5. Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula

It may be my biased opinion that Dunedin makes the list of top five places to visit since I was once a scarfie myself (slang for a student at the university there). Regardless, there are tons of reasons to visit this city during your trip to the South Island. The name of the city itself is rich in its Scottish heritage, which roots from the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh, Dun Eideann. You can witness historical and futuristic architectural sites within walking distance from each other. Visit the Old Railway Station or the University of Otago Registry building, both of which inhibit true Victorian architecture. From there, stroll over to Forsyth Barr Stadium, the world’s first fully enclosed stadium that grows real grass. Hopefully, the All Blacks are playing during the visit as well, it makes the stadium just that much more exciting to see.

The Otago Peninsula coastline
The Otago Peninsula coastline

A few other things to do around the city are to get lost in the botanical gardens, hike to the top of Signal Hill and/or Mt. Cargill for amazing views of the peninsula, attempt walking up Baldwin Street, take a tour of the Speight’s Brewery, or go to the Octagon for a bite to eat.

If you are like me and love getting out of the city to explore the great outdoors, then Dunedin is the perfect place to travel to. The Otago Peninsula forms the eastern part of the city where you can spend the day on one of its many beaches, see some of New Zealand’s best wildlife, or just drive along and enjoy the twists and turns of the coastline road. Sandfly Bay was my favorite beach to visit on the peninsula as there are sand dunes to frolick around and the beach is almost always scattered with sea lions and penguins, playing in the crashing waves.

4. Queenstown

This city is known to many as the adventure capital of the Southern Hemisphere, which couldn’t be a more accurate reputation. Each season brings different adventure sports whether it is skiing down some of the country’s highest vertical drops during the winter or plummeting off the towering Nevis Bungy jump during the summer.

The Nomad Hostel in town is an affordable place to stay. The rooms are impeccably clean and they have tons of activities throughout the week. For the adventure junkies, the Nevis is a great bungy experience as it hangs from a pod suspended by wire 134 meters above ground. Maybe you want to bungy but aren’t ready for such great heights, in that case, head to the Kawarau Bridge bungy. This was the first commercially operated bungy jumping site, pioneered by AJ Hackett and Henry van Asch back in 1988. This is the one that I decided to do and all I can offer are tips on how not to throw yourself off this bridge. Let’s just say that stepping off feet first will leave your body feeling like a human slingshot, so be sure to give it your all and go for a graceful, head first dive.

The view from the summit of Bob's Peak, Queenstown, with The Remarkables mountain range in the background.
The view from the summit of Bob’s Peak, Queenstown, with The Remarkables mountain range in the background.

Take the Skyline Gondola up Bob’s Peak and ride the luge, mountain bike, or just enjoy the views at the top. Honestly, just taking it up to see the view is worth it in my books. The gondola can be pricey, so if you are keen on hiking, then I would definitely suggest doing that instead. Look for signs marked “Tiki Trail” near the base of the gondola and follow that all the way up. It makes the view even better after working so hard to get to the top.

Once you are back down, head to Fergburger for dinner. These burgers are bigger than most people’s head; so you’ll want to make sure you work up an appetite beforehand. For dessert, which probably won’t happen until you come out of your food coma a few hours later, head to Patagonia Chocolates. I swear they have the best ice cream on the whole island.

3. Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki

This lake is utterly outstanding. Imagine the bluest water you have ever seen and multiply that by ten. From afar, it looks as if someone has splattered turquoise paint at the base of the mountains. The reason the lake has this majestic color is because it is fed by the glaciers around Mount Cook National Park.

There are tons of places to camp around the area. Just off Hayman Road is an area called The Pines where you can set up camp and wake up to stunning views of the water. Lake Tekapo is very close by which also has tons of camping spots. Be cautious about where you set up your tent when camping anywhere in New Zealand. Freedom camping is frowned upon in most parts, as a lot of land is privately owned.

