Willeke van Doorn: My 7 favorite places on New Zealand’s South Island

(Editor’s note: This is the second of two posts from New Zealand. See Willeke’s post on the North Island here.)

From the tropical beaches of the Abel Tasman National Park to the adrenaline highs of Queenstown and the snowy peaks of New Zealand’s highest mountain, these are my 7 favorite destinations on the South Island.

You can’t miss these hotspots during a New Zealand road trip!

All photos by Willeke van Doorn

Abel Tasman National Park

I arrive on the South Island on the ferry from Wellington and the Abel Tasman National Park is one of my first stops. You will find this tropical piece of paradise, filled with golden beaches and turquoise waters, in the northwest of the South Island. Explore the clear blue waters in a kayak or book a cruise that drops you off at the beach for a walk along one of the many hiking tracks that cross the park.

I also loved this national park because it is one of the sunniest destinations in all of New Zealand.


As soon as I drive into Wanaka, I know this town is going to be one of my favorite places in New Zealand. Locals and tourists are enjoying a cold beer at one of the lake-side cafes, looking out over the mountains of the Southern Alps.

Life looks good in this small town!

There are also plenty of opportunities to get your legs moving. Hike up Mount Iron (relatively easy) or Roys Peak (challenging!) for amazing views over the surrounding lakes and mountains. Or enjoy the view from the water during a morning of kayaking or paddle boarding.


Marketed as the adventure capital of New Zealand, this is the number one destination for all adrenaline junkies.

You can go skydiving, jetboating, paragliding, bungee jumping… anything that gets your heart rate up! If you don’t feel like jumping out of a plane, there is still plenty for you to do in Queenstown. Take the gondola up to the Skyline for incredible views over Lake Wakatipu and the snow-peaked mountains, try the famous Fergburger or feel like a kid again while luging, gravity-fueled go-karting down the mountains.

The Hooker Valley Track

New Zealand is home to hundreds of hikes and walks and I have enjoyed them all, but the Hooker Valley Track is one of my absolute favorites. This 10-kilometer long walk zigzags through the Mount Cook National Park, is relatively flat and has amazing views all the way. You will cross some swing bridges – the best spots to take some photos – until you get to the sparkling Hooker Lake next to Mount Cook, the highest mountain of the country.

Lake Tekapo

I have to admit: before I saw Lake Tekapo with my own eyes, I didn’t believe it was real. The lake is so blue, I was convinced the photos I had seen online were heavily edited. Turns out they are not. Enjoy a stroll along the stunning blue water or get your heart pumping on the Mount John Walkway. The 2-
hour walk steadily climbs to a 360-degrees viewing platform above Lake Tekapo and the little village
next to it.

Go at night to also see some stars.

Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier

Be quick to visit these glaciers because while they are still impressive today, they are quickly declining due to climate change. The easiest way to see the glaciers is by taking a short walk to a viewpoint, but if you want to see this force of nature up close, book a heli-hike.

This adventurous tour combines a helicopter ride with a hike on the ice formations.

Good to know: the heli-hike tours are weather-dependent, so make sure to check the forecast. Summer is the best time to visit.

Milford Sound

If you are visiting New Zealand, you musn’t miss Milford Sound. Every day dozens of tour busses and cruises take tourists into the Fiordland National Park, so expect some crowds but also an incredible road trip that leads to the only fiord in New Zealand that is accessible by road. After a stunning drive, get on one of the cruise boats to view the dramatic cliffs and waterfalls up close.

Don’t forget to bring a rain jacket!

See all of Willeke’s post here in Dispatches’ archives.

Willeke van Doorn
Dispatches Europe at | + posts

Willeke van Doorn is a Dutch journalist and graduate of Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Tilburg, Netherlands. Her experience includes an internship at National Geographic Traveler in Amsterdam.

Willeke has lived in the U.S. and Australia and loves to travel the world. She was an early Dispatches contributor as a student.

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