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Top 9 things to do on New Zealand's South Island

As I have now spent almost a month on New Zealand's South Island, I would like to share with you my top 9 favorite sites. Of course this is my personal opinion, but I hope this article will help you to make your own!

First, I would like to thank "La Petite Perruche", whose articles and advices helped me to find the best spots (especially her article on the South Island) ; as well as Scott Cook, author of the fantastic Frenzy Guide that you can purchase here.

1) Heli Hike on Fox Glacier (more details here and here)

New Zealand is well known for its gorgeous mountains (especially the South Island), and a bit less for its glaciers. Fox and Franz Joseph Glacier are the two main ones and the most accessible.

However, they are unique as they are one of the few glaciers in a tropical rainforest. Only South America has some too.

This has several advantages: they are fairly easy to access (starting at 400m high!), not too dangerous, and not to cold - while still being amazing!

The two main drawbacks are the rapidly changing weather (as in every glacier, right?) and their rapid melting.

Seing them from below (the villages / viewpoints) is very disappointing - that's why I would recommend going there only if you plan to hike ON the glacier accessed through a very quick helicopter flight. Then you can discover what a glacier is from the inside, feel it and experience it. The experience will be unique and unforgettable - for your wallet as well.

Lake on Fox Glacier - heli hike

Crystal clear blue lakes and rivers, blue-ish ice, caves and tunnels, etc., you can see them all.

You can have more details here.

Finally, I have been told by different media (persons, iSites, blogs) that the experience is even more impressive on Fox Glacier, as it has more ice formations.

After a good day hiking on the glacier, go watch a breathtaking sunset on lake Matheson, where Mt Cook and all the mountains are reflected on the water... Stay slightly after the sun has set and you'll have the place for yourself ;)

Sunset at Matheson Lake


2) Kayaking adventure in Doubtful Sound

Do you want to feel like you have reached the end of the world under an extreme weather and that you have gorgeous fjord landscapes only for you? Then go for an overnight trip in Doubtful Sound!

Remote Doubtful Sound from the campsite

Even in itself, I found Doubtful Sound more impressive than Milford Sound: no construction, very few boats, a much larger fjord and tighter at the same time.

Add to that the unforgettable experience of sleeping in a 3-tents camp (that you'll set!) with only a slandfly (and rain!) proof shelter, with at most 8 people - probably under the rain... then you'll have experienced Doubtful at its greatest and reality: isolated and extreme.

The landscapes are really gorgeous, the kayaking part is not hard ; it will probably rain but Go Orange provides all the kayaking gear and clothes so you'll be fine :)

If you're lucky, you may even see the rare Fjordland Crested Penguin, or dolphins! Orcas can be seen too, but this is really really rare...


3) See icebergs (and amazing mountains) in Mount Cook NP

One of my favourites of NZ...

The mountain range around Mount Cook (the tallest mountain in New Zealand - 3,720m) are fabulous. Mount Cook Village is the starting point of many hikes, and is settled in the valley with rivers and views. Plus the drive along the Pakaki lake is really sweet.

The Tasman Glacier track is really cool and short (15 mins), and offers stunning views on a glacier lake and its glacier, maybe a couple of icebergs and mount Tasman, shaped like a pyramid. The sunrise up there is worth it too: you'll have the place for yourself and hopefully some gorgeous colors...

Even more stunning was the Hooker Valley Track. The very easy trail of about 1h15 one way follows a river in a deep valley, to reach Hooker Lake. This glacier lake is home to many icebergs, and is dominated by Mount Cook in its alignment...

View on Mount Cook from the Hooker Lake viewpoint and icebergs

If the moon and sky are right, you can even have the milky way above the icebergs and Mt Cook... I went there both in the afternoon and for the sunset, which proved unforgettable. I had the whole place just for myself for the sunset and after, which was so cool... It's not everyday that you can see a perfectly clear sky over icebergs and this fabulous mountain!

moon and stars over mount cook and hooker lake icebergs

Milky Way over mount cook national park

4) Queenstown

I was very doubtful of Queenstown, as I am not a big fan at all of "artificial cities" such as Queestown which seems only to live for you to make a lot of fancy activities.

But hey, Queenstown has much more than expensive activities to offer. It is indeed settled on the border of a stunning lake (cold though), and surrounded by big hills and mountains. Everything looks really dry, but I had the chance to see it with snow at the top of the mountains even in November!

There are several hikes and viewpoints to do in the area, the best being the drive to the Remarkables ski area on a clear day (30mins to climb to 1,600m high and have a breathtaking view of Queenstown and its surroundings). From there, you can either hike 30 minutes to Lake Alta, a glacial lake surrounded by mountains,

or take a 45 minutes hard climb to Shadow Basin viewpoint. From there, you will have a 360 degres view on Queenstown, and the South Alpine Chain, as well as several lakes, etc. Probably THE best view point in the area.

To reach these viewpoint (Map), you have to hike on a ski "road", starting from the right of the building. One is more or less following the Alta Chair and leads to Lake Alta (follow the red poles) and another meets the Shadow Basin Chair at its top for the viewpoint.

