Off the Beaten Track: New Zealand’s South Island

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Welcome to the first in an irregular series featuring people, places and experiences that are off the beaten backpacker and tourist trails. Today’s post showcases a few of these hidden gems from my old back yard, the South Island of New Zealand.

I hope you get the chance to enjoy them – but don’t tell the locals I sent you, they might well prefer to keep these places to themselves!

Around the Marlborough Sounds

The bays and coves of the Marlborough Sounds in the northeast of the island are glimpsed by thousands of travellers who utilise the inter-island ferries between Picton and Wellington each year, but explored by relatively few.

With some of the best weather in the country, dozens of empty beaches and trails, accommodation ranging from cheap campsites and hostels to luxury lodges (with price tags to match), and gorgeous views around every corner, it’s easy to spend several days in the area – especially if you have your own car or dirt bike.

If you’re feeling energetic, the best way to see the ‘sounds’ is to leave the motorised transport behind and travel under your own steam. Sea kayaks can be hired from a multitude of companies, and group kayaking tours are also popular. The 71km Queen Charlotte Track can be hiked in four or five days, and outside peak times, the entire length can be travelled by mountain bike as well. Bike hire and backpack transfer services are available.

It’s a beautiful spot and surprisingly under-touristed. Get there before everyone else finds out about it!

Molesworth Station

For a taste of the New Zealand high country, take a trip through Molesworth Station, the largest farm in the country. Owned and operated by the Crown, public access is permitted during the summer months to the two unsealed routes that run through the station from Hanmer Springs to St Arnaud, via a partial toll road in one direction, and ultimately to Blenheim in the other.

This rugged landscape climbs from 550m above sea level to over 2000m, and contains both the highest point on a public NZ road (Island Saddle, 1347m), and the highest homestead occupied year-round (900m). You’ll need to take things slowly, and check your insurance policy if you’re driving a rental car -– the roads are narrow, winding and unsealed, unsuitable for large vehicles and only open during daylight hours.

Lakes Sedgemere and Tennyson are both great spots to stop for a picnic lunch and a toilet break, with several protected species of flora and fauna in the area.

Day hikes and longer mountain bike trips are also possible with basic hut accommodation along the route, as is a 200+ km rafting trip (run by various adventure tourism companies), horse trekking, and hunting and fishing. The ultimate attraction of Molesworth, though, is the isolation and seeing nature at work in the craggy hills and valleys carved out by ice-age glaciers.

Ghosts and Gold in St Bathans

Blue Lake, St Bathans

The old buildings in tiny St Bathans (population: very few) in Central Otago serve as reminders of the gold rush days of 1860s, when thousands of hopefuls descended on the region seeking their fortune. Declining almost as quickly as it rose to prominence, the town has changed little in 150 years, and would today be just another historical oddity if it weren’t for two notable features: the Blue Lake, and the haunted Vulcan Hotel.

The lake was originally the 120m high Kildare Hill, until vigorous mining activities levelled the land.  There was no stopping there, however, and commercial mining didn’t finish until the former hill was a hole in the ground nearly 70m deep that threatened to undermine the entire township. Natural drainage from the surrounding hills soon filled the hole, creating a scenic, brightly-coloured lake ideal for kayaking, wakeboarding, and cooling off during the hot Otago summers.

It’s pretty hard to miss the Vulcan Hotel. Chances are it’ll be the only building with anybody in it as you wander up the main, and only, street. It’s the perfect place to have a cold beer and to enjoy the company of the locals, including an infamous ghost reputed to haunt one of the rooms. A kettle that boils itself, mysterious shadows and bumps in the night, sudden chills — if you choose to spend the night in room one, there’s a good chance it’ll be a night you’ll never forget…

Banks Peninsula

Check out any map of New Zealand. See that blob that sticks out in the middle of the South Island? That’s Banks Peninsula, and it’s one of those spots that despite being so close to a major city (Christchurch) seems to get very little in the way of tourist traffic. If you take the road to Akaroa — the biggest town on the peninsula — out of the equation, you could probably count the number of rental cars and campervans you’d see on one hand, even in the height of summer. It’s a well-kept secret, that’s for sure.

