Hidden gems and solitude await on unique South Island

  • Clouds, water, and wind, Lake Wakatipu

    Clouds sail above Lake Wakatipu on the road to Glenorchy

    While New Zealand’s South Island might be far from the maddening crowd, locals do joke in all seriousness that the austral summer sees the natives far outnumbered by the tourists. And in popular spots like Abel Tasman National Park or the Milford Sound, the queues of camper vans can be off-putting. Best to get away to quieter and sometimes hidden gems, such as beautiful Lake Wakatipu, just a short drive from Queenstown, yet seemingly years and miles away, surrounded by mountains and sublime natural beauty.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Galactic magic above Lake Tekapo

    The Milky Way rises above the Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo

    Lake Tekapo is packed with tour buses by day, but they head back to Christchurch in the late afternoon. The area around Tekapo is renowned for being one of the least light-polluted places on earth, and has been declared an International Dark Sky Reserve. It’s a great spot for galactic viewing, with the Milky Way often visible right over the Church of the Good Shepherd.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • The Milky Way and Moke Lake

    Epic night skies at Moke Lake

    The church at Tekapo has become an iconic shot though, so if you find the astral photographers too many, head further south and spend a night camping outside of Queenstown at peaceful Moke Lake. This beautiful park sits in a valley surrounded by mountains, and with a small number of campsites, you’ll more than likely have the night skies all to yourself.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Checking out the sound from Gertrude Saddle

    The best view of the Milford Sound from Gertrude Saddle

    The Milford Sound is justifiably one of New Zealand’s top attractions, with granite peaks rising right out of the deep blue fjord. Tourists compete with sandflies for parking spots and if you don’t book the famed Milford Track at least six months in advance, you’d best look elsewhere. However, the Gertrude Saddle makes for a challenging half-day hike without the crowds, and gives you the best aerial view of the Milford Sound you can get without splurging for a helicopter.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Beauty in the Earnslaw Burn

    A Tolkien view under Mount Earnslaw

    If this gorgeous scene looks familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it on the big screen. The abundant cascading waterfalls set under a glacier and towering Mount Earnslaw were used as one of the locations for The Hobbit. While helicopter tours now bring Tolkien-lovers in for a closer view and a lunch stop, the only way to stay here is via a grueling all-day hike. Camp here and you’ll share sunset and sunrise at this magical spot with few others.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Lake Hawea from the Isthmus Peak Track

    Lake Hawea will take your breath away

    While Roys Peak and its vistas of Lake Wanaka see half the backpacker crowd in New Zealand clambering up its slopes daily, nearby Lake Hawea somehow gets a miss. And the Isthmus Peak Track sees far fewer visitors, offering superb views of the azure lake and surrounding mountains.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Roy's Peak views

    Looking out at Lake Wanaka from Roys Peak

    You most certainly won’t be alone going up Roys Peak, but if you must, make sure to climb an extra 40 minutes above the peak, where 70% of the crowd calls it quits. There’s a weather tower up here that offers even better views, out to Mount Aspiring and the Southern Alps, and of the entire Lake Wanaka below.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Lenticulars in Mount Cook National Park

    Storm brewing over Tasman Lake

    Mount Cook National Park sees a lot of visitors climbing up hundreds of steps to try and get a glimpse of Aoraki (Mount Cook) at 12, 218 feet, the country’s highest peak. Fewer go to nearby Tasman Lake, which descends from the Tasman Glacier. If you are here when the ominous lenticular clouds and strong winds arrive (harbingers of storms), you’re almost certain to be alone.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Up close with a kea

    Cheeky kea, the world's only alpine parrot

    If you spend enough time in these more remote spots, you’re likely to spot a wild kea. Noted for their cheeky behavior (such as stealing camera lens caps or pecking all the rubber off your windshield wipers!), these once abundant pesky birds are now endangered and much harder to find. They are a member of the parrot family, and the only alpine ones on the planet.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Lake Wanaka and 'That Wanaka Tree'

