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Our list of ULTIMATE must-do's in the South Island, New Zealand. 14 places you have to see!

A question we always get asked is “what are your favourite spots in the South Island” and even though I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of answering it (my love for the South Island is never-ending), I thought it would be a great idea to put some effort in and do a blog on our top 14 spots in the South Island. It actually started as a 'top 5' blog then became 'top 10' and now I have settled on 14 (for now) haha.

The premise for this blog, is not so much an itinerary (we will have a couple of South Island itinerary blogs coming up soon) but more the sights we would personally prioritise seeing if we only had a short amount of time in the South Island.

So without further ado, let’s get into the list of our favourite spots in the South Island. I tried to put it in order, but it’s just too hard! So take my numbering with a pinch of salt as they’re all really favourites.

1. Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki Aoraki Mount Cook Photography CJMaddock Away with CJ Charlotte Maddock James Maddock

This magnificent spot gets number one hands-down. I know I just said to ignore my numbering but this one is well and truly numero uno for us.

This is our favourite place in all of Aotearoa. It is just stunning and beautiful any time of day. The water colour is the most beautiful bright blue and as you’re nearing it, you’ll be thinking “surely that can’t be real”. But it is. Lake Pukaki is one of those spots that just takes you. You can sit there all day and just feel incredibly, completely, and utterly happy. I don’t know why, it’s just the most beautiful beautiful place and I highly recommend visiting. We always seem to find ourselves returning to this spot, and spending hours just taking it all in.

Lake Pukaki Kombi Van Volkswagen Aoraki Mount Cook Photography CJMaddock Away with CJ Charlotte Maddock James Maddock

If you have a certified self-contained camper, the Mackenzie district is incredibly generous with their freedom camping regulations and you can find several spots dotted around the lake where you can responsibly camp. To read more about this click here.

Lake Pukaki Aoraki Mount Cook Photography CJMaddock Away with CJ Charlotte Maddock James Maddock

Our top tips for visiting Lake Pukaki

  • It’s often busiest at the 'Lake Pukaki Viewpoint' car park or at the Visitor Centre. Either park at one of these spots and walk down a little way to find a nice quiet spot (you won’t need to walk far). Sometimes we will note that everyone is heading right so we will go left, and there won’t be a soul. The lake is big enough (x1000) that you can easily find your own wee spot. Otherwise park in a small pull off (there’s several along the lake) and walk down to the water front from there.

  • Visit when it’s not windy and Aoraki/Mount Cook is visible!

  • You can get an idea of Mt Cook's visibility by using the live webcam here

  • Have a freezing cold swim if you're game!

  • Depending on water levels, you might be able to sit/stand on a rock. In Summer 2018/2019 (below), there were lots of rocks around the water edge, but this Summer (2020), there has been so much rain that we have barely seen any rocks in the water!

Charlotte Maddock sitting on a rock overlooking Mt Cook over Lake pukaki

2. Aoraki/Mount Cook

You’re probably thinking I should have tied this in with Lake Pukaki, but really Aoraki/ Mount Cook deserves to get its own mention. Aoraki is the highest mountain in New Zealand and so, so very special.

kombi van driving in front of mt cook and lake pukaki
couple with man lifting woman in front of mt cook

The drive in, the walks in and around Aoraki, and even just sitting at a road-side stop and admiring it; are all incredibly special.

man and woman sitting down with kombi van with mt cook in background

The Hooker Valley track is the most popular walk to do in the Aoraki area (you can read more about it here), but we personally prefer Sealy Tarns (which you can read about here). Hooker Valley is a much easier, gentler walk and leads you to the Hooker Lake at the bottom of Aoraki (which is often speckled with ice-bergs) whereas Sealy Tarns consists of 2,200 stairs leading you to a small tarn (often referred to as the stairway to heaven). On a clear, still day, the reflections of Aoraki in the tarn are just breathtaking. We visited the tarn for sunset and are itching to get back. You should give yourself a night in this beautiful area and you can camp right in the park at White horse hill Campground ($15 per person). See more about this here.

couple with mt cook at sunset reflected in sealy tarns
man on rock at hooker lake with sunrise on mt cook
couple on boardwalk on hooker valley track overlooking mt cook

We have also done up a blog on photographing Mount Cook which you can read here:

Our tips for visiting Aoraki/Mount Cook

  • Hooker Valley Track is the busiest walk, but beautiful with the track taking you over three gorgeous swing bridges, a boardwalk perfectly positioned with Aoraki in the backgroud and then ends at an ice-berg filled lake. It takes us approximately 70 minutes to reach the lake from the carpark (one way). Definitely do-able with small kids.

