Top 10 things to do in Invercargill & Southland

New Zealand's southernmost region is ready to wow you with vintage motor vehicles, iconic food experiences and extraordinary wilderness adventures.

Invercargill is Southland's principal centre. It's loved for its elegant old department stores, gracious historic buildings and wide, easy-to-navigate streets. It also has a whiff of petrol in its blood, because there are numerous transport-oriented attractions here.

Beyond the city, Southland welcomes you with big skies, awesome fiords, coastal drives and the remote perfection of Stewart Island. There are some fascinating stories down here too, from the lawless days of moonshine whisky and Burt Munro's quest to ride the World's Fastest Indian.

1. Check out New Zealand's garage

Indulge your passion for things with wheels at some of New Zealand's best transport experiences. E Hayes and Sons, a hardware and engineering supply shop, exhibits the World's Fastest Indian, the modified Indian Scout that Burt Munro rode to claim a world land speed record that still stands today. Bill Richardson Transport World has hundreds of motor vehicles dating back to 1902. Classic Motorcycle Mecca has an A to Z of motorcycle brands. Dig This is a machinery play park where you can move mountains with real earthmoving equipment. And if you want to watch some living racing action, the Southland Motorcycle Club runs the Burt Munro Challenge every February.

2. Drive the Southern Scenic Route

The sightseeing road trip from Dunedin to Queenstown is called the Southern Scenic Route. Invercargill is the half-way point. You could easily spend a week or more driving around all the points of interest (it's not called 'scenic' for nothing). A special highlight is the section along the Catlins, where dolphins, penguins, fur seals, sea lions and a petrified forest will keep your camera busy.

3. Dip into Fiordland

The towns of Te Anau and Manapouri are the best places to start your adventures in Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. There are several ways to experience the awesome vertical scenery of the sounds, including flightseeing by helicopter or small plane, boat trips, diving, sea kayaking and overnight cruises. Milford Sound is known for its sheer magnificence, while locals call Doubtful Sound 'the sound of silence', because it's so remote. 

4. Indulge at the Bluff Oyster and Seafood Festival

Towards the end of May every year, the Southland town of Bluff celebrates what many believe to be the best oyster in the world. The Bluff Oyster & Seafood Festival delivers fantastic local entertainment, gourmet delicacies and, of course, truckloads of Bluff oysters. If you're craving the ultimate oyster feast get onto it pronto; tickets sell out fast. The Bluff oyster season runs from March until about August every year, so the festival isn't the only window of opportunity for oyster eating in Invercargill.

5. Find peace on Stewart Island

New Zealand's third significant island, Stewart Island, is the ultimate place for digital detoxing, bird watching and hiking. During the day your feet will find the rhythm of the trail. At night you'll be lulled to sleep by the call of ruru, the screech of kiwi and the sound of solitude. And if you take to the sea, blue cod will throw themselves at your hook. The fishing here is legendary.

6. Chomp down on Southland cheese rolls

The combination of tasty cheddar cheese, finely chopped onion, evaporated milk, French onion soup mix and white bread is world famous in New Zealand. It comes together as the Southland Cheese Roll - toasted crunchy on the outside, deliciously melty on the inside. You simply have to try this local food delicacy while you're visiting Invercargill.

7. Follow a Great Walk

Several magnificent hikes are calling to you from Southland. The Kepler Track promises moss-draped beech forest, prolific bird life, tussock high country, luxuriant river flats and limestone formations. The Routeburn Track is loved for its soaring peaks, vast valleys, exquisite waterfalls and jewel-like lakes. The highest point of the Routeburn is 1,255 metres above sea level - so you're almost a mountaineer! On Stewart Island, the 36km Rakiura Track promises a magnificent expedition through pristine native forest and along remote wilderness beaches.

8. Have a wild wet adventure

The waters of Southland are full of opportunities for adventure. If you love a motorised buzz, take on the unforgettable one-day lake-to-coast jet boat along the Wairaurahiri River. Or enjoy the waves at Riverton with a surfing or paddle board session, topped off by your favourite tipple overlooking the coast. You can even head out deep to try your luck at fishing - you might see dolphins, pelagic birds and seals.

9. Gaze at the southern stars

From the southern coast you may get the chance to see the Aurora Australis, a natural atmospheric effect that's tied to solar flare activity. Seeing this phenomenon is a matter of luck, but locals reckon March to September is the best time for viewing. At any time of the year, the skies above Southland are a twinkling ceiling of stars - the Milky Way and Southern Cross are extraordinarily beautiful from down here. Stewart Island/Rakiura is a Dark Sky Sanctuary, the southernmost Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world awarded this accreditation in January 2019 from its outstanding sky quality.

10. Discover the moonshine

Not-so-legal whisky distilling is part of Southland history. In the early 1800s, a local carpenter created a cabbage tree distillate known as 'McShane's Chained Lightning'. Then in the 1870s, members of the McRae clan from the Scottish Highlands brought their whisky-making skills to the Hokonui area and spent the next 80 years scurrying from the law and the temperance society. You can feel the spirit at the bi-annual Hokonui Moonshine Festival in February and uncover the amazing stories at the Hokonui Moonshine Museum.

Keep exploring Invercargill & Southland

Fortrose Cliffs image courtesy of Chris McLennan; Milford Sound image courtesy of Great South; Bathing Beach image courtesy of Great South; Kepler Track image courtesy of Great South; Dark Sky Sanctuary image courtesy of Sandra Whipp