My 8 favourite spots in New Zealand's South Island
Ahhh, New Zealand…
Before my brother decided to move there and Lord of the Rings came out back in 2001 - I was 12 (please don’t do the math to figure out how old I am) - I knew very little of New Zealand or nothing at all.
So exactly 10 years later, it was finally time to visit this very very very far away place, roughly 3 days of travel from my small town in southern Italy, Monopoli.
Since then, I have relocated and started a life in Melbourne, Australia, and decided to make a trip to New Zealand a yearly thing, because well, it’s AMAZING!
So far, I had only explored the North Island (which I thought was the most incredible place) until last month when I finally made it South, and HOLY SHIT! This part of New Zealand is just unreal!
Views for days and anywhere you look, which makes it one of the most photogenic and humbling places in the whole wide world. The beauty and power of nature here is so overwhelming and truly left us speechless at times. YES, IT IS THAT GOOD!
Because of the insanely good time me and my good mate Miranda had on this trip (hands up for this amazing photographer and human), I was excited to put together a list of the best spots we visited.
Hopefully it will be helpful to you if you are planning a little getaway to the South Island and want to make the most of your time there whilst getting some sick shots along the way.
We only had a few days in the Southern part of Aotearoa so we didn’t get to see it all this time, but even if you can only spend a few days there, I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Photos online will never give it justice, but we can try, so HERE IT IS:
My favourite 8 spots in the South Island and every other place we visited in between, so yeah, it’s a lot more than 8.
Blue Pools - Mt Aspiring National Park
We picked up our car from Queenstown Airport (thank you Rentalscars.com for the ride) and hit the road right away towards Wanaka following the scenic Crown Range road.
This drive is nothing but beautiful and offers incredible views of the surrounding mountains and lakes all the way to Wanaka. This will have to be one of the prettiest and dreamiest little towns I’ve ever visited, and you’ll be overwhelmed by the amount of places you can explore from here. If you can, stay at least 3 nights.
After we dropped off our stuff (we stayed in an Airbnb in town on top of the hill, because: VIEWS) and put our swimsuits on, we jumped back in the car to reach our first spot, the Blue Pools, only a 20mins drive from town.
From the carpark, we followed the path in the native beech forest for about 5-10 mins and past the swing bridge until we reached the pools. The water is so blue that you’ll want to jump in for sure, just be prepared because the water is glacier cold.
On the drive up to the Blue Pools and back to Wanaka, you’ll drive past lake Hawea and lake Wanaka, two stunning glacier lakes (once connected) that are now separated by a narrow piece of land called the Neck.
After freshening up in the pools, do yourself a favour and a go grab giant burrito from The Burrito Craft back in town - best idea we have ever had. We were so impressed with food in Wanaka and Queenstown and it’s where we spent all our money. If you want some food recommendations, comment below or slide into my DMS on Instagram.
After that, we headed to the most famous tree in New Zealand and the Instagram world, to enjoy our dinner while watching the sunset. Watching the sunset and see the colors on the mountains and over the lake change is amazing, but people watching here is even better and a lot more entertaining.
If you want to get the perfect shot of the tree, arrive early, find a spot you like and do not move from there. Do not even think about going anywhere else for a second as there will be a ton of people here trying to get the best spot for the shot at this time of the day.
I wasn’t too fussed about getting this shot so I snapped a few different angles and then I Photoshopped the unwanted people in my shots out of it. I am not a Photoshopper, but sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.
Other MUST DOS around Wanaka:
Chill in Glendhu Bay
Hike to Roys Peak
Do the Diamond lake hike for views of Lake Wanaka and the mountains
Complete the Rob Roy Glacier track
Skip rocks over the lake while the sun goes at Beacon Point and keep following Beacon Road all the way where the Outlet track starts.
Rise and Shine!
This was an early morning for us and I would recommend you do the same if you decide to drive towards Mt Cook from Wanaka.
This road is so beautiful. You’ll be driving surrounded by mountains for hours and no reception, so put on your favourite playlist and enjoy the drive. Make sure you are safe when picking up a spot to stop with your and take photos.
Fly your drone for best photo results. Unfortunately, I did not have one.
Peter’s lookout at Lake Pukaki with views of Mt Cook
Once you’ll exit the Lindis Pass road, you’ll start getting a glimpse of some bigger, snowy mountains in the distance and Mt Cook’s peak - the real deal.
Quick stop in Twizel for coffee and breakkie and back in the car again towards Lake Pukaki, also known as The Gatorade Lake. I don’t know if it actually is, but I would be disappointed if it’s not. The water is a crazy shade of blue that I have never seen before in a body of water.
By now you are probably going insane trying to figure out where to stop or even to look to take in those views. Mt cook is just there in front you and it’s just WOW ( we did say WOW a lot on this trip).
Make sure not to miss the Peter’s lookout sign! Here you can park your car and finally get snapping. You’ll also be able to stop along the road as many times as you want as you keep driving towards Mt Cook, but as usual, be mindful of other drivers and safe when stopping.
Hooker Valley Track + Tasman Glacier
After what it felt like a very long time, we made it to the Hooker Valley track!
It’s a 3-hour drive from Wanaka but it’s so worth it and don’t worry, it keeps getting better and you’ll never regret making an extra effort when visiting this part of the world.
