10 wonders to see in New Zealand's South Island

Into the blue: a cruise ship on Marlborough Sounds
As we set off from Christchurch International Airport in a rusty orange Mahindra, a compact SUV made in India, city scenery is quickly eclipsed by every shade of green imaginable. 
We have just embarked on a week-long road trip through the South Island of New Zealand, which is nowhere near enough time to see everything. Stretching about 150,000sq km — roughly half the size of the UK — the South Island is a 13-hour drive from top to bottom without stopping. 
But you’ll want to stop... every five minutes. After all, this is a far-flung land of forested mountains, staggering cliffs, heroic fiords, inviting vineyards and countless winding roads. For starters, there’s the Lewis Pass in the north, which leads to hot springs retreats and oceanside viewing points for whale-spotting; the Lindis Pass in the centre, which cuts through spectacular mountains and lakes; and the Great Coast Road in the west, punctuated by gorges and glaciers.
To see a fraction of what the South Island has to offer, you’ll need time and a car or a campervan. From north to south, here are 10 of the most striking natural wonders along the way.

Marlborough Sounds

Head north from Christchurch if your idea of an ideal holiday revolves around vineyards, national parks and sandy stretches of coastline. In the South Island’s northern Marlborough region you’ll get a little of everything by tracing State Highway One up the eastern coast and into wine country.
This is one of the best places in the world to sample crisp sauvignon blanc from award-winning vineyards such as Hunter’s, Jackson Estate, Cloudy Bay Vineyards or Spy Valley Wines, not to mention ample opportunities to pull over for hot springs, fishing, hiking and kayaking. 
Further north, make your way to the Marlborough Sounds — about 150km of coastline that’s known for its river valleys, green hills and whale-watching opportunities. These are mainly from October to March. 


A former French settlement on the Banks Peninsula, Akaroa overlooks a photogenic harbour about an hour- and-a-half’s drive south-east from Christchurch. Formed by the eruptions of two volcanoes millions of years ago, the area is home to unique natural scenery — think sea caves, sheer cliffs and ancient lava flows — as well as a harbour that’s teeming with marine life.
For those keen to see wildlife up close, take a two-hour harbour tour on a catamaran. Several companies, including Black Cat Cruises, will show you New Zealand fur seals soaking up the sun, waddling white-flippered blue penguins (the world’s smallest) and dolphins bowing beside the boat.

Arthur’s Pass National Park

As one of the major highways connecting Christchurch and the west coast, Arthur’s Pass will lead you to breathtaking scenery as it weaves through beech forests, the Canterbury Plains and the Canterbury National Park. Inching into the mountains, you’ll spot limestone boulders, wild flowers, Alpine lakes, deep gorges and glistening glaciers. Stop at the park’s main village for lunch before stretching your legs with the Dobson Nature Walk or the Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall. 

The Great Coast Road

Peppered with 19th-century gold-rush towns, the 600km Great Coast Road runs like a spine down the west coast of the South Island. In the most dramatic stretches, narrow roads trace sharp cliffs while the Tasman Sea pummels rocky beaches hundreds of metres below. On other legs of the journey you’re driving at sea level so close to the water you can almost see it lapping at the car door.
Then there’s the Punakaiki pancake rocks, where a short walking path takes you past 30-million-year-old cliffs, whose layers of hard limestone and softer sandstone have been eroded and compressed over time. As a result, big boulders look like they’ve been sliced up into slivers of hot cakes. This natural phenomenon has created several geyser-like blowholes — vertical shafts that erupt with plumes during high tide. 
Another pit stop is the Hokitika Gorge, which is surrounded by dense forest and limestone mountains. The water’s colour will depend on the time of your visit. It’s a milky blue-grey colour after it rains, or a vivid shade of turquoise on a clear day. 

Fox Glacier

For most travellers, the highlights of the west coast are the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. Fox Glacier is the larger of the two, stretching 13km long and hundreds of metres deep. 

Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef, half an hour’s drive from Fox, is another blue river of ice which looks look it has spilled into rocky river beds below. Just five kilometres away from Franz Josef Glacier is the town of the same name. Depending on weather conditions, it’s possible to explore the glacier’s ethereal ice caves with accredited guides such as Franz Josef Glacier Guides, which also offers glacier heli hikes, hot-pool visits and challenging ice climbs.
Both glaciers are easy to access, thanks to footpaths through ancient river valleys that lead to the mammoth mounds of ice. 

The Southern Lakes

In the heart of the South Island, in Central Otago, the Lindis Pass weaves between the island’s majestic lakes and valleys on the way to Queenstown. Not only will the scenery have you hitting the brakes every few minutes to snap pictures, but you’ll also find yourself on a detour to explore the region’s wineries.
Stop on the banks of Lake Tekapo in the early evening and watch the sun disappear behind the mountains. As the sky explodes, the rich, sherbert shades are reflected on the water.

Dark Sky Reserve

Also in the lakes region you’ll find the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, one of the largest in the world. Thanks to the absence of light pollution and professional telescopes, it’s one of the best places to see the Magellanic Clouds, Southern Cross, Milky Way and extrasolar planets.
If you visit between March and September you also have a good chance of catching the Aurora Australis, known as the Southern Lights. More stargazing can be done in Mackenzie Country, within the reserve, where the SkyScape retreat has a glass-roofed cottage framing the stars. 

Milford Sound

One of the most challenging but rewarding drives in the South Island is the mountain road to Milford Sound through the Fiordland National Park. This is the edge of the world, tucked away on the western tip. With mountains on all sides, you’ll feel dwarfed by snowy peaks and sky-high waterfalls.
From Queenstown, the drive to the Unesco World Heritage site takes four hours each way. But you’ll want time for the Mirror Lakes, Cascade Creek, Hollyford Valley Lookout, the three-hour Marion Track, the Chasm gorge, or the three-hour Key Summit Hike through the rainforest. 
On reaching the Sound, most travellers opt for a two-hour harbour cruise around the fiord to see seals, waterfalls and mountain scenery. It’s best to take off early, bring tyre chains, fuel, food, snacks and warm clothes. Or you could consider breaking up the drive with a stay in Te Anau, a picture-perfect town that’s home to the largest lake on the South Island, glowworms caves, endangered birds and glacial valleys.

The Catlins

In the south-eastern corner of the South Island, the Catlins is all about wildlife. As you trace the rocky coastline you’ll encounter countless reasons to veer off the main road. For starters, follow the signs for Catlins Forest Park, home to easy walking trails and two roaring waterfalls.
Other worthwhile detours include Jack’s Blowhole (a 55m blowhole that’s 200m inland) and the immense Cathedral Caves (accessible via the beach at low tide). To meet native fauna, make your way to Surat Bay, where fur seals laze. Then head southwest along the coast to catch yellow-eyed penguins and dolphins at Curio Bay, before tracing the coast until you reach Slope Point, the southernmost point on the South Island.


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