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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in South Island

New Zealand’s South Island is one of the earth’s best outdoor playgrounds—and what it lacks in human population, the island makes up for in pristine forests, fjords, lakes, beaches, and mountains. Guided tours reach nearly every corner of the island, offering expert instruction, informative commentary, and effortless access to these truly great outdoors. A popular base is Christchurch, the island’s biggest city, full of Anglo-influenced architecture and an array of cultural offerings. Visitors enjoy peaceful punt rides down the Avon River, visits to the verdant Christchurch Botanic Gardens, and gondola rides into the Port Hills. Farther south, the Remarkables preside over Queenstown, known as the global adventure capital thanks to its seemingly unlimited menu of extreme tours and activities. Besides being an arts and dining destination in its own right, the town acts the jumping-off point for adventures at nearby Franz Josef Glacier, Fox Glacier, Mount Cook, and Milford Sound. Many visitors arrive ready to tackle one of the South Island’s six Great Walks, or a variety of shorter or longer guided forays into the island’s valleys, mountains, and fjords. Dunedin, proud of its Scottish history and full of bustling student life, boasts the scenic Taieri Gorge Railway, and is a departure point for tours to the Otago Peninsula, which teems with wildlife—including whales, dolphins, and sea lions—pristine beaches, and interesting historic sights.
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Franz Josef Glacier
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One of the fastest moving glaciers in the world, the Franz Josef Glacier is a spectacular river of ice. It is one of the world's steepest glaciers descending 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) over its 7.5 mile (12 kilometer) path through the valley, ending in lush temperate rainforest. As it flows it travels over bumpy steps which forces ice upwards to create dramatic ice cliffs and sharp crevasses. Over 2,700 people visit the ice a day during peak season. Some spend their time exploring the terminal face while others take helicopters to take advantage of the views and get access to higher icefalls, so they can clamor over the less-populated ice and carve out an adventure in the stunning and challenging terrain.
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Marlborough Sounds
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Set at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, the Marlborough Sounds amazingly comprise one fifth of New Zealand’s coastline. Not because the region is large, however, but simply because the serpentine coast weaves in and out of so many bays it massively adds to the mileage. Here the coastline is so stunningly rugged that mail is still delivered by boat to towns that are cut off from roads, and visitors can actually ride along with the boat that’s delivering mail. It’s a rural time capsule that hearkens back to life in the 1800s, where sheep still roam the forested hills and fishermen ply the waters for mussels and live off the bounty of the sea.

For an authentic experience in Marlborough Sounds, hop aboard a seafood cruise to sample the clams, mussels, and salmon the Marlborough area is known for. Or, to scour the shore on your own two feet, hike the famous Queen Charlotte Track that weaves through Queen Charlotte Sound.

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Lake Wakatipu
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Dazzling Lake Wakatipu is New Zealand's longest lake. Shaped like an inverted "n" it is a highlight of a trip to Queenstown, which nestles against a curve near the middle of the lake. During the last ice age a huge glacier carved out the lake, which sinks to a depth of 1,300 feet (400 meters).The surrounding mountains that fed the glacier provide a dramatic backdrop to the crystal waters.

Atmospheric pressures cause the lake to rise and fall about 5 inches (12 centimeters) every 5 minutes. This gave rise to the Maori legend that the rise and fall of the water is the heartbeat of a giant who lies slumbering under the water.

The magnificent lake was the location for the Lothlorein scenes in The Lord of the Rings movie. If you’d like to get out on the water the most genteel way is to climb aboard the refurbished vintage steamship the TSS Earnslaw. Cruises across the lake will take you to Walter Peak where you can see a working high-country farm.

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Larnach Castle
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Built between 1873 and 1887, the Larnach Castle is the only castle in all of New Zealand. Sitting on a beautiful 35 acres, the castle grounds and interior are a wonderful way to spend a day. For an extended stay, you can stay at the 4-star Larnach Lodge, located on the castle grounds.

