Snapshot: South Island

January 30, 2023

The perfect place to immerse yourself in nature

New Zealand’s South Island, bigger and more sparsely populated than the North Island, is teeming with natural beauty: stunning lakes, glaciers and fiords, rugged coastline and impressive snow-capped peaks. The towering Southern Alps run through the centre of the island, with the country’s highest peak, Mt Cook (Aoraki), reaching 3,724 metres. 

These quintessential New Zealand landscapes make for the perfect driving holiday, like the scenic drive to Mt Cook that follows the length of Lake Pukaki. Other dreamy routes include the 46-km drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy (not just for Lord of the Rings fans) and the four-hour trip from Wanaka to Franz Josef on the wild West Coast. In the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Te Wāhipounamu, the road to Milford Sound – the only New Zealand fiord accessible by road – is spectacular and worthy of a slow journey to take in the twists and turns.

Milford Sound Road.
Milford Sound Road.

In the centre of the island – between the plains of Canterbury and the Southern Alps – the Mackenzie Basin is one of the darkest places on Earth. With very little light pollution stargazers are in heaven here, especially if heading up to the Mt John Observatory in Tekapo. Here, Lake Tekapo is a joy to visit in summer for a dip in the vivid turquoise lake, or for snow tubing, ice skating and hot pools in winter. 

Of course, there’s snow and ski fun to be had everywhere, starting with Treble Cone – the largest ski field in the South Island – and Cardrona Alpine Resort, both easily reached from Wanaka, Mt Hutt (not far from Christchurch) and the Remarkables and Coronet Peak close to Queenstown. Snow season runs from June to October.

The island shines in summer, too. There are multi-day Great Walks like the Routeburn Track, Milford Track and Abel Tasman Coast Track for serious hikers. The Rob Roy Glacier Track, a 10-km stretch through Mt Aspiring National Park in Wanaka takes in incredible alpine scenery, glaciers and snow fields. Nearby, the hike up Roy’s Peak is a 16-km climb that rewards you with the best view of Wanaka from above. A walk around Lake Matheson (about 1.5 hours) on a clear day delivers great views of Mt Cook and even its reflection in the lake, if conditions are clear.

Abel Tasman Coast Track.
Abel Tasman Coast Track.

Abel Tasman National Park is coastal paradise for kayakers and the Tonga Island Marine Reserve is home to little blue penguins, bottlenose dolphins and seals. For magical adventures of the underground kind, a cave system on the western shore of Lake Te Anau is home to millions of glowing worms.

Perched on Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is renowned the world over as an adventure capital. Bungy jumping, white water rafting and paragliding are just a taste of what’s here in this haven for thrill seekers. A ride on the Skyline Gondola breezes up Bob’s Peak for incredible views over the resort town, Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountain range. 

The Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, the country’s two most famous ancient glaciers, are about a four-hour drive from Queenstown. Descending from the Southern Alps, Franz Josef plunges (steeply) through lush rainforest almost to sea level and Fox Glacier (about 20 kilometres southwest of Franz Josef) has a gradual incline. The terminal faces of both glaciers can be reached in an easy walk, or by helicopter – some even land on them for a walk (heli-hiking). 

Fox Glacier.
Fox Glacier.

It’s not all untamed nature, though, with charming Dunedin, the country’s first city, and Christchurch to explore. A visit to the botanic gardens in Christchurch’s city centre helps explain the nickname Garden City. 

New Zealand’s reputation for excellent food and wine endures, with the South Island’s wine efforts revered worldwide, from Marlborough sauvignon blanc to Central Otago pinot noir and Nelson chardonnay. 

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