The best of Europe is naturally better in our own South Island, writes Marian McGuinness
Forget passports, currency exchanges and downloading foreign language apps. If Europe's splendours are beckoning, there's no need to leave the country. France's vineyards, Slovakia's thermal spas, Iceland's glaciers, Italy's lakes and Norway's fjords are a drive away. Add a sprinkle of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth magic and experience all the above in one South Island loop. It's Europe on a South Island plate.
My 12-day driving odyssey begins in Christchurch, a city that has been to the brink after the devastating events of 2011. Today, it's a city of resilience and artistic reinvention symbolised by the wood and glass Cardboard Cathedral.
History and innovation in Christchurch
Christchurch celebrates its quintessential English origins with its heritage buildings and meandering beauty of the Botanic Gardens, where you can delight in reclining Edwardian-style in a punt along the Avon River.
As Christchurch is a springboard city for the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, my curiosity takes me to the International Antarctic Centre. After coating up and entering the sub-zero Storm Dome, the snow and windchill factors give me a sense of the frozen continent. It's also where I fall in love with blue-eyed huskies and rescue penguins. The polar expedition continues as I go off-road in an all-terrain Hagglund. My love affair with the icy continent is sealed with a self-guided walk along the Antarctic Gateway City Trail.
I finish my Christchurch stay wining and dining aboard the elegantly decked out vintage Tramway Restaurant. While trundling the city tram loop, I enjoy the intimate ambience of a four-course meal paired with some of New Zealand's finest wines.
The spa town of Hanmer Springs
Leaving Christchurch, I drive 90 minutes north to the alpine spa village of Hanmer Springs. It's time to indulge in the luxury of mineral baths. Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools is a village within a village, offering 15 open-air mineral pools. I relax in the warm, silky water that has taken centuries to filter into an aquifer and naturally heat. Breathing deeply the fresh, alpine air, I submit to the baths' therapeutic benefits of skin-softening sulphur, silica and sodium. There are pamper packages, steam rooms and a family zone with wet and wild waterslides.
Back on the road the next day, it's a four-hour drive beside the breathtaking beauty of the Pacific Ocean, to Blenheim. I stop halfway for a break at Kaikōura nestled on a coastal peninsula. Being New Zealand's whale-watching capital, as opposed to its earlier claim as a whaling area, there is great incentive to search the sea for wildlife. It's not hard to find as a fur seal swims ashore, climbs the rocks and preens itself. It poses with its oiled skin like a bodybuilder, then offers its paw as if busking.
Food and wine in Marlborough
My next two-night stop is Blenheim and it's time for a change of scenery. This is Marlborough country, lauded as a premium wine region of the world, where more than 120 vineyards stretch their emerald rows across the Wairau Plain towards the fringe of the Wither Hills. With 36 cellar doors to choose from, I take a personally organised wine tour where I spend the day sipping, sighing and buying, not only the famous sauvignon blanc, but also the newer varietals.
My car boot is chocked with artisan, organic and biodynamically crafted wines, and I leave Blenheim for the other Marlborough geography; the Sounds. Twisting along the scenic Queen Charlotte Drive, it's as if Mother Nature long ago pressed her fingers into the coastline indenting coves of peacock water in the steep-sided drowned river valleys.
Zipping through corn fields and cow pastures, I have a break at Havelock, the greenshell mussel capital of the world, where arty installations of green molluscs run across tin roofs and down the street. After a lunch stop it's a quick drive to Pelorus Bridge for some Middle Earth magic with a photo shoot of the location from The Hobbit, where the dwarves floated in barrels down the river.
Arts and crafts in Nelson
Spending the night in arty-crafty Nelson has whet my appetite to return. Robert Frost wrote in his famous poem The Road Not Taken, "way leads on to way", and I must be on my way as it's a long drive to my next overnight stop at Fox Glacier.
