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Help with South Island itinerary.

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We will have 21 days to explore NZ in mid April and are thinking of spending our time on South Island.
We would like to select 5 different places to use as a base so that we dont have to keep moving. Perhaps with the travel distances we will be backtracking a lot?

We prefer rural/small towns to cities and we will be driving ourselves.
Enjoying natural beauty and not rushing is our goal for this trip.
Any suggestions welcome.

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    Hi there, I just got back from a trip to the South Island. Depending on exactly what you prefer (hiking? Visiting wineries? Penquins?) I would suggest these ideas to start.

    Marlborough Sounds (Picton/Blenheim/Nelson). Lovely scenery and good wine. Tip of the South Island.

    Glaciers (Fox or Franz Joseph)on the West Coast. We didn't go, but I know most people consider it a highlight

    Te Anau/Milford Sound area - gorgeous scenery

    Queenstown/Arrowtown/Wanaka area - lots to do (hiking, wineries, etc.) Look at actually staying in Arrowtown or Wanaka, they're smaller than Queenstown.

    Kaikoura for whale watching possibly, there's good hiking around there too. The town itself is small. But if you're there for a few days you will have a good chance of seeing the whales in case of bad weather (our trip was cancelled due to rough seas and we were only there one day).

    Then you may have time to go down to Dunedin. It really depends on how much you want to drive. It takes longer to get places than you might expect from looking at a map. I know there are some experts here on the boards that helped with my questions, hopefully they'll chime in. Have fun planning!

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    firstlake -

    I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see a poster who wants to take their time exploring my favorite island! Twenty one days is fantastic - we once spent a month on the SI and still didn't run out of things to do and have returned many times since.

    For starters, I suggest at least three nights in each location, which will give you two full days to explore and possibly a partial day on the day of arrival or departure (depending on distance to next location).

    Do be aware that Easter is very busy, as Good Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays and coincide with school holidays (April 6-22), so many locals will be on the road. Just be sure to book your accommodation/activities if you'll be there over Easter. In addition, April 25 is ANZAC Day, another public holiday. April should be a wonderful time to visit weather-wise.

    Assuming you'll arrive in Christchurch, one possibility is to head up north and spend some time in the Marlborough Sounds area, as suggested by sealstep - Picton/Blenheim/Marlborough Sounds are all within easy reach of one another. If you enjoying hiking, you might consider staying within the sounds, which will give you easy access to the Queen Charlotte Track, but make it more difficult to reach Blenheim (wineries), as many resorts within the sounds are accessible via water taxi only...something to think about.

    From there you could work your way to the Abel Tasman area - I've found that the area between Motueka and Nelson makes a very good base for visting both the Nelson region and Abel Tasman Nat'l Park. It's also rural, whereas Nelson is a small city. If you allow an extra day or two here, you'll have time to drive over Takaka Hill to Golden Bay for an entirely different perspective, or you can do what we do, spend 3-4 nights at each. From Takaka/Golden Bay you can easily access Farwell Spit, which is a place very few tourists ever get to see. It's a unique place and very much worth the effort (a full day from Collingwood, so it's best to spend at least a couple of nights in Golden Bay).

    After exploring the north end, you might head down south via the west coast - you'd backtrack towards Nelson and then turn south to Westport or Greymouth. As you prefer small and rural to city (as do I), you might consider a few nights in Punakaiki. This is basically a spot in the road, but there are some wonderful hikes here, and of course the main attraction, Pancake Rocks. Murchison is another possbility - it's a very small town on the West Coast, but there are many walking tracks on offer, which is why I hope to spend a few nights there myself on our next trip (beware the sandflies though).

    From Punakaiki you could continue south to the glaciers for a few nights and then work your way to Wanaka, Queenstown or Arrowtown, the smallest and least busy of which is Arrowtown. From there you could work your way to Te Anau, which makes a good point from which to access Milford Sound, which is two hours drive further. Te Anau is another small town - the buses to Milford go through there, but otherwise, it's a peaceful, sleepy town with lots of walking tracks.

