Things to do in New Zealand South Island (East Coast)
The South Island of New Zealand is not as hot and bubbly as the north island but it does have plenty to offer with much more wildlife, glaciers, treks, wine and adventure sports on the agenda. New Zealand’s south island is the bigger of the two and I’ll talk about the east coast in this post and if you want the best attractions on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island then click on the link. When visiting New Zealand a lot of people, as did I, travel on the scenic ferry from Wellington to Picton (details at bottom) and definitely use it if they have rented a campervan to get around. I’ll start from there and work south down the east coast
Things to do in New Zealand South Island – Time to Do: To do the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand takes a minimum of 2 weeks and can be done in 3 weeks with comfort.
Things to do in New Zealand South Island – Picton and Marlborough Sounds
There is not much happening in the small picturesque town of Picton other than the place to get the ferry but there are some great places for trekking close by around the Marlborough Sounds. The jagged coastline of the Sounds provide perfect tranquil waters to relax and walk around through the forests. If you chose to swim you may even find you are accompanied by dolphins (and jellyfish). There are plenty of campsites in the area but not so many hotels or guesthouses and many that are there are expensive due to the super locations and views.
Queen Charolette Track: This 71k traverses the distance between Kenepuru Sound and Queen Charlotte Sound and is possible to join the track at several locations. There are lots of stunning walks in New Zealand and this is one of them. See more on the official site www.qctrack.co.nz/
Activities in Picton: It is possible to get a tour to swim with dolphins in Picton although Kaikoura further south would be a better place to do this. There are tours for kayaking around the Sounds and also visiting the Motuara Island bird sanctuary. In and around Picton there are plenty of walks that can be done to the surround hills close by that give great views of the sea.
Things to do in New Zealand South Island – Blenheim and Wine
Only 30min south of Picton is the town of Blenheim on the plains of the south island and home to New Zealand’s most famous wine region in Marlborough. Marlborough grows 75% of New Zealand’s wine. A great place to go sampling the sauvignon blanc and chardonnay but just make sure somebody else does the driving. There is a wine festival on the second weekend in February each year where you can make sure to sample every wine in the region! Wine tours can be arranged from Blenheim and can range from bikes and family tours to 4 x 4 and eco tours. The bike tours include several stops for refreshments on the 20-30km, 9hr trip and are around NZ$250. Other 6hr lunch tours cost NZ$145 (www.bubblygrape.co.nz, www.molesworthtours.co.nz). It is also possible if you have a car to drive around yourself and call into the wineries as maps are available in Blenheim.
The wineries I was in were all very pleasant and are well catered for people doing sampling although they all would be more pleased if you actually bought some bottles rather than just tasting it! Obviously there are plenty of wines and grapes (the grapes are delicious) to choose from but according to more of an expert than me, some of the best are wineries are Seresin Estate, Saint Clair Family Estate and Johanneshof Cellars. The opening times of all wineries vary from place to place but almost all are open between 10:00-16:00 during the summer months of October to April. Some wineries then close or have reduced hours during winter.
Ohau Point Seal Colony: Don’t miss this seal colony just off Highway one only a few kilometers north of Kaikoura. Hundreds of seals just lazing on the rocks while the pup’s practice swimming and playing in the little rock pools below. With the Pacific Ocean as the background it is a beautiful sight and its free.
Things to do in New Zealand South Island – Kaikoura
If dolphins and whales are your thing then Kaikoura is the place for you! The most famous place in New Zealand for these two and whether you are in a boat or go swimming you won’t be disappointed. There is abundance of marine life and marine activities to do including fishing, kayaking, surfing and scuba diving and if you don’t fancy the water there are lots of coastal walks and even some mountains in Kaikoura Ranges a bit inland to enjoy. I won’t go into detail on all of the above, only the highlights.
Whale Watching: There are boat tours all year round to see the sperm whales that congregate around Kaikoura because of the underwater geography that bring nutrient rich water up towards the surface. Up to 6 other whale species come to Kaikoura’s coast depending on the time of year. The tours usually last around 2.5hrs and cost NZ$145 and by listening to sonar in the water they can pinpoint the whales so you always get a good view. The tour goes 3 times per day and 4 times during high season. Seeing the tails lift up before they dive are spectacular but it is hard to appreciate their full size as you never see all of them unless you are extremely lucky and see them breaching. Pods of dolphins are often seen during these trips. www.whalewatch.co.nz
Dolphin Swimming: If there is one thing you should do in Kaikoura this is it. Swimming with dolphins is brilliant as they tease and disorientate you before shooting off to annoy and amaze somebody else. Dusky dolphins are the species that live in Kaikoura and like all dolphins are curious and playful. When you are in the water with hundreds of them it is mesmerising. Some just come up and swim around you slowly and then quicker and quicker until you can’t keep up twisting with them and when they are happy they have won they are gone in a flash. Even from the boat it is a cool experience as they are constantly jumping in and out of the water. There are 3 tours daily all year round and cost NZ$170 to swim and NZ$90 to watch from the boat. www.dolphinencounter.co.nz
Trekking: The Kaikoura Coast Track is a private track and must be done with a guide over 3 days if doing the full thing. Meals as well as spectacular scenery and bird life are given. The Kaikoura Peninsula Walk is another walk that is easier and takes an easy day to complete.
