Driving New Zealand's South Island

Driving New Zealand's South Island

Courtesy of Matakauri Lodge
Courtesy of Matakauri Lodge
A drive on New Zealand’s South Island—with its Lord of the Rings landscapes, superb local wines, and glass-and-timber lodges—is like a visit to another, more perfect world.

Days 1–2: Queenstown

November is the ideal time for a springtime tour of the South Island’s secluded fjords, wild seascapes, and remote luxury lodges. Begin in Queenstown, New Zealand’s premier year-round alpine resort, a kind of antipodean Aspen. From the airport, head into town by following the shore of Lake Wakatipu and snare the lakeside window table at the glamorous Eichardt’s Private Hotel (lunch for two $58); the seafood chowder makes for a superb lunch. After shopping for merino wool sweaters in Queenstown’s compact, lively center, drive 10 minutes along Lake Esplanade to Matakauri Lodge (doubles from $1,010, including dinner), your lakeside retreat for the next two nights. Matakauri—the newest sibling to the North Island’s Kauri Cliffs and the Farm at Cape Kidnappers lodges—has 11 spacious, light-filled suites with panoramic views of the lake and Cecil Peak, whose 5,028-foot summit is often obscured by wispy clouds. Dinner at the lodge is cooked by head chef Dale Gartland, who uses exquisitely fresh local produce: green-lipped mussels; Southland beef; organic vegetables. Stretch your legs here for another day, allowing time for a lake cruise on the Earnslaw, a 98-year-old steamer, or a half day of white-water rafting on the Shotover River, with Real Journeys (lake cruises from $34; rafting trips from $130).

Day 3: Queenstown to Te Anau (110 miles)

After a final alfresco breakfast on Matakauri’s terrace—basking in the views of the aptly named Remarkables Mountains—drive back into Queenstown and hug Lake Wakatipu as it veers south. The road will lead you past farming communities such as Mossburn, New Zealand’s “deer capital” and a source of much of the venison you’ll find on your plate, before reaching Te Anau. This is the start of the Southern Scenic Route (southernscenicroute.co.nz), one of New Zealand’s greatest, though least-known, drives, traversing a sparsely populated wonderland of forests, lakes, waterfalls, and wild coastlines. Fjords figure here, too; New Zealand is one of a handful of places blessed with the narrow inlets. Check in to the rustic-modern Fiordland Lodge (doubles from $520), owned by a veteran park ranger and designed to take advantage of the views. A three-course dinner is included in the rate.

Day 4 : Te Anau–Manapouri Loop (26 miles)

Milford Sound, New Zealand’s most famous fjord, is magnificent, but savvy Kiwis favor Doubtful Sound, which is both larger and less touristy. Real Journeys (cruises from $184) operates a daylong excursion to Doubtful Sound that starts in Manapouri, about 25 minutes from the lodge. You’ll take a one-hour boat ride across Lake Manapouri, then get on a bus to cross 2,200-foot Wilmot Pass before glimpsing Doubtful Sound glittering below. Once aboard the Breaksea Girl—a 20-passenger ketch small enough to get close to the waterfalls—look out for fur seals, bottlenose dolphins, and penguins. The day ends with an astronomy session back at Fiordland Lodge: with no major cities for at least 100 miles, the stargazing here is unparalleled.

Day 5: Te Anau to Otago Peninsula (185 miles)

Have the lodge pack you a lunch: on today’s drive, the gourmet opportunities are limited to gas station cafés and the odd fish-and-chips shop. It is worth pausing at seaside Orepuki, about a 1 1/2-hour drive south of Te Anau, where southern right whales can sometimes be spotted. Push on another 30 minutes to Riverton, established by whalers in the 1830’s and now a busy fishing village, to find a spot on the beach for your picnic. From there, bypass the unremarkable city of Invercargill and head east directly to the Catlins, a rugged region of waterfalls, blowholes, and petrified forests from the Jurassic era—beyond this remotest of Pacific shores, the next landfall is in Antarctica. The Southern Scenic Route ends in Dunedin, a Scottish-influenced college town, but you’re heading about 30 minutes further to the Otago Peninsula, where the scenery is untamed and the wildlife abundant. You’ll reach Kaimata Retreat (doubles from $320), a remote, timber-clad lodge, via a series of gravel roads. Toast the long drive with a bottle of outstanding Central Otago Pinot Noir and chill out on the deck overlooking the inlet and the sheep ranch that clings to the precipitous, pea-green hillside across the way.

Day 6: Otago Peninsula to Queenstown (185 miles)

The tip of the Otago Peninsula is home to the Westpac Royal Albatross Centre (tours from $32), the world’s only mainland breeding colony for the formidable birds, which can live longer than 60 years and have a wingspan of 10 feet or more. Afterward, follow Portobello Road back into Dunedin and to the Octagon, its appealing central plaza—that’s a statue of Robert Burns in front of the cathedral. Grab a quick lunch at the hip Mash Café (lunch for two $23), located under the eaves of the historic Regent Theatre. From here, Queenstown is a leisurely four-hour drive via routes 8 and 6 through the interior of the South Island, passing farms and former gold fields. The Dairy Private Luxury Hotel (doubles from $335) is an unpretentious boutique property and the perfect spot to end your trip (“dairy” is Kiwi for “convenience store,” by the way). From there, the plush and amiable Botswana Butchery (dinner for two $100), one of Queenstown’s hottest tables, is an easy walk for dinner. Dishes include a range of superior steaks, venison, and lamb, as well as seafood dishes—such as Antarctic sea bass with bouillabaisse sauce—direct from the pristine waters you’ve just been admiring.

Anthony Dennis is T+L’s Australia and New Zealand correspondent.

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