Renowned for its mountains, lakes and glaciers, New Zealand’s South Island is the place to be if you love the great outdoors. In Part Two of my Travel Guide to New Zealand, I’ll be hiking up mountains, jumping from ‘The Edge’, swimming with dolphins and drinking some of the finest wine in the world.
We start our journey at the ‘gateway’ to the South Island, Christchurch. This vibrant and ever-evolving city suffered devastating earthquakes in 2010-2011, but has re-emerged as a one of the ‘top 10 cities to visit in the world’. Frankly, I can understand why! Much like New Zealand culture, the architecture of Christchurch is an eclectic mix of ultra-modern meets turn of the century, where Spanish ‘Mission’ style balconies and archways sit next to buildings that look like they’ve come straight from New Orleans. Brightly coloured trams criss-cross the city, taking you from gourmet restaurant to casual and chic cafes and flat-bottomed punts glide across the city, making you feel like you’re in Venice rather than New Zealand.
However, the cherry on top for me is Christchurch’s location. Sat in a bay of 16km of open coastline and framed by mountains, Christchurch offers some spectacular views of nature. It also provides a fantastic base to explore the East Coast South Island.
Banks Peninsula and Akoroa
Roughly 80km south of Christchurch lies the Banks Peninsular, which you should be able to reach in roughly an hour and half by car (the roads are bumpy, so maybe avoid car travel if you suffer from car-sickness!)
This picturesque peninsula provides incredible vistas at every turn and a chance to meet some of New Zealand’s wildlife. This is great place for avid hikers to don their boots and explore the bays, beaches and volcanic craters. It’s also a relaxing and peaceful spot, perfect for a picnic or private swim.
If marine life is something that interests you, the sparkling waters off the Banks Peninsular play home to the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin, the ‘Hector Dolphin’. Swimming with these playful and friendly mammals was a highlight of my trip, and an experience I will never forget. If you’d prefer to experience the water without getting wet, you can take a boat trip from the peninsular and may be lucky enough to see Fur Seals, Little Blue Penguins and scores of birds overhead.
Whilst you are visiting the Banks Peninsula, be sure to stop off in the seaside town of Akoroa. This small township has an almost French feel to it, full of art and history. This is a great place to stop off for lunch and sample some of the local, artisan produce. It’s also a lovely to have a wander around the boutiques and craft galleries, if shopping is up your street!
West Coast and Central
Once you’ve spent a few days in and around Christchurch, I’d highly recommend exploring more of the South Island and experience the abundance of delights it has to offer. One travel option, which I would highly recommend, is to take the TranzAlpine Scenic Railway from Christchurch to Greymouth- http://www.kiwirailscenic.co.nz/tranzalpine/. Not only will this journey take you from one side of the island to the other, it will also allow you to see for yourself just how beautiful the South Island is.
The west coast has a huge amount to offer, not all of which I can cover here, but I want to share with you some of my highlights. We’ll start south-west and work our way north, where even more surprises await! For the west, I’d recommend basing yourself somewhere like Queenstown, as it’s fairly central and a great deal of trips leave from this destination.
For one of your nights on the west side of the island, I would recommend visiting ‘Doubtful Sound’ in the Fiordland National Park. This untouched wilderness offers lush rainforests, hidden inlets and caves and a chance to come face-to-face with penguins, dolphins and seals.
Your first adventure here is actually reaching your destination! With no direct road access, you will need to take a boat across Lake Manapouri, followed by a coach trip over Wilmot Pass. I’d recommend taking a night trip like this: https://www.realjourneys.co.nz/en/experiences/cruises/doubtful-sound-overnight-cruises/
On our trip we were able to experience swimming with dolphins, canyoning and loads and loads of fantastic food and wine. What more could you want!
In the north corner of the Fiorland National park you will find ‘Milford Sound’. This spectacle of nature provided some of the most breath taking views of my trip! The mountains, fjords and waterfalls are incredible and their sheer scale is humbling. Whilst visiting the South Island, Milford Sound is a must! I’d highly recommend hiring a kayak and paddling across the fjord, as it makes the whole experience even more exciting.
