“The only things worth collecting in life are experiences.” I can’t recall where I read that, but it’s a quote that I will always recall. I will recall it when I plan a trip, when I’m on one, and every time I have an overwhelming urge to buy something I can do without.
A recent trip to New Zealand’s South Island wasn’t just another of those trips that reinforced this belief; it was one that established it irrevocably.
Te Waipounamu (Maori for South Island) is the larger, less populous, and as the name suggests, the Southern of the two islands that New Zealand is made of. A popular tourist destination for locals and foreigners alike, it is on every serious traveller’s bucket list.
How to get there
Since we (my husband and I) live in the North Island and took the trip during the Christmas-New Year shutdown at the end of the year, we were not pressed for time. Accordingly, we arrived in the SI by the boat ferry to Picton, located at the island’s northernmost tip, from Wellington, which is the southernmost point of the NI. Travellers coming in from other countries would be better off flying in to Christchurch, the only town with an international airport in the SI. Once there, the best and possibly the only way to explore the island is by driving across. We had our own car, which we took with us in the ferry; travellers can easily rent a car subject to their having a valid international drivers’ licence.
The boat ferry from Wellington to Picton. This is the Inter Islander, one of only two service providers between the islands. You can park your car inside the ferry, and drive across South Island once you’re in Picton.
What to do! Where to go!
Broadly, our driving path and driving hours were –
- Picton to Christchurch via the Kaikoura Coast (5 hours)
- Queenstown via Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki (6.5 hours)
- Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers (6 hours)
- Hanmer Springs (5 hours)
- Kaikoura (2 hours)
- Picton (2 hours)
It was with a base in Queenstown over several days that we covered multiple other destinations, all of which I will attempt to elaborate on.
From Picton, we drove to Christchurch, stopping along the Kaikoura Coast at ‘The Store’ – a fine-looking café, for brunch. Overpriced as this place is, the food, ambience and location are worth every penny spent. For the stewardly traveller, I strongly recommend stocking up on ready eats and other foods, given that cafes and restaurants are few and far between along this path, and quite predictably, expensive. For a long trip, stewardly or not, stocking up on food is the prudent thing to do.
‘The Store’ – one of the few cafes along the Picton-Christchurch route.
The Kaikoura Coast, as seen from The Store. An absolute treat to the eyes and the soul!
The coast as seen from closer
More than one seal colony appears along the coast; they are usually marked by groups of travellers who will have stopped at those locations and all you need to do is stop where you see cars lined up along the edge of the road!
Spot the seals!!
Christchurch is an eerily flat town, not just because it lies within the Canterbury plains but also because of the 2011 earthquake that struck the region and left indelible destruction. The Central Business District is nearly deserted and characterised by plots of land that have lost the concrete structures once built on them to the earthquake. The city is very green though, and businesses within the CBD have re-started by using large shipping containers as retail outlets – an idea that’s clever, economical, as well as abstractly aesthetic. It is possible to spend a good few hours exploring and shopping here.
The famous Cathedral in Christchurch, still in ruins
The greenery, right in the middle of the CBD, is striking
We stayed at the Heritage in Christchurch, a hotel Viresh had worked at until a part of it was brought down by that very earthquake. A hotel with a Victorian feel, the suites – the only kind of rooms remaining – are warm, incredibly spacious and fully equipped. For us, Christchurch was only a touch point in the trip; there are, however, museums, art galleries and also a couple of wildlife reserves and botanical gardens that can be visited.
The remainder of the Heritage Hotel in Christchurch
From Christchurch, it was the long drive to Queenstown via Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki. This is the only stretch that is absolutely flat, with no mountains within sight. Lake Tekapo is an unusually, beautifully blue lake which epitomises serenity and calm; in three out of four directions, there is no sign of any man-made structure near the Lake. The water is icy cold even in summer, so unless you’re a pro, drop the idea of swimming here. But by all means, stop for as long as possible, take pictures, and simply relax on the rocks for as long as time permits. Ditto for Lake Pukaki.
The incredibly blue and beautiful Lake Tekapo
If I hadn’t taken this picture, these would have been crows in the sky, and not ducks in the water to me.
Several driving hours later, we arrived at Queenstown, which welcomed us with perfectly warm weather. The Heritage Hotel in Queenstown is located beside Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountain range.
The Remarkables Mountain Range
Milford Sound was our first destination from Queenstown – from a 2-hour drive, a ferry needs to be boarded to reach this ‘fiord’ – when a water body is enveloped by steep cliffs. A must-do voyage – the smaller the boat, and the windier the weather, the better!
Views on the road to Milford Sound
For the wildlife enthusiasts, the Kea is a must-spot bird. Notorious for its fearless nature, it is known to have stolen from backpacks, cars and even off people. Spotted easily on the drive to Milford Sound.
The boat cruise in Milford Sound
Queenstown is both a party destination and the go-to place for all kinds of outdoor activities in New Zealand. Time permitting, travellers must spend time simply exploring, visiting bars, and eating at waterfront restaurants. Burger Fuel, a popular café for all kinds of burgers, is located in Queenstown and is open from before daybreak until the wee hours in summer. Foodies are willing to queue up to sink their teeth into one of their burgers. I don’t know from personal experience but going by the crowds, I reckon there’s something special about Ferg Burgers!
A steam ship, one of the last few of its kind remaining in the world, takes you on a short, slow cruise across Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown. A must-do for couples! And then there are the countless wine trails to choose from – By all means, take a tour. Gibbston Valley Wines comes highly recommended. For as little as NZ $15, you are entitled to a guided tour of the vineyards, a wine-tasting session and a tour of the cellar. You’ll want to down an entire bottle with their selection of cheese and antipasti platters, too.
The steam ship
Wine and cheese in Gibbston Valley Vineyards
The wine cellar of Gibbston Valley
Gondola (cable car) and Luge (toboggan) rides offer the most spectacular views of the region from what is called Bob’s peak. Be warned that on a warm summer day, getting a chance to do this will mean standing in a rather long queue. At the tip of the peak, there are cafes, food courts, souvenir shops and more. The sheer energy of this place will lift your spirits and turn on the holiday mood.
The views from Bob’s peak, accessible via Gondola (cable car)
At about an hour and a half hour’s drive from Queenstown is Puzzling World in Wanaka. Puzzling World houses the most spectacular collection of life-size optical illusions, mazes, abstract sculptures and even toilets whose designs incite bafflement and awe. We walked out of Puzzling World feeling drained and overworked!
Just one of the many marvels at Puzzling World
The outdoor activities are by far, the highlight of a South Island trip. There is something for everyone to choose from, even the less adventurous. Budget will be a constraint because no activity is cheap and one will have to choose from among the options – can’t have them all! Having said that, my personal experience with the Skydive – one of my choices – is that this covers everything you could possibly want from an adventure activity! There is thrill, there is fear, there is pace, there is relaxation. For the faint-hearted, this is NOT recommended. Take your pick from jet ski, bungy, jet boating, white water rafting and more, but do not leave Queenstown without doing at least two of these, else you’re going to regret it forever!
Jumping off the plane!
And… diving through the sky!
Another journey we undertook from Queenstown was to Alexandra, which lies within the same region of Otago and provides a quieter getaway in the busy tourist season. A visit to a friend’s personal ranch provided the much-needed calm after all the adrenalin rush from the activities. In summer, farmers in Alexandra and surrounding towns allow tourists to come over and pick cherries, blueberries, raspberries and walnuts, and take home as many as they can pick, for a throwaway price. We ate cherries as we picked them; washing is not a necessity. These are as ‘organic’ as fruit can get. They are untreated, fertiliser and pesticide free, and grow from soil that is ripe and fertile as it is. The only cherries you can’t eat straight from the trees are the ones coated with bird droppings!
The Turners’ Ranch in Alexandra
Cherry picking. Pick all you want and take them for $6/kilo
Queenstown-Fox & Franz Josef Glaciers
Leaving Queenstown was replete with mixed feelings. There is so much more the South Island has to offer, but there is also more to Queenstown and its surroundings than one can imagine, or hope to cover in a single trip. The road to the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers is home to the Blue Pools, which can be reached by a walk through a forest from the main road. Another spot to relax and enjoy the view and the feeling of oneness with nature, but not necessarily to swim – the water here too, is way too cold!
The Blue Pools
We stayed at a motel at the Fox Glacier, from where we undertook almost all the ‘glacier walks’ that the surroundings of the two glaciers have on offer. One thing to keep in mind is to go for the Fox Glacier walk along Lake Matheson early in the morning – before 8 am – to see the reflection of the glacier and Mt. Cook in the Lake. We missed out on this due to a late night, and if the pictures are to be believed, we really missed something! Later in the day a breeze starts to blow and the water is disturbed, rendering the reflection almost invisible.
Another of the walks is to one end of the Fox Glacier – a difficult one and not recommended for anyone with a pain in their limbs, feet, or a breathing problem. It is also a tad dangerous, because rockfall is a frequent phenomenon here, and cannot be predicted. We took this walk, followed by a chopper ride that ferried us right to the middle of the glacier, where one can see a frozen white blanket of snow all around. Warm and waterproof clothes are recommended.
The glacier views
One of the glacier walks
The tough, rocky walk up the glacier
Eerie and gorgeous, all at once
Landing in the middle of the glacier via chopper
After spending 2 days at the glaciers, we set off for Hanmer Springs, where we spent a day at Hanmer’s famous pools, and eating at the town’s most famous Indo-European restaurant – Malabar. The visit to Malabar turned out to be a double treat for us, for the owners, who were acquainted with Viresh, were delighted to meet us and invited us to their home for breakfast the next day. Something tells me that these newfound friends are going to be for keeps! Hanmer is a tiny, tiny little town, and the natural and man-made pools are all it has to offer, apart from whale watching which can be taken up as a small group day tour. One of the more expensive activities (NZ $150), but any nature and wildlife lover should gladly pay for it.
Then on, it was back to Picton to board the Wellington ferry, via Kaikoura where we spent a night in a motel, simply relaxing and recuperating from a trip we did not really want to recuperate from!
Some additional tips and points to keep in mind –
- On a short visit to NZ, focus on the South Island. The North Island does have plenty on offer too, but the South wins this one.
- Driving: More and more people are dying in road accidents every year, especially during the tourist season. The NZ government allows tourists with international licences to drive rental cars, but it is imperative to read the road code and follow rules religiously. A government issued document on the road rules is available. This point cannot be sufficiently stressed on.
- Fuel up well and stock up on food for the road trip. Use public toilets whenever you see one; there can be long stretches of road with no cafes or toilets.
- Stay hydrated! Water is your best friend.
Give me a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org for more tips, recommendations and even best rates for rooms in Heritage Hotels across New Zealand.