The best way to get to the heart of New Zealand is with a self-drive road trip
From sea kayaking around Abel Tasman National Park to savouring green mussels washed down with Marlborough’s finest sauvignon blanc in Havelock and driving through stunning scenery to Mount Cook, New Zealand’s South Island makes for the perfect road trip. Organised tours of course exist but to really discover the island’s spirit, there’s nothing better than a self-drive holiday taken at your own pace.
“How do you want to handle this road trip? More ‘Mad Max’ than ‘Thelma & Louise’?” I ask my girlfriend Jang as I drive from Nelson airport to Grand Monaco Mercure Nelson in the north of South Island.
Jang looks at me for a few seconds, then replies firmly, “More ‘Sideways’,” thus ensuring there won’t be street horror or suicide attempts though she’s probably condemning us to some horrendous hangovers.
And so is borne our plan to drive through the most scenic part of New Zealand and experience not just its landmarks but also the country’s finest food and wines.
In fact, this New Zealand self-driving trip is something of a “home-coming” for me. Ten years ago, when Peter Jackson was filming “The Lord of the Rings”, I went on a road trip around North Island in search of the hobbit’s holes in Hobbiton and the bubbling mudpools in Rotorua Lake.
Now here I am behind the wheel again though not alone this time. There’s Jang my “trip master”– she decides where and for how long we stop – and “Becky” – a speaking GPS device. The girls work together on the navigation and protest when I drive too fast or am about to run over a slow-crawling creature on the road.
We collect our motor at Hertz Rental Car in Nelson Airport and commence our adventure by driving towards Abel Tasman National Park. From there, we’ll head south on SH1 highway along the East Coast of the South Island until we reach Mt Cook – the home of Edmund Hillary. In nine days on the endless roads and never-ending space, we’re confident we’ll discover the spirit of New Zealand’s South.
At Abel Tasman National Park, we enjoy a half- day of sea kayaking along the marine reserve and spend the second half trekking along the Abel Tasman Coast Track. It’s a beautiful day on the water and in the alpine woods that are resplendent with New Zealand’s signature curled fern.
The best part of the day comes as dusk falls and, safely ensconced in our chalet at Marahau Lodge, we open a bottle of 2012 Pinot Noir from local Nelson winery Brightwater. The wine, with its dark cherry and savoury character, is so good that we linger too long before suddenly realising we might be too late for dinner. Just after 7, we storm into Park Café, the only restaurant where the lights are still on.
Despite being near closing time, the kind proprietor agrees to prepare us a meal and we are soon tucking into stuffed bell peppers topped with melted mozzarella cheese and sipping on a glass of sauvignon blanc. We’d love to order a bottle but we have a long drive in the morning from Abel Tasman National Park to the east coast town of Kaikoura.
The trip to Kaikoura takes four hours and we pass several landmarks, sea port and townships, crossing the Pelorus River, where part of “The Hobbit”, and continuing on to Havelock.
Havelock is billed as the green shell mussel capital of the world, while nearby Marlborough is famous for its fine sauvignon blanc.
We stop for lunch at the Slip Inn Café in the marina where I have a bowl of the delicious mussels. There's some debate about should we order wine as we are on the road and we resolve this by ordering low-alcohol wine.
The next stage of our journey takes us through coastal ranges and rolling vineyards and despite our intention to reach Kaikoura at 3pm for the whale watching, we are distracted by the promise of crayfish at Tin’s Bin. Established in 1977, Tin’s Bin serves freshly cooked lobsters, which owner Ricky catches the old way – by spearfishing. We order a decent-sized crayfish, and eat it with the rest of the wine.
Roughly pulled together from a retired camping car and featuring benches in the front yard, the “white bin” stands against the backdrop of the deep blue South Pacific Ocean.
We roll into Kaikoura at 4pm – too late for the last call for whale watch. I plead our case with the Whaleway Station’s receptionist and she readily agrees to put us on the first boat the following morning.
Jang is totally overwhelmed when she spots her “Moby Dick” spouting in the distance. The sperm whale then rolls forwards before waving its tail as if to say “Goodbye”.
After a few days in the South Island, the driving has become the best part of the journey and that pleasure doubles as we negotiate the scenic alpine routes from Kaikoura to Hanmer Springs. We travel through rural farming communities and rolling ranges, all to often taking too much time for a detour but not worried too much about failing to reaching our next landmark.
Getting off the main road is always the best part. In Hanmer Springs, taking Becky the GPS’s advice, we mistake a farm for a restaurant. Instead of a dish of pan-fried salmon and Riesling for lunch, we come face to face with a growling sheepdog. In Lake Tekapo, where tourists gather around the heritage church and lakefront, we drive to the top of Mt John.
Here, at the top of the mountain, we have the lookout to ourselves. We sit on the bench and watch the magnificent contrast of the lake’s turquoise waters with the majestic snowy range of Mt Cook. I don’t even want to take a photo. The view is too stunning for digital memories and I resolve to try and come back to see it again with my own eyes.
The last section of our road trip takes us from Lake Tekapo to Mt Cook, and once again the views are breathtaking. Unlike the rolling vineyards of Marlborough and the Alpine roads in Hanmer Springs, the road to Mt Cook has an almost exotic edge. It hugs the edge of Lake Pukaki before twisting its way to the majestic range of New Zealand’s highest mountains and largest glaciers. We’re driving into the mountains, into the home of Zealand’s greatest hero – Sir Edmund Hillary.
Our journey ends at The Hermitage Hotel, and we celebrate our trip quietly on the balcony of the hotel sipping white wine and watching the tip of Mt Cook turning pink in the evening sun.
(The writer travels in the South Island as a guest of Tourism New Zealand.)
If you go
_ Thai Airways flies between Bangkok and Auckland. A Thai driving license can be used to hire a car.
_ Driving in New Zealand is easy. Just stick to the speed limit, and follow the rules of the road.