The top of the South Island is a must visit for any tourist to New Zealand, or dare I say it, an Aucklander who hasn’t yet traveled their own country! There is something for everyone here – whether it is hiking, mountain biking, sea kayaking, fishing, or just sunbathing on world class beaches. This area gets very busy over the Christmas/ New Years period, with accommodation at a premium. Many places require a multi-night minimum, sometimes as much as 10 days – so plan accordingly and book early to avoid disappointment!
The Marlborough Sounds is the gateway to the South Island from those taking the ferry from Wellington in the North Island, and what an impressive gateway it is! On a nice day it is well worth the ferry price alone to sit on the top deck and watch the ferry travel through the Sounds to the town of Picton. On a rough day however, this ferry crossing over the Cook Strait can be one of the worst – if you have flexibility in your schedule it is worth waiting for calmer seas, with both Wellington and the South Island offering many distractions in bad weather.
From Picton, you can follow the road east towards Nelson, get a water taxi into the sounds, or head southwest towards Blenheim, where Marlborough vineyards are located around (click here for an interactive map of the wine estates). Note that the road down the east coast towards Kaikoura is currently shut due to an earthquake in late 2016.
Queen Charlotte Track
One of my favourite memories of the time I lived in Wellington was a long weekend mountain biking trip on the Queen Charlotte track. The Queen Charlotte track is one of the most popular walking tracks in NZ during the summer. The full track length is 71km and hikers can be dropped in at different points by water taxi and walk as much or as little as they want. For 9 months of the year, the whole track is also open for Mountain Bikers (from 1 March to 30 November). For strong bikers, the track can be completed in two days, or for those less confident or wanting to spend time in the Sounds it could be 4 days or longer. For more information on where you can get dropped off and the difficulty of the track, click here.
Nelson/Nelson Lakes/Abel Tasman National Park
Nelson is the largest city in the top of the South Island, and is a popular place for families and older couples due to the higher than average hours of sunshine per year and its proximity to many attractions such as the Nelson Lakes region and the Abel Tasman National Park. I haven’t visited the Nelson Lakes region but my friends rave about it – the best place to search for things to do is look on the Department of Conservation website here.
I have a confession – I also haven’t visited the Abel Tasman national park either! We had plans to go there just before new years last year, but as I mentioned above, the accommodation nearby is very limited and requires a long minimum stay. We only wanted to stay three nights in the area, so found an amazing resort in Golden Bay, Zatori Retreat, that was happy for us to stay three nights. We still planned on doing a day trip into the park on the way across to Golden Bay from Nelson, but we had a wedding and may have had too much of a good time the day before! There are many options to explore the park, with day trip ideas located here or multi day trip ideas here. You can also look at the Department of Conservation website for trip ideas here.
Golden Bay – Fishing and deserted beaches
Golden Bay is a great place to visit if you want to get away from it all with a seriously large hill at Takaka to get over, its not easy for a day trip (although it can be done!). You can also access the Abel Tasman National Park by water taxi from this side of the hill near Pohara. We stayed three nights at the lovely Katori Resort, further up Golden Bay in Collingwood, a great little town to get away from it all. The photo above was from the deck overlooking Collingwood – an amazing place to relax on a beautiful day.
When I was in Collingwood, I also went fishing with Wildcat Charters, based down in Port Tarakohe. Leigh is the skipper and took us out for a great half day on the water – we caught a bunch of Snapper and Blue Cod (only two each on board though!). My girlfriend’s family were pleasantly surprised when I came back with enough fresh fish to feed us for two full meals. The first time we asked the Chef at Zatori to cook it and the meal was amazing – the food at Zatori is highly recommended!
From Collingwood, you can walk out on Farewell Spit for some bird watching and Wharakiri Beach is a must – a beach with rolling sand dunes and a seal colony which you can have almost to yourself! For food options, you can’t go past the Mussel Inn for fresh mussels and craft beer. Its an institution in Golden Bay and has great live music options too.
Accommodation options around Nelson/Marlborough/Golden Bay
As I mentioned in my Coromandel post, AirBNB is becoming very popular amongst NZ hosts. The classical idea of ‘success’ in New Zealand was always the three ‘Bs’ – the BMW, the Boat and the Bach (holiday home). These days, many Kiwis are seeing that their Bach can also become a source of income when they aren’t using it. AirBNB and other local options like www.bookabach.co.nz offer great opportunities to stay in some really interesting and unique homes. I can’t stress enough that booking early for the New Years period is very important – if you can, the best time to go is late February through to April.
Getting to the top of South Island
As I discussed in my Auckland post, flights from London to New Zealand range massively depending on time – £600-£1500 return. The best tip is go in late March/early April – this is considered shoulder season but the weather remains very settled and the water is warm. There is considerable competition from airlines all over the world – making it the perfect time to visit New Zealand. Airlines from America, China and the Middle East are all significantly increasing capacity. If you are traveling the length of New Zealand in a motorhome, you will get to the South Island by ferry from Wellington to Picton. There are also direct flights into Nelson from Auckland that are affordable.