To help you plan the big 40th birthday party trip, here are my collected thoughts on road tripping around the top of the south island:
First a map showing my two suggested possible routes, and most of the bigger destinations (click to see it in full detail):
The biggest town on the south island, probably where you will fly into. Its most famous for the earthquake and the crusaders.
Its worth stopping here to see the impact of the earthquake on the city, take a drive through the CBD and stare in wonder at the wide empty open spaces – and visit the shipping container shopping centre and other objects of interest. Also take a drive out into the suburbs (head for Avonside Drive), to see what happens when an entire suburb is abandoned to nature!
The other thing that’s worth doing in Christchurch is the International Antarctic experience – its even as cold as the Antarctic inside there!
A lot of people go from Christchurch to Akaroa – a small “french” settlement just outside Christchurch, I havent been there, but people seem to like it.
A delightful spa town – in the NZ style, lots of hot pools and good eating and resting places. If you want to go jetboating while in NZ and you are not getting to Queenstown, this probably is the place to do it. There is also lots of other outdoor pursuits to enjoy in Hanmer, think of it like a scaled down Queenstown.
Between Hanmer and Murchison is a secret set of free hotsprings, called Sylvia Flats, its marked on google maps, if you want to visit them, the hot springs come out of the Boyle River, so you have freezing cold mountain streams and spots of boiling hot water, its a real kiwi experience, just remember to bring mossie repellant!
Also check out the Alpine Fault Wall at Springs Junction (geologists and rock lovers fun).
Maruria Springs thermal resort, is a small japanese style thermal resort tucked at the bottoms of some mind blowing mountains and could make an alternitive overnight stop.
The traditional halfway spot between Nelson and Christchurch, the town is developing as a bit of an outdoor pursuits destination, but otherwise just a place to stop and fill the car, and the family.
Molesworth Station Road
If you are interested in getting off the beaten track, and don’t mind a bit of dust – then this might be the detour for you, this is a dirt road that runs through New Zealands largest farm, from Hanmer to the South of Marlborough, its NZ high country at its finest, and its relatively undiscovered, it is a 2wd drive road, but its no autobahn! Have a look at photos of Molesworth station and you will see the beauty.
Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa.
Two beautiful mountain lakes and accompanying villages, Rotoiti is the more developed as a destination – and the best place for some hiking/tramping/rambling/swimming.
The lakes have walking tracks around them and into the surrounding mountains, from half hour walks to the two day return trip the clearest lake in the world, known as Rotomairewhenua or Blue Lake, its a two-day hike from the park boundary or, for an aerial view, there are scenic flights with Reid Helicopters. Once you get there, you cant actually enter the water, but you can gaze at in wonder, or google it to see how clear it is.
Between Murchison and Lake Rotoiti, is the area where I did most of my tramping with school, known as Matakitaki Valley, if you want to do some challenging hikes through dramatic, isolated, unspoilt scenery, this my top pick. Let me know if you are keen and I will help you out with specific details.
My home town, famous for its sunshine and good food, wine and beer, its a good base for exploring the top of the south island, you should visit the local museum to see how the town was formed, and the Greg Newman memorial rooms etc, also the World of Wearable arts, is a slightly odd museum of strange and eclectic clothing/fashions, that are gathered from an annual competition that was originally held in Nelson. Nelson has some great swimming beaches, in town Tahuna is nice and shallow and good for kids, a bit further out of town, Rabbit Island is another popular swimming destination. In NZ swimming in rivers is just as popular, so in Nelson I would head to one of the many swimming holes in the nearby Maitai Valley.
The best beers is either at Macs on Main Road Stoke, or at Founders Bewery, in the Founders historical park near town.
From Nelson you can visit the many vineyards spread between Nelson and Motueka, there is good food and drink spread all over the hills.
You can also catch a boat over the to the Abel Tasman national park, its a good option if you have limited time, rather than driving over to the park, then catching a boat from Kaiteriteri. Either way, your boat will probably leave from Kaiteri, some do leave from nearby Marahau as well.
The Fresh Choice Supermarket in richmond has the best selection of NZ beer in the country, its worth visiting, just for that reason!
