Of the three main islands that make up New Zealand, the South Island is the most rewarding for a road trip: diverse, empty and with scenery that borders on the divine. It’s also emerged as a travel destination offering some of the world’s most thrilling activities – heli-skiing, anyone? – and most luxurious log-cabin living. Here’s our guide to the South Island’s outstanding adventure and luxury offerings, starting from near Christchurch, Cathay Pacific’s newest destination, and heading north.
Christchurch is the hub of the South Island, but after you’ve explored the city, try one its best little secrets: Akaroa, a village on Banks Peninsula, an easy 75-kilometre drive away. The town is unique in New Zealand in that it was settled by the French, and it retains a distinctly Continental influence.
Taste: French cuisine
Boat: dolphin tour
Spend a couple of hours on the water with Akaroa Dolphins. The company has a 99 percent success rate in spotting the small, rare Hector’s dolphin, in part thanks to the dogs it employs that can hear the pod’s squeals before humans see the slightest hint of a fin.
Start at the Marlborough Sounds, an intricate array of ocean-drowned fiords. The relaxed, quiet sounds are a unique Kiwi experience, with fishing, diving, kayaking, walking, bird-watching, cycling and dolphin-spotting all easily available.
Mountain bike: Queen Charlotte Track
This classic, 70-kilometre trail runs on a ridgeline of hills between two sounds, offering beautiful views of the water on both sides. Walk it (the full length takes several days to complete) or, for the more adventurous, traverse it by mountain bike.
Stay: Bay of Many Coves Resort
To experience the best of it all, stay at one of the Sounds’ luxury lodges accessible only by boat, such as the Bay of Many Coves Resort. With just 11 chalets, service is attentive and personalised – think champagne in the hot tub, private decks edged in lush native bush and massive windows overlooking the resort’s private bay.
Nelson is a town cradled in sheltered Tasman Bay and is a haven of fine food, coffee, wine, art and scenic beauty. Explore the city, then drive for another hour to reach the spectacular Abel Tasman National Park, a pretty series of golden-sand beaches and bush strung along turquoise-blue inlets.
See: The Suter Art Gallery
Nelson is the country’s arts hub, with thriving communities of landscape and glasswork artists. The premier gallery is The Suter Art Gallery, which opened in 1899.
Stay: Awaroa Lodge
Overlooking a spectacular tidal lagoon, Awaroa Lodge offers fine food and wine, elegant rooms and plenty of walking and water activities. You can arrive on foot as well as by helicopter or boat; the lodge is on the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, one of New Zealand’s stunning Great Walks.
It’s not on a loop road, so many visitors don’t venture up the Northern West Coast, but it’s a place to find a diverse array of world-class yet down-to-earth adventure experiences. Westport is its largest town, surrounded by limestone caves and rivers.
Hike: Old Ghost Road
If you’ve got a week and a thirst for action, the Old Ghost Road – which runs through several former mining towns – is one of the finest hand-carved single-track mountain biking and hiking trails in the world, featuring forest, river flats and valleys.
Raft: cave tour
An excellent day trip is caving with Norwest Underworld Adventures, which takes you deep into the earth under the care of an informative guide. You get to explore caves on foot and float through them on rafts under a constellation of glow worms.
5. Maruia Springs
Much smaller and quieter than its hot-spring resort cousin, Hanmer Springs, Maruia is set in thick native bush in the gorgeous Lewis Pass.
Spa: hot springs
The complex has been recently revamped, but the hot mineral water remains the star. Nothing compares to lying back in the steam, watching the light fade from the forested hills and the stars pop out – all the while anticipating a good meal from the on-site restaurant. There’s also a sauna, a cafe, and an array of peaceful, comfortable rooms.
6. Aoraki Mount Cook Village and National Park
Mount Cook, or Aoraki, is New Zealand’s tallest peak, and as you drive towards it along vibrant, ice-blue Lake Pukaki, each bend in the road reveals a more impressive view.
Hike: Mueller Hut route
If you have a good level of fitness and the right gear, there is an excellent overnight route to a classic New Zealand alpine hut, Mueller Hut. Stargazing is exceptional; the national park forms most of an international dark sky reserve. But be warned, it is four hours uphill, including 1,800 stair steps.
Stay: Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat
Located in Pukaki, this luxury lodge is complete with spa facilities in which guests can use a sunset-facing hot tub and get an outdoor massage in total privacy.
For many, Queenstown is the jewel in New Zealand’s crown. The Remarkables, a mountain range that borders one edge of the town, frames pine-strewn hills and a glorious blue lake with enough activities to keep the adrenaline-hungry busy for a very long time.
Jump, jet, zip, swing: Kawarau River
Commercial bungee jumping was born here over the Kawarau River, which is also a popular destination for jet-boating, zip-lining, rafting, canyon-swinging and river-surfing. It’s also the only place in the world where you can try Hydro Attack, a semi-submersible vehicle that shoots you through the water at 80 kilometres per hour and leaps into the air.
Skydive: over the Remarkables
Many an adrenaline junkie can also tick skydiving off their bucket lists in Queenstown, where you’ll get incredible views of the Remarkables. Try Nzone, which has a landing location right at the foothills.
Heli-ski: snow fields
It’s the ultimate adventure sport: to jump out of a helicopter onto snow-covered mountain terrain on skis. Heli-ski companies, such as Southern Lakes Heliski and Alpine Heliski, use numerous runs surrounding Queenstown.
Taste: the best of wine country
The countryside surrounding the town is heaving with wineries producing the famous Central Otago pinot noir. Try a cycle tour or a guided trip with Queenstown Wine Trail.
8. Te Anau
One of the most picturesque places in New Zealand, lakeside Te Anau has a small-town feel, yet is handy to outdoor activities and scenery in the splintered bays of Fiordland.
Stay: Fiordland Lodge
Set within a UNESCO World Heritage area, the 10-room Fiordland Lodge is a wonderful base for exploring the surrounding nature. The best rooms have balconies looking out over the lake and gas fireplaces in cosy sitting rooms.
Kayak: Milford Sound
You can’t leave without seeing Milford Sound and its surrounding snow-capped peaks. Head onto the water either by boat or kayak. Try family-owned Real Journeys, a company that has been plying the sound since the 1950s.