The Best Kept Secrets of New Zealand’s South Island

on August 24 2011 5:11 PM
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There's no place on earth quite like the South Island of New Zealand.

In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere in the galaxy as beautiful as this remote chunk of land in the South Pacific Ocean.

The South Island is a lazy paradise of rolling green hills, craggy, glacier-clad mountains, and rugged, wind-swept beaches - a land where sheep outnumber people 13 to 1 and everything is sweet as.

Mother Nature painted her finest strokes when she crafted this fantasy landscape.

But, this is no secret. New Zealand's South Island is one of the world's top travel destinations - and for good reason. Any guidebook will steer you on a course from Christchurch to Dunedin, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Abel Tasman and Marlborough.

They're all great, but here's a different idea: you want to get off the beaten path and see the real New Zealand? Tack these ten spots onto your itinerary and you're bound to see the secret side of this remarkable island.

The Catlins

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How this remains a well-kept secret is a mystery.  The Catlins jut out from the mainland two hours south of Dunedin at the southernmost tip of New Zealand.  Rugged, windswept beaches, glowing lighthouses, and a rich maritime history make this the perfect place to spring to life with the salty slap of the sea.  Craving a deck chair on a porch in the woods by the sea?  Spend the night in the Lendz Reserve at Tautuku Lodge for an affordable cabin in the bush.

Otago Central Rail Trail

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New Zealand has several great walks, but only one great bike trip.  This multi-day path along the former tracks of the Otago Central Rail links a series of small hamlets in the farm-covered plains of Central Otago.   Want to see the real New Zealand? Pick up a bike in Clyde and spend a few days daydreaming in the countryside.

Paparoa National Park

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Don't just head to Punakaiki to check out the Pancake rocks.  Spend an extra day or two to explore one of New Zealand's most dramatic coastlines.  Hidden in the thick cliffs of rainforest are a string of underground caves and astounding rock formations.  Spend the night under the Ballroom Overhang or explore Fox River Cave as you trek along the Inland Pack Track.  If not camping, there are plenty of quirky lodges and backpackers to hunker down right on the beach.

Bannockburn Wine Region

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Nearby Gibbston Valley receives all the tourist traffic from Queenstown, leaving Bannockburn a peaceful oasis for wine lovers. Nicknamed the heart of the desert for its warm, dry climate, this region straddles the arid hills of Central Otago.  Check out the Pinot Noirs at Akarua or Carrick, and grab some lunch at the hilltop restaurant at Mt Difficulty.

Wild Foods Festival

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Every fancied eating worm sushi or chugging moonshine straight from the barrel?  If you are on the South Island in March, make the pilgrimage to the small West Coast town of Hokitika for the Wild Foods Festival.  Whether this is a celebration of extreme delicacies or just an excuse for Kiwis to costume up and get on the piss, it's hard to say.  Either way, you can't miss this full on display of debauchery.

The Trans-Alpine

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Touted as one of the world's greatest rail journeys, this twice-daily train departs from Christchurch through the Canterbury plains and into the heights of Arthur's Pass.  As you bisect the center of the South Island and plow through the Southern Alps, head for the viewing train where you can witness the transformation from the arid east coast to the rainy west.

Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers

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If the West Coast of the South Island is not on your itinerary, change it.  Neighboring Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers cut through the sub-tropical rainforest of the wet West Coast, creating a dramatic landscape of contrasts.  One minute you are in Jurassic Park, the next minute, Ice Age.  If you are lucky enough to visit on a clear day, these easily accessible glaciers will truly astound.

Lake Tekapo

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This lake was extracted from Heaven and placed in New Zealand.  Its dazzling, pale blue water is the spectacular result of glacial sediments from the last ice age.  Stop in at the Church of the Good Shepard and pack a picnic lunch, because you'll want to stay and stare into the dreamy waters of Tekapo for a while.

Mt Cook National Park

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The desolate Mt Cook National Park is a beautiful kind of Hell.  Home to the country's highest peaks, this land of rock and ice embodies the Kiwi spirit of adventure.  A multitude of trails cover the glacial river valleys, and daring mountaineers camp out below to seek new heights.  Make sure to stock up on petrol, food and supplies in Twizle before taking the long road out to this Department of Conservation-run township.

Doubtful Sound

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While tour groups crowd up the waterways of Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound remains a faraway fantasy.  Three times the size of its famous neighbor, Doubtful is about as remote as you can get.  Waterfalls pour off mossy green cliffs as you cruise through the misty mystery of this otherworldly land.  Tours start on the far end of Lake Manapouri, continue along Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove and wander along the sprayed fingers of this forgotten fiord.

***All photos courtesy of MarkontheMap. To learn more about these destinations in New Zealand, visit MarkontheMap.

Have any more suggestions? Feel free to share them in the comments below!

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