7 Essential Adventures on New Zealand's South Island

Aug 5, 2015
Six months after our grand and glorious wedding, my husband and I finally felt recuperated (physically and financially) and ready to take the honeymoon of our dreams.

We wanted excitement. We wanted adventure. We wanted awe-inspiring nature and beauty. We wanted some luxury. And we wanted wine.

New Zealand -- remote and far-removed, active and adventurous, with its emerging and exciting wine regions -- was on our bucket list, and what more perfect a time to explore than on our honeymoon with 14 indulgent days to ourselves? Thanks to an Air New Zealand airfare deal in the Top 20, we were off on a road trip.

We drove nearly 2,000 miles around the South Island -- (about the size of California) -- up the west coast, and down the east coast, in a bright green camper van.

Here are the 7 essential adventures from the trip:

Kayak through the fiords at sunset

One late afternoon, after a long, winding but oh-so picturesque drive from Queenstown, we headed out on the Milford Mariner overnight cruise. At sunset, we anchored in a sheltered cove right in Milford Sound -- a waterway carved by glaciers within Fiordland National Park, called the eighth Wonder of the World by Rudyard Kipling. Just before dinner, we set out on the water in kayaks to explore our surroundings. All day, the weather had been typical for the area and time of year: wet, cloudy and cool. But as we paddled around, peering up at the 4,000-foot-high sheer rock faces, the clouds parted, the skies cleared, and the sunset draped a pink hue across the tops of the peaks. It was a sacred experience.

Hike on a glacier (and lick the 7,000-year-old ice)

A splurge on our trip, we took a helicopter ride onto the Fox Glacier, and spent the morning on a guided hike exploring ice caves, tunnels, crevasses and other ever-changing features and formations. How does 7,000-year-old ice taste?

Cold -- but pretty much like the cubes in my freezer.

Sip sauvignon blanc (and pinot noir, and riesling, and syrah ... and everything else the country has to offer)

Rippon Winery

Living just a stone’s throw from Napa and Sonoma, we love wine and drink our fair share of the local bounty, but we couldn’t wait to explore the one of the world's top wine regions.

Sure, we were expecting sauvignon blanc, and some pinot noir, but we couldn’t get enough of the aromatic varietals like gewürztraminer, riesling and viognier. We couldn’t wait to reach the storied Marlborough region at the top of the island and later in our trip, but when the rain wouldn’t let up in Queenstown on day one, we found ourselves indoors, sipping and savoring the good stuff in the Central Otago region -- which, we learned, runs on the 45th parallel ... the same circle of latitude that threads its way through the Bordeaux and Cotes du Rhone regions in France, Piedmont in Italy, and the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

We made it to 15 (!) wineries on our trip. Some of our favorites included Chard Farms, Brennan Wines and Rippon in Central Otago; Cloudy Bay, Seresin, Hans Herzog, Giesen and Rock Ferry in Marlborough, and Pegasus Bay in the Waipara Valley. In Malborough, we loved touring the area by bike.

Let the scenery take your breath away

Cable Bay

Anyone who has seen “Lord of the Rings” knows New Zealand is beautiful, but it’s not until you’re driving the roads through Mt. Aspiring National Park, gazing up at some of the world’s highest waterfalls, or kayaking the shores of Abel Tasman’s crystal clear blue-green waters, dotted with playful seal lions, that you can really appreciate the beauty of the country.

Fall in love with unexpected towns

The view from Roy's Peak

One of our favorite towns on our trip was one we were just expecting to drive through: Wanaka. But here we discovered a glassy alpine lake with a famed lone tree growing just offshore, a winery with breathtaking views and even better wine, and the most spectacular (and exhausting!) hike of our lives up Roy’s Peak just outside of town.

Kaikoura was another favorite. The quaint seaside village on the east coast of the island was teeming with wildlife in the sea, on land and in the air. Whale watching trips here, for example, have 100% chance of spotting whales. We also had our favorite ‘breakfast’ of the trip as we drove by the colorful Nin’s Bin on the side of the highway. We stopped for “crayfish” (aka lobster) and green-lipped mussels, even though it was 9:30 a.m. and we hadn’t even had our coffee yet.

Meet the wildlife

Watch out for penguins!

The South Island is home to 1 million people -- and 30 million sheep! Sheep are everywhere, from farming stations (Merino wool!) to vineyards (they are willing gardeners) to the top of mountain peaks (yes, I even ran into a few as I was hyperventilating atop Roy’s Peak). We had so much fun photographing them, save for that time I got shocked by an electric fence in the process.

There’s a magical place called the Ohau Stream Waterfall just outside of Kaikoura, where a short walk takes you to a pool at the base of a waterfall. In the fall and winter months, dozens of seal pups play and frolic while they wait for their mothers to return from fishing.

We waited hours and hours in a town called Timaru for what we thought would be hundreds of tiny penguins to swim out of the sea onto the beach at night. As it turned out, only three arrived, but they were worth the wait. One timid little bird hurried out, then called for his friends, and eventually, two more came, and we watched them waddle to their nests for the night.

Be a tourist

We had many exciting and off-the-beaten-path adventures on our trip, but one of our favorite days was when we were the ultimate tourists in Queenstown. We took the Skyline Gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak, and luged down — definitely worth the trip! The gondola affords amazing views of Queenstown, and the luge down was a hilarious thrill.

Travelzoo Tip: We traveled in “off-season” during New Zealand’s fall, late April to early May. Though the weather was a bit colder than we expected (40s-50s), we had virtually everywhere to ourselves, from campgrounds to hikes to wine tastings to B&B’s, where we stayed a few nights to break up the trip.

For next time: You can never do and see it all in one trip. Here’s what’s on my agenda for next time:

  • See more penguins! I want to see the yellow eyed penguins in Dunedin, and the blue penguins in Omaru
  • Bike the Queen Charlotte Track
  • Tackle one of New Zealand’s famed Great Walks, ideally the Milford Track
Basic itinerary (April 23-May 8, 2015, including travel time): - 2 nights in Queenstown - 1 night in Milford Sound for an overnight excursion on a boat - 1 night in Wanaka - 1 night in Fox Glacier - 1 night in Greymouth - 1 night in Abel Tasman - 1 night in Cable Bay - 3 nights at a B&B in Blenheim, near Marlborough for lots of wine tasting - 1 night in Timaru - 1 night in Queenstown

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