New Zealand South Island looks very small on a map alongside Australia. Maybe that is why I only allowed eight days for touring the island.
A big mistake; I could have done with at least twice as long. In fact the South Island is almost exactly the same size as England and Wales together, and I’ve often laughed in the past at American coach parties “doing” that tour in a week.
Unfortunately it meant rather too much time spent in the hire car and too little enjoying the spectacular scenery, in what is a photographer’s paradise. Also, because the population is only one fiftieth that of England and Wales, you need to keep an eye on the fuel in your car, as filling stations are sometimes few and far between.
Following my brief stay in SE Queensland, stage 5 of my round the world tour, I flew from Brisbane to Christchurch and picked up a hire car at the airport.
My route in the South Island took me in a clockwise direction from Christchurch down the East Coast, across the mountainous backbone, then back up the West Coast. Milford Sound was a must-see detour along the way. I finished my tour at Picton, the terminal for ferries to Wellington and my tour of the North Island.
There were so many highlights that it was difficult to pick out ten, but here are what I consider to be the most memorable, in the order in which I visited them.
Ten Highlights of New Zealand South Island
1. Christchurch on the edge of the Canterbury Plain. This is a strangely English city; you can stroll through the beautifully manicured botanic gardens and even punt on the River Avon. I particularly enjoyed the gondola ride up to the summit of Mt Cavendish, where I had an excellent meal in the restaurant – lamb shank, of course – whilst enjoying the panoramic views. The gondola was closed for two years following the 2011 earthquake, but is now fully operational.
2. Oamaru is famous in part for its Moeraki Boulders, strange shaped stones on the beach; I found them fairly underwhelming. Also I visited at the wrong time of day to see the penguins. However I did enjoy the Victorian Precinct – unique for New Zealand – containing many fine buildings in white limestone from the nearby quarry. One of them, the old NZ Loan & Mercantile Warehouse, contains a tavern serving the largest sandwiches I’d ever seen – and they’re very tasty!
3. The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound and boat trip. The return journey from Te Anau to Milford Sound is 150 miles of fantastic scenery, including a narrow tunnel through the mountains. But be warned there are no filling stations along the way.
A two hour cruise through Milford Sound as far as the Tasman Sea is an expensive but not to be missed experience. I managed to avoid the big boats packed with tourists in favour of a small boat with a friendly, helpful crew.
4. Queenstown, a major centre for outdoor pursuits and related activities including bungee-jumping, but not for me! I just enjoyed strolling around this very attractive town by Lake Wakatipu and seeing a real, genuine kiwi (I think I did anyway, the cage was quite dark) at the Kiwi Birdlife Park.
5. Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. Driving north from Queenstown brings you to what I think are two of the most attractive lakes in the world. Don’t rush – enjoy the memorable views on every twist and turn of the road.
6. The Haast Pass is a great driving experience passing through the mountain backbone to the West Coast.
It is only about 50 miles in length and rises to no more than 1850 ft, but the terrain is challenging.
Hence I was not surprised to learn that the road had only been completed and surfaced in 1995.
7. Fox Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier and Lake Matheson. Within 15 miles or so along the Haarst Highway are these two easily accessible glaciers and a lake which gives superb views looking towards Mt Cook and Mt Tasman. I stayed at a motel near Fox Glacier so had plenty of time to enjoy this spectacular area.
8. The Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. The West Coast has many interesting features, not unlike the Great Ocean Road in Australia, with the Pancake Rocks being among the most strange.
9. Marlborough Vineyards producing the world-renowned Sauvignon Blanc wine. This is my wife’s favourite wine so tasting at a few of the vineyards was an absolute necessity. Cloudy Bay was the highlight (of this highlight!) with wine-tasting supplemented by a platter of local cheeses, hams and green olives. On a warm, sunny afternoon this was truly a wine lover’s heaven.
10. Picton and the ferry crossing to the North Island. Before taking the ferry, I drove up to the Victoria Domain headland, with great views back towards Picton and its busy harbour.
Driving in New Zealand South Island
The drive down the East Coast provided some interesting scenery but nothing to compare with driving from Te Anau to Marlborough. I include this in my list of the world’s Top Ten Road Journeys.
Although there can be long distances between places of interest, the beautiful and ever-changing scenery meant it never became boring. The roads are of a good standard and relatively devoid of traffic, so it’s pleasant driving even for a Senior Traveller.
I hired my car through Auto Europe. Rather than take the car on the interislander ferry across the Cook Strait to the North Island, I dropped the car off at Picton and picked up a replacement in Wellington. This went very smoothly. Seniors 60+ get about 10% discount on the passenger fares.
I stayed at the Holiday Inn by the Avon in Christchurch, well placed for visiting the central area. Unfortunately following the earthquakes, the IHG Group has closed all its hotels in Christchurch, but intends to return soon.
I used trivago to book motels as I drove around the island and was particularly pleased with the Fiordland Motel in Te Anau and the Bella Vista by the Fox Glacier.