For the ultimate show of nature and wildlife, Southland and Fiordland are the places to visit. This is the NZ we all dream of, with dramatic scenery spanning lush rainforests, fertile farmlands and sweeping coastlines, including the world renowned Fiordland National Park. Perfect for the intrepid traveller looking to get off the beaten path.
Queenstown to Te Anau
For the majority of this trip, you'll follow the Southern Scenic Route from Queenstown to Balcultha, before cutting back inland through Central Otago and back to Queenstown. Alternative inland roads provide a more direct path between the main centres. However, the Southern Scenic Route takes you off the beaten path, to discover deserted beaches, pristine lakes and stunning mountain vistas.
If you get wooed by Queenstowns charms you may never get on the road, but a thrilling jet boat trip on the superbly scenic Dart River with Dart River Wilderness Jet is an experience not to be missed before you leave town.
Departing Queenstown, negotiate the ominously named Devils Staircase, which skirts the shores of the southern arm of Lake Wakatipu, before taking a right at Five Rivers. From here it’s just under an hour to the attractive lakeside town of Te Anau, sitting on the shores of the South Island’s largest lake, and the gateway to Fiordland National Park.
Pay a visit to the Te Anau glowworm caves or pop into the Fiordland Cinema and enjoy a glass of wine as you watch the short film, Ata Whenua. Filmed across extremes of season, climate and terrain, it’s the perfect introduction to the Fiordland wilderness, before delving in to the real thing.
Te Anau to Milford Sound
From Te Anau it is a 2 hour drive through some of New Zealand's most stunning scenery to Milford Sound, via the 1.2km long Homer Tunnel. No other highway in New Zealand climbs to the same altitude as this one - 940 metres above sea level at its highest point. The pinnacle of Milford Sound is the magnetising Mitre Peak - standing a proud 1,692 metres above sea level.
Milford Sound is known as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand and one of the wettest in the world, with rainfalls reaching 250 mm during a span of 24 hours. The rainfall creates dozens of temporary waterfalls (as well as a number of major, more permanent ones) cascading down the cliff faces, some reaching a thousand metres in length.
A range of activities are available for visitors to Milford, including the Milford Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory, as well as kayaking trips and scenic and nature cruise options. Experience all of this and more with Southern Discoveries, Milford Sounds oldest and most established tour company, in operation for over 50 years.
Manapouri to Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound, sometimes referred to 'the Sound of Silence', has a certain serenity about it and can be accessed from Manapouri, 20 minutes south of Te Anau. The journey to Doubtful Sound starts with a boat ride across Lake Manapouri, the most picturesque lake in the world, followed by a bus journey over Wilmot Pass. A trip to the underground power station at West Arm, over one mile underground, makes for an interesting side excursion. Dolphins and other marine life often reward a visit to the more remote Doubtful Sound.
The fiords, however, are just one part of this vast World Heritage Area waiting to be explored. Theres over 600km of formed tracks, including numerous short walks and multi-day hiking trails, including three of the New Zealand Great Walks (the Milford, Routeburn, and Kepler Tracks), earning Fiordland the reputation as one of the world's finest walking destinations. Alternatively, watch sheer cliffs and ridgelines fall away beneath your feet as you soar over mountain tops on a scenic helicopter, float plane or fixed wing flight.
Manapouri to Riverton
Continuing south you'll enter Western Southland, a very special corner of the world tucked between the towering peaks of Fiordland to the west, the Takitimu mountain range to the north, and the wild Southern Ocean. Built on a pioneering foundation of gold mining, whaling and sealing, the region is a step back in time, where the skies seem clearer and where you’ll often have the road or beach all to yourself.
Detour to explore lakes Monowai and Hauroko (New Zealand’s deepest at 462 metres), for great fishing and wonderful bush walks. At nearby Clifden, a quick walk into the Dean Forest leads to a 1000-year-old Totara tree, and there are also the Clifden Caves to explore. If you have the time and the inclination consider donning your hiking boots and tackling the Tuatapere Humpridge Track just west of Tuatapere, promising a three-day, non-stop scenic wonderland of diverse coastal, bush and sub-alpine landscapes. You may be lucky enough to catch the spectacular Aurora Australis as it lights up the night sky at certain times of year.
Hitting the Southern Coast we turn east with a stop at Colac Bay, bursting with nature, including New Zealand's largest pod of Hectors dolphins, and one of New Zealand's top surfing spots. Next is the popular seaside town of Riverton, known as the 'Riviera of the South', and one of New Zealand's earliest European settlements - delve into its rich history at the Te Hikoi Southern Journey Heritage Museum.
