South Island of New Zealand - The Golden Triangle
The South Island of New Zealand is rapidly becoming a favourite international travel destination, thanks to the stunning scenery made famous in movies like Lord of the Rings. When you add the pristine snow-capped mountains easily reached from the cute cities of Christchurch, Queenstown and Dunedin, you have an exciting holiday that's certainly one of the world's best.
Photo of New Zealand's South Island Mountains.
Let's start this adventure in Christchurch, the southern capital with a population of nearly 400,000. International airlines fly directly into Christchurch, particularly from neighbouring Australia.
The international airport is only 10 minutes from this historic city with a British background.
When you arrive in Christchurch, it's obvious why this is the cultural centre of New Zealand, with numerous arts centres, a new Art Gallery and a vibrant café scene.
Head to Cathedral Square for a taste of what to expect, have a meal or a drink along the Avon River at any of the trendy cafes and bars, or if you have a touch of romance in your soul, try punting on the Avon River, complete with a guide who could have been trained on the gondolas of Venice.
Photo of trendy cafes near the Avon River in Christchurch
BEST ACCOMMODATION IN CHRISTCHURCH
Christchurch oozes class and charm and so does its accommodation near many of the attractions.
If you want to experience Christchurch's finest accommodation, stay at The Classic Villa, a five star boutique hotel run by one of NZ's most experienced hoteliers Peter Morrison, with Jan Clarke.
Photo of The Classic Villa Christchurch
The Classic Villa is in the heart of Christchurch on Worcester Boulevard, near the Arts Centre and the Court Theatre, and it's a quick walk or tram ride down the road into the Christchurch city centre.
The Classic Villa itself is a delightful place to stay - it's an Italian-style historic home converted into the nicest boutique hotel in Christchurch. Why stay here? It's just been voted New Zealand's best hotel - you'll find 12 gorgeous ensuite rooms and a gourmet Continental breakfast included.
The Classic Villa breakfast
The rooms at this award-winning luxury hotel are beautifully decorated with timber floors and ceiling panels, wood fire-effect heaters and flat screen LCD TVs while you snuggle up in the very comfortable beds. The ceilings are high, the candelabras are grand. The experience is memorable.
Peter Morrison's day starts at 5am and when guests arrive to find the colourful feast awaiting, Peter happily hovers and attends to every need, truly the perfect host. He's been in hospitality for many years running restaurants, bars and even 120 room hotels.
Christchurch is the perfect starting point for your southern New Zealand adventure. An hour's drive east out on the Banks Peninsula is the French settlement of Akaroa, where to this day you will find the French Tricouleur flag fluttering in the breeze.
This charming little town with its wooden buildings is officially the oldest in New Zealand, settled in 1840, and is well worth the scenic side trip.
BEST RESTAURANTS IN CHRISTCHURCH
Try Sezn Restaurant in Gloucester Street, a rustic, almost Bohemian restaurant with a great atmosphere and menu featuring fresh local produce.
Starters include seared salmon with green bean or marscapone tortellini for NZ$17.50. For mains, try the venison rump with chocolate jus or the pan-seared fresh daily fish with ratatouille for NZ$32.
The Bodhi Tree on Colombo Street is an unexpected treat because it's Burmese, but appeals to travellers who love a good meal, atmosphere and good prices.
Queenstown is officially New Zealand's adventure capital, and it's a six hour drive south from Christchurch through some of the world's best scenery.
As you head south, you'll encounter snow-capped mountains almost all the way down, from Mt Hutt just south of Christchurch, down to NZ's highest peak Mt Cook, where Sir Edmund Hillary trained before conquering Mt Everest.
For much of the year, you'll encounter the thrill of driving through the snow across mountain passes like the Lindis Pass. Then as you near Queenstown, you'll see the famous Coronet Peak towering over one side and the Remarkables ski fields guarding the other entry to this exciting city.
