15 April 2016 by Daniel Wright
Full of safe, scenic, and often empty roads, the south island of New Zealand is easy to navigate on a self-drive holiday. The only challenges you’ll face are driving on the opposite side, and keeping your eyes on the road whilst surrounded by such incredible settings – snow-capped mountains, tumbling waterfalls, vast green fields, beautiful blue skies and what feels like blissful isolation.
There are a number of places you can’t miss on a tour of the south, including; Christchurch, Kaikoura, Franz Josef, Queenstown and Milford Sound. However we also recommend you make a few other stops along the way, time permitting…
Read on for our top stops in the stunning south!
Christchurch & Akaroa
Christchurch is the gateway to New Zealand’s south island, and following the devastating 2010-2011 earthquakes, has re-established itself as a vibrant and innovative city. So much so that Lonely Planet listed it as one of the top 10 cities to visit in 2013.
Be sure to peruse the shops at Re:START, an outdoor retail and café precinct. Opened in October 2011, the shops are stylishly presented in shipping containers. Tramway Restaurant offers a unique four-course dining experience on-board a restored city tram for those seeking a delicious meal.
An hour along the Summit Road scenic route you’ll find the sleepy French settlement of Akaroa - a picturesque cove on the water’s edge that sees more Kiwi holidaymakers and weekenders than it does overseas tourists. People come for the scenery, the peaceful atmosphere, fine food and great walks.
Head north from Christchurch and veer inland to Hanmer Springs. Hanmer is a hidden gem, treasured by locals for the relaxing powers of its thermal springs, discovered in 1859. The modern pool complex may have lost some of its Victorian charm but we still think it’s worth a visit and easily compares to the better-known springs of Rotorua in the north.
Kaikoura is a seaside settlement located in the Canterbury region. Often referred to as New Zealand’s whale-watching capital, Kaikoura is a seaside settlement located in the Canterbury region. The area is overflowing with natural beauty and offers visitors a unique opportunity to swim with dolphins and seals. Wetsuits and life jackets are provided by tour companies so you needn’t be a strong swimmer to take part in this bucket list experience.
Continuing up the coast, you’ll reach Blenheim and the famous Marlborough wineries. This region, sheltered by the protective Richmond Range, records approximately 2,400 hours of grape-ripening sunshine a year and is famous for its sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
Tastings are usually free or require only a small charge, which is often deducted from any subsequent purchases. Cellar-door sales are also available and you can eat al fresco, surrounded by the vines in the glorious sunshine.
Nelson is a great spot to base yourself for walking or kayaking in the Marlborough Sounds or Abel Tasman National Park. The former is a half-submerged mountain range revealed as a labyrinth of bays, inlets, islands and peninsulas; the latter one of New Zealand’s most stunning national parks, and home to the easiest of the country’s Great Walks, the Abel Tasman Coastal Track.
Hokitika & the Glaciers
Heading south down the west coast, we’d suggest stopping at Punakaiki, home to the aptly named Pancake Rocks, or Hokitika, whose Wildfoods Festival in March tempts daring travellers with possum pate, huhu grubs, wild boar and whitebait.
South of Hokitika you’ll find Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. We suggest pre-booking a Heli Hike and being rewarded with the most impressive icescapes, caves and crevasses in brilliant white and iceberg blue.
Wanaka, Queenstown & the Sounds
Next on any self-drive itinerary should be the lake towns of Wanaka and Queenstown. Wanaka is the more peaceful of the two and is the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park. Mountain peaks rise to the sky on every side, reflected in the glacial waters of Lake Wanaka. In summer the shores are bright with alpine flowers, while in winter they’re deep in snow.
In Queenstown, take the Skyline Gondola up to the top of the mountain for incredible views. Relax with a glass of pinot noir, looking down on the lake and across to The Remarkables mountain range. A three-course dinner steamship cruise to Walter Peak is also a delightful experience, capped off with a sing-song around the piano on the cruise back to town.
We recommend an overnight cruise on either Milford or Doubtful Sound, but if you’re short on time, a scenic flight from Queenstown is an option you won’t regret. The stunning landscapes will take your breath away.
Further south is the tiny town of Bluff, best known for its oysters, but also the departure point for ferries to Stewart Island.
New Zealand’s third island has just 15km of road, with exploration more often done on foot. Another of the Great Walks, the Rakiura Track, leads visitors across open coast before climbing over a 300m forested ridge and traversing the shores of Paterson Inlet - the best place to spot kiwis in the wild!
The return journey
If you’re not heading east to Dunedin, the most scenic way back is to drive into the Alps via Twizel to Mount Cook or Lake Tekapo - whose turquoise colour must be seen to be believed. From there, it’s a quick journey across the Canterbury Plains back to Christchurch Airport.