The Classic 14 Day South Island Explorer

The Classic Tour

Gidday, welcome, get ready and be warned ! You're about to embark on a love affair that'll mark you forever. They say New Zealand is a bunch of countries in one and they're right. You're about to be torn in all directions as your senses rush to keep up with the incredible experiences the South Island Explorer has to offer.


Doubtful Sound Fiordland

Majestic mountains, sweeping glaciers, vast wilderness, huge views and mouth watering local cuisine, along with friendly faces at every turn, will have you eagerly soaking up every indulgence your South Island Explorer affair has for you. It's all here, so lap it up!

Day 1. Welcome to Christchurch

We'll meet you at the Airport and get you to the Sudima Christchurch City. 
The drive there gives you an idea of the character of the place. A city population of around 400,000 stoically rebuilding after the challenges of some years ago and maintaining the wonderful garden city appearance of the place. 

Your thoroughly modern, fully serviced hotel, is just 500 metres from the iconic Hagley Park, which is one of the biggest parkland areas in a central city anywhere in the world. Within the park are sports grounds, tennis courts and a golf course. Lake Victoria is a popular stroll, with the Botanic gardens and the picturesque Avon river also in the precinct.

A more leisurely pursuit after a long flight and luggage drop off could be to head to the Antigua boat sheds for some punting on the Avon. Your punters are charming chaps dressed in the bow ties and 'boaters' (straw hats) of the Edwardian age and they'll take you on a relaxing trip on the Avon through beautiful gardens and historic areas.
Cushions and rugs are provided and it's perfectly safe.

The 'tearooms' at the boatsheds has an excellent menu. While the Casino is handy, I recommend a quiet night, because tomorrow my friends, your wild affair begins.

Christchurch historic tram

Day 2. Christchurch to Mt Cook. 

Driving time around 4 hours for the 311 km or 193 mile trip.

Your South Island Explorer itinerary points in the direction Mt Cook National Park and the world renowned Hermitage Hotel. Leaving Christchurch is easy, just follow the directions, though once you burst out into the country side you'll realise what an amazing voyage of discovery this is going to be.
Keep your eyes on the road, keep left and adhere to 100 km an hour and other speed limits, as our cops can pop up in the strangest places.

Take photo stops if you want, though pull well off the road and when driving don't let the traffic build up behind you, just let them pass.  After all the scenery is jaw droppingly distracting.
Flat farmlands running away to foothills and higher mountains to the west, some of which carry permanent snow.
Rural towns Geraldine and Fairlie, which has a brilliant pie shop, give way to the Mackenzie Country and Lake Tekapo village. 

The Church of the Good Shepherd is a popular pic and the story of sheep rustler James Mackenzie, is an intriguing local tale. From here it's about 70 mins to Mt Cook at just over 100 kms away.
The mountains beckon and as you turn onto the highway to the Hermitage and Cook, alongside the 
vivid blue of Lake Pukaki, the great mountain thrusts itself skyward ahead of you. Mt Cook is our highest point at 3,724 metres. Also known as Aoraki, or 'cloud piercer', it reins as prince among the 150 or so peaks, glaciers, ice and snowfields, mountain lakes and ranges that dance around it.

Mt Cook is part of a World Heritage region and is known as 'The place of greenstone' or Te Wahipounamu.
You're here for a couple of nights at the Hermitage hotel, built to maximise to splendid views of the area and attached to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine centre. In 1953 New Zealander Hillary, along with Tenzing Sherpa Norgay, was the first to scale Mt Everest. The centre is a must visit, as is the Mountaineer's cafe, owned by local mountain guides, Mary and Charlie Hobbs.

You're in deep now, so you may as well go for broke. A scenic helicopter ride, or trip in a biplane with Chris Rudge, from the nearby Pukaki airport at Twizel, will really smoke your tyres.  So your 'work' for the day then, hanging high among these lofty peaks and massive valleys and maybe landing on and skiing a glacier or two, just has to put a throb in the job !