Photo of Queenstown from St Moritz Hotel
You can take part in all manner of activity in Queenstown. Take a walk around the quaint Queenstown streets and take a ride on the historic coal steamer Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu, which rises and falls like Lake Geneva.
If you want an aerial view of it all, grab a gondola cable car at the end of one Queenstown's main streets, taking you virtually vertically up above it all.
Queenstown has 20,000 people well served by 150 bars, cafes and restaurants around the volcanic lake at the base of the surrounding mountains. These cafes and bars supply some of New Zealand's freshest food and fine wine from the local Central Otago region. Pinot noir is all the rage here, and there's nothing better than pairing a pinot with some of the remarkable New Zealand food in front of a cozy log fire.
Photo of Queenstown shops near accommodation
Summer is the best time to visit for hiking and warmer temperatures, but it's the winter ski season that swells the small city so much that it's hard to find hotel accommodation or a restaurant not booked out. Queenstown has a two week festival to celebrate the start of the ski season in June and it's a great time to visit. You'll encounter street stalls offering all types of food, a comedy festival and even a winter masquerade ball.
Near Queenstown, the Shotover Jet boat rides literally fly at narrow cliff entries on the Shotover River and somehow squeeze through the gaps.
Photo of Shotover Jet on the Shotover River near Queenstown
If you really feel adventurous, New Zealand invented bungy-jumping and in Queenstown you can also plunge off a bridge with an elasticised rope around your ankles.
And of course, the pinnacle of attractions in Queenstown is the ski season, starting in late June. Snow skiing near your Queenstown accommodation is some of the world's best on pristine slopes serviced by ski lifts all over the mountains. For something really adventurous, take a helicopter ride up to one of the glaciers for a hair-raising ski down the mountain.
BEST ACCOMMODATION IN QUEENSTOWN
The Hotel St Moritz is a five star hotel near the centre of Queenstown with stunning mountain and lake views that is a favourite among international travellers because of its ambience, interior and affordability.
Photo of St Moritz Hotel lobby
Situated on Brunswick Street, the St Moritz Hotel has 140 low-rise suites including the rooftop Honeymoon Suite with an open air hot tub that brings you closer to nature than anything else. The hotel interior embodies understated luxury with a warm South Island welcome from the professional - and genuinely happy - hotel staff.
The St Moritz Hotel suites are a very generous size, many with separate lounge room and two big hi definition flat screen TVs, including one at the end of your ultra-comfortable bed. But be warned - you'll find it hard to watch TV when you have big glass windows featuring that stunning view of the snow capped mountains and lake right outside.
Room photo, St Moritz Hotel, Queenstown
The St Moritz suites are excellent value when you consider they include a complete kitchenette with a washer/dryer combo that will bring a smile to the face of many a weary traveller.
And the service here is simply superb. Where else would you find a hotel that knows a bedside light bulb has blown while you're there even though you haven't told them?
And where else would you find the head chef hurrying out to give you some of his home-made bread when he discovers you're taking off on a road trip?
And if you really have to check with the outside world, how about this for cheap internet rates - NZ$5 (US$3) for half an hour, or if you're quick, the Concierge may even let you use his computer for free. These winning factors make the St Moritz Hotel, Queenstown experience here worth every penny and more.
BEST CAFES & RESTAURANTS IN QUEENSTOWN
There are so many good cafes and restaurants in Queenstown, but two of the cafes here deserve your custom before most others because of their outstanding food quality and ambience.
The newly-opened Flame Bar and Grill in Beach Street is run by South African couple Dawn and Grant. It has probably the best views in Queenstown across the harbour but it’s the tenderness and taste of their food that puts them ahead in the competitive Queenstown restaurant scene.
Flame Bar and Grill - the best steak and ribs in New Zealand
Flame Bar and Grill only opened in December 2008 but already it's a Queenstown favourite with locals and visitors alike. The sign of a good restaurant is being booked out mid-week, and in this restaurant, we encountered the happiest crowd you can imagine, from the table of 12 young Queenstown locals to the table of older Australian tourists celebrating a birthday.
