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35 Best things to see & do in New Zealand’s South Island

  • South Islands, New Zealand

Last updated: 02 March, 2023
Expert travel writer: Mark Chipperfield
  • Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

There are many remarkable things about Whale Watch Kaikoura, not least their 95 per cent success rate at finding giant sperm whales – the world’s largest toothed predator – regardless of when you step on board.

The operation is owned by a number of local Maori families and combines state-of-the-art whale finding technology and traditional folklore – and plenty of Maori humour. Passengers are also likely to see other whale species, dolphins, seals and many local seabirds.

Kayaking is another great way to spot whales – as well as dolphins, fur seals and orca. Kaikoura Kayaks offers kayak hire, expert instruction and guided trips along the coast.

Adult price: £92

Good for age: 4+

Duration: 3 hours

  • Te Anua, South Island, New Zealand

This gorgeous 22km long fjord – one of New Zealand’s most accessible – is hallmarked by beautiful upland scenery, crowned by the Mitre Peak. Despite the crowds, it remains an awe-inspiring landscape of snow-capped mountains, dense forests and spectacular waterfalls.

There are several bucket list ways you can get out into the wilderness and appreciate it in all its natural glory.

The most popular way is on a pleasure cruise along the Milford Sound waterway – justifiably ranked as one of New Zealand’s signature experiences. A range of cruises are available, from thrill rides on jetboats to gentle two-hour tours on historic steamboats. You can also take an overnight cruise along the entire fjord to the Tasman Sea.

You could take it all in from the water on a kayak, soar over Mitre Peak on a helicopter or spend 4-days hiking the world-renowned Milford Track around it, through pristine, fern-filled rainforest.

Adult price: £10

Good for age: 4+

Duration: -

  • Blenheim, South Island, New Zealand

Row of beautiful grape yard before sunset with mountain in Blenheim, New Zealand

Bucket List Experience

Marlborough Wine Region

The Marlborough wine region (which includes Wairau River) is New Zealand’s largest and most internationally celebrated wine-growing district, famous for its Sauvignon Blanc.

Despite its modest size, the region now offers a wide range of wine styles (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are gaining in popularity), over 80 small wineries and a ravishing rural landscape.

Many of the vineyards offer excellent cellar doors and conduct wine tastings; some have relaxed vineyard restaurants, but everything is wonderfully small-scale and intimate.

As well as wine, the region is also known for superb green-lipped mussels and venison.

Good for age: 18+

  • Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand

Queenstown’s original adrenaline-pumping adventure, there are two white water trips on offer.

First-timers and scaredy cats should choose the grade 2-3 rapids of the Kawarau River. Daredevils should opt for the Shotover River, which features grade 3-5 rapids and a narrow passage called Skippers Canyon, which was carved by gold miners more than 120 years ago. Ever wanted to raft through a washing machine? Then try this. Guaranteed thrills (and hopefully no spills).

Tour operators also offer a 3-day, 2-night rafting trip to the Landsborough River, and an opportunity to explore a remote, magical setting of 10,000ft mountains, hanging glaciers, and pristine rainforest.

Adult price: £105

Min age 13

Good for age: 13+

Duration: 4-5 hours

  • Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand

Bungy from the Kawarau Bridge, the home of Bungy Jumping. Leap 43m from the historic Bridge. Near Queenstown in the Ogo region on the south island of New Zealand

Bucket List Experience

Bungy jump off the Kawarau Bridge

Kawarau Bridge is where, in 1988, this whole crazy thing began, with the first commercial bungy jump pioneered by AJ Hackett.

Set in a small, pretty ravine, this 43m jump with a dip in the icy river provides an idyllic setting for your first bungy – and great views for spectators.

Those looking for a more extreme jump experience should book into either The Ledge or the Nevis, AJ Hackett’s other two locations.

Do the swing or catapult instead

If the thought of jumping off a high bridge (understandably) terrifies you, save face amongst friends by braving the Ledge Swing instead. This self-release swing pings you 400m out over Queensland. You can even do it at night. Or opt for the ‘Human Catapult‘, which shoots you 150m out into the Nevis Valley with a 3G force.

If you’re either a total adrenaline junkie, or just a bit crazy, you can sign up for combo packages that include a combination of some or all of the above.

