8 Destinations to Put on Your NZ South Island Itinerary

With an increasing number of travelers heading to New Zealand’s South Island, we asked our local insider, Kate McDonald, how to escape crowds to experience peace and quiet.

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The South Island is a popular destination for travelers who want to see raw nature at its best. From mossy forests and mirror-like lakes to jagged mountain peaks, the landscape here has it all.

Follow this route to have an adventure-filled road-trip from the East Coast to the wild West Coast, and learn about past and present in small coastal towns along the way.

Dunedin

In the south of the South Island, situated around the Otago Harbor, Dunedin is becoming known for its outstanding proximity to numerous endemic animal species.

Watch the sunrise from Aramoana beach. Afterward, head into town to learn more about the spree shooting that happened in November 1990. Photo credit: Kate McDonald

You only have to travel a short distance from the city to one of the extraordinary white sandy beaches around the Otago Peninsula, to encounter sea lions lazing on the sand, or penguins hiding in caves and tussocks.

On the hills of the peninsula, Orokonui Ecosanctuary is a fenced, predator-free, native forest sanctuary that is home to many threatened and endangered native bird species, and the tuatara (the only surviving members of an order of reptiles that lived alongside the dinosaurs).

Walking paths lead through the native New Zealand forest, and for those who are quiet and patient enough, you may find yourself surrounded by some curious local inhabitants. 

Check out Tunnel Beach. Photo credit: Kate McDonald

Central Otago

Prior to human settlement in New Zealand, the Central Otago landscape was densely forested. Today, it’s marked by golden tussock-swept rolling hills, and very few forested areas remain.

The region is filled with small historic gold-mining towns, all with their own quirky stories, excellent food, mountain bike trails, and picturesque hikes.

Nestled in the tussock hills of Maniototo, the township of Naseby is a place for adventure and history lovers. Walking through the streets you encounter colorful historic buildings and quickly find yourself surrounded by pine forest.

Naseby Forest has walking and mountain bike tracks leading in all directions, and are a welcome escape from the searing Central Otago summer sun.

Slightly north of Naseby is St Bathans, home to the haunted Vulcan Hotel – which is well-worth stopping by to hear the stories of the past inhabitants. Below the town, bordered by white clay cliffs, resides the striking, man-made Blue Lake.

Heading southwest, toward Clyde and Cromwell, depending on when you travel, you will come across cheerful spring blossoms, fresh stone fruits, rustling autumn leaves or sparkling hoar frosts. The region is scattered with world-class wineries and restaurants serving mouth-watering local food, and is also an attractive area for a scenic picnic or BBQ next to the bright turquoise waters of Lake Dunstan.

Wanaka and Hawea

A short drive from Lake Dunstan, you'll arrive at Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, on the edge of the stunning, snow-capped Southern Alps.

Although Wanaka is a must-stop for many travelers, if you look beyond ‘that Wanaka tree’ and Roy’s Peak, the surrounding national parks and conservation areas can easily lure you away from queues of photographers and visitors.

Some quieter alternatives to Roy’s Peak, are Isthmus Peak and Breast Hill, both of which have equally outstanding views.

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The Haast Pass

The drive north of Hawea leads past Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea to Makarora, on the eastern side of the Haast Pass. Makarora is the hub for flights and jet-boat rides into Mount Aspiring National Park. Beyond this point, insect repellent is a must-have as sandflies become plentiful as you head towards the native forest.

The Blue Pools, Makarora

Driving through the dense native forest, the first stop is the aptly named Blue Pools, known for its bright blue waters. Although in summer this can be packed with locals and travelers, other times of the year are much quieter.

Check out the Blue Pools, Makarora. Photo credit: Kate McDonald

Gillespie Pass

For keen trampers, this also marks the beginning of the three to four-day Gillespie Pass Circuit, a route through dense forest, over breathtaking mountains and past glaciers.

Dense forest bridge on Gillespie Pass. Photo credit: Kate McDonald
Hiking through Siberia Valley, part of Gillespie Pass. Photo credit: Kate McDonald
Camped below Gillespie Pass. Photo credit: Kate McDonald

It is an outstanding hike for those who want to see awe-inspiring views and avoid the crowds of the Great Walks. The side trip to Lake Crucible is well worth dropping your pack for, and adding an extra scramble to see, especially in spring, when the lake is scattered with icebergs.

Views from the top of Gillespie Pass. Photo credit: Kate McDonald

Brewster Track

Back on the Haast Pass road, stop at Thunder Creek Falls and take a four to five-hour hike to Brewster Hut, to help break up the journey.

Summit views from the Brewster Hut track. Photo credit: Kate McDonald

Upon arrival in Haast, on the wild West Coast, take a walk along Haast Beach, and try fish and chips from the Hard Antler Bar. 

Copeland Track

An hour’s drive north of Haast, at the Karangarua River, the Copeland Track begins with a short, flat walk through the tranquil forest to Welcome Flat Hut. The end of this three to five-hour hike is the reward of natural hot pools. Here, you can immerse yourself in the thermal waters and admire the surrounding peaks and forests.

A suspension bridge on the Copeland Track. Photo credit: Kate McDonald

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