2. Untouched Fiordland Coast

I was lucky enough to be able to take part in trekking The Forgotten Coast on the southwest shores of the South Island. This area is one of the most remote areas in the country, as there are no public roads that can take you there. The only way to get to this part of the coastline is by foot, helicopter, or boat. I took a helicopter from Queenstown and was dropped off on the rugged and rocky shore near the mouth of the Cascade River. However, before being dropped off at the waters edge, our helicopter pilot made a pit stop atop the glacial Mt. Aspiring and allowed us to explore the views from nine thousand feet above sea level.

Atop Mt. Aspiring glacier.
Atop Mt. Aspiring glacier.
One of the many penguins we encountered on our adventure.
One of the many penguins we encountered on our adventure.

We boulder-stepped along the coast known for being rich in marine life, canyons, and coastal reefs for miles. We saw multiple penguins, seals, dolphins and even sharks during the coastal portion. After about ten kilometers, we embarked into the lush vegetation and followed a headland trail over Sandrock Bluff, which spat us out at the remote Spoon River. Whilst hiking over the headland, we ran into Robert “Bean Sprout” Long, the only resident of this part of the country who lives with his family in a hut on the Gorge River. You can imagine the shock when we heard footsteps ahead of us after being told by our guide that we were the only three people on this particular track.

A fully in tact baby seal skull I found within minutes of beginning the trek near the Cascade River.
A fully in tact baby seal skull I found within minutes of beginning the trek near the Cascade River.

This track goes on for another three days taking you up the coast towards Jackson Bay with various magnificent camping sites along the way. One thing that is crucial to bring if you plan on hiking and camping in this area is a full body bug net. The sandflies in this area are out of control. There are hundreds of thousands it feels like, and their bites itch more than any bug bite I have ever gotten. Be absolutely sure to pack a net.

This is a very costly activity if you do it with the added helicopter ride. It is a one of a kind experience without a doubt, but not ideal for budget travelers. If you wish to see this part of the coast and explore the most remote part of the island, I suggest starting the trek in Jackson Bay and working your way down the coast. It adds a lot of extra mileage, but it is a backpackers dream if you are willing to commit to the length. You can even hike all the way to Milford Sound, which is in my opinion, the most beautiful place on the whole of the South Island.

1. Milford Sound

On the dock at Milford Sound waiting to embark on the scenic cruise.
On the dock at Milford Sound waiting to embark on the scenic cruise.

The first thing that made me fall in love with Milford Sound was the stillness. It is the one place that I have visited that I truly felt that there was not a single thing around to disrupt the peace while out on the water. The funny thing is, that you’re on a boat with about a hundred other people, yet it still managed to be one of the most peaceful hours of my life. The boat is massive and there are places where you can just lean against the railing and hear nothing but the soft ripples being made by the boat as it glides through the mirror-like water. The silence won’t last forever, though. The captain brings you up just below a massive cascading waterfall where you can stick a glass out to catch some of the freshest water you will ever drink. Be sure to wear a water resistant jacket and keep your cameras inside for this part.

The drive into Milford Sound is the second reason that I rate it the number one place in the South Island. You will find yourself driving through thick vegetation where the only things you can see out the windows are the road ahead and lush greenery on every other side and angle that there is to look. All of a sudden, it opens up into a massive valley surrounded by jagged mountains on both sides. I couldn’t believe my eyes the first time I did the drive. I had to stop my car, get out, and just run through the fields as I had never felt so moved by nature in my life.

There is only one place to stay in Milford Sound if you aren’t camping, and that is the Milford Sound Lodge. You can rent out a bed in one of the dormitories or you can book a mountainside chateau. I’ve done both and obviously recommend the chateau, but the dorms are perfectly fine (and clean) as well. The staff there is beyond friendly and very well versed in activities around Milford. Be sure to stock up on gas and food in Te Anau, as there aren’t any gas stations in Milford and the restaurants (there are only 2) are very pricey.

Author: Casey Talaric

Casey recently graduated from the University of Colorado and has been traveling as much as she can ever since. She spent a year living in The Hague and six months in New Zealand. Being from Colorado, she loves exploring the great outdoors. She is also passionate about writing, especially when she can use it to share her experiences and travel advice.

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