New Zealand's South Island See And Do
Queenstown , South Island
Queenstown isn't known as the Adrenaline Capital of New Zealand for nothing. This village-turned–hot spot, which sits at the edge of mountain-surrounded Lake Wakatipu, has the highest concentration of extreme-sport activities in the country (if not the world). Commercial bungee jumping got its start here in the eighties, and today you can still leap from the spot where it all began: the Kawarau Bridge, which stretches 141 feet above a river gorge. AJ Hackett Bungy runs buses from the center of town to the site; once there, you can choose to jump in a harness (don't be a wuss) or with an ankle band (now you're talking). You can also decide whether you want to bob above the water, touch it, or get fully doused. True adrenaline junkies can opt for even higher jumps, like the 440-foot Nevis Highwire, or the truly insane Ledge Bunny, reachable only by Queenstown's Skyline Gondola (64-3-442-4007; www.ajhackett.co.nz). You'll be making a more than 150-foot jump from 1,312-feet above the city.
If gentle floating is more appealing to you than rapid hurtling, jumping from a mountain peak in a tandem parachute is for you. Queenstown Tandem Paragliding brings you up the town's 2,000-foot Skyline Gondola to Bob's Peak, where an experienced "co-pilot" straps in with you for the glide down to the valley below. Paraglide options at nearby Coronet Peak are also offered, and the really high-minded can do heli-tandem jumps from peaks in the Remarkables range—some are 7,000 feet high (64-3-441-8581; www.paraglide.co.nz).
Forget everything you know about swimming-pool "dolphin encounters"—nothing beats meeting these creatures in the wild. The channels and coves that make up the Marlborough Sounds, on the island's northeastern tip, are home to masses of dolphins—including bottlenoses, Dusky dolphins, and rare Hector's dolphins. Dolphin Watch, based out of the port town of Picton, makes daily trips on 30- and 40-foot motorboats into Queen Charlotte Sound. Trips last between two and four hours; passengers scout and follow dolphin pods, and if conditions are right, slip on wet suits and snorkels and jump into the water with them. The dolphins are fearless and playful, sweeping within a few inches of swimmers; it's completely magical. If dolphins can't be found or the weather's too rough for swimming, the tour company gives free vouchers for another trip (64-3-573-8040; www.dolphinswimming.co.nz).
Fiordland , South Island
The aptly named (albeit oddly spelled) Fiordland, on the South Island's southwest coast, will look familiar to anyone who's seen Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Many of the movies' scenes were shot in this region of jagged snow-streaked mountains descending to deep, still waterways, but even the big screen doesn't do the scenery justice. This is national parkland, and wild country—meaning no roads—so the best way to explore the landscape is, ironically, by sea. Real Journeys runs all-day and overnight trips into stunning Doubtful Sound, where peaks plunge into dark, dolphin-filled seas; the trips leave from both Queenstown and the town of Te Anau, 109 miles to the southwest. Passengers explore the Sound and the surrounding mountains by both bus and luxury catamaran cruiser; it's a long trip but well worth the journey. Prices start at $220 per person (64-3-249-7416; www.realjourneys.co.nz).
Tel: 64 3 5468210
The South Island has six multi-day Great Walks, all maintained by the Department of Conservation. They range from the remote and challenging 22-mile Rakiura Track on Stewart Island (off the southern coast) to the easygoing, beachy, but more heavily trafficked 31-mile Abel Tasman Coastal Track. The Milford, Kepler, and Routeburn Tracks are the most popular; all wind through the exceptional scenery of Fiordland. In the northwest, the 51-mile Heaphy Track, running from Golden Bay near Nelson across to the west coast near Karamea, is a mix of high plateau, forest, and shore walking.
All these tracks take a minimum of three days, require a good level of fitness, and are best for active types who are used to lugging all their own gear, camping out in basic huts, and getting wet when it rains. You'll need to buy a Great Walks Pass before your trek in order to use these huts and campsites; you can get one (along with maps, directions, and trekking safety tips) online.
Abel Tasman National Park , South Island
The clear, jade-green waters of Abel Tasman National Park, near Nelson on the island's northern coast, are so gorgeous that Tourism New Zealand built a major advertising campaign around them (if you ever saw those giant "100% New Zealand" billboards, with kayakers seemingly suspended above pale-green shallows, you've seen Abel Tasman). If you're going to choose one part of the South Island to get waterborne, this is it. The park, which occupies a roughly 30-mile protected stretch of Tasman Bay, is chockablock with pristine golden-sand coves, dramatic rock formations, and seals, dolphins, and seabirds. Abel Tasman Kayaks, based in the seaside community of Marahau, runs guided day and multi-day trips with all gear provided; you can also rent kayaks and head off on your own (64-3-527-8022; www.abeltasmankayaks.co.nz). Sailors may prefer to hop a catamaran and take a full- or half-day cruise with Abel Tasman Sailing Adventures, based in Kaiteriteri; bareboat charters are also available (64-3-527-8375; www.sailingadventures.co.nz).
