I was lucky enough to visit New Zealand’s South Island for the first time recently, and to say I was blown away would be an understatement.
Before our plane even touched the ground I was greeted to breathtaking views of snow-capped mountains, which looked even better close up (or while relaxing in a hot pool) as I cruised around the South Island on a whistle-stop, week-long tour.
New Zealand’s South Island never stopped amazing me; from the beautiful scenery and vast landscapes to adrenaline fuelled adventure sports, awesome bars, restaurants and nightlife, and the friendly, laid-back people who call this fantastic place home.
A window seat with a view
Five top picks for a fantastic time in New Zealand’s South Island
I reckon New Zealand’s South Island has it all, and it deserves a very firm High Five. Check out these five must-dos in the land of the long white cloud.
1. Get adventurous in Queenstown
Queenstown takes its title as the adventure capital of New Zealand very seriously. Head to The Station to book, well, every adventure activity you could ever imagine, basically. Take a ride on the Shotover Jet, go whitewater rafting, try skydiving or, if the season’s right, hit the slopes for a day of skiing. Low on time and budget? My pick is a bungy jump at the Kawarau Bridge. It’s the world’s first bungy site, so you can feel like a piece of history as you throw yourself off that 43 meter bridge. Terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time – it’s a must.
Bungyyyyyyy! (yep, that's me)
Once you’re done worrying your mum, it’s time to hit the town. Queenstown’s nightlife is as renowned as it’s adventure sports, so a bar crawl is definitely in order. Don’t miss The Find, a recently opened pop-up bar on the site of the legendary World Bar, which sadly burnt down earlier this year. Keep that hangover at bay with a famous Fergburger (possibly the best burger in the world, ever), or watching the roof open at Winnie’s while chowing down on a seriously good pizza.
2. Be wowed by Wanaka
Lake Wanaka is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, fact. The glacial lake glistens in the centre, while Mt Aspiring National Park sprawls into the distance around it. You’ll find mountains teaming with hiking trails, bike paths, and thousands of acres of off the beaten track land that only a 4WD safari can reach.
Taking it all in in beautiful Wanaka | Image courtesy of Alistair Lee
If hobbits are your thing, then get excited: scenes from the recent movie were filmed on location in Wanaka, and loads of the locals appeared as extras – chat to them about it, they’ve got some great stories.
Don’t leave without taking a cruise to the Mou Waho Island Nature Reserve, a unique island at the centre of the lake with some fantastic views of Wanaka. Then wind down at the famous Cinema Paradiso, where freshly baked cookies, homemade ice cream and an ice cold beer await as you watch the latest movies from a comfy sofa or old Morris Minor. Pure happiness.
3. Discover a new Christchurch
If you’re flying to the South Island, it’s likely you’ll fly into Christchurch, and it’s definitely worth spending a few days in this comeback kid of a city. Following an earthquake in 2011 which killed 185 people and left much of the city’s infrastructure devastated, Christchurch is slowly but surely rebuilding. It’s emerged as a vibrant, ever-changing city, with a pop-up culture than makes it such a unique place to be.
Christchurch's incredibly cool Re:START mall | Image courtesy of christchurchnz.com
Don’t expect a polished city on your doorstep; put in some time and research, talk to the locals, and you’ll feel as though you’re part of something really quite exciting. Go for drinks at Smash Palace, an awesome pop-up bar made up of old buses, and chomp on some delicious Asia food at King of Snakes. Check out Re:START, a shopping mall made out of shipping containers, and take time to reflect at the Quake City exhibition there before taking in the inspiring Cardboard Cathedral.
4. What’s that Sound?
Keep it quiet, but Milford Sound, the spot that Rudyard Kipling dubbed the eighth wonder of the world isn’t actually a sound. It’s technically a fiord. But hey, when you’ve got cliffs shooting up out of the dark waters, soaring mountain ranges and cascading waterfalls all around you, who the hell cares?
The hills are alive with the sound of Milford | Image by Rob Suisted
Join a boat cruise, jump in a kayak or brave the cold waters and go diving – however you choose to explore Milford Sound, I guarantee you will be completely astounded by its beauty. Keep an eye out for seals, dolphins and penguins (penguins!), and if it’s raining (which is very likely, given that it’s one of the world’s wettest places) don’t fret – the sound of the waterfalls multiplies, and the effect is fantastic.
5. Your very own Ice Age
For a truly out of this world experience, a hike across the Franz Josef Glacier is an absolute must. It’s hard to describe just how inspiring a trek across a 12km valley of ice really is; when I did it, it surpassed all my expectations. You’ll tramp over the ice, through ice tunnels, and even slide down nature’s very own ice slides.
Experience your own ice age at the Franz Josef Glacier | Image by Julian Apse
I can’t recommend a heli-hike enough; not only does arriving on top of a glacier by helicopter make you feel pretty special, it also provides some stunning views of the glacier and Franz Josef, and really puts into perspective how vast the glacier is. Plus, your ticket includes entry into nearby hot pools, so you can relax those achey muscles post-hike. Strap on your crampons and get out there!