Southern Scenic Route: Secrets of the South Island’s greatest road trip

I’ve just finished a 106-day road trip around New Zealand, and I can say one thing with confidence: The five million people who are in New Zealand right now are the luckiest human beings on Earth.

We are quarantined in paradise, and despite driving more than 11,500 kilometres – roughly the equivalent distance from Auckland to Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar – I feel like there is so much more to see.

Let’s get straight to what many want to know: what was the best thing?

The road to Nugget Point is spectacular.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

The road to Nugget Point is spectacular.

Although I loved every region, I’m not going to be paralysed with indecision and say I can’t decide. The South Island is my favourite place, and there is one road trip to rule them all. It offers mountains, untouched beaches, rare wildlife, lush rainforest and a collection of towns that are full of rustic charm.

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It’s called the Southern Scenic Route.

I’m not sure who named it the Southern Scenic Route, but they deserve a Guinness World Record for underselling one of the most breathtaking road trips on the planet.

This 610-kilometre journey starts in Queenstown, meanders down Lake Wakatipu before flirting with Fiordland. It then weaves through the lesser-known gems of Western Southland, before some unexpected delights in Invercargill. The journey continues up through the Catlins, before ending at the Edinburgh of the South: Dunedin.

This five-day journey (although you can do it longer or shorter) was the highlight of my road trip, and here’s what you can’t miss.

Queenstown

I recommend starting the trip in Queenstown, rather than Dunedin, because landing in our mountain capital is one of the world’s best flights.

At this time of year, the mountains have an exciting array of summer activities on offer. At Cardrona, you’ll find the southern hemisphere’s only mountain carting track. This is like an off-road version of the luge; hook your cart to the chairlift and head to the top – then race back down.

Mountain carting is a popular summer activity at Cardrona.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

Mountain carting is a popular summer activity at Cardrona.

The scenic switchback road weaving up to The Remarkables Conservation Area is a spectacular drive to start your journey – and there are plenty of short walks to explore this quintessential part of Queenstown’s landscape.

On a hot summer’s day, Queenstown’s lakefront is the place to be.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

On a hot summer’s day, Queenstown’s lakefront is the place to be.

It’s also an excellent time to grab some summer deals, like $150 helicopter flights with an alpine landing (The Helicopter Line), $99 jet boat trips (KJet), or if you’re looking for free fun, take the Tiki Trail and walk up to the Skyline Queenstown, where you can enjoy the city’s best view with a hot chocolate.

Where to stay: STAY of Queenstown has boutique suites with breakfast and parking from $295 a night.

Fiordland

The first leg of the road trip starts with a picturesque journey along the southern end of Lake Wakatipu, before arriving in Kingston for a coffee, and walk along the shoreline.

After this quick pit stop, it’s a scenic 1.5-hour drive to Te Anau – a launchpad to explore Fiordland.

Here you can walk a short segment of the Kepler Track, head across to the glowworm caves, check out the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary (home to takahē and kākā), or take a helicopter trip across Fiordland’s vast wilderness from the lakefront helipad.

Doubtful Sound is often shrouded in cloud.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

Doubtful Sound is often shrouded in cloud.

Another excellent day trip is to Doubtful Sound, which departs from Lake Manapouri. The trip involves a ferry across the lake, followed by a bus trip over the Southern Alps, before finally reaching the fiord.

The effort to get there is richly rewarded; a cruise through Doubtful Sound feels like you are gliding through a majestic lost world, where mountains launch vertically from the sea – at such a height – they often disappear into the clouds.

Where to stay: Dunluce Bed and Breakfast is a boutique luxury option starting from $246 a night.

Western Southland

From Te Anau, you’ll head towards Invercargill through a forgotten land of hidden gems. This often overlooked part of the South Island has a rugged charm about it – and loads of small towns that will raise a few eyebrows.

The first of these is Tuatapere: New Zealand’s self-declared sausage capital.

For some years, the town enjoyed limited fame for its Tuatapere Sausages, although, like the town’s mascot (a large human-like sausage on a flaking billboard) the sun may have set on the town’s wurst days.

Nevertheless, head to Tui Basecamp where you can order bangers and mash and discover if the legend stills lives.

Welcome to Tautapere: New Zealand’s unofficial sausage capital.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

Welcome to Tautapere: New Zealand’s unofficial sausage capital.

Another hidden gem along the highway – quite literally – is Gemstone Beach.

The sand is lined with colourful rocks, and if you look long enough, you may even find some semi-precious gems such as jasper, quartz or even sapphire.

Some of colourful rocks we found in a short search on Gemstone Stone.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

Some of colourful rocks we found in a short search on Gemstone Stone.

Spend the night in Riverton; if the sun is out the locals often refer to it as the “Riviera of the South”. This little seaside town is full of historic buildings, being one of the country’s oldest towns.

Riverton was an unexpected delight.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

Riverton was an unexpected delight.

Where to stay: The Cliffs Seaside Lodge offers seclusion near a wild southern beach for $240 a night. Or in Riverton, stay at the European-styled guesthouse La Riviera from $160.