Day 3. The Tasman Glacier Explorer Cruise

From one high to another as today you'll partake in a unique guided treat departing your accommodation by bus and heading into the Tasman Valley. It's a short walk to board the MAC boat to explore the Tasman Glacier terminal lake. Ever changing due to currents and winds, the icebergs differ day to day, though the guides read the place well and will have you up close and personal with the bergs, while offering insightful commentary. Some refreshments later, peering through your phone pics and selfies of the last couple of days will blow your mind. Yet there's so much more to come!

Explore Tasman Glacier by boat

Day 4. Dunedin – our most Scottish of New Zealand cities.  

Pack up your sporan, press the kilt and get ready for the skirl of the pipes, as you're just under 4 hours, 317kms or 226 miles away from Dun Eideann, the Scots-Gaelic name for Edinburgh in Scotland.

The name Dunedin comes from this. You can't have everything you want, though who'd blame you for liking all of what you'll see en route to Dunedin. The former hydro town of Twizel and famous rowing venue, Lake Ruataniwha, the dams at Benmore and Aviemore in the Waitaki Valley and the wonderful steam punk precinct of Oamaru, all whizz by, as you head to the coast and south.

The famous Moeraki boulders are in the area too and a short side trip once you're through Oamaru is well worth it. These large symmetrical boulders are 50 to 65 million years old and weigh up to 7 tonnes.  Just thinking about lifting them is good way to build up a thirst.   Which brings us to Dunedin. The Scottish influence is evident everywhere, just as a strong student presence is obvious, as it's always been a popular and very social university town. Gird your loins as you're here at the Hotel St. Clair for a couple of nights, a boutique beach front fully serviced hotel just a hop and jump from the beach. 

Day 5. Otago Peninsula Wildlife cruise

Things are getting pretty sexy now. Today's cruise around Taiaroa Head and surrounding cliffs is an area that acclaimed environmentalist Dr. David Bellamy described as 'the finest example of eco tourism in the world'.  New Zealand fur seals, albatross, petrels, penguins, dolphins and other marine mammals frequent the area, while the shy native yellow eyed penguin also nest here.  

Steaming back up the harbour you may get to see where the famous Larnach Castle stands. Finished in 1871, it'd taken 200 workers 3 years to build and 12 years years to decorate. Loaded with antiques and surrounded by glorious gardens, it's a relaxing spot for a wander. Or if you're up for it, the Octagon in the city centre is the place to be. It's an 8 sided plaza, bisecting the main street and packed with shopping, cafes and bars. Cheers, I think you'll enjoy it!  

Day 6. Te Anau, the Glowworm caves and gateway to Fiordland

Pack up your memories and shenanigans from the night before, load the car and we're off, inland and cross country to Lake Te Anau for 2 nights. 3 and half hours at least of travel, 290 kms or 207 miles.  

The route cuts through vast farming country and rolling hills, with cycle ways and the town of Gore, known as the country music capital of New Zealand. Cue Hokonui radio on the iheart phone app and be sure to buy some local Hokonui moonshine. Te Anau is about another hour and half.  Here you're at another 4 star hotel the Distinction Hotel Te Anau & Villas, which is right on the lake front and a short stroll to the Te Anau town centre. Typically comfortable like all your accommodations on this glorious journey and set in lush landscaped gardens.  

Te Anau is yet another place where your tongue will be hanging out. Famous for fishing, kayaking, sailing, horse riding, hiking and biking, many scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies were also shot in the bush and lakes around here. Also in keeping with New Zealand being the adventure capital of the world, events like the Kepler Challenge are held here too.  An event where you pay lots of money to run forever, up and over huge mountains, through valleys and ample forests, inflicting great pain and suffering and all in the name of fun!  

It's a kiwi thing and very much in keeping with the famous aforementioned quintessential kiwi Sir Ed Hillary, who upon returning to base camp after successfully climbing Everest for the first time, told the expedition leader Sir John Hunt, who was hoping for some sort of comment for the ages and especially something pithy to offer then Queen Elizabeth on her coronation, as it was May 1953, simply got, 'we knocked the bastard off'!  I think by now you understand the kiwi psyche to appreciate the humour and liking how we roll anyway.  