The menu here includes tender New Zealand lamb cutlets, fresh South Island seafood and pasta, but it's the steak and ribs done on the open char grill African-style that are simply superb. Chef Grant won't tell what's in his stunning secret sauce but suffice to say it's finger lick'n good.
Chef Grant at the Flame Grill
The huge steak and ribs combo is NZ$37, the tender aged sirloin from NZ$22 and to finish, the delicious chocolate mousse with berry compote is NZ$9.50. Very good value with the rare combination of quality and quantity.
The other stand-out restaurant in Queenstown is Fishbone Bar and Grill, specialising in fresh local seafood. This is a colourful restaurant at the top of Beach St run by the cheerful Mark who obviously enjoys the fun atmosphere he's created inside. The décor is full of seafaring objects d'art and this restaurant is well-known across the country.
Fishbone Bar and Grill
Fishbone Bar and Grill is popular for its good quality, reasonably priced fare that can be enjoyed in booths that encourage conversation. For starters, try the melt-in-your-mouth hot smokehouse salmon, served on potato with horseradish and caper salad for NZ$16.90. For mains, try the Chef's special of pan-roasted fresh fillets of today's local catch - sometimes Gurnard, a deep water slightly sweet white fish caught at the bottom of the South Island.
Another winner is the whole South Island flounder oven baked with herb butter and aioli for NZ$27.
This can be washed down with one of New Zealands's most famous sauvignon blancs Astrolabe or a local Central Otago Chard Valley sauvignon blanc for NZ$9 a glass.
This is a quirky, colourful Queenstown restaurant with good food and ambience.
Joe's Garage is also a fun place to start the day with delicious fresh produce and fresh squeezed juices. It's a local favourite for breakfast with a décor that reminds you of your local mechanic's.
And if you want to find Queenstown's "coolest" bar, try the Minus 5 Degrees bar on the Wharf, where everything inside including the bar is made from 18 tonnes of ice. Even the glasses you sip their famous vodka cocktails from are made of ice.
From the mountains of Queenstown, it's an interesting 3 1/2 hour drive east to the small coastal city of Dunedin, the third point of the New Zealand South Island touring triangle.
The air is a little crisper in this southern settlement, a university town enriched by thousands of enthusiastic young people.
Dunedin's Scottish influence is obvious by the neat buildings and countryside that reminded the original settlers of home. Even Dunedin's name is a derivation of the Scotland's capital Edinburgh.
One of the highlights of a trip to Dunedin is taking the Taieri Gorge train from the historic Railway Station.
It's been described as the coastal rail trip of a lifetime through the rugged Taieri River Gorge, across viaducts built of wrought iron and through tunnels carved out by hand more than 100 years ago.
Dunedin's historic rail station
Dunedin's city centre revolves around the Octagon, the grassy area surrounded by vibrant bars, cafes and shops and dominated by a big bronze statue of Robbie Burns, the famous Scottish writer. Why is he here? Robbie Burns' uncle was one of the first church ministers in Dunedin so the locals followed his life and writing closely. Unfortunately Robbie died at the relatively tender age of 37, but he inspired the Dunedin locals across the world so much that today you can find an Authors' Walk around the Octagon featuring footpath plaques of New Zealand's famous authors.
Other tourist features of Dunedin include the World's Steepest Street. It's fun to drive straight up the steep 350 metre Baldwin Street, made of concrete because tar would run downhill in warm weather. If you want a really good workout, try walking up and down, but be careful because it really is very steep.
Dunedin is the gateway to New Zealand's Otago Peninsula, home to some of New Zealand's most luxurious lodges in pretty locations.
BEST ACCOMMODATION IN DUNEDIN
The top-ranked boutique accommodation in Dunedin is the historic Claremont House, a five star Bed and Breakfast in an elevated position on Melrose St.
