Eleanor Ainge Roy swigs, slurps, munches and nibbles through a food safari.

Mum is beginning to flag as I reach for another battered Bluff oyster, washing down the full-bodied morsel with a swig of champagne. The vegetarian hasn't touched her paua patties cooked with basil and feta, and another girl isn't keen on shellfish, so I greedily scoop their food my way, the pomegranate seeds adding crunch to the soft, salty flesh of the mussels.

It is 11am in Bluff and I have been eating for four hours, warming up with coffee and sauteed mushrooms at the very hip Meccaspresso in Invercargill, then more coffee and the best cheese rolls I have ever eaten at the quirky Zookeepers Cafe. I've got my mum with me for company but we're quickly bonding with the rest of the group on the Southern Food Safari, and a relaxed, holiday mood is setting in.

We're tempted to linger at the Lands End restaurant at the very end of State Highway 1, but there are food stops all over the region waiting for our tummies and we pile back into the minivan to drive the easy 28km to Invercargill.

Southland women, I've been warned, like to talk, and there's a ceaseless, pleasant chatter as we drive past the semi-dilapidated warehouses and rusting railway line on Bluff's waterfront, all of us voicing half-serious dreams to move here and crack on with that long-planned novel.

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The mid-morning bubbly is beginning to wear off as we pull up outside the Invercargill Brewery, on a wide, industrial back street of town. My companions are blase about the brewery; they've been here before, but I am enchanted by its rugged, devil-don't-care attitude, with an off-hand collection of junk-shop furniture, stained concrete floors and oversized local art, all nestled inside a corner of an active brewing warehouse.

It's the sort of tough, industrial vibe Auckland bars pay designers thousands of dollars to cultivate — but here it has organically (and thriftily) come together as just another place to hang out — not necessarily a self-consciously cool place to go.

We sample through the beer menu, pairing it with local Fat Bastard Pies (buttery and delicious) and lovely hunks of Blue River Dairy sheep's milk cheese.

A Lands End restaurant platter. Photo / Supplied
A Lands End restaurant platter. Photo / Supplied

Lately I have gone off beer a bit, moving firmly into white wine for the Christmas season, but the brewery pushes me outside my usual pilsner comfort zone, as I slurp back Pitch Black (a rich, non-bitter stout) an IPA (the most popular brew with locals) and even enjoy the seasonally tinged lagers featuring subtle infusions of boysenberry.

Our brewery host, Bronwyn Wallace, is a bit of a hospitality star, patiently guiding me through the tasting as I assure her stout is not my thing (I love it) and no, cider is too sickly sweet (paired with a chicken pie, it is ideal picnic food). Not knowing much about beer but thinking this place is wonderful, I take a few bottles home to my beer-snob friends for Christmas presents, hoping to impress them. The beer is a hit, and I earn well-needed beer kudos.

As the warm summer's day begins to grey and fracture, we head north to Lorneville and the White House Hotel.

"Don't mind the colourful language!" laughs our host, regaling us with stories of her sneaking in here for gigs as an under-aged youth.

The sprawling, unassuming pub is a great choice for the tour, because unless you'd been told to, it's the sort of rough-hewn roadside stop you'd otherwise speed past.

We settle into a high bar table and soak up the low-key Southland vibe: the group of mates cradling jugs of Speight's and watching the sports channel, the enormous plates of pub-grub emerging from the kitchen, and the definitely not styled, dated decor.

Coffee and cheese rolls at Zookeepers, Invercargill. Photo / Supplied
Coffee and cheese rolls at Zookeepers, Invercargill. Photo / Supplied

Again, I am tempted to stay here and while away the rest of our Saturday afternoon. The food — generous plates of golden blue cod and chips — is moreish, and I am loath to leave any behind, so — following the lead of the Southland girls — I doggy-bag half my plate for dinner (everyone approves).

"Southland portions!" laughs the publican, handing me a thick lamb sandwich for the road.

Snuggling into the minibus again, I stare out of the window and watch fields of rich farmland sweep by, keeping my eyes peeled for our new Prime Minister. We're on our way to Riverton, "the Riviera of the south" — a seaside bolt-hole I've been wanting to visit for years.

At the Beachouse Cafe, we claim a water-view table and order coffees to accompany our afternoon tea. The Beachouse reminds me strongly of Sydney, with its relaxed but elegant coastal set-up, imaginative cocktail menu and windows thrown wide open to sea and sky.

Our mood changes from the previous beer-and-pie joviality as we sip our hot drinks and nibble hot smoked salmon with lemon cream and crispy capers, lightly-cooked Southland Angus beef on home-baked bread, and a small plate of tender venison, of which I eat mouthful after mouthful. The cafe feels familiar to me, even though it is my first visit, and I know it's the sort of special place I'll return to again and again with friends and family.

For our last stop of the day we head back along SH99 and take a few unexpected turns down small country roads, heading for sunset at Hideaway 201, a restaurant and bar, about a 15-minute drive outside Invercargill.

I have never heard of The Hideaway 201 but it's a jewel in the crown of dining in the Southland region — a classy, modern restaurant set among immaculate gardens. We take a glass of wine to the outdoor fire and tuck into decadent desserts; including a pecan pie and deconstructed pavlova.

It is coming on 7pm when Mum and I are dropped back to our crib in Riverton. We've eaten all day but don't feel overfed because at every point the food was fresh, local and, in many ways, light.

We eat leftovers on our laps while watching a TV movie, divvying up the lamb sandwiches and hot smoked salmon and pairing it with a glass of (almost) local pinot. I vow to eat this well, this simply, throughout 2017.

When people ask me what my new year food plan is, I'll say straight up "Southland".

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Invercargill, via Wellington or Christchurch.

Accommodation: I stayed in a sweet cottage at Lorneville Lodge Ascot Park Hotel is set in gardens and is suitable for a variety of budgets.

Food tour: Karen Bellow of Boutique Day Tours offers a Great Southern Food Safari. For more information email: info@boutiquedaytours.nz.

Further information: See southlandnz.com