Putting together a South Island itinerary is exciting, with many beautiful places and hidden gems to choose from! The only tricky part is choosing the best places to visit on your road trip when New Zealand’s South Island is as varied and vast as it is stunning.
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We’ve included some of the best places to add to your South Island itinerary on this list! From the beautiful natural scenery you’ll adore to unique activities and even hidden gems for those who prefer to get off the beaten track, you won’t regret visiting these stunning destinations on your South Island road trip!
Best Places & Hidden Gems to Visit on your South Island Itinerary
The Queen Charlotte Track
Contributed by Delilah of Our Travel Mix
With the sheer beauty of the bottom half of the South Island, it can be easy to dismiss the top. However, its golden sand beaches and transparent aquamarine waters should be on your radar.
The Queen Charlotte Track allows avid hikers and casual enthusiasts to explore this beautiful region.
As one of the best things to do in Picton, its convenient location is the gateway between the North and South Islands. Getting here typically means driving from Nelson or taking the Interislander ferry from Wellington.
It’s a good idea to spend a night or two enjoying Picton before taking a boat out into the Marlborough Sounds to walk back along the Queen Charlotte Track. If you enjoy multi-day hikes, then the Queen Charlotte Track is one of the most beautiful and scenic walks in New Zealand, rivalling the renowned Abel Tasman Track.
Multi-day hikers should make sure to bring supplies for the entire 3 – 5 day hike and book accommodation either at the gorgeous lodges or campsites along the way. Furneaux Lodge, Punga Cove and Lochmara Lodge are popular choices.
Travellers who are short on time, or aren’t keen on multi-day hikes, are fortunate enough to be able to walk one of the most beautiful sections of the Queen Charlotte Track. Beachcomber Cruises offers boat transfers from Picton, allowing you to walk the section from Furneaux Lodge to Punga Cove. With this option available, we reckon Queen Charlotte Track is one of the most impressive and accessible day hikes in New Zealand.
Abel Tasman National Park
Contributed by Giorgia from G-Extreme Travel
Have you ever dreamed of stepping back in time and experiencing the place as it used to be? Abel Tasman National Park is a must-visit among the unique places to visit on New Zealand’s South Island, situated at the northern end of a range of marble and limestone hills extending from Kahurangi National Park. Most people come to do the Coast Track, considered New Zealand’s most beautiful Great Walk.
Indeed there are hidden natural surprises, such as Cleopatra’s Pool, along this 60 km Coast Track. It consists of sparkling seas, golden sand, and a quintessential coastal forest. Each year, about 30’000 overnight trampers and kayakers stay in the park for at least one night due to this pulling power. Among the major attractions is the well-cut, well-graded, well-marked terrain. You can even walk the track in sneakers; getting lost here is almost impossible.
Despite this, you will probably get your feet wet due to the long stretches of beach and crazy tides on this track. The park has some of the most significant tidal differences in the country, up to a staggering 6m. Crossing the soggy sands of Torrent Bay and Bark Bay is much easier and more enjoyable than taking the high-tide track. Therefore, you must cross Awaroa Bay at low tide. DOC’s website and regional i-SITEs have tide tables; you’ll also find them along the track and online.
A common misconception is that the Coast Track ends at Totaranui. However, it actually extends to a car park near Wainui Bay. Water taxis allow you to easily extend the trip, particularly when combined with a kayak leg, from three to five days. For instance, you can even kayak one day, camp overnight, then walk back, or walk further into the park and catch a return water taxi!
If you only have two days, it would be rewarding to tramp from Totaranui to Whariwharangi Hut. Then, stay overnight at Whariwharangi Hut, and return to Totaranui via Gibbs Hill Track. In comparison to other segments of the park, this segment will offer a slice of the park’s best features (beaches, seals, coastal scenery).
Contributed by Francesca from Little Lost Travel
Nelson Lakes National Park lies at the northern end of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. There, you’ll find the Nelson Lakes nestled within a landscape of mountains, valleys and honeydew beech forests.
Called Rotoroa and Rotoiti, the twin alpine lakes offer a serene panoramic view of the 102,000-hectare national park. However, one of the best and probably most famous viewpoints is from Lake Rotoiti Jetty, which juts out into the glacial waters and frames the mountains in front. Follow Kerr Bay Road from Saint Arnaud to get to the jetty.
Don’t just visit for the jetty photograph, though. There are plenty of long and short hiking trails around the lakes for a peaceful walk on the water’s edge.