Moke Lake (more details here) also is a great experience, just off QTown on the way to Glenorchy. The short gravel road (written 4WD only but definitely NOT needed at all) is really sweet, and quickly reaches the beautiful lake surrounded by dry hills and mountains. This also is the mountain bikers' paradise!

It is possible to hike around the lake in c. 1h30, and it's really peaceful :)


5) Drive a trail road in Central Otago (the Nevis / Lake Onslow)

For my past 2 travels, I have tried to hire a 4WD car, at least for a couple of days, in order to drive some back-country gravel roads or trails. I think this is a very good way to go on an adventure by yourself (and saves you the bucks!). In addition, it allows to drive through gorgeous landscapes while taking your time, with literally no one around... I just love this sensation of being alone, on a dirt road among deserted areas...

I think the Nevis and the gravel road from Roxburgh to lake Onslow (and then to Paerau or back the same way) are two great choices: they are easy (you don't even need a 4WD car), and present a great variety of landscapes and remoteness. Just don't attempt them if it has been raining recently, as both have pretty steep sections that may become dangerous if muddy.

The Nevis Road: starting here (GPS: -45.130634 169.151242 )

The good gravel road steeply goes up for about 10kms, to reach the highest point (1300m). From there, you have wonderful views on the valleys and lakes. A mid-afternoon light is perfect to reveal all the gorgeous colors.

The road then makes its descent to the Nevis valley for 8kms. I didn't do it cause I was short in time and it was foggy. Then after 18kms turn back (before a deep ford), as the rest of the loop clearly is a rough 4WD part.

Road to Lake Onslow: Starting either here or here, the good gravel road climbs the hill - but isn't too steep. It crosses the deserted central Otago, among many sheeps and cows. The hills are gorgeous.

The road then makes its way to the Onslow lake, a massive artificial lake. The road crosses a small river (you can turn around here if your car can't make it), and follows the lake for a bit. The end part is less interesting, more flat and repetitive - that's why I would recommend doing only the first part of it to lake Onslow.


7) Hike the Milford or the Routeburn Track

Fjordland National Park is one of the largest of New Zealand, and is home to unique landscapes - most of which look like enchanted forests.

Although these hikes are hard to book, I think it's worth it to immerge yourself in these wild places. There's a great variety of gorgeous landscapes, and a multi-day hike is always such an experience...

I did the Milford Track guided by Ultimate Hikes, and the experience is unforgettable. 4 days of happy escape!

More details here.

The Routeburn track seems gorgeous too and shorter (2.5 days) - but I did not have the chance to hike it.


6) Rob Roy's Glacier (GPS: -44.509967, 168.742132)

Detailed story and more pictures here.

The road to the trail is in itself quite an experience. Starting from Wanaka, you will soon be driving on a not-so-good gravel road for c. 40 kms through a valley of Mount Aspiring National Park. The only things you will see are impressive mountains, rivers, a pond, and thousands of sheeps and cows. You'll definitely feel how isolated New Zealand can be.

When the road ends: then you've arrived and can start the hike.Starting quietly in the valley, the trail then quickly goes up to have a first view on the glacier: quite impressive.It snowed shortly before we made the hike, so all the peaks in the surrounding were covered in snow, making us feel even smaller. The climb is about 1hr long, and brings to a wonderful view of the valley and Rob Roy’s glacier. I just wished the view was 360 degres.


8) Penguins and remote south coast

I was not planning on driving to the South Coast through the Caitlins at first. Since I had a couple more days left, I decided to drive to Moeraki (through Lake Onslow gravel road ;)) to see the famous boulders. Then I heard about the Penguins! Yellow-Eyed as well as blue penguins live on the coast from Oamaru to Slope Point.

I found Moeraki Boulders very disappointing, but the Penguin show at the Katiki Point Lighthouse is worth it!! Best to go after 3pm (site closes at 5.30pm to protect the endangered penguins), to see the small animals clim up the rocks back to their nests in the bush. They are so sweet! But please be nice with them if you don't want them to disappear - and stay at least 15 meters away :)

There's plenty of wildlife too, with a lot of birds, fur seals, rabbits, ...

yellow eyed penguin

Then, hit the gorgeous road to the Catlins in the very South of the Island, and stop at:

Tunnel Beach, a sweet beach accessed via a tunnel, surrounded by high cliffs

View over Tunnel Beach

and Nugget Point Lighthouse. The road to get there is fantastic, and the lighthouse's surrounding wonderful.

Path to Nugget Point Lighthouse

9) Kayak the crystal clear waters in Abel Tasman

I think Abel Tasman National Park is a stop not to be missed on the South Island. First, it has one of the best climate of the South Island: it is dry and sunny. Then the shoreline is amazing, easy to hike, and the crystal clear waters are perfect for some water activities such as kayaking.

On my visit, I chose to take a full day tour with Kahu Kayaks (more details here). It included water taxis, a hike and kayaking. I think this is the perfect combo to have a comprehensive overview of what the park has to offer - in only one day. Definitely relaxing and stunning!

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