Remote and ravishing, Southland is an unmissable New Zealand travel destination where you can discover one of the world’s last true wildernesses.
Southland is the stuff New Zealand dreams are made of. In this bottom right corner of the country, you’ll find dramatic scenery famed the world over, and rightly so. Imagine epic hikes and jaw-dropping mountain roads. Picture dramatic waterfalls, towering cliffs and islands packed with rare and endangered wildlife. This is one New Zealand travel destination you want to miss. Read on to discover where to go and what to see in dreamy Southland:
Milford Sound: Discover the “eighth wonder of the world”
When Rudyard Kipling famously described this New Zealand travel location as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, he wasn’t exaggerating. Part of the Fiordland National Park – one of the most celebrated sights in New Zealand – Milford Sound is jaw-droppingly beautiful in a way that you’ll be completely unprepared for. Sure, you’ll have seen the stunning mountains, inky depths and cascading waterfalls featured in movies before. After all, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and Jurassic Park all used Milford Sound as a filming location. But witnessing the beauty in person is an awe-inspiring experience on a different level.
Hikers will no doubt want to tackle one of the park’s Great Walks. Milford, Routeburn and Kepler tracks are all ‘great’ for very good reason. However, there’s a multitude of ways to experience Fiordland’s magic. Choose from boat cruises to scenic flights or sea kayaking. Whatever mode of transport you decide on, you’ll be blown away by the Sound’s natural beauty.
Even the journey to Milford Sound, on the Milford Road, is impressive in its own right. If you’re self-driving, stock up at the small town of Te Anau. There are no shops or petrol stations between here and Milford Sound, and limited phone coverage. After leaving civilization behind, prepare for your jaw to drop as you cross the Main Divide of the Southern Alps. The road is 940 metres above sea level at its highest point. Along the way, you’ll witness glacier-carved valleys, mirror-like lakes and thick native rainforest.
New Zealand Travel: Adventures along Southland’s wild coastline
But Southland’s impressive charm doesn’t stop at Milford Sound or Fiordland. In the southeast, you’ll find The Catlins, an incredible stretch of coast between Balclutha and Invercargill. The remote beauty here feels untouched…a true wilderness just waiting to be explored.
Highlights include Curio Bay where, when the tide’s out, you can see the petrified remains of a 180-million-year-old Jurassic Forest. There’s also a living forest to explore, as well as plenty of wildlife to keep your eyes peeled for. Yellow-eyed penguins often come ashore here to rest in the afternoons. Meanwhile, take a short walk to nearby Porpoise Bay and you may see endangered Hector’s dolphins in the summer months.
Next up is Cathedral Caves, tunnelled into the cliffs by the sea over thousands of years. The spot can be accessed at low tide after a walk-through rainforest. Reaching over 30 metres high, the caves were named by Dr T.M. Hocken in 1896, who felt that their vaulted ceilings were similar to those of the grand cathedrals of Europe.
Famous Cascades: Unmissable New Zealand travel moments
After testing out the acoustics in the caves, cool off with a walk to The Catlins’ most beautiful waterfalls. First up is the three-tiered Pūrākaunui falls – one of the most famous New Zealand travel destinations. Reaching more than 20 metres, you’ll no doubt recognise these famous falls from stamps, calendars and postcards. While not quite as famous, McLean Falls is another must-visit in Southland. A 20-minute walk from the car park through beautiful native forest brings you to this incredible, 22-metre cascading waterfall.
While in The Catlins, don’t miss a trip to Nugget Point, sitting all alone on its narrow perch overlooking a moody sea. The Nuggets, (as the locals call it) and the solitary lighthouse atop, offer 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape. Wildlife-lovers can keep their eyes peeled for an array of different species, including elephant seals that visit each year.
Kiwi-spotting on New Zealand’s Stewart Island
More remote still is New Zealand’s third largest island. After a one-hour ferry ride from Bluff, you’ll find yourself on Stewart Island, or Rakiura in Māori. It might be Subantarctic but the white sand beaches will have you thinking you’ve landed on a tropical island.
Stewart Island has been given Dark Sky Sanctuary accreditation, due to its blessed lack of light pollution. And, with the right conditions, stargazers can even spot the incredible aurora australis or Southern Lights from here.
The island is home to around 300km of walking trails, including another of New Zealand’s Great Walks – the Rakiura Track. The popular hiking route takes showcases Stewart Island’s diverse ecosystems, from rainforests and wetlands teaming with wildlife to deserted sand dunes. The 29km track is gentle enough for beginners, passing by sandy beaches, coves and through forests.
Perhaps Stewart Island’s biggest drawcard is native bird spotting. The predator-free Ulva Island is just a 10-minute boat ride from Golden Bay and a haven for rare, endangered birds. These include the South Island saddleback, mohua, rifleman and the Stewart Island robin. But the star player has to be the brown kiwi. More than 20,000 of them call the island home. A fact that makes this New Zealand travel destination an unmissable spot should you want to see one in the wild.
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