The South Island kicks off spectacularly. The whole northern section is supremely alluring, from the indented bays and secluded hideaways of the Marlborough Sounds and the sweep of golden beaches around Nelson, to an impressive array of national parks, sophisticated wineries around Marlborough and the natural wonders of Kaikoura. In fact, if you had to choose only one area of New Zealand to visit, this would be a strong contender. Most visitors travel between the North Island and the South Island by ferry, striking land at the town of Picton – drab in the winter, lively in the summer and surrounded by the beautiful Marlborough Sounds. Here, bays full of unfathomably deep water lap at tiny beaches, each with its rickety boat jetty, and the land rises steeply to forest or stark pasture.
To the west, the lively yet relaxed city of Nelson is the starting point for forays to wilder spots further north. Some of the country’s most gorgeous walking tracks and dazzling golden beaches populate the Abel Tasman National Park, while yet further north the relatively isolated Golden Bay offers peaceful times in chilled settings with uniformly decent weather. The curve of the Golden Bay culminates in a long sandy bar that juts into the ocean, Farewell Spit, an extraordinary and unique habitat. It borders the Kahurangi National Park, through which the rugged and spectacular Heaphy Track forges a route to the West Coast.
The least visited of the region’s well-preserved areas of natural splendour is the sparsely populated Nelson Lakes National Park, principally a spot for tramping to alpine lakes or fishing, though the nearby Buller River also attracts raft and kayak rats.
South of Picton, you can slurp your merry way through Marlborough, New Zealand’s most feted winemaking region centred on the modest towns of Blenheim and Renwick. A night or two in one of the rural B&Bs and some time spent around the wineries happily balances the more energetic activities of the national parks, and sets you up nicely for a few days of ecotourism in Kaikoura where whale watching and swimming with dolphins and seals are the main draws.
The region’s weather is some of the sunniest in the land, particularly around Blenheim and Nelson, which regularly compete for the honour of the greatest number of sunshine hours in New Zealand.