New Zealand's South Island is the larger of the two main islands, but is only home to about 25 percent of the population. It is best known for its magnificent glacier-carved mountains, its fjords, the Milford Sound, Mount Cook, gorgeous beaches, unique flora and fauna, whale-watching and adventure tourism.
Christchurch, the largest city on the island, also known as The Garden City, is located on the east coast of the South Island. The city is lush with trees and parks through and the River Avon runs right through the middle of it. Christchurch is an excellent destination for travelers seeking adventure sports.
Some of Christchurch's must-sees include:
- Willowbank Wildlife Reserve provides visitors with the opportunity to watch, touch and even feed some of the country's native wildlife, including kiwi birds, wallabies, keas, lemurs and fresh water eels. The reserve also features nightly Maori Cultural Performances and an onsite restaurant that is open for lunch and dinner. The Reserve is open from 10am – 10pm year-round, with day and evening tours operating daily.
- Christchurch Botanic Gardens are located in Hagley Park, with the Avon River flowing right through it. The Gardens are abundant with flora and fauna native to New Zealand, as well as plants from around the world. Open 365 days per year; free admission.
- Orana Wildlife Park is the largest wildlife reserve in New Zealand. Set on 80 hectares of park-like grounds, animals are housed in their natural habitats with few barriers or fines, allowing visitors to see them up close and even feed some of the gentler species. Open 10am – 5pm daily; closed Christmas day.
- Arts Center Weekend Market is a world-class market located in the historic Arts Center, featuring almost 100 sellers selling hand-crafted local art, jewelry, clothing and fresh produce. The Market also features an international food fair and live music. Open every Saturday and Sunday, year-round.
- Take the Christchurch Gondola 1500 feet up to the gondola station for unbeatable 360-degree views of Christchurch, Canterbury Plains and Lyttelton Harbor. At the top, visitors can peruse the small gift shop, explore the history center, or relax at the restaurant and cafe.
Dunedin is the second largest city on the South Island, and also New Zealand's oldest city. This coastal town is perhaps best known for being one of the best-preserved Victorian and Edwardian cities in the southern hemisphere, as well as for its amazing wildlife. Dunedin is home to the Northern Royal Albatross, Yellow-eyed Penguins, and several species of seals and sea lions.
Some of the most popular attractions in Dunedin include:
- Penguin Place, home of the Yellow-eyed Penguin Conservation Reserve, is located about 30 minutes from Dunedin's city center. Small group tours, which run throughout the day, take visitors through the colony for a close-up viewing of the birds. Reservations are required.
- Elm Wildlife Tours offers visitors the opportunity to see Sea Lions, Fur Seals, Yellow-Eyed Penguins and Albatross in their natural environments, including Elm's own restricted wildlife conservation sanctuary. Private and small-group tours are offered year-round. A good fitness level is required for tours.
- Dunedin Public Art Gallery is one of New Zealand's finest art galleries, which holds the main public art collection of the city. The gallery showcases a large collection of native New Zealand art as well as rotating exhibits from around the world. Open year-round, except for major holidays.
- Larnach Castle, the lone castle of New Zealand, was built in 1871 by William Larnach for his wife, Eliza, and took 15 years to complete. The castle is open for tours, lodging and dining every day, except Christmas day.
Located on the shores of the beautiful Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by the Southern Alps, Queenstown is an excellent adventure destination any time of year. Beside skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, jet boating, rafting, kayaking and water skiing, some of the other popular activities in Queenstown include horseback riding, golfing, mountain biking, hang gliding, sky diving and touring the local wineries.
Milford Sound is a very famous fjord located in glacier-carved Fjorland National Park; it is the most popular tourist destination in New Zealand. Milford Sound is a spectacular sight on sunny day, or in the rain, when the waterfalls are in their full glory. Dolphins, seals and penguins can also be frequently seen in the sound. Tours are available by day cruises, kayak, plane or helicopter.
Another popular way to see the Milford Sound is the Milford Track, which is the most famous tramping route in New Zealand, and one of the most famous walks in the world. Along this 32-mile trek that goes from the head of Lake Te Anau, through the rain forest and Fjordland National Forest, to the Milford Sound, visitors can take in the beautiful valleys carved from glaciers. The trail is busiest from October through April.
Stewart Island is located off the southern coast of the South Island. This rugged island is 40 miles long, about 24 miles wide, and does not even have roads. As the bird capitol of New Zealand, Stewart Island is an excellent bird-watching destination. Boat cruises, fishing, kayaking and hiking are also popular activities.
Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers cut through glacial valleys flowing into the temperate rainforest. Each of these dramatic glaciers is about 7 miles long. Located in a reliably mild climate, no other glaciers in the world are easily accessible as Fox and Franz Josef. One can see these glaciers via walking tours, kayak tours, helicopter tours and even skydiving!
At over 12,000 feet high, Mount Cook (Aoraki) is the tallest mountain in New Zealand, and is located in the Southern Alps, which span the entire length of the South Island. This tourist destination is an obvious favorite among mountain climbers. The mountain can be enjoyed by one of the many hiking trails, by 4WD safaris, horseback riding, scenic flights and even boating on the glacier lakes.