New Zealand visitors flock to its North Island, but if you skip the South you’re missing out.
Adventure, nature, great food and wine — they all await on New Zealand’s South Island, a place where you can wake up to experience something extraordinary every day. This less-traveled jewel of the South Pacific offers landscapes and culture that rival that of the more crowded North Island. With towering mountains, emerald-colored lakes and pristine beaches, it’s got everything an adventure traveler could ask for.
My Australian friend Will, an adventure junkie from Brisbane, accompanied me on this fantastic trip. He scaled the mountains, I snapped the photos, and together, we enjoyed the exotic restaurants, fabulous wineries, spas, quaint cafes, and a rich and unique Polynesian culture.
Blenheim is a large town in the north east of the island — in the middle of the wine region called Marlborough, which has over 150 wineries and 500 vineyards. It’s responsible for more than half of New Zealand’s wine production and specializes in sauvignon blanc. Two wine destinations worth visiting are Yealands Estate and Brancott Estate.
On the flight from Auckland to Blenheim, I happen to sit next to a nice Kiwi named Leigh, who invited me to visit the winery he works for, Yealand. “It’s the most stunning winery you’ll ever see,” he insisted. “You need to come for a visit; I’ll arrange for a tour.” So I drove to Yealand — thinking I would spend maybe 30 minutes there, and ended up staying for over four hours. It was truly as spectacular as Leigh described. Yealands Estate (yealands.co.nz) prides itself on being the world’s most sustainable winery, but they’ve got quality covered too — having been named New Zealand’s Wine Producer of the Year. Its dramatic coastline makes it one of the world’s most beautiful vineyards, as well. Meanwhile, Brancott Estate (brancottestate.com) boasts a fantastic restaurant, which offers dishes that are brimming with regional produce and designed to pair perfectly with their wine offerings. It’s also visually stunning — perched on top of a hill with a view of the surrounding area.
At the northeast tip of the South Island is an archipelago of small islands that form beautifulfjords and sounds. The Charming port town Picton acts as a gateway to the natural beauty of Queen Charlotte Sound. E-Ko Tours (naturetours.co.nz) offers a range of ways to explore this area’s rare wildlife, including a luxurious catamaram cruise and more adventurous excursions designed to introduce you to the sound’s unique fauna, including dolphin swims.
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Queenstown offers a smorgasboard of outdoor activities for adventure junkies in a pristine baywhose waters hug small peninsulas, surrounded by dramatic mountains. There are as many adventure tour operators here as there are Starbucks in Seattle — offering white water rafting, hang gliding, four-wheel drive treks, cycling, caving, canoeing, skydiving, canyon swinging, jet boating, horseback riding, and hiking all year round. And in the winter (which is our summer — remember, the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere) those snowcapped mountains beg to be skied.
When I saw the brochure for Dart River Wilderness Safari (dartriver.co.nz), with a red boat cruising along the glacier-fed river, it seemed like a peaceful way to spend an afternoon. As it turned out, the boat speeds up to 50 miles per hour — an experience I can only compare to an hour-and-a-half long roller coaster ride. It’s not for the faint of heart, but I definitely recommend it.
If you prefer adventures of the cinematic variety, you can also visit locations here that were featured in films such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Hobbit trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia. Queenstown’s unspoiled beauty has made it a go-to for top movie directors in recent years.
If you’re seeking a spot that’s a lot more relaxed and off the beaten path, Wanaka is for you.You won’t find luxury lodges or mega-resorts, but it’s overflowing with small town charm. Lake Wanaka’s sheltered harbor makes it ideal for kayaking, fishing, hiking or paddle boarding. Head to Eco Wanaka Adventures (ecowanaka.co.nz) and see Chris Bailey for a boat cruise to the remote and beautiful Mou Waho Island nature reserve — home to the rare flightless buff weka. The tour includes a guided bush walk to the island’s secret treasure — a lake at its very top — where Bailey prepares high tea with an unforgettable view.
If you want to explore the beauty of the South Island, fly Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com). In Marlborough, stay at the Raetihi Lodge (raetihilodge.co.nz); book early to snag one of 14 exclusive rooms, and don’t miss the cuisine at Arbour (arbour.co.nz). In Queenstown, stay at the Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel (queenstownparkhotel.co.nz), and in Wanaka, don’t miss lovely bed-and-breakfast Wanaka Springs Lodge (wanakasprings.com).
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Last modified: August 16, 2019