf, kayak, sail, rappel, cycle — you name it, anything’s possible!

South Island, New Zealand

Image credit: Lars Nissen

The outdoors is so enticing on South Island that even couch potatoes can’t resist the call of adventure. For Maria, who was never one to get high on daring exploits, this is the place where she discovered the joys of an adrenaline rush.

“South Island, Queenstown to be exact, is quite memorable because it is where I discovered the ‘adventurous’ part of me,” Maria recalls. “I’m not usually the first to sign up for extreme activities, but when I was there, I had the chance to try the most famous bungee jumping off Kawarau Bridge… and it turned out to be super fun and amazing!”

Best experiences in New Zealand’s South Island

The sheer variety of things to see and do in the South Island can be overwhelming, but that just means there’s much more of the island to explore and love! Here are a few to add to your South Island itinerary.

1. Jump off Kawarau Bridge

Bungee Jumping off Kawarau Bridge

Image credit: Maria Karla Cervantes | Chan Brothers Travel

Dubbed the original bungee jump, the Kawarau Bridge Bungy is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that’s not for the faint-hearted. This is actually where the world’s first commercial bungee jump took place in 1988. To this day, adrenaline junkies from all over the world troop to this historic bridge to throw caution to the wind and fling from the edge of a 43-metre height. (And because we’re only a little crazy, we appreciate Kawarau Bridge Bungy’s 100% safety record.)

“I must say that there is definitely something about free falling with just a rope attached to your ankle; it’s a totally different kind of experience,” Maria said, adding that bungee jumping just might be the best decision she ever made.

2. Hop on a thrilling jet boat ride on the Shotover River

Shotover River in New Zealand

Image credit: Werner Sevenster

Trust us when we say this is the only way to marvel at the magnificence of the Shotover Canyons. Hailed as the most exciting jet boat ride around, the Shotover Jet Ride takes travellers on a high-octane experience zipping through canyons, spinning and swerving through boulders, and speeding just a whisker away from the jagged cliffs towering over the narrow river.

When visiting Queenstown, Maria also recommends experiencing the Skyline Gondola and Luge for a fun-filled day of relaxing gondola lifts and speedy luge rides.

3. Cruise the fjords in Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound in Fiordland, South Island

Image credit: KyleSharky via Canva Pro

When setting off to explore New Zealand attractions, Fiordland is on top of the list for many travellers. A striking landscape sculpted by glaciers 100,000 years ago, it is the biggest national park in New Zealand and home to lakes, waterfalls, sounds, valleys, and peaks that will reignite your wonder for nature.

 “We were lucky to experience the Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise during our family trip,” Maria recalls. “And although Doubtful Sound cruise is not as heavily featured compared to Milford Sound, it’s definitely worth seeing and trying. It was nice to be out-of-touch for a while (there was no WiFi access onboard) and just listen to the sound of nature.”

4. Explore the natural scenery of Aoraki/Mount Cook

Aoraki/Mount Cook in South Island

Image credit: Timo Volz

Even if you’re not much for climbing mountains, the majestic Mount Cook (also known as Aoraki) is a marvel to see and explore. Sitting in the spectacular Southern Alps, it’s the highest mountain in the country — a peak that mountain climbers are always seeking to conquer. 

The rugged region of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is a favourite among hikers, but according to Maria, stargazing and glacier viewing are also popular activities here. She affirms, “If you’re visiting the Aoraki/Mt. Cook area, Big Sky Stargazing and Glacier Explorers boat ride can’t be missed.”

Because the darkness around the mountain is so all-encompassing with virtually no light pollution, Mount Cook is one of the best stargazing destinations in New Zealand. Look up and enjoy crystal-clear views of the Southern night sky glittering with an abundance of stars — a shockingly foreign sight for many city dwellers. It’s impressive enough seeing it with the naked eye, but the Big Sky Stargazing experience includes a closer peek of the cosmos through high-powered telescopes.

Tasman Glacier terminal lake

Image credit: Charnchai Wasinanont via Canva Pro

One of the great attractions you’ll come across when you explore South Island, New Zealand is the icebergs that have broken off from glaciers and now drift on electric blue waters. Go on a cruise of Tasman Glacier’s terminal lake for a close look at the massive ice face and floating icebergs against the backdrop of the snowy mountain range. 

Keep in mind that Glacier Explorers is the only glacial boat tour in the country; you’ll want to book a trip early to grab a slot. 

5. Marvel at Lake Tekapo and the Church of the Good Shepherd

Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo

Image credit: Holger Detje

Set on the banks of Lake Tekapo is the Church of the Good Shepherd, another one on the list of Maria’s must-visit places in New Zealand’s South Island. Builders used natural and unchipped stones to craft the building in 1935 when it was established to commemorate the country’s early settlers. With the scenic views of snow-capped peaks and turquoise waters, it’s hard to imagine a prettier setting for a service than this.