I packed very little and inappropriately for this trip so I did this hike wearing a jeans skirt because it was very hot. Pack a few extra handy things as apparently you cannot trust the weather forecast.
This walk is roughly 1 h and 30 mins one way but it’s very easy. Keep in mind I am a terrible hiker. If I can do it with no struggle, you can probably do it with a broken leg and your eyes closed, but you'll definitely want to keep them open for this one!
I know I am repeating myself but holy shit, the VIEWS!
This walk/place was my second favourite after Milford Sound - spot n.7 on this list - and there are plenty of photos opportunity on the way to the Glacier you will reach at the end.
We also saw an avalanche - not captured because I was too busy looking at it - but yet incredible!
We had lunch at the Glacier and took some snaps of Mt Cook before heading back to our car.
I don’t want to sound like your mom when she sees you leaving the house without a jacket, but make sure to wear sunscreen and a hat. Miranda got so burned, she is still peeling 3 weeks later.
After this incredible hike, you can do another little one at the glacier next door. After a quick 10 mins drive from the Hooker Valley Carpark, follow a bunch (A LOT) of steps up hill to the Tasman Glacier viewpoint.
I don’t know if it’s the norm, but a volunteer was up there ready to give people some knowledge about the glacier and how it has changed with time. If she’s there, definitely have a chat with her to know more about this place.
By now it was way past lunch time and we were a bit exhausted, so we had to start heading back.
We actually drove all the way to Queenstown from here where we stayed for the remaining of our time in NZ, but not before dipping our toes into Lake Pukaki. The blue is just too inviting to say no.
Queenstown all around
Queenstown… Mountains, mountains, mountains, everywhere!
This very busy town that surrounds Lake Wakatipu is also surrounded by very high mountain peaks, which obviously result in views for days!
Like I said, I’m the worst when it comes to hiking due so unfortunately I was too scared to try and hike the Ben Lomond track.
This was highly recommended by anyone we spoke to, so if you are not a little sook like me, definitely head on this 6-8 hour return hike (check conditions before going and If you want to know more about it, make sure to click on this link).
From what I’ve seen online, the views are absolutely incredible and you’ll be able to get some beautiful panorama shots of Queenstown and the surrounding mountains.
For those that think the Ben Lomond track might be too much for them as well, try Queentown hill hike, a way more accessible and shorter hike. I actually still found this a bit challenging on my breathing but it’s definitely doable. Pick up a stick at the beginning of the walk to help you get through it whilst having a Gandalf moment.
Looking for an easily accessible high point where to get shots of the whole Queenstown, maybe at sunrise or sunset?
Try driving up Coronet Peak, the views from here are amazing. There is also the option to hike to Lake Alta, which I also heard is real good, but not too easy on the shins.
I also recommend going for a little stroll into town and then check out the Queenstown gardens, that offer beautiful views of lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables at sunset.
On a different day, we also went on two different morning hikes: the Sunshine Bay track and Bob’s cove. The latter was such a beautiful surprise and I would highly recommend it. We found a little deserted spot with a jetty over the crystal clear water that looked like paradise.
For Milford Sound, we decided to join a our to take a break from driving. Reaching Milford Sound from Queenstown is a bit of a drive, 5 hours each way.
We chose a company called Go Orange for the tour as it was the cheapest one. We LOVED our tour guide! He had SO much knowledge about New Zealand, the National Parks and everything NZ related. If you get a change, definitely do a tour at some point to learn more about this beautiful country.
Our guide stopped along the way so we could check out the views, spot some Kea birds - NZ sneakiest bird, and drink some fresh water coming down from the mountains.
But back to the photography spots! For more photo opportunities in the National Park, I’d definitely recommend spending 3 days here, check out some of the hikes you can do here and catch some sunrises and sunsets.
Must do: go on a cruise!
Wow, just wow! Apart from tini-tiny and huge waterfalls falling down the mountains, you can spot dolphins, seals, birds, and even whales if you are lucky. Best thing? Our cruise got super close to the bigger waterfalls and it was absolute magic!
When people say this is the best drive in New Zealand, well friends, it sure is.
Lots of wows in our car, so many mountains, so many feels. This ride is best enjoyed with good tunes playing in the background.
The closer you get to Glenorchy, the better the views. Find some safe spots to park your car on the side of the road and get snapping!
Once you reach town, I’d recommend checking out the General store for an epic giant cookie ice cream before you hit the road again.
We drove to the famous red Glenorchy cabin on the waterfront. You can’t miss it, this is the smallest town ever.
You might have seen a few images of people standing under the pier light with the mountains in the background and that’s where it was taken.
We also went for an easy sunset stroll on the Glenorchy lagoon walkway, one hour-ish return from the red cabin and it was so bootiful!
How cute is this little town? If you are from Melbourne and you have visited Beechworth, you’ll find these two gold mining towns to be quite similar.
Here you will find the instafamous Arrowtown cabin (pictured below), find out more about the Chinese settlers and see some of their homes, or go for a stroll along the river that cuts through the town.
Try and avoid buying anything here because it’s possibly one the most expensive places in NZ.
Window seat flying into Queenstown
Last but not least!
This is not really a spot, but I can’t stress enough about securing a window seat when flying in and out of Queenstown.
Check out those mountains!
And there you have it, my favourite spots on this short but sweet trip to the South Island.
Until next time, Aotearoa!