New Zealand's South Island: Scouting out the sublime

Aided by an instructor, a paraglider soars over the southern resort city of Queenstown, soaking in views of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountain range.
Aided by an instructor, a paraglider soars over the southern resort city of Queenstown, soaking in views of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountain range.

A pod of frolicking dolphins heralded our arrival at New Zealand’s wild and wonderful South Island.

My husband Chris and I spotted them splashing in the waves from the sunlit deck of a ferry crossing the Cook Strait.

As we drifted past islands, inlets and the occasional oyster farm, we were struck by the immediate contrast between the North Island, a land of rolling pastures, thick forests and teeming cities, and its less populous counterpart. The South Island seemed less tame, less predictable.

With that in mind, we embarked on the second half of our trip to the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Street art and sunshine

Three hours after leaving the North Island city of Wellington, we arrived at the tiny port town of Picton, gateway to the winery-rich Wairau Valley.

We spent our first night on the South Island in Nelson, a cute university town with views of the mountains and the ocean.

Our visit coincided with the final days of a street art exhibit at Founders Heritage Park, which re-creates turnof-the-century village life. “Oi You!” featured works by the likes of British artist Banksy and the Brooklyn-based Faile art collective.

The next day we drove 90 minutes to Abel Tasman National Park, named after the Dutch navigator whose expedition first sighted New Zealand in 1642.

At just under 55,700 acres, Abel Tasman is New Zealand’s smallest national park, but arguably its most precious.

Like thousands of hikers and kayakers before us, we immediately fell in love with the beauty of its sun-drenched shores: green woods, golden quartzsand beaches and turquoise waters under bright blue skies. Pale seashells littered the shoals, while rocky mudflats served as a message board of sorts.

Hawaii or Hokitika?

Traveling south, we reached Paparoa National Park — home of the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes — around sunset. Surrounded by green hills and blue waves, we could have been in Hawaii, but for the towering stacks of limestone shaped like ancient ruins.

Continuing down the west coast to the Southern Alps, we stopped in Hokitika, a popular destination for fans of the native jade known as greenstone or pounamu.

After picking up some exquisitely carved jewelry, we visited the National Kiwi Centre to catch a glimpse of New Zealand’s most famous fowl. Because kiwis are nocturnal, it’s difficult to spot the fuzzy, flightless, chicken-sized birds in the wild.

The small, somewhat dingy center houses a number of native animals, including whitefish, weta (large, flightless cricketlike insects) and New Zealand longfin eels.

I helped our guide feed bits of ox heart to the large eels — their needlelike teeth rasping on the tips of my metal tongs.

On the glacier

Chris and I arrived in Franz Josef just in time for our half-day glacier hike. After suiting up in hiking boots, crampons, over-trousers and raincoats, we and the rest of our group — led by Franz Josef Glacier Guides — took a short bus ride to the base of the 7.5-milelong glacier, located less than 980 feet above sea level.

We walked across a schist-strewn riverbed and up a steep gravel slope before taking our first steps on the surprisingly grubby ice. (The glacier picks up earth and rocks as it travels.) Despite the dirt, the glacier’s blue beauty was evident as we stomped up snowy staircases and filed through slick crevices, bracing ourselves with guide ropes.

We also encountered a stout green kea, the world’s only alpine parrot.

The next day, Chris and I headed south of Fox Glacier and its lush rainforests, traveling past snow-capped mountains, grassy meadows and sparkling blue lakes to reach that spectacularly scenic resort city, Queenstown.

Located on the northeast shore of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown takes its reputation as New Zealand’s adventure capitol seriously. Adventure seekers flock here to ski, sky dive, jet boat and bungee jump.

No visit to Queenstown would be complete without a trip to the top of Bob’s Peak, which offers stunning views of the Remarkables mountain range. (The Central Otago region is also known for its gold mines, fruit orchards and wineries.) We chose to hike up the 1,476-foot hill, but other travelers may prefer the less strenuous Skyline Gondola.

Dunedin, a truly Scottish city

From there, it was roughly a six-hour drive southeast to Dunedin, a port city with close ties to Edinburgh. With its severe, stately buildings, the city reminded me of my own travels in the Scottish capitol.

Chris and I spent most of our time near the Octagon, a ring of restaurants, shops and local landmarks such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Municipal Chambers and the Civic Centre.

We also toured the Dunedin Railway Station, which boasts Renaissance-style architecture and ornate tile, stained glass and wrought iron.

Those looking for a tastier experience can tour the Cadbury chocolate factory, as I did, or sample beer at Speights Brewery.

On our way up the South Island’s east coast, we stopped at the Moeraki Boulders Scenic Reserve, where the mysterious rock formations known as the Giant’s Marbles dot the beach.

We also visited the quaint Victorian village of Oamaru, which some counterculture enthusiasts have dubbed “Steampunk HQ,” and the nearby Blue Penguin Colony.

Christchurch in recovery

Our South Island journey ended on a bittersweet note in Christchurch, which has been buffeted by a series of devastating earthquakes.

A 7.1-magnitude quake in September 2010, followed by a 6.3-magnitude temblor in February 2011 and several aftershocks, has left much of New Zealand’s second-most populous city in ruins. (Insurance claims could reach $12 billion, making this New Zealand’s costliest natural disaster ever.)

Although the city center, which includes the heavily damaged ChristChurch Cathedral, remains closed due to reconstruction, we were able to explore the tranquil Botanic Gardens that inspired Christchurch’s nickname, Garden City. Founded in 1863 on the gently meandering banks of the Avon River, the gardens featured flowerdappled meadows, manicured rose beds and an elaborate cast-iron fountain.

We also visited the Can terbury Museum, an impressive Gothic-style building that houses Maori artifacts, Asian art and a reproduction of a 19th-century Christchurch street.

Although we would have liked to explore more of Christchurch, we understood the city’s need for recovery. We kept spotting signs and tote bags printed with that stiff-upper-lip slogan first used during World War II, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Given this island nation’s natural pluck and determination, that sentiment felt only fitting. We can’t wait to return to a rebuilt New Zealand.

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