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Unique Activities To Do - South Island

You are spoiled for choice when it comes to trying to choose some of the most spectacular, thrilling or awe-inspiring activities that the South Island has to offer. But here are just a few of our favourites..

Tekapo Springs

Lake Tekapo, South Island

Lie back and soak away the aches, bumps and bruises from all that adventuring in hot pools while gazing at Mother Nature in all her glory

Lake Tekapo has more than one extra special draw. For starters it has a status as a 'Dark Sky Reserve' - one of a handful on the entire planet - which makes star gazing off-the-scale spectacular here. It also has an annual wild flower display of lupins so breathtaking it almost appears unreal. And it has the beautiful Tekapo Springs.

An incredible experience in winter when the pools are snow surrounded or wonderful in summer, this complex's principal draw is its three hot pools which no amount of lyrical written description can begin to do justice to. Set in a series of three tiers, these beautifully designed and maintained hot pools, ranging in temperature from 36-40° C, are constructed so each person enjoying their mineral soak can also drink in the spectacular views of turquoise lake and snow-dusted (or snow-covered depending on the season) mountains. The whole is surrounded by native plants and trees to provide a sheltered location for total relaxation and indulgence.

Also on site are a kids' pool and a deeper, cooler pool for swimming, complete with deck chairs for a spot of sun-ray soaking. The entry price gives you a day pass access (which means you can come and go as you like) to all of the five pools and for a few dollars more you can add entry to the sauna, steam rooms and plunge pool.

Those with total pampering in mind can sign up for a beauty or well-being treatment at the day spa which also offers packages for singles, friends or couples. From April to September the complex also houses a skating rink and if you’ve ever fancied having a go you can even get private or group lessons with your travel buddies. Last but not least, Tekapo Springs is also home to a fun-filled tube park in winter which is essentially a 150m snow slope down which you can whizz on a tube – solo flying or sharing the ride with your pals.

"If I could give 11 out of 10 I would. What a spot. On a clear day, watching that view while relaxing in the spa is off the scale good."

Glacier Hiking

Franz Josef,  Fox Glacier & Others, South Island

Tramp your way across a glacier, explore ice caves or go ice-climbing up massive ice crevices

Although Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier are New Zealand’s best known, the country actually has heaps of glaciers and many can be accessed through a range of activities with different companies. Besides the two big stars of Franz Josef and Fox, other glaciers which can be accessed include Hooker Glacier, Mueller Glacier and Tasman Glacier.

The most back-packer friendly glacier experience, with regard to price, is a glacier hike. Expect to be guided through ice mazes and spectacular landscapes where hush and serenity seem to fall over everything. You will be shown all kinds of geological peculiarities and weirdly Mother Nature-sculpted formations while being regaled with fascinating facts as you drink in the wonderland of ice around you.

You don’t have to be expedition fit and there are even options for the more couch-potato inclined and, should your travel funds be looking exceptionally healthy, you will have all kind of other ice-adventure options to simply hiking. Heli-hiking – where you are deposited on the glacier by helicopter – is popular, especially as the further reaches of the glacier are where some of the most spectacular ice caves and arches can be found. Additionally, with both this and the ice-climbing experiences which are offered, you get to go down into some of the ice cracks – sometimes way down. For something truly unique perhaps you fancy the chance to ski down a glacier? This is possible from July to September on the Tasman Glacier located in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park.

"Better than I ever imagined. Fresh power the day I went up, clear blue skies, and it even snowed a bit."


Whale Watching

Kaikoura, South Island

Climb aboard a boat and head out to meet the sperm whales

As tourist magnets go it probably doesn't get any more powerful than this. The formula is simple - take an underwater geological make-up which means large cetaceans come relatively close in to shore travelling along an underwater canyon, equip some boats in which to ferry folk out to watch the whales cruising through and the tourists will come by the thousands.

Kaikoura just happens to be one of a handful of spots on Earth where sperm whales can be seen at any time of year, congregating in the canyon which teems with marine life; a rare convergence of sea currents here creates a rich habitat and easy feeding.

Once the site of a whaling station, these days Kaikoura plays host to all those simply seeking a glimpse of these majestic creatures.

Whale Watch Kaikoura is a multi-award winning Maori-owned company with a high standard ethos which aims to extend unrivalled hospitality to its customers while maintaining the highest reverence for the natural world. In essence what this means for you as a visitor is a guilt-free nature watching experience you are never likely to either rival or forget.

This company offer just one type of tour (which is simply of the let's-head-out-and-look-for-whales type) which sets off from the Whaleway Station (yes, it is supposed to be a joke) three times daily.

All their catamaran fleet are equipped with underwater microphones which can detect the whales' echolocations from anything up to 8 miles away. Their vessels are also built to have minimum impact on the marine environment with such features as noise-reduced engines and internal propellers which eliminates any chances of propeller strikes on marine creatures.

Sperm whales are undoubtedly the star of the Whale Watch show. Sperm whales go deep when they dive so the last thing you will see is a massive tail fluke held high before gradually sinking beneath the waves. This makes for a photo shot you will see over and over again (and try your darnedest to get for yourself). However, also on the marine wildlife watching menu could be New Zealand fur seals, highly acrobatic dusky dolphins – sometimes in high numbers – leaping and somersaulting out of the water and any number of sea-birds both rare and common. Far less common but also possible are sightings of other whales including blue whale and humpback whale. 


