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How New Zealand’s South Island Stole My Heart

Published 08 August 2016

Angela Griffin

Angela Griffin

Things don’t always turn out the way you plan, and holidays are no exception. With a month in New Zealand, my boyfriend David and I had intended to spend two weeks in the South Island and two weeks in the North. But we hadn’t banked on the South Island’s epic Lord of the Rings landscapes and vast night skies, which enchanted us far more than we anticipated…

River Avon, Christchurch

Christchurch's River Avon (image: Angela Griffin)


Our arrival into Christchurch was not the smoothest. New Zealand has strict import rules, and all plant and animal products must be declared. This includes ham and pickle sandwiches, as I found out when the adorable sniffer dog sat down calmly next to my tasty-smelling bag and I was swiftly taken away for questioning. Thankfully, I was soon released, with a stern warning and the need for a stiff drink.

Due to my misdemeanour, it was 1am by the time we checked into our hotel, so our first impression of Christchurch was of a dark, empty city beset by a howling gale. As much of the following day was spent sleeping in, eating and testing out the local coffee shops, it was an inauspicious start to our New Zealand holiday. Although this eased slightly after a walk along the delightful Avon River, I still couldn’t wait to leave the city behind and hit the road.

Penguins crossing

Penguins crossing


I was glad to reach Oamaru, home to a colony of blue penguins who return to their nests daily at dusk after a hard day’s fishing. We arrived in a storm, and as we decamped to the beach, the waves were at least four metres high. I was concerned for the penguins, but I needn’t have worried; they weren’t in the least bit bothered by the huge swell and appeared on cue, waddling endearingly, and cooing and squawking with delight. Things were looking up.

David in Cinema Paradiso, Wanaka

David at Cinema Paradiso (image: Angela Griffin)


By the time we reached Wanaka it was pitch black outside. Fearing a repeat of the Christchurch debacle, we looked for a place to eat. This time, luck was on our side and we stumbled across Cinema Paradiso, a boutique movie theatre decked out with sofas (and more randomly, a car) to sit on. Best of all, it served hot, home-cooked meals, just what we needed after a long drive. We had a wonderfully relaxing evening eating fish pie and sipping hot chocolate from trays on our laps, while watching Angels and Demons.

Angela at Larnach Castle

Angela at Larnach Castle (image: Angela Griffin)

Otago Peninsula

No doubt assisted by the glorious views across Lake Wanaka, New Zealand was now firmly back in our good books, and we pressed on to Dunedin. There, while driving the clifftop road along the Otago Peninsula to Larnach Castle, we were treated to great views of the twinkling bay below. Larnach makes a big deal of the fact that it’s New Zealand's only castle; it wasn't a castle by British standards, more of a stately home, albeit a very pretty one. We had a look around the opulently decorated rooms and learned the story of the Larnach family, a convoluted tale involving both scandal and tragedy.

Albatross in flight

An albatross in flight (image: Angela Griffin)

After taking in as many chandeliers and gold-leaf mirrors as we could muster, we set sail on a wildlife cruise. We spotted blue penguins, sea lions and a seal colony, but for me it was the albatross, an enormous bird whose wingspan can reach up to 3.3 metres, that really stood out. They swooped around above us, squawking loudly and fighting over the fish. It was wonderful to see the animals (and the jagged coastline) so close up. Back on dry land, we called in at the Penguin Place, a hospital for injured penguins, where the three feathered inpatients eyed us up suspiciously.

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound (image: Angela Griffin)

Doubtful Sound

While following the windswept Catlins Coast to Fiordland National Park, we decided to call in at Doubtful Sound, admittedly more of a trek to get to than the more famous Milford Sound, but completely worth the effort.

Angela and David on the boat in Doubtful Sound

David and Angela on the boat on Doubtful Sound (image: Angela Griffin)

The sun was shining brightly when we boarded a boat at Deep Cove. David and I sat on the bow, which we felt would give us the best view, even though it was a little blustery. I could write endless poetic descriptions of Doubtful Sound, a large expanse of water surrounded by forest-clad mountains, waterfalls and a sprinkling of snow, but we’d be here all day. Let’s just say it was beautiful, and we sailed the whole length of it, right to the Tasman Sea.

Dolphins under water

Dolphins in Doubtful Sound

On the return journey, David and I were huddled together in the icy wind admiring the mountains, when a fin appeared. Before I had time to realise what was happening, bottlenose dolphins started to leap out of the water, right by our heads. We were surrounded. They were huge - maybe around four metres long, and such show-offs. Some rode the bow wave, turning their heads to the side so to get a better view of us, perhaps as if to say “look at me!”  while others back-flipped in the boat’s wake. What an incredible sight! It was then that I knew that I was hooked on the South Island’s wonders.

David hiking the Franz Josef Glacier

David climbing the Franz Josef Glacier (image: Angela Griffin)

South Island adventures

This memorable encounter confirmed what both David and I had suspected for a little while now:  two weeks was not long enough. And so we made the executive decision to scrap our North Island plans and instead spent a further three weeks climbing the Franz Josef Glacier, hiking a portion of the Abel Tasman Track, tasting the fine wines of Picton and meeting Kaikoura’s sperm whales.

David in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

David in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park (image: Angela Griffin)

David and Angela with the Tasman Glacier

David and Angela at the Tasman Glacier terminal face (image: Angela Griffin)

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

Before returning to Christchurch, we made one final stop at Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, where we set off on a three-hour hike past lakes and over rivers to snow-covered Mount Cook. The whole walk was spectacular, with magnificent mountain and valley views, and we saw two avalanches happen right in front of us. But for me the highlight was the Tasman Glacier. Chunks of pale blue ice had fallen off it and were frozen into place in the lake. We spent many hours there, David amusing himself by trying and failing to crack the ice while I took artistic photos of the lake’s reflections. When we eventually headed back, the sky turned orange as the light faded, and we had a full moon to guide us. We were very thankful we’d stayed on in the South Island – this was a real highlight of our trip and it would have been a shame to miss it.

Angela in an Antarctic storm

Angela in an Antarctic storm (image: Angela Griffin)

International Antarctic Centre

All good things must sadly come to an end and after exactly a month in the South Island it was time to leave. But New Zealand had one more surprise in store. On arrival at Christchurch International Airport, we were horrified to discover that our flight was delayed by over 15 hours, giving us a whole day to kill. Spotting our dismayed faces, the check-in staff suggested we pay a visit to the International Antarctic Centre, right next door. And so by this twist of fate we spent the day shivering our way through a reconstructed Antarctic storm, with a wind chill of -18°C, sliding down an ice slide and falling in love with a little penguin with a paralysed flipper who could only swim in circles.

David on a snowmobile

David on a snowmobile (image: Angela Griffin)

To top it all off we took a ride on a Hägglund, an all-terrain vehicle that took us over huge bumps, up and down slopes and even under water. It was great fun, and we were sorry when it was finally time to check in for our flight.

I’m sure that one day we’ll make it to the North Island, but for now it’s the South Island’s decadent scenery and diverse wildlife that holds special memories for David and me. My advice? Plan longer on the South Island than you think, and don’t try to see everything in two weeks like we did. Oh and remember to eat your sandwiches on the plane.

Explore the wonders of New Zealand’s South Island with Round the World Experts’ Best of the South Island Journey.

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