  • Our personal favourite walk in Aoraki/Mount Cook is Sealy Tarns, where you can get a beautiful reflection of Aoraki (on a still, clear day). We have continued on to Mueller’s Hut, but personally preferred the view from the tarn, and found the track got quite tricky from the tarn to the hut. If you’re not confident scrambling on rocks, we would recommend stopping at the tarn. It took us approximately 90 minutes to reach the tarn (from the carpark).

  • The car park can be pretty horrific. Try and arrive early and park in a corner if you can. We have seen many, many car crashes here as there are no lines/designated parks and 110% not enough space. Take your time and be careful here.

  • Peter’s Lookout is a beautiful (but busy) spot for road-shots.

  • Tasman Lake is pretty incredible for sunrise and seeing the huge ice-berg structures. We like the Tasman River viewpoint and suggest setting up a time lapse as you'll be able to see how much the ice-bergs actually move!

  • Try and time your visit for clear (ish) weather. As Aoraki is often hiding, this can be hard. We recommend using the live webcam (click here) so you can best plan your visit.

  • The view of Aoraki from the road and several road-side stops is just stunning. The drive in to Aoraki is one of our favourites in the country. Take your time on it.

  • Mount Cook town is very touristy and expensive. We recommend purchasing any groceries/getting fuel/gas before you visit. Twizel will be your cheapest and closest town. Otherwise Tekapo if you’re heading from Christchurch way.

man leaning out of kombi van on side of road with mt cook

3. Wharariki Beach/Archway Islands

full moon set at sunrise wth couple at whaririki beach

Our favourite beach in the entire South Island. And there is definitely lots of competition!

Beautiful big sand dunes, playful seals, glistening golden sand and of course, the Archway Islands. I think what we loved most about Wharariki beach was its size. It seemed absolutely endless, and with endless opportunities to explore too. When we visited at sunset in 2019, there were probably another 15 people there but it didn’t feel crowded in any way. And because we loved it so much we came back for sunrise the next day. And shut all the front doors, there wasn’t a single soul at the beach! We couldn’t believe it.

couple dancing at sunset at whaririki beach

This year (2020) we have already been back for sunrise (and are planning to return once more because it truly is that good), and while it was a little busier (approximately about 8-10 people there) it was still just beautiful.

full moon rise with girl over wharariki beach

Note – the tides are quite large here so if you are looking to get a shot of the Archway Islands reflecting in the sand, you will want a low tide, and preferably one that’s going out.

couple dancing at sunset at wharariki beach

The walk to the beach takes about 20 minutes from the car park and is quite lovely – crossing over rolling farmland and taking you down onto and over big sand dunes. Once you reach the beach you want to head left to see the Archway Islands. I would personally recommend jandals for the walk as your sneakers will just get full of sand. Otherwise you can wear your sneakers for the first part and then swap. I feel like sandy shoes have no place in my life.

Tips for visiting Wharariki Beach

  • Try and time your visit for low tide and one that’s going out so you can get beautiful reflections of the Archway Islands.

  • Allow enough time for the walk to the beach (approximately 20 minutes).

  • The drive into the beach is gravel and can be quite rough. Definitely 2WD accessible, but just be prepared for a few corrugations/pot holes. Approximately 6km.

  • Beautiful any time of day, but we think sunset here is the most incredible.

  • There is a small campground situated right by the start of the walk if you want to stay the night. We can’t comment more as we haven’t stayed!

  • Portaloo at the carpark!

If you’re looking for more things to do in the sunny Golden Bay/Nelson area, check out our blog on our top five must do’s here. (And also - we are also going to be doing a more detailed blog on the Nelson/Tasman area in March/April so look out for that!!)

