They call it New Zealand. Aotearoa. The Land of the Long White Cloud. Whatever you want to call it, I just see raw, untamed natural beauty. With a few quiet cities thrown in for good measure, it’s an outdoor loving, adventure seeking, road tripper’s dream. Kynie and I rented a campervan and drove around the New Zealand South Island and these were some of the highlights from that 3 week road trip.

Wildlife spotting in Kaikoura

Kaikoura is a stunning seaside town on the northeast coast of the South Island, where small fish are attracted to the steep shelf-like drop-off, which acts as a fertile feeding and breeding ground.

Unlike many coastal locations where whale-watching is driven by migration, whale watching in Kaikoura has a high success rate because the whales are attracted here because there is so much food for them. The only decision to then make is whether to see the whale tails close up from a boat, or see the whole whale from the wings of a Cessna.

Once you’ve seen your whale, walk out onto the Kaikoura Peninsula, bring your long lens, and quietly observe the seal colony. Keep a watch out though, some like to sleep on the path.

Seals on the Kaikoura Peninsula

Exploring the ruins of Christchurch

Christchurch was devastated by an earthquake back in 2011, and 4 years on (in 2015) the recovery was still a slow and steady process. It’s remarkable to see how resilient the city is, which is on show every day at the 185 Empty Chairs memorial, the Cardboard Cathedral, and the Re:start container mall. But by just walking around the city, even in the middle of the weekend, there’s a definite eery quiet. With every block begins a new game of “What part of the building was this?”

Beyond the rubble, though, there are plenty of other things to do in Christchurch. We went punting down the Avon river in a flat-bottomed boat, explored the Botanic Gardens on foot, visited what are now the ruins of Christchurch Cathedral, and spent a morning out at the Christchurch Gondola (near Littleton).

For more inspiration, visit My Guide Christchurch.

Christchurch stairs to nowhere ruins

Sleep in a boot near Nelson

One of the most unique accommodations I’ve ever stayed in was at the Jester House Cafe, halfway between Nelson and Motueka at the top of the South Island. It’s a detached dwelling in the grounds of the cafe that it two stories in the shape of a boot. You know… like the nursery rhyme “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe”.

It was 100% eco-friendly with a fireplace, a couch, modern bathroom, compostable toilet, a kitchenette, with a bed upstairs. With no television and no Wi-Fi, it was the perfect spot to escape for a night in our own little world.

Boot Bed and Breakfast at the Jester House Cafe near Nelson New Zealand

Wine tasting in Marlborough

Ever heard of the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc? Well, it is named for Marlborough, a region in the northeast of the New Zealand South Island that is near perfect for growing Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Incredibly, the first vineyard was only planted in 1973 at Brancott Estate, which is reasonably recent as far as vineyards go.

We did some wine and cheese tasting at Brancott Estate and it was evident the founder picked the spot for his winery intelligently, as the cellar door is perched up on a hill with a glorious view over endless rows of bright yellow (in May) vines. It was my pick of the bunch.

Brancott Estate wine tasting and vineyard

Be surrounded by mountains everywhere you drive

As were drove around the South Island, it felt like if you weren’t looking out the window the entire trip, you’d miss something spectacular. If you weren’t physically scaling a winding road around or over a mountain, there was one providing a perfect backdrop to the road trip.

I love this photo because it was taken out the side door of our campervan, on a tripod, while stopped in traffic. I had so many more photos I could have picked for this section too, it was tough to pick the best!

Mountains and field by the side of the road in New Zealand South Island

Stay in New Zealand’s most remote Holiday Park

If you head out north past Motueka and Rikwaka, past Abel Tasman National Park, over Takaka Hill, along Golden Bay, (stopping briefly at Collingwood for the tiniest museum I’ve ever seen), and past the Farwell Spit, you will eventually find a dirt track that leads to Wharariki Beach. Wharariki Beach is northernmost part of the South Island and is well known for the Archway Islands and a local seal colony.

We stayed at the Wharariki Beach Holiday Park, which was rows of camper sites strewn around countless green mounds. It’s just around the corner from a lovely 20 minute walk through rolling hills that takes you to the actual Beach. You couldn’t feel further from civilisation here if you tried.

Wharariki Beach Holiday Park

Feed the ducks at Lake Rotoiti

Lake Rotoiti is one of the calmest, most serene places in the entire South Island. After just a few minutes it quickly became my favourite stop we made. Our campervan pulled to a quiet, fairly small lake, dwarfed by snow-capped mountains on either side. In fact, it reminded me of Lake Louise in Alberta.

Off the side of the pier was a bed of eels, and following me and my stale bread was a raft of ducks (the actual collective nouns, not creative fluffery). After an hour or so slowly taking in the serenity, we drove around the corner to a nearby campground. This is a must see place on the South Island.

Feding the Ducks at Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes National Park New Zealand

Visit the glaciers before they’re gone

Down the east coast, there are many glaciers slowly drifting down the valleys from the mountains. But due to increasingly warmer temperatures, the glaciers are actually quickly receding back up the mountains. It was a bit sad, actually, when I visited because a mere 5 or 10 years earlier and the glaciers were hundreds metres further down and easier to see from the track.

