If you’ve visited the South Island of New Zealand once before, it’s easy to think you’ve seen it all. It takes no more than one visit to understand and appreciate how overwhelming the beauty is on this island. But the depth is far and wide!
The Southern Scenic Route, a spectacular road journey that encompasses the southern regions of New Zealand’s South Island, is an unforgettable experience. It’s a showcase of some of New Zealand’s greatest natural and cultural attractions including Queenstown, Milford Sound, the world-famous wine region of Central Otago and endless experiences of wildlife, history, tastes and active pursuits.
Stop for bites along the Starlight Highway
What's a road trip without a snack stop? Two and a half hours southwest of Christchurch are the incomparable pies of Fairlie Bakehouse, whose inventive pieces of pastry perfection include smoked chicken with mushroom, pork belly with apple sauce and crackling, bacon and salmon, and creamy hearty vegetable. And there are cronuts and cheesecake brownies to follow.
Continue down the road to feast on a visual feast. A few minutes along the Starlight Highway - named to acknowledge the region's status as an International Dark Sky Reserve - stands the Garage Art Gallery in the rural settlement of Kimbell. This gallery showcases high end art and investment paintings, with something for everyone. A few minutes further on again, the Heritage Walk in the tiny township of Burkes Pass celebrates the area's colourful pioneer past.
Ride the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail
Halfway between Christchurch and Queenstown, State Highway 8 crosses the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, the longest (310km) trail in the New Zealand Cycle Trail / Nga Haerenga network. It’s the perfect way to explore the landscapes of the Aoraki/Mount Cook Mackenzie region. A variety of access points, easy off-road cycling conditions and abundant points of interest make sections of the trail here very family-friendly and the scenery – deep blue glacial lakes, snowy peaks and wide, golden tussock flats – is sublime.
Surf the aerial waves at Oamarama
The dramatic geography of the New Zealand's Southern Alps creates ideal flying conditions for gliders, and while the small Mackenzie Country township of Omarama (pop. 267) looks unassuming it's a top-ranked destination for mountain soaring and a past venue for the World Gliding Championships. At Glide Omarama, highly experienced and qualified flying instructors can take you on a spectacular aerial journey through the Southern Alps in modern, high-performance sailplanes. It's a unique form of "surfing," 100km inland.
Vistas and vines at the Lazy Dog
Wine aficionados say you need at least three or four days to explore the world-famouswine region of Central Otago. At the Lazy Dog Restaurant and Cellar Door 15 minutes north of the town of Cromwell, you can learn about the local wines in a fraction of the time. An informal tasting room for smaller wine labels from newcomers to well established, the Lazy Dog showcases varieties from pinot noir to dessert wine. Take in the view from the Lazy Dog's terrace of the snow-capped peaks of the Dunstan Range and absorb vistas as outstanding as the quality of their wine.
Chill out at Queenstown's onsen
Queenstown may be the world capital of adventure tourism, but you can find the perfect counterbalance at the Onsen Hot Pools Retreat & Day Spa experience in Arthur's Point. Set high on a cliffside overlooking the Shotover River Canyon, the onsen offers luxurious private cedar-tub pools filled with hot spring water, and pampering add-ons including aromatherapy, massage and a complimentary glass of bubbly. Retractable picture windows convert your private room from indoor to outdoor at the touch of a button.
Connect with the high country in Garston
Any visitor would be remiss to overlook the rural areas of Garston, Athol, and Five Rivers on State Highway 6 south of Queenstown. Along with the towns of Mossburn and Lumsden a little further on, these places are heirs to a rich pastoral history and Garston's Art Deco-era pub is both a base for some of the South Island's best trout fishing in the nearby Mataura Rover and a waypoint on the seasonal Around the Mountains Cycle Trail. At nearby Welcome Rock Trails at Blackmore Station you can follow a 27-kilometre cross-country bike and hiking trail through classic high-country New Zealand landscapes and stay overnight in historic back-country huts.
Stay in Te Anau
Travellers to and from Milford Sound often wish they could spend more time in the Fiordland gateway town of Te Anau. The adjacent lake of the same name – the largest in the South Island and second largest in New Zealand – offers a wealth of activities including a scenic boat cruise complete with champagne and canapés on Faith, an historic 19.7m wooden motor sailer; jetboating; visits to glow worm caves and world-class fly fishing and trolling for rainbow and brown trout. Local walking and biking routes include the scenic Lake2Lake trail between Te Anau and Lake Manapouri which is rated Grade 2 Easy and is wide enough for bikes and pushchairs. Plentiful restaurants in Te Anau offer delicious local fare like venison, lobster and seafood.
Cruise late at Milford Sound
There is no substitute for seeing the imposing cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and mesmerised wildlife of Milford Sound up close from the water. Cruises depart from the visitor terminal wharf throughout the day to view the fiord in its ever-changing guises. In-the-know locals say that cruises later in the afternoon are less crowded and effectively have the fiord to themselves. If you are travelling back to Te Anau or beyond, Fiordland's long summer daylight hours (it is light till around 10.00pm!) allow you to enjoy dinner before the drive.
Visit the "Riviera of the South"
Known affectionately as the Riviera of the South, the seaside town of Riverton / Aparima (pop.1,431), 20 minutes northwest of Invercargill on Highway 99, has a lively mix of quirky shops, cafes and art galleries as well as a craft trail of artists’ studios. Good nearby beaches also make it popular with surfers, swimmers, kayakers and families. Historic town Riverton has several heritage-listed heritage buildings whose stories, along with the history of the southern coast, are told in the interactive displays at Te Hikoi Southern Journey museum in Palmerston Street.
Visit Curio Bay (Tumu Toka) Curioscape
Few places offer more scenic, wildlife and recreational values in one small area than Curio Bay (Tumu Toka) in the Catlins region of southwest Southland. Home to one of the world's most extensive and undisturbed Jurassic-era fossilised forests, rare yellow-eyed penguins, native New Zealand dolphins and seals and southern right whales, Curio Bay now has Curioscape, a newly opened, world-class interpretive centre that tells the stories of the area's wildlife, people and history. Interactive displays, an immersive theatre experience, delicious food and wine and sites for tents, campervans and caravans make Curioscape an essential stop.