Things to do in New Zealand South Island – Mount Cook National Park / Lake Pukaki
This spectacular park with New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mt.Cook, at 3754mtrs, and the picturesque turquoise Lake Pukaki providing the entrance is a must on the South Island. A VERY IMPORTANT note that although the park is closer to the west coast than east coast, it can only be accessed from the east side so make sure you factor that into your plans or you will have a very long journey ahead of you.
With remarkably clear days and nights and the park full of emerald lakes this is a perfect place to trek (or tramp if you are from New Zealand). The park has over 19 mountains higher than 3000mtrs and from a base in Mt. Cook NP Village you can trek, fish, stargaze, ski and admire the glaciers among plenty of other activities. If you are going to camp make sure to bring the correct clothes as the weather can change very fast. www.mtcooknz.com
Walks can range from half an hour (Glencoe Walk) up to a few days (Mt. Cook Trek, Ball Pass Crossing). Some good walks for a day are:
- Kea Point Track: Gives stunning views of the moraine lake and the surrounding valleys. 2hrs return from village
- Hooker Valley Track: An easy walk up the Hooker valley always looking at Mount Cook with some great viewpoints ending at Hooker Lake. 3hrs return.
Things to do in New Zealand South Island – Christchurch – 5 Things to Do
The ‘Garden City’ suffered 4 big earthquakes in 2010/11 which killed 185 people and destroyed many buildings but even worse it left many buildings still standing but unsafe to occupy. A lot of these buildings are in the city centre and are cordoned off. Some of the sights that you may have heard of before are not accessible. The city has recovered well form the earthquake but it will be constantly reminded about it until the centre of the city is back to normal which will take many years.
Christchurch is New Zealand’s second biggest city and full of parks and open areas and is a perfect city to cycle around as the city has put many cycle lanes in place in the last few years.
Rent a bike: A great way to explore the greater city area and many parks
Botanic Gardens: Set on the Avon River beside Hagley Park in the centre of Christchurch is a perfect place to relax and enjoy the sun in the surroundings of exotic trees and plants. The park and Botanic Gardens together is one of the biggest inner city parks in the world. The gates close 1hr before sunset
Summit Road: This great view used to be driveable and gave 360degree panoramic views around the crater rim but now it is only possible to walk or cycle it due to damage from the earthquake. The suggested route now starts in Sumner on the coast, 12km south east of Christchurch city. From there you go to Evans pass and then up to Summit Road to Godley Head and back. The number 3 bus can be gotten from Christchurch to Sumner if you are not cycling it.
Rugby Game: As rugby is the national sport you should definitely go to one game and although most major towns have a team I recommend you go in Christchurch. The Canterbury Crusaders were the dominant force in the Super 14 rugby for the last 15year but have slipped recently. Although not the best stadium in New Zealand it is well worth watching some of the best players in the world playing. The season runs from February to August. http://crusaders.co.nz.
Things to do in New Zealand South Island – Christchurch to Dunedin
Elephant Rocks – Duntroon: It is doubtful that you will find any elephants or even lookalikes in these limestone formations but in a grass fields surrounded by other grass fields with sheep, these rocks are to be found. It’s possible to wander amongst these scattered giants and climb on top if you can. They were surprisingly cast in the film ‘The Lion the witch and the wardrobe’. They will not be the most spectacular thing you see in New Zealand but worth going to see if you are close. If heading north into Duntroon on Highway 83 then take a left in the town and when the road splits after 5km, take a left and the elephants are 500mtrs down that road with a small pull in space fit for a tractor. They are signposted.
Oamaru – Blue Penguin Colony: The blue penguin is the smallest penguin in the world and in a few places on the east coast of New Zealand they come ashore. In Oamaru you can see them in their breeding colony for NZ$12 or sit in the stand and watch them come ashore at dusk for NZ$25 to their natural nesting ground. I was a little disappointed in Oamaru because I only saw one penguin come ashore in the evening time but this was probably bad luck. There is a second place outside Dunedin (below) where blue penguins also come ashore and in my case I saw a lot more down there.
Moeraki Boulders: Although the tide was half in so I didn’t get the full value of the boulders and the weather was cold, I have very good memories of the Moeraki Boulders because of the video in this incident (6th video). These balls scattered over the beach are very strange on purely spherical and smoothness grounds that vary from 3mtrs in diameter to the size of a football. It’s like some God dropped giant scoops of chocolate ice-cream on the beach and they hardened. The Maori legend is that it is the wreckage from a large waka (canoe) and the scientific version is that they started forming 60million years ago and erosion has made them like this. These are definitely worth the visit and there are plenty of goofy photo tricks to be doing with the ball shapes in some and holes in others. The Moeraki Boulders are located on Koehohe Beach two thirds of the way from Oamaru to Palmerstown off Highway 1 (36km south of Oamaru).
