Te Waipounamu – New Zealand’s sublime South Island – wears a variety of holiday hats.
It’s a destination packed with extraordinary experiences, and whatever type of travel experience you’re looking for, you’ll find it somewhere between the watery Marlborough Sounds in the north and the exquisite unspoilt beauty of Stewart Island in the south. Follow the Southern Alps from top to bottom for thrilling adventure activities; gallivant and grape-graze around the Marlborough, Canterbury and Otago wine regions; marvel at natural miracles like Milford Sound, Lake Wakatipu, Franz Josef and the Moeraki Boulders, and soak up the unique cultural heritage of atmospheric cities and towns across the island.
From top to bottom, here are ten top things to do on the South Island. Book your stay with Choice Hotels.
Immerse yourself in art in Nelson
The northern city of Nelson is a creative’s haven and hosts a robust arts and cultural scene. The birthplace of the World of Wearable Art design competition back in 1987, the city is home to hundreds of artists and artisans, a number of civic museums and galleries, various independent galleries, and a packed calendar of artistic festivals and events. No visit would be complete without browsing the eclectic stalls at The Nelson Market, which takes place on Saturdays in Montgomery Square. Adorn your home with handmade décor or wrap yourself up in home-spun woollens.
Raise a glass in the Marlborough wine region
The Marlborough wine region needs little introduction to wine enthusiasts. World renowned for its sauvignon blancs, the region produces around three quarters of New Zealand’s wine and is made up of more than 150 wineries. Na Clachan Wine Tours takes the guesswork out of planning your day amongst the vines, and offers a variety of tours from Blenheim. Visit wineries like Saint Clair Family Estate, Villa Maria Estate (one of New Zealand’s most awarded wineries), and the exceptionally gorgeous Clos Henri — an organic vineyard with a cellar door housed in a beautiful replica wooden church. Could anywhere get any more delightful?
Need a place to stay?
There are plenty of wineries within easy reach of the Quality Hotel Marlborough, and you can walk to the Blenheim town centre with ease.
Cruise the Marlborough Sounds
Situated on the South Island’s north-eastern corner and within cooee of Wellington across the Cook Strait, the Marlborough Sounds’ network of ancient river valleys, now filled by the ocean, and finger-like reaches is one of nature’s finest works of art. Animal lovers will adore this region, with penguins, dolphins, seals and native birdlife plentiful. One of the easiest ways to experience the Sounds is on a full day tour and cruise from Blenheim. Cruise to famous Ships Cove – Captain Cook’s favoured base for southern exploration in the 1700s, and now the starting point for the famous 74-kilometre Queen Charlotte Track – and enjoy lunch and local wine tastings before drifting back to reality.
See street art in Christchurch
Christchurch is New Zealand’s second largest city, and one that has faced incredible adversity. However, a gleaming new city centre has emerged, which is stronger and more vibrant than ever. Those who love street art are in for a treat here. It played a powerful role in the rebuild following the earthquake of 2011, and continues to pop across the CBD. Visit the community-led Watch This Space website to access an interactive map of key murals and background information on the artists responsible. Street art walking tours are also offered.
Need a place to stay?
Quality Suites Amore offers contemporary accommodation in picturesque Riccarton, just west of Christchurch and close to Riccarton Bush, Hagley Park and the Botanic Gardens. Econo Lodge Canterbury Court is situated just a few minutes’ drive from the Christchurch city centre. There are 20 ground floor rooms in a tranquil garden setting, all with kitchen facilities. Located north of the CBD, Quality Hotel Elms offers a range of room types — including standard rooms, executive suites and a luxury apartment.
Visit a stately home in Akaroa
Bank managers of yesteryear built some of the South Island’s most stately digs. There’s Larnach Castle down in Dunedin, but one of the most intriguing is the famous Giants House in Akaroa. Stand tall as you enter the formal entrance hall and your gaze wanders up the imported French mahogany staircase. The gardens are exceptional and get full marks for whimsy. Admire the mosaic sculptures as you meander along shaded pathways, and leave time to visit the contemporary art gallery. Akaroa makes a fabulous day trip from Christchurch and is well worth adding to your South Island schedule.
Soak up the beauty of Lake Tekapo
One of the enchanting elements of the South Island’s topography is its shimmering lakes, and there are few visitors that don’t melt at the site of these heavenly bodies of water. Wanaka, Wakatipu and Pukaki all spring to mind, but one of the most memorable is undoubtedly Lake Tekapo in the Mackenzie Basin. Famed for its iridescent blue colour and framed by the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, the semi-arid landscape that surrounds the lake only heightens its extraordinary beauty. The pretty lakeside Church of the Good Shepherd has to be one of the most Instragammed spots on the entire island!
Need a place to stay?
Lake Tekapo is easily accessible from the coastal town of Timaru (a one-hour drive). Comfort Hotel Benvenue is located close to the town centre and features plenty of amenities – including an onsite restaurant and bar, late check-out and free parking.
Step back in time in Oamaru
Situated just an hour’s drive south of Timaru, the Victorian era comes alive in the east coast enclave of Oamaru – so much so that a number of townspeople dress in Victorian garb on a permanent basis! The Victorian Precinct features stunning examples of architecture from the period, built of quarried sandstone and embellished with Neo Classical flair. See the Criterion Hotel, Union Building, Exchange Chambers and Harbour Board Building, all of which are meticulously maintained. Oamaru is also the home of Steampunk culture in New Zealand. Head to Steampunk HQ and immerse yourself in a world of steam-powered fantasy.
Explore the Catlins
The Catlins region encompasses the most south-easterly corner of the island, including its southernmost tip – Slope Point. The Catlins Coastal Heritage Trail stretches for 70 kilometres from Fortrose to Niagara and is well worth doing as a day trip from Invercargill. There are several well-signposted short walks along the way, including the 20-minute stroll across open farmland to Slope Point. Here, the wind whips in off the Antarctic Ocean and trees grow almost bent to the ground. Snap a selfie with the signpost that marks the distance from here to the Equator and South Pole.
Need a place to stay?
Invercargill’s Comfort Inn Tayesta offers a selection of comfortable studios, and one and two-bedroom apartment-style accommodation options, just a three-minute drive from the CBD.
Sample oysters in Bluff
The South Island harbours no end of delicious delights. We’re talking crays in Kaikoura, stream-farmed salmon in Paringa, whitebait fritters in Hokitika, and roast lamb, cheese rolls and hokey pokey ice cream pretty much everywhere else. But one of the slipperiest delicacies of them all can be found in Bluff, just 20 minutes’ drive from Invercargill. Visitors flock to this southern coastal town during the oyster harvest season, which runs from March through to August. True connoisseurs may like to time their visit to coincide with the Bluff Oyster and Food Festival in May.
See the Aurora Australis on Stewart Island
The Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) appear in New Zealand’s most southerly skies between April and September. While you can see this dazzling display of star play from the mainland, Stewart Island off the southern coast is a designated Dark Sky Sanctuary and recommended viewing location. The island can be reached by ferry from Bluff or air from Invercargill. However, if time doesn’t allow you an island detour, just find a secluded spot along the Catlins coast and get all starry-eyed.
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has previously had the opportunity to travel the world as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten.