Going large in New Zealand’s South Island

Kaikoura, New Zealand
Kaikoura: stop off for a treat after a coastal walk

Chris Carter enjoys the slower pace of life in New Zealand’s South Island.

The South Island of New Zealand is home to neither the capital (Wellington) nor the biggest city (Auckland). As such, life takes a slower pace here compared with its northern neighbour. That’s not to say South Islanders do things on a smaller scale too. Quite the opposite, in fact, as my partner and I found on a visit to the island last November.

The Marlborough wine region, tucked up in the north, is famous for producing some of the world’s finest sauvignon blanc. It also produces rather a lot of it – 269,411 tonnes last year, accounting for 86.1% of the wine from the region. You don’t have to go all the way to New Zealand to try Kiwi sauv blanc. British supermarket shelves are groaning under the weight of the stuff.

But there is another varietal that our guide, Nic, from Marlborough Wine Tours (from NZ$110, marlboroughwinetours.co.nz), introduced us to, one that is also popular in the region, and a bit of a local secret – riesling. Only 1,877 tonnes of the grapes are grown here, so to try it, you will have to hop on a plane (as if you needed an excuse). I can think of few better ways to while away a few hours after lunch than by dropping in on a bunch of local wineries, such as Framingham, to sample their excellent riesling and compare different styles. Afterwards, Nic returned us to Chateau Marlborough (from NZ$159, marlboroughnz.co.nz), our hotel in Blenheim, the region’s largest town, to sleep it all off.

The wildlife is pretty big too in the South Island – or rather, just off it. Kaikoura, located 80 miles to the south of Blenheim, is one of the best places on the planet to see sperm whales all year round, and humpback whales in the winter months (June to August). In fact, with a 95% success rate, tour operator Whale Watch (NZ$150, whalewatch.co.nz) is so confident that you will spot a spouting blowhole amid the surf that they will refund you 80% of the price of your ticket if you don’t. Which is why I got most of my money back. Despite getting up before dawn to board the boat, these hulking mammals didn’t get the memo. Next time, maybe. Still, I did see a huge seal sunning itself on the beach once back on dry land.

The White Morph hotel (from NZ$148, whitemorph.co.nz), where we stayed, has wide views over the sea. The rooms are spacious, and some of the bathrooms come with a spa bath. There isn’t a restaurant, but if you don’t fancy making use of the kitchenette in the room, Kaikoura is just a short walk away. It has a lovely pub in The Whaler – perfect for a pint before heading to dinner at Zephyr across the road for “contemporary New Zealand cuisine” of local wines, lamb and fish. It was reasonably priced, too. Kaikoura also has wonderful walks along the cliffs and winding through wild meadows, with the vast sea as your backdrop. Just don’t forget to stop off at the Kaikoura Seafood BBQ (55 Fyffe Quay), a roadside kiosk, on the way back. The crayfish fritter sandwich makes for a fitting treat after a long walk.


The Devil’s Punchbowl
The Devil’s Punchbowl

Back on the road, driving south for another 100 miles, we arrived in Christchurch. At lunchtime, on 22 February 2011, this pocket-sized city was rocked by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. Years later the devastation is still visible, not least in the sombre sight of the ruined cathedral. Today, pigeons flap among the silent rafters of the nave that gapes open to the elements, while the stump of the spire is testament to the awesome power of nature in this part of the world. To get a feel of just how much power, we drove into the mountains, thrust up over millions of years by the restless tectonic plates.

A two-hour drive from Christchurch takes you to Arthur’s Pass National Park. The road passes through rocky formations, like megalithic sculptures strewn about the landscape, with the snow-tipped peaks of the Southern Alps rising in the distance. Leaving the car behind, we walked the 30 minutes along a trail through achingly beautiful scenery to the magnificent waterfall – The Devil’s Punchbowl. It’s a fitting name. Surrounded by the imposing peaks, the size and roar of the falls is at once an awesome and terrible sight to behold.