16 stops for a South Island road-trip

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Abel Tasman National Park

We’ve just spent an amazing few weeks holidaying in New Zealand. After lots of exploring, hindsight does give plenty of ideas for doing it differently. Looking back, here’s a suggested route if you’re thinking about spending two-and-a-half to four weeks in the South Island:

Although it might look a bit complicated, it’s essentially a figure of 8. The first loop goes north, clockwise from Christchurch to Nelson and back. The second, longer loop goes anti-clockwise round the south, starting with a trip up through Arthur’s pass to the west coast.

1: Christchurch & Hanmer Springs
Assuming you’re flying into Christchurch from somewhere distant, relax in Hanmer’s hot pools as the jet-lag ebbs away.

2: St. Arnaud, Nelson Lakes
Located pretty much on the Trans-Alpine Fault, St. Arnaud has stunning lake views, and a multitude of tracks for hiking the National Park. On the road north from Hanmer, stretch your legs at Maruia Falls, and Sluice Box Bridge, below Lake Daniels.

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The water below Sluice Box Bridge is actually this colour
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St. Arnaud, Nelson Lakes
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Minor landslide above St. Arnaud
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View over Nelson Lakes

3: Nelson
Beautifully situated on the Tasman Bay, and interesting in its own right, Nelson is a great base for exploring 2, 3, and 5.

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Nelson Kite Festival
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View over Tasman Bay
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Tahunanui Beach, Nelson
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4: Golden Bay, the Kahurangi and Abel Tasman National Parks

North of Nelson, over the steep Takaka Hill, lies Golden Bay. Don’t miss it.

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Sunset from Takaka Hill
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Limestone Bay, Pohara, Golden Bay
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Patons Rock, Golden Bay
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Tata Beach, Golden Bay, with canopy covered in mist in the background
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Tata Beach at sunset

Wainui Falls and Bay combine for a great day out, an impressive waterfall and a deserted, beautiful sandy arc at the start of the Abel Tasman Track.

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Wainui Falls
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Cave in Wainui Bay
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View toward Taupo Point in Abel Tasman National Park

Te Waikoropupu Springs is a Maori sacred place, with eerie, serene beauty; it gently spews hot water to the surface of a bright blue pool, while fantails flit in the trees overhead.

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Te Waikoropupu Springs
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One of the rivers feeding Te Waikoropupu Springs
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One of the rivers feeding Te Waikoropupu Springs

The journey over to Totaranui Beach is hair-raising at times, a steep, twisting gravel surfaces track along the side of sheer drops. It’s easy to see why kayaking, hiking, water-taxiing are the more normal means of negotiating Abel Tasman National Park. The beach is stunning though, a long stretch of golden sand between two of the national park’s many rocky, peninsulas with trees down to the waterline. The seabirds were so tame that you could walk within a few feet of them while strolling along the beach, listening to the sound of the gentle surf in one ear and the strimmer-like racket of the insects in the bush in the other.

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Bear in mind this is taken with a wide angle lens — these Pied Shags let you stand within a couple of feet of them

5: Queen Charlotte Drive through Marlborough Sounds to Blenheim, Wairau Valley
Take the slightly longer Queen Charlotte Drive east through the Marlborough Sounds on the way to sample some of New Zealand’s most famous wines in the Wairau Valley. This road between Havelock — the self-proclaimed ‘world capital of green mussels’ — and Picton (home of the Inter-Islander ferry terminus, and — bizarrely — some public toilets which play jazz at users), is entirely composed of views of picturesque inlets and coves.

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Wairau Valley vineyards and the Richmond Ranges
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Pelorus Bridge

6: Kaikoura
Whale-watching and a beautiful surrounding coastline makes Kaikoura a place high on our list if/when we go back to the South Island.

