New Zealanders are known for their adventurous spirit. We channel that sense of curiosity here and introduce you to relatively quiet, off-the-beaten-path destinations on the South Island that even some in-the-know locals may not have visited. There are epic walks to take, blue penguins to meet, waterfalls to swim in, beaches to hike to, boulders to climb and glaciers to glimpse. In a country known for its sublime beauty and natural appeal, these are places to go when you’ve either seen the rest or want to get away from the tourist favorites. From adrenaline pumping to restful and relaxing, these are our suggestions for off-beat South Island sightseeing.
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Avid hikers who have already done Lake Pukaki or Mount Cook, or want something more off-the-beaten trail, Hooker Valley Track is worth a look. The hike is relatively short at 3.1 miles and takes you through Aorki/Mount Cook National Park to Hooker Glacier. In fact, no other trail takes you closer to Mount Cook.
If you’re in Christchurch, make a detour 15 minutes outside town to Sumner Beach. This quiet beachside town is great for an afternoon of sun and surf. If you’re an early riser, consider getting there early enough to watch the sunrise from atop Cave Rock.
If peace and quiet is your jam, head to Okarito, where gazing at the stars and seaside walks are as challenging as it gets. This old mining town is nine miles north of Franz Josef Town and home to New Zealand’s largest unmodified estuarine lagoon. Look for some of the 70-plus bird species who reside in the shallow open water and tidal flats, including the beautiful kot.
Join the in-the-know locals who flock to this popular and refreshing swimming spot on the South Island. There’s a fun rope swing, a tarp slide, lots of shaded picnic spots and more. You’ll be a hero with your kids for introducing them to this fantastic and discrete little spot.
Stewart Island, while New Zealand’s third most-populated island, is oft forgotten. Nearly 80 percent of the island consists of Rakiura National Park and Oban, the island’s only town, has just 400 residents. Head here for secret beaches and bush walks, during which you’ll likely meet the bush parrots and kiwi birds who call Stewart home. There are golden beaches, pristine rainforest, sand dunes and more to explore.
If you’re an avid stargazer, pick a clear summer night and head to Mount John Observatory in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. You can walk or drive up to the summit of Mount John and even take a guided star-gazing tour with telescopes.
While Oamaru is known for its white limestone architecture, its Victorian precinct and its quirky museum dedicated to steampunk, it’s the little blue penguins that steal the show. You’ll see them playing on Bushy Beach and at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. Giggle at their adorable antics, then make your way to the artisan cheese factory, the local breweries and the nearby Waitaki Valley wine region to round out your Oamaru visit.
Check out the monolithic Moeraki Boulders of Koekohe Beach, between the towns of Moeraki and Hampden. Each of the massive rocks weighs several tons and is up to six and half feet tall. Scientists believe the spherical stones formed about 65 million years ago. However, Maori legend says that the boulders are, in fact, gourds that washed ashore from the wreck of the voyaging canoe, Araiteuru. The best time to view them is at low tide.
At 15.5 miles long, Farewell Spit is New Zealand’s longest sandspit and a protected haven for birds, seals, gannets and more. You may visit with a certified tour operator or take one of the suggested walks in the area. We suggest the Fossil Point walk, along which you’ll find plenty of fossilized shells, and the Spit Track Circuit, a three- to four-hour loop walk that takes you as far as is allowed on Farewell Spit.
Visit Curio Bay in The Catlins at low tide and you’ll see an amazing sight – a fossilized forest emerging from the sea. Look closely at the rock and you’ll see the petrified stumps and logs that are a world-famous geological phenomenon. Look out across Curio Bay and you may glimpse the pod of Hector’s dolphins who live here – there’s the world’s smallest – as well as yellow-eyed penguins.
Head to the Waitaki Valley to see the towering Clay Cliffs. In a valley full of rock formations and fossils, these pinnacles formed of gravel and silt layers are the most impressive. The pinnacles are on private land, so there are no marked trails. Explore the area at your leisure.
Climb about on massive boulders at Castle Hill Rocks – or, if you’re a rock climber, scale some of the towering volcanic rock faces. There’s an easy path amidst the rock clusters. Try to find some of the 500-year-old drawings on the rock faces, left there by some of the first communities to pass through.
If, like the Victorian-era Cargill family, you believe your loved ones to be super special (as we all do!), then head to Tunnel Beach. The son of Captain William Cargill carved out this tunnel to a private beach so that his family could lounge on the sand away from the public. Today, you can head through the tunnel yourself to see a massive sandstone arch and fossilized cliffs and to explore the beach. Low tide is best for beachcombing – the riptides are particularly strong, though, so swimming is not encouraged.
For fans of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, no visit to the South Island would be complete without a stop at Earnslaw Burn. This untouched New Zealand countryside is fantastic for alpine exploration, including swimming in the refreshing (read: cold!) Gilkison Waterfalls.