New Zealand

20 unique things to do in South Island

by Paul Joseph  |  Published April 20, 2020

Famed for its dramatic mountains, scenic lakes and awe-inspiring glaciers, the South Island of New Zealand is quite simply one of the world’s most beautiful regions. Inevitably, most of the attractions are of the outdoors variety, with endless opportunities for hiking, wildlife watching, and general mooching around and enjoying the stunning landscapes.

A view of Queenstown on the shores of the South Island’s Lake Wakatipu, set against the Southern Alps (Photo: Bernard Spragg. NZ via Flickr / CC0 1.0)

While many of the great things to see and do in South Island pop up regularly in guide books, it’s true to say that the region also has its fair share of lesser known landmarks and places of interest, too. If you’re planning to visit this part of the world and would like to hop off the beaten track, we’ve dug deep and selected 20 of the most unique opportunities awaiting you.

Marvel at a magical fjord

A truly iconic tourist spot, Milford Sound is quite simply awe-inspiring. The fjord draws vast numbers of sightseers every year who come to marvel at the huge granite cliffs that rise and plunge under the surface of the Tasman Sea, where the world’s most populous black coral trees live alongside unique flora and fauna. Nestled a five-hour drive from Queenstown, it is also New Zealand’s only fjord that can be reached by car, helping make it a hugely popular destination for visitors to South Island.

LOCATION Fiordland National Park

Milford Sound

The majestic landscape of Milford Sound (Photo: Pedro Szekely via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Navigate one of the world’s steepest streets

There are steep roads and then there is Baldwin Street. Located in the city of Dunedin at the head of Otago Harbour on the South Island’s southeast coast, the street is so precipitous that it looks as if its houses are all set to slide down it. The cause of its unique appearance was some rather slap-dash city planning, but rather than hold its head in shame, the street wears its status as one of the world’s steepest as a badge of honour, hosting multiple charity events along its precarious parameters throughout the year.

LOCATION Baldin Street, Dunedin

Explore an icy natural wonder

Spread across more than 8.1 miles of ice cave-pitted terrain in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, the Fox Glacier is a mesmerising natural wonder, made all the more impressive by its surrounding rainforests and mountains. Happily for visitors, it is also one of the world’s most accessible glaciers, with regular guided tours bringing intrepid visitors to explore its vast expanse. The glacier can only be reached by plane or helicopter.

LOCATION Westland Tai Poutini National Park

Fox Glacier

The majestic Fox Glacier (Photo: Bernard Spragg. NZ via Flickr / CC0 1.0)

Traverse a boulder-strewn landscape

Perched among the eastern ranges of the Southern Alps, an hour’s drive from Christchurch, is Castle Hill, a large farm area dedicated to the grazing of sheep and cattle. But it is the huge boulders and rock outcrops dotted across the landscape and giving the appearance of castle ruins that make it such a distinctive attraction. So distinctive, in fact, that none other than the Dalai Lama dubbed it the “Spiritual Centre of the Universe” after visiting in 2002. As well as regular hikers, the hill is also a popular spot with rock climbing enthusiasts.

Castle Hill

Large boulders scattered across the landscape at Castle Hill (Photo: Phillip Capper via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Scratch your head at a fence covered in bras

Back in 1999, an assortment of bras appeared on a fence in the hamlet of Cardrona in Central Otago. Initially, no-one knew what this could possibly mean, but it soon led to a flurry of copycats adorning the fence with their own women’s undergarments. Today the number of bras hanging here number in the thousands – and give or take the odd theft – that figure continues to stand strong, making the Cardrona Bra Fence truly one of the most unusual landmarks you’ll find anywhere. And still people are none the wiser about how, or why, the trend began.

LOCATION Cardrona, Central Otago

Cardrona Bra Fence

Bras hang from an infamous fence in Cardrona (Photo: Daniel Fernandes de Oliveira via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Cast your eyes up to the stars

An International Dark Sky Reserve, Lake Tekapo is renowned as one of the world’s best spots for stargazing. A number of tour companies run stargazing trips here, inviting guests to step away from the artificial lights of Tekapo and venture up to the Mount John University Observatory for the real deal. Here you’ll be given an orientation of what to look out for when you gaze through the observatory’s powerful lenses, including pointing out constellations with a green laser pen, before letting you loose to enjoy the magic with your own eyes.

Step into a fantasy world

Steampunk may be a somewhat niche interest, but those with an interest with this quirky branch of science fiction & fantasy will certainly want to head to the small coastal town of Oamaru during any visit to South Island. Here, remnants of the town’s boom period of the 1800 – the period that inspired the Steampunk movement – are seen all around, in its buildings and public spaces, gaining it the area the nickname of Steampunk HQ. Highlight include a massive warehouse full of exhibits, containing exhibits, a locomotive and an old blimp.

LOCATION 1 Itchen Street, Oamaru

Steampunk HQ

Steampunk style architecture in Oamaru (Photo: amanderson2 via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Check out a cluster of trees that point sideways

The mangled, surreally shaped trees that occupy Slope Point, the most southerly spot on South Island, are a sight to behold. Perched upon rugged cliffs that dip into the sea, the tree have been so heavily battered by fierce, cold winds down the years that they have been left permanently bent and tangled, meaning they point sideways rather upwards. As a result, the site has become something of a tourist hot spot, with visitors keen to come and see one of the most unusual clusters of trees you’ll find anywhere.

Slope Point

The ragged and warped trees of Slope Point (Photo: Ben via Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Experience the thrill of a human catapult

Tailor made for adventure sport enthusiasts and assorted adrenaline junkies, Nevis Catapult became the world’s first ever human catapult when it was launched – no pun intended – back in 20018. Offering a fresh take on a conventional bungee jumping experience, the contraption invites thrill-seekers to get strapped into the catapult’s high-tech winch system before rocketing them some 492 feet out across the Nevis Valley, reaching more than 60 miles per hour along the way.