Constructed for an Australian banker and politician, the castle presents a combination of American, Venetian, and Gothic styles of decor and architecture, making it wholly elaborate and unique. In addition to its ornate interior and beautifully maintained garden, tourists and guests gather at Larnach for a supernatural experience: the castle is said to be haunted by multiple members of the Larnach family.

Be sure to take some tea or a light lunch in the ballroom, one of the most beautiful parts of the castle, as well as visiting the on-grounds plant nursery.

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Milford Sound
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Described as the eighth wonder of the World by Rudyard Kipling, Milford Sound is New Zealand’s premier tourist attraction. Upon entering the sound you’re surrounded by sheer cliffs 3,900 feet (1,200 meters) high, carved by glaciers, rising dramatically from the dark waters. Among the tallest peaks are The Elephant at 5,000 ft (1,500 m), named because it resembles an elephants head, and The Lion, 4,300 ft (1,300 m), which looks like a crouching lion. Over 22 ft (7 m) of rain falls on the sound each year creating spectacular waterfalls and lush forests which cling to some of the surrounding slopes. Lots of wildlife play in the sound including penguins, seals, dolphins and - if you’re lucky - whales. The high tannin level in the water means you can also view black coral which can usually only be seen deep underwater.
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Dunedin Railway Station
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Known by locals as “Gingerbread George” because of its ornate architecture, the Dunedin Railway Station in New Zealand’s South Island was designed by George Troup and opened in 1906. In those first few years, the station was one of the country’s busiest, with at least 100 trains passing through its tracks each day.

While the station is still in operation, reduced rail traffic means the iconic building serves several other functions, and a tourist train that traverses the countryside via Middlemarch, Palmerston or Pukerangi departs daily from Dunedin. But there’s still plenty to do here without ever leaving the station; the ground floor houses a popular restaurant, and the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame and the Otago Art Society are located on the upper level.

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More Things to Do in South Island

Tasman Glacier (Haupapa)

Tasman Glacier (Haupapa)

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Mirror Lakes

Mirror Lakes

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Olveston Historic Home (Olveston House)

Olveston Historic Home (Olveston House)

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The Olveston House is a must-see sight in Dunedin, and the 1-hour tours are an incredible walk through this decadent, ornate, and elegant mansion. Built in the Jacobian tradition between 1904 and 1906, the 35-room house sits on an acre of beautiful gardens.

The house is maintained as it was originally decorated, with a unique and timeless beauty. The original owner, David Theomin, was a prolific traveler, and collected items from all over the world to decorate his house with, including French, Chinese, and Japanese treasures.

On your stroll through the house, pay close attention the the plethora of paintings displaying various pictures of contemporary colonial life in New Zealand, and when outside in the gardens, be sure to get a look at the automobile used by the Theomin family at the time of construction. At the end of your tour, stop by the gift shop and peruse the various souvenirs to remember your time at Olveston.

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Royal Albatross Centre

Royal Albatross Centre

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One of the incredible things about South Island is the unique wildlife opportunities available to visitors, and The Royal Albatross Centre is a perfect example. The center is home to the only mainland breeding colony of these amazing birds in the world, and its dedication to protecting the animals and their habitat is instantly clear to visitors.

Starting with a single albatross chick in 1938, the colony boasts a population of about 140 birds at present. Albatrosses are a sight to behold, with their impressive wingspan and flying speeds, they guarantee an unforgettable experience. Be sure to take advantage of all the information available about the centre, the peninsula, and the birds while you're there. Underneath the nature reserve is historic Fort Taiairoa, built in over 100 years ago to provide protection against Tsarist Russia, which features an amazing collection of armaments, including the world-famous Armstrong Disappearing Gun.

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Routeburn Track

Routeburn Track

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Mt. Potts

Mt. Potts

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Even with the dozens of landscapes which were used while filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the site that was arguably the most spectacular was the soaring city of Edoras. Built on top of Mt. Sunday in a remote region of Canterbury, even the crew said they were taken aback by the beauty and serenity of the site.

