A road trip around New Zealand’s South Island

A road trip around New Zealand’s South Island

Renowned for its green pastures and rugged beauty, New Zealand is our closest neighbour and one of the easiest destinations to enjoy a ‘multi-faceted’ holiday.

A road trip takes in the vast plains fringed by mountains, fields of green and more green dotted with sheep, giving us the ability to stop and take photos when we want, to visit out of the way places at our own pace without lugging bags. It also carries the element of surprise.

The question is, car or campervan?

It all depends on your family size, budget and holiday goals.

For us it’s about food and wine, culture and scenery. After weighing up the options, we decided to drive, staying at motels along the way, booking our accommodation in advance through Agoda. While a small campervan would be a cheaper option, we consider both comfort value and the fact that most of the camping spots are on the fringes of town or even more remote. A car/motel option allows us to meet more people, staying closer to the centre of town where we choose to dine.

We fly in and out of Christchurch for a two week stay spanning late November to early December. It’s perfect timing at the start of the tourist season. Holidays have not yet begun and the weather is temperate, between 5 – 25 degrees, generally fine.


Christchurch is in a state of restructuring after the 2011 earthquakes. Walls and arcades are gaining street art, but scaffolding is still in place on many of the older buildings. Many of the temporary post-quake shipping container shops have gone, with new shops and developments underway.

Too late in the season for spring’s daffodils and jonquils I remembered as a child, the Botanic Gardens are still beautiful and worthy of a walk.

We dine at the award-winning King of Snake, a modern Pan-Asian restaurant. It’s a moody venue accented by flourishes of red, as inventive in décor as some of its delightful dishes. We dine on two of their signature dishes: a starter of Roasted coconut spinach leaf with peanuts, garlic, chilli and lime, followed by Crispy pressed half duck with caramelised mandarin sauce. Superb!

Akaroa is a short drive away, a pretty, French-influenced town that serves as a port to cruise ships. We enjoy the ‘lunch special’ fish and chips at Murphy’s on the Corner, hunkering down on salty warmth as we wait for the rain to stop. There are lots of tourist shops in the town, but lots of tourists as well, so we check in, leaving them to the rain.

From our room in the Akaroa Waterfront, we look out across the bay our view starring ducks, cruise ships and drizzle. It seems like a good idea to enjoy the view, relaxing with a glass of wine.

At 5.30pm, the rain disappears as the last tender pulls away and, tourist-free, we enjoy the town. The pohutakawa trees are blooming early, and gardens are filled with flowers.

Next day, along the shoreline near Akaroa we see the highly prized boat sheds dotting shoreline of Duvauchelle Bay, so pretty in their rainbow of colours. Another cruise ship is pulling into the next bay as we leave for a long day’s drive across the plains and up into the hills to Cromwell, Central Otago, where will stay a couple of nights.

The azure waters of Lake Tekapo are one of New Zealand’s most famous sights, especially framed by the Church of the Good Shepherd. They still hold eucharist in the tiny church and although photographs are not allowed inside the church, we only need to stand on the doorstep to capture a dramatic view. Purest blue with a backdrop of snow-clad mountains, I crouch among the lupens to hide the hourdes of tourists dawdling on the shores of the lake.

Later in the afternoon we reach Cromwell, the vines of Wooing Tree across the road from our hotel setting the scene for the new couple of days’ activities.

It’s worth visiting Cromwell’s Heritage Village while you are there. Craft is the hidden treasure of New Zealand. Their local arts and crafts are of very high quality.


Having reached Central Otago, wine is on the agenda. It’s beautiful country – craggy ranges plunging into deep gorges, quirky people and fabulous earth-driven interesting food. Central Otago is a young wine area, the first commercial vines planted in 1983.

Bannockburn has to be one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world, its hot summers and long cool autumns bringing out the best in pinot noir grapes. Where better to enjoy a glass of wine than at the Bannockburn Hotel, perched on the top of the hill overlooking wineries.

Founded in 1862, it carries about 200 local wines, 60 + available by the glass – too easy to settle in and enjoy ourselves with an excellent meal of blue cod and chimichurri local steak…but there is a region of vineyards to explore in little more than a day.

The vineyard name Mt Difficulty accurately reflects its surroundings, with hills of tailings left behind by miners in the 1800s shadowing the tasting room and restaurant.

Visiting wineries is hard work, so we stop for sustenance at Wild Earth Winery, one of the few places where we’d booked a meal. Overlooking the Kawarau Gorge with jetboats roaring along far below us, we share our meal with a difference – a Stoaker Barrel Banquet, much of it cooked in the six wine barrels outside the kitchen. A three-glass wine flight enables us to taste Wild Earth wines matched to the meal.

Having explored some wineries around Cromwell and Bannockburn, the next day we cross the Gibbston Valley on the way to Queenstown.

Gibbston Valley wines has the largest wine cave in New Zealand, man-made and tunnelled into the hill behind the winery.  The wine cave is used for tours and tastings as well as the occasional concert and wedding. The restaurant alone is worthy of a stop for a quiet lunch.

Arrowtown is well worth a visit, prettiest in autumn, but as it’s another rainy day we don’t linger long, arriving in beautiful Queenstown by mid-afternoon.

Sitting on the shores of Lake Wakatipu framed by the dramatic Southern Alps, Queenstown gives the impression of being as much a tour centre as a destination. There’s plenty to do in this adventure capital of the South Island: jet boating, gondola ride, bungee jumping, hiking, skydiving, scenic flights and skiing among them.  Instead we’re battling rain, so a possible trip to Milford Sound the next day is off the agenda.

While younger tourists queue down the street to take selfies with their Ferburger, we enjoy dinner of local Snapper with Asian salad at Blue Kanu, watched over by a solemn wahine (Maori woman) to appease our mood.


Travelling on to Wanaka, the rain clouds pass. A cool 14 degrees and a stony beach do not deter these tourists from sun baking on the shores of Lake Wanaka. It’s a bizarre sight, bikini-clad tourists claiming their share of sun, framed with a backdrop of snow-clad mountains.

One of the most famous sights at Wanaka is a 70-year-old tree that supposedly grew from a fence post. It’s under threat from tourists climbing on it, exactly what happened just after we took this photograph.

By NZ standards, it’s a long haul from Wanaka to Hokitika where we’re spending the night (6 hrs). We travel through spectacular country. My memories of this trip as a child were of a drive to be endured. How things have changed! After spectacular views back across the valley, the countryside changes…We’re in mountain country with tussocky barren hills and a winding road as we cross the Haast Pass, a nightmare of a drive before it was sealed in the late ‘90s.

On the narrowest of roads, we pass cyclists. They’re everywhere, tackling the most difficult parts of NZ’s terrain. But whether you drive, cycle or walk, everyone gets their coffee from the same van, no matter how they arrive across the mountain: one of several mobile vendors we see roadside on this trip, this one at Bruce Bay on the western side of Haast Pass.

Beside the caravan, travellers write their names on rocks to leave their mark. The seagull, oblivious, claims its territory on the top of the pile. Everyone else just comes and goes.

We’re here to see one of the wonders of the world: Fox Glacier, a river of ice. The glacier used to come all the way down to the carpark beside the highway, a local tells us. Now it has retreated into the mountainside, seen from two vantage points: on the road near the beautiful Lake Matheson, and from the end of a forest walk which takes us closer to the glacier.

The walk through rainforest is spectacular enough to be the set of Lord of the Rings, which in fact was filmed not far from here. Beauty grows in the moss. Ferns hang beside ancient trees. And then we arrive at the viewing spot, and framed by foliage the glacier is luminous, blue-tinged ice above a valley of scree.


We fall in love with the isolated west coast. Harsh and windswept, it holds a raw beauty all its own.  We see it at its best in summer, mist settled between the cliffs and weather temperate enough to embark on several walks.

No west coast trip would be complete without seeing the pancake rocks, the bush track I remembered from 25 years ago now transformed to a full-blown tourist attraction complete with a pancake café next to the road, concrete paths, bridges etc.

A final long pass over the mountains and we arrive at Nelson, a beautiful town and our pick of the north.

It’s a compact town with good shopping and good food. Seafood is fabulous almost everywhere – the best oysters we’ve tasted at Nelson‘s Cod & Lobster Brasserie, their Seafood soup so fresh and delicious. A short drive away we visit the craft enclave of shops at Mapua Wharf, where we stop for lunch of Thai salad with pulled pork and the zing of fresh herbs overlooking the estuary at Jellyfish.

We make a late start next morning to enjoy lunch at Havelock, the home of Greenlip mussels. There’s no better place to stop than The Mussel Pot which boasts a menu of mussels in many different ways. And here they are, out of the ocean: lunch for two – mussels with coconut milk, coriander, chilli and ginger. Delicious!

We descend from Havelock to the Marlborough region through plains of vineyards, a major crop in the area. On our last visit, there were only 4 – 5 wineries, the revered Jane Hunter’s vineyard amongst them. Now there are about 70 wineries. Among the largest is Cloudy Bay (now owned by Veuve Cliquot), Geisen, Brancroft…and many more.

But we also stop at smaller, more niche wineries, such as the cute Clos Henri, their vineyard divided by the fault line into two distinct vineyards and labels. Using a tiny church as their tasting room, you can purchase a platter of French cheese to accompany a tasting (at extra cost). Delicious!

When we think of Marlborough, too often we picture full fruity sauvignon blancs, however this visit brings us a far broader experience of ‘Méthode Traditionelle’ sparkling wines, German and French-style wines and even quite restrained chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir.


After a stop in Blenheim, we head south again, stopping at The Store, a beachside cafe at Kekerengu for brunch.

There’s a beautiful outdoor area just outside, with steps leading to a windswept beach. Seafood chowder suits the bill for a cold, windy brunchtime.

All along the coast for kilometres there are roadworks, the road is open once again after being closed for over a year. In between the traffic stops (for 10 to 15 minutes at a time) we stop for a chat at a couple of coffee vans – the first one at Cray and Lobster…

Rocky coastline, seal colonies and picturesque spots line the coast.

And then we arrive at Nin’s Bin, rated #7 on Lonely Planet’s list of Extraordinary Places to Eat in the World. So, we purchase a fresh cray, pulled in from lobster pots that morning, and sit beside the beach to eat it, wind in our hair, seagulls bickering for leftovers…

We arrive at gorgeous Kaikoura, also devastated by earthquakes and very pleased to see us after a year without tourists. Every road worker gives us a smile and a wave; so friendly, these Kiwis! And the water is a luminescent pale aqua…sensationally beautiful.

Too soon we’re back in Christchurch for our return trip home.

What do we learn and love about New Zealand?

First and foremost the natural beauty.

Secondly, we’re constantly reminded that we weren’t here first, with most signs in two languages, Maori and English.

Food, wine and more food…

NZ manners are exemplary in the South Island. ‘Share the road’ is a real practice, with drivers moving over to allow you to pass.

The NZ sense of humour is alive and well. (Street sign in Nelson: Merge Like a Zip) and their extra-warm welcome. They’re really happy to engage in conversation and to help in any way they can.

Would we come back? Absolutely, but only in summer, as we did this time…unless you mention skiing…

NOTE: This is not a sponsored post. Our NZ adventure was entirely self-funded.