This isn't a definitive list of what I think 'should be' included in the highlights of the South Island in New Zealand. It is a list of experiences that I most enjoyed when I spent a month roadtripping around the land of the long white cloud. No doubt, there are some extraordinary places that I didn't even make it to, but this is my personal top ten.
1) THE ABEL TASMAN COASTAL TRAIL
Hiking the trail was not only a highlight of my trip to New Zealand, but one of my favourite travel experiences of all time. We were lucky enough to be blessed with beautiful weather for all four days of the hike. The scenery was sublime - stunning beaches and bays and a sea so turquoise, it had to be seen to be believed. The trail itself was moderate. We walked about four or five hours a day before we setting up camp on a beach and enjoying some food and chill-out time. It was such a great few days, I didn't want it to end.
2) THE MILFORD HIGHWAY
Despite the adverse weather conditions, this road trip into the heart of Fiordland was pretty cool. Glaciers, waterfalls and valleys galore provided an abundance of excuses to stop off for short hikes. The closer we got to Milford Sound, the more spectacular the scenery became. We stayed at Knobs Flat campground, where after the rain infiltrated the canvas, we had to abandon our tent and sleep in the car. We originally had wanted to undertake The Milford Track, but decided against it due to inclement weather and the costs involved. The road trip more than made up for missing out on the trail.
A quirky little town on the East Coast where you are as likely to see a penguin waddling down the road as a gentleman in full Victorian attire. The Victorian Precinct was fascinating to wander around, with lots of galleries and one of the best travel/adventure bookshops I have ever come across. However, for me, the highlight of Oamaru was the Steampunk HQ. Venturing into the gloom of the museum, one doesn't know quite what to expect. Clunking Victorian machinery, puffing steam, cool lighting and sound effects combine to create a unique experience. In fact, there is evidence of steampunk all over town - there is even a steampunk playground. Oamaru is one of the best places in the world to see blue and yellow-eyed penguins too.
4) BANKS PENINSULA
We spent a few days camping at lovely Okains Bay. The campsite was right on the beach and we put up our tent under the pine trees. As is often the case in New Zealand, we had the lovely stretch of beach pretty much to ourselves. The nearby village(!) had only one shop, an old fashioned store, where we were able to purchase a few essentials. We explored the rest of the peninsula by car. It is a beautiful and underrated part of New Zealand and definitely worth a visit.
Known for its whale watching opportunities, Kairkoura is a nice place to hang out for a few days. We didn't sign up for a tour, but were lucky enough to spot whales from the coast road. A spectacular hike over the peninsula walkway rewarded us with fabulous views over the bays and beaches. At the start of the walkway, there is a beach where we saw a number of seals at close range. We walked along the road, turned the corner and came face to face with a huge seal! Pretty cool.
Having been to Christchuch many years previously, I wasn't overly enthusiastic about returning. I had found it a little dull, but this time around I was very impressed. The rejuvenation of this post-earthquake inflicted city was inspiring. Although much of Christchurch was still in ruins, art installations had sprung up all over the city. In the downtown area, shipping containers had been transformed into shops and Christchuch was busy not only getting back to normal, but improving on its original self. We visited the Earthquake Museum, Boulevard Arts Markets and the tiny Academy Gold Cinema, all of which were excellent.
7) FOX GLACIER
In one day, we hiked to the face of the glacier, checked out the reflection of Mount Cook in Lake Matheson and walked along Gillespies Beach. The hike to the glacier was fairly short, but it was incredible to see where it had cut into the sheer valley sides and then experience the glacier itself. At Lake Matheson, we were able to witness the reflection of Mount Cook in the lake, not always possible depending on weather conditions. Gillespies Beach is a wild and windswept area, full of driftwood. We sat on the beach and had a picnic, the Tasman Sea in front of us and snow-capped mountains behind. An awesome day.
8) JETBOATING AT BULLER GORGE
A high speed, adrenalin rush inducing boat ride along the scenic Buller Gorge. Our backpacker's budget took a hit, but it was the one 'big' thing we had decided that we wanted to spend money on during our trip to New Zealand . Afterwards, I walked across the river on the highest swing bridge in the country. Great fun!
9) THE CATLINS COAST
Another classic road trip. This time we explored the rugged, sparsely populated coastline of the Catlins on the south eastern coast. There were deserted beaches, blowholes, sand dunes, waterfalls and rocks eroded into incredible shapes by the wind and ocean. Sometimes, we didn't pass another vehicle for many miles, but we did pass an abundance of fields and sheep. We also saw a number of yellow-eyed penguins at Curio Bay.
We stayed a couple of nights in a beach hut to enjoy the delights of Punakaiki. The Pancake Rocks and blowholes are the main attraction here - sea-sculpted rocks in bizarre shapes, many of which look like giant layered pancakes. Our campsite was situated adjacent to a lovely beach, where we took a stroll and discovered some more rocks in the form of 'stacks'. We hiked the Pororari River Loop Track which follows a river, continues through sub-tropical forest and then emerges onto open flats. A great little hike!
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