Traipse through a tunnel with a treat at the end

Located a few miles from Dunedin, Tunnel Beach is part of a large area that comprises rugged sandstone cliffs, rock arches, and caves. Among the area’s main attractions is a tunnel that leads visitors all the way down to the beach’s waterfront, descending from about 500 feet above sea level, down 72 steps to your final destination. The tunnel itself is not one for the feint-hearted, as its quite dark and spooky inside, but the pay-back comes when you step out to be greeted by the wide and scenic ocean.

LOCATION Dunedin

The spooky tunnel leading to the beach at Dunedin (Photo: Dunedin NZ via Fickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Pay your respects at a chair-themed memorial

Sitting in an empty field near the center of Christchurch are 185 chairs that were placed there to symbolise, in a unique and powerful way, the lives of everyone who died during the Christchurch earthquake of 22 February 2011. The brainchild of local artist Peter Majendie, each white chair comes in a different form – armchairs, dining room chairs, beanbags, wheelchairs, baby capsules – each intended to honour the personality and identity of a victim of the tragedy.

LOCATION 236 Cashel Street, Christchurch Central City

185 Chairs

Empty white chairs memorialise the victims of a 2011 earthquake (Photo: Gordon Cheung via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Wonder around a quirky art gallery by candlelight

By day the Lanyop Gallery is a fairly common-or-garden arts venue, but once dawn arrives it is transformed into a unique nightspot. Lit only by candles which are held by guests, the gallery’s owner entertains visitors with live piano music while they peruse the frequently changing art exhibitions featuring works by both well-established New Zealand artists and lesser known talents. Entrance to the gallery is completely free.

LOCATION George Street, Dunedin

Join a winery tour

For wine connoisseurs, South Island is a veritable mecca. With world class wineries and vineyards dotted across the region, anyone with an interest in wine will find endless opportunities to learn, taste and explore the various grapes and varieties produced here. A number of companies offer winery tours that invite guests to discover the mechanics of the wine-making process and – of course – enjoy delectable tasting sessions too.

Discover a Victorian-era castle

For all its natural wonders, New Zealand is comparatively short on man-made historic landmarks. Among their limited number is Larnach Castle, which draws large numbers of visitors thanks to its beautiful gardens, grand architecture, and a back-story littered with family drama. Tucked away in Dunedin, the exterior of the Victorian-era castle features extravagant stones and materials that were imported from all across the world, while its interior is awash with vintage furniture, striking and striking artwork. The pristinely landscaped garden – boasting the honour of being a Garden of International Significance – is also worth a visit. Tours of the castle can be booked online.

LOCATION 145 Camp Road, Dunedin HOURS Mon-Sun 9am-5pm

The Victorian grandeur of Larnach Castle (Photo: Dunedin NZ via Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Immerse yourself in Christchurch’s vibrant arts scene

Those of an artistic disposition visiting Christchurch won’t want to miss one of South Island’s most popular art-themed experiences – the Christchurch Street Art Trail. This colourful trail, which was initiated by local street artists in the aftermath of the devastating 2011 earthquake, is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the city’s buzzing arts scene, with all kinds of esoteric artistic efforts to enjoy along the way, including art depicting giant red lips with grills, interactive boxing bags and a swarm of friendly penguins.

The Hokitika Gorge

The vivid turquoise water of Hokitika Gorge is yet another of South Island’s magical natural attractions. Surrounded by lush native bush, the gorge is most commonly enjoyed from the safety of a small viewing platform that can be reached by walking from the car park along a forested track, but more intrepid types can regularly be seen swimming here too. Whichever you prefer, this is one of South Island’s most enchanting spots.

Ride through awe-inspiring Canyons

The thundering waters of the Shotover River are a sight to behold even from the sidelines, but those of a more adventurous disposition can get up close and personal aboard a Shotover Jet Boat that reaches up to 85km/hour. With its adrenaline-thumping spins and spraying water, guests are propelled past rocky outcrops, skimming around boulders and zipping through dramatic, narrow canyons as its walls tower above.

Alcotraz

A Shotover Jet traverses the fierce waters (Photo: Shotover Jet)

Go skiing after dark

If you’ve never tried skiing at night, Coronet Peak in Queenstown is the place to do it. With the star-flecked night sky over Lake Tekapo adding an extra touch to the picturesque mountainous vistas, the pristine ski fields here are as scenic as they are challenging, with night skiing available until 9pm. Visitors can purchase special Sunset passes either online or by phone.

Amble to a historic lightouse for world class vistas

Situated on the Catlins Coast in the southeastern corner of South Island is the historic Tokata lighthouse, one of New Zealand’s oldest lighthouses. Perched above a set of rocks called Nugget Point, named by Captain Cook owing to their resemblance with pieces of gold, the lighthouse affords stunning views all around, including a colony of fur seals who can often be seen frolicking in the surf below.

LOCATION Nugget Point

Nugget Point Lighthouse

Tokata lighthouse perched on a hillside (Photo: russellstreet via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.)

Enjoy a foodie tour with the wind in your hair

The Nelson Tasman region of New Zealand is a haven of golden sand beaches, pristine coastline and artistic energy. It is also home to a number of New Zealand’s top artisan producers, with the surrounding sea a source of some of the country’s finest seafood, and the sunny coastal climate producing exceptional grapes. Traversing the Great Taste Cycle Trail, a network of cycleways threaded inland and along the coast, is a popular way for visitors to explore some of the area’s best flavours, taking in a number of foodie hot spots along the route that provide plenty of opportunity for stomach-filling stop-offs.