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. :)

Couple in lupins at Lake Tekapo during sunset

6. Split Apple Rock

man silhouette at split apple rock at sunrise

One of the most fascinating rocks we have ever witnessed and one we can’t help but keep returning to!! This incredible rock is situated along the Abel Tasman coastline in the Nelson region.

The Māori legend we read for Split Apple Rock was that a giant seabird laid an egg here and then two gods – the Sea God and the Land God claimed the egg as their own. A battle then ensued and caused one of the Gods to slice the egg open, and because neither of them wanted only half an egg, it turned to stone. Although I’m not sure why we named it Split Apple Rock rather than Split Apple Stone?!

man illuminated by full moon rising at split apple rock in abel tasman

The walk down to the rock/beach will only take you about 10 minutes and there is a portaloo at the bottom. If you’re wanting to swim out to the rock, you should only do this at low to mid tide – but note, you will need to be a relatively confident swimmer as even at low tide, the current can be quite strong. I'm not even going to tell you what James has lost/broken here.

The beach gets quite busy during the day (especially with people canoeing/kayaking out to the rock), so while it’s lovely to see the rock against the bright blue ocean, we personally think sunrise and sunset is better here.

Tips for visiting Split Apple Rock:

  • Visit during sunrise/sunset for a quieter experience.

  • At sunrise you can get a person in the rock for a silhouette shot.

  • Look at the other little island off to the right of the beach and tell me if you see a Mickey Mouse imprint in it.

  • Only attempt to swim out if it’s low tide AND you are a confident swimmer.

  • Jandals are suitable for the walk down to the beach.

  • There is no parking at the start of the walk (pickup/drop off only). As such, you will need to park on the road, which is quite narrow and doesn’t offer a lot of parking. Be careful when pulling over here and get as far over as you can.

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. (We are also going to be doing a more detailed blog on Nelson/Tasman in March/April so look out for that!!)

7. Milford Sound Foreshore

couple at the milford sound foreshore for sunrise

Such a beautiful beautiful place and surprisingly quite accessible! This is the spot you will have seen photos of when googling New Zealand. And rightly so – it is simply stunning. We have watched the sun both rise and set at the foreshore – it is such a stunning place we just couldn’t keep away.

girl stands before mitre peak at milford sound for sunrise

When we visited in 2019 at sunrise, there were only two other people at the foreshore taking photos, which to be frank, we simply couldn’t believe. Shout out if anyone named Frank is reading too.

We had heard all about the huge crowds at Milford, so it made the two of us wonder how busy sunrise would be (as we knew it was meant to be better for photos). The next morning we got up early and were ready to fight our way through the thousands and thousands for sunrise. And trust me we blimmin' did. Thousands of sand-flies. But not a single soul. We could not believe our socks. Which we wished we were wearing as we got so many bites on our feet. So many.

This year we have actually already returned to the foreshore for sunrise (January 2020) and again, had the entire place to ourselves. I’ll never understand this, but I highly, highly recommend putting a sunrise at Milford Foreshore on your NZ itinerary. Having such a beautiful place all to yourself is quite special.

There are a few accommodation options in Milford Sound (but all quite pricey). If you’re looking to camp, there is one campground there. Word of warning, it is a little expensive, crowded and often booked out. We booked on the day and got the last site remaining (which was so small we couldn’t really open Vinnie's doors without them being in the next site). The facilities were super duper nice though and a great place to wash off all the mosquito repellent! Otherwise there are several DOC campsites on the drive in, but they're all quite far from the foreshore. (43km is closest and that's still approximately 45 minutes drive from the foreshore). There is no option for freedom camping anywhere on Milford Road.

Tips for visiting Milford Sound Foreshore:

  • We thought sunrise was better than sunset when we visited (Summer) as the sun rises behind you and lights up Mitre Peak. Although in the winter months, the sun would set right behind Mitre Peak which would be perfect!

  • Low tide is the best (especially for reflection shots). If you time the low tide with sunrise you can see the awesome green mossy rocks.

  • Pack all the mosquito repellent you have. All of it.

  • The main car park is now $10 per hour 24/7, 365 days a year. To avoid this (quite simply horrendous) parking charge, park at the Deepwater Basin car park and walk to the foreshore from there. Note, this will take you approximately 15 minutes so you need to account for it if planning to visit at sunrise. The free car park is also quite small – only approximately 80 spaces so you will want to arrive early to nab a spot. They also offer a shuttle service from this car park, but this doesn’t operate until 8am.

  • Take your time on the drive in - this is certainly one you don't want to rush. Plus it can be quite narrow, windy and stressful haha. I can't say I love the dripping, dark, 1953 built Homer Tunnel.

To read more of our favourite activities in Milford Sound, including our suggested two day itinerary (and details on the below beautiful spots) check out our blog here.

girl with mountain reflection at lake marian
couple at hidden blue pool in milford sound

8. French Pass, Marlborough Sounds

couple on kombi overlooking marlborough sounds from the french pass

WOW. This was a drive we really really wanted to experience last year but ran out of time for. And oh my hat, I’m almost glad we missed it, because the anticipation that kept building up over the year just got us even more excited. When we got to French Pass, our conversation pretty much went “WOW, look over there” “Wow did you see that? “Wow, Wow, Wow”. On repeat. For about two hours. It is so incredibly scenic and quiet and just a place you need to pop on your list right now. I know it’s a little out of the way but it’s so worth it!! Take the day, pack a picnic and drive the Pass, and if you can, stay for a sunset. It’s just glorious.