Invercargill

Our Southern-most city is packed with unexpected delights – starting with Fat Bastard Pies. Most lunchtimes, you’ll find a line out the door of this popular cafe, and it’s worth the wait. The obsession with these crusty creations runs so deep; the shop even sells themed underwear.

Once you’re done with savoury treats, take a nine-minute walk around the block to the Seriously Good Chocolate Company – which offers classes, tasters and tours.

Invercargill is also home to a digger playground; the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere. Under an instructor’s guidance, who talks to you through a headset, you get to perform tricks in a 15-tonne digger.

Dig This is a playground for adults.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

Dig This is a playground for adults.

If petrol runs through your veins, Bill Richardson Transport World is the largest automotive museum of its type, with more than 300 meticulously restored vintage cars.

Finish the Invercargill leg of your trip with a short journey to Bluff.

Catlins

Just an hour from Invercargill, you’ll enter the wild south. The Catlins is home to Jurassic forests, windswept white sandy beaches, sacred waterfalls, enormous seaside caves, eco retreats, and rare wildlife.

The Catlins is home to a series of remote beaches.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

The Catlins is home to a series of remote beaches.

Exploring this region is very much a pick and mix – you choose the sights. However, don’t miss the short walk to Purakaunui Falls, the region’s iconic three-tiered waterfall surrounded by lush native bush.

Purakaunui Falls is the Catlins’ most photographed waterfall.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

Purakaunui Falls is the Catlins’ most photographed waterfall.

Cathedral Caves, among the longest in the world, is only accessed at low tide after a gentle 15-minute walk through the rainforest.

Along the beach are two dramatic caves, sculpted by the rough Southern Ocean over thousands of years. The caves join deep underground and together measure more than 200 metres.

Explore as much as you dare, but bring a torch if you intend going right in; penguins occasionally use the caves, and you don’t want to disturb them.

The caves are open between October and May, with a $10 access fee to walk across Māori land.

Cathedral Caves is one of the 30 longest sea caves in the world.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

Cathedral Caves is one of the 30 longest sea caves in the world.

Another unmissable stop is Papatowai, or as local artist Blair Somerville jokingly calls it: “the hairy right cheek of Southland”. Somerville has created the biggest attraction in this tiny town: The Lost Gypsy.

The sign outside reads “fine acts of junk”, and inside you’ll find the most eclectic mix of weird and wonderful creations you are ever likely to come across.

Some of the animated sculptures include a sheep skeleton riding a bike and a remarkable whale sculpture that swims in the air when you wind a lever.

Nugget Point is the most iconic photo stop in the Catlins, and the short walk is worthy of the hype. Don’t forget to look down; you’ll often see sea lions and seals basking on the rocks below.

Nugget Point is a highlight of any trip to the Catlins.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

Nugget Point is a highlight of any trip to the Catlins.

If you want a closer look at the wildlife, head to Surat Bay or Cannibal Bay. Both are excellent locations for sea lion spotting – but make sure to stay at least 20 metres away, they can be aggressive.

Staying there: The Whistling Frog cabins from $99 a night or Catlins Mohua Park Eco Accommodation from $225.

Dunedin

The spectacular stops continue on your final day. Just outside Dunedin is Tunnel Beach, which has a hand-dug hole through a cliff that allows you walk down to a secluded bay.

Tunnel Beach is accessed by a hidden passage – be careful, it can be slippery.

BROOK SABIN

Tunnel Beach is accessed by a hidden passage – be careful, it can be slippery.

If you’re after a swim, head to the St Clair Hot Saltwater Pools – where you can enjoy the 28-degree water overlooking a much chillier sea. The design is very similar to Sydney’s Bondi Baths.

St Clair Hot Saltwater Pools costs $7 per adult, or $15 for a family.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

St Clair Hot Saltwater Pools costs $7 per adult, or $15 for a family.

Dunedin is full of fantastic free activities, like exploring the impressive historic buildings, a trip to the Botanic Gardens, or you can walk up the world’s steepest street.

Finish your circumnavigation of the south with a night to remember at Larnach Castle, which has budget options at The Stable right through to five-star luxury at Camp Estate.

Two hundred men took three years to build the shell of Larnach Castle, and a European artisan spent a further 12 years agonising over detail on the inside.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

Two hundred men took three years to build the shell of Larnach Castle, and a European artisan spent a further 12 years agonising over detail on the inside.

An encore to remember

Some will fly or drive home after Dunedin, but I thoroughly recommend taking the new Central Otago Touring route back to Queenstown.

This journey is a little like the car version of doing the Otago Rail Trail – exploring a delightful mix of old gold mining towns – and will add another three days to your trip. Best of all, it means you can fly back from where you started.

More information: To plan your route see: southernscenicroute.co.nz

The writer’s trip was supported by Great South.

The Stuff Travel car spent 106 days exploring New Zealand.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

The Stuff Travel car spent 106 days exploring New Zealand.

Brook Sabin and Radha Engling travelled the length of New Zealand on a Stuff Travel nationwide road trip in a new Hyundai Kona Electric. The vehicle has 449km of real-world range on a single charge, for more information see: hyundai.co.nz/Kona-electric

About Antoinette G. Tucker

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