Kayaking, swimming and fishing are also popular here, and water taxis offer lake tours too. In the winter, snow sports enthusiasts can head to the nearby Rainbow Ski Field. Another popular local attraction is Whisky Falls, a stunning 40m waterfall.
The closest village to Nelson Lakes is Saint Arnaud on the shore of Rotoiti, where you can camp or spend the night in a cosy lodge. You’ll also find a small but pleasant selection of eateries to grab a bite.
The Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki are a must-see on any New Zealand West Coast road trip itinerary. These unique limestone rocks have been eroded over millions of years to create unique horizontal shapes and structures. These strange columns have been likened to stacks of pancakes, hence the name!
The stunning walkway winds around the best views of the Pancake Rocks, alongside blow holes and a surge pool where you can look down and see the waves crashing beneath you. The walk takes around 30 minutes to complete, though you could easily spend longer enjoying the ocean views. Definitely worth adding to your NZ bucket list!
While you’re here, don’t miss Punakaiki Cavern! A 130m underground passage takes you through the cavern where more unique limestone creations, including stalactites, show just how malleable and beautiful our Earth is.
Maruia Hot Springs
Driving along the mountainous Lewis Pass Road, it’s hard to believe this hidden gem is tucked somewhere between the Southern Alps! The Maruia Hot Springs was the most relaxing place I visited during my South Island road trip.
Powered by nature, these stunning South Island geothermal mineral springs are stunningly situated overlooking the mountains. The secluded waters change colours throughout the day and are said to have healing properties and benefit the skin. While I’m unsure about the science behind that, they helped soothe the sore muscles I’d developed while travelling.
While the natural hot pools are the highlight, the Maruia Hot Springs is a day spa and wellness centre with professional massages and treatments alongside saunas, steam rooms, and wellness activities. Their restaurant and relaxation lounges have floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the mountains – perfect.
While lodges and hotel rooms are available, if you have a campervan, you can actually stay on their onsite campground for a reasonable price. All accommodations look over the river and mountains – it’s just incredible.
This lakeside gem is beloved by locals but often missed by Roadtrippers visiting New Zealand for the first time. Otematata is a very small township, but it has all the basic amenities and facilities you need.
If you’re visiting the East coast, such as Dunedin and the Catlins, you may drive down this road while coming from Mount Cook or Lake Tekapo. If so, be sure to stop at Aviemore Lake and Benmore Lake. These stunning reflective lakes are irresistibly photogenic and definitely worth stopping. Sit at a picnic table with your morning coffee, or take a relaxing walk around the lakeside for mesmerising mountain views.
There are many campsites by the lake, which come alive in the Summer with watersports, boats, and jet skis. These can be rented from local operators during your stay. You could also hike around the Benmore Peninsular Track, which has terrific lookouts over the tiny islands upon the lake or cycle around the Otematata Wetlands.
While you’re in the area, I recommend visiting Omarana Hot Springs and Clay Cliffs nearby.
Contributed by Nicholas from Rambling Feet
Since the devastating Canterbury earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, one has to look beyond Christchurch for well-preserved 19th-Century architecture on the South Island. The town of Oamaru is one of the best places to see such a collection of old buildings. If it weren’t for the cars, walking around its Victorian Precinct would have felt like a blast from the past. It should come as no surprise when more than 70 buildings are registered historic places. You could spend an afternoon wandering around the area. Of the lot, the Steampunk HQ is a unique museum that focuses on steam-powered science fiction exhibits, and it is great entertainment for $10 that you won’t find elsewhere.
Penguins are the other thing that draws people to Oamaru. In the late afternoons from June to February, one can watch the yellow-eyed penguin colony return from the sea to their nests at Bushy Beach, which is a 15-minute walk from the town centre. The cliff-top lookout post provides a commanding view, but they will be some distance away, so a pair of binoculars and a zoom lens helps.
Later in the evening, the large colony of blue penguins also returns to their nests in the burrows along the Esplanade and Friendly Bay. A remarkable amphitheatre is set up at the end of the latter so you can watch them and learn about them for $40 ($25 for children aged 5-17). The steep price and no-photography rules that are meant to help them do mean that visitors try their luck in the car park outside, where they end up obstructing the penguins’ routes and scaring them, so be mindful and responsible if you choose to do likewise.
