8 Destinations to Put On Your South Island Itinerary

With an increasing number of road-trippers winding along New Zealand’s South Island roads, we asked our local insider, Kate McDonald, how to escape crowds to experience peace, quiet, and capture the ultimate ‘gram shot.


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 landscapes here have 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.


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

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

You only have to venture a short distance from the city to one of many 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 Ecosantuary is a fenced, predator-free, native forest sanctuary that houses 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 within 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.

Within the Naseby forest, walking and mountain bike tracks lead in all directions, and are a welcome escape from the searing Central Otago summer sun.

Slightly north of Naseby is the town 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 township, bordered by white clay cliffs, resides the striking, man-made Blue Lake.

Veering southwest toward Clyde and Cromwell will bring you to the cheerful spring blossoms, fresh stone fruits, rusting autumn leaves or sparkling hoar frosts. The region is scattered with world-class wineries and restaurants serving mouth-watering local cuisine, and is also an attractive area for a scenic picnic or BBQ down by Lake Dunstan.

Wanaka and Hawea

A short drive past the bright turquoise waters of Lake Dunstan, brings you to Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, where you find yourself at the edge of the stunning, snow-capped Southern Alps.

Although Wanaka is a must stop for many tourists on their journey through the South Island, if you look beyond ‘that Wanaka tree’ and Roy’s Peak, the surrounding National Parks and Conservation Areas can easily pull you away from queues of photographers and tourists.

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

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The Haast Pass

The drive north of Hawea leads past both Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea to the township of 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 sand-flies 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, bright blue waters of the Blue Pools. Although in summer this can be packed with locals and tourists, 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 3–4 day Gillespie Pass circuit, a route through dense forest, over breath-taking mountaintops 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 undoubtedly 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 the pack 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, a stop at Thunder Creek Falls and take a 3.5–5hr 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, a key way to experience the wild West Coast begins with a walk along the Haast Beach and fish and chips at the Hard Antler Bar. 

Copeland Track

What better way to finish a 3–5hr hike could there be than to be greeted by natural hot pools? An hour’s drive north of Haast, at the Karangarua River, is the beginning of the Copeland Track where a short, flat walk through the tranquil forest brings you to Welcome Flat Hut. Here, you can immerse yourself in the thermal springs and admire the surrounding peaks and forests.

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

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