Things to do in South Island: A Kiwi’s Guide to the Land of the Long White Cloud

Published by Auckland Newsroom on

Kia ora! Welcome to Aotearoa, more affectionately known as New Zealand and the South Island or Te Waipounamu as the Māori call it. The South Island, with its rugged landscapes and postcard-perfect vistas, is a playground for adventurers and a sanctuary for those seeking tranquility. So grab your map, a sense of humour, and let’s explore the ‘Mainland’.

The Lay of the Land: Regions of the South Island 

Regions of the South Island
Image: Athithan Vignakaran/Unsplash

Te Waipounamu is divided into several regions, each with its own unique charm. From the wine-soaked hills of Marlborough to the wild West Coast, there’s a slice of paradise for everyone. The Canterbury Plains offer serene pastoral views, while Otago beckons with its gold rush history. Southland’s rugged coast is a haven for wildlife, and Tasman provides the perfect backdrop for postcard-worthy snaps.

Unique Attractions: More Than Just Scenery 

Sure, Te Waipounamu is a feast for the eyes, but it’s also a place to engage all your senses when looking for things to do in South Island. Take a whiff and sip in Central Otago, the world’s southernmost wine region, known for its exquisite Pinot Noir. Feel the adrenaline in Queenstown, the ‘Adventure Capital of the World’, where bungy jumping is almost a rite of passage. Listen to the haunting call of the kiwi on Stewart Island and taste the freshest seafood in Kaikoura.

Getting Around: Journey Through Middle-earth 

Travelling around the South Island is an adventure in itself. Whether you’re cruising along the Great Alpine Highway, taking a scenic train ride on the TranzAlpine, or hopping on a ferry to cross the Cook Strait, the journey is as memorable as the destination. And for those who prefer to let others do the driving, guided tours abound, offering local insights and stories that you won’t find in any guidebook.

Regions Explained: A Quick Rundown

  • Marlborough: Famous for Sauvignon Blanc and the stunning Marlborough Sounds.
  • West Coast: Home to glaciers, rainforests, and a rugged coastline.
  • Canterbury: Anchored by Christchurch, this region rises from the plains to the Southern Alps.
  • Otago: Steeped in history with landscapes ranging from the Scottish feel of Dunedin to the arid Central Otago.
  • Southland: The gateway to Fiordland National Park and a wildlife enthusiast’s dream.
  • Tasman: Offers Abel Tasman National Park with its golden beaches and clear waters.

Places to Visit in South Island: A Journey Through Waipounamu

When it comes to the things to do in South Island, the question isn’t what to see, but rather, how to fit it all in. Waipounamu is a treasure trove of natural wonders, cultural experiences, and unforgettable adventures.

Fiordland National Park

This World Heritage site is a must-visit, with its dramatic fiords, towering peaks, and cascading waterfalls. Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound offer cruises that take you into the heart of this majestic landscape. For those who prefer to explore on foot, the Milford Track provides one of the finest walks in the world.

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

Mount Cook National Park
Image: Esther Grosscurt/Unsplash

Home to the tallest mountain in New Zealand, this park is a haven for hikers and climbers. The Hooker Valley Track is a popular walk that offers stunning views of Aoraki/Mount Cook and the surrounding alpine scenery.


The adventure capital is not just for thrill-seekers. With its picturesque setting on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is also the perfect place to relax, dine, and soak in the local culture.

The Otago Peninsula

Wildlife enthusiasts will love the Otago Peninsula, where you can spot albatross, penguins, and seals. Larnach Castle, with its beautiful gardens and intriguing history, adds a touch of Scottish heritage to the mix.

The West Coast

This untamed region features some of the most diverse landscapes in the country. From the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki to the glaciers of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier, the West Coast is a place where nature’s power and beauty are on full display.

Nelson and the Abel Tasman National Park

Known for its sunny weather and artistic community, Nelson is the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park. Here, golden beaches and clear waters invite you to kayak, hike, or simply relax.


Image: Pablo Heimplatz/Unsplash

For marine life encounters, head to Kaikoura. The nutrient-rich waters attract an array of sea creatures, including whales, dolphins, and seals. It’s also the place to try some of the freshest seafood in New Zealand.

Hanmer Springs

If relaxation is what you seek, the thermal pools of Hanmer Springs offer a soothing retreat. Surrounded by mountains and forests, it’s the perfect spot to unwind after a day of exploration.

These are just a few highlights of the South Island’s vast offerings. Each place holds its own magic, waiting to be discovered by intrepid travellers and curious explorers alike. So pack your bags, and embark on a journey that will leave you with stories to tell for a lifetime.

The South Island Bucket List: Must-Dos and Must-Sees

  • Skydive in Abel Tasman: For the best views and the biggest thrills.
  • Milford Sound Cruise: Rudyard Kipling’s ‘eighth wonder of the world’.
  • Stargazing in Tekapo: The stars shine brighter from the International Dark Sky Reserve.
  • Whale Watching in Kaikoura: Where giants of the deep come to play.
  • Tramping the Great Walks: Heaphy, Routeburn, and Milford Tracks await.

The Quirky Corners: Off-the-Beaten-Path Gems

  • Hokitika Gorge: Turquoise waters framed by lush native bush.
  • Moeraki Boulders: Mysterious spherical stones scattered on a sandy beach.
  • The Catlins: A coastal region rich in waterfalls and wildlife.
  • Larnach Castle: New Zealand’s only castle, with a history as colourful as its gardens.

Culinary Delights: A Taste of the South 

The South Island isn’t just about the sights; it’s about the flavours, too. From the freshest Bluff oysters to the creamiest cheeses in Geraldine, your taste buds are in for a treat. And let’s not forget the iconic pavlova, a meringue dessert that’s a sweet slice of Kiwi pride.

Categories: To Do