The little-known French heritage of this part of the country is reflected in the names of some of the bays and villages — Le Bons Bay, Duvauchelle and French Farm — as well as the buildings and streets of Akaroa, while Maori placenames such as Wainui and Takamatua remind of its importance to the local Ngai Tahu people.

For a quick side trip from Christchurch, take Dyers Pass Road up and over the Port Hills, then follow the curves of Lyttelton Harbour as the road winds around through several small townships as far as Diamond Harbour and Purau before the tarmac runs out. There’s no better spot on a sunny day than the pub at Godley Head, where you can enjoy a meal and a couple of cold ones on the lawn that slopes all the way down to the water.

If you’d prefer a longer break, spend the weekend in the boutiques and galleries of Akaroa, but make sure you explore plenty of the surrounding area as well. Pack a good map and drive carefully, as many of the very best bits of Banks Peninsula (Le Bons and Okains Bays, among others) tend to be reachable only via unsealed roads.

The Catlins

For some reason the Catlins region on the south-eastern coast never seems to rate much of a mention in the ‘must see’ lists of New Zealand. Why not? I have absolutely no idea.

It seems most visitors make it as far as Dunedin, then hightail it for Queenstown and Milford Sound and miss the Catlins entirely, which is a crying shame. This place has it all: dense rainforests, windswept beaches, seal and penguin colonies,  caves. waterfalls… there’s even a few people around as well. Not many, though, and even fewer of them are tourists.

Despite that, there are enough eating, drinking and sleeping options in the area to allow for a leisurely couple of days spent exploring, though it’d be a good idea to book ahead, especially in summer.

Highlights include Nugget Point, Cathedral Caves, and Purakaunui Falls, as well as the many bush and beach walks. Like most places away from the main centres, you’ll need a car to make the most of the Catlins — public transport options are extremely limited.

These are a few of the many hidden gems in the South Island of New Zealand. Got some more? Add them below!

11 Responses to “Off the Beaten Track: New Zealand’s South Island

  • The Catlins, Banks Peninsula, and Marlborough Sounds were 3 of my tops spots in all of NZ. Too bad I missed the other two.

  • Excellent post and beautiful pictures. I’ve spent almost five months here, and these are some places I’ve yet to see. They’re definitely on my list.

    I believe the Bank’s Penn is a good place to swim with dolphins if you want to get away from the crowds of the Bay of Islands or Kaikora.

  • Thanks Matt! And yup, you can see and swim with Hectors dolphins (the world’s smallest) in Akaroa Harbour. Make sure the tour company has good wetsuits tho, it’ll be getting pretty cold in the harbour this time of year!

  • The Catlins is possibly my favorite part of the South Island. It’s just so gorgeous, quiet, and natural. The day I drove nearly the whole Southern Scenic Route with friends, the weather was perfect, and it seemed like there was an amazing landscape around every corner.

    And hiking part of the Queen Charlotte Track in Marlborough Sound (and then going dolphin-watching there) was another of my favorite things I did in NZ.

  • Thanks for sharing your insider tips on the South Island. I’ve been up and down the country a few times,but I had never heard of Molesworth Station. I absolutely agree with you on the Catlins, the Marlborough Sounds and Banks Peninsula. I was devastated by the news of the earthquake as I have quite a few friends in the area. They’re all safe, but what a tragedy. Poor Lyttelton and Christchurch, with the recent events they’ll also struggle long-term with visitor numbers, which is such an important part of the local economy. I hope your family and friends are fine.

  • I’m always a fan of being “off the beaten path”. No matter the destination!

  • haven’t been to NZ at all, but there are definitely great reasons here for getting there soon 🙂

  • Good suggestions! Have this bookmarked for March/April of next year!

  • What do you mean, irregular series?! 😉

  • Thanks for the suggestions. Visiting from the US and looking for non touristy places. Cheers!

  • Banks Peninusla is one of my favs! Okains Bay is our favourite beach

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