How did we select our South Island Top 5?
With so much to see and such amazing variety, it's nearly impossible to select a South Island Top 5.
But that didn't stop us!
Based on our own experiences, and the feedback from our customers, we've narrowed it down to our:
Scroll down the page or just click on the links below:
1. Visit New Zealand's number 1 attraction, the magical, mystical Milford Sound, and take an overnight cruise
2. Take a walk on a glacier at Franz Josef
3. Experience the remote wilderness of Doubtful Sound on a nature cruise
4. See the marine wonders of Kaikoura
5. Immerse yourself in the buzz of Queenstown
1) Amazing Milford
There is a very good reason why Milford Sound is rated as New Zealand's number 1 attraction, and it gets top billing on our South Island Top 5..
Once described by noted English author Rudyard Kipling as the "Eighth Wonder of the World", Milford Sound is a place that you will never forget.
The scene is set on the drive to Milford Sound, and as you make your way along the Milford Road from the pretty lakeside village of Te Anau, the stunning landscape imposes itself upon you.
Raging rivers that thunder over huge boulders, towering cliffs, and dense native forests combine to set the scene for what follows.
The Homer Tunnel carves its way through the mountains and as you exit and descend to Milford Sound, your senses come alive.
And then, there it is.
Stretching in some sixteen kilometers from the open sea, Milford Sound is the only one of New Zealand's fiords that is accessible by road.
The highest peak, Mitre Peak, stands above, and at almost 1,700 meters high, it majestically flits in and out of the clouds.
Towering waterfalls cascade into the deep dark waters, and you crane your neck to follow the sheer cliffs skyward.
How to see Milford Sound
There are several ways to see Milford Sound. Scenic flights are available, as are kayak trips.
But the most popular way to experience it is on a cruise. There are several available, and some include coach transfers from either Te Anau or Queenstown.
You can see the full range of tours on our Milford Sound page here.
After taking the time to visit Milford Sound, a two or three hour cruise hardly seems enough.
And that's why the overnight cruise on the Milford Mariner is so popular.
There is just something so serene about falling asleep on the sound, then waking to the gentle lapping of the water on the ship. Making your way up to the observation deck, the sheer size and grandeur of your surroundings will take your breath away.
Private cabins, excellent meals, and experienced guides all contribute to making this a once in a lifetime experience.
Please note: The Milford Mariner closes down for the winter period from mid May to mid September annually
To learn more about this fabulous cruise just click on the button below:
2) Franz Josef Glacier small group guided walk
Second on our South Island Top 5 are Franz Josef Glacier, and it's neighbor, Fox Glacier.
The "twins" are two of New Zealand's most popular attractions, and sit between the Pacific Ocean and the towering Southern Alps.
Located on New Zealand's wild West Coast, Franz Josef is a "must see" if you are in the South Island.
Franz Josef has carved its path for hundreds of thousands of years, creating an amazing ice wonderland of caves, formations and crevasses, that are so easily accessible to visitors of all ages.
How to see Franz Josef Glacier
A few kilometers out of Franz Josef village, a track leads from the public car park to the terminal face of the glacier. The walk is flat, but takes around forty five minutes to an hour each way, so sturdy shoes are a must. The face of the glacier is roped off for safety reasons, so you are unable to touch the glacier.
There are also a range of scenic flights available, and some include snow landings at the top of the glacier.
These are an incredible experience, and something that we highly recommend. Just remember though that the weather here can change suddenly, and flights are very much dependent on the weather conditions.
You can see the full range of tours for both Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers here.
Is this the best way to see Franz Josef Glacier?
Walks to the glacier face, and flights over the glacier are all highly recommended. BUT, if you want to touch and feel the glacier, there is only one way to do it. And that's on a guided walk on the glacier.
The tour base in the village is your starting point. After being fitted out in your hiking gear and meeting your guide, it's into your helicopter for the flight onto the glacier.
As you fly over the
glacier, the jagged ruts and crevasses, and subtle color variations will
amaze you, and then, you land. As you step out of the chopper, the
crisp. clear alpine air ignites your senses, and you listen intently to
your guides instructions.
Your unforgettable three hour walk will reveal massive crevices, ice caves, and formations, as your guide shares their knowledge of the glacier, and of the forces impacting on its future.
As a perfect conclusion to your day, your helicopter whisks you back to the village, where your tour cost includes entry to the Glacier Hot Pools.
As you sit back in the steaming thermal waters, it's the ideal way to recount the days events, and to ease any of those unexpected aches and pains.
