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Complete Driving Tour of the South Island

A Driving Tour of the South Island, New Zealand, with Sights and Highlights.


Lake Tekapo in Spring

Lake Tekapo in Spring

Image Courtesy of Malene Holm

Our tour of the South Island starts at Picton in the Marlborough Sounds as you leave the ferry that arrived from Wellington in the North Island. This is the most common way for most people to get to the South Island (the other is by air to Christchurch). From there drive on to Blenheim, the capital of the Marlborough district. Stop at some of the many wineries and sample some local wines, especially sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and sparkling wines.

Continue south along the coast for 77 miles (125 kilometers) to Kaikoura. Here you can go whale watching. Notice the mountains of the Southern Alps as they almost reach to the sea and keep an eye out for seals as they bask in the sun on the rocks near the road outside of the town.

Carry along the road to Christchurch, 180 kilometers from Kaikoura As you pass through Waipara you'll notice more vineyards; it's another good place to sample some world class wines. You could take a detour here and head inland for 78 kilometers to Hanmer Springs. This lovely alpine town is famous for its thermal springs. Take in a soak and if it's winter go skiing at the nearby Mount Lyford Ski area. Stay in Hanmer Springs or travel a further 77 kilometers into the mountains through the Lewis Pass to the Japanese-style spa resort at Maruia Springs.

Retracing your steps to Waipara, it's a further 47 kilometers to Christchurch, the South Island's largest city. Despite the devastation of the recent earthquakes, much of the city has been rebuilt and there are many pretty parks, gardens and buildings as well as the usual city nightlife and entertainment. The Southern Alps and the Mt Hutt skifield are visible in the distance.

South of Christchurch the land spreads out into the huge flat expanse of the Canterbury Plains. Take the sign inland to Geraldine and on to Lake Tekapo, Lake Pukaki and Aorkai/Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain. From there carry on to Wanaka and Queenstown. The entire trip from Christchurch to Queenstown is a distance of 300 miles (480 kilometers) and is one of the great driving tours of New Zealand. The mountains and lakes of Otago make for some stunning scenery.

Queenstown has the title of the Adventure Capital of New Zealand and it's well worth spending a few days here and enjoying the outdoor activities. Nearby Wanaka, Arrowtown, Cromwell and Alexandra are also good places to explore. Try a few Central Otago wines too; they are world class.

From Queentown it's either east to the city of Dunedin and the Southland farming region or south and west to the Fiordland National Park. Fiordland is one of the most remote and special parts of New Zealand. Visit Milford and Doubtful Sound and Lake Wanaka, the South Island's largest lake. Driving distances from Queenstown are 170 kilometers to Te Anau and a further 117 kilometers to Milford Sound.

There is no alternative route, so it's back the same way to Queenstown. Head further north to join the west coast at Haast, traveling through the dramatic mountain pass through the Southern Alps, the Haast Pass. Here you have arrived on the west coast, rugged, remote and very beautiful. Continue along the dramatic coast road to Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, two of the largest of the South Island's more than 3000 glaciers. They are amongst the most accessible glaciers in the world and you can reach them on foot or by air. Then the coast road continues through the region's largest settlements, Hokitika, Greymouth and Westport. Stop at Punakaikai to view the amazing pancake rocks and blowholes, limestone formations that are up to 30 million years old.

From Westport it's another journey inland, through Murchison and into the Nelson district. Nelson itself is a lively town, particularly noted for its art scene. You are now back at the top of the South Island. Travel west again into the Abel Tasman National Park, with pristine forests, the South Island's best beaches and the windswept Farewell Spit. Then it's back to back to Nelson, a further 115 kilometers to Blenheim and on to Picton for the ferry back to the North Island.

Some of the distances are quite large and in several places you will have to retrace your steps. However the roads are generally extremely good and as for the scenery.... well let's just say no one ever regretted any of the time they spent in the South Island of New Zealand.

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