With so many breathtaking natural wonders on South Island, listing everyone is almost an impossible task. Fortunately, there are some big hitters which New Zealand newbies shouldn’t miss. Most are spread out across the island making it tricky to visit them all on your own, but you could always join one of the New Zealand South Island tours.
1. Blue Pools Track. A good starting point is the Blue Pools Track which takes visitors along a kilometre-long path that passes bridges that span luminously blue pools on the island. They’re so clear, you can even spot the trout swimming upstream along the pools. If you’re feeling brave, you could take a leap of faith off one of the bridges into the refreshing waters.
2. Mount Cook. Towering up at almost 4,000 metres above sea level, Mount Cook is the highest peak in the Southern Alps. Its summit is almost permanently snow-capped and is best seen on a hike through the nearby national park or by booking one of the scenic flights that circles it from above.
3. Tongariro Alpine Crossing. If you’re feeling energetic, don’t miss the 20-kilometre walk across the Tongariro National Park. It often ranks in the top ten spectacular hikes around the world and passes a stark landscape of towering volcanoes and Emerald-coloured lakes. Don’t miss catching a glimpse of Mount Ngauruhoe which was used as the fictional Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movie franchise.
4. Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. Punakaiki rocks is one of the most visited natural wonders on the South Island. The beautiful eroded limestone rock formations took more than 30 million years to create. When the sea crashes against the rock it’s forced up through vertical blowholes creating a spectacular natural show. There’s plenty of rare coastal birds to spot too so be sure to bring your binoculars.
5. Oamaru penguins. Who said you needed to go as far as the Antarctic to spot penguins? When you visit South Island’s coastal town of Oamaru, you can catch a glimpse of two different species of penguins, the blue and yellow eyed penguins, that waddle along the shores between May and June to nest.
6. Moeraki Boulders. While you’re in Oamaru, head a little south along the coast to see the Moeraki Boulders, unusually large spherical rocks that are scattered around the beach. Smoothed by the crashing ocean, some are almost 2 metres wide and took tens of thousands of years to erode to their shape. They’re best seen when the tide is low and you can clamber onto them to take photos.
7. Milford Sound. Natural wonders in New Zealand don’t get much better than Milford Sound. This achingly beautiful fjord on the South Island carved out over millions of years is dotted with plummeting waterfalls that tumble down steep cliffs to the sound below. The best way to experience the magnificent fjord is by paddling through on kayaks. Keep an eye out for the colonies of penguins and seals. Spotting jumping dolphins is not uncommon.
8. Abel Tasman National Park. This wilderness reserve on the South Island is known for its long beaches and headland point teeming with large fur seal colonies. There’s other critters here too like bottlenose dolphins and waddling blue penguins. Lace up your walking boots and hit the winding trail to see everything between Wainui and Marahau.
9. Kaikoura whales. Just a few hours from Christchurch is the coastal town of Kaikoura. While the town is pretty enough, it’s the opportunity to spot whales in the surrounding waters that draws most travellers in. Be sure that it’s included on your New Zealand South Island tour because there’s nothing quite like watching the giant sperm whales jump and crash into the ocean.
10. Fox and Franz Josef Glacier. There’s two ways to experience the breathtakingly beautiful glaciers that sit side by side on the West Coast. Board a helicopter to catch a glimpse of them from above or don crampons and join one of the New Zealand South Island tours to hike cover the top of them with an experienced guide. You won’t be disappointed!