Shag Point – Matakaea: Only 10km south of the Moeraki Boulders and just north of Palmerstown is Shag Point where there is another spot to gaze at seals but also a place to see yellow-eyed penguins. With their little band of yellow around their eyes like glasses or a bit like Robin in Batman you can see they are aptly named. They are unique to New Zealand and among the world’s rarest penguins. The best time to see them is before 9am and after 3pm. There is a view point and a path along the coast where you can hopefully get up close to a few that have come ashore. Shag Point is also home to a colony of New Zealand fur seals so you can lie in close proximity to them pretending to communicate!
Things to do in New Zealand South Island – Dunedin – Otago Peninsula
There is not a whole lot going on in Dunedin itself and if you are there when the university is out there is even less. There is the disappointing Cadbury’s chocolate museum to go to or some of the older buildings like the Gasworks Museum and Taieri Gorge Railway. If you are in Dunedin you should head to Baldwin Street on the north of the city which is officially the steepest street in the world. It is very steep but it is also short, only a few hundred meters long off the main road. Nothing spectacular and has houses lined on each side like any other street.
Otago Peninsula is one of the best things to see in Dunedin and indeed the southern end of New Zealand which spits 32km out to the east of the city and has great walks, sunsets, views of the ocean and Dunedin but also has oodles of wildlife. Northern Royal albatross, yellow eyed penguins, blue penguins, fur seals and sea lions all call the Otago Peninsula home. There is the Royal Albatross centre (www.albatross.org.nz) at the end of the peninsula that looks after the Otago Peninsula and its wildlife. This includes these huge birds that can have a wingspan of more than 3mtrs (10ft). There is a big car park that give spectacular views of the cliffs and oceans below and the centre also provides tours of the birds, penguins or history of the peninsula. I found the blue penguin tour here better than in Oamaru but maybe it’s just because I saw much more penguins!
Slope Point: Continuing south and if you are in the vicinity between Dunedin and Invercargil you may as well head to the most southerly point in New Zealand. Nothing but sheep, grass and a vast expanse of ocean but you can always say you were there.
Practicalities – About New Zealand
- €1 =NZ$1.60, USD$1=NZ$1.50
- Language = English
- Buses: Kiwi Experience, Magic Bus is built for tourist to see the sights. Hop on/Hop off bus over north and south islands and are very popular. www.kiwiexperience.com, www.magicbus.co.nz
- Ferry: The ferry between the north and south islands (Wellington and Picton) takes 3.25hrs and costs NZ$65 for foot passengers and NZ$208 for cars/vans. There is no saving if booking a return fare. The ferry leaves 4 times daily from early morning to evening from both Wellington and Picton. www.interislander.co.nz
- Motorhomes, campers: Renting out a motorhome or camper while in New Zealand is one of the most popular ways to get around. There are several companies that offer these and vary in price and luxury depending on what you choose.
- From my experience there were 4 of us and we chose a ‘Spaceship’. This was the budget option and was very good. As there were 4 it definitely gets claustrophobic after a while when basically living in a 7 person car for 6 weeks! You may get fit renting one of these as you will probably have to go to the swimming pool fairly often for a swim but also a shower!
- There are oodles of campsites in New Zealand and they are well equipped. Some work on the honesty system but the main ones have water, electricity, a shop etc. The campsites though I found expensive compared to other places. For example the second person usually costs the same amount as the car and first person. The same goes for the 3rd and 4th person even though you may be only taking up the one camping space. Such as NZ$25 for first person and van but also NZ$25 for each of the next three people. Unfair I feel.
- Motorhomes: www.maui.co.nz, www.britz.co.nz
- Budget Campers: www.spaceshipsrentals.co.nz, www.wickedcampers.co.nz,
- Accommodation – NZ$55 per night for an average double room in a city
Map of New Zealand
|Queen Charlotte Track - Picton|
Queen Charlotte Track, New Zealand
Blenheim, Marlborough, New Zealand
|Ohau Point Seal Colony|
Ohau Point, New Zealand
Kaikoura, Canterbury, New Zealand
|Mount Cook National Park|
Mount Cook, Mount Cook National Park, Canterbury, New Zealand
Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand
Duntroon, Otago, New Zealand
Oamaru, Otago, New Zealand
Moeraki Boulders, Moeraki Boulders Road, Hampden, Otago, New Zealand
Shag Point, Otago, New Zealand
Otago Peninsula, Dunedin, New Zealand
Slope Point, Southland, New Zealand
Picton, Marlborough, New Zealand
My Photos of the East Coast of New Zealand