Great staff, good customer service. Their commentary while out at sea is hilarious, so listen carefully. If you get an opportunity to do this, do it!"

White Water Rafting with Rangitata Rafts

South Canterbury, South Island

Grade 1 to Grade 5 – you choose how extreme you go at this remote gorge

Combine some dramatic Lord of the Rings scenery with an outdoors experience offering something for everyone – from simple water fun to pinnacle white knuckle rides - and you have a recipe for backpacker adventure.

Situated in the middle of an historic high-country sheep station, family-run Rangitata Rafts has been dishing up white water high jinks to adrenalin junkies for 30 years. Their land gives them exclusive access to the Rangitata Gorge which is about as remote and exciting as it gets when on the subject of white-water rafting. The rapids here are some of the largest on the South Island.

Each of Rangitata Raft's trips comes complete with rapids ranging from a sedate and scenic grade 1 to a frothing, seething, heart thumping grade 5 – as high as it gets in commercial rafting. If you’re not quite up for the more extreme bits no worries. You can get out of the raft with the photographer and walk round, joining your boat crew again when things calm down.

Rangitata Rafts also throw into your trip a lunch on arrival, hot showers when you’re done taking on towering rapids and a barbie to round it all off. Photographs of your whole fun day from beginning to end can also be bought.

"Guides are extremely helpful and funny, they try their hardest to make you have a great time and they also seem to enjoy themselves throughout the whole thing."

JUCY Cruise

Milford Sound, South Island

Go cruising to get among the most majestic scenery you are ever likely to see

Rudyard Kipling – we are told – described the spectacular Milford Sound as the eighth wonder of the world. It is a fact you will read everywhere in connection with Milford Sound and anyone who visits here tends to end up agreeing wholeheartedly with Mr. Kipling's unofficial decree. Scenery is breathtaking, majestic and dramatic while soaring over it all is the mighty Mitre Peak. Tucked somewhat out of the way and accessible by only one road which is both a feat of engineering and an experience in its own right, Milford Sound is perhaps the country most visited tourist attraction.

To experience wildlife and rainforest up close and get to feel the spray from the waterfalls on your face, hop aboard one of the Jucy Cruise's catamarans. Dolphins, seals and rare Fiordland crested penguins call this area home so along with constant craning to try and trace out the tops of the cliffs which crowd in on you, you can also keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. Jucy Cruise craft have three separate decks which means you won’t have to shoulder barge your way in to get a good view – there’s plenty of room for everyone here. During your trip you will travel the entire length of the Sound until you arrive at the ocean and then make your way back slowly.

There are a couple of permanent waterfalls but for once during your adventuring pray for rain (and luckily it rains a lot here). During and after downpours the always spectacular nature of Milford Sound rises several notches and takes things quite literally off the scale when 1001 temporary waterfalls spring into life.

Jucy offer four daily cruise departure choices in summer and one less in winter with the earliest trips having the lowest prices attached. 

"A fantastic day out -  highlight of Fijordland! Absolutely beautiful. The boat trip was simply spectacular and one of the best ways to see Milford. High five! Would have done it again if we had time :)"


Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, South Island

Discover why stars twinkle or gaze upon a moon of Jupiter in one of the planet's darkest sky places

New Zealand has SO many strings to its unique bow it is sometimes hard to keep track. Here is yet one more wonderful activity for those collecting experiences of the extra-special kind which can be found at Mt John near Lake Tekapo where the Mt John University Observatory is located.

Skies impossibly full of stars are not a rare sight in New Zealand. So many places are well removed from light pollution here which makes the star-gazing so rewarding. However, things have moved into a whole new category in the area around Lake Tekapo. Awarded 'Dark Sky Reserve' status by the International Dark Sky Association, this area can boast an accolade given to only a handful of places on the planet. While claiming its place among an elite few, in reality it equates to optimum opportunities for viewing the marvels of the universe. Such factors have given rise to the establishment of some of the highest-tech astronomical facilities found anywhere. Mt. John University Observatory trains its telescopes on such things as near-Earth asteroids, the Galactic Centre and binary stars while leading scientists carry out research related to finding new planets.

Along with its cutting edge work, the Aoraki Mackenzie Reserve also cites a principle goal of promoting astro-tourism and does this through offering the public a range of tours guaranteed to take away the breath of even the most travel-jaded and been-there-done-that individual. Along with all kinds of astronomic-related treats there are even options for sun-gazing through specialised equipment.

If you want to know why stars twinkle, simply gaze at the furthest depths of the heavens possible to man or take a peek at the day-to-day lives of astronomy scientists get yourself to this unique place. Keen on photography? If so, there is a special bonus for you. On several of the tours you can hand your camera to an observatory-based photographer who will mount it onto one of the facilities sky-tracking devices. The resulting photos – the like of which you probably won’t have seen before outside of magazine pages - are all yours.  

For those on more limited budgets there are also tour options at the Cowan's Observatory located a little closer to town rather than on the mountain top. Check out to see the full range of tours up for grabs at both observatories.

Besides the more obvious benefits of astronomy tours and the extras listed above, the glass walled Astro-Cafe at Mt Johns Observatory which gives onto alpine and lake panoramas has been described by the Lonely Planet as  'possibly the best place on the planet for coffee'. Don't miss getting a caffeine fix here.

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