New Zealand is iconic. The density of cool destinations and wild diversity within a compact area appeals to travellers from everywhere. With the wealth of lakes, rivers and coasts, it was challenging to narrow down our rowing tour options. We finally did it, selecting Otago and Southland of the South Island, New Zealand. With high, snow-capped peaks, rugged coastlines, river valley vineyards and extreme natural beauty, these regions contains New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery.
We found some great experiences in these places that will likely not be included on our two November trips: New Zealand: South Island Rowing and Hiking and New Zealand Weekend: Dunedin in Otago. The time in between the two tours is ideal for soaking up yet more South Island splendor. Or come early and stay later to pack in more South Island pleasures. Check out the fjords and sounds of the west coast? Outfit yourself in possum? Take a vista-rich train ride or a hike? Yes, please. Bungee jump? Ah, maybe not.
Aspire to Hike
Mt. Aspiring National Park is at the southern end of the Southern Alps on the South Island and it lies alongside Fiordland National Park, mentioned below.
If not rowing, a hike or two is the best way to experience New Zealand’s outdoor wonders. The hiking in New Zealand is world-renowned. Who hasn’t heard of Milford Track? The hikes we do on the rowing trip are designed as back-ups for windy days, of which there are many in New Zealand. However, there are a couple of others worth mentioning, which could round out your holiday.
The best towns to access the park are Wanaka and Glenorchy. Forty kms from Queenstown, Glenorchy, a small tranquil town at the head of Lake Wakatipu, is a transit point for hikers entering the park’s valleys to partake of longer five-day Great Walks. Wanaka, at the southern point of beautiful Lake Wanaka, is another access point. If the five-day Great Walks are not for you and you are seeking less formidable hikes, numerous day walks abound, such as Rob Roy Glacier and Mt Brewster, a good steep hike, doable even if you have only a few hours.
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Fiordland National Park, to the west of both Dunedin and Queenstown, is New Zealand’s largest national park. Its almost 3 million acres hold 14 fiords and 5 major lakes, Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound being two of the most well-known fiords.
Both sides flanked by steep forested mountains, Milford Sound, at 16 kms long, is Fiordland’s best-known attraction. If you are not hiking Milford Track or one of the other two Great Walks in the park—namely Routeburn or the Kepler tracks—the best way to experience the sound is by boat. Passengers see numerous waterfalls, unusual geological features, and wildlife, such as dolphins, fur seals and the occasional Fiordland crested penguin.
Doubtful Sound extends 40 km to the open waters of the Tasman Sea. It is the park’s second longest and deepest fiord, also surrounded in mountain peaks and lush rainforest. This full-day trip must be taken with a tour operator but is well worth it. Getting there involves two boat trips and a bus ride over a pass. At one point on the larger boat in the middle of the sound, the captain turns off the engines and asks for complete silence so visitors may enjoy a very special quiet moment in the stunning surroundings. It’s possible to spot 14 waterfalls in any one location.
Ride the Rails
Departing from the Dunedin Railway Station, the Taiere Gorge Railway train takes passengers on a 77-km trip on a line through the coastline greenery before heading into and up a steep gorge eventually to grasslands. The four-hour trip entails ten tunnels, and crosses bridges and viaducts far above the Taiere River.
Be sure to spend time in the Flemish Renaissance-style station itself, as it is one of New Zealand’s finest historic buildings, rich with exterior stonework and carvings, mosaic floors and stained-glass windows.
For the adventurous among you, bungee jumping is a wild experience to try in the place that started it all. One of the best places to jump is 43m off the Kawarau Bridge with AJ Hackett Bungee near Queenstown and Cromwell. Why stick with a simple bungee jump? Mix it up! These days you can swing, zip ride, sky jump, or catapult, which involves a ride that propels you 150m up and out across the Nevis Valley, with 3Gs of force as you reach a speed of almost 100 kms an hour in 1.5 seconds flat.
Shopping can be wild too. Wool and sheepskin products are renowned in New Zealand, especially the South Island, where one of the oldest breeds of sheep, the Merino, thrives. While much of it is exported, merino wool is used locally for knitwear and fabrics. Sheepskin rugs, car seat covers, jackets, boots, and gloves are available everywhere but the merino wool socks, scarves and sweaters are so wonderful.
Perhaps even better, Wools of Wanaka, a family-owned business in Wanaka, specializes in a blend of possum and Merino knitwear, such as sweaters, ponchos, accessories and yarn. Because merino wool is ultra-fine and New Zealand possum fur is warmer than cashmere, combining the two makes for a garment 50% warmer than merino alone.
The Merino Shop between Clyde and Cromwell is a gorgeous shop with the most exquisite array of stunning Merino clothing, including clothes, accessories and gloves made from merino wool. Stop for coffee in the shop next door.
Perhaps you can find a sheepskin seat pad. Just keep in mind, they don’t float.