Queenstown has a powerful magnetic pull, and everyone is always in a hurry to get there. But SLOW DOWN! Even locals are inclined to put their foot hard on the accelerator to get there in record time. However it’s well worth dawdling as some of the country’s finest attractions are sitting waiting for you on the side of the road that you'd miss if you go too fast.
Make sure you stop in the Mackenzie Country, one of the most used film, ad and doco locations in New Zealand and take in the epic scenery. And go on, take a selfie too.
After the devastating earthquake, Christchurch is being rebuilt and the emerging, greener city is bursting with creativity. Colourful street art, engaging installations and sculptures are everywhere in the CBD. Wander around Hagley Park, especially pretty in spring, visit the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, or punt down the Avon River. Christchurch is also known as the gateway to Antarctica, so head to the International Antarctic Centre, to explore life and the wildlife of that icy continent, before setting off on your own expedition, destination Queenstown.
Set off as early in the morning as you possibly can and stop at the Dunsandel Store just half an hour’s drive from Christchurch airport. It’s a great spot for breakfast, their own delicious apple juice is on sale and the coffee will have you wide awake for the trip, which is important as there’s loads to see.
This part of the South Island has huge quantities of molten ice and snow pouring off the Southern Alps, and the first braided river you cross is the Rakaia. It is full of big, fat salmon and if the real thing weren’t enough, Rakaia even has a massive statue of a leaping salmon - sure to lure the keen angler!
If it’s a beautiful day, don’t miss the Ashburton Domain - huge old trees and a great park to wander around in in every season if you feel like stretching your legs (or even running, if you’re that way inclined!) Try and keep an eye out for Orari Bridge. Everyone but the driver should play the favourite game of holding your breath from the minute you drive onto this bumpy bridge till the minute you get back on the highway.
Turn off the State Highway 1 at Rangitata and arrive in Geraldine. There really is so much to do in this area that if you can spare the time, a night at Peel Forest Lodge is a real treat. And if you are lucky enough to be there in late December, Mt Peel Station often holds open days for visitors to see the giant cardiocrinum lilies that only flower at this time of the year and tower above you.
Geraldine is a gentle, provincial town with pretty trees and a laidback feel. A lot of growing goes on here and the cafes are full of local produce. Verde Cafe Deli is a local favourite with a big list of vegetarian options - carnivores are kept happy too though - and those with a sweet tooth should head for the passionfruit scones and ginger slice. They have a lovely garden to sit in on fine days, or an open fire for the chillier ones.
The drive from Geraldine over the hill to Fairlie is wiggly and windy and very scenic. It’s farming country so don’t be surprised to round a corner and find a thousand sheep bleating and baa-ing and taking up the road as they move paddocks. Fairlie’s fairly famous for its pies. The Fairlie Bakehouse is where they bake all sorts of things but it’s impossible to go past the Lieber pies. Don’t say you haven’t been warned. Whether you choose the butter chicken or the pork belly, or any of the myriad others, you may well find yourself having to backtrack to Fairlie just to have another one. Luckily, they are kind enough to let other cafes in the south of the South Island stock their pies, so keep an eye out for them.
The view gets bigger and bigger and more dramatic the further south you go. Whatever the season, winter with it’s crispy, pavlova white snow covered mountains, or brilliant ribbons of bright coloured lupins flowering along the roadsides in summer (actually, they are weeds, but no less beautiful for that), be prepared to be stopping every five minutes to take just one more photo.
By the time lovely Lake Tekapo comes into view, you may well need to stop at the shop and buy a new memory card. In fact you may find you need to buy a room for the night. It’s a World Heritage site for the night sky - no light pollution means brilliant stargazing. You can sit outside the incredibly pretty Church of the Good Shepherd and ooh and aah at nature’s spectacular light show.
If the weather isn’t kind to you in Tekapo, don’t forget you can have another go at stargazing at Mt Cook. This is New Zealand’s highest mountain - all 3754 metres of it (sadly a bit bit fell off a few years ago, and it got a little smaller). No wise visitor would miss driving up there and seeing it for themselves.
There’s accommodation at every price level at Mount Cook but if you can possibly afford it, a room at The Hermitage with a view of the mountain is terrific. Leave the curtains open and wake up with Mt Cook practically in bed with you. The buffet restaurant is a massive hit with starving travellers - teenage boys go crazy stacking their plates with mountains of steak, fish and ham and then demolishing dozens of desserts. More normal eaters will enjoy the soups and salads as well.
Do make a reservation for the Glacier Explorers trip - it’s a shocking example of climate change in action. A bus takes visitors down to a lake that only started life thirty years ago as the mighty Tasman Glacier began melting. As the terminal face started to disappear, the lake grew and grew - it’s now over 7 kilometres long and tiny rubber boats take you close to the creaking, groaning ice mass where you can see and hear colossal slabs of ice come crashing down into the lake. Utterly fascinating and frightening but very beautiful - the huge icebergs take two years to float to the far end slowly turning into glossy, glassy, floating sculptures and finally they shrink to tiny diamonds in the water. See how long you can hold your hand in the lake - we’re guessing ten seconds tops.
One night may not be enough at Mt Cook - there are oodles of hikes and tours for all levels of ability, and inside activities are excellent. Visit the museum and 3D cinema at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, access through the Hermitage hotel. The cinema shows a great film on Sir Edmund Hillary, New Zealand’s HIGHEST achiever, and the planetarium explains the universe so well that we even understood black holes for the first time.