Contributed by Laura from Laura The Explorer
The Moeraki Boulders are a must-visit place on a trip to New Zealand’s South Island. Located on the east coast, about an hour’s drive north of Dunedin, the small township of Moeraki is home to this natural phenomenon that attracts everyone from photographers to families intrigued by these mysteriously large stones.
Scattered across Koekohe Beach just across the bay from Moeraki, the boulders reached over 2m (7ft) in diameter. They were formed by cementation over millions of years during the Paleocene period. Over time they have since become exposed due to coastal erosion.
Maori legends tell that the boulders are the remains of gourds, kumara and fishing nets (due to their net-like pattern) washed ashore from Arai-te-Uru, the waka (canoe) of local iwi Ngāi Tahu.
Down on the beach, the boulders are a really popular spot to unleash your inner child and spend an hour jumping from rock to rock. It can get pretty busy, especially during summer or school holidays when the beach and nearby camping grounds fill up. So if you’ve got some flexibility in your schedule, I’d recommend visiting mid-week or off-season to avoid the crowds.
There are a couple of other considerations to make for your visit. First is the tides, where low tide is preferable as high tides surround the boulders with waves and make jumping from boulder to boulder a little more adventurous! Secondly, sunset is a great time to capture the boulders and their shadows. It’s a very popular spot for photographers, so you’ll often find a few tripods set up along the beach at golden hour.
The easiest way to visit is to park up just off State Highway 1 (take care of crossing traffic if arriving from the south!) at either the main public parking lot or the Moeraki Boulders Cafe a little farther along the same road. The cafe parking lot is slightly closer but note that there are a few stairs to get down to the beach.
Stay Overnight at Lanarch Castle
Contributed by Holly from Globeblogging
If you are looking for a unique experience on your South Island itinerary, a stay at Larnach Castle is a must! The town of Dunedin has a rich Scottish influence and grand architecture, and Larnach was built with the vision of the old English family home of the creator. Situated on a 35-acre property which overlooks the Otago Harbour, the castle and grounds offer stunning views and are worth the visit even if you are just passing through.
While you cannot stay in the castle itself, several buildings on the property have been remodelled into accommodation options, including the 140-year-old stables. These are also choices for the budget conscious and include six comfortable bedrooms with a shared bathroom facility. The lower level features a dining room where the included breakfast is served, and it is here that the original structural design of the stable building can be seen, complete with cobblestoned floors and an intact stable.
Guests on the property also get after-hours access to stroll the grounds. They can treat themselves to a dinner hosted in the Castle dining room, with four courses selected by the chef showcasing the best of local seasonal produce and New Zealand wines. There are limited places for the dinner, so bookings are essential before 5pm. Dinner prices are $85 per adult and $30 per child.
Exploring Ida Valley in August was like visiting my own enchanting Winter wonderland! The road through the valley has various lookouts, and I definitely recommend pulling over to make the most of this fantastic scenery.
Strange, craggy rocks jut out all over the rolling hills, and steep mountains dominate the horizon. During my Winter trip, the browns, greens, and whites made beautiful patterns until they reached the distant wall of ice.
The area is best known for being near the Otago Central Rail Trail, though there are also some great hikes and other cycling paths in the region, such as Roxburgh Gorge or Clutha Gold Trails.
My favourite thing in Ida Valley was driving up to Poolburn Reservoir. You’ll need a 4WD drive to get there, or the road is quiet enough that you can pull over and hike the rest of the way.
This scenic reservoir was isolated and definitely the most off-the-beaten-path thing I did during the South Island trip. We just crossed a farmer along the road who was friendly and surprised to see us!
For LOTR fans, Ida Valley is the home of Rohan, which you can recognise in the otherworldly scenery here. Poolburn Reservoir was used to portray the attack on Westfold village.
Glacier Heli Hike in Mount Cook
Contributed by Angel (TC+LS)
The Glacier Heli Hike is among many incredible things to do in Aoraki Mt Cook. While viewing the glacier is unbelievable from afar, imagine stepping onto it and exploring it up close!
First, you will enjoy a 15-minute helicopter ride up to the glacier, during which you’ll overlook Mt Cook from above. Once you land on the top, you will begin the beautiful adventure of exploring the glacier. From here, your guide will take you to explore magical ice caves and ice formations!
Usually, you’d have to be an experienced mountaineer to hike on the glaciers; however, with this tour, you don’t need any prior experience. Your guide will provide you with everything you need to safely complete your hike on the glaciers. Wear warm, comfortable clothing (no jeans) and sunglasses! Also, remember to bring a camera; you’ll want to capture the magnificent moment.
