10 Things that Surprised Me on New Zealand’s South Island 24

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best things to do on New Zealand's South IslandIf there is one palace that tops many a bucket list in the world, it might have to be New Zealand.

Specifically, New Zealand’s South Island.

Snow-capped mountains rub shoulders with icy glaciers that drop down into bright blue alpine lakes. Combined with every adventure sport imaginable, a growing wine culture and more beautiful landscapes than you could ever imagine, the South Island definitely packs a punch.

While exploring the South Island for two weeks with Haka Tours, everywhere I turned I continued to be surprised. And while the stunning vistas and unparalleled mountains took my breath away, I found the biggest surprises to be in the small things, the moments I hadn’t considered, and the things I hadn’t expected.

Here are the 10 things that surprised me the most on New Zealand’s South Island.

1. Kaikoura

Kaikoura what? Is it just me or has anyone else not heard of this small town on New Zealand’s northeast coast?

Famous for its abundant marine life, Kaikoura is now a hot spot on the South Island for whale watching and swimming with wild seals or dolphins. That’s right, you can jump right off the boat and swim among pods of dolphins, how cool is that?

Kaikoura itself might be a tiny town, though it’s location is just incredible. A beautiful drive along the rugged coast from Picton and the ferry from the North Island, Kaikoura will knock your socks off before you even arrive. Not to mention the neon blue colored water of the ocean doesn’t fail to impress.

New Zealand South Island

2. Christchurch doesn’t suck

When I announced I was heading to the South Island over the holidays, and I mentioned Christchurch as one of our stops with Haka Tours, everyone was quick to jump up and tell me it wasn’t worth visiting.

Ever since a devastating earthquake hit Christchurch a few years ago, killing almost 200 people and flattening a good part of the town, it now has a reputation of literally and figuratively being in ruins.

New Zealand South Island travel tips

But for me, that wasn’t the case. While I found it incredibly sad that so many people had to abandon their homes around the city, leaving it with a moderately empty feeling, I realized that if you looked hard enough, you’d see that Christchurch is rebuilding and regrowing.

Many people are moving to Christchurch now because of the work opportunities in rebuilding and fixing up the city. There are a lot of creative art projects and new ideas floating around, encouraging people to come back and discover the beauty of Christchurch.

I was there for a day, and I can tell you now it wasn’t enough and I can’t wait to go back.

3. Greenstone or Pounamu

While I’ve been trying to learn as much about the Maori history in New Zealand as possible, one thing that slipped my mind was the importance of greenstone or pounamu. Found only in the South Island, pounamu is a durable type of jade of great significance to the Maori culture, carved into different pendants and tokens representative of different things.

In fact the Maori name for the South Island is Te Wai Pounamu or the Land of the Greenstone Water, and if you visit, there are plenty of spots, especially on the wild west coast, such as Hokitika or on Franz Josef where you can carve your own greenstone.

Because of the importance of greenstone to New Zealand, this is a great opportunity to skip buying a souvenir in a shop and make one yourself.

art in new zealand


4. The color of the lakes

There are blue lakes, and then there are New Zealand blue lakes which put all other lakes to shame.

Thanks to mineral deposits from ancient glaciers, some of the lakes take on a shade of blue that when it reflects the sunlight, looks fake.

From Lake Tekapo to Lake Hawea to Lake Pukaki, you will be astonished at the views and the beauty of the lakes

New Zealand South Island

5. It’s basically Scotland

I’ve spent some times years and years ago visiting a friend in Edinburgh and exploring the Scottish Highlands, and absolutely loved it.

The further south you go on the South Island, the more it begins to look like an even more dramatic version of Scotland. Coincidentally, there was a decent chunk of Scots who came over to New Zealand with Captain Cook’s expedition, and who continued to come over to this day.

So don’t be surprised when you’re driving around Otago and Southland when Scottish names begin to pop up over and again, like with Dunedin, Invercargill or the Mackenzie Basin, named after the famous outlaw James McKenzie who stole a lot of sheep. Typical New Zealand.

And if you listen close enough, down south you’ll even hear wee Scottish burr and rolled “r”s if you listen closely enough.

New Zealand South Island mountains

6. Wanaka > Queenstown

As beautiful as Queenstown is and with as many fun things to do there, I quickly realized it was not my cup of tea. A resort holiday town through and through, Queenstown is a great place to visit, but to live, at least for me, it might be a different story.

To be honest it didn’t feel like I was in New Zealand while I was there, apart from the beautiful mountains and lake.

However, after leaving Queenstown we headed to Wanaka which I infinitely preferred. A gorgeous more rugged lake town, Wanaka is definitely more local and worth a visit on any trip to the South Island and a perfect place to go camping in New Zealand.

New Zealand South Island lake

7. Flying a WWII plane

Another reason I loved Wanaka so much was that I got to fly in a vintage Tiger Moth plane over the stunning lakes and mountains with Classic Flights.

Complete with the classic leather bomber jacket, goggles and jumpsuit, I hoped in the open front seat and got to experience the skies the same way pilots did 70 years ago, even doing flips in the air.

A big WWII fan, while I’ve gotten to experience many of the sites in Europe living in Spain for a few years, I was surprised to find this opportunity literally on the other side of the world in New Zealand. However, New Zealand pilots were trained in these planes so it was exhilarating for me to get to experience that in my new country.

WWII plane

8. Whitebait

Near Haast and the glaciers, you can get to experience some real kiwi dining – the famous whitebait.

