Summer Top 40

    The Best Summer Things to Do in New Zealand's South Island

    November 26, 2022Tom Lanauze

    15 min read

    From the quiet wilderness vistas of Fiordland to the warm waters of Nelson and the glaciers of the West Coast in between, this might be the most variable summer destination in the world!

    Nelson & Marlborough

    1. Wharariki Beach - Unlock A New World Over the Takaka Hill

    While it may have gotten its name thanks to the stunning golden sand beaches that it’s well known for, Golden Bay is a place where you can find solitude and relaxation with no better place than at the secluded Wharariki Beach

    A dramatic coast and one of the most scenic beaches in New Zealand, this area also holds a large cultural significance to local Maori, where they farewelled spirits onto the next world, much like at Cape Reinga

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    2. Immerse yourself in the Marlborough Sounds

    With over 1,500 km of coastline, the Marlborough Sounds region of New Zealand is a coastal paradise within which is the wonderful Mistletoe Bay Eco Village - a not for profit charitable trust. Their stunning campsite, cabins and lodge offer an experience that is both memorable and educational; one where visitors, young and old can learn “hands-on” how to live sustainably within a coastal ecosystem. The famous Queen Charlotte track runs through here, while the gorgeous beach provides a lovely place to swim - maybe the local dolphins will even come and say hello?! If you’re really lucky, the phosphorescence can be seen down around the wharf which at times can be spectacular, but those aren't the only lights on display.

    When the sun goes down the driveway is illuminated with hundreds of glow worms, a much-loved experience for kids and adults alike.

    Check out the other Amazing Places on the Queen Charlotte Track.

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    3. Have a Paddle in Abel Tasman National Park

    While it is New Zealand’s smallest National Park, it packs a punch way above its weight. Its native rain forest and fern covered valleys merge in perfect harmony with the golden sand beaches and crystal clear oceans and rivers, through which A self guided kayak tour provides the perfect escape from the summer heat. You can paddle into one of dozens secluded and remote golden beaches and just make it your own for an hour or a day!

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    4. Get a Taste of The Great Taste Trail

    Something to appeal to all tastes and styles, the 174 km Great Taste Trail brings together a mix of stunning landscapes with its famous wineries, art galleries, distilleries, restaurants and more. You can complete the whole trail or pick a section that intrigues you the most to explore - there are three to choose from;

    • Rail Route
    • Coastal Route
    • Valley Route

    You can find more about this wonderful cycle journey in All You Need to Know About Cycling the Great Taste Trail

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    5. Dodge the Dwarves At Pelorus Bridge Swimming Hole

    Located between the Rai and Havelock Valleys is the famous Pelorus Bridge swimming hole. It’s a gorgeous place to cool off in the summer and has both a campsite and picnic area on site.

    Watch out for dwarves and orcs - this is where the bobbing barrel scene was filmed for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

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    West Coast

    6. See What’s Great About the Great Coast Road

    Once a simple state highway, that all changed after receiving international recognition as a favourite of Lonely Planet’s, with this road making it into their top 10 Coastal Drives in the world. Linking the West Coast towns of Greymouth and Westport, it earned its moniker as the Great Coast Road.

    At full speed, the road only takes 90 minutes. If you were to slow down and experience the many national parks, the New Zealand Great Walks at Paparoa and the Heaphy, the amazing rock formations at Punakaiki and the dramatic coastal scenery and the wildlife viewing opportunities along the way, well, you may never leave!

    If you’re looking to stay on the Great Coast Road, the Gentle Annie Holiday Park is one our users frequently recommend.

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    7. See Ice Sheets in a Rainforest - Only at Franz Josef Glacier

    There aren’t many places where you can find accessible glaciers in the world and fewer still where they can be found in a rainforest that has an average summer temperature close to 20°C, with almost 2,000 hours of sunshine a year.

    Whether it’s a simple walk to see the view, a helicopter ride to see it up close or putting on the crampons for an ice wall adventure, you’ll be doing it all in shorts and a t-shirt. What better way to explore a solid sheet of frozen ice and what an awesome photo you’ll have to show off to your friends!

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    8. Where the Mountains Meet the Sea at Kaikoura

    With snow capped mountains flowing with crystal clear rivers down into a dramatic coastline, all nestled between two of the country's best wine areas, what’s not to love about Kaikoura? With chamois, deer and native birds in the mountains, and albatross, fur seals, dolphins and whales on the coast and at sea, each landscape is its own adventure.

    Whether playing “spot the seal” on the beach, or exploring the hikes and trails of the national parks, Kaikoura offers a unique adventure daily, including one of Lonely Planet's Top 10 marine encounters in the world - the Seal Swim, where you get to frolic with NZ Fur Seals - the puppies of the ocean.

    Any time of year is a great time to visit, but summer water temperatures bring the orca, and you might be lucky enough to see them along with the resident whales and dolphins on the local Whale Watch Cruise.