We struggled to find information on French Pass (we will be doing up a guide on it shortly I promise) but for now, you need to know that the road is asphalt for approximately 42km from Rai Valley and then gravel for the remaining 21km. We drove all the way down to French Pass Campground, and while it was lovely, we definitely found the first part of the drive (after Elaine Bay) more scenic/impressive. We also did the walk down to the French Pass Lookout and this was great for a wee stretch of the legs and to see how the tide causes such strong currents through the pass. But our favourite of all was just pulling over on all the many pull offs and taking in the view. From the left, the right, in front, behind. Any way. Every way. It’s all gorgeous up there.

Tips for French Pass:

  • Drive with caution here as it’s mostly gravel, very narrow and windy! When we visited in February 2020, the road was very quiet but the few times we did pass cars we had minor heart attacks.

  • Make the detour down to Elaine Bay and see the stingrays on the jetty (also a beautiful campground if you’re looking for a lovely spot to stay). See more here.

  • Don’t rush the Pass, plan on spending the day here and have the flexibility to pull over and have spontaneous picnics/cups of tea/meals etc. We adored this.

  • If you’re short on time, don’t drive the last 4km into the village, instead take in the views from higher up as they are the best (we think!).

  • If you could pick a time of year to visit, we think just before Summer would be best while the Sounds are still green and luscious. When we visited in February, everything was quite golden and dry. Still gorgeous though (and especially at golden hour).

  • You may need to be patient here – we arrived at 10am to full cloud/fog and by 3pm it had fully cleared.

9. Moeraki Boulders

couple at moeraki boulders for explosive sunrise

One of the best places to watch the sunrise in the South Island is Moeraki Boulders. And while it is becoming a little busier, you can’t really be mad, it’s so beautiful it deserves a bit of hype!

Before I get into the nitty gritty of the boulders, I do note that while it is becoming busier, I have heard an increasingly large number of people say they’re not worth the hype/don’t visit etc. etc. For me, this was the first sunrise of our trip this year (after losing my Dad to cancer) and up until this point it had actually been quite hard for me to find the motivation to get out of bed. To actually want to be up and watch the sunrise. I’m so grateful James gently pushed me this day to come down here. The explosion of colours we experienced, saw and felt (can you feel colours!?) is something that will always stay with me, and for that reason alone, Moeraki boulders will forever be a place I associate strength, beauty and love with. I would love for you to feel what I felt there.

girl on moeraki boulders for sunrise

Ok now onto the boulders and what you need to know. Moeraki Beach is home to Moeraki Boulders; approximately 50 spherical rocks (boulders) which will have you in awe. It’s a 5-20 minute walk from parking, depending on where you park. If you park at the café, it will take you approximately 5 minutes (but you may be required to pay a $2 donation during their opening hours*) but if you park further down the beach at the DOC parking, it will take you about 15-20 minutes walk (along the beach) to reach the boulders.

moeraki boulders at sunrise lanscape photography

​The main consideration for visiting the boulders is the tides. Low tide is best as the boulders are exposed. At high tide, the beach can be inaccessible as the waves crash all the way up to the cliff face. In our opinion, sunrise is the best time to visit as the sun rises over the ocean.

We have actually done up a guide on the Moeraki Boulders, including the optimal tides/times to visit and our photography tips and tricks, so you can read that here.

single moeraki boulder with water swirling around sunrise

Tips for visiting Moeraki Boulders:

  • Try and time your visit for a sunrise and low to mid tide.

  • Park at the café if short on time and walk from there (but note you. may need to pay the $2 donation).

  • Jandals suitable for the walk down.

  • Be mindful that you won’t have this spot to yourself for sunrise, but you can usually find your own boulders to photograph/shoot.

10. Blue Pools in Haast/Mount Aspiring Park

sunrise at blue pools mt aspiring as man jumps from bridge

This is such a fun wee spot!! Although it is becoming more and more popular it still seems to have a bit of that 'hidden gem' feel. I love hearing people say they were just driving down the highway when they saw a sign for blue pools and decided to pull over and check it out. It’s such an awesome place and while I’m far too chicken to jump from the swing bridge there, James had an absolute blast haha!

We have visited the Blue Pools twice, both times in the early morning and had the place to ourselves for about an hour. However, in saying that, we have driven past on other occasions (around lunch time) and counted 42 cars down the road so it does get very busy! People have told us that on a hot summers day (yes go on have a LOL because NZ get's like two of these days!) there are 200-300 people there. :o

The walk to the Blue Pools will take about 15-20 minutes and we would recommend visiting on a clear and sunny day. Not really much point in coming for sunrise or sunset as you really want to be able to admire the beautiful blue water. I do want to point out that there is no toilet at the Blue Pools so please make sure you go before visiting. (If coming from the North the closest toilet is at Cameron Flat Campsite [approx. 1km away] and if coming from the South the closest toilet is at Makarora [approx. 6km away]). Another thing I should mention is that after rain the Blue Pools can turn grey and murky. If the gravel/dirt gets stuck, it takes a second rain to return the water to its original (and beautiful) colour. Bear this (and the forecast) in mind if you have the luxury of choosing when to visit!).

early morning at blue pools mt aspiring with swing bridge

We have done up a complete guide on the blue pools, including photography tips and what to pack which you can read here!

Tips for visiting the Blue Pools:

  • Try and time your visit for early morning and a clear day.