Itineraries: what to do on New Zealand’s South Island, from whale watching to wine-tasting

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New Zealand South Island
New Zealand South Island

The South Island is adrenaline-packed, and it’s also the home of the famous Marlborough wine-tasting region, with plenty of hikes and bike rides to be done too.

You’ll likely arrive on the South Island via the ferry from Wellington to Picton and from there, you can drive down the coast to Kaikoura, New Zealand’s whale-watching capital, and you can look for them via boat or plane.

From Kaikoura, head south to Christchurch. The earthquake-damaged city is in transition and it’s a heart-warming experience to see what human ingenuity and perseverance can accomplish.

From Christchurch, head across country to the adventure sports capital of New Zealand, Queenstown, and its neighbour Wanaka. Both towns offer every sort of adrenalin-charged activity you’ve heard of, and some you haven’t.

Queenstown is also the gateway to some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. Three of the New Zealand’s multi-day Great Walks (the Routeburn, Kepler and Milford Tracks) are found in Fiordland and doing at least one of them is a must.

It’s straightforward to organise drop-offs and pick-ups but hut accommodation will need to be booked long in advance.

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Queenstown’s famous jet boat ride in the Shotover Gorge

From Fiordland, the choice is whether to continue heading south, via the pinot noir-growing region of Central Otago, and the boutique, bars and crafty studios of Oamaru’s well-preserved Victorian Precinct, towards the rugged Catlins coast and Dunedin, New Zealand’s most southerly city.

Or make your way north along the South Island’s mountainous west coast via the Franz Josef glacier and Australasia’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mt Cook, part of the Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area, which itself is home to 23 mountains over 3000m.

After the drama of this ice-capped world, continue north to the Abel Tasman National Park, where the landscape transforms into a succession of idyllic, sandy coves, sparkling sea and coastal forest, draping limestone hills.

New Zealand’s most popular Great Walk is the Abel Tasman Coast Track but exploring by sea kayak is just as enjoyable and gets you just as close to nature.

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Ice climbing on the Franz Josef glacier

After this epic circuit, relax with a couple of days wine tasting around Marlborough at the very top of the South Island.

And don’t miss Nelson, one of New Zealand’s most ‘liveable’ cities with fantastic food, wine, art, crafts and festivals. This is also the craft brewing capital of New Zealand; a cycle trail, the Great Taste Trail, swings by several food, wine and beer producers.

Heading to the North Island? Click here for an itinerary.

High50 has partnered with Tourism New Zealand to bring you this guide. To discover more about New Zealand and to book, visit newzealand.com.

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