As I mentioned at the start of this section, a good base for the west side of the island is Queenstown.
Set on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, you could be forgiven for thinking that this city is another tranquil place to relax and take in the views. Well, you could of course do that, but for me Queenstown is about adventure and high-adrenaline sports!
Bungee jumping has become a rite of passage in New Zealand, which is where the sport was originally born, and Queenstown is the place to do it. Whilst I was there I took on the highest bungee in New Zealand and lived to tell the tale! There are several bungee companies located in and around Queenstown, if you fancy indulging in what has become the ‘Bucket List’ classic!
For those who don’t fancy plummeting head-first whilst being suspended by a rope, Queenstown also boasts jet-boating (which is simply awesome) and helicopter rides over the ‘Remarkables’ – a mountain range nearly 2,500m high. There’s also the ‘Gondola’ ride, which provides a much more ‘gentle’ spurt of excitement, by taking you leisurely to the top of the mountain range via cable-car. There’s a restaurant at the top too, so a good pit-stop where you can take in the wonderful views. And, as it’s Queenstown, there’s a ‘high-octane’, optional, way to get back down too in the form of the ‘Luge’: a ride on a three-wheeled car that navigates the twists and turns of the downward track.
After all of that excitement, I for one am ready to get back to the tranquillity of the lakes and mountains! Just under 200km from Queenstown you will find Lake Wanaka, which is guaranteed to offer you a slice of peace and quiet! This piece of paradise offers everything from mountains and glaciers to rivers and lakes, so really does provide something for everyone.
The crystal clear waters of Lake Wanaka are ideal for fishing, whereas the surrounding hills are great for hiking. You can even play golf or indulge in some wine-tasting, so it really is a perfect location to satisfy a range of tastes.
Lake Wanaka is also an ideal spot of the skiers amongst you, however I would advise that you stay in Treble Cone or Cordrona if you’d like to take to the slopes. The New Zealand ski-season ordinarily runs from June to early October, depending on snow fall.
Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook (including Lake Matheson)
If you liked Lake Wanaka, then you’ll love Lake Tekapo! Situated approximately 220km north of Wanaka, Lake Tekapo is located bang in the centre of the Southern Island and is found in the Mackenzie Basin. The really unique element of Lake Tekapo is the intense milky-turquoise colour of the lake itself. It’s also framed by the Southern Alps, which are definitely worth exploring.
I personally loved the thermal pools that overlook the lake, as it gave me a chance to completely relax whilst taking in the breath-taking views.
I’d recommend staying in Mount Cook Village when you visit Lake Tekapo, as not only are you only an hour away from this site, but you are also directly next to Mount Cook itself. Staying in Mount Cook village means that you can literally walk straight out onto the mountain! If the budget can stretch, I’d highly recommend staying at the 5* Hermitage Hotel. It’s a wonderful place and has fantastic views over the mountain.
When you visit Mount Cook you also have to visit Lake Matheson, if only to see the reflection of the mountain in the lake! My one tip is that you get there before the ducks do, so try to arrive by early morning.
Franz Josef Glacier
You may have noticed that as we head north, the theme of our activities has become decidedly chillier! Well, things are about to become even frostier with our next stop, the Franz Josef Glacier
The majestic Franz Josef Glacier is considered by many to be the west coast’s best example of glacial formations and is even heralded as one of the most incredible sights in the world, so it’s definitely worth a visit.
You can ‘attack’ the glacier in two main ways: hiking or via helicopter. The terrain, as you may expect is tough and is a full day’s walk, so is really only recommended for those with a good level of fitness. I would also suggest that you take a guide with you, who will be able to tailor your experience accordingly. Make sure you warp up warm for this adventure though!
Seeing the glacier by helicopter is also a brilliant experience and, if you can, do this as well as hiking! There are many helicopter tours, but make sure you book in advance.
As we move north along the west coast towards Nelson (a good base of northern exploration) there are several beautiful pit-stops which I would encourage you to experience. The first is Hokitika.