Small fish caught on the west coast of New Zealand, they can cost up to $140 per kilo because they can only be harvested 10 weeks of the year, but you can get it straight from the source and try the typical whitebait pattie for only $8.

While they look a bit iffy, trust me, it’s delicious.

canned food

9. Rainforest in Punakaiki

At this point, don’t be surprised. New Zealand pretty much has every landscape imaginable, including rainforests next to glaciers.

They say that the west coast of the South Island is the only place left that looks like New Zealand as it used to be. Overgrown with jungles and forests, every time I hike around there it feels like I’ve stepped back in time to Jurassic Park.

Punakaiki on the west coast might have surprised me the most. After experiencing all the rugged mountains and deep lakes of the Southern Alps, I was looking forward to being near a wild coast and getting lost in a rainforest.

New Zealand South Island

10. The stars

If there is one thing that will surprise me over and over and over again in New Zealand, it’s the stars. How can the stars be so clear and bright here?

On a normal night you can see the stars like nowhere else in the world, shining brighter and clearer than anywhere I’ve experienced. New Zealand even has the world’s biggest star reserve on the South Island near Lake Tekapo where you can observe the heavens without light pollution.

Our last night of the Haka Tour, we got to sleep on a boat in the Abel Tasman National Park. Heading up onto the deck, I got to see the stars twinkling and shining as I’ve never experienced. It was the perfect ending to a perfect trip. What would have made it even better would be some of the best foods in New Zealand… but it was still awesome.

Have you ever been to New Zealand? Is it on your bucketlist? What has surprised you about a destination before?

New Zealand South Island

best things to do on New Zealand's South Island

best things to do on New Zealand's South Island

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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.

24 thoughts on “10 Things that Surprised Me on New Zealand’s South Island

  • Bsails

    Hi Liz,

    So happy to read your thoughts about Wanaka and Queenstown… so, I’m not the only one who likes Wanaka better.

    Also, good to hear about Christchurch. It used to be my preferred “little big town” and where I used to spend few days on each of my visits to New Zealand. I was last there between the 2 big earthquakes but was afraid to see how it turned out since then. Ready your post make me think I should really go back next time.

    totally unrelated (or is it), after a very cool summer day in windy Wellington, should I had, “welcome to shaky welly” too?


  • Valentines Day in India

    I’m happy to read this blog. I think you enjoyed the interview and this is very funny as well as spontaneous. I really enjoyed by reading this interview with Natalie. I’d like to say thanks for the great interview.

  • Katie

    I loved Kaikoura–almost didn’t leave. One of the things that surprised me near there was the waterfall where the young seal pups swim and stay until they’re big enough for the open sea. Such a cool experience. Your reminiscing makes me want to go back!

  • Britney McSweeney

    Making your own greenstone!? Awesome. That completely surprised me and brought me back to jewelry making 101 in high school! love it.

  • Jenn | Near and Far Montana

    Great South Island recap.

    I studied in Christchurch for six months and absolutely loved it.

    Queenstown wasn’t my favorite either, though horseback riding nearby was amazing.

    Kaikoura was one of my favorite stops and swimming with dolphins was incredible. I’d have spent an entire week there if I could have.

    Some of my other favorites in Aeoteroa was that Doubtful Sound was equally, if not better, than Mildford South. The Kepler Trek is absolutely worth it, though challenging. Abel Tasman is a must if you can get there! We stayed at Old McDonald’s Farm nearby. Such a great place.

    Oh my goodness you’re making me want to hop on a plane and head back to NZ right now.

  • Rachel

    Awesome post! We plan to visit New Zealand (and hopefully work there) within the next year. In pictures, NZ looks amazing, I can only imagine how beautiful it is in person.

  • Joan

    Great information. I’m going to New Zealand’s South Island Feb 16-Mar 4 this year. My daughter & her BFF have been in NZ since 6 Sept with the WWOOF program. They said it is absolutely the most beautiful country they have ever seen. Can hardly wait!

  • Michael

    We loved the south island and was our favorite of the two. The mountainous terrain was awesome (except driving at night!) and we really enjoyed Queenstown.

  • Matt T

    I’ve spent 17 years in SoCal on a university exchange that, well, never ended. 15 were well spent in Santa Barbara – possibly the best town in the US. Having read your blog on my home country, NZ, it does make it tough to stay here!
    Cheers, Matt
    aka The CalKiwi

  • Susan @ Travel Junkette

    Gorgeous photos, Liz! I’m really hoping I’ll make it to NZ this fall. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Escape Hunter

    Nice photos and you know what amazed me most from what you enumerated?
    The “greenstone”… the rest I would have guessed and have seen plenty of travel photos… but that stone surprised me. I’m passionate about gemstones and this surprised me.
    As I looked it up, I find out the “greenstone” is rather a collective name for multiple types of similar stones (semi-precious), but this includes the jade stones as well.
    And jade can be quite expensive. (More popular in Asia: China, Japan etc.).

  • Joan

    Just got back from spending 2 weeks on the South Island with my daughter who’s been WWOOFing there since Sept.
    The stars: I’m 60 & have never in my life seen stars so brilliant or numerous as from the campground in Arthur’s Pass
    The lakes: never in my life have I seen the brilliant blue/teal color of the lakes there. I’d suggest Hokitika Gorge on the west coast as a “must see” but take your bug spray!
    Queenstown is expensive, though a beautiful little town. We both preferred Wanaka also.
    Sorry- no desire to try the whitebait….
    Thanks for the insight.

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