For a first time visit to New Zealand, this 9-day self-drive holiday was an unforgettable exploration of the south island. Flying in to Christchurch, renting a car from the airport, and lining up accommodation beforehand, the only thing left to do was enjoy the breathtaking landscape. Great views were everywhere.
By Stuart Hill
The south of New Zealand’s South Island
While there are may ways to enjoy New Zealand — by train, bike, helicopter, walking, and tour bus — the most flexible way to get around is still by renting your own car. Car hire is convenient and affordable; just organize beforehand to pick up at the airport (or wharf) you first land at. In fact many travelers rent recreation vehicles (RVs), allowing them to combine the freedom of travel with the freedom to stay wherever they fancy. With mobile reception pretty patchy in areas, a GPS for traffic directions is recommended.
A good choice for drivers is to stay at the Top 10 Holiday Parks chain. With a network throughout New Zealand, they provide shared cooking, washing and shower facilities for RV drivers or campers, or offer a range of small self-contained cabins.
Accommodation across the whole south island is typically caravan park style, B&B, or hotel chain. You can find cabins and rooms for 2, 3, 4 or more people — depending on your traveling group. Be sure to book ahead during peak holiday periods like Christmas and New Year, as prices and vacancies will vary.
As many places have their own small kitchen facilities you can save a bit on breakfasts by stocking up on a few supplies from a local supermarket like Countdown or Four Square.
The following 9-day trip was taken in December, which is summer in the southern hemisphere. Temperatures were generally mild most mornings, around 10-15 degrees Celsius, but mountain areas like Queenstown and Arrowtown easily reached into the mid 20s C. Bluff, Milford Sound, Te Anau and Oamaru were cool at night and had rain. If you are heading anywhere on foot, have a sturdy pair of walking shoes and some waterproof clothes.
Day 1: Christchurch
Still recovering from the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, Christchurch has a relaxed low-key charm but an obvious sense of renewal. The botanical gardens are a relaxing place to visit. Meanwhile the city streets around the damaged church offer places to shop and eat and just browse — any time of the day and night.
Day 1: Moeraki Boulders
Roughly two-thirds the way between Christchurch and Dunedin, the Moeraki Boulders are a curious sight. With some cracked and crumbling, others sitting on their own, a small collection of these boulders resemble scattered marbles tossed across the beach. They are easily accessed from a short walk from a marked car park.
Day 2: Dunedin City
Although its heyday was around the 1860s, Dunedin is a beautiful and historic city with many places to see, and a central area that’s easy to explore on foot. A must visit is the Dunedin train station, featuring stain-glass windows and ornate tiling. Lots of places to eat are found around the “octagon” streets at the old city’s center.
Day 2: Larnach Castle, Dunedin
With its picturesque views of the Pacific Ocean and a turret to view them from, Larnach Castle is described as New Zealand’s only castle. The building was constructed by landowner, banker, financier and government minister William Larnach. The building and grounds fell into disrepair until the Barker family purchased the property and begun its restoration. You can eat at the castle in their cafe, including high tea.
Day 3: Invercargill
Built in 1888, the Invercargill Water Tower is one of the historic buildings in the area that reflect the worth of the city over a century ago. The nearby Queens Park, which has a rose garden, is worth visiting. Invercargill is New Zealand’s southernmost city and a commercial hub in its own right.
Day 3: Stewart Island and Bluff
Stewart Island — a one-hour trip by ferry from the town of Bluff — plays an important part in Maori legend as the anchor stone of Maui’s canoe. An art installment of a giant chain on both the Bluff and island sides of Foveaux Strait interprets this story. A visit to Stewart Island takes you to the very south of New Zealand. An easy day trip can include a short guided tour or a walk around Oban village. Around 85% of the island has been designated protected wilderness, thus Rakiura National Park allows days of trekking.
Day 4: Te Anau
The town of Te Anau is a hive of activity in the holiday season, and sits on the edge of Lake Te Anau, New Zealand’s second largest lake. There is lots to do on and around the lake itself, and plenty of accommodation in town. Real Journeys operate a guided eco-tour to the Glowworm Caves — where you will see a galaxy of “stars” sparkle in the cave roof directly above you. It’s a unique educational experience.
Day 5: Fiordland National Park
During summer there are many places between Te Anau and Milford Sound where both local and introduced flowers are exploding in bloom. These lupine fields are an introduced species within the Fiordland National Park, and have become a bit of a mixed blessing by attracting campers and day trippers.
Day 5: Milford Sound
About 2 hour’s drive from Te Anau, Milford Sound is a UNESCO world heritage site of outstanding natural beauty. Though it rains over 200 days a year, and is the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand, when the sun comes out, the scene is spectacular. Real Journeys and other companies run boat cruises within the sound. Don’t miss it.
Day 5: Mirror Lakes
Best seen when the low-hanging clouds part to reveal the mountains in the background, the Mirror Lakes are a tranquil marshland along the main road to Milford Sound. A walkway stretching along the edge of the lake allows you to observe the ducks and the fish, and wait for a stillness on the water surface that gives the area its name.
Day 6: Queenstown
Party town Queenstown doesn’t ever seem to rest, whether its mid-winter on the snow fields, or mid-summer on Lake Wakatipu, the action never stops. Take the Skyline Gondola to the top of the Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve to take in the surrounding vista.
Day 7: Arrowtown
Arrowtown is a small village that became a boom town with the discovery of gold. In its better days it attracted the attention of future saint Mary MacKillop. The local old street — with its historic buildings and restaurants — and the remnants of the Chinese Quarter, offer a scenic getaway from Queenstown, or an historical detour before you head further north to Lake Wanaka.
Day 8 Wanaka
The road between Queenstown and Wanaka includes a winding and scenic road past Arrow Junction and through the hills along Crown Range Road. It’s not the main highway, but it a beautiful detour. Heading down to Wanaka you come across Glendhu Bay, with its views off to the distant snow capped peaks.
Day 9 Oamaru
Famous for its blue penguins, which appear in the early evenings to return home to their nests and feed their chicks, Oamaru is also a small town with a wealthy past. The historic streets around the old railway are a great place to explore on foot. Grab a local street map and check out the local coffee shops, restaurants, antique store and bookshops.
Places to Stay:
Located at the bottom of New Zealand’s south island, Bluff can said to be a long way from anywhere. The place has a long fishing heritage and is famous for its Bluff Oysters. The nearby waters are a nutrient rich zone between Stewart Island and the mainland.