The West Coast hits the senses with an overload of wild delights. At Punakaiki, the Pancake Rocks, sculptured by rain, wind and seawater, are a must-see. This unique headland looks like horizontal stacks of books waiting for their limestone pages to be turned revealing their 30 million-year-old stories. The flax-lined walking loop takes about 30 minutes and sea spray from the many blowholes keeps you refreshed.
New Zealand's wild West Coast
Passing Franz Josef Glacier, my next two-night stopover is Fox Glacier. With more than 3000 glaciers in New Zealand, I'm going to trek to the terminal face of this world-unique living remnant of the Ice Age that ends near the coast in temperate rainforest.
Kitted out in walking boots and with a breeze fanning from the glacier, I follow the Fox River through glades of tree ferns and flax plants, past waterfalls and rushing steams carrying ice boulders. Hills of scree and sheer walls of striated schist funnel me forward. Fed by four alpine glaciers, Fox Glacier is now in retreat. Seeing the jagged aqua snout at the end of this giant's journey, takes my breath away.
After dark in the village of Fox, I take a night dalliance along the Minnehaha Walk, through a moss-draped podocarp forest. As I follow the loop path beside a stream, my eyes adjust to glow worms illuminating their grottos like miniature wonderlands.
Epic landscapes of the South Island
Leaving glacier country, I begin the visually spectacular route to Queenstown. Driving through lush forest I'm back on the coast at Haast and stop at The Hard Antler Hotel. Walls of stag heads and rafters racked with deer antlers, give me a different appreciation of this wild, west of coasts.
Emerging from the Haast Pass into the Southern Lakes region of Central Otago, Lake Wānaka is at my side.
The Southern Alps that flank me are so surreal I could be driving through a watercolour painting of pleated hills and lines of poplars beneath an inky, cloud-scudding sky. The stonefruit town of Cromwell punctuates my journey and I stop for a spot of decadent, cherry picking. Then it's on past the cool climate vineyards of Gibbston Valley, through gorges of teal-coloured water and the raging torrent of Roaring Meg, named after feisty Irish goldrush barmaid Maggie Brennan.
The last few days of my road trip are spent in Queenstown. To many, it's the hub of adventure with its pulse of epic and extreme sports, but to me, it's as if I'm slipping into the sublime beauty of Italy's Lake Como.
Backdropped by the saw-toothed mountain range of The Remarkables, Lake Wakatipu is cradled like an elongated opal. After exploring the small township, including a lake cruise on the 102-year-old steamship, TSS Earnslaw, it's time to widen the radius. A quick drive away is Arrowtown, an historic goldrush mining settlement with replica stone and sod huts, opium dens, charming cafes and artisan shops.
Thrill-seeking and adrenaline in Queenstown
To satisfy my need for a glacial facial, I join a half-day trip to Glenorchy at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu for a jet boat ride deep into the majestic Mount Aspiring National Park along the glacier-fed Dart River. Joining my fellow thrill-seekers, it's white-knuckle wildness as we speed-skim shallow, braided streams, whoosh past rocks, slide and half-doughnut towards the shore and nail 360-degree spins. After anchoring our jetboat, we walk back to our minibus through an 80 million-year-old beech forest that inspired Peter Jackson's filming of Tolkien's, Middle Earth.
I take another long-day coach trip to Milford Sound in the Fiordland National Park. With more spectacular scenery of glacier-carved lakes, grassy vistas and the omnipresent rocky peaks, we stop for a walk along the Mirror Lakes. After boring through the Homer Tunnel, we switchback through valleys of fern trees and waterfalls into a tropical paradise.
Milford Sound is a misnomer. It's a fiord, not flooded by sea, but carved by glaciers. By sailing deep into its abyss of towering granite cliffs and cascading waterfalls you feel you are entering an ethereal world before time began.
All road trips begin with a sense of adventure and wonder. This odyssey, through the diverse and enchanting landscapes of the South Island, does not satisfy my wanderlust; it intensifies my desire to return.
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