Hiring a car in Queenstown or Dunedin is a good way to explore the lower South Island. Avoid the hordes at Milford Sound and visit Lake Marian, which is close to the sound and the Milford Track – but you’ll often find it deserted. It’s a spectacular alpine lake in a glacier-formed hanging valley, and is a steep three-hour return walk from the car park, itself accessed via the unsealed Hollyford Road.
It may be tough for everyone to manage the walk, so a more accessible option would be a driving tour of The Catlins, further south, which has some incredible activities including swimming with Hector’s dolphins, trekking through fossilised forests, seeing waterfalls, sea lions, rugged coasts and penguins, and visiting artists’ retreats. Further south again, try Stewart Island, which is far off the beaten track; it’s one of the southernmost inhabited places in the world and is usually passed over by travellers doing the North Island-South Island loop.
Heading north, the Abel Tasman Coast Track, near Nelson at the top of the South Island, is a gorgeous three-to-five-day walk featuring quiet, scalloped bays with blue water, white and golden sands, and deep green bush. The broad, firm walking track is well marked and walkers stay in basic huts with shared facilities, or at camping sites. There are also luxury walking packages where you stay in lodges, your gear ferried between accommodations for you.
Another option is to kayak some or all of the park, which gives you access to some of the secret beaches the walkers can’t get to. Bookings for all park activities other than simply driving to the park entrance and walking – such as campsites, huts, kayak tours and water taxis – are essential.
The park may be worth avoiding over summer when the place can be packed, especially between Christmas and New Year. Going between September and early November or late February and April will make for a quieter trip. Autumn is particularly beautiful, with still, clear, warm days, gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and evenings that are just cold enough to be interesting. The website abeltasman.com will connect you with a plethora of services including local water taxis, camping grounds, sea kayaking, skydiving, information and restaurants.