Its a good place to buy pot – but that’s about it. Actually that’s not true, you can charter a plane to fly over the Abel Tasman, its amazing!
Abel Tasman National Park
Catch a boat into the park (from Kaiteri or Marehau) and then walk out – take your swimming trunks, food, and lots of sun block, if you can stay longer, do, even when its busy in the middle of summer, its still not really busy, the beaches are the best in NZ (IMHO).
Kahurangi National Park
I personally think this park is more interesting than the Abel Tasman, if you like the outdoors, this is the dictionary definition of it! Amazing peaks, lush sub tropical greenery, definitely worth at least a day walk – let me know if you want to do it, and I will point you to some tracks.
Takaka and Golden Bay
We spent our early years in Takaka and I think its one of the best parts of NZ, its still relatively untouristy, so it has a real proper kiwi feel – if you know Byron Bay or Kynsna, then you can picture the kind of place.
The bay has loads to do, you could easily spend a week here, from beautiful Golden Sandy beaches, to mountain top hikes, to exploring caves, the famous pupu springs, old gold workings, the massive sand spit, entering the Abel Tasman from the quieter side. There is tons to do. Its a 2.5 hour drive from Nelson, over a very windy road, but that road is right through Lord of Rings scenery, with Harwoods hole (a massive sink hole), one of the many great walks on the Takaka Hill enroute, also look out for Parafanta snails, the massive land snails that inhabit the area (and I mean massive).
Up the Cobb valley, you can get to the edge of the Kahurangi national park, go fossil hunting and see one of the most famous bush huts in NZ, Asbestos Cottage (4 bunks), home of Annie and Henry Chaffey, who lived in the isolated hut right up till the 1950s.
On the very west of Golden Bay, there are more lord of the rings scenery, dramatic beaches and rugged coastline, you can also enter the start of the Heaphy track.
They look like fjords, (but technically they aren’t), but they are very dramatic none the less! Windy roads and beautiful steep hills dropping straight into the water, amazing scenery, plenty of good swimming and fishing, famous mussels (try green lip mussels at the many restaurants that specialise in them stop in Havelock, at the start of the sounds). Everyone has their favourite bit of the sounds, mine is Double Bay in Queen Charlotte sound, a lovely little sandy bay, where you can swim, pick oysters off the rocks for dinner and camp over night (it has a toilet).
Spend a day driving between Havelock and Picton, along the side of the sounds, dropping into little bays for a swim.
Its a great place to go wine tasting – and get into a fight (well maybe that was just my teenage years), no joking its a very boring town, but there is plenty of good wine to be drunk – but a do a bus tour of the vineyards, or ride a bike, don’t ttry drinking and driving – you wont last long!
It only exists because the ferry to the north island stops there, its not worth a stop in its own right.
See you there!
The Blue then Red loop (total distance is 1173km)
Again leaving from Christchurch, then
Arthurs Pass National Park, across to west coast:
One of only four crossing points for the southern alps, beautiful scenery, highlights of this section include Castle Rock limestone formations, cave stream – a one hour expedition through a cave, with a stream, awesome mountain scenery – this section can also be done on the breathtaking Tranz Alpine train, and you can pick up a rental car on the west coast.
Then North on SH6
Check out the Point Elizabeth walk just north of Greymouth. A one-way walk of a few hours, but the person who drives to the far end gets to hang out at an awesome pub on a stunning beach.
This coastline is continuous stunning windswept coast and rugged beaches (and baches), think “The piano” without Harvey Kietel nude.
Check out Barrytown, if you are interested in knife making and greenstone/jade carving lessons
The famous Punakaiki pancake rocks and the Pororari Gorge kayaking.
Then Buller Gorge – takes you back onto SH6 and rejoins the red route south of Murchison
Books to read;
The Bone People by Keri Hulme – won the Booker Prize in 1985, set on the West Coast
The Exiles of Asbestos Cottage by Jim Henderson – about the Chaffeys, living up the Cobb valley.
Outsiders by Gerard Hindmarsh – explores the stories of some real characters living in the remotest parts of NZ
The Plumb Trilogy by Maurice Gee – a big book – but an amazing work of historical fiction