Now, tighten the fun belt a little further, cos we're going to ramp things up yet again. Are you ready for this?

Bring on the glowworm caves. Your excursion includes a cruise across beautiful Lake Te Anau to a hidden cave entrance. Only 12,000 year young the cave system is still being formed by the rivers that flow through them, nevertheless it's a wonderfully twisted network of sculpted limestone passages with underground waterfalls and whirlpools. A smaller boat takes you through little lakes into grottos filled with thousands of small glow worms dancing in the darkness like a brilliant night sky. This is nothing short of extraordinary!

Glow worms are usually at their best in the warmer months and history has it the local elves and goblins would would collect the new lavae and take them home to warm them by their fires in the winter months to guarantee their glow.  These days local school children make an annual pilgrimage to the caves and do similar keeping the lavae warm in boxes by the woodburner, before returning them, fired up and rearing to glow for the summer.  

Te Anau Wharf

Day 7. The spectacular Doubtful Sound Cruise

Hold onto your trousers, Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound beckon. It's remote so getting there is half the fun. Manapouri is iconic and more than 50 years ago was front page news over protests over hydro electric development.  From here you head over the Wilmot Pass road to Doubtful Sound. Here the Patea Explorer takes you to amazing corners of the sound, where rain forest and waterfalls take over. The wildlife is abundant with dolphins, fur seals and the rare crested penguin making appearances and if you're lucky, you may catch a deer wandering on the hillside.

Day 8. Queenstown and Walter Peak Station Cruise

The 173 km, 107 mile drive to Queenstown will take you about 2 hours 10, so take your time.

Initially you'll retrace your steps before swinging north to Queenstown, where you'll hunker down for a couple of nights. Kingston at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu is a worthy stop, while trip alongside the lake itself is awe inspiring as a myriad of mountain peaks and views open up.  

Queenstown itself is the centre of New Zealand's adventure tourism and your Millennium Hotel accommodation is only minutes from the town's shopping and busy entertainment centre. This evening's cruise on the grand old lady of the lake, vintage steamship TSS Earnslaw will take across the lake to the historic Walter Peak Sheep Station.  The gourmet BBQ dinner is stunning and you'll be happy to walk it off with a short farm tour afterwards. The steam home comes with a sing along by the ships piano.  

Walter Peak Station accessible by steamship

Day 9. Jetboating deep into the mountains 

The jet unit and jetboat was invented by kiwi Bill Hamilton and the Hamilton jet is now a world wide phenomenon. Today's adrenaline rush takes you into the Mt Aspiring National Park from Glenorchy at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. The scenery is breath taking and the ride on the braided streams exhilarating.  Be prepared for your driver to throw in a few spins and special touches to test your inner fortitude ! The area is rich with history, Maori legend and greenstone, while some of the Lord of the Rings movie sets were also around these parts.  

Day 10. The Lake Wanaka Cruise and Island Wildlife walk  

Today's drive is as cruisey as it gets. Only 70 kms, 44 miles, in about 70 minutes

Wanaka is a gorgeous lake side town bristling with outdoor activity.  The views are stunning, the vibe is chilled yet youthful and the amenities top draw.  You're at the Edgewater Lake Wanaka for the night with sweeping views across manicured grounds to the lake. Promise me you'll visit the Wineglass cafe.

Wanaka is just another of our magnificent lakes that basks among raw and rugged mountain scenery. Your cruise today will take in Mou Waho island. This place is a predator free bird sanctuary, home to the eccentric Weka, while the easy climb to the top of the island suggests you're as far from human population as you can be. When you're back among the populous though, there's plenty to enjoy around the waterfront with cafes and bars to right and left of you.   

Day 11. To Franz Josef and Glacier Country

This is one of my favourite drives anywhere in New Zealand. It'll take you 3 hours 40, for the 285 km, 177 mile distance, yet it is breath taking,

After passing through Makarora and leaving the lake area, the road crosses the Haast Pass. Everything round here is Haast this and Haast that, after the German explorer Juilus Von Haast.  Waterfalls plunging off steep mountain sides, huge rivers carving through big valleys and mountain tops as far as the eye can see.  Eventually you're on the wild West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, with the Tasman Sea on your left as you head north to Franz Josef.  