It's only 5 minutes from the city, straight up the hill in the trendy inner suburb of Roslyn.
Claremont House Dunedin
There are four beautiful suites at Claremont House including the room at the top with stunning views over Dunedin's pretty hills and coastline. The beds here are also very comfortable and in the mornings you'll hear birdsong.
Claremont House is a luxury private guesthouse with the homely, comfortable feel of a bed & breakfast, but the privacy and luxury of an exclusive lodge or hotel.
Guest house rooms offer a private lounge furnished with antiques and collectables, Queen bedroom and bathroom. The suites also feature high ceilings, a decorative fire place, timber floors and even a glass-encased library in some rooms. Because the weather in Dunedin can be chilly, room heaters are included and it's fun to snuggle up and watch the weather outside through big glass windows.
And if you're a family group, near the courtyard is a self-contained cottage with a roomy lounge and spacious kitchen-dining area.
Claremont House is owned by the hard-working Ingrid and Adrian who've restored the elegant building to its former glory of the early 20th century.
BEST RESTAURANTS IN DUNEDIN
Speight's Ale House in Dunedin is a fun café and bar in the centre of of Dunedin that serves well-priced food and drinks that are delicious. The dull brick building on the outside belies what lies within...a warm interior with log fires, plaster cut back from original old brickwork and brass circular vats sticking out from walls behind the cheerful bar.
Try any number of Speight's ales to accompany hearty meals like lamb shanks or fresh local fish. The extensive wine list includes the ubiquitous local Otago pinot noirs and the world's best sauvignon blancs from the Marlborough wine region recognised internationally
(see World's Best Wine Holidays ).
Nearby Bennu Restaurant and Bar has delicious food that will warm you up on even the freshest of days. It's just around the corner from the central Octagon. Try the tender home-made fettucine for NZ$12 or the oven-roasted New Zealand lamb rump steak for NZ$28.50.
OTHER NEW ZEALAND SOUTH ISLAND TOWNS
There are a number of other attractive towns to visit near these cities, including Wanaka north of Queenstown with its pretty mirror-like lake. For the best view, go upstairs and see Chris at the iconic Reef restaurant and try his lunch specials for NZ$12.50 or his dinner menu for NZ$30.
Another quaint little town near Queenstown is the historic gold-mining settlement of Arrowtown which has struck more gold recently with the number of tourists now visiting.
Photo of Arrowtown, near Queenstown
Go into the jeweller's on the main street to see the biggest gold nuggets found in the area, and don't miss a visit to Fresh Fish Brothers, where you just have to try the delicious, mouth-watering smokehouse salmon.
The menu includes Cajun-dusted fresh fish burgers and a variety of Arrowtown cold water fish. For a real taste treat, ask the staff for an item not on the menu - a grilled fish burger made with their hot smoked salmon, and you'll be in fresh produce heaven.
SOUTH ISLAND SUMMARY
New Zealand's South Island has it all, from the scenic beauty on the rambling drives between Queenstown and Christchurch to the stunning wines in the pristine Marlborough wine region north of Christchurch.
Queenstown certainly has everything the traveller on a quest for the best wants, from snow-capped mountains to good wineries, gourmet food and great hotel accommodation near the lake.
Christchurch is a quaint city with a lively cultural scene, enriched by a pretty location and attractions including nearby Akaroa.
Dunedin is in its own southern world, still visibly Scottish and home to a wild, natural landscape that is fresh and fantastic.
Take your time to take a drive between these attractive southern settlements, and you'll certainly enjoy another of the World's Best Holidays.
* Thanks to St Moritz Hotel Queenstown, The Classic Villa Christchurch and Claremont House Dunedin for looking after us.
Thanks also to Ace Car Rentals, New Zealand's largest independent car hire company, who we admire for expanding from two secondhand Toyota Starlets to a fleet of 1700 in 17 years.
Big Tourist Holiday Map South Island New Zealand