We visited both Franz Josef (below) and Fox (feature image) Glaciers and this was true for both of them. At Franz Josef, I hiked through the rain, through thigh-high streams, over the flooded former-glacier bed to get to the base of the glacier. It was such an experience, butsurprisingly, my pregnant wife opted not to join me on that adventure.

Franz Josef glacier hike in the rain

Sample some of New Zealand’s fine craft brews

In my experience, most countries have a few really big breweries that brew a handful of different type of premium lagers and make up most of the market. Like CUB in Australia, or Bud and Miller in the US. But I didn’t find this in New Zealand. The biggest brewery is Speights followed by Monteiths, and while I wouldn’t exactly call Speights craft, their beer is a lot better than most country’s biggest brewer.

If you love your beer then it is well worth finding a small brewery to have a sample, tour the brewery, and support the little guys. I visited Invercargill Brewery (in Invercargill), Golden Bear (in Mapua), and Hop Federation (in Riwaka) and found their guys were all willing to have a chat and show me around. And the beer was fantastic.

Watch a movie from a car, inside a cinema

Wanaka is a gorgeous town not far from Queenstown. The city is on the shores of Lake Wanaka, which is bounded by more mountains with streets and shores covered in autumnal leaves. Oranges and browns mixed with the white of the distant snow and partly blue sky beautiful to frame a most picturesque town.

At home in Wanaka is the Cinema Paradiso; a boutique theatre with less than 50 seats. You can relax on a couch or even watch from one of two vintage cars that have been converted for this purpose.

Cinema Paradiso in Wanaka New Zealand

Look down on Queenstown from the Skyline Gondola

New Zealand has no shortage of peaks to hike up with spectacular views. But when time or energy is short, (or you have a really pregnant wife), going on day-hikes is not often a real popular option. Thankfully, among the many things to do in Queenstown is a gondola up the Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve to save you the effort.

It’s a ridiculous view over Lake Wakatipu, with the Queenstown Gardens and Golf Course adding some foreground interest, and The Remarkables leading your gaze into the distance. And if you’re lucky you can watch the paragliders sail down the hill.

Get more ideas for Queenstown here.

Lake Wakatipu from the Queenstown Skyride, New Zealand South Island

Watch seals argue near Westport

About 15 minutes west of Westport, at Tauranga Bay lives a fairly large seal colony. The colony is about a 10 minute walk from the parking lot and there is a great viewing deck above the seals. Hopefully, you’ll see them move around a bit like I did. We saw quite a few arguments like this one. Obviously a little trouble in paradise.

Seal Colony Tauranga Bay near Westport New Zealand

Walk around Lake Matheson

Lake Matheson is a small lake not far from the Fox Glacier township. On a still day, the lake is magnificent, with Mount Cook projecting a rippled reflection across the water. It’s a lovely, paved walk around the lake through an otherwise dense rainforest. A great way to get the legs moving if you’ve been in driving a distance.

Lake Matheson with Mt Cook in the background

Take a Milford Sound cruise

Milford Sound was one of the few places on this New Zealand road trip that I was actively looking forward to on the road trip. A long, narrow inlet in Fiordland, dominated by sheer rock faces sounded exceedingly dramatic. However, when we awoke to rain, mist and cloud, I was nothing but disappointed. However, knowing that the area gets 180 rainy days a year, this was always a strong possibility.

There was a large silver lining, though, as what I didn’t know at the time was the rain creates thousands of waterfalls the entire way along the fiord. And the permanent waterfalls were equally enlarged. The cascades made for an unexpected experience, but one that is no less impressive or common than what you’d see on a clear day.

Milford sound waterfalls

Explore the Chinese Settlement in Arrowtown

Arrowtown is worth visiting for many reasons. Its quaint charm will have you cafe- and boutique-hopping all morning. But when you visit, make sure to give some time to the Chinese settlement. The Chinese are a big part of the region’s history from the gold rush era in the mid to late 19th Century. Although the Chinese were accepted by the locals, they lived separately.

Just past the Main Street, down by the river is a handful of old stone shacks that became dilapidated after the Chinese left when the gold ran out. These have now been restored based on photographs so visitors can see a glimpse of how they lived. The shacks were very small, you could fit your bed, some belongings and not much in there. But importantly, they did all seem to have a fireplace and chimney.

Chinese settlement cottages

Get real remote in The Catlins

Even though we visited the New Zealand South Island in the off season, I got the feeling that The Catlins were well off the beaten path. We visited Cathedral Cave (a beach cave that can only be accessed at high tide), and many beautiful waterfalls, but my favourite place was actually walking out to Nugget Point Lighthouse.

A thin path winds around the hills out to the far tip of the south-east corner of the island. It overlooks a dozen or so large rock formations bulging out of the water off the coast. It was just beautiful.

Nugget Point rocks in the Catlins

Have you been to New Zealand? I shared first so what was your highlight? Let me know in the comments below.

You can read my full 3 week New Zealand South Island itinerary at this post here or you download the whole thing as a PDF using the image below.

New Zealand South Island Download

Article produced in partnership with My Guide New Zealand. All opinions remain that of the author, which is me. 

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13 Things to do on New Zealand's South IslandMy 13 favourite things to do in New Zealand's South Island. This is a parasailer floating down over Queenstown.