If you’re following my route from the North Island, you’ll arrive at Picton on the ferry and continue heading south.
After a brief stop at one or more of the vineyards around Blenheim (The Brancott Estate was nice, but felt a bit posh for us – we preferred the Jackson Estate and – more casual yet – Allan Scott), head to Nelson. It’s a cool town with some great places for beer, including the Craft Beer Depot and The Free House – a converted church, very much to my liking!
From there, westwards to Abel Tasman National Park. This is a relatively unusual national park for NZ, as it’s less about the mountains and more about the beaches and sea. You can hire sea-kayaks, take a boat trip, or just take a walk along the coastline path, possibly using a boat to get there and / or back.
Further south, and you’ll reach Nelson Lake’s national park, confusingly not particularly close to the town of Nelson. There are some huge lakes that you can take in from the roadside, but you will be missing out if you don’t take the overnight hike to Angelus hut.
From here, you have a long old drive down the west coast, with not a lot of people or sights along the way. There are some not-too-exciting glow worm caves in Hokitika, and two major glaciers, Franz Joseph and Fox, further south. Some people rave about these, but we were unimpressed. The standard trail stops several miles (perhaps slight exaggeration!) away from the glaciers, so you can’t see a great deal. You can pay your dollars for an (admittedly reasonable value) helicopter flight onto the glaciers themselves but my advice would be that if you want to see glaciers, come visit us in the Alps and you’ll get a lot closer for a lot less money!
Onwards to Wanaka, where you should visit Rachel Sidda, (if you know her!) chill out by the lake, and climb either Roy’s or Isthmus Peak – both offer spectacular views of lakes and mountains. Next, Queenstown: probably the most trendy place in New Zealand, with lots of cool restaurants and bars; you must take part in the obligatory huge queue outside Fergburger. From here, an optional trip along the lake leads you to Genorchy and the trailhead of the Routeburn Track – I’m not usually a fan of there-and-back walks, but this one was well worth the trudge of the first 5-10km.
From here, it’s a long drive round to Milford Sound, so many people take a day trip by bus. As a spectacular must-visit destination, it’s a bit of a shame to only spend a few hours there, but it’s not easy or cheap to stay in Milford Sound itself, so the bus is probably the best option. We extended our time in the valley by walking the Greenstone-Caples track, but still only spent one day in Milford Sound itself.
Your journey is nearly at an end and, to be honest, you’ve left the best bits of New Zealand behind. Round off your trip with a drive over to Dunedin, which felt like one of the more normal towns, and then up the coast, possibly via Penguin spotting in Oamaru or Timaru. If you need one last dose of mountains, pop inland to the innovatively-named Mount Cook Village. Apparently this place is mostly covered in cloud, but if you show up on a clear day, you’ll get some spectacular views of New Zealand’s highest mountain – a great way to end your trip.
Finally to Christchurch, where you’ll inevitably partake in a bit of disaster-tourism as you check out the ruins from the 2011 earthquake – yes, many buildings still haven’t been fully repaired. From here, you’ll fly back to the real world. Many months later, it may feel like a surreal dream. Do people actually live permanently in this beautiful, isolated land?