Marlborough , South Island
Marlborough is New Zealand's biggest wine region, with more than 100 wineries supplied by 300-odd local growers. The star varietal here is sauvignon blanc, and it's some of the world's best. There's also some excellent riesling, gewürztraminer, and pinot gris, and a pretty fine Methode Traditionelle, too. There are more excellent wineries than you can shake a stick at here, but the absolute don't-misses (all of which also have excellent restaurants) are Herzog, which makes what might be the region's only Montepulciano; Allan Scott Wines, which makes a smashing riesling and blanc de blanc; and Hunter's Wines, with its award-winning, oak-aged sauvignon blanc.
Herzog Winery & Restaurant
81 Jeffries Road
Tel: 64 3 572 8770
Allan Scott Wines
Tel: 64 3 572 9054
Tel: 64 3 572 8489
Nelson , South Island
Nelson is big-time chardonnay country, and riesling, sauvignon blanc, and pinot varietals aren't far behind. Nelson's vintners tend to be boutique producers, who consider their trade more of an art form than a horticultural enterprise. Apart from a couple of big producers like Seifrieds and Waimea Estates, which have their own restaurants and extensive facilities, most of the 30-odd local wineries focus on one or two varietals, and grow their grapes on a relatively small scale (less than 1,600 acres). Neudorf Vineyards has gotten international attention for its pinot noirs and chardonnays, and nearby Sunset Valley produces some fine organic wines.
Seifried Vineyard, Winery, and Restaurant
Redwood Road, Richmond
Tel: 64 3 544 5599
Appleby Highway, Richmond
Tel: 64 3 544 6385
Neudorf Road, Upper Moutere
Tel: 64 3 543 2643
Sunset Valley Organic Winery
Eggers Road, Upper Moutere
Tel: 64 3 543 2161
The Southern Alps, which run down the middle of the South Island like a spine, are too remote, dangerous, and just plain high (there are 27 peaks over 9,000 feet) for most visitors to even contemplate visiting on foot. And since there are no roads in the high country, the only way to get the A-plus views over ice fields, sheer cliffs, and waterfalls is to fly over them. Depending on your sense of adventure and how much you want to shell out, you can choose to "flight-see" via small fixed-wing plane or helicopter. Wanaka Flightseeing operates five- passenger Cessnas out of Wanaka, 44 miles northeast of Queenstown; passengers can choose one- to two-hour flights over the fjords of Fiordland, the 9,932-foot Mount Aspiring, or the majestic Mount Cook (New Zealand's highest peak at 12,316 feet). Prices start at $135 per person (64-3-443-8787; www.flightseeing.co.nz). A trip with Over the Top Helicopters, based in Queenstown, covers much of the same territory—but helicopters can zoom and swoop even closer to the landscapes, and you can even arrange to land on a glacier for photo ops and a picnic lunch. Two-hour trips start at $500 per person (64-3-442 2233; www.flynz.co.nz).
Christchurch , South Island
Tel: 64 4 495 0775
If you'd rather experience the rugged, majestic Southern Alps in comfort than in crampons, this four-and-a-half-hour sightseeing trip lets you see the best of it. After leaving Christchurch, TranzScenic's modern, comfortable train (with long windows for admiring the views) crosses the patchwork farmland of Canterbury Plains before hitting high country. Between Springfield and Arthur's Pass National Park, there are 16 tunnels and five vertiginous viaducts—one, aptly named Staircase, winds 250 feet above the Waimakariri River. Photo-op stops are made at both Arthur's Pass and the northeasterly coastal village of Greymouth before the return trip.
Fly fishermen (and women) from all over the world come to the South Island for its whopping rainbow and brown trout. They know that not only are trophy-sized catches (weighing more than ten pounds) frequently made here, but the vast number of streams, rivers, and lakes on the island mean they'll likely have their favorite spot all to themselves. The concentration of rivers and streams around Nelson (there are more than 25) make the surrounding area a fly fisherman's dream. Day trips from Nelson can be arranged through Strike Adventure (64-3541-0020; www.strikeadventure.com); fishing in more far-flung areas requires staying at a lodge. The season varies by location but is roughly October to May, with the best months from November to April.
Kaikoura , South Island
Off the northeast coastal town of Kaikoura (about a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of Christchurch) lies a deep underwater canyon, where hordes of giant sperm whales congregate year-round to feed. These massive creatures—they're the world's largest carnivores—can be 60 feet long and weigh 70 tons, and seeing them up close is awe-inspiring (some actually have scars from undersea battles with giant squid). Whale Watch Kaikoura, owned by a local Maori group, the Ngai Tahu, takes groups of up to 48 people out on cushy catamarans for daily three-and-a-half-hour trips (weather permitting) to see and learn about the whales. Depending on the season, passengers can also see right and humpback whales, orcas, and Dusky and Hector's dolphins (these last are the world's smallest, rarest variety). If you're a green-around-the-gills type, bring Dramamine—it can get rough out there (64-3-319-6767; www.whalewatch.co.nz).