Nowhere else begs to be explored with two hands on the wheel, rolling along the winding tarmac, quite like New Zealand’s South Island.
Around every turn a new Insta-worthy spectacle appears: snow-capped peaks jutting into the clouds, pristine lakes fringed by colourful wildflowers, beachfront towns enveloped in sunshine, rolling vineyards home to world-class drops.
Along each leg of the journey, there’s no shortage of spots to stop, explore and take it all in, from beautiful alpine villages boasting starry night skies and sheer silence to interesting cities brimming with culture and foodie outings.
Here are our favourites.
Franz Josef is only tiny – a handful of streets diverting off the highway – but the discoveries to be had here are mammoth. With both Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier on its doorstep, pull over for at least enough time to strap on a pair of spiky cranks, crunch along icy glacier terrain and crawl through magnificent ice tunnels. The best news? These are two of the most accessible glaciers in the world and even summer can’t melt away your chance to see it. Staying the night? The local hot springs are the perfect post-dinner treat.
Dramatically beautiful is an understatement. The milky turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo are so striking it’s hard to believe it’s real. Surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Southern Alps, the waters run straight off the alpine glaciers into the lake, and while you could swim in it, most people prefer the temps of the nearby hot springs. Once night arrives, stargazers will love the celestial views on offer from Mt John Observatory, perched on a hill just beyond the lake; Lake Tekapo forms part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve so you can trust it has true star-cred. The hike here by day offers equally beautiful panoramas.
Christchurch may not be the city that it once was, but the way it’s going about the rebuild following the devastating 2010/2011 earthquakes is what makes it so fascinating to visit today. Newfound creative spirit is flourishing. Quirky art projects, uniquely fashioned bars and everything from colourful murals to pop-up events mean you’re always in for a surprise or two. For a few old-fashioned favourites, take a gently drifting ride down the Avon River in a punt, meander through the Botanical Gardens or get high above it all on the Christchurch Gondola.
Opt for the New Zealand’s sunniest spot, Nelson, where you’ll find the welcome warm rays of sunshine, long golden beaches, untouched forests and scenic mountains nestled along the South Island’s northern tip. Indulge in the relaxed atmosphere, which comes infused with creative flair and culinary prowess. The town has long been a magnet for creatives. Visit traditional, contemporary and Maori art and crafts studios, followed by a spot of swimming, sailing or kayaking in the clear sea waters.
Wanaka is as popular amongst the locals as it is for travellers; holiday homes line the shores. With those crystal clear waters, fringing snow-capped peaks and a laidback scenic foreshore, it’s easy to see why. Wanaka makes the perfect stop to wind down and simply take in the region’s beauty. As the gateway to Mt Aspiring National Park, winding up is also an option. Hike and bike in the summer or hit the world-class slopes come winter. Whatever you do, beauty will follow.
You can’t do the South Island without stopping at one of the wine regions in the area. Marlborough is the largest wine growing region in the country, made even easier to palate with the handful of museums and galleries as well as a sumptuous supply of artisanal gourmet flavours. Sauvignon Blanc is the legendary Marlborough drop, accounting for 85 per cent of the local wine production, but you could also find some Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Merlot while knocking on cellar doors in the region.
Dunedin isn’t just a University town. With the Otago Peninsula on its doorstep, some fascinating architecture and an ever-evolving creative culture flourishing within its bounds, it offers a rare diversity that can keep you entertained for days. Come eye to eye with penguins and seals in the wild, discover ancient Maori sites or cosy up in cute cafes with a seafront view. Dunedin is also home to the magnificent Larnach Castle with its fairytale-like garden setting in the hills overlooking the peninsular.