Invercargill and Catlins
Invercargill, New Zealand's most southerly city, is known as the city of water and light, partly due to its exceedingly long daylight hours in summer. A wander through the beautiful Queens Park and slurping oysters in Bluff are a must. And don’t leave before indulging yourself at the Seriously Good Chocolate Company, taking the chocolate experience to a whole other level.
Stewart Island is just a 20-minute flight or one-hour ferry trip across Foveaux Strait and although it draws visitors by the tens of thousands, it is deliberately devoid of glitzy tourist trappings and is the perfect place to get away from it all.
Further east, the Catlins is pure New Zealand at its most natural. Slope Point, the southernmost point of the south Island, has windswept trees and a magnificent view over the southern ocean. Yellow-eyed penguins can be seen making their way to their coastal nests, while Hectors Dolphins play in the waves at Curio Bay. Cathedral Caves, rising more than 30 metres high in places, are a must-see and can be accessed at low tide if the sea is calm. If you like a good waterfall, McClean and Purakunui Falls are both worth a visit on your journey east towards Nugget Point, the only place on mainland New Zealand where fur seals, sea lions and elephant seals co-exist.
The Catlins Coastal Heritage Trail is a series of walks and places of interest linked by easy drives in the Southland region of New Zealand, and takes approximately five hours if you follow the whole trail and include all the walks.
Balcultha to Alexandra
Turning north you'll pass through Balcultha and hang a hard left at Milton, heading into the heart of Central Otago and Clutha Country, leaving Dunedin for another time). The landscape changes quickly from lush and green to dry and sparse, but beautiful all the same. You quickly get a sense of the hardships experienced by the gold prospectors and early pioneers who toiled in this region throughout the 19th Century.
Lawrence was Otago's first gold-rush town after the discovery of gold in Gabriel's Gully by Gabriel Read in 1861. The population boomed from almost nothing to around 11,500 within a year, twice that of Dunedin and New Zealand’s largest community at the time; hard to believe now with a population of just over 400. Lawrence is also the home of New Zealand’s national anthem, where local school teacher, John Woods, created the score to a Thomas Bracken poem to compose “God Defend New Zealand” in 1876.
From Lawrence we follow the tourquise waters of the mighty Clutha River towards Alexandra, passing through the towns of Beaumont, Raes Junction and Roxburgh; born of gold but now growing ripe golden apricots and other stonefruit. The Clutha is New Zealand’s highest volume and fastest flowing river, providing hydro-electricity to much of New Zealand. Five kilometres to the north of Roxburgh is the Roxburgh Dam, the earliest of the major hydroelectric dams built on the Clutha – oh and Roxburgh is also the home of legendary "Jimmy's Pies" - don’t leave town before devouring one!
The first major settlement you'll hit is Alexandra, known as the hottest, driest and coldest town in New Zealand. It’s a great spot for boating, swimming, fishing or exploring the hills and valleys by foot, mountainbike or four-wheel drive. Park at the end of Old Bridge Road, on the eastern side of the river, and take the track down to the right to a secluded river side beach, perfect for a very refreshing dip and a picnic.
Journey back in time on a Clutha River Heritage Cruise with Clutha River Cruises, exploring the isolated reaches of the stunning and historic Roxburgh Gorge, including the perfectly preserved 1860’s gold mining sites of Doctors and Butchers Points.
Clutha to Queenstown
The historic buildings of Clyde make for an interesting stop and you can drive across the Clutha Dam, or stop at the lookout on your way to Cromwell for great views of the entire region.
Cromwell next, the fruit bowl of New Zealand, with its sun-drenched landscape providing perfect conditions for a bounty of vineyards and orchards, that showcase the best of Central Otago fine wine and dining. A night or two at Lake Resort, Cromwell, part of Heritage Hotels Boutique Selection, is a great way to wrap up your Southern Discovery, but don't leave town without seeking out the Cromwell Heritage Precinct, one of Cromwell's best kept secrets. When the Clyde dam was completed in 1990, Cromwell's main street disappeared under Lake Dunstan. Some of the historic buildings dating back to the gold rush of the 1860's were lovingly rebuilt on higher ground, creating the Cromwell Heritage Precinct. Step back in time to the gold rush and explore heritage buildings, many now housing cafes, shops and art galleries.
From Cromwell, you have the choice of heading through the Kawarau Gorge to Queenstown, with a stop at the Goldfields Mining Centre along the way, or if you have a spare day up your sleeve consider going back via Wanaka and over the Crown Range for spectacular views down into the Wakatipu Basin and on to Queenstown.