7: Banks Peninsula and Akaroa via Christchurch
While we ran out of time before we could this French-influenced area, we were able to spend a couple of hours in Christchurch, which feels like a bit of a combination of Dublin at its most ‘west-brit’, and a building site (given the impact of the 2011 earthquake). The main square is still pretty devastated over six years later, with pigeons roosting in the beautifully carved rafters of the old ruined cathedral.

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Punting on the River Avon, Christchurch

8: Arthur’s Pass to the West Coast
The Devil’s Punchbowl is one of the most famous sites on this spectacular journey. Once you reach the coast, Cape Foulwind and seal colony to the north is worth a look, before visiting Pancake Rocks at Punikaiki. These formations are composed of many thin layers of rock on top of each other, as waves hollow out the bottom and blow ‘steam’ up through blowholes. It’s dramatic, if a bit desolate.

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Cape Foulwind seal colony
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West Coast view

9: Franz Josef Glacier, Fox Glacier, and Lake Matheson
The glaciers are stunning, with incredible blue colours shining out from the bright white of the ice. Your walk up the valleys will no doubt be accompanied by the hum of rotors overhead, from the multiple helicopter tours and glacier hike drop-offs.

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Okarito Lagoon
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If you’re wondering whether its worth dragging yourself out of bed early to go and walk Lake Matheson before the sun has fully risen, wonder no longer. It is. Utterly.

Mount Tasman and Mount Cook, wreathed in snow, are reflected in the lake’s still water, along with the surrounding forest and low mist.

10: Mt Aspiring National Park and Wanaka
The drive down through the Haast Pass is, for large sections, alongside a stunning turqoise river of glacier water. Thunder Creek Falls and the Gates of Haast bridge are a good point to stretch your legs, before spending a few hours relaxing at the Blue Pools above Lake Hawea or chilling at the lake-shore at Wanaka.

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Blue Pools
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Lake Wanaka
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Lake Hawea

11: Queenstown via Arrowtown
On your way to New Zealand’s extreme sports capital, pay a brief visit to Arrowtown, where the Otago gold-rush started. Queenstown — on Lake Wakatipu with The Remarkables jutting up from behind them — has everything for the adventurous, and stunning views from its cable-car for the rest of us.

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X marks the spot where the Arrowtown gold rush was triggered
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Queenstown and The Remarkables

12: Milford Sound via Te Anau
Milford Sound is probably the iconic New Zealand attraction, and may be best explored via kayak. Instead of a coach trip from Queenstown, break up your journey in the pretty lakeside town of Te Anau. If you’re feeling particularly blessed with stamina and time, extend your trip by hiking one of Fiordland’s famous trails, such as the Kepler or Routeburn Tracks.

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Milford Sound

14: The Catlins, via Riverton and Invercargill
At this point, the route again diverts from our itinerary. The Catlins are a remote area even by New Zealand’s standards, with fossilised forests and a variety of wildlife. Extend your trip with a visit to the even more remote Stewart Island.

15: Dunedin and Oamaru
Stop in to explore Dunedin’s heritage, visit the Otago peninsula, snap a photo or two of the weirdly spherical Moeraki Boulders, and meet the penguin colony at Omaru.

16: Lakes Pukaki and Tekapo, Mt Cook National Park

Before heading home from Christchurch, Mt Cook National Park is a stunning last stop.

First, Lake Pukaki, coloured an unreal, radioactive turquoise and overlooked by Mt. Cook at one end. Mt Tasman, also at the north end of the lake, has an otherworldly — almost CGI look — with multiple glaciers reaching down it. Occasional ominous crashes can be heard at its foot, the sound of chunks of rock and ice tumbling into the lake below. Up the same track in the Hooker Valley, there’s a further viewpoint of Mt Cook.

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Mt Cook

Next, Lake Tekapo, and The Church of The Good Shepherd. Built in stone in 1935, it’s tiny, and looks out over the lake in quite a lonely way. It’s a memorial to the early settlers of MacKensie Country as well as the home of two different congregations today.

Finally, you can stargaze in the ‘dark sky zone’ around St Johns observatory, beyond the reaches of light pollution.

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