Colourful entrepreneurial cities, jaw-dropping natural scenery and fascinating wildlife are just the start of it. New Zealand is undeniably spectacular in every way – and the South Island alone is jam-packed with both rare and iconic highlights. I recently spent 10 days exploring the sights, taking in a scenic loop from Christchurch. My first holiday to New Zealand, I quickly found myself wondering why I hadn’t done it sooner. Forget about foreign faraway destinations! The land of the kiwis is incredible and it’s just next door. Here are my top five tried and tested things to do around the South Island that are sure to blow your mind - and a few travel pics to inspire you.
Unravelling the new Christchurch
Where in the world can you find an entertainment venue made from pallets, a beautiful church made from mostly cardboard, and a shopping mall and funky bars made from shipping containers? The answer: Christchurch! The largest city on the South Island, Christchurch poses a fascinating discovery. Still in the midst of rebuilding following the devastating 2011 earthquakes, entrepreneurial ideas, artistic inventions and colourful creations have swept over the city to make up for the empty lots, vacant buildings and the clatter of new construction. The quirky local sights are constantly evolving and changing, from put-put golf greens perched around the city to poetic wall murals. While you’re here don’t miss Quake City, a multi-sensory exhibition telling the story of the Canterbury earthquakes. I could have easily spent hours there. But the traditional favourites are still fabulous too, like punting on the peaceful Avon River, wandering through the Botanical Gardens, and taking a gondola ride for magnificent views back over the city.
Taking the TranzAlpine Rail Journey
The South Island oozes drama in the landscapes that play out across the island. A fabulous way to soak it up is on a rail journey from one side of the island to the other, cutting straight through the soaring heights of the Southern Alps. The purpose-built TranzAlpine train winds through lush green meadows, rolling arid mountains and quaint villages nestled in cloud, passing by spectacular gorges, tranquil lakes and patches of beech forest along the way. At times, snow-capped peaks soar mighty high above and bright blue river systems gush hurriedly below. With the help of 19 tunnels and four viaducts, the train climbs the mountains to Arthur’s Pass village – one of New Zealand’s highest settlements – and back down to the beachside town of Greymouth on the west coast. The four-and-a-half-hour scenic journey left me utterly stunned and an unsuspecting convert to rail travel.
Hiking Franz Josef Glacier
Even in the midst of summer it’s possible to immerse yourself in a world of icy wonder. The Southern Alps are riddled with glaciers, and while they’re no doubt incredible to admire on a scenic flight, the best way to truly appreciate their magnificence is to step foot onto the frozen blue and white surface. Luckily, New Zealand is home to two of the most accessible glaciers in the world: Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. Trekking across the glacier with the help of cranks strapped to your boots, you’ll crunch past trickling streams, around soaring mounds of ice and over dark crevices. If you’re lucky you can even discover waterfalls, ice caves to peer in and tunnels to crawl through. My heli hike tour included a spectacular scenic helicopter flight to the top of Franz Josef Glacier – the views were spectacular. It also included entry to the rainforest-fringed Glacier Hot Pools, nestled in the quaint village of Franz Josef below. Fed by the waters that run off the glacier, the hot pools are the perfect way to wind down and warm up after a day of white-washed adventure.
Wandering around Wanaka
Wanaka is famous for its natural beauty. Perched on the shores of Lake Wanaka, it’s an increasingly popular town on the tourist trail, yet retains its charm and intimate atmosphere. Nestled below towering mountains, the glacially-fed lake touts incredibly clear waters – perfect for water sports such as jet boating, sailing and kayaking. Scenic flights are also fabulous for bird’s eye views of the lakes, mountains and incredible fjords. But the easiest and cheapest way to soak it all up is to tackle one of the many walking trails that wind through these pristine natural landscapes. A gateway to Mt Aspiring National Park, both long and short walks are easy to find to suit every age and fitness level. The Blue Pools walking trail, near Makarora, is a very popular but short and easy track about an hour north of Wanaka. It’s just a 20 minute walk to the swing bridge that crosses the Makarora River – which feeds into Lake Wanaka – and to the beautiful Blue Pools. Longer tracks also continue on from here for the adventurous.
Meeting the Locals in Dunedin
Dunedin is a thriving university town brimming with emerging arts and culture, but its ultimate claim to fame is no doubt its spectacular location on the Otago Peninsula. A true wilderness haven, you could be sipping a latte downtown mid-morning and find yourself face-to-face with some of the rarest animals in the world at lunchtime. One way to do it is to tackle the walking trails and bike paths that wind through the peninsula, keeping your eyes peeled for wildlife. Another way is to take a nature-based tour, such as the Nature’s Wonders Tour, which has the added fun of driving around in an all-terrain argo and spectacular 360-degree views across the entire peninsula. I found myself within a metre of wild blue penguins and baby fur seals, and within viewing distance of wild fully grown seals, sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins – the rarest penguin in the world. To say it was incredible is an understatement. Other locals you can meet around Dunedin include albatrosses, kiwis, whales and many other magnificent creatures big and small.