If you only ever intend to see one island in New Zealand (and both are definitely worth it) then the South Island delivers bang for buck.
Home to the best sauvignon blancs in the world in the Marlborough region, spectacular fjords, glaciers, and some lovely rail journeys, the South Island will give you a good overview of the country and its people.
The crossing from Wellington on the North Island to Picton on the North Island by ferry is three and a half hours of lovely scenery. If you are hiring a car the car company will take your vehicle used in the north and give you a new one in the south island on arrival, so remember to take all your belongings out of the car. Exploring Marlborough Sound gives you access to some great coastal walks as well as vineyards and a burgeoning food and wine experience.
Travelling across the island and down will bring you to Greymouth, the end point of the TranzAlpine railway that runs from Christchurch. Check out the local brewery, and if you are into adventure activities, quad biking is just one of many activities available.
Continuing south along the west coast and you travel through Hokitika, crafts and jade or greenstone country, down to Franz Josef Glacier, one of two on this coast. The glacier is right by the road so very accessible. A little further south and Fox Glacier is the second accessible glacier. Here you can walk on the glacier with crampons after hiking through forest, and the helicopter ride is great fun. South again and you will need your camera charged as the views to the Tasman Sea unfold on this gorgeous stretch of coast.
Haast Pass takes the road inland towards Queenstown and across the mountains. Again, the camera will be working overtime as the views around every corner are breathtaking. Mountains, lakes, valleys – gorgeous. Wanaka is home to both the lake for which the town is named, and to great skifields. It is also the site for Warbirds over Wanaka, an airshow of international repute. Next stop Arrowtown just out of Queenstown. Adventure seekers will try the jetboats; those preferring less getting drenched and more cultural pursuits will enjoy the local craftshops.
Everyone who goes to Queenstown regrets not staying longer. Plan for at least four nights here. The town sits between two lakes and is surrounded by mountains and in the winter ski runs. Filled with great souvenir places, all kinds of different restaurant options, including the restaurant at the top of the chairlift to the top of the mountain, and hub for day tours out of the town, Queenstown is lively, friendly and in the heart of everything. This is where the bungy jump (using a cord not vines) was born and it is close to several sites where Lord of the Rings was filmed. You can take a four wheel drive tour to Skippers Canyon – not for the fainthearted! Or if a bygone era is more your style, a trip on the Earnslaw, a steamer boat is a lovely option.
Two hours south is the little town of Te Anau. If you plan to see Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, consider staying in Te Anau. It cuts off two hours travel time in each direction and makes for a far more relaxing experience. Most tourists will see Milford Sound – smaller, more dramatic and closer to Queenstown that Doubtful Sound, but be prepared. There is generally one good day in four so you are most likely to see it in cloud and with local waterfalls. On a good day, the reflections are spectacular of Mitre Peak in the sound.
Doubtful Sound is less often visited on a first trip, but is a must for a second visit. Bigger than Milford and with a wealth of wildlife, the Sound offers New Zealand fur seals near the ocean, and curious dolphins that follow the ship. Bird spotters will also be able to check out the local inhabitants here.
This area also has some world famous hiking trails – tramping in New Zealand parlance. The Milford Track and the Hollyford Tracks are just two – there are many in New Zealand on both islands.
South again brings you to the southernmost part of New Zealand’s South Island. Invercargill boasts the most consistent weather in New Zealand – permanently cold! Try fishing, watersports, birdlife and the trip to Stewart Island the most southerly part of the country will give you a chance to see kiwis in their natural habitat.
Across to the east coast and the Scottish-feel city of Dunedin. University city, home to Cadbury’s Chocolate factory and a brewery, you an also see Lanarch castle – indeed you van stay there is you wish. Bird watchers will find the Albatross Centre here.
North to the centre of the island and Mount Cook , the highest mountain in New Zealand offers great views on a clear day. If not, the hot chocolate is good. Onward to lake Tekapo and the tiny church on the lake’s edge. North again to Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island and renowned for the earthquakes that flattened much of the city including the landmark Christchurch Cathedral. It is taking some time but the city is rebuilding, and in the meantime see the popup shops and restaurants housed in shipping containers. Twin city to Adelaide ( my hometown) and planned by the same Colonel William Light, the city has a beautiful park and the River Avon lets you try punting.
If you are flying out of Christchurch and it is an afternoon flight, a great thing to do is visit the Antarctic Museum. Have a ride on an actual Hagglund vehicle used on the ice, check out the wildlife on the Antarctic and experience a blizzard. Well worth a couple of hours.
The transcoastal railway runs from Christchurch north. Just check that earthquake damage has been repaired. Visit Kaikoura for dolphin encounters – there is a population of dolphins permanently in the bay, whale watching and swimming with seals. And if relaxation and spoiling yourself is part of the agenda, the mineral and hot springs area of Hamner Springs will soothe and replenish you.
You will need it if you try to do everything New Zealand has to offer!