And one last thing to note, try to book the Glacier Heli Hike as early in your trip as possible. It is a very weather-dependent activity, and if it gets cancelled, you have more flexibility to reschedule to a later date.
After your heli experience, you can explore Aoraki Mount Cook National Park further by hiking the famous Hooker Valley Track. The drive around Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook Village is also beautiful!
They say that the Queenstown to Glenorchy road is one of the most scenic drives in the South Island. But journey on a little further, and you’ll reach the aptly named Paradise – a mountainous take on ‘paradise’ if there ever was one!
Tourists often visit to take a photo by the yellow Paradise road sign with the gorgeous peaks in the background, though I went a little further to immerse myself in the mighty mountain scenery.
You can also cross the bridge over the Dart River from Glenorchy and drive to Mount Aspiring National Park. This is the start of the famous Routeburn Track, though even just driving down is worth the views.
There are also some beautiful Lord of the Rings locations in Glenorchy and Queenstown, two of which I drove past while exploring the Paradise region – the elven woodland haven, Lothlorien, and the setting for Saruman’s Isengard.
Taking a short detour from Queenstown to Milford Sound was well worth the effort to visit Mavora Lakes! Another local camping spot that’s still off-the-beaten-track for tourists, the views here are absolutely stunning.
The area is popular for many outdoorsy activities, such as four-wheel driving, boating, mountain biking and hiking. Among the best hikes are the South Mavora Lake Walking Track, which takes 2.5 hours, beginning at the unique swing bridge, and the Lake Mavora to Kiwi Burn Hut 4-hour track.
All can enjoy the family-friendly DOC campgrounds and activities. Made up of two lakes, South Mavora and North Mavora, there’s no doubt you’ll fall in love with relaxing by the lakeside or exploring the forest and mountain pathways.
Te Anau Glowworm Caves
Contributed by Jeanine De Diana of Lets go a Wandering
Te Anau is known as the gateway to Fiordland National Park. However, a visit to Te Anau is incomplete without venturing into the Glow Worm Caves. Here, experience a unique tour through underground limestone caves carved out over thousands of years by running water flowing through them.
The Te Anau Glow Worm caves tour is a small group tour (14max), with a dedicated boat transporting you across the Lake to Cavern House. Once there, enjoy an information session about the caves and the bioluminescent glow worms (Arachnocampa Luminosa), which are unique to New Zealand. Various displays contain information on the glow worms and the cave’s timeline.
Visitors take a short forest walk through a brilliant display of native flora before embarking on small boats that take you through carved limestone caverns deep into a grotto. Along the way, you will see glimmers of light due to the bioluminescence of the glow worms throughout the caves. Once you get deep within the main cave, you will be dazzled by the light of the hundreds of glow worms present. It is one of the truly unforgettable experiences and beautiful places on South Island, New Zealand.
The tours depart from the lakefront in Te Anau at the RealJourneys visitor centre three times a day (10:15, 14:00 & 16:30). The cost of the tour includes the return lake cruise. We strongly recommend booking in advance. Be sure to wear comfortable non/slip shoes, bringing a jacket or sweater as it can get quite cold in the caves.
The simplest way to get to Te Anau is via car, usually visited as a stop on the way to Milford Sound. While in Te Anau, you can enjoy several walks of varying grades. These range from 10 mins to the bird sanctuary walk to 8-10hrs or 3-4 days along Kepler Track. Alternatively, you can wander along the lakeshore or around the local shops. There is also an option to tour the Fiordland Jet around the lake.
Whether you choose to visit Doubtful Sound on an overnight cruise or sea kayaking mission, you won’t regret choosing to visit. Doubtful Sound is 421m deep and 40km long, making it the deepest and second longest of all fiords in the South Island. This means there are many water passages to explore, delightful waterfalls and mountain peaks to awe at.
Tours to Doubtful Sound begin at the Real Journeys office in Manapouri. From here, you’ll take a boat across Lake Manapouri, followed by a wild bus ride that skirts around steep mountain roads. Finally, you’ll reach your boat and get shown your cabin if staying overnight.
As your boat sails towards the Tasman Sea, you may pass fur seals, dolphins, whales, and even rare Fiordland Penguins, if you’re lucky, alongside a wide variety of other birdlife.
This serene and secluded Sound is, undoubtedly, completely breathtaking. I would consider this the most beautiful place I visited in New Zealand!