The Fox Glacier township comes first and about half an hour further north over the hill is your accommodation for two further nights, the Scenic Hotel Franz Josef Glacier. This hotel has a wonderful alpine location and within minutes of the popular Franz Josef hot pools.  

Day 12. Kayaking in the Okarito lagoon nature reserve

Here you are right amongst the wild West Coast wilderness. This lagoon and surrounding wetland is very rare and hence its special nature. Your safe, easy to operate kayak will allow you a gentle paddle to see the white heron (kotuku), shags and spoonbills in their natural habitat. Dozens of bird species have been recorded here, including the rarest of our 5 kiwi, the Okarito kiwi, while in the warm summer months tall bronzed skan tili kladd (norkusmaximis), can also be seen frolicking in the shallow waters.  

The views are splendid too, with Mt. Cook and our second highest peak, Mt. Tasman in the distance.   Franz Josef has some lovely restaurants and bars..and helicopters, always on idle in anticipation of a flight to the snow capped tops. For what it's worth I love 'The Landing' bar. It's on the corner with a good menu and service and great for people watching!  

white heron at Okarito Lagoon

Day 13. North to meet the Tranz Alpine Train through to Christchurch

Your drive time today is 2 hours 18, over 107 miles or 173 kms.  

You can afford to cruise a little though be mindful of your afternoon train departure time from Greymouth.  This trip is gripping as the coastal scenery is untamed and ferocious.  Eventually you'll pass the quaint gold mining town of Ross and it's classic kiwi pub, as it gives way to farmland and Hokitika township.  Here the local greenstone or ponamu as we know it in New Zealand, is processed and available for purchase. Though Maori believe, you don't find greenstone, it finds you ! Just along the road from Hokitika greenstone, on the corner, is a most excellent pie shop!  Half an hour away and north along the coast is Greymouth.  

It's here you say goodbye to your car from the last couple of weeks and meet the Tranz Alpine train for the trip through to Christchurch.  If you think this is just a train trip then you're mistaken.  Make sure you're phone is charged and you're the mood for taking pics. The Tranz Alpine is rated as one of the world's great train journeys and for good reason.  The train traverses the South Island from one coast to another in purpose built scenic carriages and bombards you with unbelievable visual experiences. There's an on board commentary too.

You'll work your way through West Coast bush, passing Lake Brunner and the remote valleys of Inchbonnie and the Taramakau river, to Otira and the incredible rail tunnel of the same name.  Digging the tunnel began before WWI and concluded in 1923 and was deemed one of the greatest engineering feats of the time. Relying on dead reckoning, workers began from either end and when they met in the middle, were only a matter of inches out. Today the tunnel is a highlight of the trip and at 8 and half kms long, takes about 20 minutes to negotiate. Now you're on the East Coast side of the South Island, or 'Mainland' as we prefer to call it.

From the village of Arthur's Pass the run is downhill through the Waimakiriri Valley, mountains and onto the Canterbury farming plains. In time you're closing in on Christchurch.  So you're back at the Sudima Christchruch City Hotel.  Now, how are you going to explain this affair to others ? There's no escaping it's been amazing and any attempt to dismiss what's happened here will fail. You'll either sleep well out of exhaustion or not at all, cos you can't stop thinking about what you've been up to.

I suspect a bit of both, meaning you'll be wanting more.. Remember, we're always happy to be complicit in doing just that. Sleep well!  

Day 14. Time to be brave..  

We'll get you to the airport and your onward flight, though I can't say we're that happy about it. You've been stars and we've loved having you and frankly saying goodbye isn't that easy.  Yet go you must, as long as you promise to save your pennies to come back soon. Remember some affairs never die, they just take time off, bon voyage!           

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John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 1 May 2023 (Last updated: 1 May 2023)

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