This quirky little beachside town is full of great bars, cafes and restaurants and has a vibrant arts scene. Nature is also on your doorstep here, with mountains, rivers and beaches literally surrounding the town. Hokitika is also the home of a great deal of jade mining in New Zealand, and the local museums and shops offer you the chance to see some beautiful and intricate carvings. You can also be guaranteed to see the kiwi-bird in Hokitika, as the national centre for these flightless birds is based in this town.
There’s actually loads going on in Hokitika, so it is worth spending the night here before continuing with your travels. For more about local events, museums and tours visit http://www.hokitika.org/activities2012/activity_guide.aspx
Next stop is Punakaiki- the home of the famous ‘Pancake Rocks’. These limestone formations began forming a staggering 30 million years ago! These soft, and unusual, rock formations are a must-see. The coast itself is equally as fascinating and is a really enjoyable walk that will allow you to see Hector’s Dolphins, Westland Petrals, Wekas and Fur Seals.
Further along the coast you will find the prominent headland of Cape Foulwind, which overlooks the Tasman Sea. The coastal walks here are stunning, but the main feature is definitely the wildlife. Cape Foulwind is home to New Zealand’s largest seal colony and also a great location to try and spot Orcas, Killer Whales and the rarer Southern Right Whales. A great afternoon for nature lovers!
Before we leave the incredible South Island, I want to show you some of the delights that the north part of this terrain holds. I would recommend basing yourself in Nelson for this leg of the trip, as it is central, and boasts several vineyards!
Like many of the South Island’s towns and cities, Nelson is a magnet for creativity and the arts. It’s also the sunniest spot on the South Island, so will let you thaw out after the glaciers of the west! Nelson is also surrounded by incredible forests, beaches and rugged mountains and the impossibly clear waters of New Zealand’s freshwater springs.
I’d recommend spending at least 3-5 days in Nelson, as there is so much to see and do in the city and the surrounding areas. For me, however, my favourite thing to do in Nelson is to visit the vineyards and dine on the famous Nelson Bay Scallops - a well earnt reward after all of the hiking we’ve been doing! My top pick for vineyards has to be ‘Cloudy Bay’, ‘Mud House’ and ‘Hunters’, but there are so many to explore. Visit http://winenelson.co.nz/#home-welcome for more information and to start your journey on the ‘Wine Trail’.
If you are staying in Nelson you are in the perfect place to explore the idyllic Abel Tasman Coastal Track. This series of crescent-shaped coves of glittering golden sand are washed by the crystal-clear waters of Tasman Bay. You can wander along beaches, jump into the sea for a swim or hike around the headlands. When I visited, I however opted to explore the national reserve via kayaking, which was great fun.
I also stayed overnight in a boat on the bay, which I think gave me the ‘full’ Abel Tasman experience.
Nature is also blissfully evident in this national reserve, with Fur Seals, Little Blue Penguins and Common Dolphins all within the area.
Another day, or overnight, trip from Nelson is to Kaikora - the best place in the world to swim with dolphins! It’s also a brilliant spot for whale watching.
Kaikora is a magical place, where the mountains meet the sea. It is the place for marine encounters, coastal walks and some of the tastiest crayfish I have ever had.
During your visit you really must try to go on a whale watching tour, either by boat or by helicopter, as it’s an experience that will stay with you forever.
Leaving the Island
It pains me to say it, but it’s time leave the South Island. There really is so much to see and do here, it’s almost worth taking two trips: one for the North Island and one for the South Island! But leave we must, as there’s so much more in store as we say ‘hello’ to the North Island.
As you may have gathered, I am a firm believer in maximising every experience and that extends to my transits from one place to another. For me, the best way to move from one island to the other is via ferry, as you can still get a great view of the surrounding landscape. The ferry I chose was from Picton (on the South Island) to Wellington (on the North Island). You can book your journey here: https://www.interislander.co.nz/
Well that brings us to the end of my Travel Guide to New Zealand- Part Two: The South Island. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey and picked up some useful tips and some inspiration for your trip. Join me next time when we head north and see what the ‘other’ island holds in store.