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What Not to Miss on the South Island of New Zealand

With so many options, it can be hard to pick what not to miss on the South Island of New Zealand. However, these are our top choices:

  • Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound
  • One of the three major glaciers (Fox Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier, or Tasman Glacier)
  • Queenstown
  • A drive on one of the island’s most scenic roads
  • The West Coast
  • Wanaka

The South Island of New Zealand is packed full of so many natural wonders it would take at least a month to visit them all.

If you are planning your first visit to New Zealand, this guide will help you choose the very best of the best. Read on to learn more about what not to miss on the South Island.

Our Top Picks: What Not to Miss on the South Island

1. Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound

real journeys doubtful sound overnight cruise
A cruise through Doubtful Sound

New Zealand’s fiords are one of the country’s crowning jewels. These stunning landscapes are a place of extremes, with huge annual rainfall, towering waterfalls, and near-vertical mountainsides.

Milford Sound is rightly famous, and the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is arguably more dramatic than the fiord itself.

If you prefer fewer crowds, Doubtful Sound is even larger and more dramatic than Milford Sound. This fiord is difficult to access, which is why it still feels so isolated. Visitors must take a boat across Lake Manapouri and ride a bus over Wilmot Pass to reach Doubtful Sound.

Whichever fiord you choose, be sure to visit at least one during your South Island holiday.

2. One of the three major glaciers

franz josef glacier helicopter
Flying over Franz Josef Glacier

New Zealand has over 3,000 glaciers, but most of these are high in the mountains and difficult to visit.

However, you should not miss visiting one of the three major glaciers:

  • Franz Josef Glacier
  • Fox Glacier
  • Tasman Glacier

These three stretch down almost to sea level, and are easily reached by either short trails or helicopter flights.

By far the best way to see these glaciers is with a helicopter flight and snow landing, as this provides sweeping views of New Zealand’s highest peaks.

3. Queenstown

Skyline Queenstown - what not to miss on the South Island
The view over Queenstown from the top of the Skyline Gondola

Opinions on Queenstown are mixed–some fall in love with its natural beauty, while others are overwhelmed by the bustling town center.

However, no one can deny that this is the heart of the South Island. Queenstown is an easy base for visiting many of the surrounding regions, from the famous hiking trails in Glenorchy and the charming historic village of Arrowtown to the wineries scattered through the Gibbston Valley of Vines.

If you prefer not to drive, tour operators in Queenstown will keep you busy with an endless list of sightseeing, outdoor sports, and adrenaline activities, all offering transport from the town center.

4. A drive on one of the island’s most scenic roads

scenic drives South Island - what not to miss on the South Island
Driving through the Southern Alps

Many of the highlights of the South Island are located along its alpine roads. You should not leave New Zealand without experiencing one of these breathtaking mountain drives.

Choose from the Milford Road, the Mackenzie Basin, Arthur’s Pass, Haast Pass, or the Queenstown-Glenorchy road.

5. The West Coast

West Coast Beach
A windswept West Coast beach

The South Island’s West Coast is a wild, dramatic place with lush rainforest, pounding waterfalls, deep river gorges, towering mountains, and two of the country’s three major glaciers.

Along the narrow, winding coast road, travelers can visit the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, the Hokitika Gorge, and the Jade Factory.

6. Wanaka

wanaka tree - what not to miss on the South Island
The famous Wanaka Tree

We may be biased since Wanaka is our home, but almost all visitors fall in love with this charming mountain town. Less hectic than Queenstown but with just as many sightseeing options, Wanaka’s compact town center is perched on the shores of Lake Wanaka and surrounded by the Southern Alps.

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