    That Wanaka tree

    This lone tree sitting in Lake Wanaka had several photos of it go viral (just try Googling "That Wanaka tree") and is now a local landmark, with virtually every visitor to Wanaka wanting a selfie in front of it. For some time alone with this famous natural shrine, coming on a stormy afternoon ought to do the trick.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Hiking the Catlins River Track

    Alone in the green Catlins

    For a real escape, head to the South Island’s best gem, the Catlins, an area along the south coast comprised of beaches, verdant forest and rolling farmland. It offers plenty of wildlife, hiking and off-the-beaten-path exploration. The Catlins River Track is one of the most pleasant walks to do, even on rainy days, when the forest cover and lush greenery makes for beautiful tramping.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Moving water at Punakaiki Falls

    Water magic at Punakaiki Falls

    The Catlins are famous for waterfalls, with many of them hidden away in dense foliage or along rushing creeks and rivers. Punakaiki Falls isn’t large in volume, but its forest setting and flowing pools make it a wonderful escape.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Miles of pristine sand at Tautuku Bay

    Have a beach to yourself at Tautuku Bay

    The beaches of the Catlins are some of New Zealand’s best; long, sandy and completely empty. Reached only by four-wheel-drive vehicles or on foot, Tautuku Bay, seen here from Florence Hill, is home to southern right whales, sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins. Due to the lack of human habitation from here to Antarctica, almost no flotsam or detritus gets washed up on the shores of the Southern Ocean here, leaving the beaches spotlessly clean.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Driftwood on the beach, Surat Bay

    Surreal Surat Bay

    In the morning mist and fog, the beaches here can seem almost haunted. Devoid of human life, it's just endless miles of sand, driftwood and changing tides. Named after a shipwrecked boat from 1874, Surat Bay sits at the end of a dead-end track and features miles and miles of emptiness and solitude.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Hooker's sea lions (New Zealand sea lions) relaxing

    New Zealand sea lions basking in the sun

    Well, almost solitude. Surat and most of the other beaches of the Catlins are populated by colonies of Hooker’s sea lions. Basking on the beach and covered in sand, the males weigh up to 1,000 pounds and are completely undeterred by human presence. Often blending in with the kelp and driftwood, they can be aggressive if you come too close. They are the most endangered sea lion in the world.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Group of pied shag checking out the surf

    Sharing the beach with pied shag

    Other beachgoers include pied shag, which also tend to outnumber human visitors in these parts. Waipapa Point in the west of the Catlins is a great place to see abundant birdlife, along with sea lions, fur seals and whales out at sea.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • South Island's most southern spot: Slope Point

    Slope Point: where the wind blows

    As you are leaving the Catlins, make sure to stop in at Slope Point, the South Island’s most southern piece of land. This wild spot has sheep farms set above cliffs towering over the ocean. It’s 3,000 miles from here to the South Pole, and as there is nothing in between here and there except empty flat ocean, the violent Antarctic winds that roar up here have nothing to buffer them, leaving the trees at Slope Point gnarled, bent and wildly flattened, seemingly powerless against the fury of nature.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Green Fiordland, the Lake Gunn Track

    The lush forests of Lake Gunn in Fiordland

    Wherever you go on the South Island, it’s easy to escape the crowds. Even heading to the Milford Sound, you can stop off and go for a stroll on the Lake Gunn Forest Walk in Fiordland, surrounding yourself with wild carpets of moss.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Above the Divide and Routeburn Track

    Hiking above the crowds: The Divide above the Milford Sound

    Or else get above it all, staying high and looking out at Mount Christina, Mount Crosscut and Mount Lyttle above The Divide, accessed at the start/finish of the famed Routeburn Track on the Milford Road.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Empty St. Clair's Beach, Dunedin

    Solitude and sand at St. Clair Beach, Dunedin

    Even in cities, you’ll often have New Zealand’s wild nature all to yourself, such as the endless sand and surf of St. Clair Beach at the edge of Dunedin township.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Quiet Bob's Cove near Queenstown

    Alone on the jetty at Bob's Cove, Lake Wakatipu

    So get lost and off the beaten path on New Zealand's South Island. It is one of the few places left in the world with clean air, clean water, and plenty of natural beauty that has been unspoiled by mankind.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis