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Road tripping New Zealand's South Island
If lingering on golden sand beaches one minute and being surrounded by the jagged peaks of soaring alpine mountains the next sounds like your kind of thing, a road trip around the South Island of New Zealand is sure to be a dream come true. Take that experience up a notch with a Motorhome holiday where you can enjoy the comforts of home on wheels, exploring the country at your leisure. You’ll be able to take as much or as little time as you like enjoying close encounters with unique wildlife like yellow-eyed penguins, viewing glaciers and fjords, strolling through picturesque vineyards, soaking in geothermal hot springs and so much more.
If this is the experience you’ve been looking for, get ready to hit the road, you’re in for a real treat.
Christchurch, Timaru and the Otago Coast
Before heading out into the wilds of the South Island, spend some time exploring its biggest city. While it was shaken by a devastating earthquake a few years ago, you’ll be able to see evidence of its rebirth throughout, including the Container Mall. Re:Start is a pedestrianised shopping mall that was made almost entirely from shipping containers. The brightly-coloured steel boxes host more than 40 retailers.
Venturing south over the Canterbury Plains toward Dunedin, the city of Timaru marks the halfway point and makes an ideal spot for a break. Caroline Bay, sometimes referred to as the “Riviera of the South” due to its shallow U-shaped coastline, offers plenty of room to stretch out on its sandy beach, and you can even take a dip in the calm waters if you’re so inclined. Stick around until dusk and watch the little blue penguins that can be seen waddling up the sand to their nests as they exchange shifts with their partners.
Driving along the breathtaking Otago coast, about an hour before reaching Dunedin, stop to see the giant spherical rocks known as the Moeraki Boulders. These geologic mysteries look like a congregation of planets, with their massive size and near perfect shapes, creating an alien-like landscape.
The charming city of Dunedin is the crown jewel of the Otago region, boasting prime examples of Victorian and Edwardian structure combined with a spectacular coastal location for the perfect balance of nature and cultural attractions. The Dunedin Railway Station is internationally-renowned as an iconic symbol of New Zealand, constructed during its boom period in the early 1900's. No expense was spared, and today it remains a sight to truly behold, lined with spires, trimmed with towers and showcasing many intricate details as well as magnificent mosaic floors. The grand staircase completes the feel of stepping back in time - the only thing missing now are the steam trains.
The eight-sided plaza known as The Octagon serves as the city centre, where you can explore the shops, bars and cafes before embarking on one of the world’s most scenic train rides into the stunning Central Otago Hinterland and up the rugged Otago coast. Take the short drive from Dunedin to the Otago Peninsula, and enjoy some rare wildlife viewing opportunities, including the only mainland royal albatross breeding colony in the world, and the adorable yellow-eyed penguin. This is an ideal area to stretch your legs too, with multiple hiking trails like the Sandfly Bay Track – watch for fur seals, sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins as you stroll through the sand dunes.
Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound
The town of Manapouri serves as the gateway to Fiordland National Park as well as being the departure point for cruises to Doubtful Sound, the second largest fiord in the park. Among this vast, unspoiled wilderness are hidden coves, emerald rainforest and rugged peaks, along with a host of wildlife, including the rare Fiordland crested penguin, bottlenose dolphins and fur seals.
Get a glimpse of the country’s most famous walk, the Milford Track, a popular 33-mile, 4-day route, legendary for its spectacular fjord, alpine and coastal scenery. Take a cruise across Lake Te Anau and experience the trail’s highlights which includes walking across boardwalks and a suspension bridge into a gorgeous beech forest, where pristine lakes, towering mountains and lush valleys come into view.
The scenic drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is one of the most unforgettable journeys you can have from behind the wheel, traversing through the heart of Fiordland National Park and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage area. You’ll want to make time for multiple photo ops, like Mirror Lakes, which on a calm day displays a perfect reflection of the Earl Mountains. The Avenue of the Disappearing Mountain allows drivers to experience an optical illusion - as you drive toward the mountain, instead of getting larger, it appears as if it’s getting smaller. Nearly every turn brings another mesmerising view; as you pass through Homer Tunnel, you’ll be welcomed with a view of majestic Mitre Peak. Things just keep getting better as you hop aboard the Milford Mariner, cruising the Sound while taking in sights of forest-covered mountains dotted with waterfalls that plummet almost vertically, some as high as 3,300 feet.
