• What to see in the South Island – recommendations from a Fiordland helicopter pilot

    What to see in the South Island

What to see in the South Island – recommendations from a Fiordland helicopter pilot

February 25, 2021

The South Island of New Zealand is a place of spectacular beauty. With countless tranquil lakes, towering mountains, wildlife, hotsprings, and dense forests, it can be difficult to decide where to go on a trip to the South Island. Helicopter pilots who fly Fiordland have arguably seen more scenic beauty than most, and so we asked our own pilots here at Southern Lakes Helicopters what they would recommend seeing in the South Island, whether that’s by foot, car, boat or helicopter.

Mt Cook Hooker Valley Track – in winter

For stunning scenery and an easy walk! The Hooker Valley track has been named one of New Zealand’s best day hikes – it is easy and spectacular, with a flat 10km-return trail through alpine meadows, over rivers, to the iceberg-filled Hooker Valley lake at the food of Mt Cook. It is one of the few alpine tracks that has low avalanche risk in the winter, and with the dusting of snow on the meadows combined with spectacular snowy mountains rising up all around, it’s visually stunning. Go as early after sunrise as you can – and you might find the snow has kept the crowds away too.

Hooker Valley Southern Lakes Helicopters

Hanmer Springs

Whether it’s relaxation you’re after, or somewhere to burn energy, Hanmer delivers. Hanmer really is a South Island classic for a family holiday destination. There are 22 pools of all sizes, temperatures and uses. Some pools are for relaxing and soaking up the thermal mineral benefits or enjoying the jet massagers; others are for swimming or hurtling down into from tubes. Once you’re done with the pools, Hanmer Springs has a lot of other activities to try: bush walks, an animal park, fishing, hunting, arts and crafts, jet boating just to name a few.

Dusky and Doubtful Sound, Fiordland

Dusky Sound / Tamatea, on the southwestern tip of New Zealand, is one of the largest and most remote fiords in Fiordland. Dense forest cloaks the shores of all coastlines and all sorts of species of marine life thrive here. More than 350 islands are dotted throughout the sound, including Anchor Island, which is a predator-free sanctuary for kakapo.

Further up the west coast, 40-kilometre-long Doubtful Sound is often called the ‘Sound of Silence’ (indeed the Maori name, Patea, means place of silence), and with no road access it is the ultimate in peace and serenity. It is the deepest of New Zealand’s 14 fiords and has three branching arms to explore. It is home to one of the most southernmost populations of bottlenose dolphins, and holds three of Fiordland’s 10 marine reserves.

Lake Erskine

One of the ultimate helicopter flight destinations, Lake Erskine is popular with wedding photoshoots for a reason: it’s spectacular. This lake is a sapphire blue with incredible clarity, nestled high on a precipice amongst jagged mountain peaks. A waterfall cascades off the side hundreds of metres down. The sheer magnitude of the views and the lake’s position is jaw-dropping.

Lake Erskine, Southern Lakes Heli


Punakaiki Pancake Rocks

This landscape of bizarre limestone rock formations on the edge of a tumultuous Tasman Sea, 44km north of Greymouth, is one of those South Island marvels you can’t miss. Wandering around the easy 1.1km loop track, you can see the layers up close and hear the impressive blowholes. The sound is created when the Tasman swell pushes water through caverns, and the air is forced upwards, creating booms and huge walls of spray. The best time to visit for maximum blowhole action is high tide with a south-westerly swell.


The Catlins is one of the most rugged and untouched coastlines outside of Fiordland – high cliffs buffeted by Foveaux Strait swell, sandy beaches, caves, lighthouses, forests and wildlife galore. The whole area has somewhat of a magical quality, but our favourite places are the views from the Nugget Point lighthouse, and the cascading Purakaunui Falls.

Nugget Point Southern Lakes Helicopters

Shark Diving at Stewart Island

Being lowered in a cage just below the surface of the water, to get close to great white sharks? This is one for the thrill-seekers! Great white sharks are known to congregate in the Foveaux Strait, and the tour operators use burley and bait to get them to come right up close to the cages, which are attached to a boat. These sharks are a protected species, and the code of practice the operators follow is designed to avoid risk of harm to the sharks.


We hope you manage to incorporate at least a couple of these places into your next South Island adventure – if we can help you out with any flights to help you get there, get in touch! [hyperlink]