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    Top Rated South Island Destinations

    Our favorite South Island destinations for luxury travel showcase the best of New Zealand. Majestic scenery, untouched wilderness, and native wildlife abound on this rugged island.

    The best South Island destinations for luxury travel include:

    • Nelson / Abel Tasman: Golden sand beaches and water sports
    • Marlborough: Picturesque coastline and New Zealand’s most famous wine region
    • Canterbury: Stargazing, whale watching, and New Zealand’s highest mountains
    • West Coast: Glaciers and untamed rainforest
    • Otago / Southland: European architecture in Dunedin and rugged coastline
    • Queenstown Lakes District: Mountains, lakes, breathtaking scenery, and adventure sports
    • Fiordland: Milford Sound and dramatic, untouched wilderness
    • Stewart Island: Untouched forest and rare native birdlife

    The South Island is still a land dominated by wilderness, with unsurpassable scenery on an epic scale. Towering peaks, mysterious forests, glaciers, turquoise lakes, dramatic fiords, and rugged coastline characterise this very special island.

    Read on to learn more about these top South Island destinations.

    The Top South Island Destinations for Luxury Travel

    Nelson / Abel Tasman

    For a small town, Nelson has it all. Surrounded by orchards and wineries, within easy reach of three national parks, Nelson is the perfect base for exploring the top of the South Island. And the town itself is lively and filled with restaurants, galleries, and cafes. Nearby, Abel Tasman National Park is the South Island’s premier beach destination, with pristine golden-sand beaches and lush coastal forest.

    Top activities include: 

    Cruising, kayaking, or walking through Abel Tasman National Park; touring the local wineries; and visiting the art galleries in town and dotted through the surrounding settlements.


    Marlborough is New Zealand’s top wine region, known especially for its aromatic white wines, in particular its Sauvignon Blanc. With countless vineyard estates dotting the picturesque countryside, this is a fantastic destination for any lovers of fine wine. Marlborough is also home to the Marlborough Sounds, an intricate stretch of coastline lined with sheltered inlets and sandy bays.

    Top activities include: 

    Winery tours, cruises along the Marlborough Sounds, and active excursions such as walking and kayaking among the sounds.

    The Sounds Retreat Luxury Lodge Marlborough Sounds


    Canterbury is a sprawling region that encompasses Christchurch, the rolling farmland of the Canterbury Plains, the seaside town of Kaikoura, and the stunning Mackenzie Basin. The drive from Christchurch south through the Mackenzie Basin is one of the most scenic routes in New Zealand, with magnificent views of two turquoise lakes, the highest mountains of the Southern Alps, and our largest glacier. It is well worth lingering at Lake Tekapo or Mount Cook Village to soak in the scenery. Though Christchurch and Kaikoura are both getting back on their feet after the earthquakes of 2011 and 2016, they still have plenty to offer, from a thriving restaurant scene in Christchurch to a resident pod of whales near Kaikoura.

    Top activities include: 

    Whale watching tours in Kaikoura, dolphin cruises in Akaroa (just outside Christchurch), scenic flights over Mount Cook and the surrounding glaciers, Mount John nighttime observatory tours in Lake Tekapo, and dining on the Christchurch Tramway.


    West Coast

    With a “Wild West” atmosphere and far more wilderness than civilisation, the West Coast of the South Island is filled with hidden gems. As the road winds its way along the coast, the rainforest occasionally gives way to rugged glaciers, shimmering lakes, turquoise river gorges, and spectacular beaches. The region has a long history of jade-carving and gold-mining; be sure to watch the artisan carvers at work if you stop in Hokitika.

    Top activities include: 

    Helicopter flights over Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, visiting the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, riding the TranzAlpine Train, and soaking in the Glacier Hot Pools in Franz Josef.

    South Island destinations

    Otago / Southland

    This rugged, remote corner of the South Island draws visitors to experience the Victorian and Edwardian city of Dunedin as well as the natural wonders of the Otago Peninsula and the Catlins Coast. Penguins, dolphins, seals, and albatrosses make their home along the coast, and further inland you will find stunning waterfalls and rugged gorges.

    Top activities include: 

    Taieri Gorge Railway train journeys, Otago Peninsula wildlife tours, visiting the penguin reserve, and exploring the Catlins Coast.

    Catlins Coast South Island destinations

    Queenstown Lakes District

    Queenstown and its surrounds is one of the most popular destinations in New Zealand – and for good reason. With the buzzing towns of Queenstown and Wanaka at its heart, the Queenstown Lakes District is a perfect balance of wilderness and sophistication. Experience alpine town vibe with a stay downtown in Queenstown or Wanaka, or escape to a wilderness luxury lodge to embrace the beauty of the Southern Alps. With three stunning lakes to experience, breathtaking mountain views in every direction, and a fantastic array of restaurants and cafes to choose from, the Queenstown Lakes District is worth a longer stay.

    Top activities include: 

    Cruises on Lake Wanaka and Lake Wakatipu, scenic helicopter flights over Mount Aspiring National Park, Central Otago winery tours, adventure activities (Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of New Zealand!), jet-boating, and soaking in the magnificent views.

    Heliworks Queenstown Helicopters Alpine Picnic South Island destinations


    The vast wilderness of Fiordland National Park is one of the most inaccessible places on earth. Its steep mountain walls, staggering annual rainfall, and dense rainforest have combined to preserve the untouched beauty of this awe-inspiring region. Only a few small towns and one road allow access to the region, which is best experienced by boat and by air. Equally dramatic in sun and rain, Fiordland is the home to one of New Zealand’s most famous destinations – Milford Sound. Here you can truly immerse yourself in nature and overwhelm your senses with the grandeur of New Zealand’s finest scenery.

    Top activities include: 

    Overnight cruises on Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, helicopter tours of the fiords, day cruises in the fiords, Te Anau Glowworm Caves tours, and kayaking excursions.

    Stewart Island

    Stewart Island is a haven for New Zealand’s rarest native birds. Though it is perched at the southern tip of New Zealand, the lush island is surprisingly warm due to a tropical current that reaches its shores. There are no roads beyond the tiny town of Oban, so the best way to explore Stewart Island is to lace up a pair of hiking boots! By day, the forest is ringing with birdsong, and by night this is the best place in New Zealand to spot a kiwi in the wild.

    Top activities include: 

    Evening kiwi spotting tours, visits to the wildlife sanctuary on Ulva Island, hiking along the Rakiura Track, and relaxing in the laid-back village of Oban.

    Stewart Island South Island destinations

    Plan your visit to the top South Island destinations

    We offer a range of South Island luxury itineraries to ensure your visit is unforgettable. Choose from 7-day, 10-day, or 14-day luxury travel packages, or browse our special interest tours. You will find honeymoon and elopement packages, adventure tours, ski tours, wilderness retreats, and more.

    What is the South Island known for?

    The South Island is famous for its landscapes, which include:

    • Mountains
    • Fiords
    • Glaciers
    • Lakes
    • Braided rivers

    In addition, the South Island is famous for its outdoor activities, such as:

    • Hiking
    • Stargazing
    • Wildlife encounters
    • Adventure activities

    Contact New Zealand Luxury Escapes today to begin planning your luxury holiday including the best places to visit in the South Island of New Zealand.

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