For those who are traveling around the South Island of New Zealand, Mt. Sunday is about 30 minutes away from the mountain town of Mt. Potts. During the winter there is a ski resort here where skiers are transported by snowcats, and during the rest of the year there is a small outpost with a restaurant, a cattle farm, and a lodge. Even though it’s only two hours from Christchurch, these upper reaches of the Rangitata Valley are shrouded in a refreshing emptiness. Given the beauty of the remote location and the fame it received in the movies, many of the Lord of the Rings tours from Christchurch make a visit to the out-of-the-way mountain.

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Banks Peninsula

Banks Peninsula

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The Banks Peninsula is a side of Christchurch that too many visitors miss out on. This mostly-undeveloped, circular peninsula juts out from Christchurch like a swollen thumb, yet despite its obvious prominence on a map, a large majority of Christchurch visitors make the mistake of never exploring the area.

The lone exception is the town of Akaroa which is one of the most popular day trips from Christchurch. This charming outpost of French heritage is located a 90-minute drive from Christchurch, and the boutique shops and rose-lined cottages gaze out towards a protected harbor. The harbor itself is the flooded caldera of the volcano which formed the peninsula, and the calm waters are a popular place for boating and swimming with dolphins. Along the drive to Akaroa you weave through pastures and farmlands, and a handful of wineries and gourmet food stops are sprinkled along the highway.

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Pegasus Bay Winery and Restaurant

Pegasus Bay Winery and Restaurant

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Pegasus Bay Winery is a family-owned and run winery and restaurant located in the Waipara Valley, north of Christchurch. Pegasus Bay wines are made with estate-grown fruit from the Donaldson family’s vineyards.

The Donaldsons have been growing grapes and making wine since the early 1970s. A husband, wife and three sons team, the family uses natural methods, and the winery produces a sauvignon, Reisling, chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot and cabernet. The winery is also known for half a dozen reserve wines.

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The Octagon

The Octagon

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Taieri Gorge Railway

Taieri Gorge Railway

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Visitors and locals alike assert that if there's one thing to be sure to do in Dunedin, it's a ride on the Taieri Gorge Railway. Get out of the city, enjoy stunning views, and absorb interesting historical information all in one place by taking a ride.

Providing connections to Pukerangi and Middlemarch, trains leave daily in the mornings and afternoons, and rides are complete with live commentary telling of the history of the area as well as notes about the sights that are passed by.

Be sure to check out the observation platform for the best views of the spectacular gorge, beautiful plains, and tranquil Taieri River while experiencing the work of Dunedin's pioneers, who built the train tunnels by hand over a hundred years ago.

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Christchurch Tram

Christchurch Tram

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Hop aboard a vintage tram for a leisurely tour of central Christchurch. It’s the most relaxing, fun way to get your bearings and see the city's attractions and landmarks.

The trams leave from Cathedral Square in downtown Christchurch. The route then crosses Worcester Bridge over the River Avon, loops past the Botanic Gardens and travels along past the shops of Armagh Street. All trams have an informative on-board commentary. Why not combine sightseeing on wheels with your evening meal, and take an evening ride on the Restaurant Tram? The colonial-style tram has every comfort, and the menu features local lamb and seafood.
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Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki

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If you've ever seen a picture of Lake Pukaki, you can be forgiven for thinking there’s no way that this lake could possibly be real. After all, the color of the water—a shining, rich, deep shade of turquoise—has the same captivating and alluring effect as a pair of misty-blue eyes. The hue of the water seems to match the sky, and in addition to being surrounded by open plains, the towering spire of Aoraki/Mount Cook stands watch over most of the shoreline. Isolated, empty, and incomparably scenic, there are few places on the South Island of New Zealand which can inspire nearly as much awe.

Running north-to-south and glacially-fed, this narrow lake parallels the road which leads to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. It’s the glacial silt from the Southern Alps which gives the lake its trademark hue, and on the clearest of days when the turquoise waters are backed by snowcapped Mount Cook, it’s a panorama that easily has the ability to drain your entire camera battery.

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Baldwin Street

Baldwin Street

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