What to See and What to Skip in New Zealand’s South Island

If New Zealand is on your bucket list, then head there in 2017!

— -- If New Zealand is on your bucket list, then 2017 may be the year your travel dreams come true.

That's why this South Pacific nation made it on Travelzoo's annual Wow Deal Destinations list for 2017.

New Zealand's dramatic landscapes have long made it a favorite destination for outdoor enthusiasts. The country's South Island, in particular, is teeming with rugged coastlines, sweeping valleys and ancient mountains. In fact, most of the country's 14 national parks are located here.

Scott Eddy, a well-known social media influencer for the luxury travel industry, said it best: "Just when you think you've seen the most beautiful thing you've ever seen in your life, you turn the corner, and something else takes your breath away again!"

In addition to the beautiful sights, a rich culture, a burgeoning wine scene, and a growing list of favorite filming locations make the long-haul flight (14 hours from California) well worth it.

If you're a first timer to New Zealand's South Island, here are a few things you'll want to do.

Skip the Hotel Bar, Sip Wine

To the west of Marlborough is Nelson, also a haven for sauvignon blanc, as well as crisp renditions of chardonnay and pinot noir. New Zealand's pinot capital, though, is further south in Central Otago and sub-regions like Queenstown and Wanaka. Wineries worth a visit here include Rippon Vineyard, Chard Farm and Gibbston Valley. Mindy Joyce, a native Kiwi who's now a Napa-based wine consultant, likes Carrick Winery and Mount Difficulty near Cromwell for their restaurants. "Get a reservation, very worthwhile," she says.

To the east, the warm summers and cold winters in Canterbury and Waipara, near Christchurch, generate racy pinots and rieslings, and the surrounding seafood scene is not to be missed.

Skip the Gym, Jump

Skip the Beach, Seek the Waterfalls

Gant's trek to Milford Sound was thwarted by bad weather. "So my tour company, Real Journeys, took us to Doubtful Sound, instead," he recalls. "It was so beautiful. It rained a lot that day and the spontaneous waterfalls erupted every which way you looked. It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen."

Skip the Slopes, Ski a Glacier

Skip the Walking Tour, Fly High

Skip the Hotel, Stay on a Farm

Skip the Movie, Visit the Locales

New Zealand became Middle Earth, of course, in the "Lord of the Rings Trilogy." Fanghorn Forest was filmed along Takaro Road, and the Fellowship paddled the Waiau River, both in Fjordland. Lothlorien, the forest on the road to paradise, is located near the village of Glenorchy in the Southern Lakes. And, Chetwood Forest comes to life along Takaka Hill, just west of Nelson.

Fans of the film adaptations of C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" books will recognize much of the South Island's sweeping terrain from rugged Flock Hill, the setting for the great battle for Narnia, to the ancient Elephant Rocks in the Waitaki District, which was transformed into Aslan's Camp.

Skip the Hotel Pool, Go Thermal

Skip the City, Visit an Old Mining Town

For another unique and historic stay, head to Akaroa, near Christchurch, an old British and French settlement that now draws visitors with its colonial architecture, art galleries and craft stores; this is also a hotspot for water activities and wildlife viewing.

Get Cultured

There are also many other South Island cultural stops, including the Geraldine Vintage Car and Machinery Museum, home to found-nowhere-else-on-Earth vintage cars, tractors and planes, and Nicol’s Balcksmith Shop in Duntroon, where anvil-wielding blacksmiths brings this relic skill to life. Joyce recommends visiting the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum in Dunedin. "Fascinating story of New Zealand's – and in particular Otago's –- early settlers, told through artifacts and technology," she says.

Skip the South Island, Visit Stewart

Did I miss your favorite New Zealand spot? Share your favorites with me on Twitter @GabeSaglie.

Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals on New Zealand hotels, flights, activities, restaurants, spas and shows at www.travelzoo.com.