The Glacier Hot Pools are centrally located on Cron Street, close to most of the motels and facilities in the village.
Your tour cost also covers all of the equipment and clothing that you need for your glacier adventure.
We highly recommend this world class experience, and once you try it, we know that you will agree with it's inclusion on our South Island Top 5.Don't delay - check it out now
3) Is Doubtful Sound even better than Milford Sound?
That's a hotly debated topic.
Each have their own unique qualities, but one thing is certain.
People love Doubtful Sound.
As Mark S. said in February 2017, "Best trip to most beautiful place we've ever been".
That comment is pretty typical of what visitors think about this beautiful wilderness experience.
Beginning your tour in the lovely village of Manapouri (near Te Anau), it's a short trip across the calm waters of Lake Manapouri.
Once across the lake you join your tour coach, which transports you high up to the six hundred and seventy meter peak of Wilmot Pass. Down below, Doubtful Sound stretches out into the distance, and the views from your vantage point are incredible.
Your coach takes you through pristine native forests and moss gardens, before your descent to Deep Cove, where your cruise boat awaits.
As you head out onto Doubtful Sound, you realize just how remote and untouched this paradise is.
Over the next three hours, your captain reveals lots of interesting facts about the sound, as you keep your eyes peeled for some of the unique wildlife on show. Dolphins, fur seals, and even penguins may be seen, and all to the backdrop of plunging waterfalls and huge cliffs.
This truly is New Zealand at its very best.
If you would like more information about this incredible wilderness experience, just click on the button below. You won't be disappointed
4) The marine wonders of Kaikoura, a worthy inclusion on our South Island Top 5
Kaikoura sits on the east coast of New Zealand's stunning South Island.
Nestled between the Seaward Kaikoura ranges and the Pacific Ocean, it's a marine haven, famous for it's whale watch tours, seal colonies and dolphins.
The name Kaikoura comes from the Maori words "kai" meaning "food" and "koura" meaning "crayfish".
Kaikoura is around two and a half hours drive north of Christchurch, and is a favorite destination for nature lovers from around the world.
The three kilometer deep Kaikoura Canyon runs close to the coast here, providing an abundance of food to support the coast's broad range of marine life.
Seals on show
There are several seal colonies close to town, with the most accessible being at Point Kean, located a couple of kilometers from the town center.
Here you can see the New Zealand fur seal up close as they laze along the shoreline near the car park.
On our last visit a cute pup peered up at us from beneath one of the timber walkways. We will never forget those adorable eyes.
Access is free.
Whales, the number one attraction
The ever popular whale watch tours are an experience to remember.
The modern boats transport you off the coast, where a variety of whales and dolphins can be seen, depending on the time of year.
It's great fun watching for the whales. When one is spotted, everyone returns to their seat and the captain points the boat towards the whales and dashes off towards them.
There is something awe inspiring seeing a huge sperm whale breach out of the water, or watching as its tail gently glides back under the surface.
Sperm Whales are on show throughout the year, but at various times Orca (Killer Whales), Humpbacks, and the enormous Blue Whale can also be seen.
Several species of dolphin also frequent the area, and pods can sometimes number several hundred. They're great fun to watch as they frolic, jump and dart around.
Penguins, albatross, and several other species of birds are also regularly seen.
The Whale Watch tours are best taken early in the day before the wind picks up.
They're a great experience and one that we can highly recommend.
For more information please visit the Whale Watch website here.
There are a range of other commercially available Kaikoura tours, several of which operate out of Christchurch. You can view the range here.
5) Queenstown - it's not just the "Adventure Capital"
It would be difficult to find a more picturesque setting for a town, anywhere on earth.
Sitting on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, and flanked by the peaks of the "Remarkables", Queenstown is a vibrant, bustling, year round adventure heaven.
Although it carries the "adventure" tag, it can just as easily wear the "chill out" hat, and we have spent a lot of time here just relaxing and taking in the jaw-dropping scenery and alpine air.
We thought long and hard about adding a town to our Top 5 list, but Queenstown is such a special place, that we just had to include it.
We have spent weeks here at a time and can honestly say that it's a place where you will never be bored. Days here are filled with thoughts of "what will we do next", and before you know it, it's time to leave.
Before we tell you about a few of our recommended things to do in Queenstown, here are a couple of links where you can find lots more information:
* to visit our dedicated Queenstown page click here.
* to search through a HUGE range of activities and tours in and around Queenstown click here.
