Christchurch Loop via Abel Tasman and Stewart Island
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Christchurch was founded by English colonialists and still showing their influence today. Although Christchurch continues to recover from significant earthquake damage, there are still some great attractions to take in. Head into town and take a visit Hagley Park and the Botanical Gardens. Take a stroll, or enjoy an even more leisurely experience, going Punting on the Avon River. Next to the airport is the International Antarctic Centre. You can also enjoy a wonderful drive into the Port Hills – crater of an huge extinct volcano right next to the city.
Christchurch to Kaikoura
The route north from Christchurch heads first through the flat, agrarian landscape of the Canterbury Plains. As you approach Kaikoura, the route leads into winding hills, passing through small townships, before connecting with the stunning coastline. A seafood lunch from the roadside caravans in Kaikoura is a great option. Whale watching – either by sea or by air – is a fine option for the afternoon, if not tomorrow morning. Kaikoura is best known for its oceanic mammals, but is also an excellent place for viewing birdlife, particularly albatrosses.
Kaikoura to Nelson
One special way to start your morning in Kaikoura is by going swimming with dolphins. Kaikoura is also a major whale watching destination, so consider doing so by scenic flight or ferry. Roadside seafood is an option in Kaikoura, or head north to the famed lobster shack, Nin’s Bin. Take a short walk to waterfall near the roadside, where in the cooler months you can see seal pups playing in a streambed while their mothers fish at sea. The coastal road here is wildly beautiful as it leads right through to the wine region of Blenheim, where you might stop by a winery for some afternoon tea. Continue to Nelson, a small, quiet city that is a major hub art and alternative culture in New Zealand.
Abel Tasman Daytrip
Make the drive from Nelson to Marahau, access point to Abel Tasman National Park. This is a place of golden beaches, granite cliffs and deep blue ocean. It is synonymous with both kayaking and the Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of New Zealand’s nine designated Great Walks, so the recommended plan is to combine the two in a day trip in conjunction with one of the local operators.
Nelson to Westport
Make your way from Nelson to New Zealand’s wild West Coast. Drive spectacular scenic roads as they lead through the mountains, and watch as the rainforest thickens around you. Those up for some adventure will wish to take a rafting trip on the mighty Buller, where grade 3-4 rapids can be expected (true extremists may wish to hold out for heli-rafting from Hokitika). Arrive in the town of Westport, where a short drive out of town will bring you to the Cape Foulwind seal colony. Westport sits between the sea and a mountain wilderness. A stunning drive into the mountains above town will allow you to discover the region’s coal mining history at Denniston.
Westport to Hokitika
From Westport, head south to the amazing pancake rocks of Punakaiki. You can take these in with a leisurely stroll on the well-made pathway from the roadside. Those wanting a little more can go horseriding on the beach and view them from another angle, as well as taking in much more of Punakaiki’s wonderful scenery. Nature enthusiasts can enjoy an expert guided tour taking in local flora and fauna. The route from Punakaiki south is simply spectacular, as the road winds carefully around a wild coastline. Pass through Greymouth and arrive at Hokitika, the west coast’s largest hub for arts and wares, from fine glass pieces to the famous pounamu, New Zealand’s local greenstone. (For language enthusiasts, the Maori name for the South Island is Te Waipounamu, translated as “the waters of greenstone”.) Adventurous travellers truly wanting to experience New Zealand’s best wilderness can take an amazing heli-rafting trip from Hokitika – highly recommended.
Hokitika to Franz Josef
Continue south along a narrow strip of vibrant green farmland that sits wedged between the coast and the mountains. Short walks are available at Lake Mahinapua, worthy of a quick stop. The Southwest of New Zealand is one the great natural areas of the world, being internationally recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Arrive at Franz Josef Glacier, one of the two major glaciers on the West Coast. You can hike the glacier from the bottom, combine a glacier hike with a heli flight, or take a scenic flight above it all. Alternatively, consider a kayak trip on Lake Mapourika.
Franz Josef to Wanaka
Today’s spectacular route leads from the dramatic green wilderness of the West Coast to the drier climate that pervades on the east side of the New Zealand Alps. Head south down the coast to the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre at Haast, then turn inland toward the mountains, following the winding Haast Pass Highway as it weaves up a narrow valley between towering mountains. Thundering roadside waterfalls line the route, and you’ll also find the striking and vivid Blue Pools a pleasant 30 minute walk from the roadside. Continue past Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, passing the charming lakeside town of Wanaka.
Wanaka to Queenstown
From Wanaka, first stop is Cromwell. This is orchard country, with apples, peaches, pears, plums and cherries all grown in abundance. Take a few minutes at one of the local fruit stands for some of the local fruit ice cream. Continue from Cromwell along the scenic, desert route alongside the Kawarau River toward Queenstown, passing the wineries of the Gibbston Valley and Kawarau Bungy. A short detour leads to the historic village of Arrowtown, where gold was discovered in Arrowtown in 1861. The town is one of delightful old cottages and fine avenues of trees, making it an excellent place for a coffee. Stroll the historic streets before continuing to Queenstown – with possible diversions to Kawarau Bungy or a local winery en route.
Get caught up in the many things that Queenstown has to offer. From bungy to canyoning to jetboating to skydiving, there is plenty for the adventurer, as well as no shortage of things to do for the more easy-going traveller as well. Great all-day activities include a trip up to Glenorchy for the Fun Yak Safari. Milford Sound is just a short flight away.
