Exploring the South Island by helicopter is truly one of the best ways to appreciate the dramatic beauty of the place. Mountains cover two-thirds of the land, and soaring through the air you will see that the mountains are peppered with steep glacial valleys, lakes, forests, fiords, snow and high-country stations. There are picture-perfect sandy bays in the north and wild rugged coasts in the south. We have put together the best places to take a scenic helicopter flight in the South Island – they’re all exhilarating, and all incredibly beautiful, so take your pick.
Fiordland’s beauty is immense: towering peaks sit at the top of U-shaped glacier-carved valleys, which drop into peaceful rain-forested fiords. The sheer rock faces are breath-taking, and after rain they cascade with waterfalls. Soaring around the place by helicopter feels surreal, many of the most beautiful areas in this region are so remote, they’re nearly impossible to get to by car or on foot; which makes Fiordland a region where a scenic flight is an absolute must-do.
The landscape of Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park is the definition of grandeur. The place is packed with snow-capped glittering peaks (including New Zealand’s highest, Mt Cook), and interspersed by glaciers, which you will see when you explore the area by scenic helicopter flight (for example, on our 55 min flight which takes in all the major glaciers). We land for a little while on the Tasman Glacier – New Zealand’s largest – and there you can play in the snow on the glacier’s vast surface even in the middle of summer.
With many scenes in Lord of the Rings filmed in these parts, it goes without saying that this town is set amongst impossible beauty: built on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, it has a backdrop of the Remarkables mountain range jutting into the skies. Within short flying distance are pristine alpine lakes, backcountry glaciers, and rugged snow tussock country. Outside the town you will see pretty rolling farmland and vineyards, and the blue waters of the Shotover River carving deep through the landscape. From the air you can also have a nosy at the exquisite builds low on the slopes – many of them private lodges or extravagant holiday homes overlooking the lake – and the high-country merino stations, many of them remote and some are even accessed by lake ferry.
The Marlborough Sounds is thick with vibrant native forests covering mountains and rolling hills, with a myriad of sandy turquoise bays. There are so many of these secluded, picture-perfect beaches, that it is like a maze: you will certainly get an appreciation of the scale of it by helicopter. Wildlife abounds. There are scenic reserves and predator free islands holding kiwi and other native birds like shags and penguins, plus bats, tuatara, gecko and native frogs. Looking down into the sea you might spot stingrays, dolphins, seals and even sometimes orca or whales.
There is nothing better than soaring out over the Kaikoura canyon – this deep chasm is incredibly biologically rich, and this food brings many species of whales in to feed. Because the canyon is unusually close to shore (for a canyon this deep), it makes Kaikoura a great place to go whale watching by helicopter. Here, you will be whisked out over Te Rohe o Te Whānau Puha/the Kaikōura Whale Sanctuary, with exhilarating views of the Seaward Kaikoura Mountain Ranges, the Kaikoura Peninsula and the Pacific Ocean. Down below you might see whales (Humpback, Southern Right, orca and even blue whales), but also dusky dolphins and New Zealand fur seals – and pilot will circle round for a better look while providing insightful commentary.