We wouldn’t dream of suggesting there are only nine places on the South Island that will take your breath away. All of New Zealand will do that to you! But, let’s take a moment to look at nine very special places your next road trip should include if you are in that area.
Lake Tekapo, just 3½ hours’ drive from Christchurch and Queenstown, covers 83 square kilometres so there are loads of great places to stop, view, relax, play or hike. By day the waters appear a lovely glossy turquoise, while at night the skies above light up with the glistening of a million stars. The Church of the Good Shepard is an iconic stop, its altar window framing the Southern Alps beyond the lake as if you were getting a sneak peek straight into heaven. If you’ve got time for a bit of fun relaxation and recreation, stop in at Tekapo Springs, where you’ll find hot pools, recreational pools, a day spa, and ice rink and snow tube in winter. Naturally this comes with the lake, mountain and forest views beyond.
You can’t beat a good sunny day in Kaikoura. As you make your way through this picturesque region, you’ll be hard-pressed about where exactly you will stop! Too many options. But arguably the best place to enjoy the Kaikoura sun is up in the mountains. South Pacific will whisk you up in a helicopter for an unforgettable heli-picnic at their secluded and exclusive alpine landing site nestled in the Kaikoura ranges. There’s space in the heli for a locally prepared and organic picnic hamper which you’ll enjoy as you take in the 360-degree views of the Kaikōura mountain ranges and Pacific Ocean.
Two glaciers and a multitude of ways to see them. Why though? Well, glaciers are a compelling display of ancient history – huge masses of hundreds of years old snow and ice, that flow like extremely slow rivers. And they also contain the world’s largest reserve of fresh water, accounting for 75% across the globe. Fox and Franz Josef are the most accessible rivers of ice in the world. Both are just 5 kilometres from nearby villages. Fox Glacier is also close to Lake Matheson, which is itself famous for the mirror-like reflections of the mountain peaks that frame its background. You can fly over them, hike on them, and even walk through them. Regardless of your physical abilities, there’s an easy way to get a good view.
There are few sights in the world like Murchison’s Natural Flames. In fact, this is the world’s only known perpetually burning fire. As the story goes, almost a century ago a couple of curious farmers followed their noses and found natural gas seeping up through the ground. They struck a match and the flames have been burning ever since. It’s so unusual it feels like they shouldn’t be there. You do need to take a tour to see them, and we recommend opting for one that includes pancakes. Matches not required.
This one isn’t so much a stop, although you’ll want to do that multiple times. It’s more a route you should take on your road trip if Queenstown and Wanaka are on your itinerary. The road between these two South Island locations is memorable to say the least. Put your most experienced driver behind the wheel because there are some hairpin turns and steep drops to the side of the road. And, being more than 1100 metres above sea level you should be prepared for snow and ice during the colder months. These are a small price to pay for feeling like you are literally on top of the world, and gazing down upon paradise.
There’s a good reason why Dunedin is called the Edinburgh of the South. Founded in 1848, original European settlers were instructed to replicate the building style of Scotland’s capital. And that they did. Sitting in the centre of Otago Peninsula is Larnach Castle, a Scottish-baronial style estate. Built in the 1870s, Australian-born William Larnach spared no expense building a dream home for his wife. The castle’s story is no fairy tale, with tragedy matching its grandeur. You’ll learn all about its history on a castle tour.
The waters of Te Waikoropupu Springs are so clear they are statistically close to optically pure water, with 76 metre visibility. Sounds lovely enough to take a dip (even with sub 12-degree Celsius water) doesn’t it? However, this is one stop that is admired only from the viewing platform. Te Waikoropupu Springs are of significant cultural and spiritual importance and interaction with the water is prohibited. Flowing streams and birdsongs guide your way along boardwalks and bridges. Once you make that final turn, everything becomes still. Bubbles dance on the surface from the water gushing through the ground below, and the birds continue to sing praises to the deceptively clear waters they overlook.
There are a few different reasons you might find this one breathtaking. On the one hand the view is spectacular, peering into the distance where you’re higher than the clouds in valleys below. If you’re on your own road trip, you’ll have to stop at the entrance. Most car hire companies won’t let you go any further for insurance purpose. And rightly so. Much better to leave your journey in the safe hands of a tour driver well experienced with the unpaved road, steep turns, tight squeezes (like Heaven’s Gate and Hell’s Gate) and sheer drops that we didn’t look down long enough to estimate their distance. They don’t call Queenstown the Adventure Capital of the World for nothing. It’s absolutely worth it!
Nothing quite prepares you for the first time you see a fiord in real life. Or is it a Sound? Hundreds of thousands of years in the making these u-shaped waterways make you feel about the size of an ant, as steep mountains take shape all around you. We recommend using Te Anau or Manapouri as your base to see both Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound – either by heli, boat, bike or hike.