After returning to Milford, make your way to Queenstown, one of the top spots in the world for adventure lovers, and the very city that gave birth to the sport of bungee jumping, passing through the Deer Capital of New Zealand, Mossburn, along the way. You’ll find the opportunity for everything from adrenaline-filled activities to more gentle pursuits, and since you’re enjoying the freedom on independent travel on the open road, you can try to do it all, or take it an easy pace. Situated at the edge of Lake Wakatipu, you’ll have access to a variety of water sports, sky diving, bungee jumping, river rafting or even cliff jumping. As the home of the world’s highest cliff jump, the Shotover Canyon Swing allows the brave to hurl themselves off a cliff while flying backward, tied to a chair, or a number of other ways. No matter which you choose, if you dare, you’ll be surrounded by some of the most magnificent scenery of dramatic mountain ranges and sparkling blue waters.
If you’re adventurous but not that adventurous, take a wilderness safari to soak up the incredible views in Mount Aspiring National Park, hike through ancient 80 million-year-old forests and explore the scenery that inspired “Lord of the Rings” and a number of other films. For an even more relaxed day, sample wines at the area vineyards, or explore historic gold mining towns.
Up for an epic alpine hike? Located at the base of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, the Routeburn Track passes through two national parks, Fiordland and Mount Aspiring and boasts sheer rock faces and awe-inspiring mountain peaks, pristine lakes, cascading falls, aquamarine-hued rivers and a wealth of birdlife.
To get to Wanaka from Queenstown, you’ll drive the Crown Range Road, the highest sealed road in the country, nearly 3,680 feet in elevation at its peak. The road snakes up to the Crown Terrace where you can look down to the Arrow Valley and across to the Remarkables Range. As it climbs steeply to the summit, Frankton and parts of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu come into view. This is a fantastic area for hiking, with a number of shorter treks that can easily be done in a day or less, including the Mount Iron Track, a just under 3-mile loop walk with amazing 360-degree views, and the one-and-a-quarter-mile Haast Pass Lookout Track which leads to a viewpoint with spectacular views of Mount Aspiring National Park.
If you’re not ready for this unforgettable experience to end just yet, get a bird’s-eye view of the landscape from a vintage Tiger Moth flight or embark on a cruise across Lake Wanaka.
Tarras and Mount Cook National Park
Heading to Mount Cook National Park, you’ll travel through Tarras, known for its gold heritage and gorgeous views of the distinctive Sugar Loaf, a raised landform of glacial river terraces with flat tops and steep side slopes. In the village, pop into The Merino Shop, which specialises in high quality wool products from the area’s famed merino flocks, before traversing over another one of New Zealand’s highest roads, Lindis Pass, which reaches as high as 3,186 feet. You’ll pass the town of Twizel, and if it looks familiar, that’s because it appeared in “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy as the location for the Pelennor Fields.
Once in Mount Cook Village, which sits at the edge of Lake Pukaki among dramatic, sky-scraping peaks, including the over 10,000-feet-high Mount Cook, you’ll be perfectly situated for hiking the miles and miles of trails, as well as for activities on the water like hiking. One of the highlights is the rare chance to take a scenic flight that includes a glacier landing and a unique perspective of the jaw-dropping world below. While the rugged alpine terrain doesn’t host many trees or plants due to its altitude, it’s covered with colourful lupines that brighten the rocky landscape.
Mount Cook National Park is not only home to New Zealand’s tallest mountain and many other imposing peaks, but glaciers and permanent snow fields. While it’s popular with mountaineers, you don’t have to be a climber to enjoy the scenery. Tasman Glacier terminal lake provides an especially fascinating encounter, where you can see icebergs in all sizes and shapes that periodically tear away from it, allowing you to touch and taste glacial crystals that are as much as 500 years old. There are a number of easy alpine walks in the area too, like the 30-minute Glencoe Walk that begins behind Hermitage Hotel. A short climb will bring a bird’s-eye view of the village and beyond to Mount Cook and the endless white of Hooker Glacier. Or, take the two-hour Kea Point Track which leads to a deck with spectacular views of Hooker Valley, Mount Sefton, Mount Cook, Mount Footstool and Mueller Glacier Lake.
On your way back to Christchurch, make time for a stop in Lake Tekapo, located at the southern end of the lake of the same now, renowned for its remarkably intense milky-turquoise hue. The town itself is home to some of New Zealand’s most famous, and most photographed sights, like the magnificent Church of the Good Shepherd with sits at lakeside. Here, the altar window perfectly frames a postcard-perfect view of the Southern Alps behind the water. Nearby is a bronze statue of a border collie, in honour of the region’s “debt to the sheepdog,” which notes, “without the help of which the grazing of the mountainous country would be impossible.”
Back in Christchurch, you may want to cap off your adventure with a visit to the Ko Tane Living Maori Village, an interactive cultural experience that provides a journey through three centuries of Maori history. Or, if soaring through New Zealand’s skies sounds like the ideal finale, take the gondola ride in Heathcote Valley, enjoying the striking views of the Christchurch cityscape over the Canterbury Plans, and the grand Southern Alps beyond.