I had to resist the urge to snort loudly when I was asked how long the ferry ride from Australia to New Zealand was. It was my first time realising how little people actually know about New Zealand aside from Pavlova and Rugby.
But, as I grew up I realised these misconceptions about NZ were actually quite common. Many think that NZ is simply a mole of an island attached to Australia, with most believing that two days in NZ as part of an Aussie holiday is more than enough. And, I had smoke coming out of my ears when I heard another tourist boast that they'd "done" South Island after their three-day stay in Queenstown.
Last year I spent 15 days on the road exploring the east and west coasts of South Island and trust me, they couldn't have been more wrong. From adventure sports to walking trails to natural wonders, the island has a lot to offer and you'd need at least a month to explore it fully. Of course, not all of us are blessed with lengthy time-offs so here's a round-up of some of the most awesome places in South Island.
1. Abel Tasman National Park
Ever wanted to know what it feels like to be on a deserted island? Then go experience Abel Tasman's four-hour Swing Bridge, Bush & Beach Walk. If walking is your thing, you can even cover the entire 51km-long trail on foot and take anywhere from three to five days exploring all the lovely beaches and native ecosystem that the park has to offer. I am not that much of a nature lover so I really enjoyed the short version. For me, the best part was the thrill I got from being dropped off on a deserted island (which amazingly has a functioning toilet!) in a speedboat with clear instructions to finish the trail on time to ensure that I didn't get left back in the park overnight!
Sunlight peeping through the thick bushes of Abel Tasman National Park
I watched the movie Free Willy a bit too many times as a kid and pretty much wanted to adopt a whale when I was 10. While there are a lot of places where you can spot dolphins in NZ, Kaikoura is the place to go to if you want to see whales - it is home to sperm, blue, humpback and fin whales. The story of the area began with the arrival of the Maori around 1000 years ago. Since then, this historic peninsula seen Maori settlement, early European encounters and several whaling missions. Once you've had enough of the whales you can also head to the Mt Fyffe track, which ends with a panoramic view of the Kaikoura peninsula from the summit.
Close-up of a whale on the coast of Kaikoura | Image Courtesy: Leisure Tours, Kaikoura
For most Kiwis, Queenstown has now become tourist central and the locals prefer heading to Wanaka. The town's Cardrona and Treble Cone ski fields are popular across the globe of course but for me, the real attraction was the serene waters of Lake Wanaka itself -- especially after a happy afternoon running around Stuart Lanesborough's Puzzling World filled with wonky castles and illusion rooms. We visited Wanaka in autumn and the town had an almost magical air to it with happy travellers spilling out of bars and oldies walking hand in hand along the lake.
Sunset on the shore of Lake Wanaka
4. Blue Ocean Pools
Less of a destination and more a natural wonder to see along the way, the Blue Pools are probably my favourite of all South Island attractions (aside from Fergburger of course). The pools get their name from the unique blue colour of the water -- a result of light refraction on the clear and icy cold glacial water. You will pass the Blue Pools as you drive along Highway no 6 between Wanaka and Haast Pass and they are only a short 15-minute walk from the main road. From the stunningly clear under-water rock formations to the mysterious piles of smooth river stones to the crisp breeze on your face as you gaze out from the swing bridge, I loved it all and #BawaGroom had a tough time making me get back in that car!
Underwater rock formations at the glacial Blue Pools
If you're driving up South Island, you'll come across the small town of Punakaiki just before you hit Greymouth. Home to blow-holes and Pancake Rocks, this small coastal town is the perfect base to explore the rougher-tougher West Coast. What do pancakes have to do with stones? You're correct, not much. Basically, the Pancake Rocks are a heavily eroded limestone area which began forming almost 30 million years ago! Over thousands of years, alternating layers of small marine creatures and sand became buried and compressed on the ocean floor and mixed with the limestone rocks to form cliffs and ravines with hundreds of horizontal slices along their vertical faces, like huge stacks of pancakes. And if you're a foodie like me then don't miss having a stack of actual pancakes at the Pancake Rock Cafe just across from the trail.
Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki
So sure, Queenstown, Auckland and Rotorua are what may have gotten you interested in Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand) in the first place. But, there's more to this country than its clichés and I hope that you will add at least a few of these destinations to your New Zealand Bucket List.
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