Queenstown to Te Anau
Start out with the scenic drive along Lake Wakatipu to Frankton, crossing the Kawarau River. After passing the skifields of The Remarkables you will again find yourself on the very scenic winding road adjacent to the lake. The small town of Kingston at the foot of the lake is a worthwhile short detour and the home of the historic Kingston Flyer. Continue through hilly farm country, finally arriving at the pretty lakeside town of Te Anau. Consider making a visit to Manapouri Power Station, or taking a tour of the wonderful local Glow Worm Caves. You can also experience a taste of incredible Fiordland rainforest by taking a day walk on the renowned Kepler Track.
Milford Sound Return, ex Te Anau
Take the stunning drive through giant glacier carved valleys to visit one of the most scenic spots in New Zealand, Milford Sound. Be awed and energised by the scenic beauty of the marvellous vistas here, particularly of Mitre Peak, which soars straight from the sea like a jagged tooth. Consider a scenic cruise to explore this wonderful place. In the afternoon, make your way back to Te Anau.
Te Anau to Invercargill
The drive from Te Anau to Invercargill follows the Southern Scenic Route south, from the gateway to Fiordland and Milford Sound toward lush farm country and wild southern coastline. Pass through small townships that seem not to have changed for years, and enjoy the greenery that comes with this beautiful part of New Zealand, known for its high rainfall. Shortly after passing through Tuatapere the road hugs the coastline of Te Wae Wae Bay, remote and stunning, with amazingly windswept trees that give evidence to the kind of weather this area can experience. Follow the road to Riverton, a pretty fishing village which is growing in its appeal as a holiday venue or just a place to live. Take an hour to explore to Riverton Rocks, a ten-minute drive along the estuary, turning right before the bridge which takes you into the town centre. Here you can experience a pebble beach and try out some of the Riverton Rocks Walkway, a short walk where the green grassy hills meet the sea.
Invercargill to Stewart Island
Across the Foveaux Strait from the South Island, Stewart Island (Rakiura) is one of New Zealand’s great wilderness areas. More substantial than most people realise, the island is thickly carpeted in native forest, and is one of the few true remaining homes of the Kiwi. Soak in the island’s remoteness, or go exploring on some of the many walks through forest and beaches. Consider a boat tour to Paterson Inlet and the bird sanctuary of Ulva Island.
Stewart Island to Invercargill
Spend the morning enjoying the solitude and beauty of Stewart Island, before returning to the mainland with an afternoon ferry to Bluff or flight to Invercargill.
Invercargill to Dunedin
Depart Southland’s agricultural heartland and head for the forested wilderness of the Catlins. Here, native forest meets golden beaches and you’ll find numerous walks to explore its highlights. The coastline, both before reaching the Catlins and beyond, is striking for green pastured hills dropping precipitously to a foaming sea, with opportunities to stop and walk along stretches of rocky shoreline beside tall cliffs as well as beaches. Continue through small townships interspersed with rolling green hilly farmland to the City of Dunedin.
Dunedin and Otago Peninsula
Explore the abundant wildlife on the Otago Peninsula. At the farthest point on the peninsula is the renowned Albatross Colony. Fur seals, sea lions and penguins can also be found on the peninsula (tour suggested). Historic Larnach Castle & Gardens is another exceptional stop on the route. Dunedin is now best known as a university town, but historically was the most prosperous city in New Zealand. The city is one of definite Scottish influence – view the Robert Burns statue at the Octagon. Also check out the historic railway station, said to be the most photographed building in the country. The Registry Building on the University of Otago campus is another frequently photographed attraction.
Dunedin to Omarama
Depart the fine harbourside city of Dunedin, heading up a beautiful coastline to the fascinating Moeraki Boulders. Continue northward, visiting the historic town of Oamaru. From here, turn inland, heading into the brown-and-gold landscape of Central Otago, finally coming to the small town of Omarama. Although small, Omarama is famous as one of the best sites in the world for glider flights, and once hosted the world championships. Head to the airfield if you’d like to go for a flight of your own.
Omarama to Lake Tekapo
Heading north from Omarama through the desert-like country of southern Canterbury, its amazing to consider that only a narrow mountain range separates you from the dense rainforests of the West Coast. Visit the alpine Salmon farm near the town of Twizel (the highest-altitude salmon on Earth!), and continue up to the striking blue of Lake Pukaki. Make the detour up to Mt Cook township, and take a walk to soak up the best views of New Zealand’s highest peak (Aoraki/Mt Cook!). Back at the car, return to the main highway and continue to Lake Tekapo, the most stunning of New Zealand’s glacial lakes. Visit the famous Church of the Good Shepherd on the lake shore, and consider taking part in some of the great activities available in town.
Lake Tekapo to Christchurch
From Tekapo, follow the road leading out of the mountains to the vast Canterbury Plains, and on to Christchurch. Christchurch continues to recover from significant earthquake damage and increasingly boasts new sights and attractions for visitors. At the edge of the city is the Canterbury Museum, the Botanic Gardens, and Hagley Park, where you can enjoy punting along the Avon river. The International Antarctic Centre, near the airport, is another major Christchurch attraction, interesting for adults and kids alike. The Port Hills – formed by the crater of an extinct volcano that exploded six million years ago – offer great views back over the city.