4. Nugget Point Lighthouse

pink Sunset at Nugget Point Lighthouse

Truly iconic, and one of the first locations we wrote down when we were making a list of South Island spots we wanted to see. It might seem like this is quite far out of the way, but trust us, it’s worth the detour. Heck it’s worth a trip to NZ just to watch the sunrise here. We have visited Nugget Point Lighthouse at both sunrise and sunset and found both absolutely stunning.

sunrise over nugget point lighthouse long exposure photography

The rising sun lines up pretty well here – right between the lighthouse and nuggets and as a bonus, is also much quieter when compared to sunset! (At sunrise, there were only 2-5 other people at the lighthouse when we visited [January 2019] and they were all down at the lighthouse end shooting the nuggets). With sunset, the sun actually goes down opposite the lighthouse, but if you can nab a cloudy day, a reverse sunset is pretty lovely as the setting sun lights up the nuggets (whereas they are more silhouetted at sunrise). We have discussed this in great detail, and agreed both are beautiful but sunrise *just* takes the cake.

setting sun lights up nugget point lighthouse in the catlins

The walk to the Lighthouse takes 10 minutes and is easy – jandals definitely doable. Take your time though and stop at Roaring Bay before the lighthouse and look for the yellow-eyed penguins (you ideally want to check the current time the penguins come to the beach - for us it was around 7:30pm). When we returned in January 2020 we saw one penguin and it was really quite exciting. Also if you do do this, please have a look for the tiny wee bird that lives in the lookout hut (its nest is inside by the sign - it's possible I was more excited by this bird than the penguin haha!).

Tips for visiting Nugget Point Lighthouse

  • Try and time your visit for sunrise or sunset to really be blown away.

  • Allow enough time for the walk to the lighthouse (approximately 10 minutes). An easy walk and definitely doable with the kiddies

  • Tie in your visit with spotting the penguins.

  • The closest town for accommodation is Kaka Point.

  • There is minimal cell phone service throughout the Catlins and we would recommend downloading offline maps.

If you’re looking for more of our favourite activities in the Catlins (one of our favourite areas in New Zealand), check out our blog on our favourite 8 activities here

5. Lupins in Tekapo

fiery sunrise in lupin field at lake tekapo with girl spinning

I’m all for learning while travelling (or just living really!) so I want to start this one off by saying the lupins are in fact a pest; threatening the safety of lots of special NZ natives. They are often discussed for their negative impact on our braided river systems, but I never realised that because they are also so dense they provide perfect shelter/coverage for pests such as stoats.

girl sits on kombi with lupins in foreground at lake tekapo field

It’s ironic isn’t it, how often the most beautiful, colourful things in life are those we shouldn’t have. Take donuts for example. So similar to lupins.

The next most important thing to note with the lupins is they are only out for a short period of time – approximately November to January. They bloom in the North first and then continue further South. Tekapo is the most popular spot for viewing them and the locations of the lupins change every season. When we saw them in January 2019, they were right along Lake Tekapo, whereas in December 2020, there were barely any along the waterfront (due to flooding that summer), and instead were all in completely different fields/paddocks.

travel couple in a field of lupins with mountains in background at lake tekapo

We did up a complete guide on the 2019 Tekapo Lupins here if you want to know more about our photography tips for shooting the lupins!

couple in lupins at lake tekapo as the sun rises

Tips for visiting Tekapo Lupins

  • Visit between November – January when the lupins are in bloom. Typically the earlier the better.

  • Call the Visitor Centre if you’re unsure whether the lupins are still in bloom (or you can use live social media posts/stories to see if people are posting them).

  • Bring hayfever tablets if you suffer – these fields will destroy you!

  • If you don’t have hayfever, stop and smell the lupins, the smell is glorious.

  • Tie in your visit with the Church of the Good Shepherd (well worth a look) and a walk up Mount John! Tekapo is also famous for its starry night skies if you're staying for a night.

  • Be mindful you're not trespassing when visiting the Lupins! It's unlikely as they're usually in public spots but thought I'd add this note in. :)