    Check out our Kaikoura Travel Guide for more info on where to stay and things to do in the region.

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    Banks Peninsula

    9. Explore the French Riviera in Akaroa

    Akaroa offers nature's playground right on the doorstep of the South Islands largest city, making this idyllic spot a must do for those travelling to or through Christchurch.

    What is it? The better question might be, what isn’t it?!

    Located on Banks Peninsula, itself home to numerous hidden bays and inlets thanks to its unique volcanic landscape, a visit to Akaroa starts with a scenic drive with sweeping views of the dramatic coastline. Akaroa is a step back in time to a French colonial seaside village complete with local wines, cheese and seafood in abundance. It provides fantastic opportunities for marine encounters with the local dolphins along with one of New Zealand's rarest penguins - the little blue penguin.


    Tekapo and Aoraki Mt Cook

    10. Road Trip The Starlight Highway

    One of New Zealand’s newest themed routes, the Starlight Highway links Fairlie and Twizel with Tekapo and Aoraki/Mt Cook in the McKenzie Basin, providing access to some of the darkest and clearest skies on earth.

    The Aoraki/Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve is the only one in the southern hemisphere and 1/11 in the entire world, representing one of the best places to lay back and enjoy the night sky anywhere.

    The views of the stars, planets, Magellanic clouds, Milky Way and the iconic Southern Cross are second to none, all set with Mt Cook and the southern alps as the backdrop, making for awesome views and stunning night time photos.

    When the sun rises, the fun doesn’t stop, with awesome views of the lakes and alps available from Tekapo, while Mt cook is the hiking capital of New Zealand and is home to the Hooker Valley Track, one of the worlds best short walks.

    Make sure you stop off at the Fairlie Bakehouse on your way down the Starlight Highway - its kiwi pies are delightful!

    This area is massive! Check out our Aoraki Mt Cook National Park Travel Guide for more information on walks, things to do and places to stay.


    Central Otago

    11. Cycle From the Alps to the Ocean

    Few cycle trails in the world have the variety of epic landscapes and adventures that the Alps To Ocean brings. Best cycled downhill, you will start high in the southern alps of New Zealand, in the shadow of Aoraki Mt Cook - the tallest mountain in Australasia as you cycle down and across to the quaint coastal Otago town of Oamaru.

    This is an easy to intermediate grade trail allowing you to explore the Waitaki and Mackenzie regions, where you will pass the turquoise glacier lake before meandering through the tussock covered low country as you travel down valleys and across the plains. With hot pools to soak in, rivers and lakes to swim in and local vineyards to taste at, there is even a penguin colony you can visit!

    This cycle trail is a great way to explore the heartland of the South Island, either on mountain bikes or E-bikes, and has a variety of accommodation options along the route.

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    12. Have Fun at the Rural Kiwi Water Park

    This is one of New Zealand’s newest summer attractions and has proved a massive hit! It is the largest inflatable water park in the country, located in the stunning rural region of Lowburn.

    It’s a great place to bring the family and to escape the summer heat of Central South Island. With loads of different obstacles and adventures to be had along with out-of-the-way beaches to escape the crowds and enjoy a picnic at, this water park is a great place to spend a hot summer's day in the middle of rural New Zealand.

    Kiwi Water Park.webp

    13. Swim at the Stunning St Bathans Blue Lake

    Central Otago is one of New Zealand’s top areas to visit, but tucked away within is the old mining town of St Bathans. The town's long and interesting history provides some great local yarns, and its historic pub offers a charming place to have a drink or meal at.

    However, it's the stunningly blue swimming lake that is what makes this place a summer gem! This 800m long waterhole is ringed by stunning white cliffs offering an oasis from the summer heat.

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    14. Grab a Massage From Mother Nature at Wishbone Falls

    This is one of the Must Visit Waterfalls Of New Zealand. At 77 meters high, the Wishbone Falls are a thrilling gateway into Mt Aspiring National Park. The waterfall can be seen from the road, but is best viewed from up close while enjoying a picnic, after which you can have a refreshing swim in some of the freshest waters of New Zealand. Forget the water jets in a spa pool, here you’ll sit under a thundering waterfall, showering you from above!

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    15. Be Wow’d by Wanaka

    Wanaka is a special place, with many visitors often ranking it among the top spots they visited while in New Zealand. With so much to see and do, along with stunning mountain and lake vistas and an awesome waterfront, it's time for you to have your own impressions of this gorgeous alpine town. It’s home to not one but TWO of our most instagrammable spots in all of New Zealand - one you can walk to, one you can drive to!

    Roys Peak - this track offers breathtaking views all the way to the top of this tussock covered peak where the epic panoramic scenes of both Mount Aspiring National Park and Lake Wanaka await you.