The easy way out

Still a thrill, but without the gut-wrenching freefall drop, the 130m long zip line offers the chance to speed across the Kawarau River at 60km/hr, solo or in tandem. A great option for families and scaredy cats.

Origins of Bunjy

Modern bungy jumping was preceded by similar sports played by indigenous tribespeople in various locations around the world, including South America and the Pacific. Young men would test their metal against one another by climbing a wooden tower and leaping off with lengths of rattan tied to their ankles.

Adult price: £100

Min age 10

Good for age: 13+

Duration: 4-5 hours

  • Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

Kaikoura is one of the best places in the world to encounter these charismatic mammals as pods of hundreds – sometimes thousands – of wild dusky dolphins cluster every day just off this dramatic coastline. When the boats find dolphins, (or vice versa), conscripts, equipped with snorkels, smartly ease into the water to marvel at the grace of these magnificent creatures, swimming barely an arm’s length away.

If you’d rather stay out of the water, local operators offer an alternative dolphin-watching tour on a bigger, more comfortable, catamaran-style boat.

Adult price: £100

Min age 8

Good for age: 8+

Duration: 3-4 hours

  • Wanaka, South Island, New Zealand

Climb a waterfall at Lake Wanaka

Bucket List Experience

Climb a waterfall at Lake Wanaka

There are not many places in the world you can climb a waterfall – at least this site hasn’t found one yet – and this also happens to be the highest.

Set on the shores of stunning Lake Wanaka, the ‘Lord of the Rungs’ (their name, not ours) via Ferrata-esque course has 3 levels to suit varying abilities.

All three courses combine a mix of climbs on steel rungs, and crossing of suspension bridges. The full 5-7 hour climb to the top (450m) also goes behind the waterfall, sees you climb through an airy overhang, and helicopters you back down from the top. Brilliant!

Adult price: £110

Min age 10

Good for age: 10+

Duration: 3-7 hours

  • Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand

Tourists enjoy a high speed jet boat ride on the Shotover River in Queenstown, New Zealand. Queenstown is one of the most popular summer resort in NZ.

Bucket List Experience

Jetboating on the Shotover River

This big red jetboat has become as much a part of the Queenstown experience as skiing and bungy jumping. Over three million people have surrendered to its charms since 1970.

The trip runs through the steep-sided canyons of the Shotover River – though since the boat travels at speeds up to 85km/h and pulls off dazzling 360-degree spins, you’re unlikely to see much of the landscape.

Adult price: £60

Good for age: 8+

Duration: 4-5 hours

  • Franz Josef, South Island, New Zealand

Along with nearby Fox Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier is the main tourism draw card on the wild and pristine West Coast.

These wonders of nature mesmerize from afar with their sheer size and beauty, and delight close up with magical ice caves and tunnels, filled with spectacular ice formations. A magnet, then, for our door enthusiasts.

Due to the combination of the temperate zone and high rainfall, the two glaciers are unique in the world in existing at low altitudes – making them easier to access.

Twelve-kilometre-long Franz Josef Glacier, the steeper and more dramatic of the two, descends from over 3,000m into the lush rainforest of the Westland’s National Park. Using a fleet of helicopters, visitors can take scenic flights from the nearby township, or be dropped onto the ice for exhilarating hikes, which also include exploring ice caves and other natural formations.

One of the best places in the world to get up close to a glacier, all with a constant backdrop of snow-covered mountains. Unmissable.

Adult price: £300

Good for age: 13+

Duration: 4 hours

  • Charleston, South Island, New Zealand

Underworld rafting in Te Ananui

Bucket List Experience

Underworld rafting in Te Ananui

Anyone with even the slightest in caves – and a moderate degree of fitness – should sign up for this unique underground cave experience. Where else can you float in a magical glow worm-infested cavern?

Half-day tours start with a train ride into the wildlife-filled rainforest. It’s then a short walk to the start, where you climb down into the ancient Te Ananui cave system of

Expert guides, offering commentary along the way, take you through the maze of caves, caverns and grottoes filled with stalactites and stalagmites. Your destination is a huge underground lake in a vast cavern, eerily lit by a galaxy of fluorescent blue bulbs, belonging to the millions of glow worms dangling from the cavern ceiling. From here you float out on the gentle rapids of the Waitakere River, back into the rainforest.

Adult price: £100

Min age 10

Good for age: 10+

Duration: 4 hours