South Island is the largest of New Zealand's two islands. It's divided by the backbone of the Southern Alps, lending it spectacular snow-capped mountains and deep fiords surrounded by southern beech forests, and expansive plains. It's the place to find space and freedom in a grand open landscape. Adventure is calling you. Explore the great outdoors and some of the world's most spectacular places with these South Island highlights.
The best way to experience the breathtaking beauty of the Marlborough Sounds is to take the ferry from Wellington to Picton. You can also see the sounds by hiking. Either way, you're sure to be mesmerized by the sea-filled valleys of this area with its bush-clad mountains spreading out to the deep blue Pacific.
To truly escape it all, you can find waterside accommodations only accessible by helicopter or boat. If you're an avid hiker, the Queen Charlotte Track will be one of your best South Island highlights. Begin with a scenic cruise to Ship Cove in Picton. You'll find accommodations all along the shared-use track.
Abel Tasman National Park and Golden Bay
Pristine golden beaches are some of the best South Island highlights. Experience their beauty at Abel Tasman and Golden Bay. You'll find basic amenities in the nearby town of Motueka. This charming town is a two-hour drive to the west after deboarding the ferry in Picton. You can explore the national park by land, water, or air. Several tour operators offer cruises, kayak tours, water taxis, heli-tours, and catamaran tours.
Golden Bay is a little further away across Takaka Hill, also known as Marble Mountain. The bay is an appealing holiday destination, a paradise for nature lovers, and definitely one of the best South Island highlights.
West Coast and Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
The rugged west coast of New Zealand is quite spectacular. The scenery and the Punakaiki pancake rocks make the area one of the best-loved South Island highlights. The drive from Motueka to Punakaiki is about three hours long, and it's the perfect route to stop and see these amazing limestone rock formations with their impressive blowholes.
On the west coast, you can also stop by to see the Tauranga Bay seal colony near Westport and Mangatini Falls. It's one of the island's most accessible seal colonies. Take the Charming Creek Walkway, an hour-long hike along an old railway formation for stunning views of the Ngakawau Gorge and river and, of course, the magnificent Mangatini Falls.
Much of the coast along South Island's eastern side is characterized by water that runs down from the mountains via rivers into the sea. The rock particles the water carries along mixes with seawater to give it a strange, yet beautiful light green color. You can witness the phenomenon with an east coast drive from Picton to Kaikoura. Another route to take is down lower on the South Island after getting off the Canterbury Pacific Highway between Christchurch and Dunedin.
Queenstown & Wanaka
A popular stop on your South Island highlights road trip are Wanaka & Queenstown. Wanaka is a must-see town because of the famous lonely Wanaka tree and the many amazing hikes in the area. Queenstown is a place where you'll need to stay at least a few days. There is a reason this town is called the Adventure Capital of the World. No matter the time of year you arrive, there are always awesome activities to do. From the classic bungee jump (it all started in Queenstown for this adrenaline activity) to skiing or snowboarding at some of the best and most popular ski fields in New Zealand.
NZ South Island Highlights
If you're thinking, is that it?, you are mistaken. The South Island of NZ has even more to offer. Keep on driving, there are more amazing scenery or action-packed activities around the next corner. We just can't name 'em all. Therefore we have created this free South Island travelguide. Browse through it and see what places/areas like Milford Soumd, Catlins (Southland), Dunedin, and Oamaru have to offer. We could go on and on about the NZ South Island highlights but now it's time for you to start planning that once-in-a-lifetime road trip. Have fun.