    From Te Anau you might backtrack to Queenstown and continue on to Glenorchy, my new favorite place on the SI. It's at the doorstep of Mt Aspriring Nat'l Park and the walking opportunites and mountain views are incredible - it's a realy feast for the eyes.

    From Glenorchy...I've lost track of time. You could backtrack to Queenstown and fly out from there, return to Christchurch via Mt Cook, or continue down south towards Dunedin.

    So much to see and do, so little time...

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    Wow --thank you for all the great info--will try to arrive after Easter--I like the idea of moving forward and then spending a few days as we move along- Some of the suggestions for stops sound perfect and I will start researching specifics.

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    Hello, firstlake.
    I think that, given the fact that you have three weeks to spend here (and assuming that you will be arriving in and departing from Christchurch), a figure 8 circuit of the South Island would give you a great chance to cover most of the best places. You could:

    Start in Chch and head over Arthurs Pass to Punakaiki. Spend a couple of days there doing some of the great walks, catch the Blowholes at their best times, etc.

    Meander up the west coast (with a wee detour north of Westport for an hour or so to visit Denniston -- no settlement there now, but spectacular views and a very interesting historic site from the early coal-mining days) to next base ourselves in Murchison or over the hill to Takaka in Golden Bay. A few days in this area will allow you to see the galleries and wineries as well as the beautiful Abel Tasman National Park.

    If you haven't had a look at Nelson by now, a stop there is worthwhile, but it is just a large town, with most of the interest being in the hinterland to the west, where you would already have been (sorry about that comment, Nelsonian!).

    Next stop could be Picton to do some, or all, of the Queen Charlotte Walkway. Half an hour away is Blenheim, with wineries and lunch spots all over the place.

    A two hour drive south of Picton brings you to Kaikoura. Once again, you will encounter spectacular coastal scenery, maybe do some whale-watching, etc.

    Then I suggest that you take the the inland road from Kaikoura to Hanmer Springs, via Waiau. Different, arid scenery here. Hanmer is a nice little alpine village with hoy springs for public bathing, but it can be very crowded at Easter.

    On over the Lewis Pass to Hokitika. Some interesting tourist attractions here or in this area (greenstone carving, glass-blowing, Shantytown, etc.)

    On to the glaciers -- Fox and/or Franz Josef -- for a couple of nights. Try to allow enough time to do a detour or two to some of the inland lakes in this region -- e.g. Kaniere or Matheson. Matheson, in particular, gives a breath-taking view of the mountains reflected in its surface on a still day.

    Through the Haast to Wanaka or on to Arrowtown. If you have started your trip around mid-April, the Autumn colours should be starting to show around now, and Arrowtown can be a marvellous sight when it is wearing its Autumn coat.

    See what you want around the Southern Lakes district, Dunedin and the Caitins (Mel's comments on this area are always worth considering) before heading back up towards Christchurch. take the inland route up the east coast, not the main highway. Try to get in to see Mt Cook, and do the Tasman Explorer boat trip if you can.

    Heading back to Christchurch from there, Geraldine is a nice country town to stop for a night (or for lunch), and it should be starting to look very nice with its Autumn colours towards the end of April as well. It is only a couple of hours from Geraldine to Christchurch.

    If you can fit in a day trip to Akaroa, about an hour from Christchurch, you will have had a great trip but, even with 21 days at your disposal, the timing would be a bit tight. In my opinion, given your preference for natural beauty rather than towns, you could skip the parts of the Island south of Te Anau. Dunedin and Invercargill are just cites and, although each has its own charm, there is nothing unmissable about either of them. It would be a pity to miss the Caitlins, but you would have seen some equally wild and spectacular coastal scenery on both the west and the east coasts by that stage.


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    Thanks for the detailed description of what sounds like a great itinerary. You are correct we would prefer to miss urban areas and spend our time seeing the country side. Will plot this on my map and see how it looks.
    At first I questioned my decision to just do the SI but I can see from the helpful posts that I made the right choice.
    again thanks!

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