by Lydia Schrandt for USA TODAY 10Best

Virtual tour: Explore New Zealand's South Island

The largest of New Zealand’s two main islands invites adventurers to explore some of the world’s most pristine natural landscapes.

One of New Zealand’s most scenic drives winds between Queenstown and Glenorchy. The road to Glenorchy curves through forests, past mountain lakes and parallel to cliff edges along its 28.5-mile length.

The South Island is a hiker’s paradise. Among the most popular walks is the Hooker Valley Track in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. The trail follows the Hooker River up the valley.

New Zealand is home to three species of penguins, including the korora (little blue penguin), the world’s smallest. The Otago Peninsula is home to several breeding colonies of these birds.

Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of the world for good reason. Adrenaline comes in a variety of activities, from bungee jumping and skydiving to rafting and cycling.

Among the most iconic landmarks in the Mackenzie region is the Church of the Good Shepherd. Built as a memorial to the area’s pioneers, the church holds interdenominational services throughout the year.

You’ll find the spectacular Nugget Point with the country’s oldest lighthouse on the Catlins Coast of the South Island. Captain Cook named the area after the rocks that looked to him like pieces of gold.

Abel Tasman National Park, the smallest park in New Zealand’s national park system, offers visitors a chance to explore the island’s coastal ecosystems by kayak, cruise or catamaran.

Milford Sound was once described by Rudyard Kipling as the “eighth wonder of the world.” This glacier-carved fjord features cliffs rising as high as 3,000 feet above the water.

Aoraki, also known as Mount Cook, peaks at 12,316 feet, making it the tallest peak in New Zealand. You don’t have to be a climber to appreciate the beauty of Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park either.

Hike the Roy’s Peak Track in Wanaka for one of the most spectacular views of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountain peaks. The trail passes through open tussock grasslands on the way to the summit.

Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island, is one of the newest cities in the world. It’s known for its modern architecture and green spaces, including the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.

Lake Wanaka is home to a solitary tree thought to be the most photographed tree in the country. You’ll find it jutting up from the water near the lake’s south shore.

Geologist Julius von Haast explored Franz Josef Glacier in 1865 (though it had been previously explored by local iwi), naming it after the Austrian emperor.

Photo courtesy of DunedinNZ / New Zealand Tourism Board

Of all New Zealand’s beaches, St. Clair Beach on the Pacific coast offers the most consistent surf break throughout the year. The St. Clair Hot Salt Water Pool, located at the end of the beach, dates back to 1884.

On the west coast, nature has been creating a work of art for some 30 million years. The Punakaiki Pancake Rocks resembles a stack of hotcakes, formed by layered and compressed marine creatures and sand.

Wharariki Beach represents one of the most scenic stretches of coastline on the South Island, thanks in part to its sea stacks and rock formations.

No image captures New Zealand in springtime better than that of pink and purple lupins blooming on the shores of Lake Tekapo. The flowering season lasts from mid-November through early January.

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