New Zealand’s one of my favourite countries in the world, and the stunning South Island is particularly special.
Honestly, the scale of the beauty on offer here is like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else!
It has everything from glacial lakes and snow-capped mountains to golden sands and turquoise bays.
In fact, there’s so much to see and do on NZ South Island that a New Zealand South Island itinerary can feel impossible to plan!
With limited time on your hands, picking one place over another can feel downright torturous. Know the struggle?
Well, having been lucky enough to explore the South Island quite a lot now, though, I might be able to help!
Whether you’re planning a 10 days New Zealand South Island itinerary or a months’-long adventure, there are certain essential stops for any South Island New Zealand trip.
With that in mind, keep reading for 10 essential places to include on any New Zealand South Island itinerary 10 days or more.
Top 10 Essential Stops You Should Do On The South Island In New Zealand
1) Golden Bay, Takaka And Beyond
No New Zealand South Island itinerary is complete without a stopover in and around Golden Bay.
This northern part of South Island is a treasure trove of natural beauty and chilled-out backpacker vibes.
Head to Takaka, a small town just beyond Takaka Hill (enjoy the long winding road up and the stunning views at the top).
It was one of the most laid-back places I visited in New Zealand, which says a lot, as it’s all pretty laid back! The atmosphere is beautiful here, and it provides great access to some of the attractions nearby.
There are also numerous spots to bathe in and/or jump from rocks into the crystal clear waters of Takaka River.
Just ask anyone around to point out the best spot to do so. If the temperature’s right, it’s a beautiful way to spend an afternoon.
Here are a few other things to do in the area:
Not far from Takaka you’ll find the clearest spring water in the world. The Pupu Springs (Te Waikoropupu Springs, in Maori) is well worth a visit.
There’s a short walk around them with information boards offering insight into this enchanting little place.
Even if you’ve only got 10 days in New Zealand, it’s still worth stopping in at when you’re in this neck of the woods.
Take a trip to the northernmost point, too: Farewell Spit. Here, you can take an eco-tour or just enjoy the unique landscape that surrounds you.
Don’t forget your backpack either (these backpacks for back pain should do the trick!), as there are also plenty of walks to do too. Oh, and there’s a lovely café to go to for lunch that offers breathtaking views over the Tasman Sea.
Make sure you visit Wharariki Beach while you’re up this way too. It’s a wild, wind-swept, white-sand beach where you can see seals frolicking and admire the rock formations out to sea. It’s one of the most impressive beaches I’ve ever had the privilege to be on!
This part of South Island New Zealand is famous for the Golden Bay area. As the name suggests, this area is renowned for its stunning golden sand beaches and bays.
You’re spoilt for choice, but I can recommend Tata Beach.
To get there from Farewell Spit, follow Route 60, heading south past Takaka, and keep going a short way.
Enjoy the chilled-out cafes, bars, and restaurants that line the sand, and be sure to take a kayak to explore the nearby golden sand-covered islands.
This is by far one of my favourite places and a must-do for any 10 days New Zealand South Island itinerary.
2) Abel Tasman National Park And The Coastal Track
In the same general vicinity as Takaka, in the north of South Island, the Abel Tasman National Park is a real highlight. It’s just stunning: azure waters, golden bays, lush forest…paradise.
I’d encourage anyone to include the Abel Tasman on their New Zealand South Island itineraries and to attempt the famous ‘Great Walk’ while they’re at it.
There are 10 ‘Great Walks’ in New Zealand, and one of the best known is known as The Abel Tasman Coastal Track.
According to the official website, the walk covers 51km and takes between 3-5 days; you can get there by driving 40 minutes North West from Nelson.
It’s reasonably long, but it’s a straightforward walk with a beaten path and signs the entire way- I’d say it’s absolutely possible to complete in 2 days.
Don’t rush it, though; the benefit of spending 3-5 days on the path would be getting to enjoy the scenery and surroundings that bit longer.
It’s worth noting that it definitely isn’t free to walk. Indeed, free camping is no longer legal (though still possible- just be respectful) in New Zealand, and it’s forbidden to stay anywhere on the Abel Tasman Coastal Walk other than designated huts and campsites, which all cost money!
For up-to-date costs, make sure you check with the Information Centre wherever you’re staying.
If you want to save money or just don’t fancy walking all 51km, you could do a section of it by getting a water taxi from Marahau to a start point further up the coast.
3) The West Coast, Punakaiki And The Pancake Rocks
One of the greatest drives I’ve ever done was down the wild, West Coast of South Island. It’s a must if you’re planning a 10 day South Island road trip (as are these road trip trivia games!).
Head south from the Abel Tasman. Once you hit the coast, you essentially stay there down almost the entire length of the country.
The route bends, winds, climbs, and falls all the way. The views are insane every step of the way.
If you don’t want to drive the entire way in one go, there are multiple towns to explore and spend the night.
Along the way, between Westport and Greymouth, you’ll reach Punakaiki, famous for its Pancake Rocks.
It’s a popular tourist stop, so don’t expect to be alone, but it’s well worth a visit regardless.
Pull up and take a break from the drive, then take a short walk around this incredible geological landmark.
They’re called the pancake rocks due to the layered striations on the rock itself, formed over millennia and causing the ‘stacked’ appearance, akin to countless piles of pancakes!
The rock formations are impressive in their own right, but this is matched by the cacophony of noise caused by the blowholes that have been formed over time.
As the wind and waves surge into these huge natural caverns and rock vaults, immense bursts of noise and spray create a truly unique atmosphere.
Be sure to stop here on your 10-day itinerary to South Island, New Zealand.
Hokitika actually sits on the West Coast of the South Island, so if you take that route, you’re bound to pass through. It’s well worth stopping for at least a night on your 10 day South Island itinerary.
Its main attraction’s the Hokitika Gorge. The gorge is breathtaking: misty, milky, azure turquoise blue waters run down through its centre with lush forest skirting its sides; the Hokitika Gorge Track is a short stroll that takes you to its epicentre.
The water is freezing cold, but on a hot day, it is fun (if a little scary for us acrophobic’s!) to jump in from the high rocks that skirt the river.
I’ll emphasise just how cold the water is, so be a little careful- it will most definitely cool you down!
If you don’t fancy a swim, why not just spend an afternoon enjoying the peace and quiet? Bring a book and a picnic and admire the natural beauty around you. It’s also a popular spot for kayakers.
While in Hokitika, take the opportunity to carve your own piece of Jade stone (aka Greenstone, or Pounamu in Maori).
This is a stone with special significance in NZ and Maori culture.
5) Franz Josef And Fox Glaciers
Further down the West Coast, it’s somewhat obligatory to stop off in Franz Josef.
This cool, lively little town provides easy access to the glacier that shares its name, as well as the nearby Fox glacier too.
Due to climate change, these ancient glaciers are receding at a dramatic rate and are now a fraction of the size they once were.
Every year the walk up to them gets longer as the big melt continues.
They remain miraculous sights to behold but go there as soon as you feasibly can. It’s becoming ever more likely that in years to come there will be nothing left to see.
For now, though, this remains a hugely popular tourist destination. And for a good reason.
Some people decide to see either the Fox or the Franz Josef glacier, deciding that one is enough for the day.
However, both are well worth witnessing. Take the easy hikes up and admire these natural wonders while you still can.
The walks themselves are a spectacle to behold. You feel like you’re in some Lost World- so dramatic are the surroundings.
Boulders the size of houses litter the glacial valley, dropped like pebbles as the glacier retreats; waterfalls course down mountains around you. It’s otherworldly and magnificent.
Some Extra Things to Do in Glacier Country
If you’ve got a spare few hundred dollars on you, you can also take a helicopter to actually walk on and explore the glaciers, which are off-limits (for safety reasons) to anyone just taking a walk-up.
Drink glacial water fresh from the source, and wander through this alien terrain.
While you’re down this way, go to Lake Matheson (aka “The Mirror Lake”) too. It is 5km from Fox Glacier and well worth a visit to see the dominant Mount Cook rise before you, gleaming in the sun and reflected with perfect clarity in the lake at your feet.
Lake Matheson’s a photographer’s dream, and there’s plenty of opportunity for photos as you take the short walk around the lake.
6) The Fiordland
The fiords of Milford and Doubtful Sound are further down on the South West Coast of South Island.
Do not go to South Island without going to at least one of them! They’re very wet (think 6412mm of annual rainfall) but unspeakably beautiful.
Milford Sound is the easier to access of the two as you can access it by road (Doubtful has no road access and requires a boat to get you there!).
There’s limited accommodation, and it’s relatively expensive versus other parts of NZ but absolutely worth it.
The beauty and scale of these places are indescribable.
The atmosphere is otherworldly and sublime; you’re dwarfed by gigantic cliffs rising from the water the surrounds you; waterfalls cascade endlessly from all areas; seals frolic and swim nearby.
Take a kayak out and pay for a boat to take you further into the Sounds themselves.
It’s not cheap, but being in a kayak provides a unique and peaceful means of exploring; taking the boat allows you to see even more.
The Milford Track is another of the Great Walks in NZ that is in Milford Sound, which stretches 53.5km and takes 4 days to complete. And a must-do if you are planning to go hiking in New Zealand.
This is a popular walk, so make sure you book up (sometimes months!) in advance to get a space.
Doubtful Sound is meant to be like the Milford but more remote.
It’s less touristy as a result, which supposedly adds to the awe-inspiring atmosphere.
If you’re after more natural beauty and outdoor pursuits, Wanaka is the place for you.
Situated on the banks of glacial Lake Wanaka, it’s just a dreamy location, filled with fun, happy people enjoying life in a picture-perfect landscape.
In summer, think swimming in the lake, water sports, hiking up surrounding mountains, diving into crystal clear plunge pools of water, and exploring glaciers; in Winter, when the snows come, think skiing, snowboarding, and après-ski.
The atmosphere is chilled out, with cafes, bars, and restaurants lining the shore of the lake; Wanaka is a laidback version of Queenstown (see number 8) and another popular tourist spot.
However, despite the number of people who flood its streets, Wanaka has managed to keep its charm.
Highlights include climbing Roy’s Peak and visiting the Rob Roy glacier, but there are simply amazing opportunities everywhere.
Wanaka is just a special place that demands a visit!
No trip to the South Island is complete without a visit to Queenstown, too, though.
This is the country’s go-to destination for extreme sports and a good night out. It’s only an hour’s drive south of Wanaka and feels a bit like its big brother.
Queenstown has many of the same attributes as Wanaka (mountains, lakes, and such like), but a faster pace to it.
It’s Wanaka, but on Steroids.
It really is a beautiful place but not necessarily for the faint-hearted: it’s a buzzing atmosphere that drives tourists to it in droves.
Accommodation is everywhere, but it gets so busy in peak periods that you should book up at least a few days in advance.
But, once you’re there, head out and sample what’s on offer.
Enjoy a big night out and meet the thousands of other travellers there; partake in the extreme sporting opportunities, such as the world’s biggest canyon swing.
It’ll be an expensive trip, but one that’s sure to make you some memories!
9) Mount Cook/Aoraki (In Maori)
Mount Cook is situated in roughly the centre of South Island and is the highest mountain in New Zealand, at 3724m. It’s another prime example of just how stunning New Zealand is.
Approaching on route 80 and skirting the milky bright turquoise shores of Lake Pukaki, Mount Cook rises magnificently before you.
It’s the quintessential snow-capped mountain, standing proudly and dominating your attention, commanding respect with its scale and unmoving agelessness.
Mount Cook Village provides a good array of accommodation and is a good starting point for your activities around the mountain.
Things to do here are perhaps typical of a mountainous region: hiking and walking (as well as more serious mountaineering), visiting glaciers, and simply admiring your surroundings.
There’s also star gazing to do, which is cheaper than the famed options in Lake Tekapo (see number 10), while still fantastic.
10) Star Gaze At Lake Tekapo
The final ‘must-do’ on my list of top things to do on South Island is a visit to Lake Tekapo.
North East from Mount Cook, Tekapo has another of NZ’s remarkable bright turquoise lakes at its centre, which draws crowds from miles around looking for a day of lakeside gallivanting.
You can do water sports and just generally enjoy a relaxed but lively atmosphere.
There’s also an old chapel near the Lake, which is worth going to see too.
However, the main attraction in Tekapo is stargazing, where there’s an observatory fit for purpose.
There are a couple of operators who run guided star gazing nights (for a price), where you are taught about the night sky before heading out and gazing up into the stars above.
The clarity of the night skies here and the lack of light pollution make for an unforgettably magical experience. Oh, and don’t forget to visit the hot pools in Tekapo too!
Essential Stops On Your New Zealand South Island Itinerary
There you have it: 10 essential things to include on your New Zealand south island itinerary.
The southern Island in New Zealand is also a world-class hiking destination.
Seriously, there are so many things worth seeing and doing on New Zealand south island that this post could easily have been twice as long!
Hopefully, this post has helped anyone planning their route around the south island.
Which parts do you think sound best? Drop a comment to let us know.
Author: Danny Newman
Bio: Danny Newman is currently writing and travelling his way around the world in a bid to figure out exactly what he’s doing with his life.
He’d love you to follow along with his journey over at What’s Danny Doing.
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