Southern Stunner – Exploring New Zealand’s South Island

Words: Rhonda Bannister. Photography: Dan Bannister

As a short break destination, New Zealand’s South Island has absolutely everything going for it to fulfil most people’s holiday expectations. Vibrant cities and towns with excellent restaurants, pubs and bars; award-winning wineries; top-class ski fields; alpine thermal springs and for the thrill-seekers, extreme sport activities that are probably the best in the world. 

Scenically, it’s more like Europe than Australia – it has the dramatic snow-capped mountains and crystal-clear lakes of Switzerland, the thermal spa villages of Austria, the fertile, rolling green valleys of Ireland, the sun-drenched fields of Tuscany and the cute, tiny villages of France all rolled into one neat little package. Deciding which area to visit is the only real problem for the would-be visitor because every region offers something unique and wonderful, so where you go really depends on your interests.

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For many couples, a holiday isn’t complete without indulging in good food and wine, and that is certainly true for us, which is why we made sure to include a visit to the Marlborough region on our itinerary, as it’s known for producing some of our favourite wines. Our journey began in Christchurch, where we rented a car and set off towards Kaikoura, a charming town located two hours north. Along the way, we made a few stops to sample local cuisine and take in the stunning scenery, including snow-capped mountains and a sea teeming with whales, dolphins, and fur seals.

Kaikoura is one of the country’s leading eco-tourism destinations and one of the main reasons people stop here is the whale-watching, so within an hour of our arrival we were in the air flying over the vast Pacific on a whale spotting expedition, zooming low over solitary whales blowing plumes of water metres into the air and pods of frolicking dolphins jumping like energetic children through the choppy waves.

Beautiful New Zealand
Mother Nature at her most alluring

When we were safely back on land we sought out the local fur seals and found a few lazing on the rocky shoreline without a care in the world, that is until we accidently woke one and had to scramble over the rocks to escape his wrath. Letting out a loud roar he swung his head from side to side and launched off his rock, flapping his flippers like he was giving us the finger. We found out later that you can actually snorkel with the seals and that in the water they’re playful and inquisitive – just don’t wake them when they’re sleeping unless you’ve got a good head start!

A two-hour drive from Kaikoura over winding mountain passes and along the rugged, scenic coastline brings you to the township of Blenheim and the centre of the wine-growing region. The Marlborough region enjoys a Mediterranean-style climate year round and as we were there in late autumn, we enjoyed sunny days and crisp, cool evenings, but best of all we were surrounded by Mother Nature at her most alluring.

Autumnal colours of burnished copper and rustic red defined the vertical lines of grape vines, marching like a batallion of well-trained soldiers across the broad fields surrounding the wineries where we indulged our palates in some of the country’s best food and wine.

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This area is world-renowned for its distinctive and aromatic wines but the region also has many other natural attractions. Twenty minutes from Blenheim is the delightful harbourside village of Picton, sited at the head of Charlotte Sound and a popular tourist destination with a lively restaurant scene. Tourists stream in from the big inter-island ferries that arrive regularly from Wellington, a voyage that’s noted as being one of the world’s most stunning sea journeys.

From Picton you can drive the slow route to the major centre of Nelson along the winding, 40-kilometre Queen Charlotte Drive which hugs its namesake waterway and affords such spectacular views it’s a real hazard for drivers! The Marlborough Sounds are an ancient network of fjord-like waterways that curl around tiny coves and inlets where forested hills run right into the water and many luxurious holiday lodges, houses and small townships are only accessible by boat. It’s one of the most stunningly beautiful areas in the world.

Hot mineral springs at Hanmer Springs
Hot mineral springs at Hanmer Springs

Our next stop was another stunner is the cute alpine village of Hanmer Springs which is nestled in a valley below the Southern Alps, a four hour drive from Nelson and just 90 minutes from Christchurch. People come to enjoy the peaceful mountain ambience, pure alpine air and health-giving mineral springs, but for the more adventurous and brave-hearted, there’s also bungy jumping, jet boating, river rafting, trekking, hunting, mountain biking and skiing on offer.

A distinct French ambience in Akaroa
A distinct French ambience in Akaroa

Under a sky so full of stars it looked as though a naughty child had peppered it full of tiny holes with a BB gun, we soaked away the stresses of a long drive in the hot mineral waters of the thermal pools and enjoyed a massage in the spa before tucking into one of New Zealand’s most popular dishes – slow-roasted lamb shanks that had been cooking for hours in a sauce of red wine and tomatoes – pure sybaritic pleasure!

If ever there was proof that fortune favours the fleet of foot, or in this case, the fleet of sail, it is to be found in the village of Akaroa situated on one of the harbours that form part of Banks Peninsula just over an hour’s drive from Christchurch. Famed as New Zealand’s only French settlement and also its oldest, we were quite unprepared for our visual introduction to this lovely part of the country.

Cresting the last hill before descending into the sunken craters of the two extinct volcanoes that now make up the bays and harbours of the peninsula revealed one of the most breathtaking views of our journey, a scene of such bucolic beauty, it literally stopped us in our tracks as we pulled over to take photos of the rolling green hills, serene blue waters and quaint drovers and sheep dogs herding their charges along the country roadways. 

Akaroa has a distinct French ambience and that’s because in July 1840, a shipload of French settlers sailed into Akaroa Harbour with the intention of claiming it for France, but the Brits, having heard of the audacious plan set their sails into the wind and arrived six days before them! The French settlers stayed and their legacy lives on; the town is très chic with its lovely harbourside location, high- quality dining and street names like Rue Jolie and Rue Lavaud and the locals also celebrate “the landing” in spring with a French Fest – a weekend of fun, food and festivity.

Looking down on Banks Peninsula
Looking down on Banks Peninsula

Besides being a great place to chill out for a weekend or longer, one of the major drawcards in Akaroa is the abundant wildlife including Hector’s dolphin, the world’s rarest, which are readily seen on a daily harbour cruise or on a dolphin swim excursion. But for me, the highlight of Akaroa was the exquisite beauty of its location and the all-pervading, laid-back holiday atmosphere.

All good things must come to an end and so too our holiday, but not before we experienced the charms of Christchurch with its fabulous art scene, excellent shopping, fine restaurants and wonderful gardens. The city is very English with its beautiful stone buildings, Edwardian-style houses, vintage tram and urban laneways packed with cafes and bars and we loved every bit of it. But the highlight of our day, and what won us over to the romantic vibe of this lovely, boutique city was our punt trip down the Avon River.

Settled back on plump cushions it was easy to imagine myself gliding along the River Cam in bonny old England as our “Cambridge University senior” steered our punt along the narrow waterway through the stunning Botanical Gardens which were alive with the riotous colours of autumn foliage. Yet another lovely reminder of being in a place so different but so close to home. 

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