Just want to chill out?
If you want to just relax and take in the scenery, we can highly recommend a couple of great attractions in Queenstown:
The Skyline Gondola complex
Located on Bob's Peak, overlooking Queenstown, the Skyline Gondola complex is full of surprises and is a great spot to pass a few hours, taking in the stunning views.
Accessed from the base building in the center of town, a gondola takes you 450 meters above Queenstown to the Skyline complex.
As you make your way up on the gondola, the views just keep getting better and better. After about 10 minutes you reach the top, and it's hard to believe just how high up you are.
The complex includes a gift shop, a great cafe, restaurant, the Jelly Belly lolly store, a maori cultural show, the iconic luge ride, a mountain bike park, and of course some extensive viewing decks. For stargazers, they also run stargazing tours.
We make a point of heading up here every time we visit Queenstown. The minute you step out onto the decks, the vistas just take your breath away.
One of the highlights of the complex is the Stratosfare Restaurant and Bar. Open for lunch and dinner, the views alone make this a special dining experience. All seats have views, but get in early, and book a window seat. You won't be disappointed.
You can check out the Skyline complex here.
Cruise Lake Wakatipu on the TSS Earnslaw
Built in 1912, the TSS Earnslaw is a Queenstown icon.
Cruising the waters of Lake Wakatipu, it's a really relaxing way to spend several hours.
You can choose to just cruise, or you can add the options of lunch or dinner at Walter Peak, a working sheep station, where you can also take a farm tour and horse trek.
On board the ship, there's a cafe (we loved the hot muffins and coffee), a small museum, and perhaps best of all, a viewing area where you can actually see the engines of the ship. We watched in wonder as the crew stoked the burners with coal, driving the huge engines.
From the lake, Queenstown takes on a different perspective, and there are plenty of opportunities for great photos as you glide by the Remarkables, which tower almost 7,000 feet above.
Adding to the relaxed feel on board, is the resident piano player, who sits up towards the bow of the steamer, taking requests.
At Walter Peak Station, the optional meal packages offer a great variety of quality food, and the station tour gives a great view of life on a New Zealand farm.
You can learn more about these great tours here.
Need something a bit more radical?
If there's one place on earth where adrenalin junkies are well catered for, it's Queenstown.
Commonly referred to as the "Adventure Capital", Queenstown has an almost endless variety of thrilling activities, and you can do everything from riding a luge down a track high above town, to racing down the rapids in an inflatable raft!
But here are our two picks, based on our experiences and those of our customers:
Jetboats are a New Zealand invention, and were a solution for farmers, which enabled them to reach remote parts of their properties where road access may not have been possible.
These amazing vessels can go almost anywhere that water flows.
The first time we went on one, we were racing up the Kawarau River near Queenstown, and could see up ahead that it narrowed and became very shallow. The driver will turn around (or so we thought). But no, to our surprise he kept going in what seemed like only a foot or so of water. Unbelievable!
Sitting there racing through the rapids or through the huge gorges on the Shotover River is a real buzz. And when the driver motions that he is going to do a spin, it's time to hold on.
There are two main jetboat operators in Queenstown, the Shotover Jet and the Kawarau Jet.
You can learn more about them by clicking on the buttons below:
Bungy - because it's fun to jump off stuff!
Queenstown is the home of bungy, and with several bungy sites in the area, there's plenty of options if this is something you have always wanted to try.
We jumped off the original site, the old Kawarau Bridge, a 43 meter fall that left us on an absolute high.
If you have never had a bungy we can only say that it's the best thing we have ever done.
Yep, it took a while to work up the courage, and we recommend that once you make up your mind to do it, don't let any doubts creep in. As we have found out, once you pay, there are no refunds if you get to the edge and decide not to jump.
As you dive off the ledge, your immediate thought is "I want to go back @%$#". But as the bungy cord reaches the end of it's stretch, you realize that you haven't hit anything, and a feeling of relief and pleasure replaces your fear as you bounce back up.
In Queenstown you can choose from the Kawarau Bridge, the Urban Ledge (above Queenstown and accessed via the gondola), or the 134 meter Nevis Bungy over Skipper's Canyon.
You can also try the alternative "swing" at the Ledge and Nevis sites.
Check out some of the options below:
So there you have it. Our South Island Top 5.
There are so many other activities and attractions that we could have included, but these are the ones that we think showcase the real New Zealand.
And we hope our "South Island Top 5" has inspired you to come and see the stunning South Island.