Things to see and do on your New Zealand Road Trip: South Island

Hikes, hot pools, wildlife encounters, ghost towns and pies. Book your flights to Christchurch and hit the road (in a clockwise loop) to 14 of our favourite spots around the South Island of New Zealand.

1. Hinewai Reserve – Banks Peninsula

During your adventures in NZ, find out what some of the topography used to be like before Maori and European settlers arrived.

On Banks Peninsula near Akaroa is an ecological restoration project to foster the natural regeneration of native vegetation and wildlife. Known as the Hinewai Reserve, it’s where nature steps back in time.

View from the summit looking down on Hinewai
View from the summit looking down on Hinewai

2. Fairlie Bakehouse – Fairlie

The humble Kiwi pie has existed since colonial times, with one of the earliest mentions of it being in a newspaper ad in 1863. Regardless of when the New Zealand pie began to make inroads into locals’ dietary habits, it’s come a long way with many unique pie varieties throughout the country.

Some of the best are at the Fairlie Bakehouse in the small South Island town of Fairlie. If you can’t make it to Fairlie, rest assured their famous pies can be picked up from numerous places around the country. Find a Fairlie pie along your travel route.

3. Roys Peak – Wanaka

Like many travellers to the South Island, Wanaka is most likely on your wish list. But if you don’t have much time, how can you get the most out of your short visit to the town?

One option is to spend a half day ascending and descending Roys Peak – one of the best day hikes in the area, with rewarding views of Mount Aspiring and Lake Wanaka. The trailhead is only six kilometres past Wanaka on the main lakefront road. It can get nippy here even in summer, so be well prepared with a few layers.

The majestic vista from Roys Peak
The majestic vista from Roys Peak

4. St Bathans – Central Otago

Not far off the popular Central Otago Rail Trail is the tiny town of St Bathans. Originally a mining town with a population of 2,000 people, it now has less than ten living inhabitants – and, apparently, a few non-living ones.

The mineral-enriched Blue Lake is a nearby site to behold. It was once the deepest mining hole in the southern hemisphere.

5. Nugget Point – The Catlins

The entire Catlins area is a magic place full of wildlife and waterfalls, but one stand-out setting is Nugget Point. Perhaps the most picturesque location for a lighthouse in New Zealand, Nugget Point also holds its own for spotting rare yellow-eyed penguins.

You’ll likely see New Zealand fur seals, Hooker sea lions and sooty shearwaters as well. Ask the locals about the best places to see these special penguins.

The rugged, rocky coastline of Nugget Point
The rugged, rocky coastline of Nugget Point

6. A hiking gateway – Glenorchy

A stunning location in itself, Glenorchy is a haven if you’re keen on experiencing some of New Zealand’s most scenic hikes. Only 45 minutes’ drive from Queenstown, you’ll be able to access the:

• Caples and Greenstone Tracks – forming a loop between two contrasting valleys
• Routeburn Track – one of the ultimate alpine adventures
• Rees-Dart Track – following two rivers fed by glaciers

After you’ve put in the hard yards tramping, head to one of the jetties in Glenorchy or nearby Kinloch and enjoy a euphoric jump into Lake Wakatipu.

Ensure you’re well prepared for any trekking with the right camping and hiking gear.

Lake Wakatipu looking towards Glenorchy
Lake Wakatipu looking towards Glenorchy

7. Welcome Flat Hot Pools – West Coast

It’s only fitting that after a seven hour hike up a valley you should be able to rest and recuperate your tired muscles. The Copland Track near Fox Glacier on the West Coast provides just that – a natural hot spring when you reach your hut.

Welcome Flat Hut comes with natural hot pools, stunning mountain scenery and lush forest. It’s a great wee overnighter that will likely be less crowded and more inviting outside of summer. Beware of sandflies!

8. Ballroom Overhang – West Coast

The Overhang is a bit of an institution for younger trampers – so don’t be surprised to see a few university students hanging out here with little water and plenty of other liquids. This huge limestone overhang acts as a natural sleeping shelter.

Accessed from the Inland Pack Track, you can sleep under the stars here. However, rain can fall unexpectedly fast on the Coast so packing a lightweight tent is a smart move.

9. Rongo Backpackers – Karamea

Perhaps the hippest, most random place to stay on the West Coast of NZ. Rongo Backpackers does ‘unusual’ well, from its distinctive rainbow colour scheme to its living, breathing art gallery – to hosting Karamea Community Radio.

A few kilometres away are some amazing landscapes, including the:

• Diverse Heaphy Track where you might see Kiwi birds if you’re lucky
• Backcountry Whangapeka Track through beech forests and over high saddles
• Secluded Oparara Basin where limestone arches and cave systems rule

10. Buller Gorge – The road to Westport

Few riverside roads in New Zealand are more stunning than State Highway 6 from Inangahua to Westport. The Buller Gorge follows the tarmac, winding through native bush and around cliffs while offering panoramic vistas.

Although the drive is spectacular, consider taking it one step further by entering the Buller Marathon. You’ll be able to take in the scenery in your own time – and take your mind off the pain in your feet.

11. Lake Angelus – Nelson Lakes National Park

Nelson Lakes National Park has a lot to offer – clear lakes, cloud-piercing mountains, secluded huts, even sandflies!

A six hour walk will take you from Mount Robert carpark up a steep zig-zag to an edgy ridgeline walk that leads to this incredible lake up in the mountains.

You’ll have the choice of sleeping in the hut or camping right by the lake. With clouds often dancing amongst the tops, either option is a good one.There are other routes you can take to reach Lake Angelus.

Lake Angelus up close
Lake Angelus up close

12. Wharariki Beach Holiday Park – Farewell Spit

One of New Zealand’s truly unique landforms sits at the northernmost geographical point of the South Island – Farewell Spit in Golden Bay.

Created by fine golden sand shaped into rolling dunes, this area is special and a little out of the way. Luckily, there’s a range of excellent facilities to stay at nearby Wharariki Beach Holiday Park.

Chill out here for a couple of nights, explore the Spit by foot or on a guided tour, and wander down to isolated Wharariki Beach where you may run into baby seal pups just hanging about in the surf.

13. Davies Bay – Marlborough Sounds

Sample a piece of the Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds. Davies Bay is a relatively short walk in from the southern end of the trail – and it’s only accessible by boat or on foot.

There’s a campsite here if you want to stay the night, with beachfront and bush clearing spots available. Consider our Flinders Hiking Range of gear before you hit the Sounds.

14. A new coastline – Kaikoura

Following the powerful 2016 earthquake that temporarily cut Kaikoura off from the rest of New Zealand, an unheralded amount of time, effort and expertise has gone into re-roading the area.

The new highway is now driveable – and if you decide to take it, you’ll see a coastline featuring some of the newest earth to rise above sea level anywhere in the world.

Indeed, the Kaikoura coastline has completely changed with seabed uplift and multiple landslides making it unrecognisable to those who knew it best. But there’s still plenty to see and do in the Kaikoura area.

It’s almost always windy around the Kaikoura Peninsula, so take a warm down jacket.

Check out 13 more incredible places to visit on New Zealand's North Island.