If there are two things New Zealand isn’t short on, its activities and beautiful scenery.
It’s a country that rewards a love of the great outdoors and a willingness to try new experiences. And the drive from Marlborough in the north, along the Southern Alps to Queenstown, before doglegging down to Dunedin in the south, is a mighty fine highlights reel for time-pressed visitors.
The Marlborough region is best known for its wines – the area around Blenheim is a patchwork of vineyards growing world-class Sauvignon Blanc. Villa Maria is one of New Zealand’s flagship wineries; the pineapple, summery tang of its Gateway Sauvignon Blanc shows exactly why the region has become internationally famous for the varietals.
For spellbinding scenery, however, Marlborough is best seen from the water rather than the land. The craggy Marlborough Sounds offer just under 1,000 miles of fjord-like coastline, and one water safari company here has struck on the novel concept of sending groups out around the Sounds in a convoy of tiny two-seater boats so they can see the breath-taking beauty up close.
Looking up at the forested headlands – green arms flailing their way into the brilliant blue waters – my guide makes a pensive point. “Some of the taller trees have been growing here for over a thousand years,” guides will tell you. “They’ve stood throughout the entire human history of New Zealand – they were here before even the Maori arrived.”
Heading south through New Zealand, such simple joys become a recurring theme. The country doesn’t seem to have a single dull road. Every few minutes behind the wheel brings me a clifftop view of migrating whales, a strangely metallic blue lake or an imperious mountain on the horizon.
Never is this more true than when staring out at the Alps. From the shore of the glacial Lake Pukaki, three peaks jut out through thin, wispy, ethereal air; Mount Tasman, Mount La Perouse and the tallest in New Zealand – Mount Cook.
The latter was the training ground for Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to scale Everest. Without considerable mountaineering experience, the best way to get close is on a helicopter flight. But the greener option is to amble along the walking trails through the blissfully serene foothills before returning to the Hermitage Hotel in Mount Cook Village.
The hotel is home to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, possibly the most fascinating museum in the country. It tells the tale of Hillary’s remarkable life and exploits – which included jet boating down the River Ganges and being part of the first expedition to cross Antarctica via the South Pole.
The journey down to Queenstown isn’t quite as headline-grabbing, but it’s wonderfully dramatic.
Dry tussock grass gives a golden hue to the large sheep stations that dominate the countryside on the way to the Lindis Pass, which at 3,185 ft above sea level is the highest point on the island’s highway. At the other end is New Zealand’s fruit basket – the Central Otago region. Baskets of peaches and apples pile up at the side of the road, but increasingly the most important fruit is the grape.
Central Otago is the world’s most southerly wine region, and by necessity has to concentrate on cool climate varietals. Pinot noir lovers, however, are in luck – the region is producing some of the best pinots in the world at the moment. For wine lovers, there are many tours that can take them to a good selection of wineries, some notable for their hillside views, some for the food, others for their homeliness and character.
No matter which one you try, the passion for wine making in the area shines through. The owner of the small Bannock Brae winery, says the secret is knowing when not to meddle. “If you want a great pinot, hire the laziest winemaker you can find – you should never try and do too much with pinot grapes.”
There are plenty of places to drink the local wines in Queenstown, the hugely popular resort town that acts as the region’s hub. Natural beauty – the lakeside setting and encircling mountains – is just part of the appeal here. Queenstown was the first place in the world to offer bungee jumping, while skydiving, jet boating through canyons and white-water rafting are among the other hair-raising options.
Of course this is just a taste of what the drive has to offer, but enough to whet your appetite for exploring all that New Zealand is.