Adventures in New Zealand’s South Island

from the road new zealand

Adventures in New Zealand’s South Island

The stunning Milford Sound, which is actually a fjord

I’m just back from a rather magical few days in the South Island of New Zealand, a trip which took in two wine events (the Hanmer Southern Pinot workshop and Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration), and some sightseeing. We drove down to Hanmer on the newly re-opened SH1, which looks completely different to how it used to before the earthquake damage, but which is still a fine drive.


Hanmer itself is a modestly pretty alpine village with the main draw being the thermal springs. This is a swimming pool complex with a couple of water slides and also some genuine hot springs, and it’s sort of cool if it’s not too crowded. We drove from Hanmer down to Tekapo to stay the night. Lake Tekapu is quite famous, and has a well-known landmark: the Church of the Good Shepherd.

Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo

It’s pretty, but also very touristy round here, and one night is probably enough. The drive from Hanmer to Tekapo via Christchurch is thoroughly boring, and gives no indication of the great South Island scenery that we were later to experience.

Lake Pukaki: on a clear day you can see Mount Cook at the other end. Not today alas.

The next day took us to Te Anau, where we were to stay two nights. On the way, we drove through Queenstown, with the dramatic Central Otago scenery and the vivid blue rivers, and then passed Lake Pukaki and Lake Manapouri, both of which are lovely.

Roaring Meg, in the Kawarau Gorge, near Queenstown. The vivid blues of the Central Otago rivers are otherworldly.
Lake Manapouri

Te Anau is quite a nice base, and it’s the best place to stay for tackling the drive to Milford Sound, where you can’t stay. From here it’s just over 2 hours to Milford, as opposed to an almost 5 hour schlep from Queenstown. The big attraction at Te Anau is the glowworm caves. These are something completely different, and the visit deep inside the caves is quite a memorable one.

Milford Sound lived up to its expectations. The drive itself is spectacular, and includes the remarkable Homer Tunnel. This 1.2 km tunnel is at a gradient and goes through solid rock. It took 19 years to complete and opened in 1954: before then, none of the fiords were accessible by road. As you leave the tunnel and enter the Cleddau Valley, it’s like entering a new world. Milford is different. It’s wild, rugged and primeval. There are several companies offering boat tours, and ours was really good. I imagine they are all really good. You just need to get out into the sound and then stare, and soak it all in.

On the road to Milford: the drive is pretty cool. The scenery keeps getting better and better.
The Cleddau Valley, just after leaving the Homer tunnel
The view of the sound from land
The boats leave from here: the tours last around 2 hours and you can pick tickets up for them online for about NZ$40. It’s best to get here early because by mid-morning the place fills up with tour buses.

Then we left to attend the Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration in Queenstown. Perhaps my favourite picture from that event is below: Ned Goodwin, Francis Hutt and I stripped off and jumped in Lake Wakitapo on a very hot Saturday afternoon. Theo Coles took the picture. It was just perfect: crystal clear and cool but not freezing.

Then it was time to head back to Blenheim. We chose to go via the West Coast, over the Haast Pass, and it was a great choice, even though it meant driving for 14 hours with a few photo (and one swim) stops. Heading from Queenstown to Wanaka, we then drove along the side of beautiful Lake Hāwea.

Lake Hāwea

After a while, at ‘the neck’, we joined Lake Wanaka. Time to stop for some more amazing vistas.

Lake Wanaka

Then, we headed through to Makaroa, where we stopped for the Blue Pools.

Blue Pools: stunning but ice cold
Some people jumped off this bridge. It’s pretty high and judging by the red skin on peoples’ arms and backs, it hurts, even if you go in quite straight.

These are truly beautiful. I swam, but it was the coldest water I’ve ever swum in, so I was out pretty quickly.

From here, we headed over the Haast Pass, which is also beautiful, hitting the west coast. It was a nice day (not so common in the west coast), and we passed the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers (we didn’t have time to stop, but these would have been fairly epic, I reckon), before proceeding up to Hokitika, and then bearing inland at Greymouth.

As we got to the end of the Wairau Valley, it was dark. Vines begin here some 50 km from Blenheim, and then shortly become continuous. The valley has expanded quite a bit. We got home just before 11 pm, after a long day’s driving on single carriageway, windy roads. It was a stunning trip.

The places mentioned in the post



2 Comments on Adventures in New Zealand’s South IslandTagged
wine journalist and flavour obsessive

2 thoughts on “Adventures in New Zealand’s South Island

  1. You guys possibly drove past me – I got up early, left Quuenstown and headed over to Wanaka, to fish the Makarora River. You can see the state highway while standing in the middle of the river and we saw all sorts of craziness. A Chinese wedding party stopped in the middle of the road to take selfies etc. I didn’t get up as far as the Blue Pools, have always wanted to stop there, but we did walk upstream for several kms (and in wet wading boots – have never wet waded for a whole day before and as it hit 34 degrees by 4pm, the cold water was very welcome.)

  2. That’s a great post, Jamie. I recently returned from 2 weeks in the South Island (followed by Christmas and 2 more weeks in North Island) and it really is one of the most beautiful places on earth. And so different to North Island.

Leave a Reply

Back To Top