6. Wander across the enchanting Middle Earth

Glenorchy in South Island

Image credit: Alex Hu

It doesn’t really matter whether you’ve read the Lord of the Rings trilogy or watched the films. Either way, Glenorchy will make your jaw drop. Maria guarantees the scenery makes it a worthwhile adventure, saying, “Personally, I’m not a fan of the movie but I truly enjoyed this tour because of the scenic views and gorgeous landscapes — just breathtaking.” 

During her trip to the South Island, Maria joined a Lord of the Rings Glenorchy 4WD Tour. The off-road adventure took her to fantastical sites where Peter Jackson’s trilogy was shot, like the beautiful Paradise village and Lake Wakatipu, seen on the big screen as the enchanting elven idyll Lothlorien.

7. Say hello to the unique wildlife of New Zealand

Penguins in Oamaru

Image credit: kewl

Although the animals usually take a backseat to South Island’s eye-catching natural scenery, close wildlife encounters can be just as exciting as extreme sports.

Lovers of all things small and cute can squeal over the smallest penguin in the world at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. Every night, the wild colony of little blue penguins waddles past tourists after spending the day fishing and feeding. Meanwhile, birders can also visit the Royal Albatross Centre in Dunedin to get a glimpse of massive albatrosses feed, court, mate, and flex their impressive three-metre wingspan.

Maria Karla Cervantes explore New Zealand South Island

Image credit: Maria Karla Cervantes | Chan Brothers Travel

And if you have more time to explore New Zealand, Maria also recommends visiting the International Antarctic Centre, the massive Moeraki Boulders at Koekohe Beach, and Baldwin Street to see the world’s steepest road. Breathe in the fresh air on walking and hiking tours; there are plenty as the country is known for its variety of “Great Walks.” For a longer and more immersive travel experience, Maria suggests an authentic Kiwi farmstay.

Also read: 26 Best Natural Attractions in New Zealand That Will Blow Your Mind

Discovering the foodie scene of South Island

Dining in New Zealand

Image credit: Laurens R.M.D.

Although New Zealand is a destination best known for its natural scenery and adventure activities, there’s a thriving culinary culture waiting to be discovered. Maria assured us that based on her experience, the country is “definitely a place for foodies.”

Her recommendations include the famous Queenstown burger joint Fergburger (or Ferg’s) that locals and international fans often claim to be home to the best burger in the world. (For what it’s worth, CNN seems inclined to agree.) Another must-try dining spot is the Curator’s House, which serves authentic Spanish fare in the picturesque Christchurch Botanic Gardens. 

In between visiting renowned restaurants in New Zealand, Maria also urges travellers to roam around on their own.

“Try the local cafes and restaurants,” she says. Most of the people you’ll encounter will be happy to offer recommendations, and there’s no better way to immerse yourself in Kiwi culture than indulging in the local favourites.

Planning your own New Zealand adventure

Maria Karla Cervantes in South Island, New Zealand

Image credit: Maria Karla Cervantes | Chan Brothers Travel

As Maria and other travel experts confirm, New Zealand’s South Island is a spectacular travel destination no matter which month of the year you’re planning to visit. That said, it’s important to pack for different weather conditions. There’s a reason behind the country’s moniker as the “Land of the Long White Cloud,” after all — downpours and cloudy skies are always a threat at any time of the year. (Don’t worry; sunshine comes just as quickly as rain clouds.)

“Weather may vary accordingly depending on which places you will cover so it is always best to check the individual town’s forecast before packing your luggage,” Maria advises. “When in doubt, just dress like an onion (in layers)!”

New Zealand

Image credit: Alistair McLellan

Although there are a wide variety of all-inclusive tours and packages to choose from on New Zealand’s South Island, Maria prefers maintaining a sense of freedom on the road. A self-drive tour allows tourists to take the wheel and witness all the iconic spots on the island at their own pace.

“Self-drive, I think, is the most ideal way of moving around as it gives you flexibility and time to explore more places,” Maria says. “New Zealanders are driving on the same side as Singapore and there’s no special license or permit required, so even first-time visitors should not be afraid to plan a self-drive itinerary.” 

Also read: Here’s What to Expect When You Book a Self-Drive Tour of New Zealand

From rolling vineyards to pebbled beaches and staggering peaks, New Zealand’s South Island is awash with possibility. Like Maria, it may be the place to awaken your thirst for adventure. Or maybe you’ll be drawn to solitude and tranquil shores. Perhaps you’ll find kindred spirits in the friendly Kiwi people and Māori culture. 

No matter what, South Island offers the best of all worlds. So, what are you waiting for? There’s no better time to explore New Zealand than now.

For more information, please visit Tourism New Zealand’s official website.

Brought to you by Tourism New Zealand.

About Author

Celia Grace Nachura
Celia Grace Nachura

There are very few things Celia won’t do for a good story, but her favourite ones always involve the beach, animals, or any type of outdoor activity. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember, and can usually be found typing away at home with her cute dogs at her feet. Away from work, she spends most of her time trying out every hobby she can get her hands on, from running to crocheting to baking (she’s pretty okay at most things that don't involve cooking).