    THAT Wanaka Tree - One of the most photographed and instagrammed trees in the world, this famous lonely willow with its curved trunk stands proud just off the shore of Lake Wanaka.

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    16. Race Through Canyons on the Shotover Jet!

    World famous as the ultimate jet boat experience, Shotover Jet has thrilled over 3 million people since 1965, and now it’s your turn!

    Take a unique breathtaking ride through dramatic and narrow canyons, and hold on tight through the 360° jet spins and beyond. ‘Can you handle the canyons?’ with award winning Shotover Jet, ‘The World’s Most Exciting Jet Boat Ride’ and the only company permitted to operate in the spectacular Shotover River Canyons, this is a must-do while in New Zealand.

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    17. Escape the Queenstown Crowds at Bob’s Cove

    While everyone has heard of Queenstown, few will know anything about one of its best local beaches at Bob’s Cove, which can be found on the stunning drive to GlenOrchy.

    A short stroll through a quiet beech forest, the only sounds coming from the local native wildlife, will lead you to the hidden away Bob’s Cove. Along the way, you can take some of the bonus tracks to epic lookout spots, or head leisurely around the lake to the secluded beach, complete with the customary summer jetty to jump off!

    The full Bob’s Cove nature walk will take you on a tour of the lime kiln history of the area and will even take you to some history of Middle Earth as Ithilien Lookout (Lord of The Rings) can be found here.

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    18. Purakaunui Bay Has It All

    This special little place in the wonderful Catlins is part of the famous Southern Scenic Route, a world class roadie, offering a spectacular drive that encompasses some of the best waterfalls in New Zealand, native forests, wonderful wildlife and some of the most unique coastal views you will find anywhere - and Purakaunui Bay has it all!

    From its picturesque campsite nestled against a deserted beach, where often its only inhabitants are friendly fur seals. You’ll find a quiet place to camp, where the only dramatic part of your stay will be the views of its towering cliffs. Nearby is a native bush walk to one of New Zealand’s most gorgeous waterfalls. This is a truly memorable place that few visitors ever see, thanks to it being off the major tourist trail to Milford Sound.

    Find out more about exploring this epic area in The Catlins: A South Island Camping Trip.

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    Southland & Fiordland

    19. Tick Off 4 (soon to be 5!) of New Zealand’s Great Walks

    There are walks and then there are Great Walks. These are the premier walks and treks of New Zealand and Southland is home to 4 (soon to be 5) of the eleven in all of New Zealand;

    A fifth - Hump Ridge Track, is looking likely to be added to this marquee list soon.

    All the great walks are world class, with some being more well known than others. Publicity around New Zealand’s walks started back in the 19th century but they really came to the world's attention in 1908 when the London Spectator called Southlands’ Milford Track “the finest walk in the world’. Try them all and decide for yourself as you step through ancient landscapes with scenery as diverse as it is spectacular. From rich coastlines to the dramatic alps, rainforests to glaciers, these walks tick the wanderlust box and then some!

    Great Walk season runs all summer, where the tracks, huts and facilities are all monitored and maintained.

    The other Great Walks around New Zealand are;

    Abel Tasman Coast Track (Nelson/Tasman) Heaphy Track (Nelson/Tasman & West Coast) Lake Waikaremoana Track (East Coast)) Paparoa Track (West Coast) Tongariro Northern Circuit Central North Island) Whanganui Journey (Manawatu, Whanganui)

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    20. No Doubts About This Sound!

    At 1.2 million hectares in size, the Fiordland region of New Zealand is larger than the entire island of Hawaii and yet it often gets narrowed down to one amazing thing - Milford Sound.

    While you should absolutely do a cruise here, we are going to recommend one other - a cruise to Doubtful Sound.

    This less well known destination is our favourite, with the wilderness cruise offering striking views into an ancient, glacially shaped landscape filled with epic views and once in a lifetime experiences.

    The overnight cruise offers the best way to explore this amazing landscape, that many refer to it as a trip into Jurassic Park - less the dinosaurs!

    A tour here encompasses a gateway trip across the mighty Lake Manapouri and over the 671m Wilmot Pass - both adventures in their own right, before you set out on a day or overnight cruise exploring this massive 40km long sound.

    The only thing that might take your eyes off the landscape is trying to catch a glimpse of dolphins, penguins, seals and the native birds that cover this amazing landscape, which your on board nature guide will happily tell you all about.

    Maori call the area Patea - which means “place of silence”. Who knew a place could say so much, without saying anything at all.

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    Travelling to the North Island Next?

    The North Island of New Zealand offers the volcanic and thermal wonders of the inland Central Plateau contrasted with the stunning coastal scenery of the Coromandel, Bay of Islands and beyond. All this combined with its gorgeous national parks, waterfalls and swimming holes, vibrant cities and historic Maori culture make it a fantastic holiday destination.

    Check out The Best Summer Things to Do in New Zealand's North Island

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